Today the remnants of the colonial Dutch in New England are pretty much limited to the region’s outer rim: At Smith’s Castle in North Kingstown, R.I., in Vermont’s oldest house in Pownal, on Leyden Street in Plymouth, Mass. and on a historic sign in Castine, Maine.
But the Dutch had more of a presence in early New England than along the perimeter, and far more than commonly acknowledged. The Dutch claimed much of Connecticut, for example, before English settlers crowded them out. The early Plymouth and Massachusetts colonists might not have survived had the Dutch not brought trade goods like tools and cheese, cannon and livestock. Rhode Islanders had an especially cozy relationship with Dutch traders, and the Dutch claimed part of Downeast Maine.
When thinking about the history of British North America It’s easy to forget that William of Orange seized the English throne in 1688 with the help of Dutch troops. King Williams was not only a French prince but also a staedtholder – a Dutch earl or a duke — of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic.
Decades later, the English Parliament decided to tax tea to discourage the Dutch from smuggling the stuff into the colonies – hence the Boston Tea Party. The Dutch were also the first to salute the American flag and, therefore, the first to acknowledge the independence of the United States on November 16, 1776.
The Dutch in New England
In early 17th century New England, colonists depended on Dutch traders because they had to. England was still recovering from Henry VIII’s shenanigans and had some catching up to do. Amsterdam, not London, had grown into the European capital of shipping, banking and finance.
“The British government and the British commercial world had not yet got their colonial act together,” wrote Charlotte Wilcoxen. The country ‘was still inexperienced at coordinating the production and distribution of goods,’ she wrote. “Her American colonies, victims of this ineptitude, were forced to look to the Dutch for supplies.”
In the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries, the Dutch were leading traders in the world, with outposts in Thailand, Brazil, Africa, Indonesia and the Caribbean.
Dutch merchants may have traded on the coast of New England as early as 1598. And they didn’t differ from the other European powers in wanting to expand in North America. One big reason: soft gold, otherwise known as beaver.
From about 1550, all the best people in Europe had to have a beaver hat. They were soft, attractive, durable and expensive. The beaver hat craze nearly drove the Eurasian beaver to extinction, and sent trappers and traders to North America from Europe.
Dutch traders set up trading posts along the coast from Maryland to Maine, and up the Hudson, Connecticut and Delaware rivers. They bought beaver furs from Indians in exchange for trade goods. They learned from the Pequot how to use wampum, or zewant, and then taught the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony how to do it.
In 1621, the Dutch government chartered the West India Company to, among other things, exploit the beaver trade and colonize North America. Three years later the Netherlands sent colonists to try to settle a wide swath Northeast territory.
In addition to New Amsterdam (New York) and Fort Nassau (Albany) the Dutch in New England eventually had a fort in Hartford, called Fort Hope. They also built a fort called Roduins, or Red Dunes, at the mouth of the Housatonic River. They had a trading post on Quetenis, what is now Dutch Island in Jamestown, R.I., and briefly set up a fort and a warehouse in Old Saybrook, Conn. The Dutch may also have settled along the coast of Maine.
Traces of the Dutch presence in the eastern part of upper New York State can be found in the Mooar-Wright House. Built around 1762, it has a Dutch frame around a typically English layout.
If beaver mortality is any indication, New England and Europe kept up a brisk trade during the first half of the 17th century.
Europe’s insatiable appetite for beaver fur kept New England’s Indians busy trapping the creatures. The Dutch in New England tried to keep up with their demand for knives, axes, glassware and wool. From 1626 to 1632, the Dutch sent 52,584 beaver pelts back to the Netherlands.
It only got worse for the beaver. By 1650, trappers and traders were sending 80,000 beaver pelts a year to England and the Netherlands. Fifty years later, the once-plentiful beaver had disappeared completely from Massachusetts, and soon after vanished from Vermont and Connecticut.
In 1635, a Dutch vessel stopped in Marblehead with 140 tons of salt and 10,000 pounds of tobacco. They probably sold salt to Marblehead’s cod fishermen before sailing back to Europe to unload their tobacco.
Dutch merchants also bought tobacco from Plymouth Colony. The Pilgrims, after all, had lived for about a dozen years in Leiden, about 30 miles southwest of Amsterdam, and undoubtedly spoke at least some Dutch. When they arrived in Plymouth they built houses on Leyden Street in 1620. It’s still there.
Plymouth Gov. William Bradford reported ‘profitable commerce’ with the New Amsterdam Dutch for ‘diverse years.’ Plymouth colonist Isaac Allerton brokered the sale of a Dutch ship from two Dutchmen in New Amsterdam.
Next door in Massachusetts, Gov. John Winthrop noted in his journal that the two colonies often traded with the ‘Dutch at Hudson’s River’ for sheep, beaver, cannon, sugar, wine and linen. Massachusetts, in fact, did so much trade with the Dutch that the colony used Dutch currency and passed a law in 1643 regulating its use.
One reason Massachusetts had to use Dutch currency was that the English Civil War, which started in 1642, pretty much ended trade between England and the colonies for a while. Colonists who needed supplies had to go Dutch — or perhaps Venetian or Spanish.
Today The Dutch House in Brookline, Mass., serves as a memorial of sorts to the Dutch in New England. Built as a pavilion in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Brookline resident Charles Brooks Appleton saw it, bought it and had it moved to his hometown.
Rhode Island, aka Roode Eylandt
On the shore of Mill Cove off Narragansett Bay stands a large, plain, wooden house in a clearing. A Rhode Island merchant named Richard Smith, Jr., built it in 1678, after Narragansett Indians burned down the previous house during King Philip’s War. Smith fortified the big old colonial with two small cannons, thus earning the name “Smith’s Castle.” Today it’s a house museum, which in 2019 scheduled a holiday event, Christmas at the Castle, celebrating ‘Dutch influence on colonial life.’
Rhode Islanders like Smith got rich trading with the Dutch in New England. Dutch explorer Adriaen Block had explored Rhode Island and the interior of Connecticut in 1614, naming Block Island after himself and probably naming Rhode Island “Roode Eylandt.” The Dutch even tried to claim Rhode Island as a colony.
Trading With the Dutch in New England
Nevertheless, Rhode Island probably had the most sustained and cordial trade relations with the Dutch in New England, according to Charlotte Wilcoxen. Rhode Islanders who did business with the Dutch included William Coddington, William Brenton, John Underhill, John Throgmorton and the father and son pair of Richard Smith.
Richard Smith, Sr., had set up a trading post in a place they called Cocumscussoc, now North Kingstown, with his business partner, Roger Williams. In 1651, he built a house there, 20 miles from the nearest settlement. Smith also had trading posts in Taunton, Mass., and in New Amsterdam, where he lived part time. He sent fish, beaver and salt to Europe in exchange for manufactured goods. Slaves and sugar came from the Dutch in the West Indies.
After Richard Smith died in 1666, his son Richard took over the business. Today the Smith Castle docents will tell you his family incorporated Dutch holiday traditions – such as Sinterklaas and koekjes — into their daily life.
In the mid-17th century the English began to block Dutch shipping in the English Channel and along other trade routes. That caused three Anglo-Dutch Wars, fought primarily at sea. The first broke out in 1652 and ended in 1654. The second lasted from 1664-67, and the third from 1672-74.
The New England colonies kept up commerce and correspondence with the Dutch during the wars. Rhode Islanders especially honored bans on Dutch trade more in the breach than in the observance.
Huys de Hoop, Connecticut
Connecticut probably had the testiest relations with the Dutch in New England, perhaps because familiarity bred contempt. Connecticut, after all, was cheek-by-jowl with New Amsterdam, and the Dutch early on claimed both the Connecticut and New Haven colonies.
The Dutch called the Connecticut River the Versche, or Fresh, River, and the Dutch made good use of it in the early 17th century. They traded beaver for trade goods with the Indians. In 1633, they built a fort called Huys de Hoop, or House of Hope, on a tributary of the Versche in what is now Hartford. Today Huyshope Avenue connects the Connecticut Probation Department at one end with Aetna Ambulance Services at the other.
The Dutch intended the House of Hope to serve as the capital of Dutch Connecticut, which had amounted to a few tiny, scattered settlements – in Branford, Old Saybrook and New Haven. But they couldn’t keep up with the influx of English immigrants fleeing the Puritans in Massachusetts.
One exception was Greenwich, in the far southwestern corner of Connecticut. Today it’s called the Entryway to New England. In 1640, the Dutch considered it the westernmost settlement of New Amsterdam.
That year, two Massachusetts families, the Feakes and the Patricks, bought land from the Indians and called it Elizabeth’s Neck. Massachusetts had banished them for their support of the heretical Anne Hutchinson. The Feakes later built a house, the Feake-Ferris House, in what is now Old Greenwich.
Three months after their arrival, armed Dutch soldiers from New Amsterdam showed up in Elizabeth’s Neck. They gave the Feakes and the Patricks a choice: submit to Dutch rule or leave. They submitted. The Dutch then changed the settlement’s name to Groenwits and held it for the next 16 years.
Coincidentally, Greenwich was one of the first Connecticut towns to suffer Dutch Elm Disease in 1934.
The Dutch and the ever-increasing English squabbled constantly over their borders in Connecticut. It didn’t take long for English settlers from Massachusetts to surround the House of Hope in Windsor, Wethersfield and Hartford. Finally in 1650 the English and Dutch settled their boundary 50 miles west of the Connecticut River. Greenwich stayed with the Dutch.
The Dutch relinquished those claims at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667. In exchange, they got concessions on the Indonesian spice trade including, ironically, nutmeg.
The Dutch eventually realized they couldn’t compete with the exploding English population in Connecticut. So they decided to consolidate their North American colony at the tip of Manhattan in New Amsterdam.
But even the retreat to New Amsterdam was fraught. The leadership in England, kings and Cromwell alike, dearly wanted to oust the Dutch from the North American colonies.
During the first Anglo-Dutch War, Oliver Cromwell outfitted an invasion force under Robert Sedgwick to take over New Amsterdam. New Amsterdam stayed in Dutch hands only because the two nations declared peace. Sedgwick turned north and captured Acadia instead.
Then after Charles II got his throne back he decided he wanted New Amsterdam for his brother, the Duke of York. On Aug. 27, 1664, four English frigates under the command of Richard Nicholl sailed into the harbor. The Dutch, with few supplies, quickly surrendered.
As a Dutch minister, Samuel Drisius, wrote, “No relief or assistance could be expected while daily great numbers of Englishmen arrived from New England both on foot and on horseback hotly bent upon plundering this place.”
The city, now New York, stayed in English hands until July 1673, when it reverted to the Dutch. The Dutch held it until the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, when they gave it up in exchange for Surinam.
The Dutch influence in the region can still be seen in the region, from architecture to place names to New York Mets uniforms. The blue, white and orange colors go back to the 17th-century Prinsenvlag, or Prince’s Flag, the naval flag of the States-General of the Dutch Republic.
In 1857, a military historian named Maj. Gen. J. Watts De Peyster read a paper before the New York Historical Society about Dutch settlement and exploration 250 years earlier.
“There never was a good piece of land that the Devil did not open his bag and shake out some Dutchman upon it,” he said. That land included ‘the rich lumber districts of Maine.’ The Dutch, he said, made several attempts to settle Maine to ‘share the prolific fisheries; the unsurpassed masting and lumbering facilities; and, at that time, the rich fur trade.’
Though Maine was, in the early 17th century, the Province of Acadie, the Dutch planted the flag at least on the shores of Muscongus Bay at what is now Bremen. De Peyster said the Dutch language was perpetrated in the town by a steady stream of Germans who followed in the footsteps of those early settlers.
He also claimed a Dutch settlement had existed at one time on the Sheepscot River a mile above Wiscasset, and at Pemaquid.
For a century, de Peysters argument was neither proven nor disproven. But by the end of the 20th century, archaeologists found extensive Dutch artifacts along the coast from Maine to Maryland.
The Flying Horse
Historians have not disputed the Dutch conquest of Castine. In August of 1674, the Flying Horse, a Dutch frigate, sailed into Penobscot Bay. The fighting force of 110 men easily overtook the 30 French soldiers at the fort of Pentagoet.
The Dutch commander, Capt. Jurriaen Aernoutsz, viewed Pentagoet as fair game. The French had allied with the English during the third Anglo-Dutch War. Though the English had settled with the Dutch, the French had not.
Aernoutsz then captured another French fort at Jemseg, and in both places he buried a bottle with a message in it. The message said Acadia belonged to the Dutch and was to be known as ‘New Holland.’ But he sailed away, the Dutch couldn’t hang on to Acadia and soon the French recovered the territory. They gave Pentagoet a new name, Bagaduce, but today it is known as Castine.
Dutch-American Heritage Day
Fast forward a century. On Nov. 16, 1776, an American warship, the Andrew Doria, sailed into the harbor of the Dutch Caribbean island Sint Eustatius. The Dutch governor ordered a friendly cannon salute. That angered the British, and they took control of the island a few years later. The Dutch got it back in 1784. In 1990, that day was proclaimed “Dutch-American Heritage Day.”
With thanks to Dutch Trade and Ceramics in America in the Seventeenth Century by Charlotte Wilcoxen and The New Netherlands Institute.
Images: Castine sign By No machine-readable author provided. Masonbarge assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=696875. Smith’s Castle By Mlanni98 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77139260. This story was updated in 2022.