How Dutch was Nieuw-Nederland?

Mark Liberman points to an article by Laura Durnford on the Radio Netherlands World Service site which describes how the C17th Fort Oranje on the Hudson River

and the town that sprang up around it, Beverwijck, was part of just one settlement within the Dutch colony of New Netherland. The other and more famous was New Amsterdam, based on Manhattan Island, which is now New York city. But it was the smaller place, Beverwijck, which was to retain more of a Dutch feel during the half-century of New Netherland’s existence. Even after the English took the colony in 1664, re-naming the whole territory New York (now the state of New York) and changing ‘Beverwijck’ to ‘Albany’, there’s evidence that Dutch culture persisted.

I think that the problem here is the projection of a modern concept of Dutchness onto the past, suggesting a homogeneity of identity which was demonstrably absent. The first permanent settlers, who are generally believed to have arrived on the Nieu Nederlandt in 1624, were 30 families of Francophone Protestants who had previously fled north to Leiden to escape Catholic persecution further south. And Marieke Spee writes:

In 1652 around 370 people were living in Beverwijck. In 1660 this number had grown to around 1000. The majority of the population had Dutch nationality; only 25% did not come from the Republic. This figure was low compared with the rest of New Netherland, where only half the male population had Dutch nationality. The explanation for this is that Van Rensselaer during his period of rule had principally recruited colonists from his land reclamation schemes in Het Gooi and Gelderland. The ethnic minorities in Beverwijck were principally Germans. Many came from Norway and Sweden. Others came from France, England, Scotland, Ireland, the Spanish Netherlands, Eastern Europe, Africa [ie the slaves] and one came from Croatia. It was thus a multicultural society.

The colony as a whole was clearly not monocultural, and neither was the section of the population described as Dutch. For, while the leadership of the settlements was in the hands of speakers of C17th Dutch and other Low Franconian dialects (tree), many of the ordinary ‘Dutch’ colonists will have used quite different vernaculars, principally the Friesian and the various Low Saxon variants which predominated in the eastern half of the new state and in western parts of Germany. This will have been true of the immigrants from Gelderland cited by Ms Spee and possibly also for some of those from ‘t Gooi, where “German scum” were used to put down revolts by local farmers and introduce the new agrarian order sponsored by Van Rensselaer and his like. AJF van Laer writes that in

Beverwijck and Wiltwyck the number of English settlers was very small and that of colonists from Sleswick-Holstein and East Friesland much larger than generally supposed.

I’m a rank amateur and in no state to prove anything, but I’m prepared to bet the first-comer my AdSense earnings for June that at no time during the C17th did “Dutch”-speakers constitute the largest language community in Beverwijck; I suspect, in fact, that this honour belonged for most of the period to speakers of Low Saxon variants.

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  1. I’ll take you up on that, and I’ll pay $10 to the person who can show I’m right.

  2. I would be curious to know how the term “Dutch” or “Dutchness” is defined. How “monocultural” were the “Dutch” in their own country? By its very nature wasn’t Dutch culture formed by people of many different national origins, in the Netherlands just as in America? The Netherlands was and is, after all, the great crossroads of Europe. Many foreigners who settled there learned the Dutch language and became “Dutch,” just as they did in America.

  3. > How “monocultural” were the “Dutch” in their own country?
    Not particularly, I think. Some would date the concept of Netherlandish nationality to the Union of Utrecht (1579), but talk in the treaty document of the various, scattered entities who signed up acting as one in relations with other polities is firmly balanced with provisions designed to maintain town and provincial privilege. A variety of tracts were published in the C17th which sought to promote a Netherlandish identity on the basis of the Bataves, but their success must have been limited by the lack of any clear definition of what the Netherlands or the Netherlanders were. For example, there was disagreement about whether the southern provinces (currently Flanders, and never under northern Netherlandish control) belonged to the Fatherland, about whether speakers what we call low Saxon dialects east of the IJssel were true Netherlanders, and about whether the same doubts should be applied to those who were not orthodox Calvinists. Opposition to Spain may have been the only unifying factor. (Schama is good on all this stuff.) You’re right that the Netherlands–particularly the cities, but also some parts of the countryside–were a formidable mixture, but I suspect it was a funny mix of proto-civic and proto-ethnic nationalism, in which for example the numerous Scandinavian seamen who settled along the coast were probably regarded as Volendam men or whatever for some purposes and something else for others, and I suspect that in the rural east identity was expressed with reference to powerful men for much longer than in the urban west, where people began imagining communities with enthusiasm and creativity at an early stage. The truth is, however, that this is something about which I know virtually nothing.

  4. I’m desceded from a French family that came over on the Nieuw Nederland -Jan Le Rou (Arou)
    I haven’t been able to find the passenger list. Please e-mail me at if you have this information.

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