The Bilingual U.S. – Dutch New York

New York

Modern New York

Here’s something that’s not news to anybody but is always surprising to think about: New York was originally founded as the Dutch colony of Nieuw-Amsterdam.

The early 17th century gave rise to Dutch settlements all along the North American Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Rhode Island under the jurisdiction of the Dutch West India Company. This cut-throat predecessor of the modern multinational corporation, however, concentrated its investments in the Hudson Valley, where the trade of beaver pelts spelled profits for shareholders back in old Amsterdam. Their major centers of operation were an outpost at the navigational height of the river, Fort Oranje, and the population and governmental center at the river’s mouth, Nieuw-Amsterdam. In modern times these two Dutch settlements have changed names and swapped roles. Fort Oranje has become Albany, the state capital, while Nieuw-Amsterdam has become New York City, “trading” center of North America and much of the world.

Is it really any surprise that it was a corporation that founded the Big Apple?  The Dutch New World colony was run much more like a business than the English colonies that neighbored it. In 1626, Director General Peter Minuit “bought” the island of Manhattan for the price of 60 guilders, a deal English colonists would have settled with a few gunshots. In a further foreshadowing of our modern capitalistic society, the Dutch colonial land didn’t belong to the ruler, as New England belonged to the king of England; it belonged to the company and its middle-class shareholders.

It was perhaps the commercial orientation of the Dutch that led to the avant-garde climate of religious tolerance that reigned in the province. The pressure put on Director General Peter Stuyvesant by Jewish stockholders in the Dutch West India Company, for example, allowed a group of Sephardic Jews to settle in the colony in 1654. The First Cemetery of the Congregation Shearith Israel in downtown Manhattan dates to 1683 and is a testament to the Dutch tolerance of other cultures and religions, which, like the cemetery, has become a part of modern-day New York City. The freedom of conscience allowed by the Dutch was revolutionary in the 17th century, when Galileo was being tried for heresy in Italy and witches were being burned in Salem, Massachusetts. In fact, the Flushing Remonstrance, a complaint submitted to the West India Company by the residents of Vlissingen (now Flushing, Queens) on behalf of the religious freedom of Quakers in the settlement, is often cited as the historical antecedent of the freedom of religion that our Founding Fathers provided for in the Constitution.

Although New Netherland thrived, it was destined for a short life. The troops of the Duke of York descended upon New Amsterdam in 1664 and, finding no real army to oppose them, turned Nieuw Amsterdam into New York without firing a single shot. Most of the original colonists remained, however, and evidence of the Dutch presence can still be found, such as in the Stockade District in Kingston (formerly Wiltwyck). Culturally, the Big Apple still runs on a trade economy and an attitude of “you can do whatever you want as long as you aren’t bothering me.”

Linguistically, it took over two centuries for the Dutch language to disappear completely. Born in 1782 in Kinderhook (near Albany), President Martin Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch and learned English as a second language. In 1858, another president born to a Dutch-American family, Theodore Roosevelt, heard Dutch at home but never learned the language himself. All Americans, however, know the words cookie (koekje), boss (baas), dollar (daaler), Yankee (Janke), stoop (stoep –– as in the architectural feature), and coleslaw (koolsla). New Yorkers know that a kill is a stream and a kruller is a fried, twisted pastry.

The close linguistic relationship of English and Dutch, a West Germanic language often described as being between English and German, makes Dutch loanwords blend invisibly into our own language. The same might be said for Dutch culture: did you know that it is the Dutch Sinterklaas who flies his slee all over our country on Christmas Eve? Though their moment of colonial glory in the Hudson Valley was short-lived, the Dutch have had an important and lasting influence on many aspects of American life.

Image credit: xjrlokix