Reciprocity and Obligation in Dutch-Indian Diplomacy


Wampum or sewant circulated in place of metal coins in New Netherland. The Dutch used these cylindrical shell beads as currency to purchase goods and property from other settlers as well as beaver pelts from American Indians. But wampum was not simply a medium of exchange; it also served a diplomatic function in New Netherland.

Even before the Dutch arrived in North America, gift-giving was an important facet of American Indian political culture. Indian sachems maintained their authority and created a sense of obligation among their subjects by sharing their wealth. Indeed, Dutch Reformed minister Johannes Megapolensis observed, “The chiefs are generally the poorest among them, for instead of their receiving from the common people as among Christians, they are obliged to give to the mob.”

American Indians required generosity of their allies as well as their leaders. The exchange of gifts served as a means of cementing agreements and resolving differences with others. Gifts might also serve as retribution to an injured party. Indians considered a proposal without gifts non-binding and would accept gifts only if they intended to honor an agreement.

The reciprocal exchange of gifts fostered mutual obligation between Indians and their allies or “brothers.” For example, the Mohawks expected their Dutch allies not only to provide them with necessary supplies but also to assist with such tasks as repairing their defensive structures. Mohawk notions of reciprocity also required the Dutch help mediate disputes with other parties and negotiate the release of hostages.

The Mohawks often found the Dutch to be disappointing and ungenerous allies, who preferred profit-based trade to the exchange of equivalent gifts. The Dutch, by contrast, complained of the Indians’ excessive demands. In the case of horses, which were not native to North America, the Dutch refused to trade or even loan them to their Mohawk allies, for fear of losing an advantage. However, the Dutch and the Mohawks both needed each other, not only for trade but also for mutual defense against shared enemies.

This seventh grade lesson explores the essential question: “How did American Indians and the Dutch resolve their differences and create alliances?” It was designed by educators who participated in the New Netherland Institute’s and New York State Museum’s 2012 summer institute: Stephanie Desir, Cindy Hoffman, Lisa McDonald, Anne Reis.

Winter in the Valley of the Mohawk, ca. 1625, a painting by L.F. Tantillo

About the New Netherland Institute

For a quarter century NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. Directed by Dr. Charles Gehring. More


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