Early Descriptions of New Netherland

"New Netherland is the epitome,
and the noblest of all countries,
a blessed province,
where milk and honey flow"

"Nieuw Nederland is't puijck,
en't eedelste van de landen
een Seegenrijck gewest,
daar Melck en Honigh vloeijd"

-- A poem by 17th-century Dutch poet Jacob Steendam

It is difficult to imagine what the first glimpse of New Netherland was like for the seventeenth-century European. A verdant land, flowing with milk and honey, it must have reminded the ambitious settler or explorer of the agricultural abundance of the Old Testament's Land of Israel. This sparsely populated land surely engendered visions of windfall colonial profits; and the natives, whom most Europeans saw as a backward people in need of salvation, must have seemed remarkably strange.

Below are several quotes culled from the pages of Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664**, a compilation of accounts of the newly discovered land. The parenthetical references refer to pages in this volume. The quotes are arranged into categories. Their unifying theme is, of course, early descriptions of New Netherland.

"The Landes ... were as pleasant with Grasse and Flowers, and goodly Trees, as ever they had seene, and very sweet smells came from them."

-- Robert Juet, a mate of Henry Hudson on his 1609 voyage

The 1609 Voyage of Henry Hudson

The most well known early European observer of the land that would become New Netherland and the river that bears his name is Henry Hudson. Unfortunately, the journal of Henry Hudson was lost, but excerpts are found in other writings. The three quotes below reveal Hudson's assesment of the land's abundance and the ways of the natives.

"When I came on shore, the swarthy natives all stood and sang in their fashion. Their clothing consists of the skins of foxes and other animals, which they dress and make the garments from skins of various sorts. Their food is Turkish wheat, which they cook by baking, and it is excellent eating. They soon came on board, one after another, in their canoes, which are made of a single piece of wood. Their weapons are bows and arrows, pointed with sharp stones, which they fasten with hard resin. They had no houses, but slept under the blue heavens, some on mats of bulrushes interwoven, and some on the leaves of trees. They always carry with them all their goods, as well as their food and green tobacco, which is strong and good for use. They appear to be a friendly people, but are much inclined to steal, and are adroit in carrying away whatever they take a fancy to." (48)

"The land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon, and it also abounds in trees of every description. The natives are a very good people; for, when they saw that I would not remain, they supposed that I was afraid of their bows, and taking the arrows, they broke them in pieces, and threw them into the fire..." (49)

"It is as pleasant a land as one can tread upon, very abundant in all kinds of timber suitable for ship-building, and for making large casks. The people had copper tobacco pipes, from which I inferred that copper must exist there; and iron likewise according to the testimony of the natives who, however, do not understand preparing it for use." (49)

"On the top of their heads they have a streak of hair from the forehead to the neck, about the breadth of three fingers..."

-- Reverend Johannes Megapolensis in 1644

The Natives

The excerpts below are from the writings of the Reverend Johannes Megapolensis in 1644. Kiliaen van Rensselaer, realizing the importance of cultural institutions in his patroonship, selected the reverend and sent him to Renssealerswyck under a contract of six years. The quotes below reflect the complicated relationship between the natives and Europeans and an attempt to understand and interpret the ways of an alien culture.

"They look at themselves constantly, and think they are very fine. They make themselves stockings and also shoes of deer skin, or they take leaves of their corn, and plait them together and use them for shoes. The women, as well as the men, go with their heads bare. The women let their hair grow very long, and tie it together a little, and let it hang down their backs. The men have a long lock of hair hanging down, some on one side of the head, and some on both sides. On the top of their heads they have a streak of hair from the forehead to the neck, about the breadth of three fingers, and this they shorten until it is about two or three fingers long, and it stands right on end like a cock's comb or hog's bristles; on both sides of this cock's comb they cut all the hair short, except the aforesaid locks, and they also leave on the bare places here and there small locks, such as are in sweeping-brushes, and then they are in fine array." (173)

"But although they are so cruel, and live without laws or any punishments for evil doers, yet there are not half so many villainies or murders committed amongst them as amongst Christians; so that I oftentimes think with astonishment upon all the murders committed in the Fatherland, notwithstanding their severe laws and heavy penalties. These Indians, though they live without laws, or fear of punishment, do not (at least, they very seldom) kill people, unless it may be in a great passion, or a hand-to-hand fight. Wherefore we go wholly unconcerned along with the Indians and meet each other an hour's walk off in the woods, without doing any harm to one another." (179)

"It is a pleasant and charming country, if only it were well peopled by our nation."

-- David de Vries in 1642

The Land

The quote below is from the Historisch Verhael, a work complied by the Dutch scholar Nicolaes van Wassenaer, which appeared in twenty-one semi-annual parts covering the years 1621-1631. The following entry is under December of 1624 and speaks to the area's economic potential.

"As regards the prosperity of New Netherland, we learn by the arrival of the ship whereof Jan May of Hoorn was skipper, that everything there is in good condition. The colony began to advance barely and to live in friendship with the natives. The fur or other trade remains in the West India Company, others being forbidden to trade there. Rich beavers, otters, martins and foxes are found there. This voyage five hundred otter skins, and fifteen hundred beavers, and a few other skins were brought hither, which were sold in four parcels for twenty-eight thousand, some hundred gilders." (77)

The quote below is from David de Vries, a voyager who, after his retirement, wrote and printed an account of his many adventures. The title, reflecting the period's affinity for long titles, may be translated: "Short Historical and Journal-Notes of various Voyages performed in the Four Quarters of the Globe, viz., Europe, Africa, Asia and America, by David Pieterszoon de Vries, Artillery-Master to the Noble and Mighty Lords the Council of West Friesland and the Northern Quarter [of the Province of Holland], wherein is set forth what Battles he delivered on the Water, Each Country, its Animals, its Birds, its Kinds of Fishes, and its Wild Men counterfeited to the Life, and its Woods and Rivers with their Products." The following account is from 1642.

"Our Netherlanders raise good wheat, rye, barley, oats, and peas, and can brew as good beer here as in our Fatherland, for good hops grow in the woods; and they who make it their business can produce enough of those things, as everything can be grown which grows in Holland, England, or France, and they are in want of nothing but men to do the work. It is a pleasant and charming country, if only it were well peopled by our nation." (219)

"In short, it is a country well adapted for our people to inhabit, on account of the similarity of the climate and the weather to our own."

-- From a first-hand account compiled by Johan de Laet

The Climate

Johan de Laet, a director of the Dutch West India Company and a man of great influence, compiled a work of various writings on New Netherland. The following description of the area's climate is taken from one of those works. This passage assures the potential colonist that the land is very habitable.

"As to the climate and seasons of the year, they nearly agree with ours, for it is a good deal colder there than it ought to be according to the latitude; it freezes and snows severely in winter, so that often there is a strong drift of ice in the river. But this occurs some years more than others, as with us. There is also the same variety of winds in that country, and in summer thunder and lightning with violent showers. In short, it is a country well adapted for our people to inhabit, on account of the similarity of the climate and the weather to our own ; especially since it seems to lack nothing that is needful for the subsistence of man, except domestic cattle, which it would be easy to carry there; and besides producing many things of which our own country is destitute. Wine can be made there with industry, since vines are already found that require nothing but cultivation. We have before stated how the country there abounds in timber suitable for ship-building; it is sought by our people for that purpose, who have built there several sloops and tolerable yachts." (50)

** This title is available through Google Books as a free e-book.

About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, 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

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