A Tour of New Netherland

Hudson River

Adriaen van der Donck

Colen Donck


He was the Yonkheer-the squire or "young sir." Adriaen Van der Donck was one of New Netherland's most distinguished residents, and a notable American who has been unjustly forgotten by history. 

He trained as a lawyer at the prestigious Leiden University in the Netherlands, but then, seeking adventure, applied for the position of schout-a combination of sheriff and public prosecutor-on the vast patroonship of Rensselaerswijck, surrounding present-day Albany. He served there from 1641 to 1643, when, deciding he would like a patroonship of his own, he got a grant of land from the West India Company. He named his estate Colen Donck, or "Donck's Colony." The vast tract was just north of Manhattan Island, in what is now lower Westchester County, and it would be the unofficial title he was known by, Yonkheer, that would eventually give the city of Yonkers, located within the confines of the estate, its name. Van der Donck never spent much time on his estate, however. He was too busy roaming, working on behalf of the colony. From the moment he arrived in New Netherland he seems to have felt that it was his true home. He dreamed of New Netherland as a true province, full of busy cities and towns, which would send valuable products back to Europe. He felt that the inhabitants deserved the rights of legal residents of a domain within the Netherlands, and he soon fell afoul of director-general Peter Stuyvesant, who was determined to carry out the Company's policy of administering its own rather autocratic brand of justice to the settlers, treating them as mere workers rather than citizens. 

As one of the Nine Men, a council of residents who were to assist Stuyvesant in governing the province, and as the only lawyer in the province, Van der Donck crafted a remonstrance or complaint to the States General, the governing body of the Netherlands, over the treatment of New Netherlanders. It amounted to a declaration of rights on American soil that predated by more than a century the calls for individual liberty of the thirteen English colonies against Britain. Van der Donck traveled to the Netherlands as official representative of the council and presented the remonstrance to the Hague. One result of the complaint was the granting of city government rights to New Amsterdam in 1653: in effect, the birth of New York City. 

Van der Donck, however, didn't live long to enjoy his success. He was detained for five years in the Netherlands while Stuyvesant tried to undermine him, and he died in 1655, shortly after he was finally permitted to return to his estate of Colen Donck. While being detained in the Netherlands, however, he penned his book-length Description of New Netherland, the fullest account of the province, its geography, the Indians who inhabited it, and its prospects. The book went into a second edition in the Netherlands. It has been said that had it not been written in Dutch it would have gone down as one of the great works of American colonial literature. 


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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