Willem Kieft was the fifth director of New Netherland. He took up the position in 1638 and held it until 1647. Unlike his predecessor, Wouter Van Twiller, Kieft had never been to New Netherland, and had little idea of what he was getting himself into when he accepted the position.
Kieft arrived at a time when the Dutch States General, effectively the Dutch Government, decided to become more involved in running their American colony. Prior to that time, the colony had essentially been run by the Dutch West India Company [DWI], which essentially looked at the colony as a business, and a lucrative business. The DWI had a monopoly on the fur trade with the Indians, and the fur trade was a most profitable one. The problem that Kieft faced was the fact that the DWI had hired him largely for his business experience, and not for his experience at governing. Governing the colony, under the new rules instituted by the Dutch States General, was considerably different than running the colony as a business.
A manager of a business is essentially an autocrat, and Kieft proved to be that. Since the inhabitants expected more freedom and influence in how the colony, and especially how New Amsterdam was governed, the autocratic nature of Kieft immediately put him at odds with the population and especially with its leaders, who were expecting a more participative government. One of the major critics of Kieft was David De Vries, a leader of a group of settlers on Staten Island. De Vries had also been instrumental in having Kieft’s predecessor removed.
The tight control of the DWI had actually slowed the development of the colony. With total control of most businesses by the DWI, there were few opportunities for individual entrepreneurs. So when the Dutch States General stepped in, one of their first acts was opening up trade opportunities for others outside of the DWI. The DWI lost its fur trade monopoly and its control over the allocation of lands, which had been controlled by the DWI-controlled patroon system. The results of these changes were huge. Virtually overnight, settlers moved in from New England and from Maryland and Virginia. And the immigration from Europe increased tremendously.
All of the above occurred during the early years of the Kieft directorship. Unfortunately, his authoritarian directorship was not appreciated by the citizenry, and Kieft ran into considerable opposition to whatever he tried to implement. Kieft, probably at the suggestion of the Dutch States General, then decided to form a council of twelve men to advise him on governmental affairs. This was the first form of participative government for the colony and appeared to be a wise move. But Kieft was obstinate and ignored the advice the council gave him.
Kieft’s problems were not just with the citizenry. He also had disputes with the Swedes on the Delaware River, with the English on the Connecticut River, and with all the Indians with whom the colony had to deal. Apparently Kieft deceived the Algonquin Indian tribes and this resulted in a number of massacres by the Indians. Eventually peace was restored but at a cost of many Indian and some settlers’ lives. Kieft’s dispute with the settlers was about taxes and the settlers did not give in. A reconstituted advisory council, now consisting of eight men, appealed to the Dutch States General, and Kieft lost out and eventually was replaced by director Peter Stuyvesant.
Needless to say, being a director of the new colony was not an easy task. The previous two predecessors of Kieft were asked to resign for various reasons, and the same fate befell Kieft. However, Kieft governed longer than any of his predecessors, but his governmental career was probably the stormiest of all of them. His successor, Pieter Stuyvesant would become the longest serving director but also the last one of the colony of New Netherland, anchored by the enclave in New Amsterdam.
Kieft returned to his native Holland shortly after his resignation/dismissal. Unfortunately he was never able to enjoy his retirement in his native land. His ship was wrecked during a storm on the return journey, and the entire crew and passengers were lost at sea.
Willem Kieft, Wikipedia
Director Generals of New Netherland, Wikipedia
Governor Kieft’s Personal War, www.militaryhistoryonline.com/indianwars/articles/kieftswar.aspx
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