The Dutch Who Settled New York: The Un-Pilgrims

Roundup: Historians' Take

Russell Shorto, writing in the NYT (Nov. 27, 2003):

Three hundred and eighty years ago, a huddled band of Europeans set out across the Atlantic to seek a new life in wilderness America. They survived hardship, gave thanks, ate turkeys and eventually flourished. And every year at Thanksgiving we ignore them.

No, I'm not talking about the Pilgrims, nor about that other sect often hailed as progenitors of America, the Puritans. There was another group of settlers at the start of things. You might call them the un-Pilgrims, for they lack the neat mythic qualities that won the Plymouth residents their plum role in the national epic. Rather, the Dutch colony of New Netherland — which had as its capital New Amsterdam, precursor to New York City — has a ragged historical profile, which suits it because it was a jumble of ethnicities and had an excess of pirates and prostitutes. But its mixed nature is precisely the point. These forgotten pioneers forged America's first melting pot, making this holiday a particularly appropriate moment to recognize their achievement.

The contribution of these settlers has been overlooked because of that truest of truisms: history is written by the winners. The two great European rivals of the 17th century, the English and Dutch, each planted colonies in America. In time, the English engulfed the Dutch colony, which, we have been told, didn't exist long enough to leave an imprint. But that's not so. Dutch records — now being translated after centuries of neglect — reveal a thriving, complex society growing up alongside the English colonies. In fact, "Dutch" is something of a misnomer. The colony was Dutch, but more than half its residents were not. Then again, "Dutch" is very much the point. It wasn't accidental that Swedes, Germans, Jews and others flocked to this colony, for the Dutch Republic of the 17th century was itself built on a policy of tolerance that made it the melting pot of Europe.

The birth of tolerance in the Low Countries changed history. It made Holland the center of publishing, where Galileo and Hobbes printed their books free of censorship. The Dutch provided haven to exiled English royalty and peasants from across Europe who fled war and repression. It's often forgotten that the English Pilgrims, before taking a flyer on America, went to Holland in their search for religious freedom. They found it and then left for the same reason: they feared that amid the diversity of Holland their children would stray, and so opted to carve out an isolationist settlement in the New World.

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