They Could’ve Been Contenders (1608-1680s). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

They Could’ve Been Contenders (1608-1680s). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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In This Chapter

Champlain founds Quebec.

Joliet and Marquette discover Mississippi and claim “Louisiana”.

The Dutch West India Company creates New Netherland.

New Sweden.

The English seize New Netherland and rename it New York.

 Compared to the Spanish, the English got off to a slow start in the New World, but they soon became one of the two principal forces in the Americas. The other was France, which directed its main efforts at settlement along the St. Lawrence River in present-day Canada and in the West Indies. Although “black robes”—Catholic priests—came in the wake of French exploration and set up missions to the Indians, religion was never as strong a component of settlement as it was for the Spanish, nor so compelling a motive for settlement as it was for the English. The fact was that the ambitious Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who, in effect, ruled France as prime minister under the weak-willed Louis XIII, needed money to finance his campaign to make France the dominant power in Europe. And the New World offered opportunity for profit.

Enter Champlain. As a boy growing up in France, Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570-1635) showed a real flair for drawing. He especially liked to design maps—inspired in large part by the tales of adventure his naval captain father brought home. Champlain followed in his father’s footsteps and was commissioned by the French government no fewer than a dozen times between 1603 and 1633 to probe the waters of North America and also explore inland. As with so many other explorers at this time, Champlain’s primary objective was to find a Northwest Passage through to Asia, but he also worked to promote trade in furs and other commodities. When Richelieu became convinced that money was to be made from North America, even if a Northwest Passage were never found, he also authorized Champlain to establish colonies and (for Richelieu was a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, after all) to promote Christianity.

Champlain established a broad beachhead for France in North America. During the seven voyages made between 1603 and 1616, he thoroughly mapped northern reaches of the continent (accurately charting the Atlantic coast from the Bay of Fundy to Cape Cod), he established settlements, he got the French fur trade off to a most promising start, and he struck alliances with the Algonquin tribes and Hurons against the tribes of the powerful Iroquois League. These alliances would strengthen the French position in the New World at the often bloody expense of their archrivals, the British, who, during the next 150 years, would make few Indian allies but many Indian enemies. Beginning with Champlain, the lines of alliance and enmity among Frenchman, Englishman, and Indian were sharply drawn. These would, by the middle of the next century, deepen into the wounds of the long and tragic French and Indian War.

Champlain erected a crude settlement at Sainte-Croix in 1604, then moved it to Port Royal the following year. This was the nucleus around which the colony of Acadia would be formed. In July 1608, Champlain directed the digging of a ditch and the erection of a stockade. He called this Quebec.

In 1609, operating from his base in Quebec, Champlain sailed up the St. Lawrence and the river he named after his patron, Richelieu, to the lake that was subsequently named after Champlain himself. Here he attacked a group of Iroquois, on behalf of his Algonquin allies, thereby cementing the French-Algonquin alliance all the more strongly. Later, in 1615, he would venture farther west, across the eastern end of Lake Ontario, and help the Huron Indians in an attack on the Oneida and Onondaga (two tribes of the Iroquois League). In these actions, Champlain was determined to secure the St. Lawrence region for France. He saw that this served as a major avenue of trade for the Indians. Whoever commanded the region would also command trade in the upper Northeast. Of course, securing alliance with one Indian group meant incurring the wrath of another. And the Iroquois were enemies to be feared. Highly organized, the Iroquois League—five tribes, whose territory stretched from the east coast west to Lake Ontario—waged war mercilessly, employing tactics of torture and terror to intimidate their enemies.

Champlain was an enthusiastic booster of Canada, promoting it in the French court of Louis XIII and Richelieu, yet he initially discouraged out-and-out colonization. Little wonder. For Champlain was interested in operating Quebec as a kind of private trading post, with himself in a position to collect a healthy portion of the profits. Nevertheless, the settlement was the nucleus of a French North American fur-trading empire that would endure for the next 125 years.

The Sun King Casts His Rays. Louis XIV was born to Louis XIII and his queen, Anne of Austria, on September 5, 1638. Four years later, Louis XIII died, and his son ascended the throne under the regency of Cardinal Mazarin. Only on the death of Mazarin in 1661 did Louis XIV begin to rule in his own right, and thoughts of New France, while not uppermost in his mind, were at least in his mind. Unlike his father—and Cardinal Richelieu—Louis XIV did not want New France to be merely a source of quick trade profit. He understood that, in order to hold the colony, it had to be a genuine colony, populated not just by coureurs de bois, but by sturdy, stable yeoman farmers.

What happened in 1671, then, shouldn’t have been a surprise. Pierre-Spirit Radisson and Medart Chouart two coureurs, proposed to the emperor a scheme to create a company that would effectively monopolize the northern fur trade. But that wasn’t all. They promised also to find the Northwest Passage, which (they said) would become an exclusively French route for the transportation of fur directly to Asia. In Japan and China, a little fur would buy a lot of spice. But the king was not interested in sending his subjects on such errands. In response to the proposal, he sent women to New France in order to entice trappers like Radisson and Chouart to settle down; he also offered a bounty to be paid for those who sired large families in New France; and, finally, he urged the Church to excommunicate men who left their farms without the government’s permission. In turn, Radisson and Chouart made their own response: They went to the English and secured backing to create the Hudson’s Bay Company, which would be for many years the single most powerful mercantile force on the North American continent.

Two years later, the French intendant (chief administrator) in Canada, Jean Baptiste Talon, stuck his neck out and went against official policy by hiring a fur trader named Louis Joliet to follow up on something he had heard from the Indians-tales concerning a “father” of all the rivers. Perhaps this would prove to be the passage to the Pacific, Talon thought. The Indians called it the “Mesippi.” But Talon despaired of ever actually getting Joliet on the move, because a new governor was due to arrive from France, and surely he would nip the expedition in the bud.

To Talon’s surprise and delight, the governor, Le Comte de Frontenac, a crusty old man who nevertheless possessed a combination of shrewd practicality and vision for the future, approved the expedition. Even if Joliet failed to find a passage to the Pacific, Frontenac reasoned, pushing the claims of France westward was of great strategic importance in and of itself.

Joliet, with a Jesuit priest named Jacques Marquette, did not find a shortcut to the western ocean, but did find the Mississippi, thereby establishing France’s claim to a vast portion of what one day would be the United States. In honor of their monarch, they called the territory Louisiana, and it encompassed (as the French saw it) a vast expanse of land between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains.

Not that the French really knew what to do with all they had found. Louis XIV—called the “Sun King” because of the magnificence of his opulent court and his even more opulent dreams of greatness for a French empire—had visions of a vast agricultural kingdom to reflect in the New World the glories of the Old. But, by the end of Louis’s long reign and life, New France consisted of nothing more than a scattering of precarious settlements in Nova Scotia, along the St. Lawrence, and one or two isolated outposts in Louisiana.

The Dutch Invest $24 in Manhattan Real Estate. So, let’s see. The English set up Jamestown in 1607. Quebec was founded by France the next year. And, in 1609, Henry Hudson, sailing in the Dutch service, reached the site of present-day Albany. Like everybody and his brother, he was looking for the Northwest Passage. And like everyone who looked for it, he failed. However, his search did give the Netherlands a claim to the richest fur-bearing region of North America south of the St. Lawrence.

This did not bring a rush of colonization. A handful of Dutch sea captains traded for furs with the Indians—often bartering hard liquor—but a colonial movement did not get underway until the Dutch West India Company was founded in 1621. Although it strikes us today as culturally and geographically bizarre, Holland was once controlled by Spain. It was one of that nation’s seven Northern Provinces until 1581, when it declared independence. Unfortunately, Spain did not recognize this claim, and the Dutch West India Company was founded by the young Dutch Republic as part of a long, ongoing struggle to remain free.. The company was authorized to commission privateers to disrupt Spain’s trade with its American colonies and, a little later, to undertake colonization efforts in Brazil, Dutch Guiana (now Surinam), the Antilles, and in the North American region staked out by Henry Hudson, which, in 1623, was christened New Netherland. The following year, the company established a trading post at Fort Orange (present-day Albany), and in 1626 dispatched Peter Minuit (ca. 1580-1638) to serve as the colony’s first director-general.

The conquistadors of Spain, when they came to the Americas, simply took the Indians’ land. But most of the other European colonizers made attempts to buy the land. It seemed more legal that way. Minuit’s first step, then, was to legitimate Dutch claims to New Netherland by purchasing Manhattan Island from the Manhattan Indians, a band of the Delaware tribe, for trade goods valued in 1624 at 60 guilders. Now, that figure was computed by a 19th-century historian as being the equivalent of $24, but, with a hundred and more years’ worth of inflation, that computation hardly stands as an eternal truth. Still, it is interesting to contemplate the fact that, today, all $24 will buy you is a slot in a Manhattan parking garage near Radio City Music Hall for about 12 hours, and generations of self-satisfied readers of history have chuckled over what has been called the greatest real estate bargain in history. Few have stopped to think, however, that the joke was not on the Indians. After all, they never claimed to own Manhattan Island. The concept of land ownership was foreign to most Native American cultures. For them, land was part of the natural world, and you could no more own the land you walked on than you could own, say, the air you breathed. If Minuit wanted to part with a load of trade goods just because an island was named after them, the Manhattan Indians were not about explain to him the error of his ways. In any case, Minuit built a fort at the tip of the island and called it New Amsterdam.

A Tale of Two Governors. The Dutch established a profitable trade with the Indians of New Netherland during the 1620s and 1630s—a period (as we shall see in the next chapter) during which New England settlers were locked in bloody war with their Native American neighbors. It wasn’t that the Dutch were kinder and gentler than the English, but that, at first, they were interested in trading rather than settling down on farms. Once the local supply of beavers (whose pelts were the principal trade commodity) became depleted due to overhunting, the Dutch also started to stake out farms, thereby displacing the Indians.

By 1638, when Willem Kieft (1597-1647) arrived in New Netherland as the colony’s fifth governor, two intimately related truths were operative: Violence between the Dutch and Indians was frequent, and aggressive territorial expansion had become a prime Dutch objective. Kieft was appalled by the condition of New Amsterdam. Its defenses were practically nonexistent, and its capacious harbor boasted only one seaworthy vessel. Assuming dictatorial powers, he made sweeping reforms in civil and military administration. Among these was a heavy tax imposed on the local Indians in return for defending them against “hostiles”—mainly the Mohawks. In truth, the Mohawks had become important trading partners with the Dutch and were now allies—henchmen, really—whom Kieft deliberately used to terrorize other tribes. The “defense” tax was actually protection money, and Kieft was behaving no better than a gangster.

When the Raritan Indians, living near New Amsterdam, refused to pay the protection money in 1641 and attacked an outlying Dutch colony, Kieft declared brutal war on them. Two years later, he put the squeeze on the Wappinger Indians, who lived along the Hudson River above Manhattan. To convince them of the wisdom of paying tribute, he unleashed the Mohawks on them. The Wappingers fled down to Pavonia (present-day Jersey City, New Jersey), just across the Hudson from Manhattan. Failing to understand the situation, they appealed to Kieft for aid. In response, he dispatched the Mohawks to Pavonia, then sent Dutch troops in to finish off the refugees. During the night of February 25-26, 1643, Dutch soldiers killed men, women, and children in what was later called the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” The heads of 80 Indians were brought back to New Amsterdam, where soldiers and citizens used them as footballs. Thirty prisoners were publicly tortured to death.

Following the atrocity, 11 local tribes united in waging war against the settlers of New Netherland. Kieft frantically parleyed with the Indians, fruitlessly seeking peace. His own colony, panic-stricken, threatened rebellion. At last, in 1645, the Dutch West India Company recalled Kieft to Holland and replaced him with a crotchety one-legged son of a Calvinist minister, Peter Stuyvesant.

The autocratic Stuyvesant immediately set about whipping the colony into shape, restricting the sale of alcohol and persecuting Quakers and Lutherans, whom he feared would lead the impending revolt. On the positive side, he tried earnestly to provide an honest and efficient administration, including a limited public works campaign of improving roads, repairing fences, constructing a wharf on the East River, and building a defensive wall on the northern edge of New Amsterdam along a “crosstown” pathway that would be named for it: Wall Street.

As to the Indians, Stuyvesant strove to reestablish trading relationships, but he continued Kieft’s policy of ruthlessness, especially against the Esopus, whose children he took and held as hostages in 1.659 to insure the tribe’s “good behavior.” And when the Esopus refused to yield all of their children as directed, Stuyvesant sold those he held into the West Indian slave trade. Their parents never saw them again.

It was, however, Stuyvesant’s despotism in governing the colony itself that led to the decay of his power, as the burghers of New Amsterdam clamored for increased self-government, which the West India Company finally granted them. Beyond the confines of New Netherland, Stuyvesant had mixed success in dealing with the colonies of other European powers, beginning with New Sweden.

Sweden In the Delaware Valley. In 1655, Stuyvesant expanded his colony into the Delaware Valley. The fact that the region was already held by Sweden did not deter him. He simply invaded, and New Sweden just as simply yielded. The colony had been founded by Manhattan’s own Peter Minuit, who, having been recalled from New Netherland to Holland in 1631, subsequently entered into the service of Sweden (Minuit was neither Dutch nor Swedish by nationality, but had been born in the Duchy of Cleves, a Germanic state). In any case, the New Sweden Company, formed in 1633, was a joint Swedish and Dutch enterprise. Minuit led the company’s first expedition in 1.638 and established a settlement on the site of present-day Wilmington, Delaware, which he named Fort Christina in honor of the Swedish queen. Within a short time, the Dutch dropped out of the colony, and New Sweden, lying along Delaware River in what is now Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, became exclusively Swedish. Under the administration of governors Johan Bjornsson Printz (1, 643-53) and Johan Claesson Rising (1654-55), friction developed with New Netherland, and Stuyvesant invaded, annexing the territory. Thus concluded the cameo appearance of Sweden as an actor on the New World stage.

New Netherland Becomes New York. But for Stuyvesant, it was win a little, lose a little—and then lose it all. Relations between New Netherland and New England became increasingly strained as the colonies competed for Indian loyalty and trade. The Dutch were at a disadvantage not just militarily, but also as victims of the settlement scheme established by the Dutch West India Company. Whereas the English settled New England, Virginia, and the other southern colonies with relative speed, putting in place a combination of wealthy planters and yeoman farmers, Dutch settlement was hampered by the patroon system, a process whereby land grants of approximately 16 miles along one side of the Hudson (and other navigable rivers) or about 8 miles on both banks (and extending for unspecified distances away from the river) were made to absentee landlords who installed tenant farmers. Thus New Netherland was largely a colony of tenants rather than property holders, and this state of affairs retarded settlement and made patriotism among the New Netherlanders pretty much a lost cause. Even in the 17th century, tenancy, as opposed to ownership, went counter to the American Dream.

By the 1660s, New Netherland was weak and torn by dissension. Peter Stuyvesant stumped about on his peg leg and rattled his saber, but he could not rally his countrymen. On September 8, 1664, a fleet of British warships sailed up the Hudson. The Dutch colonists simply declined to offer resistance, leaving a supremely frustrated Stuyvesant no choice but to surrender, albeit on the important condition that the West India Company continue to enjoy substantial trading rights. The British promptly renamed both the colony and its chief town after the Duke of York (the future King James II), and Stuyvesant retired peacefully to his farm, which he called the Bouwerie. Through the years, the tranquil country path passing through his farm was transformed. In the 19th century, it became a racy street of inexpensive theaters, and, by the early 20th, a gray and dilapidated avenue of cheap bars known as the Bowery and symbolic of other American dreams that somehow went awry.

The Least You Need to Know

The French claimed vast tracts of land, but failed to adequately colonize them.

 Although they set up a lively trade with the Indians, the Dutch likewise failed to create an enduring colony.

Word for the Day. Canada and the northeastern United States are filled with Frenchified Indian place names. Quebec is how an Algonquian Indian word meaning “abrupt narrowing of the river” sounded to Champlain’s French ears. Quebec City is located at the narrow head of the St. Lawrence River estuary.

Word for the Day. The terms Algonquin,Algonquian cause confusion. “Algonquin” describes any of various Native American peoples who live or lived in the Ottawa River valley of Quebec and Ontario. “Algonquian” is a family of Indian languages. Tribes linguistically related through dialects of this language are collectively referred to as Algonquian—not Algonquin. The other major Indian linguistic family in eastern North America is the Iroquoian.

Word for the Day. Coureurs de bois–runners of the woods—was a name applied to a class of men who got their living by trapping fur-bearing animals. Their profession required them to combine the roles of explorer, woodsman, diplomat, trader, hunter, and trapper. The coureurs, though often barely civilized selves, were the pioneers of civilization in the upper Northeast.


Word for the Day. The landlords of New Netherland were called patroons. They were investors in the Dutch West India Company who were granted estates along the Hudson and other navigable rivers on the condition that they send 50 settlers within four years to occupy the land. The system never worked well, in part because the landlords—many of whom remained in Holland—were unable to manage their lands efficiently, and the tenants felt they had little stake in the colony.


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