American History Stories—Volume I - Mara L. Pratt

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


The Dutch in America

In Europe there is a small country called Holland. It is a strange little country; it is flat, and so low that the whole country would long ago have been swallowed by the ocean had not the sturdy people built great walls of mud and stone to keep back the water. Holland is sometimes called the land of windmills, because there are so many of these great wheels whizzing and whirring about the country. Now, the merchants and workmen of this little country were far ahead of those of England in these days of which we are reading. Although there was hardly a stick of timber in the whole land, yet Holland built more ships and did more trading than England had thought of.

It was not long, therefore, before some of these enterprising Dutch merchants became interested in the long sought for short route to China and the Indies; and in the autumn of 1693 they engaged Henry Hudson, an Englishman, to search for the passage for them.

In the spring of the following year, Capt. Hudson, with a crew of about twenty men, set sail from Holland in the Half Moon, and following a map and letter sent him by his friend, Capt. John Smith, he arrived on Sept. 31 at the fine bay now known as New York Harbor. As he entered the bay, the Indians came hurrying out from the shores in their canoes, paddling up to the Half Moon. They were friendly—as Indians generally were until some act of treachery or cruelty on the part of the white men put them on their guard—and they freely traded with the sailors of the strange Half Moon.

Then Hudson sailed as far up the beautiful river as he could with his vessel, and then sent boats up as far as what is now Albany. "Perhaps," said he, "this river cuts through the continent to the other ocean, and will prove to be a short route to the Indies."

But, as you and I know now, he was disappointed in this. The river grew less and less navigable as it neared its source, and Hudson was obliged to sail back into New York bay. But so beautiful had the country seemed to him, and so valuable were the furs which the Indians offered in trade, that Hudson, on his return to Holland, gave a most glowing description of the opportunities for making wealth in this new world—so glowing, indeed, that it was not very long before the wide-awake, enterprising little country sent traders to settle upon the banks of the river, and to build up villages for themselves.

Holland, accordingly, now claimed the whole country around the river, and named it New Netherland. The Dutch colonists went to work at once trading with the Indians, cultivating the land and building their mills with the great whirring sails. The Indians were terribly afraid of these monsters, which were able to grind corn or saw boards. They would sit for hours staring at the strange things, wondering if they were alive. Often they would set fire to them, believing an evil spirit must be in them.

But on the whole the Dutchmen got along very well with the Indians, and it was not many years before they bought from the Indians the whole island of Manhattan and began the building of their city—New Amsterdam; or, as it is now called, New York.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


Some of the very first governors of this Dutch colony are said to have been rather remarkable men in one way or another. There was Peter Minuit, an enterprising man, I am sure you will believe, when you hear that one of his first acts was to buy the whole of Manhattan Island from the Indians for twenty-five dollars, and that, too, paid mostly with beads and trinkets, of which the Indians were very fond.

Minuit was followed by Van Twiller, the second governor. Of this man I will give you Washington Irving's own description. He says, "Van Twiller was exactly five feet six inches in height and six feet five inches in circumference. His head was a perfect sphere, and of such dimensions that Dame Nature, with all her ingenuity, would have been puzzled indeed to construct a neck capable of supporting it. Therefore, she had declined to try and had settled it firmly on the top of his backbone just between his shoulders. His body was oblong. His legs were short but sturdy in proportion to the weight they had to sustain; so that when erect he had much the appearance of a beer barrel on skids."

Then, by and by, came gallant old Peter Stuyvesant. He was a grim old fellow, battle-scarred, and no more movable when his mind was made up than a wall of solid granite. How he did puff and steam as he stumped around on his funny old wooden leg, shouting his orders and telling of his own wonderful feats in battle! But for all this he was a good governor; and his love for the colony, his pride in it, and his honest desire to see it all and the best it could be, will never be quite forgotten by the New York people. They say that sometimes the bump, bump, bump of the old wooden leg even now is to be heard dark nights moving as of yore up and down the aisles of St. Mark's church, near where his bones lie buried. Well, if this is so it only goes to prove that he still loves old Manhattan Island as he loved it in those early days when he was its ruler and its governor.

It was while brave old Peter Stuyvesant was governor that the English first sailed into the harbor of New Amsterdam and demanded the surrender of the city, under the claim that the country belonged to the English, having been discovered by Cabot.

The fact is, the English king, having learned that the Dutch had secured a very valuable fur trade through their friendliness with the Indians, made up his mind that he needed it. He accordingly gave the territory of New Netherlands to his brother, the Duke of York, and sent several ships to capture the city.

The Dutch were too few to resist; and the appeals of Gov. Stuyvesant to defend the city were vain; and so New Amsterdam passed into the hands of the English on August 29, 1664. The city was then named New York; and, although eight years later the Dutch re-took the city, Holland finally gave up all title to New Netherlands and it became an English colony. This was in 1674.

New Amsterdam was an odd little city at that time, looking for all the world like a little Dutch city dropped down upon the new continent.

The little wooden houses had gable roofs; the ends of the houses were of black and yellow brick; over the door were great iron figures telling when the house was built; and on the roof there was sure to be a gay-looking weather vane whirling around in the strong wind, trying, so it seemed, to keep pace with the whirling windmills that stretched their great arms over the city.

Inside the houses you would have found great, roaring fire-places, with pictured tiles up and down the sides. Such funny pictures! telling all about Noah and the Ark, or perhaps about the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea. Can you not fancy just how the older brothers and sisters used to sit by these great fireplaces pointing out the wonderful pictures to the little children?

I am always glad to think of these little children of the Dutch colonists. They were all so much happier and freer than the little Puritan children. Their homes were so much more cheerful, their parents so much less grim and severe, and there was so much more love and joy everywhere about them.

Such fairy stories as these Dutch people could tell as they sat about their great fires in the long winter evenings, or out upon the doorsteps in the warm summer nights! Not a forest nor a dale, not a single peak of the Catskill Mountains but had its legend or mysterious story for them.

When the thunder rolled, the people would say, "Hark! that is Henry Hudson and his companions playing at nine pins up among the mountains." And the children would shout and laugh and say, "Good Henry Hudson! Good Henry Hudson! the wicked sailors could not kill you when they bound you and put you afloat on the cold ocean! The little fairies guided you back to your own river and to your own blue-topped Catskills. Kind little fairies! Good Henry Hudson!"

There are so many other stories to tell of this early history of our country that I am going to leave this colony just here. It seems too bad, for these Dutch people were so strange in their dress and customs, and had such odd ideas, that I should like to tell you a score of stories about them. I should like to tell you about Rip Van Winkle, who slept for twenty years up in the mountains; I should like to tell you about old Ichabod Crane, who thought he was pursued by a ghost; of Henry Hudson and his crew playing nine-pins up among the mountains; but you must read Irving's Sketch Book and his Knickerbocker History. There are stories enough there to keep you all busy for a year. But now I must ask you to leave these queer old Dutch people and hurry across to Maryland with me. There is another kind of people there waiting for us.