A Snapshot of New York State in the year 1650
Earth was created on a Saturday. The news may not have reached many New Yorkers this year, but back across the Atlantic in London, Archbishop James Ussher has been pouring through his Biblical references and decides on October 22, 4004 B.C. as the date of creation. Now those who hear the news on either side of the ocean could start thinking in terms of the year 5654. Most will hold to 1650.
New Amsterdam will have gotten word first. In the past 126 years, apart from the occasional explorer taking a few hours of shore leave, Manhattan island has seen few European inhabitants. Former Dutch lawyer Adriaen Block and partner Hendrick Christaensen had wintered over between 1613 and 1614, forced into frozen confinement while they built a replacement for their ship, destroyed by fire in November. During a return trip Block had left Santo Domingo mulatto Jan Rodriguez, behind to trade with the natives. Otherwise no one was inclined to stay around for very long. Then, on October 11 of 1614, The Dutch States-General made it a bit more worthwhile, chartering the United New Netherland Company and giving merchants a three-year fur trading monopoly. Their citizens had never been hesitant to make a guilder or two and would-be fur impresarios began heading across the Atlantic, bringing along people required to man the series of trading posts and farms needed to nurture this new cash cow. Eventually entrepreneurs and laborers turned into settlers, but for nearly two centuries to come, many New York landowners would not set foot this side of the Atlantic. Meanwhile there was no grass growing under Christaensen’s feet in 1614 and he set off up the Hudson to build an outpost 130-some miles to the north on Castle Island. These two seeds of settlement had grown slowly over the next 36 years and in 1650 the names New York City and Albany are still decades into the future.
The population of the lower settlement is now nearly one thousand people, and an eclectic collection it is. An informal survey made seven years ago showed 18 different languages being spoken. The Dutch actually approach minority status; life back home is too comfortable. Director General Peter Stuyvesant arrived in May of 1647 to find himself head of an extremely dysfunctional family and clamped down on the squabbling settlers; the old soldier’s autocratic ways have since made the home country look more attractive to some; a few take a pro-active stance this year. One of these, Adriaen van der Donck, here since 1641, collaborates on behalf of the people in writing a series of grievances, or remonstrances, which he and several colleagues carry back to old Amsterdam. One clause alleges that as a result of complaints made to the Director regarding trade problems with the Indians, “very wicked and spiteful words are returned.” Stuyvesant, learning of the voyage, sets what future generations will call a “spin doctor”, his secretary Cornelis van Tienhoven, to work drawing up a reply, which is soon voyaging along in the wake of the Remonstrances. The bickering will continue for another 14 years, until the English give Director General and inhabitants something else to occupy their minds.
Up north in the area around Castle Island, inhabitants had been forced to experiment with the location of their forts and farms, indicated by a changing series of names. A 1617 spring flood had destroyed Fort Nassau. After arranging a peace between the Mahicans and the Mohawks, the Europeans rebuilt the fort, this time on the west side of the Hudson. They also parleyed with local Indians at Norman’s Kill and acquired land in the area by the treaty of Tawasentha. A new post, Fort Orange, was built in 1624, but two years later many of the non-essential personnel were sent down to New Amsterdam, as Indian attacks were expected. Most did not start drifting back into the region until five years later and now, in 1650, the population is only two or three hundred. (The first feeble attempts at counting are only just getting under way). The nearby village of Beverwyck about 3,000 feet to the north of Fort Orange, will be chartered in two years, beating New Amsterdam by a year. The English will rename the new village for the Duke of Albany. In December recently-arrived 22-year-old carpenter Philip Pieterse Schuyler marries Margarita Van Slichenhorst, daughter of the director of the nearby Rensselaerswyck patroonship. Their eight children will move into town, the not-yet-Albany, and their descendants will provide New York with a general and a mayor, Alexander Hamilton with a wife and several dalliances, and the future state with a county name.
It’s conceivable that no one up in Fort Orange has gotten word of Archbishop Ussher’s tidings. It’s less likely that any of New York’s original settlers have heard (and still less likely they believe. Or care). While European settlements labor to maintain a toehold on Long Island and the Hudson Valley, the six nations of the Iroquois League, having depleted the fur supply in New York, are continuing their conquest of tribes to their west. They overpower the Hurons this year. (Father Ragueneau writes "my pen has no ink black enough to describe the fury of the Iroquois.") Next year will come the turn of the Neutral Nation; the Erie will fall between 1652 and 1656, and the Conestoga in 1675. Local tribes already subjugated, such as the Mahican and Long Island’s Metoac have begun to leave the colony or to die out. (The Dutch and the English sign a treaty this year at Hartford, Connecticut, dividing the Metoac homeland between themselves).. At the end of this decade the population of the Metoac will have shrunk to around 500, compared to nearly 10,000 in 1600. Several smallpox epidemics over the last 50 years have reduced the Mohegan and Pequot to a few hundred people, all resettled in Connecticut by now. A very few Wappinger remain; the Wenro of the Lake Erie area of the colony have been gone for the past seven years. The Six Nations rule supreme. They will remain a major force in the Europeans’ lives for over a hundred years to come, with separate groups forming alliances, declaring neutrality, waging war and skillfully playing the British off against the French. And after that mother country against colony.