Words To Remember

"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Great Rascal: Gov. Willem Kieft

Willem Kieft became the fifth governor of New Netherlands on Sept. 2, 1637, following a curious personal history. He was born in about 1600 {other sources have reported he was born in Septemember 1597} in Amsterdam.

 According to a pamphlet published in 1649, the Breeden Raedt, he was educated as a merchant and entered the mercantile business to no small disaster. "After having taken charge of his own and his master's business…at Rochelle, he happened to fail there." According to custom, his portrait was "stuck up on the gallows there"--in other words, he was hanged in effigy, which was a lasting disgrace. After being out of business for some time, the government sent this bankrupt businessman to Turkey to ransom Christian hostages there. The hostages with the lower prices on their heads were released; the more "expensive" were left in chains and the balance of the ransom went into Kieft's pocket. His reward for these actions was to be appointed governor.

Kieft's arrival in New Amsterdam on March 28, 1638, was coldly received as he stepped off the ship Herring. Likely, one of the first people Kieft met was Rev. Mr. Evardus Bogardus. Bogardus, the second minister in the colony, became a nemesis of Kieft and their destinies interlocked. Bogardus, who had accused former director Wouter van Twiller of misfeasance, was himself charged with unbecoming conduct  and was about to return to Holland to defend himself when Kieft detained him.

Kieft was called energetic by his peers, but spiteful and utterly ignorant of the principles of governing. Capt. David De Vries, an active mariner, who knew him well, ranked him among the "great rascals of his age."  Rapacious and unscrupulous, Kieft was the reverse of Wouter Van Twiller, his immediate predecessor.  Upon his arrival, he immediately concentrated all executive power in his hands, relying more heavily on one counselor, Dr. Johannes La Montagne. 

New Amsterdam was in a miserable physical condition, he complained in his first letter back to Holland. "The fort is open at every side, except the stone point; the guns are dismounted; the houses and public buildings are out of repair; the magazine for merchandise has disappeared; every vessel in the harbor is falling to pieces; only one windmill is in operation; the farms of the company are without tenants and thrown into commons."

No one could fault Kieft for his initial force of energy. To this shambles of a colony, Kieft was faced with another domestic crisis: Peter Minuit, who had been Kieft's idea of a model governor, had led a colony of Swedes to the Delaware River. The impertinent Swedes were claiming the entire country west of the river from the falls at Trenton to Cape Henlopen (Lewes, DE) and as far inland as they pleased! Minuit laughed at him and disregarded his threats.  Kieft stormed and railed against the invasion and issued a proclamation, but was powerless to do anything in retaliation.

Locally, however, he nailed proclamations on trees and fences ordering that "no attestations" or public writings would be valid in a New Netherlands court unless they were written by the colonial secretary. If the colonies in Massachusetts might be termed theocracies controlled by religious zealots, the governor of New Netherlands was akin to a chief executive officer of the company. New Netherlands was not a democracy.

Kieft's attention was drawn to the things he could do, and this included improving the appearance and functioning of the town. He chose Pearl Street {Paerlstraat}, a simple road on the bank of the East River, for the best class of houses. A windmill stood on State Street, and not far away were a baker and the company warehouse.

He repaired the fort, and a private brewery on Staten Island began producing the first beer in the new world. (On May 15, 1638, Jan Gybertsen had stabbed New Amsterdam gunner Gerrit Jansen in a brawl, killing him. There's no indication whether the brewery was to blame for New York City's first murder.)

Abuses abounded, and his measures of reform almost stripped the citizens of their privileges. Dilapidated Fort Amsterdam was repaired and new warehouses for the company were erected. He caused orchards to be planted, gardens to be cultivated, police ordinances to be framed and enforced.

Religion and morality were to be fostered, and regular religious services to be publicly conducted. A spacious stone church was built within the fort, and the Connecticut architect hung in its wooden tower Spanish bells which had been captured at Puerto Rico.

Gov. Kieft forbade "the tapping of beer during divine services, and after one o'clock at night." He also prohibited illegal traffic and selling guns to the Indians, enforced town ordinances, ordered the town bell rung every night at 9:00 p.m. to announce the hour for retiring, every morning and evening to call people to and from their labors, and on Thursday to summon prisoners to court.

Larger social pressures were looming. A major change in the way New Netherlands was structured—for the better—was dictated by the States-General in 1638. This governing body and some of its directors saw that it was a mistake for New Netherlands to fill the province only with Company dependents. The States- General proposed that the Company relinquish control of New Netherlands, making it a colony of Holland. The Company, obviously, did not want to surrender control.

Meanwhile, the grasping patroons proposed their own "wish list" to the States-General to expand their privileges and exemptions: monopolize more territory; have a longer time to settle colonists; enjoy free trade throughout and around New Netherlands; be invested with greater feudal powers independent of Company control in governing their manors; have a vote in the council of the governor; and to be supplied with Negro slaves and convicts from Holland to serve as laborers. The patroons actually suggested that all "private persons" and poor immigrants should be required to settle within the manors under the jurisdiction of these manorial lords.

This was so offensive to the States General that they forced the Company to throw the new land open to competition. In 1639, the West India Company surrendered its monopoly in fur commerce, allowing individual colonists to join the trade and to cultivate farms. The effect was electric.

Settlers moved down from New England, up from Maryland and Virginia, and over from Europe. Rich and poor, educated and unlettered headed for the Dutch areas of control. Cavaliers from Virginia and Puritans from New England were seen listening to Dominie Bogardus in his fine pulpit in the new church. All that Kieft required of new settlers was an oath of fidelity and allegiance to the States-General of Holland. The demands for new homesteads caused Kieft to purchase lower Westchester and a large portion of Long Island to make room. Among the new settlers was Capt. David De Vries, who planted a colony on Staten Island, and became a fulcrum in leveraging the colony's future.

By 1642, it was said that no fewer than a dozen languages were spoken in the little colony of New Amsterdam, The following year, Kieft reportedly told a priest that eighteen {18} languages were spoken among a population of just 800. Some estimates place the Dutch population at 50 percent, with the other major nationalities and ethnicities being German, English, African, Scandinavian, French and Jewish.

If Kieft's policy and conduct at this point had been as wise and just as it was firm and energetic, his administration would have been marked by peace and great prosperity. But he and his council possessed such dignity--in their own estimation--that it became a high crime to appeal from their decision. Against this background, however, Kieft pursued a policy that inflamed the Indian populations.

Dutch relations with the Indians had begun benevolently. A previous director-general of the Dutch West India Company had written that the Indians were friendly people if they were treated well. Former Gov. Willem Verhulst had also been instructed from Holland to treat them with "honesty, faithfulness and sincerity" and to respect their land claims.

Gov. Kieft's own partiality for the Mohawks, with whom the Dutch had traded at Fort Orange, aroused the jealousy of other Hudson River tribes. Dishonest traders also exacerbated the situation by bilking the Indians when they were drunk. Kieft tended to turn a blind eye to these misdemeanors while sharing in the traders' gains; and he demanded tribute of furs, corn, and wampum from the tribes around Manhattan. They paid the tribute but cursed the tyrant.

Kieft saw their power and was afraid. Some swine were stolen from De Vries' plantation on Staten Island. The governor charged the innocent Raritans of New Jersey with the crime and sent 100 men, armed with muskets and pikes, across the harbor to the island. The troops killed several Raritans, including a sachem. A show of power, Kieft probably concluded, would deter the Indians' vengeance.

The tactic backfired. Neighboring tribes were angered and they refused to pay tribute any longer. In retaliation, the Raritans burned a farm and killed four Dutch workmen. Settlers then were murdered whenever the Indians met them in the forests of New Jersey, and De Vries' innocent settlement was ruined.

Kieft's reaction to the growing hostilities was to outlaw the Raritans and eliminate them through genocide. He placed a bounty of "10 fathomes of wampum" on the head of each Raritan who was killed. It was not an effective policy, economically or strategically. A group of Metoac brought Kieft just one head, whose owner was never identified.

Another event had also come to a climax. Many years earlier, some of Pieter Minuit's men had murdered an Indian from the Wecquaesgeek tribe north of the Harlem River. His nephew, who was then a boy, vowed revenge. In 1641, amid the growing tension, the nephew who was now grown attacked an innocent Dutch man in his wheelwright shop at the north end of Manhattan Island. While the mechanic was bent over his task, the young Indian seized an axe and almost cut the worker's head from his body. The Indian returned to his tribe in triumph, carrying the worker's scalp. 

Kieft was determined to punish the Wecquaesgeek the way he had the Raritan, and told the settlers in New Amsterdam to pick up their weapons. The townspeople saw the rashness of this order and refused. In fact, they charged Kieft with inciting a war that could "make a wrong reckoning with the Company." They added insult to their refusal, calling Kieft a coward. Collectively, they stated, "It is all well for you who have not slept out of the fort a single night since you came, to endanger our lives and our homes in undefended places."

Pastor Bogardus was one of the enraged colonists, calling the Governor "a child of the devil" to his face. On one occasion, Bogardus said that, if Kieft would not behave himself, he would give him such a "shake from the pulpit the next Sabbath as would make him tremble like a bowl of jelly."  This tongue-lashing may have soured Kieft from attending services. He may also have become aware of the tenuousness of his position.

He called an assembly of "masters and heads of families" to choose 12 men. Without becoming aware of it, he in effect created the first representative assembly in New Netherlands. However, he and his council possessed such dignity--in their own estimation--that it became a high crime to appeal from their decision. David De Vries was chosen president. On Jan. 2, 1642, Kieft convened the Council of Twelve Men to plan a campaign against the Algonquins. His charge to the organization was whether the wheelwright's murderer ought to be demanded of the tribe, or if the Indians refused to surrender him to make war and burn the village.

The Twelve Men under De Vries counseled peace and turned their attention to considering the needs of governing their own settlement. We can imagine Kieft's anger at this intrusion on his power. Cunningly, he offered a compromise: he would make popular concessions to the Twelve if they would authorize him to make war at an appropriate time. The group trusted the governor and agreed, only to see Kieft dissolve the Council of Twelve on Feb. 18 and forbid it to reorganize.

1642 was turning into a bad year for the settlement. Kieft acted on Feb. 25 by sending an expedition against the tribe in Westchester County—only to be thwarted by their getting lost en route and, eventually, the signing of a treaty. (The murderer may also have taken refuge with another tribe.)

Another situation involving the Hackensacks developed across the Hudson. The Hackensacks were already irritated over a questionable takeover of their land by Myndert Van der Horst when the son of one of the tribe's leaders was invited to a Dutch establishment and gotten drunk. When the Indian woke up, he discovered his hosts had stolen his beaver-skin coat. In response, he shot an arrow into a worker who was thatching the roof of Van der Horst's home. Kieft, of course, demanded the surrender of the killer only to get the usual response: the murderer had fled to another tribe.

In what is now upstate New York, other developments were taking place that would have repercussions for the Dutch on Manhattan Island. After years of fur trading, the beaver were being hunted to exhaustion. The Mohawks and the Mahicans needed new hunting territory, which necessitated more weapons to fight outside their territories. The currency for gun-buying was wampum, so the Indians demanded tribute from weaker tribes—particularly the Metoacs, Wappingers and Munsee Delawares who the Dutch would not arm. While the Mohawks pressured the Munsees west of the Hudson, the Mahicans went after the Wappingers on the east side of the river.

In the winter of 1642-43, Mahican warriors came to the Wappinger (Wecquaesgeek) villages, but their extortion was resisted. In the fighting, seventeen Wappinger were killed and many of the women and children were taken captive. Some 500 Wappinger fled south to—they presumed—the protection of the Dutch.  Following a short rest, the Wappinger moved across the Hudson River to the Hackensack and Tappan villages at what is now Jersey City, New Jersey.

Gov. Kieft saw their arrival and became convinced an uprising was being prepared. On the cold evening of Feb. 24, 1643, Kieft, De Vries and others shared dinner and talked of revenge against the Indians.  De Vries, always the humanitarian, proposed a treaty and a lasting peace: "I answered him that there was no sufficient reason to undertake it.... But it appeared that my speaking was of no avail. He had, with his co-­murderers, determined to commit the murder, deeming it a Roman deed, and to do it without warning the inhabitants in the open lands, that each one might take care of himself against the retaliation of the Indians, for he could not kill all the Indians. When I had expressed all these things in full, sitting at the table, and the meal was over, he told me he wished me to go to the large hall, which he had been lately adding to his house. Coming to it, there stood all his soldiers ready to cross the river to Pavonia to commit the murder."  

De Vries protested, "Stop this work! You wish to break the mouths of the Indians, but you will also murder our own nation, for there are none of the farmers who are aware of it. My own dwelling, my people, cattle, corn, and tobacco will be host."  Kieft hurriedly assured him that there would be no danger and that some soldiers should go to De Vries' house to protect it. "But that was not done."

De Vries' own words describe what happened next: "I remained that night at the governor's, sitting up. I went and sat in the kitchen, when, about mid­night, I heard a great shrieking, and I ran to the ramparts of the fort, and looked over to Pavonia. Saw nothing but firing, and heard the shrieks of the Indians murdered in their sleep. I returned again to the house by the fire. Having sat there awhile, there came an Indian with his squaw, whom I knew well, and who lived about an hour's walk from my house, and told me that they two had fled in a small skiff; that they had betaken themselves to Pavonia; that the Indians from Fort Orange had surprised them; and that they had come to conceal themselves in the fort. I told them that they must go away immediately; that there was no occasion for them to come to the fort to conceal themselves; that they who had killed their people at Pavonia were not Indians, but the Swannekens, as they call the Dutch, had done it. They then asked me how they should get out of the fort. I took them to the door, and there was no sentry there, and so they betook them­selves to the woods."

Two armed parties had been mustered out from the fort. One group went north to slay those at Corlaer's Hook. They set upon the unsuspecting Indians and proceeded to indiscriminately kill forty {40} of them.  Another group of armed men was sent to Jersey City. Silently crossing the river, the Dutch invaded the encampment and turned the snow red with the blood of men, women and children. The sky, it was reported, was lit with the fires from their tents.

"Warrior and squaw, sachem and child, mother and babe were alike massacred," stated the 19th-century historian John Romeyn Brodhead. "Daybreak scarcely ended the furious slaughter. Mangled victims, seeking safety in the thickets, were driven into the river, and parents rushing to save their children, whom the soldiery had thrown into the stream, were driven back into the waters and drowned before the eyes of their unrelenting murderers."  

More than 100 Wappingers reportedly were murdered that night in what has been called the Pavonia Massacre and a prelude to the Wappinger (Kieft's) War.

When the Dutch troops returned to the fort with 30 prisoners and the heads of a number of Indians on their pikes, Gov. Kieft shook their bloody hands delightedly, praised them and gave them presents. The soldiers, it was reported, also used the severed heads to play kickball.

The massacres had the disastrous effect of bringing the tribes together and defusing their animosities in common cause against the Dutch, with 20 ultimately consolidating in the fight.  The Wappingers retaliated with the assistance of the Hackensack and Tappan tribes and attacked outlying Dutch farms and settlements. The Dutch withdrew into Fort Amsterdam. Kieft prepared for a prolonged siege by sending troops to seize corn from the Metoacs. Three Canarsees were killed and the war spread to the Metoacs on western Long Island.

The colonists must have been amazed at the maelstrom Kieft had unleashed. However, David De Vries believed the situation might still be salvaged. That spring, De Vries convinced 18 Metoac sachems to sit down in a meeting with Governor Kieft. Still denouncing the Dutch as "corn thieves," the Metoac agreed to a truce and sent envoys to the Tappans and Hackensacks urging them to do the same. The Wappingers were not mollified, however, and the fighting resumed that fall of 1643.

Gov. Kieft may have become aware he had unleashed a whirlwind of terror. Despised by the colonists on whom he had brought ruin, he humbly asked them to form a representative council again on Sept. 13, 1643. The people gladly did so, for they had lost all confidence in the governor. This concession was a pitiful trick of Kieft to foil the wrath of the colonists. He neglected the advice of the popular assembly, and sought by every means to fill his own coffers with gain against a day of reckoning which he perceived was near.

The Dutch offensive against the Indians was renewed in the spring of 1644. After an unsuccessful expedition against the Raritans on Staten Island, the English and Dutch combined strategically to decimate the native villages on the western end of Long Island. Kieft then hired the English mercenary and veteran of the recent Pequot War, John Underhill, for 25,000 guilders. Underhill brought with him two companies of 120 to 150 volunteers and Mohegan scouts. Underhill's company proceeded to kill over 120 Indian men, women and children where they lived near today's town of Massapequa.

After some 500 Indians were killed on Long Island, the Governor declared a day of thanksgiving. Other attacks followed against the Wappinger on the north shore of Long Island. (The population of all the Long Island tribes in 1600 was estimated at 10,000. The effects of warfare and sickness reduced this population to 500 by the year 1659.)

Underhill's army also attacked Indian encampments north of Stamford, CT, killing some 700 people before sunrise on a single day. Underhill again had fulfilled his bloody reputation as the "scourge of the Indians" and exercised his unusual Christian belief that "Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents."

The Wappinger were threatened now with total annihilation. By the time their sachems came to make peace at Fort Amsterdam, they and their allies had lost at least 1,600 of their people in the fighting. The Dutch still had their hands bound, however, because the Metoacs, with more than 1,000 dead, refused to stop fighting.

By summer of the following year—Aug. 9, 1645—the Dutch and Wappingers used the Mahicans' influence to establish a tenuous peace. The Metoacs, realizing their tribe was threatened with extinction, finally agreed to terms. A treaty was signed at Fort Orange making the Wappingers and western Metoacs subjects of the Mahicans and forced to pay an enormous annual tribute of wampum to the Mahicans.

This agreement effectively put the Mahicans (and indirectly the Mohawks, which paid tribute according to the treaty of 1628) in control of the wampum trade on Long Island. Insultingly, the Mahicans didn't collect the tribute personally, but used the Wappingers as collection agents.

By Aug. 30, 1645, New Amsterdam was left with only 100 white settlers. Kieft's War—the Wappinger War—had ended. Peace was celebrated with a salute from three cannons. During the firing, one of the cannons—a six-pounder—exploded killing Jacobsen Roy, a gunner.

The Counsel of Eight, upon whom the entire colony now relied, had no legal executive power. Their plans, such as De Vries' treaties, were often frustrated by Gov. Kieft. When the Eight protested his methods of taxation, Kieft declared, "In this country, I am my own master and may do as I please."

In response to the will of the people—those who were left—the Eight sent a petition to the States-General advising them of the critical situation and asking for Kieft's recall. One year later, on July 28, 1646, Kieft was ordered to give up his post.

On May 11, 1647, the new director general, Pieter Stuyvesant, arrived from the Caribbean to replace Kieft. Was this change of administration for the better? Not really. While today Stuyvesant is chiefly remembered for his relations with the English, he was described in the 1649 Breeden Raedt as conducting himself arrogantly and promptly taking the side of his predecessor against Cornelius Melyn and Joachim Petersen Kuyter, leaders of New Amsterdam's populist party.

Stuyvesant had been successful (except for the loss of a leg) prosecuting the Company's business and wars in the Caribbean. This son of a clergyman was no prince of peace, however; in Holland, he had robbed the daughter of his own landlady and was caught but was released because of his father's influence.

The colonists who had petitioned for Kieft's recall celebrated  his departure with cannon salutes.  Kieft sailed for Holland on Aug. 16, 1647, on the ship Princess Amelia carrying 400,000 guilders—more than $100,000.

His fellow passenger was Pastor Bogardus, returning to Holland to answer charges brought by Kieft. Two others on board were prisoners, Melyn and Kuyter, who were being sent back after being tried, convicted and sentenced to be fined by Stuyvesant.  It must have been an uncomfortable voyage, but its end was more painful to all.

The Princess Amelia was wrecked when it struck a rock after mistakenly entering Bristol channel on the coast of Wales.  The Breeden Raedt pamphlet states that when the ship foundered, "this ungodly Kieft seeing death before his eyes, sighing very deeply, dubiously addressed both [Kuyter and Melyn] 'Friends, I have done you wrong, can you forgive me?'"

The prophecy of De Vries (1643)--"The murders in which you [Kieft] have shed so much innocent blood will yet be avenged upon your own head"--was fulfilled. Kieft, along with Rev. Bogardus, and 81 other passengers drowned.

Melyn and Kuyter were able to remain afloat as the ship broke into pieces that night, and they were washed ashore and saved. Both were frantic to secure the papers on board the ship, which were critical for their defense in Holland against Stuyvesant's sentences.

Three days after the shipwreck, they found the box with these papers and proceeded to Amsterdam to plead their case before the States-General.  The government suspended the sentences and granted the men an appeal, which they later won.

Although Gov. Kieft's reforms and improvements in the colony were of lasting benefit, his governance was marked by such tyranny and his petty, bellicose nature was vented in such cruelty that he was rather universally detested.

He died without wife, descendents or memorial.

{ A tip of the hat to Walt Giersbach, author of Kieft's Personal War [http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/indianwars/articles/kieftswar.aspx] for allowing me to re-post much of his information here.}

1 comment:

  1. I found this very interesting and entertaining. My descendant Robert Jackson was one who helped start Hempstead, LI, NY in 1644 when Kieft was governor. I read about his dirty deeds and wanted to find out more since I know he had an influence on the life of my ancestor at the time.