Her New World
At the bow of the yacht, her fingers gripping the rail, a young woman stood face into a wind that had buffeted the ship for days with a cocktail of fresh-mown hay, pine sap, and even the sweetness of wildflowers. Behind her, the pilot leaned all his weight on the tiller to thread the vessel through the Narrows, the Hoofden, where even the most seasoned skippers had been known to founder their ships on knife-sharp shoals. The little ship skimmed across the bright open lake called the Upper Bay, and then made its way through one final channel. Finally, a harbor town materialized all at once out of the haze, still a musket shot away but close enough to make out the fort, towering above everything, and the sparse forest of masts in the roadstead before it, colored pennants drooping in the still summer air. As the ship pushed closer, the dense heat of the land descended upon the deck like a wet sponge.
The woman at the rail spotted a windmill’s sails turning counterclockwise above a church spire. Over the cry of gulls she heard the bellow of sea lions that sprawled across the black rocks at the island’s arrow-shaped foot. The rooflines of the port rose into view, then behind them a scattering of farms tucked into rolling hills, their fields interspersed with stretches of forest. A white signal flag flew above the fort to show that a ship had safely reached the harbor. As the guns began to crack out their welcoming salutes, children could be seen running barefoot toward the shore.
The captain shouted to make the ship fast. A half-dozen small boats, a sturdy raft, and a canoe pushed away from the town’s long Winebridge Pier, built just this year. Carrying port inspectors and merchants, the boats headed toward the ship to ferry passengers and goods ashore. A frill of seawater washed the pebble beach north of the dock. Farther north still lay raw pastures, sand hills, and salt marshes, acres of them, all along the island’s coast. An immense flock of bluebills splashed down nearby. Some River Indians stood beside their canoes, waist-deep in the water, unloading nets of oysters they would hawk door-to-door to housewives, who would pickle the meat in jars for export to the planters of the West Indies.
The year was 1659. The woman at the ship rail was Margaret Hardenbroeck, she was all of twenty-two years old, and this was her New World. The seaport before her was tiny compared with the European ports of Amsterdam or London, but it was a promising entrepôt, an infant marketplace that just might grow to be a moneymaking giant. Holland had the audacity to christen this settlement, which thirty-five years ago was nothing but a bare-dirt trading post, after its urbane commercial capital, Amsterdam. Now, finally, the frontier community of New Amsterdam was beginning to look as if it might amount to something.
New Amsterdam was not only a market center. It also was the consummate company town.
The company was the Dutch West India Company, an entity controlled by a collection of prosperous burghers who persuaded the Dutch government to grant them a monopoly on trade with West Africa and the Americas and the right to colonize territories. One such territory included the pristine slice of land that ran south from present-day Albany through the island of Manhattan. New Netherland encompassed lands on either bank of the Hudson, as well as choice sections of what later would become New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut. Dutch colonists were scattered through Manhattan, Long Island, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, as well as up the Hudson River, where the town of Beverwyck (later known as Albany) was a nucleus for the growing communities of Schenectady, Catskill, and Wiltwyck.
Whether colonists arrived as employees of the Company, sold it the products of their land, or shopped for tools at its store, they all depend upon it for survival. In exchange, though, the Company had always taken care to provision its colonists— unlike, say, the English, whose ill-equipped settlers first landed in Virginia in 1607 and, faced with famine, choked down snakes, leather boots, and sometimes each other. To the Dutch, food mattered. In 1625, immediately after the first vessels reached Manhattan, three ships followed with more than one hundred head of hogs, sheep, cows, and horses destined for Company farms. En route, each animal had a private, sand-cushioned stall and an individual handler who “attends to it and knows what he is to get if he delivers it alive.” There would be no “starving times” for New Netherland.
Close by the waterfront, on Winkelstraet, or Shop Street, the Company built a full block of brick warehouses, five under one roof, which it supplemented with a cavernous packinghouse that commanded a perfect view of all harbor traffic. Other nearby warehouses belonged to the town’s most successful private merchants. These buildings functioned in the same way as those that crowded the ancient seaports of Holland. With their stately red-roofed facades, they would easily have fit in on the Heerengracht, the grandest canal in Amsterdam. Their imposing heft appeared somewhat discordant in a town that had just finished cutting stones for its first paved street. But that did not matter. The colony’s commercial drive would not be thwarted by a lack of refined conditions.
Copyright © 2006 by Jean Zimmerman
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