The Dutch-Munsee Encounter in America: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Hudson Valley The Dutch-Munsee Encounter in America: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Hudson Valley

Donna Merwick, senior fellow at the University of Melbourne and author of  Possessing Albany: The Dutch and English Experiences, 1630-1710 (1990), and  Paul Otto, associate professor of history at George Fox University, present two distinct sides to Indian-white relations in New Netherland between 1609and 1664. Merwick’s work focuses on Dutch West India Company policies and is significantly European centered; except for his final chapter, Otto stresses events that transpired in the Hudson Valley. The two books complement each other, offering information and insights not found in the other. Otto’s last chapter makes comparisons with the Dutch-controlled Cape Colony, while Merwick, employing many more Dutch-language sources, brings out comparisons with the extensive Dutch empire in Asia, including Goa and Batavia. 


To Merwick, the Dutch West India Company initially recognized the sovereignty of the Indians, a point that she claims separated the Dutch from other European colonizers. She insists that the company’s dealings at first were not as conquistadors; its operations were carefully managed and were specifically intended to prevent violence. Merwick contends that the company’s officials did not intend or desire to “reorder the native’s construction of realities. They felt no metaphysical obligation to bring them to a Netherlandish worldview.”


Things were to change, and not simply as a result of increased population and the advance of frontiersmen in New Netherland. To Merwick, the brutality of Kieft’s War (1640-1645) and later conflagrations such as the Peach War (1655) and the two Esopus Wars (1659-1664) occurred not just because of local factors such as the personal limitations of Governor Kieft and his administration of the colony. She maintains that Dutch society in the Netherlands became overly materialistic, seeking greater and greater profits from its overseas empire, leading Hollanders to look the other way when colonial officials acted corruptly, lied to the Indians, and/or intentionally provoked racial tensions and wars. By the late 1630s onward, these colonial officials demanded tribute from the Indians, failed to regulate the actions of European settlers, and hired mercenaries (including John Underhill, “hero” of the Pequot War) to fight and massacre Indians in New Netherland. 


This is the meaning of Merwick’s book title, namely a policy that tragically succumbed to greed and resulted in wars and dispossession of native peoples. Instead of an idealized portrait of Holland’s golden age in the first half of the seventeenth century, Merwick sees a society that has fallen to temptation in its overseas adventures, resulting in militarism, intolerance, and anti-pluralism. Strangely, in presenting the tragedy, she never provides information or insights about the victims, namely the Munsees and Mahicans. Moreover, she never discusses the multiethnic (not just Dutch) reality of the colony that was a factor in shaping New Netherland’s destiny, including its relations with the Indians. 


In contrast, Otto recognizes the cultural diversity of the colony and, despite a paucity of documents, he reconstructs the Munsees’ rapidly changing world of the seventeenth century. Otto describes the Munsees as diverse native peoples who varied in their relations with and accommodation to the colonists. Instead of writing in vague terms about the four Indian wars in New Netherland, Otto documents the body count. At least 1,600Munsee men, women, and children perished in Kieft’s War. Unlike Merwick, he states that Dutch Indian policies were not unique, but were “typical of European-Indian relations elsewhere.” In contrast, he adds that governors from Verhulst to Stuyvesant never recognized Munsee sovereignty over the Indians’ natural resources; however, he also shows that the Dutch had few qualms about miscegenation and did not focus their efforts on Christianizing. Otto recognizes the multiethnic reality of European existence in New Netherland. Unlike Merwick, he mentions Thomas Chambers, the prominent Englishman and founder of Wiltwijck (Kingston), and his role in precipitating the First Esopus War. 


Much of what Otto presents is already familiar to scholars of Native American history since he draws much from the extensive writings of anthropologist Robert Grumet. However, his book could be useful to a general audience since it is better written and updates Allen Trelease’s Indian Affairs in Colonial New York: The Seventeenth Century (1960). His treatments of Hudson’s interaction with the Indians and the Dutch purchase of Manhattan, his up–to-date portraits of the Dutch governors and their Indian policies, and his accurate ethnographic descriptions of the Munsees could be especially useful to teachers at different levels. Yet, the definitive work on the native peoples of the Hudson Valley and environs still needs to be written. One can only hope that the long-awaited book by Robert Grumet—based on his thirty-five years of research—will fill this gap in Native American history.




—Laurence M. Hauptman, SUNY New Paltz.