As we saw in “The Spanish Century,” during the early 16th century France paid the explorers Giovanni Verrazano and Jacques Cartier to look for a “Northwest Passage” through North America to Asia, but they didn’t find one. Cartier even tried to start a colony, but it failed. From the time of Cartier, the French called Canada “New France,” although for at least fifty years almost no French people actually lived there successfully.
Then France tried to start several colonies as refuges for the Huguenots, but also as bases for their piracy of Spanish shipping. Of course Spain kept destroying these colonies. Remember that Spain founded San Augustín in Florida in order to fight French pirates more effectively; later they also founded Santa Fe (in what is now New Mexico) lest the French attempt expansion into Mexico.
France had more success in Canada. There, French merchants were succeeding in the fur trade with Native Americans, well before 1600 but out of the reach of Spanish power.
After Spain was weakened by the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588, France tried to found colonies again. They tried several times beginning in 1598, and eventually they succeeded with a colony known as Acadia.
The most famous colony of New France was Quebec, founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. Like most other early colonies, Quebec struggled for many years, and its population stayed below a thousand for many decades. (The drawing on the right, from just about 1608, shows Champlain’s home in Quebec.)
Mainly, the colonists of Quebec traded for fur. In order to purchase fur from the Native Americans, Quebec made an alliance with the Algonquin and Huron peoples, who used the guns they acquired from the French to attack the Iroquois peoples further south.
In the colonial period, the Iroquois’ main enemies were Algonquians and the Hurons. There were actually many kinds of Algonquians, including the Mahican, Mohegan, Massachusett, and Wampanoag peoples—all of those will play a role in American history. The Hurons were originally an Iroquois tribe, but they broke away in order to trade with the French. Originally the Huron didn’t even hunt the beaver: they traded food for beaver skins with Indians living to the north and west, and then traded the beaver for manufactured goods from the French.
Meanwhile, just a little south of Quebec, in the Hudson River Valley, the Netherlands also started colonies known as “New Netherland.”
In the 17th century, the Dutch had a huge global empire, dominating trade in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, and on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, including the slave and sugar trades. In one year, Dutch pirates (financed by capitalist investors) captured the entire Spanish fleet of silver from the New World. The Dutch had colonies in Brazil, the West Indies, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia: New Netherland in North America was just one of many Dutch colonies, and not one of the more profitable ones.
New Netherland began after 1609, when an English sailor working for the Dutch, Henry Hudson, looking for a Northwest Passage, rediscovered Manhattan Island and the river now named the Hudson River.
As soon as Henry Hudson had explored the region, Dutch traders began to move into the Hudson River Valley to buy beaver fur from the Native Americans. Unlike the Spanish and French, the Dutch did not bring missionaries or try to convert the Native Americans; unlike the English, they didn’t even claim they would. They were interested in making money!
The first official Dutch colony in North America was founded a few years later in 1613, way up the Hudson River. It was called Fort Orange and Beverwyck, Dutch for “Beaver Town,” and today it is known as Albany (and it is the capital of the State of New York). On the right is a map of the Hudson River Valley from 1635. (It was originally oriented with North on the right, but I’ve spun it so that North is on the top, the way most maps are nowadays.) You can find New Amsterdam and Fort Orange. If you know what to look for, you can see Long Island. Note also the beaver. Why would the map show beaver?
The Dutch West India Company was founded a little later. This was a joint-stock company, a very important concept in American history. Earlier in history, businesses were owned by families, or at most small groups of families. But in the 17th century, the Dutch capitalists pioneered a new form of business organization, the joint-stock company, which could be owned by hundreds or thousands of different investors. Having so many investors enabled a company to begin its enterprises with a huge amount of capital, the money that businesses need to start new projects (or the money that a new business needs in order to get started). Projects that would have been too expensive for previous business models to try became affordable—and sometimes very profitable! Establishing colonies in faraway lands to dominate their trade is exactly the sort of project that a joint-stock company could hope to do. The Dutch East India Company, which dominated the trade between Europe and Indonesia, was one of the most profitable companies in the history of the world. Later, the British East India Company would even manage to conquer India!
With institutions like joint-stock companies and a national bank, the Dutch were inventing “capitalism.” The Spanish colonies of the 16th century had sent so much silver and gold into the world; the slave trade and sugar trade had generated even more wealth. Previously in history, most wealth was hoarded or spent, but Europeans, and especially the Dutch, increasingly began using their wealth as capital: they invested it in new business projects, and thus they created more wealth, most of which they again invested in other business projects…. Over the past few hundred years, this capitalist cycle of investment, profit, and reinvestment has greatly enriched the world, and the seventeenth-century Dutch were on the cutting edge of it. (As we’ll see, the English weren’t far behind.)
The Dutch West India Company hoped to be as successful in trade with the Americas. Unfortunately, although the Dutch West India Company was supposed to have a monopoly on the fur trade, Dutch traders who were active in the Hudson River valley before the company took over continued to smuggle fur for themselves, so the company lost money.
The Dutch partners in the fur trade were the Iroquois. When the Iroquois acquired firearms from the Dutch, they were better able to fight against the Huron and Algonquians, who had been getting guns from the French. We’ll see that this war between the Iroquois on one side (allied to the Dutch) and the Huron and Algonquians on the other (allied to the French) intensified in the mid-1600s.
Later, in 1625, to protect Fort Orange from attack by rival European countries, the company founded another colony at the mouth of the Hudson River, which they called New Amsterdam; today we call it New York City. (The Pilgrims had hoped to settle there in 1620, but hadn’t been able to make it.)
A famous legend tells that the Dutch bought Manhattan Island from the local Native Americans for $24 worth of beads; it seems that there was some kind of trade, but the details are unknown, and we also don’t know what the Native Americans thought the trade involved, since they didn’t have the European system of land ownership. Anyway, New Amsterdam attracted a lot more migrants than Fort Orange, who started farms and also participated in the trade in beaver fur. At first, this colony was limited to the southern tip of Manhattan, where Battery Park and the Financial District are today. Not until the 19th-century did New York City start to become the giant we know today.
As the French and Dutch established Acadia, Quebec, and New Netherland, to the south the English established Jamestown.
Index to Jonathan's Guide to US History
Index to Jonathan's Guides