Dealing with Refugees in 17th c. Manhattan

By Mark Meuwese


Recently, refugees from the Middle East have become a controversial topic of discussion in American media and politics. According to the New York-based Donald Trump, currently seeking the nomination with the Republican Party for the presidential election of 2016, the United States should not allow any Muslim refugees into the country. Several commentators and historians have rightly pointed out that heated debates about refugees are unfortunately nothing new. Indeed, two dramatic episodes concerning the treatment of refugees can be found in the history of the early seventeenth-century Dutch colony of New Netherland.

A portrait of Willem Kieft made sometime after his death. (It is unclear what he looked like.)

A portrait of Willem Kieft made sometime after his death. (It is unclear what he looked like.)

The first episode took place in the winter of 1643. The refugees in question were the Tappan and Wecquaesgeeks, two groups of Algonquian-speaking Indigenous peoples from the lower Hudson valley. Since 1640, Dutch-Indigenous relations had become tense following the attempt of the colonial government, based on the southern tip of Manhattan in Fort Amsterdam, to impose a tax on the Algonquian communities living in the vicinity of Manhattan. When a Wecquaesgeek man murdered a Dutch settler in 1641, the colonial council, chaired by director Willem Kieft, held a special meeting with prominent settlers to deliberate how to respond. A decision was made to punish the Wecquaesgeeks in a future expedition. In March 1642, the impatient Kieft dispatched eighty men on a night raid against the Wecquaesgeek village. Although this expedition failed to locate the village, the Wecquaesgeeks were sufficiently intimidated that they negotiated a truce with Dutch officials. In the meantime, tensions between the Dutch and other Algonquian peoples in the lower Hudson valley had increased following other unresolved murders and thefts.

In February 1643, Kieft and the colonial council received news that the Wecquaesgeeks as well as the Tappans, another Algonquian group, had sought refuge in and around Manhattan Island. The two Algonquian groups had recently been attacked by unidentified Indigenous peoples from the upper Hudson valley who reportedly killed and captured a large number of Wecquaesgeeks and Tappans. Believing that they had made a truce with the Dutch, the Wecquaesgeeks asked for food and shelter. Instead of defusing the chaotic situation by supplying aid to the Indian refugees, Kieft as well as a number of settlers concluded that this was a great opportunity to finally punish the Wecquaesgeeks and to intimidate the other Algonquian groups in the region. On February 25, 1643, two groups of soldiers and militia men approached the unsuspecting refugee camps at Pavonia, across from Manhattan Island, and at Corlaer’s Hook on the East River. According to the few surviving accounts, the refugees were attacked in their sleep by the Dutch soldiers and armed settlers. More than one hundred and twenty Wecquaesgeeks and Tappans were massacred by the Dutch forces. The two massacres alarmed and enraged the survivors and the other Algonquian peoples in the region who were closely connected by kinship ties to the Wecquaesgeeks and Tappans. From the spring of 1643 until the summer of 1645 the Dutch colony was plunged into a devastating Indian war that Dutch officials and some settlers had brought upon themselves.

Image from New York Public Library Digital Collection

Image from New York Public Library Digital Collection

The second episode of refugees in New Netherland history took place ten years after the end of ‘Kieft’s War’ and concerns the fairly well-known ordeal of a small group of twenty-three Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam in the fall of 1654. The Jews, consisting of several families, were refugees from Recife, the capital of the Dutch colony in northeastern Brazil, which had been re-captured by the Portuguese in January 1654. Recife had been home to a large Jewish community during the previous two decades of Dutch colonial rule. Because Jews played a prominent role as tax collectors, interpreters, and traders in Dutch-controlled Brazil, the colonial government in Recife granted the Jews religious and social rights that were unprecedented in the Americas and Europe. However, once the Portuguese retook Recife and forced the surrender of Dutch Brazil in January 1654, the large Jewish community quickly left Brazil for fear of persecution. While most Jews relocated to the Dutch Republic and the Caribbean, a small group of refugees ended up in New Netherland.

Petrus Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony, was unhappy with the arrival of the refugees. Stuyvesant was concerned that the refugee families would only be the first of many other Jewish families. Moreover, the sudden arrival of Jews in New Netherland was seen as a danger to the religious and social stability of the fledgling colony. Johannes Megapolensis, the Dutch Reformed minister based in New Amsterdam, also feared that the presence of the Jews would cause religious and social unrest in the Protestant colony. The objections of Megapolensis and Stuyvesant were rejected, however, by the directors of the Amsterdam Chamber of the West India Company (WIC). The Company directors had received an important petition from the sizeable Jewish community in Amsterdam in January 1655. This formal request asked the directors to admit the Jewish refugees a safe haven in New Netherland. The prominent Jewish community of Amsterdam reminded the Company directors that the Jews in Brazil had always been loyal to the WIC. Additionally, the petition hinted that the large Jewish community from Brazil with its valuable commercial networks stretching across the Atlantic world could relocate to English and French Caribbean colonies rather than those controlled by the WIC if the Dutch did not allow the Jewish refugees into New Netherland. Since the WIC was still recovering from the recent loss of its Brazilian colony, the Amsterdam directors were concerned about losing access to the valuable Jewish community of the Atlantic world. The WIC directors were especially eager to have the former Jewish community in Recife to pay back outstanding debts to the Company that dated back to the time that many Jews had been tax collectors in Brazil. Finally, the Amsterdam directors were also swayed by humanitarian concerns. In the instructions to Stuyvesant, they wrote the Director-General to accept the Jewish refugees into the colony since many of them had experienced great hardships following the loss of Dutch Brazil.


Although the Jewish refugees were thus eventually allowed to stay in New Netherland, the WIC restricted some of their activities. The Jews were permitted to reside in the Dutch colony and participate in commercial activities. However, the WIC directors in Amsterdam prohibited the Jews from practicing their religion in public. In 1655, the Jews were also restricted from participating in the civic militia of the colony. According to Stuyvesant, this constraint was justified because it followed the civic codes of the city of Amsterdam which also prohibited the Jews there from membership in the city’s militia. In the face of these restrictions, it is not surprising that the small Jewish refugee community did not stay long in New Amsterdam. As historian Evan Haefeli points out in his recent study of religious toleration in New Netherland, by the time of the English conquest of the Dutch colony in 1664, only one Jewish family remained in New Amsterdam. Moreover, this family originated not from the original twenty-three refugees from Brazil but had come over to New Netherland from Amsterdam sometime after 1655.

As these two episodes in New Amsterdam’s history illustrate, the Dutch colony in New North America did not receive refugees with open arms. The Dutch viewed New Netherland as a vulnerable colony that needed to be vigorously protected against any perceived threats from within and without. Although New Netherland is sometimes held up as a place of religious toleration, the brutal treatment of the Indian refugees and the hostile reception of the Jews shows that the seventeenth-century Dutch colonists could be as intolerant of religious and cultural ‘others’ as theirEuropean counterparts in the New World.

Mark Meuwese, Associate Professor of History, University of Winnipeg. He is currently working on a study of massacres in the Dutch colonial world.

Further reading:
The massacres of the Wecquaesgeeks and Tappans as well as ‘Kieft’s War’ in general are discussed in Allen W. Trelease, Indian Affairs in Colonial New York: The Seventeenth Century (1960) (reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press, 1997); Willem Frijhoff, Fulfilling God’s Mission: The Two Worlds of Dominie EverardusBogardus, 1607-1647 (Leiden: Brill, 2007); Paul Otto, The Dutch-Munsee Encounter in America: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Hudson Valley (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006); Donna Merwick, The Shame and the Sorrow: Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Robert S. Grumet, The Munsee Indians: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009); Tom Arne Midtrod, The Memory of All Ancient Customs: Native American Diplomacy in the Colonial Hudson Valley (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

The ordeal of the Jewish refugees in New Netherland has been most recently examined in Evan Haefeli, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) and Jaap Jacobs, The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).