Friday, July 24, 2009

The Rivers Ran Red: Governor Kieft's Holocaust


Willem Kieft, fifth Dutch governor of New Netherland, arrived in New Amsterdam in 1638. You probably won't recognize his name. After you read what follows, you will not easily wipe the name Willem Kieft from your memory.

Kieft was by nature a blusterer and at heart a coward. For sheer barbarity, he ranks with such genocidal monsters as Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. Had there been local newspapers at the time they would surely have dubbed him the "Butcher of New Amsterdam." His brutal mass killings of the Lenapes exceeds even the cruel treatment of Indians during the gory conquest of the American West two centuries later.

Unlike the English colonies in Massachusetts and Virginia, New Netherland had been given to the West India Company, a chartered commercial enterprise, to operate as a monopoly. In charge was the company-appointed director, or "governor." For reasons unknown, the company chose Wouter Van Twiller, a young clerk in the Amsterdam office to replace the capable Peter Minuit, who would later die in a hurricane in the Caribbean in August of 1638.

"Fat and moon-faced, low of stature and dull of wit," Van Twiller demonstrated from the day of his arrival in Manhattan in 1633 with one hundred soldiers that he was out for himself. He acquired Governor's Island (a name by which it is known to this day) as his own private preserve, and other valuable properties, including Wards and Roosevelt Islands, as well as tobacco plantations in Manhattan and Brooklyn on lands that had been cleared by the Lenapes.

Among those who had arrived with Van Twiller was the cleric Dominie Everardus Bogardus, also on the company payroll. A young man in his first pastorate, Bogardus delivered thunderous sermons from his pulpit and kept many worshipers from straying—or falling asleep in church, for that matter.

Kieft Replaces Van Twiller
Kieft found a tiny settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan Island consisting of less than a hundred houses belonging to the West India Company. They were occupied by some 400 persons of assorted nationalities, mostly men on the payroll of the company.

A quarter of New Amsterdam’s buildings were “grog shops where nothing is to be got but tobacco and beer,” he noted. The East India Company’s profits from sales of alcohol were second to those from the fur trade. Portraits of Kieft, who arrived in New Netherland aboard the West India Company's ship De Haring in 1638, have not survived. He has been described as "little, fussy, fiery and avaricious." Formerly a merchant, he was chosen to clean up the administrative mess left by his haplessly incompetent predecessor, Wouter Van Twiller.

Kieft turned out to be a grafter whose cunning and greed made Van Twiller look like a novice. New Amsterdam soon discovered that Kieft was involved in shady deals that far exceeded those of his predecessor. And he exhibited an overweening antagonism to dealing with Indians.

Dutch Policies
The primary Dutch objective was to assure the continued flow of furs to their trading posts on the Hudson. They showed little interest in extending their jurisdiction beyond the palisaded walls of their settlements and trading posts. In fact, not until 1654, when they lost Brazil to the Portuguese, the Dutch had not seriously attempted to establish New Netherland as a colony. Ten years later they woild surrender it to the English.

The Indians of New Netherland fell into two linguistic stocks, the Algonquian and the Iroquoian. The Algonquians, including the Delawares, or Lenapes, were by far the largest group. They occupied the Atlantic seaboard and the Hudson Valley. Surrounding them were the Iroquoian-speaking tribes, the most famous of which were the Iroquois, or Five Nations confederacy.

Although armed conflict occasionally occurred between Indian tribes and groups, it was always for personal reasons--revenge, honor or even spoils. Once these limited goals were attained, the reason for fighting no longer existed. Last year's opponents might be next year's hunting companions. There was never insistence upon total victory or the complete annihilation of an enemy.

The Dutch saw the Algonquian-speaking Indians occupying the coastal regions and the Hudson Valley as expendable. Their value as consumers of Dutch trade goods was not enough to outweigh their ability to threaten or destroy Dutch settlements. Dutch antipathy toward the Indians of the lower Hudson Valley increased as intensive trading for furs diminished the supply of pelts. The Iroquoian Indians of the interior, on the other hand, were considered valuable and were courted because they controlled a still-vast fur supply.

Frictions Arise
On the absurd premise that the West India Company was protecting them from Mahicans and Mohawks, their fierce hereditary enemies to the north, Governor Kieft demanded a tax from the Lenapes in 1639 . He described it as a "contribution," to be paid in wampum, corn and furs. The Lenapes were understandably unhappy over the idea. Kieft, they concluded, "must be a very mean fellow to come to live in this country without being invited by them, and now wish to compel them to give him their corn for nothing."

Kieft also angered the Lenapes with an onerous decree prohibiting the sale of firearms to them, while continuing to sell guns to the Mahicans and Mohawks. The Dutch practice of allowing livestock to forage freely soon led to friction between the two groups. To the Indians, a pig running loose was a meal waiting to be taken and cooked. When word reached New Amsterdam that some hogs had disappeared from David de Vries's bouwerie, or farm, on Staten Island, Indians were suspected. De Vries had developed a relationship of mutual respect with the Raritans. In his journal, he noted that they "will do you no harm if you do them none." He warned Kieft, “These savages resemble the Italians, being very resentful.”

De Vries knew whereof he spoke. He was familiar with Indian ways. In 1631, he had established a patroonship in Lewes, Delaware, called Vriessendael and sailed back to Holland. When he returned a year later, he found the settlers massacred and their fort burned.

Also relentlessly opposing Kieft in his war policy was Dominie Bogardus. He delivered such stinging diatribes against Kieft from his pulpit that the governor often got up and left the church to avoid the torrent of personal abuse. Whenever Bogardus castigated the governor in a sermon, Kieft would order soldiers to parade outside the church with drums beating and trumpets blaring. Kieft also accused Bogardus of frequently delivering his Sunday sermon in a drunken stupor.

The Pig War
The following summer, the Raritans again refused to make a tax payment and allegedly killed more hogs on Staten Island. Kieft sent his greedy and dishonest provincial secretary Cornelis van Tienhoven and about eighty soldiers to punish the Indians. In what would become known as the "Pig War," soldiers killed several Indians, took one chief prisoner and mutilated the corpse of another. Aggressive and stupid, Kieft ordered a punitive expedition against the Raritans. A few Indians were killed and some villages were burned. He prided himself on having taught the Indians a lesson.

Kieft next issued an edict in which he encouraged the Indian tribes on Manhattan Island to attack the Raritans, their traditional enemies. In the first officially sanctioned genocide in the New World, the governor offered a bounty of ten fathoms of seawan (wampum) for every head of a Raritan Indian delivered to the fort at New Amsterdam. (A fathom was a nautical unit of measure equal to six feet.) The bounty was doubled for the head of any accused murderer.

In retaliation, the angry Raritans attacked the de Vries bouwerie, killed four settlers and set fire to buildings. (A bouwerie was a working farm with livestock, as contrasted with a plantation, which produced tobacco and other crops.) De Vries later charged that Dutch soldiers--not Indians--had killed his hogs. Later in 1641, a reclusive elderly wheelwright named Claes Swits who lived near Turtle Bay on the East River paid with his life for Kieft's hardheaded attitude. Swits, who had come to the New World with his wife and two grown sons, leased a plantation in the area that would become Harlem. Eventually, he decided that being an innkeeper offered a better life than farming. He opened a small inn. Swits was murdered by a lone young Indian in reprisal for the death of a relative at the hands of the Dutch some 15 years earlier even though he had had nothing to do with that death.

After much discussion about the wisdom of reprisal, an untested Dutch force invaded southern Westchester at night The chastened soldiers returned to New Amsterdam, having managed to get themselves thoroughly lost. In the summer of 1642, another Dutch colonist was killed by a Hackensack Indian near Pavonia (the present Jersey City). Kieft demanded that the Hackensacks give up the murderer. They refused. Biding his time, the governor decided that his only recourse would be an all-out military effort.

Because Westchester Indians had not paid their annual tribute to the warlike Mahicans, a large and well-armed Mahican raiding party came down the Hudson in 1642, "each with a gun on his shoulder." Attacking Indian villages in Westchester, they killed 17 Wiechquaeskecks and captured 70 others. About a thousand frightened and unarmed Westchester Indians sought refuge at Corlear's Hook on the East River (where the Williamsburg Bridge now stands). Other joined the Hackensacks encamped at Pavonia across the Hudson.

Governor Kieft's "Final Solution"
Anxious to rid the lower Hudson Valley of its native inhabitants, on the night of February 25, 1643, the hot-tempered Kieft vowed to "put a bit in the mouths of the savages." He launched a surprise attack on the Indians seeking safety on Manhattan Island and across the Hudson. Acting on his orders, the West India Company's soldiers indiscriminately massacred men, women and children.

David De Vries was in the New Amsterdam fort on the eve of the attack and saw the troops massing for the attack. "Let this work alone,” he told Kieft. “You will also murder our own nation, for there are none of the settlers in the open country who are aware of it.” DeVries was on the ramparts of the fort that night and saw the fires lit by the soldiers during the attack. “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 natives murdered in their sleep." The next morning the returned soldiers boasted that they “had massacred or murdered 80 Indians, and considering they had done a deed of Roman valor, in murdering so many in their sleep.”

De Vries later transcribed into his own journal an account of the carnage about triumphant soldiers returning to New Amsterdam from the opposite shore of the Hudson. An extract from a pamphlet published in the home country to alert Dutch citizens about the crimes being committed in the new colony, it told how “infants were torn from their mothers’ breasts and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents, and the pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut and stuck and pierced and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown.”

The report added: “Some came to our people in the country with their hands, some with their legs cut off, and some holding their entrails in their arms, and others had such horrible cuts and gashes, that worse than they could never happen. And these poor simple creatures, as also many of our own people, did not know any better than that they had been attacked by a party of other Indians—the Maquas. After this exploit, the soldiers were rewarded for their services, and Director Kieft thanked them by taking them by the hand and congratulating them.”

Indians who had sought refuge at Corlear's Hook were attacked with equal savagery. When it was over, about 120 Indians were dead. The heads of more than 80 victims were brought back triumphantly for display in New Amsterdam. De Vries, who had argued against the reprisal raids, was so disgusted he gave up his Staten Island farm and returned to the Netherlands.

Instead of intimidating the Indians, Kieft's carnage touched off a full-scale war that would last for another two years. Forgetting their traditional animosities, eleven Lenape groups--virtually the entire Indian population of the lower Hudson Valley--banded together in a confederation against the Dutch. Attacking without warning in the night, the Indians "killed all the men on the farm lands whom they could surprise" and "burned all the houses, farms, barns, stacks of grain and destroyed everything they could come at."

Among the dead in September of that year were Puritan New England's most famous nonconformist and freethinker, Anne Hutchinson, and six of her children and nine members of her band of followers who had settled near Eastchester on what is now Pelham Neck. They were surprised at their small colony on the west bank of the river that now bears her name and massacred in an Indian attack. Panic-stricken survivors from frontier settlements streamed into New Amsterdam, huddling behind the walls of the fort.

Kieft's authority began to crumble. Disgruntled settlers even made two attempts on his life. Only a few Dutch troops were available at the fort and about two hundred men able to bear arms against about 1,500 Lenape warriors. Dutch settlers hastily organized militia detachments that were sent on forays into Westchester with little success. They burned three abandoned Wiechquaeskeck forts and killed a few Indians.

Help from English Mercenaries
An apprehensive Kieft offered 25,000 guilders to English colonists in Connecticut for two companies of 120 volunteers and Mohegan scouts to quell the Indian uprising. He found a savior in a cruel ally: Captain John Underhill, a short-tempered, hard-drinking soldier. Banished from Massachusetts, Underhill had become a hero by leading a surprise attack on the fortified village of the warlike Pequot Indians near Mystic, Connecticut, in 1637. Between 600 and 700 besieged Indians were burned alive or shot as they tried to escape, virtually wiping out the tribe and ending what had been called "the Pequot War."

During the winter of 1643-44, Underhill and a combined Dutch and English force attacked Indian villages in Westchester, Connecticut, and on Long Island and Staten Island. Hundreds of Indians were killed or taken prisoner. Some were brought back to New Amsterdam, where an eyewitness reported that Kieft "laughed right heartily rubbing his right arm and laughing out loud" as they were tortured before being killed by his troops. Soldiers seized one Indian, "threw him down, and stuck his private parts, which they had cut off, into his mouth while he was still alive, and after that placed him on a mill-stone and beat his head off." The mother-in-law of provincial secretary Van Tienhoven amused herself by kicking the severed heads of other victims around like soccer balls.

Underhill's Anglo-Dutch force also destroyed a large Indian village in Westchester, described as one day's march northwest of Greenwich. Some authorities place the site of this village at Pound Ridge; others claim that it was located at Indian Hill in Bedford. Repeating the tactics used against the Pequots, Underhill ordered the bark huts of the village torched. Somewhere between 500 and 700 Indians, including 25 visiting Wappingers, were shot in the attack or died in the flames. In Underhill's force, only fifteen men were wounded.

Peace at Last
Underhill’s destruction of the Westchester Indian village devastated the Indians. On April 6, 1644, Kitchawanck, Wiechquaeskeck, Nochpeem and Wappinger sachems sought an armistice.
Five years of almost continuous warfare had drained energies and resources on both sides. As many as 1,600 Lenape Indians and scores of colonists were dead--but savagery had not lessened Indian hostility to the Dutch.

On August 30, 1645, chiefs of the warring tribes assembled in New Amsterdam. Oratany of the Hackensacks, Sesekemu of the Tappans, Willem of the Rechgawawancks, Mayauwetinnemin of the Nyacks, and Aepjen of the Wiecquaeskeck were among the Indian signers. In all, twenty men on both sides added their marks or signatures to a treaty agreeing to “a firm and inviolable peace” under “the blue canopy of heaven.”

Unhappy over the lost revenues caused by Kieft's wars and tired of settlers' complaints about his shortsighted policies, the West India Company's directors on the other side of the Atlantic decided to recall the unpopular governor and the controversial dominie. Months went by before the message reached New Amsterdam and arrangements could be made for replacements.

Peter Stuyvesant, Kieft's one-legged, no-nonsense replacement arrived in the spring of 1647. The colony he found was a disaster. Kieft's "land-destroying and people-expelling wars with the cruel barbarians," Stuyvesant would later report, had stripped the countryside bare of inhabitants, obliterated all but a handful of villages, and drove many settlers to leave for the home country. Kieft, drunkenly besotted with alcohol, was holed up in his decrepit fortress counting the money he had made--reputedly the equivalent of about $400,000.

Willem Kieft sailed for home on August 16, 1647, aboard the West India Company’s Princess Amalia, the same ship that had brought Peter Stuyvesant, Kieft’s no-nonsense replacement, in the spring. Armed with 38 guns, the 800-ton vessel was carrying 100 tons of red dyewood loaded in Curacao. Dominie Bogardus was a fellow passenger.

September 28 marked the final irony: After a quiet crossing, the young skipper of the Princess Amalia, 28-year-old Capt. Jan Clause Bol, made a navigation error. He mistook the Bristol Channel (also called by sailors the "False Channel") for the English Channel. Lying between Wales on the north and Devon and Somerset on the south, Bristol Channel is a treacherous body of water. To this day, ships entering it require local pilots familiar with its shoals, rocks and the vagaries of its waters.

It was a common and often fatal error. Because of its strong tides (second to the Bay of Fundy) and the scarcity of safe havens for ships, dwellers along the Welsh coast had frequent opportunities to plunder vessels in distress. The Princess Amalia ran aground on the coast of Wales, and was pounded to pieces in heavy surf. Of the 107 passengers and crew who were aboard, only 21 survived. Kieft and Bogardus both drowned. Their bitter running battle finally ended in the same unmarked watery grave.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on Westchester’s first inhabitants. The next installment will follow the Indians of the lower Hudson Valley on their westward migratory “trail of tears.”

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