Why New Yorkers Don’t Speak Dutch

Entering now my third summer living in the Netherlands, I continuously remain fascinated by the Dutch, their culture, their history. In earlier blogs, I’ve commented on differences between Americans and Dutch in food, customs, world view, and, especially, language. Now I find myself turning a page in my Dutch “education” as I discover just how closely our two countries’ histories were once entwined, and but for a few twists of fate, Americans would be speaking Dutch, not English.

Every American student learns that the Dutch bought Manhattan Island from Native Americans for a few dollars’ worth of trinkets in what was most likely the first land swindle in New World history.  But here we also have the first New World historical “gloss-over”: at least the Dutch negotiated with and paid the Indians for the land; the other Europeans involved in the New World land-grab simply seized whatever amount of property they wanted, not blinking an eye if the land was already inhabited, nor if they killed a few (or hundreds) of the  Indian inhabitants in the process. But I digress.


By the early 1600s, the Dutch had become one of the economic “super powers” of the western world in terms of trade, ship-building and navigation.  As did most of the sea-faring countries of Western Europe, Dutch explorers sought a western sea passage to the East Indies in hopes of enhancing their trading prowess. And like Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Sweden, the Dutch found themselves in the New World Americas and decided to claim a slice as their own.


The Dutch ruled their small parcel of the New World for only 50-odd years, but, what they controlled was prime real estate. The flag of the Dutch Republic (a.k.a. the Republic of the Seven United Provinces) at one time flew over swathes of coastal land ranging from southwestern Cape Cod, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland; inland up the Delaware River into Pennsylvania; and from Long Island up both sides of the Hudson River to Albany, New York. The capital of New Netherland was, of course, New Amsterdam where the familiar horizontally-striped orange, white and blue flag greeted the Dutch trading ships as they entered the vast harbor.



Unlike most of the early settlers of North America, the Dutch did not come to avoid religious or political persecution in the home country or to colonize and acquire land for their country. In a remarkable combination of Calvinism and capitalism the Dutch came to make money – and every guilder of profit went straight back to the coffers of the Dutch West India Company, which funded and ran the settlements in New Netherland. While the WIC kept a tight rein on their colonial business interests, the colonists themselves brought with them the very uniquely Dutch attitudes of tolerance for religion, pluralism and civil liberties (such as they were in the 17th century). The population of New Amsterdam was a mixture of Dutch from differing economic levels, other Europeans and English, and African slaves, many of whom were able to earn their freedom long before that practice was permitted in other New World colonies. (When the New Netherland fell to the English in 1664, the WIC freed all the slaves before surrendering their colony.)

The 17th century Dutch were largely anti-monarchist and turned their noses up at nobility and inherited wealth and power – but not because they disdained wealth. The Dutch valued far more the individual who worked hard, showed “smarts”, was frugal even if wealthy, and, most importantly, earned their wealth. In other words, individual achievement mattered far more than inheritance and birthright. Sound familiar?

The Dutch also had a different attitude toward the discovery and claiming of new lands.  The English (and other Europeans) had a sweeping set of parameters for claiming new territories that totally ignored those people already inhabiting the land. If an Englishman simply set foot on uninhabited land (or inhabited by peoples the English deemed “uncivilized”), they not only claimed that immediate land, but all lands contiguous to the original footfall of the first (English) explorer. Thus, by first having set foot in Newfoundland in 1497, the English believed they had the claim to the entire North American continent.  Hence England, France, and Spain’s “manifest destiny” form of “exploration” was more akin to a “hostile” corporate takeover, albeit on a global scale.

However, in the Dutch mind (and law), an explorer couldn’t legally claim a land until after they’d explored, charted and settled the land. (This, of course, didn’t stop the Dutch from sometimes going to war with another country and seizing its overseas “assets” as opportunity rose, as in Indonesia.)

Thus, the Dutch and English were on a collision course as to who would control the mid-Atlantic and northeast America.  Alas, the English colonists of New England, ever greedy despite their Puritan beliefs, began to encroach inexorably upon the very sketchy borders of New Netherland, as thousands of new settlers poured in from England.  It didn’t help that several kings of England continually signed charters, blithely giving away huge chunks of eastern North America to cronies. Skirmishes escalated, diplomatic haggling failed, and the two countries descended into actual warfare.

The death knell for New Amsterdam came in 1664, when British war frigates entered the harbor and aimed their guns on the Dutch population. The Dutch were no dummies; they surrendered after the provincial governor, Peter Stuyvesant, negotiated an agreement protecting basic rights of the colonists of New Netherland, and New Amsterdam was rechristened New York.  (While the British did honor the agreement somewhat, allowing freedom of religion and basic civil liberties for Dutch settlers in (now) New York and the Hudson river Valley, considerable pillaging took place in Dutch settlements in Delaware, and many Dutch were killed or sold into slavery in Virginia.) And, we all know what transpired over the next 110 years: English dominance ensured that the basic identity of eastern America would forever be “Anglo.”

It’s a well-known fact that the victor writes the history books, so it’s no wonder that the history of the Dutch in America is not better known among the general public. While I make no claims that my summation approaches an exhaustive history, the point of this article is to give some background to the observation several historians have made: However short a time they ruled, the Dutch had a profound effect on what became the city of New York, as well as the foundation of the United States. The Dutch infused Anglo-American colonials with the principles that a person’s value had more to do with his work ethics and achievement, rather than birthright, and the concepts of civil liberties and religious freedom, principles that became basic precepts in the founding of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution more than a hundred years after the Dutch surrender of New Amsterdam.

My next blog will give some examples of how much Dutch influence, particularly place names, has remained intact, particularly in the New York area, and in some strange ways, as well. But I think you all will be rather surprised at how the one word that transcends language yet defines Americans world-wide actually came from the Dutch.

It’s just too bad that Americans never learned to make Dutch cheese….





One thought on “Why New Yorkers Don’t Speak Dutch

  1. Nice post…very well written. I have done research for a similar future post on my Dutch family genealogy website. Your post confirms a lot of that research and more. Excellent mini-lesson on US History and the Dutch. I am part Dutch (1/2 Dutch & 3rd generation immigrant from the homeland) and very proud of it!

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