The Dutch, French, and English in North America

Cityscape of New Amsterdam in 1655

Figure 8.1 Cityscape of New Amsterdam in 1655.

New Amsterdam was renowned for its multi-ethnic character and commercial orientation (see Selection 1). It played a central role in shipping furs from the interior of North America to Europe and was part of the Dutch trading network in the Atlantic World. This illustration from a map of New Netherland shows the city of New Amsterdam (modern New York City) at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Note the images of Native Americans surrounding the cityscape. What information do you think the artist was trying to convey about New Netherland by including these figures on this map?

Source credit: Courtesy of the New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections.


Europeans colonized North America at a much slower pace than South America or the Caribbean, but not because they were unaware of it. The problem was that they could find none of the gold and silver enriching the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and Peru. For more than a century after Columbus, European encounters with North America were motivated not so much by a desire to exploit the continent as to get around it. Merchants and mapmakers imagined a Northwest Passage that would carry ships into the Pacific and westward to Japan and China. Such dreams did not die easily, even as they claimed the lives and fortunes of those who pursued them.

The first Europeans to draw a profit from North America were fishing crews that set up seasonal camps in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to catch and dry the cod that swam offshore in the Grand Banks. These expeditions occasionally included contact with the native inhabitants of the region, in which the visitors exchanged manufactured goods such as cloth, kettles, and liquor for the pelts of furbearing animals. In the Southeast, the Chesapeake Bay region attracted pirates seeking a refuge from which they could launch raids against the Spanish treasure fleets in the Caribbean.

Fish, furs, and a place to hide: hardly as enticing as gold and silver. Yet the Dutch, French, and English gradually warmed to the idea of colonizing North America and in doing so, integrated it into the Atlantic World. These powers pioneered the use of joint-stock companies, which worked much like modern corporations, raising money by selling shares to investors and splitting any profits among them. Indian relations figured prominently in the success or failure of these ventures, and the Dutch, French, and English competed fiercely with each other for the native alliances that would ensure a profitable fur trade. From the start, their colonies developed close economic ties to the plantation complex in the Caribbean, opening a conduit for trade and migration from that region by which African slavery gained footholds in North America.

In describing North American colonization, it is helpful to call to mind the different models followed by the Spanish and Portuguese (see Chapter 7). While there were distinctive elements to the Dutch, French, and English endeavors, each also represented a variation on practices first pursued by the Iberian powers. The Dutch regarded North America in much the same way as the Portuguese did Brazil, as one outpost in a global trading network. Indeed, the Dutch entered the race for empire in the late sixteenth century on the heels of the Portuguese, successfully challenging their monopoly on trade with India and the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia, and then briefly controlling Portuguese possessions in Africa and Brazil in the 1630s and 1640s.

During this period of rapid overseas expansion, Amsterdam merchants formed the West India Company to oversee their commercial interests in the New World. This joint-stock venture established the colony of New Netherland in North America. The Dutch claimed a broad expanse of territory between the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers, but the heart of New Netherland was the Hudson River Valley. At the northern end, 150 miles into the continent’s interior, traders at Fort Orange (modern Albany) collected furs from the Indians. They shipped them downriver to New Amsterdam (modern New York City), a seaport that attracted a diverse group of merchants and mariners. When the French missionary Isaac Jogues visited the city in 1643, he noted that its inhabitants spoke eighteen different languages and professed six different faiths. Dutch ships sailing between Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and New Netherland carried much of seventeenth-century North America’s international trade, including the first African slaves brought to the continent. The West India Company tried to recruit settlers for New Netherland, but as long as the fur trade dominated the colony’s economy, its population remained small and transient. Squeezed by more populous colonies to the north and south, New Netherland capitulated to the English in 1664, who renamed it New York. Many Dutch mercantile families chose to remain there under English rule, and they continued to influence the cultural and economic development of this region well into the eighteenth century.

The French colonization of North America curiously blended Spanish and Portuguese precedents. As with the Spanish, missionary work among Native Americans was a central prop of French colonial power. Religious orders dedicated solely to this task made converts in Indian villages along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes waterways; when they achieved a critical mass, they resettled the Christian Indians in reserves closer to French settlements (see Chapter 4), where they formed a bulwark against the French colonists’ Native and European enemies. Unlike the Spanish, the French did not forcibly convert Natives, nor did they demand tributary labor from them. Instead, their missionary work went hand in hand with the extension of their trade. Following tactics reminiscent of the Portuguese in West Africa, French missionaries converted natives while traders intermarried with them, creating a cooperative relationship by which the newcomers extracted a valuable commodity from the continent’s interior, in this case furs rather than slaves.

The French empire in North America consisted primarily of allied Indian villages, inland forts, and the canoes that ferried people and goods between them. French colonists known as habitants worked farms in the St. Lawrence River Valley and the eastern Canadian province known as Acadia (modern Nova Scotia). French traders, soldiers, and missionaries followed the Great Lakes westward and built forts at portages between these waterways, such as Niagara, Detroit, and Michilimackinac. By the early eighteenth century, the French had navigated the Mississippi and established posts in the Illinois country and Louisiana. Yet, for all their skillful navigation of the continent’s interior, the French never achieved a stable rate of population growth in North America. The Crown encouraged and sometimes even compelled emigration to Canada, but most would-be settlers found the French sugar colonies in the Caribbean more enticing. When France and Britain went to war in 1754 for control of North America, French influence extended over far more territory, but their colonial population of 80,000 was dwarfed by the one million inhabitants of the British colonies. The French found the defense of their North American dominions untenable, and in 1763, they ceded Canada to Britain and Louisiana to Spain.

As has already been hinted at, the great advantage the English enjoyed over their imperial rivals in North America was the rapid growth of their colonial population. This would suggest that the English followed the example of the Spanish, conquering native peoples and planting settlers in their place. Early English incursions into the Chesapeake Bay did resemble Spanish entradas: small expeditions of privately financed adventurers searched for gold and silver and dealt harshly with any natives who resisted them. But unlike the Spanish, the English were reluctant to intermarry with Indians, and no equivalent of Spanish America’s mestizo population emerged in the English colonies. Instead, English migration to North America in the seventeenth century was marked by more balanced sex ratios between male and female colonists than anywhere else in the Atlantic World. The religious groups that populated New England (Puritans) and New Jersey and Pennsylvania (Quakers) tended to migrate as families, and in the temperate climate of those northern colonies, they enjoyed lower mortality rates and higher birth rates than colonists in the tropics. In the Chesapeake Bay region, early English emigration had a more skewed sex ratio, roughly six males to every female, but one that was still considerably more balanced than in Spanish America (10:1) or Brazil (20:1).

African slaves made up another significant portion of British North America’s colonial population. While every English colony recognized and sanctioned the institution of slavery, only those south of Pennsylvania developed into slave societies on the model of the plantation complex. In the Chesapeake, slaves cultivated tobacco and accounted for 40 percent of the colonial population. In South Carolina, a colony that was initially settled by planters and slaves from Barbados, slaves accounted for 60 percent of the population, making it the only colony in North America with a black majority. Like their European counterparts, Africans living in North America generally found a healthier climate than in other regions of the New World, and they achieved a positive rate of reproduction by the mid-eighteenth century, a demographic feat unmatched in any other Atlantic zone of colonization at that time.

North America’s most striking difference with the other zones of New World colonization was its failure to develop an interracial population similar to Spanish America’s mestizos or Brazil’s pardos. Only the French exhibited anything like the Iberian penchant for incorporating strangers into their colonial society by intermarriage, and sexual unions between French traders and Indian women produced a significant metis population in western Canada. The English, on the other hand, avoided such practices. In their plantation colonies, they prohibited marriage between blacks and whites, and the English colonial social order afforded little room or opportunity to people of multiracial heritage. Whereas the meeting of Africans, Indians, and Europeans in Iberian America created new interracial groups and social orders, the same encounter in North America had by 1750 produced a population sharply divided into racial categories of black, red, and white.

The readings in this chapter describe the colonization of North America from the Dutch, French, and English perspectives. In the first selection, a Dutch traveler in the late seventeenth

Map 8.1 Tire Dutch, French, and English in North America.

Dutch, French, and English zones of colonization in North America.

century comments on the ethnic diversity of New Amsterdam/New York City and its inhabitants’ relations with the local Indians. In the second, a French military officer during the 1750s compares the Christian Indians and non-Christian Indians of New France. In the third, an inhabitant of Philadelphia discusses English colonial population growth and what he sees as the future of Indians, Africans, and Europeans in North America. As you read these sources, compare them to each other and what you learned about the Spanish and Portuguese in Chapter 7. How did the Dutch, French, and English experiences parallel and diverge from each other? What factors best explain the very different ways in which Africans, Indians, and Europeans interacted with each other in North America and South America?

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