History of Holland > New Amsterdam history (New York) > Willem Kieft

Willem Kieft

A dreary winter came and went, and just as the first signs of spring showed in the fields that closed about fort Amsterdam, a ship sailed up the bay, bringing a stranger to the province.

This was William Kieft, the new Governor of New Netherland.

He was a blustering man, who became very angry when anyone disagreed with him, and who very soon was known as "William the Testy." He made no effort to make the Indians his friends, and the result was that much of his rule of 10 years was a term of bloody warfare.

The affairs of the Company had been sadly neglected by Governor Van Twiller, and Governor Kieft, in a nervous, testy, energetic fashion set about remedying them. The fort was almost in ruins from neglect. The church was in little better condition. The mills were so out of repair that even if the wind could have reached them they could not have been made to do their work properly. There were smugglers who carried away furs without even a thought of the koopman, who was waiting to record the duties which should have been paid on them. There were those who defied all law and order, and sold guns and powder and liquor to the Indians, regardless of the fact that the penalty for doing so was death. For guns and liquor had been found to be dangerous things to put in savage hands.

Governor Kieft rebuilt the houses, put down all smugglers, and set matters in New Amsterdam in good working order generally. The patroon system of peopling the colony had proven a total failure. So, soon after Kieft came, the "West Indische Compagnie" (Dutch West India Company) decided on another plan. They furnished free passage to anyone who promised to cultivate land in the new country. In this way there would be no patroons to act as masters. Each man would own his land, and could come and go as he saw fit. This brought many colonists.

At this time there were really only two well-defined roads on the Island of Manhattan. One stretched up through the island and led to the outlying farms and afterward became The Bowery; the second led along the water-side, and is today Pearl Street. Bowling Green, although it was not called Bowling Green then, was the open space in front of the fort where the people gathered on holidays. In the fourth year of Governor Kieft's rule, he conceived the idea of holding fairs in this open space, where fine cows and fat pigs could be exhibited. These fairs attracted so many visitors from distant parts of the colony, that the Governor had a large stone house built, with a roof running up steep to a peak, in regular, step-like form. This was called a tavern, and could accommodate all the visitors. In after years it became the first City Hall.

If you wish to stand where this building was, you must go to the head of Coenties Slip, in Pearl Street. On the building which is there now you will see a bronze tablet which tells all about the old Stadt Huys.

The church that Walter Van Twiller had built was little better than a barn. The minister wanted a new one. So did his congregation. Governor Kieft decided that there should be one of stone, and that it should be built inside the fort. There was a question as how to secure the money to build it. Kieft gave a small amount, as did other colonists, but there was not enough. Fortunately, just at this time, a daughter of Bogardus, the minister, was married. At the wedding, when the guests were in good humor, a subscription-list was handed out. The guests tried to outdo one another in subscribing money for the new church. Next day some of the subscribers were sorry they had agreed to give so much, but the Governor accepted no excuses and insisted on the money. It was collected, and the church was built. Close upon this time Kieft decided that he needed money for other work, and he told the Indians of the province that he expected something from them. Of course the Indians had no such money as we have in these days. They used instead beads, very handsome and made from clam-shells. These beads were arranged on strings. There were black ones and white ones, and the black were worth twice as much as the white. The Indians did not see why they should give money to the Governor. Kieft explained that it was to pay for the protection given to them by the Dutch. Then the Indians understood less than ever, for the Dutch had never done anything for them except to give them as little as they could for their valuable furs. The Indians hated Kieft, and this act of his made their hatred more bitter. A war-cloud was gathering. The Indians were well prepared for war, for they had been supplied with guns, with bullets, and with powder by those greedy Dutchmen, the smugglers, who thought more of their personal gains than of the safety of the colonists.

Over on Staten Island about this time, an Indian stole several hogs from a colonist. Kieft's soldiers found the tribe to which the Indian belonged, and in revenge killed 10 Indian warriors. After this the war-cloud grew darker.

Kieft was anxious that there should be war. But there were many of the colonists who did all in their power to prevent it. The men who wanted peace were headed by that able sailor, Captain David Pietersen De Vries, who had founded a colony on Staten Island. A council of twelve men was formed to decide whether there should be peace or war. This council declared that there should be no war. They then began to look into public affairs, for they thought it all wrong that Kieft should have the only voice in the management. The Governor regretted having called together the twelve men. But he soon got rid of them, and to show that he was still absolute ruler, he decided to make war upon the Indians. Then the war-cloud broke.

Those Indians who lived nearest New Amsterdam were fighting with another tribe called the Mohawks. The nearby Indians thought that since Kieft had been paid to protect them, he should do so now. So they gathered, some on the Island of Manhattan, and some on the nearby shore of New Jersey. But instead of protecting them, Kieft sent his soldiers against these friendly Indians, and in the night killed them as they slept. The soldiers came so suddenly upon the Indians, sleeping peacefully on the Jersey shore, and slew them so quickly in the darkness, that the Indians believed they had been attacked by the unfriendly tribe. One Indian, with his squaw, made his way to the fort. He was met at the gate by De Vries. "Save us," he cried, "the Mohawks have fallen upon us, and have killed all our people." But De Vries answered, sadly, "No Indian has done this. It is the Dutch who have killed your people." And he pointed toward the deep woods close by. "Go there for safety, but do not come here."

This was not war. It was murder. A cruel, treacherous act, which the greater number of colonists condemned and the record of which is a dark stain on the memory of William Kieft.

After this, all the Indians within the border of New Netherland combined. Colonists were shot as they worked in the fields. Cattle were driven away. Houses were robbed and burned. Women and children were dragged into captivity. The war raged fiercely for three years. By this time Indians and colonists were worn out. Then the war ended. But scarcely a hundred men were left on the Island of Manhattan. The country was a waste.

A strong fence had been built across the island, to keep what cattle remained within bounds. This fence marked the extreme limit of the settlement of New Amsterdam. The fence in time gave place to a wall, and when in still later years the wall was demolished and a street laid out where it had been, the thoroughfare was called Wall Street, and remains so to this day.

While the entire province was in a very bad way, and the people suffering on every side, Governor Kieft sent to the "West Indische Compagnie" (Dutch West India Company) in the Netherlands his version of the war. He showed himself to be all in the right, and proved, to his own satisfaction, that the province was in a fairly good condition; though during all the years he had been Governor he had not once left the settlement on the Island of Manhattan to look after other parts.

Certain of the colonists also sent a report to the Netherlands. Theirs being much nearer the truth, carried such weight with it, that the "West Indische Compagnie" (Dutch West India Company) decided on the immediate recall of Governor Kieft, who had done so much injury to the colony, and had shown himself to be utterly incapable of governing.

Kieft returned to the Netherlands in a ship that was packed from stem to stern with the finest of furs. The ship was wrecked at sea. Kieft was drowned, and the furs were lost.

In the same ship was Everardus Bogardus (the minister who had married Annetje Jans), who was on his way to the Netherlands on a mission relating to his church. The people of New Amsterdam mourned for their minister, but there was little sorrow felt for the Governor who had plunged the colony in war by his obstinate and cruel temper.