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The Dutch heritage of New York

The Dutch heritage of New York

For being such a diminutive country, the Netherlands sure has left a disproportionately large footprint on the world throughout the centuries. The Dutch language has influenced a number of words in English, and the people have left their mark in the form of Dutch place names around the world, in cities like New York. But how exactly did this happen?

The Dutch history of New York

From the 17th century onwards, Dutch explorers and colonists founded settlements on many continents across the globe and used place names from back home to add some familiarity to a strange new world. If you've been to modern-day  New York it can be difficult to believe that it all started out as a humble Dutch trading post of the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC) - but that's exactly what happened, and that history has certainly left its mark on the city.

Welcome to New Amsterdam

In 1625, Dutch settlers founded Nieuw-Amsterdam as the capital of Nieuw-Nederland on the island of Manna-hata, which according to the Native Americans meant "island of many hills." An Englishmen working for the Dutch turned the Native American name into Manhattan.

It was a location chosen for strategic reasons, large enough to be able to sustain the population and small enough to be defended by a fort. For a trading post it was a prime location as well, being close to both the ocean and rivers going inland.

Misunderstanding, theft or honest purchase?

How the Dutch acquired the island of Manhattan depends on which side you ask. The Dutch reported buying it for trade goods worth 60 guilders or 24 dollars from the Native American Lenape tribe.

However, the Lenape did not believe in private ownership of land. They did believe in giving gifts for favours done. The Lenni Lenape, one of the tribes living on the island at the time, interpreted the trade goods from the Dutch as gifts given in appreciation for the right to share the land.

The Lenape did not realise that the Dutch meant to claim the lands for their exclusive use, a situation that the Dutch exploited throughout the region.

Growth of the city of Nieuw-Amsterdam

The first buildings erected by the Dutch were all wooden, except for the WIC headquarters which was made from stone. It housed the very valuable beaver pelts before they were shipped back to the old world. Beaver pelts were very fashionable in Europe at the time and a lucrative import business to be in.

Fort Amsterdam was built to protect the harbour against marauders, and soon after a church and a couple of windmills were added.

Administering the Dutch colony proved to be a major challenge, and the English exerted more and more pressure because they were not happy the area had been claimed by the Dutch. The English began to realise that the strategic location was important for the further colonisation of the continent.

By the 1650s, the colony of Nieuw-Netherlands had survived wars, political turmoil and external threats. As the population grew, the wooden cabins were replaced by the typical red brick Dutch buildings with their trademark facades. The colony covered parts of modern-day New York, Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Dutch use of slave labour

Slave labour was instrumental in the rise of Nieuw-Amsterdam and Nieuw-Nederland. The first African slaves arrived in 1624 and were used as labourers on farms to construct Fort Amsterdam. They were owned by the WIC, which was responsible for bringing them to the Dutch colony.

The English take over Manhattan

The pressure from the English increased even more during the late 1650s, both politically and militarily. In 1664, the English conquered the fort with four frigates and 300 to 450 men. On September 8, 1664, the Dutch reign in North America ended. The English renamed Nieuw-Amsterdam New York after the Duke of York. Dutch names Nassau Street New York

At this time, Nieuw-Nederland had about 6.000 inhabitants, 1.500 of which lived in Nieuw-Amsterdam. Forty percent of the city's population were slaves from Africa.

Traces of Dutch founders in modern-day New York

The traces of the Dutch founders have largely disappeared from New York, but there are still remnants from later settlers such as the 17th-century Wyckhoff House in Brooklyn and the 18th-century Dyckman House on Manhattan island.

However, the Dutch legacy can clearly be seen in the large number of Dutch, Dutch-related or derived place names around the city.

Some Dutch place names in New York:

  • Battery Island (a batterij or battery of cannons was once stationed here)
  • Bronx (New York, after Jonas Bronck)
  • Broadway (Manhattan, after Breede Wegh which means broad road)
  • Brooklyn (New York, after Breukelen)
  • Bushwick (Brooklyn, after Boswijk)
  • Coney Island (Brooklyn, after Konijneneiland which means Rabbit Island)
  • Cornelia Street (Manhattan, after Cornelia Herring)
  • Dutch Kills (Queens, any local names ending in Kill are of Dutch origin)
  • Dutch Street (Manhattan)
  • Flushing (Queens, after Vlissingen)
  • Gravesend (Brooklyn, after 's Gravesande)
  • Greenwich Village (Manhattan, after Grenen wijk)
  • Harlem (New York, after Haarlem)
  • Hells Gate (New York, after Helle Gadt, referring to dangerous currents in the East River)
  • Hempstead (New York, after Heemstede)
  • Holland Tunnel, Holland Avenue
  • Long Island (New York, after "Lange Eylandt" named by Adriaen Block, 1614)
  • Nassau Street (Manhattan)
  • New Dorp (Staten Island, dorp means village)
  • New Utrecht Avenue (Brooklyn)
  • Rhode Island (after "Roodt eylandt" which means Red Island)
  • Spuyten Duyvil Creek (after Spuitende Duivel or Spitting Devil, referring to dangerous currents)
  • Staten Island (after Staten Generaal)
  • Wall Street (Manhattan, after the city wall around Nieuw-Amsterdam)
  • Yonkers (after Jonker, Jonkheer and jonge Heer)

Dutch origins of New York place names

The Bronx, Brooklyn, Broadway, Harlem, Wall Street, Long Island - these and many more New York place names are known all over the world thanks to American television shows, films, music and the dominant global American culture they’re part of- and now you know we have the Dutch to thank for them!

All this means that NY rappers making local references and any TV shows or movies set in New York are actually exposing the Dutch origins of the city!

Have you stumbled across a Dutch-sounding name somewhere in the world where you least expected it? Let us know in the comments below.

Thomas Lundberg

Author

Thomas Lundberg

Born as a Swede in the Netherlands, this life-long expat has spent his time in Belgium, the United States and Amsterdam. He began his professional career as a regional news...

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Tom Schryer 11:25 | 11 October 2018

Coney Island is also on what the Dutch called Schryer's Hook, The Schreierstoren in Amsterdam (Holland) is essentially on Schryer Houck & was built in 1487 & is still in use; Henry Hudson set sail on his journey to Northern America from the The Schreierstoren and that expedition led to the discovery of the island of Manhattan among others. Schryers/Schreyers/etc. still live near Coney Island & thrive in the NYC area.

Jeff Novich 00:51 | 18 August 2019

What about Bergen? Bergen St in Brooklyn (also a stop on the F train) and Bergen, a beach city 30 min north of Amsterdam

Alan Grigoletto 22:54 | 12 October 2019

As a former born and bred New Yorker I loved this article. As a child of the 60's I remember our history classes covering the Dutch settlers in New York (New Amsterdam) and the places like these plus Red Hook (Roode Hoek) and words like stoop (Stoep) that remain in NY lexicon today.

Daniel Israel 20:28 | 13 September 2022

Very interesting indeed. A few additions if I may: a terrific book called New York New Amsterdam is worth delving into. While in NYC I noticed street signs named after well known wealthy Dutch individuals of yesteryear, i e. Stuyvesant; known in the Netherlands more recently as a tobacco brand, and Knickerbocker, which, funnily enough, has become associated with a deluxe layered ice cream sundae. Lastly, there's New Amsterdam beer, which I spotted in Manhattan.