Adriaen van der Donck

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The Patroon System

Colen Donck ( Yonkers, New York)

Directors-General of New Netherland:

Cornelius Jacobsen Mey (1620-1625)
Willem Verhulst (1625-26)
Peter Minuit (1626-33)
Wouter van Twiller (1633-38)
Willem Kieft (1638-47)
Peter Stuyvesant (1647-64)

Influential people

Adriaen van der Donck
Kiliaen van Rensselaer
Brant van Slichtenhorst
Cornelis van Tienhoven

Portrait of Adriaen van der Donck
Portrait of Adriaen van der Donck

Adriaen Cornelissen van der Donck (ca. 1618 – 1655) was a lawyer and landowner in New Netherland after whose honorific Jonkheer the city of Yonkers, New York is named. In addition to being the first lawyer in the Dutch colony, he was a leader in the political life of New Amsterdam (modern New York City), and an activist for Dutch-style republican government in the Dutch West India Company-run trading post.

Enchanted by his new homeland of New Netherland, Van der Donck made detailed accounts of the land, vegetation, animals, waterways, topography, and climate. Van der Donck used this knowledge to actively promote immigration to the colony, publishing several tracts, including his influential Description of New Netherland. Charles Gehring, Director of the New Netherland Project, has called it "the fullest account of the province, its geography, the Indians who inhabited it, and its prospects…It has been said that had it not been written in Dutch, it would have gone down as one of the great works of American colonial literature."

Van der Donck is a central figure in Russell Shorto's The Island at the Centre of the World, which argues, based on newly translated records from the colony, that he is a great early American patriot, forgotten by history because of the eventual English conquest of New Netherland.

Today, he is also recognized as a sympathetic early Native American ethnographer, having learned the languages and observed many of the customs of the Mahicans and Mohawks. His descriptions of their practices are cited in many modern works, such as the 2005 book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

Early life

Van der Donck was born in approximately 1618, in the town of Breda in the southern Netherlands. His family was well connected on his mother's side, and her father, Adriaen van Bergen, was remembered as a national hero for helping free Breda from Spanish forces during the course of the Eighty Years' War.

In 1638, Van der Donck entered the University of Leiden as a law student. Leiden had rapidly become an intellectual centre due to Dutch religious freedom and the lack of censorship. There, he was probably influenced by several radical legal thinkers such as Hugo Grotius, who emphasized reasoning from natural law over appealing to historical authorities. Despite a booming Dutch economy, upon becoming a jurist in 1641, Van der Donck decided to go to the New World. To this end, he approached the patroon Kiliaen van Rensselaer, securing a post as schout, a combination of sheriff and prosecutor, for his large, semi-independent estate, Rensselaerwyck, located near modern Albany.

In New Netherland


In 1641, Van der Donck sailed to the New World aboard Den Eykenboom (The Oak Tree). He was immediately impressed by the land, which, in contrast with the Netherlands, was thickly forested, hilly, and full of wildlife. Once in his post, he attracted the ire of Van Rensselaer with his independence. This manifested itself first when the schout selected one of the patroon's finest stallions for himself and then decided that his appointed farm was poorly chosen and simply picked another site.

The patroon expected Van der Donck's primary concern to be the colony's profit rather than the colonists' welfare. According to Van Rensselaer, his duty was "to seek my advantage and protect me against loss." This was to consist mainly of cracking down on the black market and catching those who ran away before their service contracts expired. Instead, Van der Donck ignored Van Rensselaer's orders when told to collect late rent from those who obviously could not pay, protested that colonists could not swear binding oaths of loyalty on behalf of their servants, and began organizing improvements to various mills and the construction of a brickyard. Van Rensselaer's letters indicate that he became increasingly frustrated with his schout's behaviour, chiding him, "From the beginning you have acted not as officer but as director."

In his employer's eyes, Van der Donck also spent a disturbing amount of time exploring the surroundings. During these excursions, he learned a great deal about the land and its inhabitants, often neglecting his duties as schout in his eagerness to observe and document as much as he could about this new land. He met local Indians, such as the Mahicans and the Mohawks, ate their food, and became adept at their language. Van der Donck recorded their customs, beliefs, medicine, political structure, and technology in an objective and detailed way.

Unsatisfied in his post and realizing the potential of the land, Van der Donck eventually began to use his contacts amongst the Indians to negotiate for land in the Catskills, where he wanted to found his own colony. When Van Rensselaer learned that he sought to acquire neighboring land to his own, he snapped it up first. Van der Donck's contract as schout was not renewed when its term expired in 1644.

Early political activism

Negotiating peace with the Indians
Negotiating peace with the Indians

In New Amsterdam, disgruntled colonists had been sending ineffective complaints to the Dutch West India Company about the Director-General of New Netherland Willem Kieft, who had begun a bloody war with the Indians against the advice of the council of twelve men. Kieft's war badly damaged relations and trade between the Indians and the Dutch, made life more dangerous for colonists living in outlying areas, and drained the colony's resources. He exacerbated his relationship with the already financially strained colonists by enacting a tax on beaver skins and beer to fund the war.

In 1645, Kieft tried to mend relations with the Indians and asked Van der Donck to assist as a guide and interpreter. At the negotiations, Kieft found himself in the awkward position of coming without the necessary gifts that accompanied a request for discussions of treaties. Van der Donck had not informed Kieft of this important component to negotiations in advance, but happened to have brought an appropriate amount of sewant ( wampum), which he loaned to Kieft.

In return for this favour, Kieft granted Van der Donck 24,000 acres (97 km²) on the mainland north of Manhattan in 1646. He named the estate Colen Donck and built several mills along what is now called Saw Mill River. The estate was so large that locals referred to him as the Jonkheer ("young gentleman" or "squire"), a word from which the name " Yonkers" is derived. Van der Donck had already married the Englishwoman Mary Doughty, whose father had lost his land after irking Kieft.

Kieft remained out of favour with the colonists in New Amsterdam. Adriaen van der Donck stepped into this environment of political unrest and used his rhetorical legal skills to give voice to the disaffected colonists. Upon his arrival, the tone of the colonists' petitions suddenly changes. While ostensibly putting himself at Kieft's disposal as lawyer and translator, he was working with disgruntled members of the community to get Kieft recalled and convince the company of the need for a Dutch-style representative government in New Amsterdam.

The Dutch West India Company did decide to remove Kieft from his post in 1647, citing the terrible damage caused to trade by his war against the Indians. But rather than yield to the colonists' requests for the establishment of local government, the company decided that a stronger Director-General would succeed in squelching political dissent. They chose Peter Stuyvesant. Despite this change, Van der Donck continued his flurry of documents against Kieft, apparently using his example now solely to make a case for the creation of a local government.

Board of Nine

Van der Donck set about culturing a friendship with Stuyvesant upon his arrival in May 1647. Stuyvesant tried to take a firm hand with the colonists — it was noted that anyone who opposed him "hath as much as the sun and moon against him" — but eventually he had to agree to the creation of a permanent advisory board. Following a Dutch tradition, eighteen people would be elected, from whom Stuyvesant would choose nine to serve. Van der Donck's politicking eventually won him Stuyvesant's approval and selection by his new peers as "President of the Commonality" in 1648.

Within days, the Board of Nine declared itself independent of the company. They sought Stuyvesant's blessing for a mission to The Hague to ask the Dutch States General to take over management of the colony. Van der Donck interviewed the inhabitants of New Amsterdam and meticulously documented their many grievances against the West India Company, Kieft, and Stuyvesant. He planned to synthesize their complaints into a single document to be presented to the States General. Feeling betrayed by Van der Donck, Stuyvesant arrested him, removed him from the Board of Nine, and seized his papers to use as evidence of treason.

Despite this, on July 26, 1649, eleven current and former members of the Board signed the Petition of the Commonality of New Netherland, which requested that the States General take action to encourage economic freedom and force local government like that in the Netherlands, removing the colony from the company's control. Van der Donck was one of three men selected to travel to the Netherlands to present this request, along with a description of the colony written primarily by Van der Donck entitled Remonstrance of New Netherland. The latter makes the case that the colony is unusually valuable and in danger of being lost due to mismanagement under the Dutch West India Company.

Return to the Netherlands

The Jansson-Visscher map of the American Northeast first published by Van der Donck
The Jansson-Visscher map of the American Northeast first published by Van der Donck

While in the Netherlands, Van der Donck engaged in political and public relations campaigns in addition to organizing groups of new colonists for New Netherland. He repeatedly presented his case to the States General opposite a representative sent by Stuyvesant, Cornelius van Tienhoven.

Public relations campaign

The case before the States General was delayed because of disruptions within the Dutch government caused by William II of Orange. During this delay, Van der Donck turned his attention to public relations. In 1650, he printed his Remonstrance as a pamphlet. His enthusiastic description of the land and its potential created much excitement about New Netherland; so many were suddenly eager to immigrate that ships were forced to turn away paying passengers. A Dutch West India Company director wrote, "Formerly New Netherland was never spoken of, and now heaven and earth seem to be stirred up by it and every one tries to be the first in selecting the best pieces [of land] there."

To go alongside the Remonstrance, Van der Donck commissioned a map of the colony, the Jansson-Visscher map. It showed New Netherland along the original Dutch territoral claim from Cape Hinlopen just south of the Delaware Bay at 38 degrees to the start of New England at 42 degrees and included drawings of typical Indian villages, wild game, and the town of New Amsterdam. The map itself remained the definitive map of the area for over a century, cementing many Dutch place names. It would be reprinted thirty-one times before the mid-18th century.

The States General's decision

A page from Van der Donck's Description of New Netherland
A page from Van der Donck's Description of New Netherland

Apparently, Van der Donck's decision to go public paid off, because in April 1650, the States General issued a provisional order that the West India Company create a more liberal form of government to encourage emigration to the Dutch colony. They produced their final decision in 1652: the Dutch West India Company was forced to order Stuyvesant to set up a municipal government. A municipal charter was enacted in New Amsterdam on February 2, 1653. The States General also drafted a letter in April 1652 demanding the recall of Stuyvesant to the Netherlands, which Van der Donck would personally deliver to the director governor.

Van der Donck prepared to return to New Amsterdam having successfully secured a liberal government for the colony without the restrictions of the Dutch West India Company and national support for emigrating colonists from the Netherlands to the colonies. He was also reinstated as President of the Board of Nine and would be a leader in the new government.

Before Van der Donck could sail for home, the First Anglo-Dutch War broke out, and his hopes for New Amsterdam suddenly and unexpectedly fell apart. The States General feared experimenting in local government in a time of war, and so rescinded their decision.

Defeated, Van der Donck tried to return to New Netherland but, as a demonstrated troublemaker, he was detained. In the meantime, he took a Supremus in jure degree at the University of Leiden. Still eager to promote the colony, he also wrote a comprehensive description of its geography and native peoples based on material in his earlier Remonstrance.

Due to the war, the publication of Van der Donck's Beschryvinge van Nieuw-Nederlant (Description of New Netherland) was delayed until 1655, but was wildly popular, going into a second edition the very next year. However, it was not published in English until 1841, and even then only in a poor translation that eliminated subtleties and often even reversed the intended meaning.

Return to New Amsterdam

On May 26, 1653, in the hopes of finally being allowed to return home, Van der Donck sent the following petition to the Dutch West India Company directors:

The undersigned, Adriaen van der Donck, humbly requests consent and passport of the Board to go to New Netherland, offering to resign the commission previously given to him as President of the community, or otherwise as its deputy, accept no office whatever it may be, but rather to live in private peacefully and quietly as a common inhabitant, submitting to the orders and commands of the Company or those enacted by its director.

This promise seemed to satisfy the directors, and Van der Donck received permission to return to New Netherland. Giving up public office was apparently not enough, though: once home he was denied the right to continue practicing law because there was no one of "sufficient ability and the necessary act and plead against the said Van der Donck". These restrictions seem to have not hindered his behind- the-scenes efforts: another political uprising against Stuyvesant broke out just weeks after Van der Donck's return.

There is no record of Adriaen van der Donck's death, but he was alive during the summer of 1655, and a statement by Stuyvesant in early 1656 seems to indicate that he was dead. He probably died at his farm in one of a series of Indian raids in September 1655, called the Peach Tree War. He was survived in New Netherland by his wife and by his parents, whom he had separately convinced to immigrate.

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