New Netherlands and the Iroquois Confederacy 1609-1664

Robert Weir. Landing of Henry Hudson, 1609, at Verplanck Point. Oil on canvas, 83.8 x 121.9 cm. c. 1859.

The Dutch, the Iroquois and their contacts

On the fourth April 1609, the ship de Halve Maen sailed out the port of Amsterdam. The captain, named Henry Hudson (1565-1610), went on an assignment given to him by the Dutch East India Company. Hudson was tasked to find a new shipping route to India. His original plan was to sail through the Artic, but the ice stopped him, so he sailed west. This caused him to arrive at the mouth of the river, which the Dutch called the Noortrivier (Hudson River). Hudson thought that he had found the mouth of river that would lead to Asia. Thus Hudson sailed al the way up the river until he reached current day Albany, here he discovered that the river was a dead end. The river wasn’t a gateway to Asia, but he did however discover rich fertile lands for farming and fur hunting that were easily accessible by boat.[1] In the following decades several traders and farmers would travel to the land next to this river. Most of them would settle in or around settlements called New Amsterdam (New York) or Fort Oranje and Beverwyck (present-day Albany). This river bound New World colony was called the New Netherlands and the Dutch owned it between 1609-1664.[2]

In the last few decades, more and more research has been carried out on New Netherlands as a stand-alone subject. Previously, New Netherlands was often dismissed as a failed forerunner of New York. It was also long thought that the Dutch influence was negligible on the development of New York.[3] This idea has recently been discarded by several historians.[4] Some of these historians are Wim Klooster the author of The Dutch in the Americas, 1600-1800[5], in this book he analyzes and describes what the Dutch did in colonial era North-America. Another historian named Russell Shorto wrote The Island at the Center of the World[6] in which he rediscovered the city of New Amsterdam and its diverse inhabitants. These two books are only the tip of the iceberg that’s called New Dutch History and the books and works in this growing iceberg all tell parts of the story of the Dutch colony in North America.

Nevertheless, New Dutch history is often written in the broader context of the Dutch empire and of other European American colonies. Although this way of working puts the Dutch colony in context to the wider world and the Dutch empire, this also leads to the loss of the small aspects in the big overall picture.

So despite the recent works on the New Netherlands, the story of it’s influence on the indigenous peoples is a fragmented story that is spread over several books and articles by different authors. And therefore this essay will tell a part of the larger story about the interaction between the Dutch and the indigenous peoples in the area nowadays known as the state of New York.

One of the largest collection of indigenous tribes in this area was the Iroquois Confederacy. They were a Confederacy of five Haudenosaunee (longhouse). This confederacy was founded by The Great Peacemaker (16th century), Hiawatha (1525-1595) and Jigonhsasee (ca. 1570-1600). Their homelands where located east of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, south of St. Lawrence river and west of the northern part of the Hudson river. The Confederacy was composed of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and the Mohawk tribes.

The Iroquois Confederacy was however a mix of many peoples, this because they absorbed many non-Iroquois individuals from various peoples as a result of war and conquest. All of those non-Iroquois are considered members of the clans and tribes into which they are adopted by families.

The Dutch setters and merchants had regular contact with this confederacy, because their settlement of fort Oranje lies next to the Mohawk river. This river leads straight to the Iroquois heartland.[7] The Dutch settlement of fort Oranje was mainly a trading outpost and this outpost was run by the Dutch West India Company. This is why this essay will focus specifically on the trade that was conducted by the Dutch and how this affected the Iroquois.

The impact of trade will be examined on the basis of the following sub-topics: the nature of contacts with the Iroquois confederation, what was traded and the influence on warfare. For this purpose, articles and monographs on the Iroquois in the field of war, culture and contacts will be used. The findings from the secondary literature will be supported by using some archaeological finds.

Map of the Iroquois Confederacy (Pinterest)

Beads and tools

In exchange for furs, the Dutch supplied bees, knives, copper, glass, beads, woolen clothing, and several other goods. These products appeared on a regular basis and in larger quantities than the French or English could supply.[8]

Trade led to a slow increase in European goods among the Iroquois. The increase in the use of imported goods led to the abandonment of indigenous production techniques. Copper pots were used instead of the traditional clay pots, iron tools replaced stone tools, metal replaced flint and wool replaced animal skins.[9] Some goods such as alcohol had a devastating impact on the indigenous population, others took on a new cultural dimension and some became a status symbol. For almost all goods except food and shelter, the Iroquois became slowly but surely dependent on European export goods.[10]

The introduction of metal tools enabled an explosion of creativity. The use of metal tools instead of stone tools provided more detailed wood, bone and antler carvings. In addition, the import of glass and copper enriched the decoration of all kinds of different cultural objects such as tomahawks, peace pipes and ceremonial masks.[11]

Another product that the Dutch exported that the Iroquois attached cultural value to was wampumpeag or as the Dutch called it Zeewant. Zeewant is the name for white and purple beads made from the interior of the Channeled whelk.[12] These Zeewant beads had a multi-sided function and meaning. In addition to goods and coins, the Dutch used the Zeewant beads as a means of payment for the furs traded with the Iroquois.[13] The Iroquois processed the Zeewant beads into belts and chains. These Zeewant belts often had a complex symbolic meaning for the Iroquois. Zeewant was linked by the Iroquois to the confirmation of life. In addition to the processing of Zeewant in cultural objects, it was also used for decorative, diplomatic, religious and political purposes.[14]

Zeewant was one of the most important commercial products, because with the Zeewant beads furs, firearms and land could be bought.[15] During the first half of the seventeenth century there was a quantitative increase in Zeewant beads in places where Iroquois settlements lay.[16] Archeologist have found 250,000 beads dating back to the first half of the seventeenth century at the site of one of the historic settlements of the Seneca tribe.[17]

Overall, it is estimated that seven million beads were produced between 1634 and 1663.[18] After 1650 there is a decrease in Zeewant at the locations of Iroquois settlements. This was around the same time that the Dutch lost control of Zeewant production regions that where located on the coast of Long Island and eastern New Jersey.[19]

Map of New Netherland settlements and areas of influence [OC] [1327×972] (imgur)

Struggle and weapons

The introduction of firearms did not initially make for a major turnaround. The Iroquois continued to use traditional weapons such as bows, arrows and maces. One of the reasons for this was that firearms were more inaccurate than traditional weapons.[20] But, these traditional weapons were improved by using imported iron and metal. However this would change with the improvement of firearms.

War had always been part of the Iroquois way of life. These wars had been mainly ceremonial and often revolved around restoring the spiritual power. The incorporation of prisoners of war into their own tribe would return the lost power of the deceased. Although obtaining prisoners of war remained a major reason, the ceremonial aspect of war disappeared.[21] The ceremonial aspect disappeared, because the firearms penetrated the traditional wooden armor more easily than the previously used stone weapons. Thus the introduction of firearms and iron-enhanced weapons made war more deadly.[22]

The effect of the introduction of old-world diseases, unknown to the Iroquois, on war should not be underestimated either. Some diseases like smallpox and measles kept coming back after their introduction by the Spaniards in 1492. Nevertheless, the deadly effect of these diseases was amplified by trade contact. The Iroquois experienced epidemics with hundreds of fatalities in 1647 and 1656-1657. The high number of victims led to the disappearance of the sporadic search for prisoners to regain their strength and turned it into a systematic event.[23]

In addition to ceremonial battles, wars in the past had been more of a series of robberies and ambushes, not the destruction of communities. This changed and now villages were also burned down, and its inhabitants were driven away. Another reason for this change besides new weapons was the increasing competition for the control of trade routes and hunting areas.[24]


Between 1624 and 1628 the Mohawks tribe expelled the rivaling Mahicans tribe around Fort Oranje and gained direct access to the Dutch. The fur trade with the Dutch was quite lucrative for the Iroquois, but the extensive hunting of fur animals led to a decrease in fur animals. The population decrease of fur animals caused the price per fur to increase and this made the hunting of fur animals even more lucrative. A vicious circle emerged. For these reasons, the Iroquois were motivated to go to war in order to obtain more hunting ground and furs.[25]

In the 1640s and 1650s there were some wars between the Iroquois and surrounding tribes. The Iroquois fought the surrounding Algonquian, the Hurons, the Neutrals, the Eries and other Western and Eastern peoples. The reasons for this was that by 1640 the beaver population in the Iroquois areas had virtually disappeared and furs were needed as a bargaining chip in order to get European goods. This is why these conflicts bear the name Beaver Wars.[26]

The opponents of the Iroquois usually lost. One reason for their success in war was that the Dutch supplied the Iroquois with firearms in exchange for commercial goods, while the other Europeans, like the French, were reluctant to trade firearms with the tribes with which they traded. In this way the Dutch traders hoped to establish good relations with the tribes. This resulted in a disproportionate balance of power.[27] Much of the archaeological evidence found suggests that the Iroquois were specific in which firearms they used. For example, a couple dozen parts of first-class quality flint rifles were found at the site of historic settlements of one of the six Iroquois nations, the Onondaga.[28] The oldest finds date from about 1630 to 1640. So a large amount of firearm-related objects were found around the time of the increase in violence.

The presence of firearms is further supported by various written primary sources written by French Jesuits, English settlers and Dutch traders. The Jesuits estimated in 1643 that the Mohawks had 300 firearms, the English heard in 1648 that a force of 1000 natives of whom 300-400 armed with firearms were gathering in Connecticut for a war against the colonist and the Dutch board of accounts at Fort Amsterdam noted that there were approximately 400 firearms among the Mohawks. So evidence suggest that the Iroquois, mainly the Mohawks were able to arm and supply 300-400 warriors with firearms.[29]

Map showing colonial North America and the Indian Nations in 1648. (


Trade between the Dutch Republic and the Iroquois confederation has affected the latter in several ways. A direct consequence of trade was that the Iroquois confederation had access to European goods. These goods were sometimes of better quality than the Iroquois goods and therefore the Iroquois exchanged their own produced goods for European export products. The Europeans also supplied Zeewant beads; this was a product of religious, cultural, political and diplomatic value. With the imported European tools, the Iroquois were able to decorate their cultural objects in more detail and more beautifully. Besides the cultural enrichment and the positive aspects, there was also a shadow side to this trade.

The European products were exchanged with beaver pelts. In order to obtain these beaver pelts, beavers and other fur animals were hunted extensively. The hunt for beavers caused the beaver population to virtually disappear in the Iroquois areas. The scarcity in furs led to an increase in the price of furs and so the Iroquois were able to obtain more European goods with the furs they supplied. The more yielding of furs led to more hunting and thus fewer beavers.

Eventually, this would lead to conflict with the surrounding tribes. These conflicts were mostly won by the Iroquois. The success of the Iroquois can be explained by the fact that the Dutch supplied firearms to the Iroquois in addition to goods and Zeewant. The spread of new diseases and the increase in firearms resulted in more fatalities in the Iroquois. The fatalities led to a decrease in spiritual strength. To make up for the loss of spiritual power, the Iroquois had to wage more war in order to obtain more prisoners that would strengthen the spiritual power. These elements formed a vicious circle that was constantly strengthened and renewed by every conflict and every new epidemic.

Therefore, the conclusion of this essay is that the Iroquois were touched in several ways by the trade with the Dutch in the New Netherlands. Especially when looking at what the Iroquois needed to do to obtain the furs that were used as bargaining chip for other much needed European goods. This means that the Iroquois were encouraged to gather fur to obtain Dutch goods. This drive had disastrous consequences for the beaver population, the tribes surrounding the Iroquois and the Iroquois themselves.

[1] Russell Shorto, Nieuw-Amsterdam; The origins of New York (Amsterdam 2017) 47-54.

[2] Daniel K. Richter, Trade; Country; Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America (Philadelphia 2013) 42-43.

[3] Dennis J. Maika, Mark Meuwese And Andrea C. Mosterman (ed.), ‘Roundtable: The Past, Present and Future of New Netherland Studies’, New York History 95 (2014) 3, 446-490, there 446-447.

[4] Ibid., 446-450.

[5] Wim Klooster, The Dutch in the Americas; 1600-1800 (Providence 1997).

[6] Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America (Londen 2004).

[7] Jennifer Birch, Current Research on the Historical Development of Northern Iroquoian Societies, Journal of Archaeological Research 23 (2015) 3, 263-323, there 295.

[8] Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution (Cambridge, MA And Londen 2011) 138-139.

[9] Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill, New 1992) 79.

[10] Richter, Before the Revolution, 140; Richter Trade; Country; Power, 55-61.

[11] Richter, Before the Revolution, 141.

[12] James Bradley, ‘Re-visiting Wampum and other Seventeenth-Century Shell Games’, Archeology of Eastern North America 39 (2011), 25-51, there 25-26.

[13] Ceci, ‘The Value of Wampum among the New York Iroquois’, 101.

[14] Bradley ‘Re-visiting Wampum and other Seventeenth-Century Shell Games’, 26-27.

[15] Ibid., 36.

[16] Birch, Current Research on the Historical Development of Northern Iroquoian Societies, 298-299.

[17] Bradley, Re-visiting Wampum and other Seventeenth-Century Shell Games’, 36.

[18] J. Jacobs and L. H. Roper, The Worlds of the Seventeenth-Century Hudson Valley (New York 2014) 91.

[19] Bradley,Re-visiting Wampum and other Seventeenth-Century Shell Games’, 37.

[20] Daniel K. Richter, ‘War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience’, The William and Mary Quarterly 40 (1983) 4, 528-559, there 531-534.

[21] Ibidem, 531-538; Roger Carpenter, “Making War More Lethal: Iroquois vs. Huron in the Great Lakes Region 1609 to 1650′, Michigan Historical Review 27 (2001) 2, 33-51, there 37-40.

[23] Richter, ‘War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience’, 537-539.

[22] Ibid., 531-538; Carpenter ‘Making War More Lethal’, 37-40.

[24] Birch, Current Research on the Historical Development of Northern Iroquoian Societies, 300-301.

[25] Ceci, ‘The Value of Wampum among the New York Iroquois’, 101.

[26] Richter Trade; Country; Power, 77-78.

[27] Jacobs and Roper, The Worlds of the Seventeenth-Century Hudson Valley, 114.

[28] Brian J. Given, Most Pernicious Thing: Gun Trading and Native Warfare in Early Contact Period (Montreal 1994) 63-71.

[29] Ibid., 63-71; Jacobs and Roper, The Worlds of the Seventeenth-Century Hudson Valley, 114.

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