Happy 400th Birthday to New Amsterdam, the Dutch Settlement That Became New York

In 1624, Dutch settlers arrived in Manhattan. Now, officials are marking the milestone with an honest examination of the past

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Dutch settlers "bought" the island of Manahatta from the Lenape in 1626. Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons under CC0 1.0 DEED

Before New York was New York, it was New Amsterdam: a Dutch settlement named for the canal-filled city back home. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the settlement, which was established in Manhattan in 1624. Dutch officials are marking the milestone by acknowledging four centuries of their country’s influence in the United States—both the good and the bad.

Future 400 is a series of events coordinated by the Netherlands Consulate General of New York. According to its website, the initiative aims to “honor 400 years of Dutch-New York history with honesty and integrity” while also looking toward the future of “Dutch-American arts, culture and enterprise.”

At Future 400’s kickoff, held in March at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, Netherlands-based journalist Tracy Metz said the anniversary “is being positioned as more of a ‘marking,’” rather than a celebration, according to Time Out’s Rossilynne Skena Culgan.

The two-year initiative will include “exhibitions, theater productions and dances marking colonial history and the partnership between the United States and the Netherlands,” per Gothamist’s Arun Venugopal. In addition to examining New Amsterdam’s cultural and industrial legacies, these events will confront the Dutch settlers’ role in removing Indigenous peoples from their lands and facilitating the transatlantic slave trade.

The series follows recent speeches on this theme by two Dutch leaders: In 2022, Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized on behalf of the Dutch government for the Netherlands’ role in slavery. King Willem-Alexander offered a similar apology in 2023, asking forgiveness for the “crime against humanity” that was his country’s role in slavery.

As Birgitta Tazelaar, the Dutch ambassador to the United States, said in March, colonial history is often “ugly, painful and even downright shameful,” per Time Out.

“We rightfully call out those unacceptable parts of history, including our own Dutch history,” she added. “For instance, New Amsterdam and New Netherlands, like other colonies of its day, was built in part by enslaved people. The Netherlands’ history with slavery has many pages that fill us, as people of the 21st century, with dismay and horror. We cannot change the past, but we can face up to it.”

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New Amsterdam was a Dutch settlement until it was conquered by the British and renamed New York in 1664. Laurens Block, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 1609, the Dutch East India Company hired English navigator Henry Hudson to search for a water passage through North America. Hudson’s travels brought him to what is now New York Harbor, where the river that would later take his name emptied into the Atlantic. There, he came upon the Lenape, an Indigenous group, and “claimed” their resource-rich land for his employers. Dutch colonizers began making their way from the Netherlands to the United States, forcing enslaved individuals across the ocean with them.

In 1626, Dutch settlers “bought” the island of Manhattan from the Lenape, as Smithsonian magazine’s Colleen Connolly wrote in 2018. Thus began the group’s forced migration from their homeland and the beginning of the Dutch influence that’s still present today—long after the British conquered New Amsterdam in 1664. The Dutch built the wall that later lent its name to Wall Street; countless other place names in the city are Dutch in origin, such as Brooklyn (named for the Dutch city of Breukelen), Harlem (named for Haarlem) and various names ending in “kill” (Dutch for “little stream”).

The Future 400 events will feature “a multitude of voices—Indigenous, African-American, Dutch and others—who made up the vibrant tapestry that was New Amsterdam, and whose diversity continues to distinguish New York City to this day,” says Ahmed Dadou, the Netherlands’ consul general in New York, on the series’ website.

One of the exhibitions, “New York Before New York” at the New York Historical Society, is built around a map showing New Amsterdam around 1660, at the peak of its settlement. The show’s curator, Russell Shorto, writes in the New York Times that correctly honoring 400 years of Dutch occupation means simply telling the whole story.

“People of the past were as complex as we are: flawed, scheming, generous, occasionally capable of greatness,” he adds. “Four centuries ago, an interwoven network of them—Europeans, Africans and Native Americans—began something on the island of Manhattan. Appreciating what they did as fully as we can might help us to understand ourselves better.”

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