Amsterdam-native Willem Kieft , came to America in the spring of 1638 to take control as the new Director of New Netherland. At that time, New Netherland was lacking a judicial system, so Kieft quickly solved this problem by becoming the judicial system. He soon showed a penchant for cruel and erratic behavior.
His main role was to raise money for the Dutch West India Company. Looking to obtain funds quickly, he began seeking “protection payments” from local native tribes. Dutchmen who had lived in the region long before Kieft arrived exhorted him not to pursue such ends. But he ignored their warnings and approached the natives with his request for payment. The chiefs laughed in his face. Ignited by their refusal, Kieft coordinated an attack on a native camp on Staten Island. The Dutch settlers were aghast. For two decades now, they had coexisted with the natives, in many instances becoming friends, business partners, even romantic partners.
Kieft ignored the settlers and launched an attack on February 25th 1643. The raids were conducted in two main parties. One party attacked natives on what is today Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The other party attacked natives camped in Pavonia, current-day Jersey City, where over one hundred natives perished in what is known as the Pavonia Massacre.
Different bands of natives, even those who previously had been hostile toward each other, began joining forces. On October 1st 1643, these united natives, numbering about 1,500, returned the favor, killing many European settlers and decimating homes and farms. It had taken years of backbreaking work for these Dutch settlers to clear their land and build their structures.
Soon, the Fort of New Amsterdam (on the southern tip of today’s Manhattan) was teeming with refugees. Everyone knew that Director Kieft was out of control. As an act of dissent, many were refusing to pay the taxes he levied. Undeterred, Kieft prepared his counteroffensive. His vengeance was gratified in March 1644 with the Pound Ridge Massacre in current-day Westchester County, New York. In this incident, a group of Dutch and English soldiers raided a large native community and killed over five hundred of its inhabitants. This would be the bloodiest event in Kieft ’s War.
During the ensuing months, bands of natives did whatever they could to make life miserable for Dutch settlers. A Dutchman might be stricken by a poisoned arrow. Or his home and crops might be set ablaze. In the fullness of time, a group of outraged Dutch settlers united to launch a formal petition seeking the ousting of Kieft. An uneasy truce with natives in the region came in August 1645. Kieft was summoned to the Netherlands to answer for his behavior. He never made it home. The one-man force behind Kieft ’s War died in a shipwreck off the coast of Wales on September 27th 1647.
The Director’s handiwork had jeopardized the very existence of New Netherland. His tenure serves as a cautionary example that, when given enough power, it can take just one problematic personality to cause a complete breakdown of societal norms and values.
For a more in-depth history of Kieft's War, read Issue 25 of DUTCH the magazine!
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