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Dutch Colonial archeological collection gets new home

Two million items on the move

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

ALBANY, New York - Two million 17th century colonial artifacts will be moved to the State Museum in Albany. They currently are stored in a lower Manhattan depository. The archeological items depict daily life in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which later became the city of New York.

The artifacts range from shoe buckles to wig curlers and had been recovered over the years from shipwrecks in the Hudson River, from archeological digs and from a variety of abandoned buildings. The collection was housed in the South Street Seaport on the East River, which now is in organizational and financial turmoil, especially following the layoff of the facility’s only archeologist.

The move to Albany, formerly known as Beverwijck, another mainstay in the 17th century fledgling Dutch colony of Nieu Nederland, will take a number of years to complete.

Curators at the State Museum, which currently has a collection of 2.5 million archeological artifacts, see the task as ‘daunting.’ Besides creating storage and display space for such a huge collection, transportation and cataloguing also will be challenging, and needs extra staffing and ongoing care for the collection.

The inventory process and subsequent relocation will start this summer. The phase-in transfer will take several years. Albany’s expansion with the South Street Seaport cache will limit its archeological digs program in order to first preserve its current and additional artifacts.

Huge void

Many of the State Museum’s items were found at the extensive archaeological dig of Fort Orange in 1971, underneath Interstate 787 near Madison Avenue, where thousands of artifacts lay hidden.

The collection of the State Museum includes artifacts from 52 counties across the state, but almost nothing from the five boroughs of New York City. The Seaport items were nearly all unearthed within the five boroughs.

Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Project and a translator of 17th-century Dutch records from New Amsterdam, calls the Seaport collection ‘outstanding.’ The addition will fill in a huge void in the archaeological record at the State Museum.

Bringing the items under one roof also will help researchers determine whether residents in pre-New York City times had more sophisticated tastes than those who lived in Fort Orange, the beaver trading centre that was renamed Albany. Based on his readings of colonial records, Gehring believes the way people lived in New York City in the 17th century was comparable to that of Albany.

Archaeologists identify the artifacts found in the New York and Albany digs by examining details seen on Dutch paintings from that era, which often detail home interiors.

The South Street Seaport collection fills 7,000 square feet of climate-controlled storage space. Space for the items in Albany, however, is limited to a 30 by 48 feet storage room. Once moved, the artifacts will be displayed at the State Museum, loaned to other museums across the state and made accessible to researchers.


In 1609, ship captain Henry Hudson, an Englishman who was employed by the Dutch West India Company (WIC), searched along the coast for a Northwest Passage to the Far East. The WIC, hearing of the economic possibilities of the area and the potential for the beaver pelt trade, sent other missions in subsequent years. In 1614, Adriaen Block established the first year-round presence in the colony, the source of the artifacts collection.

In the first fifteen years, Dutch colonists around Beverwijck - the name alludes to ‘bever’ (Dutch for beaver) in the ‘wijck’ (area or neighbourhood - rarely ventured onto the island of Manhattan. Their presence was one for turning profit, not colonization, although some company officials in Amsterdam begged to differ on that point.

When the first families arrived in 1624 to operate trading posts, they mostly were sent inland to the Hudson Valley. The early settlement on Manhattan was limited to a number of farms, both for cattle and some crops.

Fearing attacks on the colony by ships and troops from other European powers, the Dutch West India Company planned to protect the entrance to the Hudson River by building a new fort, which also could protect trading posts in the vicinity. Already in 1620, an English architect was asked to design such a fort. He cautioned against the hasty construction of palisades, fortifications of timber (as were built throughout North America). He proposed to construct a ‘European style’ fortress instead, with the traditional star-shaped design, complete with a moat, and stone walls, such as were built throughout the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th century.

Minuit’s trade,

Such a stronghold - to be named Fort Amsterdam - was to be built just north of the tip of Manhattan, the current location of the U.S. Custom House. The colony’s ‘leader,’ a WIC employee named Willem Verhulst, had chosen the site. He did not remain long, as reports of mismanagement and mistreatment of the settlers reached the Netherlands. In 1626, Verhulst was replaced by Peter Minuit.

In order to secure the land and built the fort, Minuit purchased Manhattan from the local Lenape tribe for 60 guilders worth of trinkets. Most likely, the Lenapes only granted him some kind of hunting and fishing rights since the tribesmen were nomads themselves and unfamiliar with the European system of property rights.

While Fort Amsterdam was built, the Mohawk-Mohican War in the Hudson Valley forced the WIC to relocate its settlers to the new fort. This meant that the original plans for the fort were abandoned to meet the emergency. A simple blockhouse was erected, surrounded by a palisade.

New Amsterdam was incorporated on February 2, 1653. Nearby New Haarlem was formally organized in 1658.

During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, New Netherland was seized by the English, with director general Peter Stuyvesant surrendering the town New Amsterdam on September 24, 1664. The colony subsequently was renamed New York, after the Duke of York, the brother of Charles II.

In 1667, the Dutch withdrew their claims on the colony in the Treaty of Breda, and were granted Suriname in return. In a subsequent war between the English and the Dutch, the Dutch recaptured the colony briefly in 1673 before relinquishing it for good when they agreed to terms of the Treaty of Westminster on February 19, 1674.