The series of conflicts known as Kieft’s War (1643-1645) owe their origins to several factors.
Primary among these was the Dutch inability to understand the concepts of land use among native people. When the Dutch gave wampum, muskets, and other trade goods during land negotiations, they believed they were purchasing the land. Native people however, considered the Dutch to have, at best, leased the land. Convinced they had purchased the land in and around Manhattan, Dutch settlers drew ever closer to Native American villages. And, when Native Americans hunted on the ground the Dutch believed they had purchased, the New Netherlanders sought to punish the offenders.
As the Dutch moved closer to their Native American neighbors, so did their cattle. When Europeans arrived, they often let their livestock roam free. Unenclosed, European cattle and hogs destroyed Native American crops across the Western Hemisphere. Native Nations of the New Netherland area attempted to persuade the colonial government to redress the issue, but New Netherland authorities often ignored their complaints. Eventually, some began killing the cattle that wandered into their fields.
Another factor leading to Kieft’s War was Governor Willem Kieft himself. A year after arriving in New Netherland, with the colony in poor financial straits, he attempted to tax neighboring Native Nations. Unsurprisingly, Kieft’s move to assert Dutch sovereignty over native people backfired. David de Vries, a Dutch colonist with a plantation on Staten Island, noted the Native American response to this attempted taxation. While trading among the Tappan, they told de Vries that Kieft “must be a very mean fellow to come to live in this country without being invited by them, and now wish to compel them to give him their corn for nothing.” Kieft’s taxation plan created explosive tensions up and down the Hudson, worsening already difficult relations with Native Americans.
The Beginnings of the Conflict
In 1638, these tensions exploded into violence when a few hogs went missing from de Vries’s plantation. Though it has since come to light that the thieves were mostly likely Dutch colonists, Kieft swiftly blamed the Raritan. Although De Vries himself urged caution, Kieft sent soldiers to a Raritan village killing several people. In response to what must have seemed a completely unprovoked attack, the Raritan retaliated at de Vries’s farm, burning his house and killing four farm hands.
In 1641, a Wickquasgeck man showed up at the house of Claes Swits, who ran a public house. The Wickquasgeck man pretended to be interested in buying cloth, but his true goal was to kill Swits in revenge for his uncle, who had been killed by Switz in 1625. Incensed at Swits’ death, Kieft demanded the Wickquasgeck surrender the man. They promptly refused.
Using Swits’ death and other frontier attacks (one occurred at Achter Kol on the Hackensack River), Kieft hoped to gain popular support for a war on neighboring Native Nations. In November, he assembled the small number of Dutch colonists, known as the Twelve Men. Advising peace, the council persuaded Kieft to hold out a few months longer, in hopes of coming to an accord with the Wickquasgeck. As the months proceeded without Wickquasgeck submission to their neighbors, the Twelve Men began pushing for political reform. Kieft dissolved the council.
Escalating the Violence
Throughout Kieft’s War, the average settler probably wanted to avoid violence. New Netherland was a trading colony first and foremost and having Native allies willing to trade was critical to the local economy. In 1643, however, a small number of colonists allied themselves with Kieft. They had served on the council of Twelve Men, but agreed with Kieft that they should “attack the Indians as enemies.”
To make matters worse, the two settlements Kieft targeted, Corlaer’s Hook (now the Lower East Side) and Pavonia (today’s Jersey City) were filled with refugees. Some Tappan and Wickquaskgeck people had come to the area after being pressured by the Mohawk. Seeking aid from their Dutch trading partners, they settled around Manhattan.
Seeing this as the perfect opportunity, Kieft divided the Dutch forces into two groups. One would attack Pavonia, the other Corlaer’s Hook. The Dutch war bands must have received orders to show no mercy, as they counted even children among their victims. De Vries, who vehemently argued against the attacks, recorded that he “heard a great shrieking, and I ran to the ramparts of the fort, and looked over to Pavonia. Saw nothing but firing, and the shrieks of the natives murdered in their sleep.”
For the next two years, indigenous warriors attacked settlements all over New Netherland, and Dutch forces responded with additional violence. Finally in 1645 the leaders of several native nations met with Kieft to bring an end to the conflict. It’s believed some 1,600 Native Americans lost their lives, along with a few dozen colonists.
Read more about the conflict here.
Illustration: New Amsterdam, the capital of the New Netherland colony, where Willem Kieft governed the colony and began the war that now bears his name.