After a 1627 conflict, when the Dutch sided with the Mahicans against the Mohawks, the relationship between the first settlers and the Indigenous People was relatively peaceful and cooperative.
This was due in part to the fact that the Patroon had purchased the land from them and also due to the business relationship established between local Indigenous People and the fur traders.
The early Dutch settlers were merchants, and generally not religious zealots or unrealistic opportunists. They were not looking to conquer the local inhabitants or find mountains of gold. By and large they did not denigrate Indigenous religion or force them to convert. A prosperous trade was beneficial to both sides.
Van Rensselaer’s plan for a trading post on the west side of the Hudson River and an agricultural settlement on the east side did not work out as well as had been expected. The attraction of the much more lucrative fur trade on the west side, along with a weak demand for agricultural products on the east side, drove most of the development to the west side.
Van Rensselaer’s original plans for the construction of a village on the east side of the Hudson River were moved to the west side near the fort. The village was called “Oranje” and Indigenous People approached the market with large bundles of furs that they had trapped. Reportedly these bundles weighed up to 300 pounds.
The furs were brought to the “commissaries,” most likely agents of the Patroon Van Rensselaer, and sold for Native currency, or sewant, strings of shells or beads that gave rise to the common belief that the Native People traded their furs for beads and trinkets. The sewant was then used to purchase trade goods, weapons, clothing, tools, bakery goods, grain, fruits or vegetables from Oranje’s merchants and goods from other Native People.
The standard of living of Native Americans increased with the use of European knives. They had previously used sharp flint and stone tools to skin deer and other animals, to cut down trees and prepare firewood and for other uses. They produced boots and socks for walking in the snow, pants and shirts, and clay pots and other utensils to cook food. Since they had little need to accumulate large quantities of sewant, they spent much of their earnings on valuable trade goods. Europeans provided soap, guns, gun-flints, and powder and shot for hunting and defense.
Sometimes merchants dealt directly with Native People for furs, but they subsequently sold their furs to the Patroon’s commissaries for sewant or credit towards the purchase of more trade goods in Amsterdam. The Patroon also controlled the fur-trade by administering a permit system allowing only certain merchants to trade certain products. The merchants competed with each other to sell goods to Native People, but only the Patroon could export furs to The Netherlands and subsequently bring back trade goods.
It seems that the merchants would trade with Native People on the basis of roughly 8 guilders of trade goods per beaver pelt. The merchants would then sell their furs to the patroon for 12 guilders each giving the merchant about 50% profit. The merchant would then order more trade goods from Patroon Van Rensselaer who would obtain the trade goods when he brought the furs back to Holland.
In this way, the patroon not only controlled the fur trade but also controlled the economy of the colony. He had to set fair exchange rates as both trade partners needed to be satisfied with the return for their labors or they would not continue to trade. Native People could also trade with the French, in the Ohio Valley or in Canada, if they were not satisfied with the exchange rate.
While some people traded for furs illegally and sent representatives into the hinterland to intercept Native People headed for Oranje, the Patroon kept close control of the ships arriving and departing to be certain that only his furs were being exported. In fact, most of the ocean-going ships were either owned or hired by the Van Rensselaers. By 1642, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer had troops posted on Beeren Island in the Hudson River to intercept boats to search for furs being illegally exported.
Both the Dutch and Native People seemed happy with the arrangement and both worked to protect the trade in furs for many generations. The Patroon’s control of the fur trade produced wealth for himself and the colony, as well as a measure of prosperity for Native People.
Reportedly, trade with the Dutch made the Mohawk the most powerful Indian nation between Canada and Virginia. The trade rate of one musket for 20 beaver pelts allowed the Mohawk to arm 400 warriors and become the dominant tribe in the east. European axes, tools, knives, clothing, boots and cloth made life easier.
Illustrations: Castle Island and Fort Orange 1629; trade beads (sewant) from the Fort Orange and Schuyler Flatts Collections, NYS Museum; Map of Rensselaerswyck, probably created around 1632.