Why were Manhattan Residents so Interested in City Citizenship in the Mid-17th Century?

The mid-1650s was a time of both promise and peril for New Amsterdam. With the end of the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1654, the city’s commercial development was poised to continue along the same upward trajectory that began with West India Company’s abandonment of the fur trade monopoly in 1639. For more than a decade that followed, Manhattan’s merchants profited from the furs arriving in ever-increasing quantities from Beverwijck (today’s Albany) and the Hudson River Valley and shipped to eager markets in Europe. They facilitated a new, steady flow of Chesapeake tobacco into Manhattan on its way to Amsterdam, collected  grain and foodstuffs from New Netherland’s farms to ship to the Caribbean and Brazil, and maintained a lively trade with neighboring New England. In return, a wide variety of imported goods arrived from Amsterdam, received and distributed by local merchants who not incidentally also controlled the city government. A pervasive “commercial enthusiasm” permeated the city as most residents were connected to Manhattan’s newly budding prosperity; in the words of a recently arrived WIC official, “All the people here are traders.”

In spite of this optimism, serious challenges persisted. The danger of another violent conflict with neighboring native groups loomed, the city was burdened with a debt from the recently ended English war, and competition from New Amstel, the City of Amsterdam’s “colony within a colony” on the Delaware River, threatened to divert Amsterdam’s investors away from their interest in Manhattan. But the biggest menace to city residents came from “free traders” who descended upon the New Amsterdam area, bypassing the city’s docks and unloading cargos in the region’s many inlets and small harbors. City residents were thus deprived of the ability to purchase imported goods and supplies. Referred to as “hit and run capitalists,” and “Schotzen” (from the Dutch word for peddler, sometimes mistranslated as Scots traders), sojourners’ practices undermined the value of local currency (Indian wampum or seawan). Sojourners were resented because they did not contribute financially to support the city’s debts, nor did they join in night watches or the burgher guard (schutterijen) which protected the city; in recent times of war, they abandoned the county and left quickly. Sojourners were perceived as a threat not because they came to stay but because they would “go away back again on the first opportunity, so that this place not only does not derive any profit from such persons, but this good Commonalty suffers, on the contrary, great injury thereby.”

Petition for Establishing the Burgher Right, January 22, 1657

New York State Archives. New Netherland. Council. Dutch colonial council minutes, 1638-1665. Series A1809. Volume 8

Identifier: NYSA_A1809-78_V08_0427

Petition for Establishing the Burgher Right, January 22, 1657

New York City Municipal Archives, New Amsterdam Records, Volume 2, Book 1, page 125.