When his children were at preschool in Hackensack, New Jersey, building restorer and historian Tim Adriance taught them a simple nursery rhyme. Although it has a Dutch name – Trip a Trop a Tronjes (“The Father’s Knee is a Throne”) – the song can be sung in English too, making it easy for them to learn. Soon, Adriance remembers, their whole class, mostly Filipino and African American boys and girls, were enthusiastically chanting along.
None of this seems unusual unless you know the song’s history. Remarkably, Trip a Trop a Tronjes was first sung on American shores in the 1600s, before the United States even existed, when Dutch settlers established New Amsterdam – now New York – and built farms in the surrounding countryside. Centuries later, the song has survived through Tim Adriance and Dutch-Americans like him, passed on to immigrant children who reached New Jersey in a different age.
The old Dutch influence still echoes across contemporary American life
This is part of a far larger, mostly unexplored story. New Amsterdam was renamed centuries ago, and the hills and copses once known as New Netherland – the short-lived, 17th-Century Dutch colony in North America – now lope gently through a stretch of the US states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut. But like Trip a Trop a Tronjesin Hackensack, the old Dutch influence still echoes across contemporary American life. This is doubly true in the region the Dutch once called home: the architecture, language and culture of New Netherland influences New York today, even if most modern-day inhabitants have little idea of the history beneath their feet.
Learning a trade
New Netherland goes back a long way. The Dutch traded along the Hudson River as early as 1611 and established Fort Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan island in 1625. Four decades later, New Amsterdam, the capital of New Netherland, had grown into a lively port of 1,500. Not that the Dutch were the only Europeans around. In 1630, the English had started their own outpost further north. But Boston (in the state of Massachusetts) and New Amsterdam were very different towns.
“The English were still hanging Quakers in Boston in the 1650s,” said Charles Gehring, an expert in Dutch America and head of the Albany-based New Netherlands Research Center. “The Dutch never hanged anyone for their religious beliefs. You could believe what you want.”
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For example, Johannes Megapolensis, a Dutch pastor, describes in a letter from March 1655 seeing “Papists, Mennonites and Lutherans” walking the streets of New Amsterdam at a time when other Europeans across the Atlantic were engaged in brutal religious wars. In part, this Dutch tolerance was imported from their brethren back home: The Netherlands in the 17th Century was a place of religious freedom and a principled refuge for religious minorities.
Tolerance also had practical benefits. Unlike the Puritans, austere Protestants from England who founded Boston as a religious utopia, the Dutch had earthier ambitions and encouraged anyone who wanted to make money to join the fray.
“[New Amsterdam was] relatively tolerant to religion, very promoting of diversity, as long as people contributed to society and trade,” explained Sophie van Doornmalen, senior cultural officer at the Dutch Consulate in Manhattan.
You only have to explore a contemporary New York neighbourhood like Jackson Heights – home to about 110,000 people but more than 160 languages, with local curry joints squeezed near arepa bars – to see how these same ideals have continued to shape the city.
Politically, of course, this wider Dutch experiment of tolerance did not last. The English first captured New Amsterdam in 1664 and permanently annexed the whole of New Netherland a decade later. By the American Revolution, which kicked off in 1776, Dutch America had already been gone for more than a century. Yet, remarkable traces of their settlement have survived, often in the most surprising places.
Walk down Flushing Avenue on the Brooklyn-Queens border and the view feels grubbily familiar. Warehouses and mechanic shops jostle for space, and flatbed trucks trundle by. But just before you turn right onto Onderdonk Avenue, you step out of New York and into history. On the corner, flanked by a row of Chinese wholesale firms, is a perfect Dutch farmhouse. Shuttered windows sit below a sloping gambrel roof, first shallow, then steep. Climb the hill in the garden and you can see skyscrapers: Manhattan is just a few miles away.
The current Onderdonk House was built in 1709, after the English arrived, (and restored following a fire in 1975) but its foundations date to 1660. In any case, much of the building is historical, said Linda Monte, a director at the house. She pointed out typical Dutch doors, only locking from the inside, then walked outside to admire the handsome whitewashed walls. “Most of the Dutch houses that are left are of wood construction,” she explained. In part, Onderdonk House has survived so long because it’s made of stone.
Remarkable traces of [the Dutch] settlement have survived, often in the most surprising places
Farmsteads like Onderdonk freckle Brooklyn and Queens, physical reminders of a time before mechanic shops and before New York. They are far from alone. Explore the streets of Lower Manhattan, after all, and you are wandering a street plan that would be recognisable to any self-respecting New Amsterdamer. (You can check the original yourself, at Peter Minuit Plaza near the Staten Island Ferry, where a bronze sculpture of the 1660 “Castello Plan” of Dutch streets stands proudly by the water.)
Not that a street plan is all that remains of New Amsterdam. Modern Pearl Street was once named ‘Paerlstraat’ for the oysters that once lived in the harbour. Beaver Street speaks to the importance of animal pelts in the Dutch colony. Head to 85 Broad Street, meanwhile, and you will notice the outline of a building marked in yellow brick on the pavement. This was the Stadt Huys, which ended up as New Amsterdam’s town hallbut was built as a tavern. (At its height, the compact settlement boasted 17 drinking establishments.)
Brooklyn (Breukelen), Harlem (Haarlem), Wall Street (Waal Straat) – are all taken from colonial Dutch
At the same time, many modern buildings in New York owe a debt to the Dutch settlers, who combined the architecture of their European forebears with local materials. The resulting style, now known as “Dutch Colonial”, is one of only “three indigenous architectural forms in the United States,” according to Adriance (the other two are the skyscraper and the ranch house). And though Dutch Colonial buildings can now be found all over the US, the style is hugely popular near where the Dutch first established their colony. Visit the Queens suburbs of Rockaway or Lindenwood, for example, and you’ll find rows of handsome Dutch-style homes from the early 20th Century, their gambrel roofs every bit as distinctive as at the Onderdonk House.
New Amsterdam had a similarly big influence on New York names. Iconic places – Brooklyn (Breukelen), Harlem (Haarlem), Wall Street (Waal Straat) – are all taken from colonial Dutch. Less famous borrowings can be deliciously evocative too. The Bowery, a busy New York street lined with cocktail bars, was once named “bouwerij” (“farm”) for the fields of nearby pasture. If the funfair at Coney Island had been built in 1650, meanwhile, it would have been overrun with bunnies: “conyne” was what the Dutch settlers called wild rabbit.
New Netherland has mottled American English more generally, too. If you’ve ever sat out on the stoop (stoep), spent a dollar (daalder), waited for Santa Claus (Sinterklaas) or eaten a cookie (koekje), you’ve used terms adapted from the early Dutch settlers. Linguistic memory is especially strong up the Hudson, where rural Dutch families spoke a form of “Amerikaans” – the New-World equivalent of Afrikaans, the language developed from 17th-Century Dutch that’s still spoken in South Africa – until last century.
Though of German and Italian extraction himself, Gehring recalls sprinkling his words with Dutch vocabulary even in the 1940s as he was growing up in upstate New York. “We played games with marbles,” he remembered, “and we called them ‘knickers’ because of the knickerbockers, the [Dutch] people who used to make marbles.” Other etymologies chart ‘knickerbockers’ back to the fact that Dutch settlers supposedly rolled up their trousers towards their knees – but whatever its root, the word has enjoyed a long afterlife in New York. Go and see the New York Knicks play basketball, or pop into the elegant Knickerbocker Hotel for a drink, and you’re enjoying institutions named (one way or the other) after the Dutch or their language.
Other Dutch terms are less famous but can still make Gehring smile. For example, he remembers he once confused a West Virginian friend by warning him about a “winklehawk” on his jeans. “He thought it was some sort of bug and started beating his leg,” Gehring laughed. The friend needn’t have worried: the winklehawk was just a rip in his trousers.
If you ain’t Dutch you ain’t much
The vast majority of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, recalling the early Puritan settlers in New England (Thanksgiving is traditionally said to be modelled on a feast of 1621). A Dutch-American Heritage Day does exist, on 16 November, but hardly enjoys the same fame. This disparity is telling: Puritans and their legend have thrilled people at least since Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the 19th Century, but Dutch America is mostly forgotten.
For Gehring, who has spent his life studying New Amsterdam and its legacy, this is a consequence of the 1664 conquest. “The English never really allowed the Dutch to speak for themselves,” he said, citing American writer Washington Irving and his 1809 satirical A History of New York as an example of the way English-speakers dismissed the Dutch. For a long time, the Dutch were thought of as “secondary buffoons in the New World,” Gehring added. Typical is Irving's portrayal of the "Dutch yeomanry" who supposedly smoked so much they became a "lantern-jawed, smoked-dried, leathern-hided race”. Similar attitudes bled into the disparaging idioms reserved for Dutchmen in American English: “to talk Dutch”once meant “to spout nonsense”, and to “go Dutch” still implies stinginess.
An 11th-generation Dutch-American, Adriance also thinks the early obliteration of New Amsterdam damaged its legacy, but wonders if traditional Calvinist diffidence was also a factor in the underestimation of Dutch achievements. “We’re just quietly living our lives with our families, and once in a while, we’ll remind everybody and toot our horns. But we don’t really like having a St Patrick’s Day parade,” he said.
Perhaps they should. For if the winklehawks and gambrel roofs of New Amsterdam still haunt the modern Big Apple, the old Dutch legacy arguably continues in even more fundamental ways. “The New Netherland colony was founded in a spirit of trade and that everybody was welcome,” said van Doornmalen. “I think that sets New York City today apart.”
Adriance agrees, suggesting that the “American ideal [of] living with people who are not necessarily of your own stripe” can be traced back to the original, tolerant Dutch settlement. He surely has a point: New York would later serve as a gateway for countless European immigrants, who first imbibed these values here before heading west. Though the Netherlands might now have a king, meanwhile, Gehring thinks the 17th-Century Dutch Republic could explain modern New York’s enduring reputation as a place where anyone can make their fortune. “The class structures that had developed in England and France – you were born into a certain class, and would die in it – meant it was very unusual to move up society,” he said, explaining that because the Dutch didn’t go in for a monolithic aristocracy, New Amsterdamers started off on a more even playing field, something New Yorkers have been proud of ever since.
In 2016, The Museum of the City of New York opened its first permanent exhibition on the evolution of the city, starting with the “striving Dutch village” of New Amsterdam
Does this mean you can draw a straight line from New Amsterdam to the Bill of Rights? Maybe not. But in culture, politics, language and architecture, Dutch New York has been unfairly scratched from the national story. That is changing, though. Van Doornmalen and her colleagues at the Dutch Consulate offer grants for educational programmes on New Netherland and supported a book on Dutch colonial links to slavery. Other institutions are dipping into this history, too. In 2016, The Museum of the City of New York opened its first permanent exhibition on the evolution of the city, starting with the “striving Dutch village” of New Amsterdam.
For his part, Gehring has spent decades painstakingly translating thousands of colonial Dutch documents into English. His New Netherland Project, a major research scheme into Dutch colonial America, linked to the New Netherland Research Center, has so far worked through 7,000 pages of records and attracts huge interest.
“When we do something that relates to the Dutch, people turn up,” Gehring said. “They want to know, because they've been denied this information for years – it’s all about the Pilgrims, the Puritans, New England.”
That is good news. New Yorkers might not dye the Hudson orange (the colour that symbolises the Netherlands) just yet, but perhaps more people can begin to appreciate the vast Dutch influence on their town. Nor do they have to learn Trip a Trop a Tronjes to get involved. All they have to do is go to City Hall and glance up at the flag. That blue, white and orange is a modified version of the banner first hoisted over the original Dutch harbour. The name has changed and glass towers now loom over the old port, but even five centuries later, New Amsterdam lives on.
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