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Kieft's War, also known as the Wappinger War, was a conflict (1643–1645) between settlers of the nascent colony of New Netherland and the native Lenape population in what would later become the New York metropolitan area of the United States. It is named for Director of New Netherland Willem Kieft, who had ordered an attack without approval of his advisory council and against the wishes of the colonists. Dutch soldiers attacked Lenape camps and massacred the native inhabitants, which encouraged unification among the regional Algonquian tribes against the Dutch, and precipitated waves of attacks on both sides. This was one of the earliest conflicts between Native Americans and European settlers. Displeased with Kieft, the Dutch West India Company recalled him and he died while returning to the Netherlands. Peter Stuyvesant succeeded him in New Netherland. Because of the continuing threat by the Algonquians, numerous Dutch settlers returned to the Netherlands, and growth of the colony slowed.
Appointed director by the Dutch West India Company, Willem Kieft arrived in New Netherland in April 4. Without obvious experience or qualifications for the job, Kieft may have been appointed through family political connections. The year before, the English colonies Massachusetts Bay, Providence Plantation, and Windsor, Connecticut, allied with the Mohegan and Narragansett nations, had annihilated the Dutch-allied Pequot Nation. (see: Pequot War and Mystic Massacre) The Pequot defeat eased the way for an English takeover of the northern reaches of New Netherland, along what is now called the Connecticut River. Two weeks before Kieft's arrival, Peter Minuit, a former director-general of New Netherland, established a rogue Swedish settlement (New Sweden) in the poorly developed southern reaches of the colony, along what is now called the Delaware Valley.
Along the Hudson, New Netherland had begun to flourish; the West India Company ran the settlement chiefly for trading, with the director-general exercising unchecked corporate fiat backed by soldiers. New Amsterdam and the other settlements of the Hudson Valley had developed beyond company towns into a growing colony. In 1640, the Company finally surrendered its trade monopoly on the colony and declared New Netherlands a free-trade zone. Suddenly Kieft was governor of a booming economy.
The directors of the Dutch West India Company were unhappy. Largely due to their mismanagement, the New Netherlands project had never been profitable. The company's efforts elsewhere, by contrast, had paid handsome returns. The directors were anxious to reduce administrative costs, chief among which was providing for defense of the colonies. Within this category were land "purchase" agreements with the Native American nations who historically inhabited the lands. (These were payments for recognition of common rights to use of the land, in return for friendly relations and mutual defense.)
Kieft's first plan to reduce costs was to solicit tribute payments from the tribes living in the region. Long-time colonists warned him against this course, but he pursued it, to outright rejection by the local sachems, or chiefs. Determined to force deference, Kieft seized on the pretext of pigs stolen from the farm of David de Vries to send soldiers to raid a Raritan village on Staten Island, killing several. When the band retaliated by burning down de Vries' farmhouse and killing four of his employees, Kieft "put a price on their heads". He offered bounty payment to rival Native American tribes for the heads of Raritan. (Later, settlers determined that de Vries' pigs had been stolen by other Dutch colonists.)
In August 1641, Claes Swits, an elderly Swiss immigrant, was killed by a Weckquaesgeek of his long acquaintance. Swits ran a popular public house, frequented by Europeans and Native Americans in what is today Turtle Bay, Manhattan. The murder was said to be a matter of the native's paying a "blood debt" for the murder of his uncle. He had been the sole survivor of an ambush of Weckquaesgeek traders by Europeans 15 years before. Kieft was determined to use the event as a pretext for a war of extermination against the tribe.
Another incident raising tensions occurred at Achter Kol along the banks of the Hackensack River. Settlers to the new factorij, after having plied local Hackensack with alcohol, engaged in a small but fatal conflict over the loss of a missing coat, and the foreman was killed by the Hackensack.
As the colonists resisted Kieft's Indian initiatives, he tried to use the Swits incident to build popular support for war. He created the Council of Twelve Men, the first popularly elected body in the New Netherlands colony, to advise him on retaliation. But, the council rejected Kieft's proposal to massacre the Weckquaesgeek village if they refused to produce the murderer. The colonists had lived in peace with the Native Americans for nearly two decades, becoming friends, business partners, employees, employers, drinking buddies, and bed partners. The Council was alarmed about the consequences of Kieft's proposed crusade.
The Native Americans were far more numerous than the Europeans and could easily take reprisals against their lives and property. As importantly, the Native Americans supplied the furs and pelts that were the economic lifeblood and the raison d'etre of the colony. With David de Vries as its President, the council sought to dissuade Kieft from war. They began to advise him on other matters, using the new Council to carry the interests of colonists to the corporate rulers. They called for establishing a permanent representative body to manage local affairs (as was traditional by then in the Netherlands). Kieft responded by dissolving the council and issuing a decree forbidding them to meet or assemble.
Kieft sent a punitive expedition to attack the fugitive Indian's village, but the militia got lost. He accepted the peace offerings of Weckquaesgeek elders. On February 23, 1643, two weeks after dismissing the Council, Kieft launched an attack on camps of refugee Weckquaesgeek and Tappan. Expansionist Mahican and Mohawk in the North (armed with guns traded by the French and English) had driven them south the year before, where they sought protection from the Dutch. Kieft refused aid despite the company's previous guarantees to the tribes to provide it. The refugees made camp at Communipaw (in today's Jersey City) and Corlaers Hook (lower Manhattan). In the initial strike, since called the Pavonia Massacre, 129 Dutch soldiers descended on the camps and killed 120 Native Americans, including women and children. Having opposed the attack, de Vries described the events in his journal:
|“||Infants were torn from their mother's breasts, and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents, and pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown...||”|
Historians differ on whether Kieft had directed the massacre or a more contained raid. All sources agree that he rewarded the soldiers for their deeds. The attacks united the Algonquian peoples in the surrounding areas against the Dutch to an extent not previously seen.
In the fall of 1643, a force of 1,500 natives invaded New Netherland, where they killed many, including Anne Hutchinson, the notable dissident preacher. They destroyed villages and farms, the work of two decades of settlement. In retaliation that winter, Dutch forces killed 500 Weckquaesgeek. As New Amsterdam became crowded with destitute refugees, the colonists resisted Kieft's rule.
They flouted paying new taxes he ordered, and many people began to leave by ship. Kieft hired the military commander Captain John Underhill, who recruited militia on Long Island to go against the Natives there and in Connecticut. His forces killed more than 1,000 Natives. After their private letters requesting intervention by the directors of the Dutch West India Company and the Republic produced no result, the colonists banded together to formally petition for the removal of Kieft.
We sit here among thousands of wild and barbarian people, in whom neither consolation nor mercy can be found; we left our dear fatherland, and if God the Lord were not our comfort we would perish in our misery.
— Excerpt from the petition
For the next two years, the united tribes harassed settlers all across New Netherland. The sparse colonial forces were helpless to stop the attacks, but the natives were too spread out to mount more effective strikes. The two sides finally agreed to a truce when the last of the sixty nine united tribes joined in August 1645.
The native attacks caused many Dutch settlers to return to Europe. The Dutch West India Company's confidence in its ability to control its territory in the New World was shaken. Recalled in 1647 to the Netherlands to answer for his conduct, Kieft died in a shipwreck near Swansea, Wales before he reached home. The company named Petrus Stuyvesant as his successor, and he managed New Netherland until it was ceded to the English.
In proportion to the colonial population at the time, Kieft's War had a high rate of fatalities: the militia and mercenary soldiers killed hundreds of natives. In 1642 New Amsterdam had a population of only about 800, estimated to be half Dutch. A relative peace lasted until the 1650s when growing competition for resources contributed to the outbreak of the Esopus Wars.
- Walter Giersbach, Governor Kieft's Personal War, (published online, 26 Aug 2006)
- Shorto, Russell, The Island at the Center of the World, Vintage Books (Random House) 2004, p. 113
- Vowell, Sarah, The Wordy Shipmates, Riverhead books (Penguin) 2008, pp. 166–196
- Shorto, p.118-120.
- Sultzman, Lee (1997). "Wappinger History". Retrieved July 5, 2006.
- Shorto, pp. 110-112, 121
- Ruttenber,E.M., Indian Tribes of Hudson's River, ISBN 0-910746-98-2 (Hope Farm Press, 3rd ed, 2001)
- Shorto, p. 121-120 for Council, passsim for civil society relations with the Native Americans
- Sultzman, Lee (1997). "Wappinger History". Retrieved November 23, 2009.
- Shorto, p. 123
- Henry Cruise Murhy (Translator) Vertoogh van Nieu Nederland, 149, cited in Shorto p. 124
- Winkler, David F. (1998). Revisiting the Attack on Pavonia. New Jersey Historical Society.
- Beck, Sanderson (2006). "New Netherland and Stuyvesant 1642-64".
- Dutch Culture in a European Perspective, p. 56]
- "Journal of New Netherland 1647. Written in the Years 1641, 1642, 1643, 1644, 1645, and 1646". World Digital Library. 1641–1647. Retrieved 2013-08-01.