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Our History: Early NY showed few signs of a world center

Though Holland was considered one of the most literate countries in Europe for its time in the 17th century, the Dutch West India Company, which started the New Amsterdam settlement, paid little attention to schools in their colony. And, the settlement got little attention from the company's officers who were more interested in the Spice Islands and African trade.

But New Amsterdam’s settlers differed from those of other colonies.

The were spared starvation because the indentured servants, peasants, and craftsmen emigrated for different reasons. Most likely they did so at the behest of their landlords and owners, and their skills made them not such a bad lot to start a settlement. They were so countrified many lacked a surname . On a roster a man named Jan Jans (John, son of John) was identified by his village as Jan Van Alst (John from Alst.) Such is the origin of some wealthy American characters in fiction and, indeed, monikers of some families of wealth.

By and large the Dutch in Europe were tolerant in religion and enjoyed high employment and relative freedom of expression at the time, therefore, most of the population lacked a good reason to emigrate.

The theory that the Dutch were outnumbered in their own colony can be borne out by the fact that of the first 300 persons married in New Amsterdam's official Reformed Church, only 163 were Dutch. Governor Kieft reported to a Jesuit missionary in the 1640s that he ruled men of 18 different languages. The first settlers were, in fact, French-speaking Walloons from what is now Belgium. There were, as well, Danes and other Scandinavians, Jewish refugees from Portugal, and refugee Huguenots from the west and south of France. Well before that, before England ousted the Dutch, Long Island was becoming home to English settlers crossing the Sound from New England seeking religious freedom.

What was New York like in that period so often neglected by historians, a period covering its Dutch beginnings and its status as an English colony? It was a colony which stood apart from its siblings. Settled by the Dutch, conquered by the English, it was never truly “colonized.” As a consequence it was the most socially mixed of all the colonies and truly bilingual. As different as it was from the other colonies, in its story lies a foreshadowing of what America at large was to become in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Colonial New York, more than any other mainland colony throughout much of the 17th century, was an aural society. Letters and mail, for example, were far less important than in later times. For the most part New York at the time was a pre-literate society.

Printing did not actually begin in New York until 1693. During his term the then English governor, Francis Lovelace, tried to improve the efficiency of both travel and communication. In July 1673 he inaugurated regular overland mail service to Boston, sending the first courier from the fort at Bowling Green at the tip of Manhattan. For the next half century mail would be carried by riders and delivered, usually, in less than a week. Mail coaches did not come on the scene until 1730.

Because envelopes did not come into use until the 1840s, letters were instead folded three times in each direction, tucked and sealed with wax and addressed.

Governor Lovelace tried to introduce a printing press to the province but he was not successful. This reliance on the spoken more than the written word was fraught with consequences.

In 1664 then-Governor Nichols instructed his magistrates in all the Long Island towns: “I do require you to assemble your inhabitants and read this letter to them.” Proclamations, commissions, and instructions were read aloud to the populace usually from a main point of assembly such as City Hall.

In the absence of political journalism, people could afford to be more candid in speech at community meetings, the conference table, and the courtroom. Since nothing was recorded in print, people were more candid with their opinions, but they listened carefully.

In 1671 Long Islanders sent Governor Lovelace a protest against taxation to which he replied, “In regard of the distance of the place and the avoiding all prolixity which would inevitably ensue should these disputes be managed by writing,” he was sending commissions to the various Long Island settlements to deal with them, “to beget a true understanding.”

During his governorship Lovelace concerned himself with improving ferry service, regulating trade, promoting local shipbuilding, encouraging religious tolerance and establishing towns and villages. Despite his efforts, he, like many of the 15 men who tried to govern New Netherlands and New York in the Dutch-Anglo period, was chastised and was one of five governors recalled in disgrace.

Though there are no precise figures, it is estimated that in 1660 some 60 percent of Dutch women in New York were illiterate; the figure for men slightly lower. Listening, however, was a sense honed as necessary for survival. Therefore there was a constant presence of town criers, Rattle Watchmen, chimes and bell ringing — appearing much like a medieval town.

The colony could be likened to a medieval town in another respect — it was crowded with as many shopkeepers as customers, most of whom traded in small articles such as tobacco, liquor, pins, thread, and various knick-knacks. It is not surprising then to learn that the first Merchants Exchange in America was established here by Governor Lovelace.

In the end it was the tradesman who fostered political audacity, and by 1680 then-Governor Andros faced a growing tax revolt. This was followed by a time of dissatisfaction throughout Long Island, and a desire for annexation to Connecticut was rekindled.

Nine tumultuous years were to follow, and protests spread and continued until changes were initiated in 1683. These were only constitutional and economic questions, but also changes in our relationships with the French, the Indians, neighboring colonies, and especially with the “home” government overseas.

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