Excerpt: New Netherland Connections, by Susanah Shaw Romney

New Netherland Connections:  Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century AmericaSusanah Shaw Romney locates the foundations of the early modern Dutch empire in interpersonal transactions among women and men. As West India Company ships began sailing westward in the early seventeenth century, soldiers, sailors, and settlers drew on kin and social relationships to function within an Atlantic economy and the nascent colony of New Netherland. In the greater Hudson Valley, Dutch newcomers, Native American residents, and enslaved Africans wove a series of intimate networks that reached from the West India Company slave house on Manhattan, to the Haudenosaunee longhouses along the Mohawk River, to the inns and alleys of maritime Amsterdam.

Using vivid stories culled from Dutch-language archives, New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America brings to the fore the essential role of women in forming and securing these relationships, and she reveals how a dense web of these intimate networks created imperial structures from the ground up. These structures were equally dependent on male and female labor and rested on small- and large-scale economic exchanges between people from all backgrounds. This work pioneers a new understanding of the development of early modern empire as arising out of personal ties.

New Netherland Connections was awarded the 2013 Jamestown Prize from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Annual Hendricks Award for 2013 from the New Netherland Institute.

In the following excerpt (pp. 41-43), Romney discusses how Dutch travelers across the Atlantic often depended on women relatives for management of their financial interests back in the Netherlands.


Eventually, soldiers, sailors, and travelers left the houses and inns of maritime Amsterdam behind and took their place on board ships headed to New Netherland and elsewhere. With the chartering of the [West India Company (WIC)] in 1621, the number of Atlantic-bound ships rose, and increasing numbers of Amsterdammers followed in Marritgen Wouters’s footsteps, waving goodbye to family, spouses, and friends sailing out across the Zuider Zee. As those ships began taking settlers to North America in 1623, more and more travelers needed someone to help them manage their newly transatlantic finances. They turned to their kin, immediate connections, and family. Ties within and between maritime families enabled people to negotiate the small-scale, informal, and grey economies that flourished in these years. Once the WIC changed its regulations to allow wider access to the beaver-skin trade in 1638, travelers used these same intimate networks to enter the transatlantic fur trade. Growing migration by middling families and the creation of a burgher population in New Netherland in the 1640s and 1650s caused an even wider range of travelers and Amsterdammers to become caught up in trading networks involving an ever greater variety of goods. Complex webs and financial instruments show that these networks developed into a functional Atlantic economy that ran in tandem with the economy of formal companies and larger interests. The structure of this new Atlantic economy paralleled that of the local early modern economy, from the participation of women to the reliance on face-to-face, personal systems of credit and trust. Thus, the intimate networks of travelers and Amsterdammers allowed for the development of a diffuse, participatory commercial economy that diversified the trade system beyond the large-scale merchant houses and equally helped establish the Dutch Atlantic empire.

When Amsterdammers and travelers waved goodbye to one another, the financial ties between them did not suddenly end; people continued to manage their personal and financial lives together. The wealthiest travelers left behind families and kin, houses and partnerships, accounts and credits due. The poorest left crushing debts and needy family members. People had to find someone they could trust to represent them honestly and further family interests in their absence. Travelers most often turned to the very family members, kin, and intimate connections who waved goodbye from shore. Relatives and in-laws, parents and spouses, friends and neighbors were among those whom travelers counted on most. For instance, Wouter Jansz, a sailor going to “the Virginias” in the service of the WIC in 1627, asked his two uncles to oversee the inheritance due him from the estate of his wife’s late grandmother. Both his financial capital and his financial representatives were drawn from among his close relatives.[1]
To enable their family, kin, and friends to act for them, sailors, soldiers, and settlers relied on legal empowerments to transform their personal bonds into powerful legal and economic assets. When Claes Jansz was about to embark for New Netherland in March 1648, he empowered Anna Jansz, his sister, to look after his affairs during his absence. He needed to choose someone he trusted well to have “oversight, authority, and administration” over the two houses he owned and rented out in Amsterdam. He authorized her to “make new leases with the present occupants or to rent the same to others, all as she shall find good and advisable.” He also asked her to collect from anyone else who owed him money for any reason, “promising to hold good and valid all that by his . . . sister shall be done or transacted regarding this.” Through the legal instrument of the empowerment, Anna Jansz became an important financial agent for her brother.[2]

Men sailing out from Amsterdam often trusted and relied on their wives above all others. Like all Dutch huysvrouwen, or housewives, maritime women formed essential partnerships with their husbands, and they had detailed knowledge of their seafaring spouses’ interests and personal property. Marritgen Wouters, whose late husband had sailed as the Swarte Beer’s skipper in 1619, could enumerate years later in precise terms every item she had packed for “her deceased husband, which he had taken with him in his Eastern chest on his journey to the Virginias.” She recounted everything from his nine shirts, five of which were new, to his two “ear pillows,” to over twenty-seven guilders in reals of eight. She demanded restitution for all of these items, and many more, from Skipper Adriaen Jorisz, who helped bring her late husband’s ship home from Zeeland. She was angry at having only received a few of her husband’s possessions and but “eight english five-stiver coins.” Her exact list shows that her husband’s sea chest was very much an extension of the intimate space of the home, and she knew its insides as well as those of her own cupboards. Her husband’s chest had great importance to her as the last remnant of their financial partnership. She expected that everything, every penny, would return, even if her husband did not. This kind of personal interest and intimate knowledge made wives ideal legal representatives.[3]

Strengthening the marital tie with an empowerment allowed families to circumvent legal restrictions on women and wives and enabled them, instead, to become powerful economic actors while their husbands were away. Before his departure to New Netherland in 1647, Jacob Claesz Berckman van Amsterdam followed a typical, broad formula when he authorized his wife, Aeltgien Dircxdochter, to oversee all his business and affairs with anyone, taking care to mention that she could “buy, sell, rent, and benefit fixed and real property.” These kinds of documents changed a wife’s position under the law. Like women in much of Western Europe, women in the early modern Netherlands lost their ability to act at law and make binding contracts when they married, at which point they came under the legal authority of their husbands. Through public proclamation, men could even prevent their wives from incurring debts for minor household affairs customarily permitted to all women. Empowerments, however, reversed the legal incapacities brought about by marriage, making it possible for women to appear in court, contract, and sue on behalf of husbands, brothers, and kin.[4]


From New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America, by Susanah Shaw Romney. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia.

  1. [1]Empowerment, May 7, 1627, Not. Arch. 721, 158, Not. P. Carelsz, SA.
  2. [2]Empowerment, Mar. 25, 1648, Not. Arch. 1690, unpaginated, Not. P. de Bary, SA.
  3. [3]Testimony / demand for payment, Oct. 24, 1622, Not. Arch. 691, 30v-31, Not. J. Warnaertsz, SA.
  4. [4]Empowerment, Apr. 19, 1647, Not. Arch. 1294, 48–48v, Not. H. Schaef, SA (quotations). See also, Empowerment, May 15, 1652, Not. Arch. 2279, V, 25, Not. J. de Winter, SA. On empowerments’ centrality to seamen’s wives’ ability to act at law, see De Wit, “Zeemansvrouwen,” Tijdschrift voor sociale en economische geschiedenis, II, no. 3 (2005), 71; Van den Heuvel, “Bij uijtlandigheijt,” 72–76. On court petitions by Dutch East India Company sailors’ wives who lacked empowerments, see Van der Heijden and Van den Heuvel, “Surviving Strategies,” in Cavaciocchi, ed., Ricchezza del mare ricchezza dal mare, 1103–1120. For commentary on the legal practices of the time, see Hugo Grotius, The Jurisprudence of Holland, trans. R. W. Lee, I (Oxford, 1926), 30–31. The use of empowerments to allow wives to act for absent husbands resembles the custom of female “deputy husbands” under English law in colonial America. People in Old and New Amsterdam seemingly likewise thought that “the wife could appropriately stand in” for an absent husband; see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650–1750 (New York, 1991), 33–50 (“deputy husbands,” 35, “wife,” 36). However, wives cannot be understood to have automatically stepped into that role. In Dutch practice, wives needed empowerments to safely shed their legal incapacity. Departing men sometimes empowered other relatives instead, and men and courts sometimes refused to recognize wives as legal actors if they did not produce an empowerment. The best accounts suggest that this was also true in English colonial legal systems; see Terri L. Snyder, Brabbling Women: Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia (Ithaca, N.Y., 2003), 119–120. Snyder makes clear that a “deputy husband” was still a feme covert unless she received an empowerment. For growing hostility toward empowerments for seamen’s wives in America at the turn of the nineteenth century, see Lisa Norling, “‘How Frought with Sorrow and Heartpangs’: Mariners’ Wives and the Ideology of Domesticity in New England, 1790–1880,” New England Quarterly, LXV (1992), 422–446.