Settling America – The Proprietary Colonies

The West India Company, intent on the profits of the fur trade with the Indians of central New York, would not spend the money necessary for the development and defense of the colony. They sent over director-generals who had little concern for the welfare of the people and refused to allow any popular assembly. If the settlers protested that they wanted a government like New England’s, “where neither proprietors, lords, nor princes were known, but only the people,” they were met with the insulting threat of being “hanged on the tallest tree in the land.” Furthermore, the Dutch magistrates were continually involved in territorial quarrels. When Henry Hudson sailed up the majestic river which bears his name in 1609, he was trespassing on the territory granted by King James I in 1606 to the Plymouth Company. The Dutch disputed the right to the Connecticut Valley with the emigrants from Massachusetts and claimed the land along the lower banks of the Delaware River, from which they had driven out some Swedish settlers by force. In 1653, when England was at war with Holland, New Netherland was saved from the attack of the New England colonies only by the veto of Massachusetts on the unanimous vote of the other members of the Confederation of New England.

The fall of New Amsterdam, J.L.G. Ferris

The fall of New Amsterdam, J.L.G. Ferris

Every year the English realized more clearly the necessity of getting rid of the “alien” colony of New Amsterdam, which lay like a wedge between New England and the Southern plantations, controlling the valuable route of the Hudson River and making the enforcement of the trade laws in America impossible. Therefore, in 1664, King Charles II, on the verge of a commercial war with Holland, granted to his brother, the Duke of York, the territory between the Connecticut and Delaware Rivers as a proprietary province. The first the astonished settlers of New Amsterdam knew of this transaction was the appearance of the Duke’s fleet in the harbor, with the court summons to surrender the fort. Director General Stuyvesant, the governor, fumed and stormed, declaring that he would never surrender. But resistance was hopeless. The settlers persuaded the irate governor to yield, although his gunners had their fuses lighted. New Netherland fell without a blow, and the English flag waved over an unbroken coast from Canada to Carolina.

There are still many traces in New York of its fifty years’ occupancy by the Dutch. The names of the old Knickerbocker families remind us of the proprietors’ estates, and one still gets glimpses of the high Dutch stoops and quaint marketplaces in the villages along the Hudson River. But, a far more significant bequest of New Netherland to New York was the spirit of absolute government. Under Dutch rule, the people were without charter or popular assembly, and the new English proprietor was content to keep things as they were, publishing his own code of laws for the province. It was not until 1683 that he yielded to pressure from his own colony and the neighbors in New England and Pennsylvania and granted an assembly. Two years later, when King James II came to the English throne, he revoked this grant and made New York the pattern of absolute government to which he tried to make all the English colonies north of Maryland conform. However, the New York deputy governor, Francis Nicholson, deserted his post and sailed back to England. When a new governor sent by King William III arrived in 1691, he brought orders to restore the popular assembly which King James II had suppressed, and from that time on, the colony enjoyed the privilege of self-government.

New York grew slowly. At the time of the foundation of our national government, it was considered a “small state” as compared with MassachusettsVirginia, and Pennsylvania. It would not be until years later that its growth would begin with the Erie Canal and the New York Central Railroad, which made the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys the main highway to the Great Lakes and the growing West.

New Jersey

Quakers meeting

Quakers meeting

Even before the Duke of York had ousted the Dutch magistrates from his new province he granted the lower part of it, from the Hudson River to the Delaware River, to two of his friends, who were also members of the Carolina board of proprietors, Lord Berkeley, brother of the irritable governor of Virginia, and Sir George Carteret, formerly governor of the island of Jersey in the English Channel. In honor of Carteret the region was named New Jersey in June 1664.

The proprietors of New Jersey immediately published “concessions” for their colony, — a liberal constitution granting full religious liberty and a popular assembly with control of taxation. In 1674, the proprietors divided their province into East and West Jersey, and from that date to the end of the century the Jerseys had a turbulent history, despite the fact that both parts of the colony, after various transfers of proprietorship, came under the control of the peace-loving sect of Friends, or Quakers.

New Jersey was put under the royal governor of New York in 1702 and separated again in 1738. There were constant quarrels between proprietors and governors and between governors and legislatures, until New Jersey revolted, with the rest of the American colonies, in the American Revolution.


The landing of William Penn, J.L.G. Ferris

The landing of William Penn, J.L.G. Ferris

One of the Quaker proprietors of West Jersey in the early days was William Penn, a young man high in the favor of the Duke of York and his royal brother Charles, on account of the services of his father, Admiral Penn, to the Stuart cause. When the old admiral died he left a claim for some sixteen thousand pounds against King Charles II. William Penn, attracted by the idea of a Quaker settlement in the New World, accepted from the king a tract of land in payment of the debt. He was granted an immense region west of the Delaware River, which he named “Sylvania” (woodland), but which the king, in honor of the admiral, insisted on calling Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, King Charles II was in the midst of the quarrel with the colony of Massachusetts and was no longer willing to grant proprietors the almost unlimited powers which he had granted to Lord Baltimore and the Carolina proprietors.

The Penn charter contained provisions that the colony must always keep an agent in London, that the Church of England must be tolerated, that the king might veto any act of the assembly within five years after its passage, and that the English Parliament should have the right to tax the colony. Disappointed that the charter of 1681 gave him no coastline, Penn persuaded the Duke of York in 1682, to release to him the land which the Dutch Director-General of New Netherland had earlier wrested from the Swedes on the Delaware River in 1655.

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