From shipwrecks to Old Masters: Seven examples of the traces left by the Dutch in America

Around five million Americans count themselves as having Dutch ancestry. Yet most of them know very little about the long history that these two countries share. The situation is similar in the Netherlands.

Schets met daarop: Gezicht op een klein stadje aan een rivier, voorstellend Nieuw Amsterdam, thans New York, 1680 – 1709
Image: ©RCE / Schenk, P.
"Nieu Amsterdam, een stedeken in Noord Amerikaes. Nieu Hollant, op het eilant Mankattan: namaels Nieu jork genaemt, toen 't geraeckte in 't gebiet der Engelschen." Etch by P. Schenk, 1680 - 1709.

Our shared history with the United States began in 1609, when the English navigator Henry Hudson sailed up a river estuary in the so-called New World while in the service of the Dutch East India Company. That river would later be named after him. Instead of an alternative route to Asia he came upon an abundance of fertile land with plenty of opportunities for trade. His mission laid the foundation for a trading post that grew to become the colony of New Netherland in the first half of the 17th century, with New Amsterdam as its major settlement. The English later changed the name New Amsterdam into New York.

Dutch values?

Although that period only lasted until about 1674, it still features prominently in the popular history of the United States. In some places, Dutch-American Friendship Day is celebrated every year on 19 April, for instance, and Dutch-American Heritage Day is on 16 November. In 2019, the City of New York added another annual celebration: New Amsterdam Cultural Heritage Day on 8 April. When these days of commemoration were established, much was made of the two countries’ shared values such as religious freedom and tolerance, which, thanks to New Netherland, would live on in American society.

Dutch migration to the US

Over the past four centuries, around half a million Dutch people have come to America to seek a new life. Most of that migration happened in three specific periods. The first period was the 17th century, when the Dutch West India Company established a trading post on the east coast of the today’s United States, which grew to become the colony of New Netherland. During the second period of migration, from 1845 to the 1920s, most Dutch migrants settled in the Midwest. The Protestants who had broken away from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1834 were particularly well-represented during that period. The third wave of migration took place between 1938 and 1962 and, like that of a century earlier, was triggered by a period of economic hardship in the Netherlands. In addition to a relatively large number of people of Reformed protestant faith, this group also included Eurasians from the (former) Dutch East Indies, who settled mainly in California.

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Schilderij door Len Tantillo van Fort Orange and the Patroon’s House.
©Len Tantillo
Len Tantillo - Fort Orange and the Patroon’s House. Fort Oranje, a wooden fortress, was taken into use by WIC in 1624.

Countless traces of the Dutch presence in America

In an earlier blog, we explained how historical ties have left traces of American culture in the Netherlands. But the opposite is also true: in the United States, there are so many reminders of our shared past: in place names (Coney Island: Konijneneiland); Dutch loanwords (dollar: daalder); the food we eat (pancakes: pannenkoeken); and also in buildings, cemeteries, shipwrecks and museum collections. In this blog we will highlight just a few examples, because there are too many to mention them all.

1. Dutch shipwrecks

The maritime relationship between the Netherlands and America is centuries old. It was the Dutch East India Company that visited the east coast of America in the early 17th century in search of new routes and sales markets. After the establishment of the Dutch West India Company, it was decided to create a trading post on Manhattan island, in today’s New York City. That temporary base became a permanent settlement, and thus a lasting connection between the Netherlands and America was created. Many ships came and went, and some Dutch ships were wrecked off the coast.

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Foto van SS Arundo
©US Coast Guard
SS Arundo

There are probably dozens of wrecks still under the water today. Some of them have already been found and explored, such as De Braak which was wrecked in 1798 (under a British flag), and the mysterious Roosevelt Inlet wreck. Both of these ships are in Delaware Bay. Other vessels are still missing, such as the Tijger which dates from 1600. That was the very first Dutch ship to be lost off the east coast of America, and it was owned by the Van Tweenhuysen Company.

Many ships were also lost during the Second World War, particularly Dutch merchant ships, such as the SS Arundo near New York or the MV Mamura.

The fascinating history of these and other ships can be found on the MaSS website.

2. Dutch barns

The presence of the Dutch is still visible in rural America. New arrivals to the New World often brought their own traditions and customs with them from their homelands, and the Dutch settlers were no exception. In the Netherlands, farmers would live and work in the same building, with everything under one roof. They did the same when they arrived in America at the time. That type of farm is called a housebarn.

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foto van een Dutch barn uit ca. 1800 in de staat New York
Dutch barn from around 1800 in the state of New York

Due to the influence of the climate, the building materials available, living conditions and the arrival of the English, farms in the New World developed in their own way from the second half of the 17th century to become a new type: the Dutch farmstead. This type of farm consisted of a detached house (the Dutch house), a barn (the Dutch barn), and in some cases a house for workers or enslaved Africans, an outdoor toilet and a hay barn. That meant that different buildings were now used for different functions.

Most Dutch farmsteads did not survive the centuries, and only parts of them have been preserved. But many examples of Dutch barns can still be found.

3. Pinkster

Dutch migrants brought their 17th-century version of the Pentecost celebration with them to the Hudson Valley, where the festival continued to develop in its own way. For the Dutch settlers, ‘Pinkster’ was a religious holiday celebrated by going to church and visiting neighbours. Children would paint eggs and people ate special treats. Pinkster was also an important celebration for the enslaved Africans owned by the Dutch settlers. Over time, they made their own mark on the festival, and eventually Pinkster was no longer seen as a Dutch tradition but as an African-American tradition instead.

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foto van mensen die Pinkster vieren in Crailo State Historic Site, 2018
©NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Pentecost celebration at Crailo State Historic Site, 2018

Because they were often scattered throughout the country, Pinkster was the only time of the year when enslaved Africans were free to go and visit their relatives and friends. Many travelled from the countryside to New York City, which was home to a large community of African Americans, some of them free and some of them enslaved. The Africans celebrated Pinkster by parodying their owners and temporarily turning the established social hierarchy on its head by choosing a ‘Pinkster King’. Pinkster also gave them an important opportunity to celebrate their own culture and to pass on traditions.

Several historical house museums in New York State have recently revived the Pinkster festival. The celebration combines Dutch and African traditions, such as painting eggs, stilt walking, African music and dance and storytelling. These museums show that the state of New York has a history of slavery, too – one that is inextricably intertwined with that of Dutch and other European settlers.

For more information, visit:

What is pinkster
Dutch New York Histories: Connecting African, Native American and Slavery Heritage
NY State Parks - Crailo State Historic Site

4. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York State

There are dozens of cemeteries in the US which remind us of the country’s shared past with the Netherlands. One of those cemeteries is in the town of Sleepy Hollow. In the 18th century, Sleepy Hollow was also known as ‘Beekmansdorp’.

In 1784, Petrus van Tessel (1728-1784) was buried in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow. Van Tessel was the descendant of Dutch settlers who had settled in the Hudson Valley from 1621 onwards. In addition to Dutch, there are also inscriptions in Latin and English on his gravestone. The sign next to the tombstone shows that Van Tessel took part in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The small cemetery is part of a complex with a church that was built by order of Frederick Philipse (1626-1702).

Van Tessel married Katharina Ecker, who inspired the character of Katrina in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow written by Washington Irving. That story is part of his collection of short stories The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, and is also one of the most widely read American stories. The story was also a source of inspiration for Tim Burton's film Sleepy Hollow (1999).

For an example of Dutch sounding heritage at a cemetery in America, see:
Bells for America / The Cold War, Modernism, and the Netherlands Carillon in Arlington

5. 48 Hudson Avenue, Albany

At 48 Hudson in Albany, some 150 miles outside of New York City, stands one of the oldest and best-preserved examples of Dutch architecture in the Hudson Valley – and one of only a handful of examples remaining. The area was celebrated by Russell Shorto as ‘the cradle of New Netherlands’ in his bestseller The Island at the Center of the World. The modest but historically significant Van Ostrande-Radliff House, which dates from 1728, owes its name to the property's first and second owners. It is a brick-filled timber frame construction, a building method that was introduced by Dutch migrants and was common throughout the Hudson Valley in the 17th and 18th centuries. As such, it is a significant reminder of the historical ties between the two countries.

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foto van een groep bezoekers bij het pand 48 Hudson Avenue
©Historic Albany Foundation
48 Hudson Avenue

The Historic Albany Foundation (HAF) is committed to preserving the building, which has been vacant for some time and is in danger of losing its place in today's dynamic urban environment. The Dutch Consulate in New York and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands are supporting the HAF in its aim of finding a new role for the Van Ostrande-Radliff House in modern-day Albany.

6. Dutch Old Masters in the United States

The work of the Dutch Old Masters is very popular in the US. Works of art by Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, Judith Leyster and many others are on display throughout the US – at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Art Institute in Chicago, for example.

A very special collection can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 2017, the museum received the exceptional gift of 114 seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish Old Master works. Two couples – Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie – not only donated their special collections but they also made a donation to establish the Center for Netherlandish Art.

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The centre will open in the autumn of 2021, and its mission is to promote multidisciplinary research, train a future generation of academics and curators and share Dutch and Flemish art with a wider audience in order to increase appreciation for the Old Masters. To promote links between the Netherlands and the US, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also set up the Kingdom of the Netherlands Fund for Dutch Scholars in 2018, which helps Dutch researchers to travel to Boston.

Further information: MFA Center for Netherlandisch Art

foto van Molen De Zwaan
©Sophie van Doornmalen
De Zwaan Windmill, Holland, MI

7. De Zwaan Windmill, Holland, Michigan

In the 1960s, the residents of Holland, Michigan – a city founded by Dutch immigrants in 1840 – were looking for a symbol to emphasize the city's Dutch identity. That symbol was found in the form of a windmill: De Zwaan windmill dates from 1884, and until that time had stood in the town of Vinkel in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. The mill was shipped to the US in 700 exactly numbered pieces, then put back together. Now the building is part of the Windmill Island Gardens which hosts tens of thousands of admiring visitors every year. In the spring, the windmill really comes into its own among the tulip fields during the Tulip Time Festival, where Dutch culture is celebrated with clog dancing, authentic costumes and Dutch delicacies such as oliebollen.

De Zwaan is the only authentic functioning Dutch flour mill in the US. The mill still produces flour to this day, under the management of head miller Alisa Crawford, who now has a number of titles to her name. As well as being the first Dutch qualified miller in America, she is also the first female and first non-Dutch member of the Ambachtelijk Korenmolenaars Gildethe Artisan Millers Guild.

Michigan might be a bit far for some people to travel in order to see the mill. Luckily, windmill lovers can also visit the town of Vinkel again. A replica of De Zwaan has been built under the supervision of De Vinkelse Molen Foundation. It took ten years to build the replica, and it was completed in 2020.

More information:

Windmill Island Gardens
De Zwaan - De Vinkelse Molen

More information

More information about the shared cultural heritage of the United States and the Netherlands, from the 17th century to the present day, can be found in the publication Shared Cultural Heritage of the United States and the Netherlands.