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Peter Minuit (redirected from Pieter Minuit)

Page history last edited by Liz Johnson 6 years, 8 months ago

Whatever Happened to Pieter Minuit?


Elizabeth A. Johnson - © October 2017


Pieter Minuit is prominent among the earliest figures in the history of the United States. He was one of the first governors of the Dutch colony that was founded about 1621 in the Mid-Atlantic part of North America, in the region that later became the US states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and part of Pennsylvania. Serving as governor of the colony from 1626 to 1632, Minuit has been credited with the purchase of the island of Manhattan from a local Indian tribe in exchange for a quantity of trade goods consisting of kettles, axes, hoes, mouth harps and drilling awls. He is thought to have been lost at sea in 1638 near the island of St. Christopher in the West Indies when a ship on which he was visiting sank during a sudden and violent storm.1 Along with some twenty other ships, the ship Minuit was visiting was driven out to sea. After the storm had passed, most of the surviving ships, some damaged, returned to St. Christopher. Since the ship Minuit had been aboard was not seen there again, it was assumed that the ship had gone down and that Minuit had gone down with it and drowned. But documents have recently emerged2 containing details that may suggest otherwise:


Did Pieter Minuit simply drown, or was his disappearance a result of human intervention?



Pieter Minuit was a Walloon, the son of a French-speaking Flemish couple who had fled to Wesel in western Germany during the time of the Protestant Reformation. He was born in 1584 at Wesel, a city located on the Rhine River near the modern border between Germany and the Netherlands, and had become a well-known and respected merchant of that city. An early employee of the Dutch West Indies Company, Minuit was assigned in 1625 by the Dutch West Indies Company (the WIC) to explore the area between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers for minerals and other resources from which they could take profit. He capably fulfilled this task. Then after the recall of the previous Dutch colonial governor in 1626, he was promoted to governor of the colony and served in that position until 1632. He was recalled in Spring 1632 by the West Indies Company, whose colony it actually was, to explain why the colony had incurred such great expenses under his command. Among other construction projects including two mills, Minuit had caused a large ship to be built in the colony, with the intent of enhancing WIC business. However the WIC strongly objected to the cost of these projects, which cut too deeply into their corporate profits. Minuit left the service of the WIC after his meeting with the directors.


Meanwhile, other European countries had their eyes on North America and its commercial potential. By 1636, Samuel Blommaert, a rich Amsterdam investor with long experience in colonial management and a former WIC director, had become frustrated by a faction of the WIC and its refusal to provide adequate infrastructure and settlers for the colony. Blommeart knew from his experience in the East Indies and his unsuccessful colony on the Connecticut River, that creating a good infrastructure and sending an adequate number of settlers to run the colony was essential to have in place before expecting any colony to begin returning a profit. He also believed that private investors, granted patroonships at certain key locations, would be useful for the financial success of the colony as a whole. But most of the WIC directors did not see things this way, preferring to take as much yearly profit as quickly as possible, while making only minimal investments in the business of the colony. Blommaert withdrew from the WIC and sought investment opportunities elsewhere.


In 1636, Samuel Blommaert entered into partnership with a group of Dutch and Swedish investors. Authorized by the crown of Sweden, the New Sweden Company was formed, with the intent to plant a colony in North America under the flag of Sweden. Blommaert, having known Pieter Minuit from his service as the Dutch governor, recognized that Minuit was uniquely qualified to lead this colony as its director. Secret instructions were drawn up for Minuit. The instructions were extremely detailed concerning where Minuit should plant the colony, where and when he should go for trade products required by the company, and with contingency plans in case he couldn't find the necessary products at the first locations. It is thought that Minuit himself, drawing upon his personal knowledge of the Delaware River and its tributaries and his knowledge of the trade routes and preferred locations of the fur-trading Indians who visited there, drew up much of these instructions himself.3


The chosen site of the New Sweden colony was on the Minquas Kill (now the Christina River) where it meets the Delaware at the site of the present city of Wilmington. It was near the southern end of the Dutch-claimed territory and well away from Fort Nassau, the Dutch trading post situated on the east side of the Delaware on a stream where the present city of Gloucester, NJ is located.4 The Minquas Kill was near a major Indian path and was one of the very best locations along the Delaware where the Minquas Indians (the Susquehannock) from all over Pennsylvania were accustomed to bring their furs for trade. As the Dutch director, Peter Minuit himself had withdrawn the settlers living in the Delaware to Manhattan, knowing that the Delaware River was not adequately defended against any sort of attack. He probably also knew that during the few years after his tenure with the WIC ended, that the Dutch had not repopulated the Delaware and still occupied only a single trading post at Fort Nassau for brief periods during the trading season.


In August 1637, the New Sweden Company sent two ships, the Kalmar Nyckel and the Fama, from Gothenburg with settlers toward North America. Minuit had strict instructions to avoid stopping in any New Netherland port before arriving at the settlement site in the Delaware. But this voyage was fraught with delays from early on. Bad weather in the North Sea damaged the ships shortly after they departed from Sweden, forcing them to put into port on the Dutch island of Texel for repairs and resupply. It is likely that the secret destination was revealed to WIC spies by a knowledgeable settler or ship's officer who was onshore during the repair period. Finally, early in 1638, the New Sweden settlers landed in the Delaware and went to work on the settlement.


Learning of the New Sweden settlement, Willem Kieft, then governor of the New Netherland colony, sent letters from Manhattan to Pieter Minuit, complaining of his encroachment in territory claimed by the Dutch. And once the WIC directors learned of the New Sweden venture, they were undoubtedly furious over Minuit founding a rival colony in territory they considered their own! But Minuit, knowing that the Dutch had little manpower for defense of the Delaware, ignored Kieft's complaints and applied his settlers to building and planting. Then, per his instructions, he set about fulfilling the trade requests for tobacco and salt. Tobacco was then off-season in Virginia, so Minuit would obtain that at Saint Christopher (St. Kitts), the main tobacco-producing island in the West Indies. After completing his trading he would bring the cargo back to Sweden, and take a second contingent of settlers to the Delaware toward the end of 1638. He left for the West Indies, and by early in August he was ready to depart with the cargo in the Kalmar Nyckel from the harbor of St. Christopher.


On August 5, on the eve of departure, a Dutch ship captain from Rotterdam who had sailed for the WIC on several previous voyages, invited Minuit as a guest aboard his own ship, the Vliegende Hart, also in harbor at St. Christopher. According to crew members of the Kalmar Nyckel, Minuit and his captain had been aboard the Vliegende Hart a half hour when a sudden and violent storm came up. The storm had hurricane-force winds which drove over twenty ships out to sea, damaging and dismasting some, while other ships were lost altogether. Although the other ships in harbor that survived the storm returned to St. Christopher in need of repair, the ship Minuit had been visiting was never seen there again. Minuit's crew waited several days in the harbor and searched for him, but finally concluded that Minuit had drowned, and left for Sweden where they reported his death. A contemporary account was written two years later by Samuel Blommaert to the Swedish statesman Axel Oxenstierna in a letter summarizing the history of the New Sweden Colony. Blommaert wrote:


He [Minuit] had traded his cargo for tobacco and being ready to depart from there, went with his captain as guests on board a ship from Rotterdam called het Vliegende Hert that lay there and traded. According to the officers, they had been about a half hour on board when they were overtaken by a hurricane, an extraordinary storm-wind which is said to come only once in 6 or 7 years, whereby all the ships, over twenty, were driven seawards from the harbor, some losing their masts and others lost, including the Vliegende Hert on which were Minuit and his captain. The ship Kalmar Sluytel tacked about for several days before the island, as also did the other ships, but Minuit did not reappear, and after waiting several days it was resolved to return to Sweden.5


Most of the above is already known and is recounted in various histories of colonial North America. But what hasn't been reported until now is that the Dutch ship, the Vliegende Hart, did not sink after all. It limped back into its home port of Rotterdam later in 1638, intact but without Pieter Minuit. Earlier in 1637, Jan Alewijns, captain and part-owner of this ship, had been hired by Jacob Velthuysen, a director of the WIC, for a simple round-trip mission to Brazil and back. Alewijns, a ship captain with a checkered past, was well-known by the WIC directors of Rotterdam, having worked for them from 1632 or earlier. In the 1637-1638 voyage, Alewijns was to take a shipload of goods and personnel to Pernambuco, then return to Rotterdam with a cargo consisting only of salt. The contract included strict instructions for Alewijns and crew not to do any private trading for themselves and specifically not to go to St. Christopher.6 Yet it later appeared that Alewijns' wife was in possession of four hundred pounds of St. Christopher tobacco after his return.7


Clearly it had been learned where and approximately when Pieter Minuit was expected to be in the West Indies. Minuit's instructions could have been leaked by a party in Gothenburg, a primarily Dutch trading colony. Logically it would seem as if someone in the WIC had secretly given Jan Alewijns a hit contract to eliminate Minuit before he could return to New Sweden. Certain parties in the WIC had probably imagined that without Minuit, the New Sweden colony would collapse and the settlers would leave, and all would return to business as usual in the Delaware, including at their valuable fur-trading rendezvous spot on the Minquas Kill.


After the 1637-1638 voyage of the Vliegende Hart, captain Jan Alewijns made one more voyage in it, then retired. He died at Rotterdam in October 1639. According to contemporary notarial acts, his wife had a letter of credit dated 15 April 1638 from Joris Aerdilliaens in Recife, Brazil, which in February 1639 she signed over to another party to cash for her.8 The Vliegende Hart was put up for sale in 1639 by its collective owners; Alewijns' wife was paid for her husband's share of it. He had changed his will just before his final voyage to add additional money for his children.9


There are many questions concerning the voyage of the Vliegende Hart and the conduct of Captain Jan Alewijns. Complaints had been made about his conduct during previous voyages.2 During the 1637-1638 voyage, in late December 1637 as it was outbound from Rotterdam, the Vliegende Hart had encountered another Dutch ship, the Swart Raven, west of Lisbon, Portugal, which had been overtaken by Turkish pirates.10 Alewijns liberated the Swart Raven and its crew, but after doing so, Alewijns himself plundered it! Before continuing on to Brazil, as a sort of self-payment, Alewijns took a substantial part of its cargo of Edam cheeses, plus some spare sails and rigging and the ship's boat, setting these spoils aboard the Vliegende Hart.11


Assuming that it would take perhaps four to six more weeks to reach Pernambuco, the Vliegende Hart should have arrived there by late January or mid-February, 1638. Alewijns was expected to unload the cargo within three weeks, and would not be paid extra in case of delays. What took him so long between the time he offloaded the cargo at Pernambuco and the time he loaded a cargo of salt to bring back to Rotterdam? Why did Alewijns keep the Vliegende Hart in the West Indies until August? A normal round-trip voyage such as this should take six to eight weeks each way, so Alewijns should have returned much earlier in 1638!


Why did Alewijns' wife Clara have a letter of credit made out in April 1638 by a party in Recife, when his contract prohibited him from doing any private business whatsoever during the voyage? Why did Alewijns' wife have St. Christopher tobacco when he was prohibited from doing any private trading? And why was the Vliegende Hart in plain sight at St. Christopher, when in the contract it was explicitly forbidden for it to go there at all?


And, crucially: How did Jan Alewijns know that Minuit would be at St. Christopher? And since the Vliegende Hart indeed survived the storm, why didn’t Alewijns return to St. Christopher, bringing Minuit back to his own ship, or report to the authorities there that his two guests had fallen overboard or otherwise died during the hurricane?


The sudden storm at St Christopher was a lucky break for Alewijns and provided the perfect cover for the probable crime, which otherwise would have been a bit more difficult, albeit not impossible, to explain. Minuit could have had too much wine at dinner and fallen overboard in the darkness... But the hurricane made any such explanation unnecessary.


Although Pieter Minuit's disappearance took place 379 years ago, his case should be reopened as a cold case murder investigation. It has all of the signs of a contract murder: motive, opportunity, insider knowledge, and a money trail. The WIC is known to have planted spies aboard other ships; notably aboard the New Sweden vessel Fama, on its return voyage along with the Kalmar Nyckel in 1644.12 Further research in archives of the Dutch West Indies Company, and in old notarial archives of Rotterdam and Amsterdam, could shed more light upon this case:


Whatever happened to Pieter Minuit?



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Notes and Sources


1. Samuel Blommaert letter, G.W. Kerncamp, Zweedsche archivalia. Brieven van Samuel Blommaert aan den Zweedschen rijkskanselier Axel Oxenstierna, 1635-1641, in Bijdragen en Medelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden, XXIX Deel, pp. 177-178. 1908: Johannes Muller. Translation by the author, Elizabeth A. Johnson. Hereafter Samuel Blommaret letter.


2. Cor Snabel and Elizabeth A Johnson research in notarial archives of Amsterdam and Rotterdam 2004-2017.


3. See “The Secret Instructions for Pieter Minuit" in C. S. Weslager & A. R. Dunlap, Dutch Explorers, Traders and Settlers in the Delaware Valley 1609-1664 (hereafter Weslager & Dunlap), pp. 159-184 (translation of Minuit’s instructions by Dunlap). 1965 (second ed.): Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania.


4. For a definitive analysis pinpointing the location of Fort Nassau, see Weslager & Dunlap, pp. 121-127.


5. Samuel Blommaert letter. Translation by the author.


6. Gemeentearchief Rotterdam, Oud Notarieel Archief Rotterdam (hereafter ONA Rotterdam), inv.nr. 86, aktenummer/blz. 70/132. 25 Sept. 1637. Abstract (translation Elizabeth Johnson): Jacob Velthuysen, a WIC director, contracts with Jan Alewijns, skipper, to take the ship the Vliegende Hart to Pernambuco in Brazil for the Company. Only salt is to be brought back, and the captain and crew may not do private trading in Brazil, the West Indies or at St. Christopher. Further in the contract it is specifically stated that Alewijns is not to take the ship to St. Christopher at all. This is a fairly standard requirement of ship captains during this period, as St. Christopher was the main tobacco-producing island in the West Indies, and the WIC wanted to control all tobacco products brought in on its ships. But this clause makes it all the more surprising that Alewijns defied the ban by appearing so openly in the harbor at St. Christopher.


7. ONA Rotterdam, inv.nr. 343, aktenr/blz 87/159, not. Anthony Huysman. 1 Jan. 1639. Abstract (translation EJ): Jop Hendricx van den Elst transfers to Arent de Vries, merchant, 400 pounds Christoffels tobacco, in possession of the wife of Jan Alewijns, skipper.


8. ONA Rotterdam, inv.nr. 327, aktenummer/blz. 54/114. 12 Feb. 1639. Abstract (translation EJ): Jan Alewijns, skipper, husband of Clara Huyberts, signs a letter of credit over to Jan de May, merchant. In the letter of credit, dated 15 April 1638 in which is written Recife of Pernambuco, Abraham de Bra, merchant of Amsterdam, orders 660 gulden to be paid to the abovenamed Clara. The letter is signed by Joris Aerdilliaens or Ardilliaens. Also named as a party is Allert Holl. On the reverse is a notice to pay Jan de May, signed by Clara Huyberts. Jan Alewijns is understood to be paid. Jan de May signed as Johan de Mey.


9. ONA Rotterdam inv.nr. 417, aktenr/blz. 62/109, not. Jan Egbertsz van der Heul. Jan Alewijns and wife Claertgen Huygens joint will and testament dated 01/11/1639 (translation EJ): Alewijns alone changes their joint testament made two years ago, now adding 300 guldens for the children to share.


10. ONA Rotterdam, inv.nr. 94, aktenummer/blz. 191/331. 10 Feb. 1638. Abstract (translation EJ): On request of the Heers Directors of the West Indies Company a deposition was made by Mathijs Pietersz, age 20. He went as cooks mate with skipper Jan Alewijns from the Maas outbound for Pernambuco in Brazil. At the latitude of Lisbon a Turkish pirate ship came against a fluteship. The Turkish ship took flight. The fluteship that shortly before had been pirated was relieved by Jan Alewijns. Four men of the forenamed Jan Alewijns, to wit: Harmen Mathijsz trompetter, Willem Harpertsz bottelier, Heynrick Pietersz Broeck, and the deponent were set over on the fluteship. Afterward [following an encounter with] a Dunkirker, they sailed to the harbor at Dartmouth in England. He [Mathijs Pietersz] declares that Jan Alewijns had taken [some] Edams cheeses and other goods out of the fluteship.


11. ONA Rotterdam, inv.nr. 94, aktenummer/blz. 190/328. 18 Feb. 1638. Abstract (EJ). Similar to the above testimony, Cornelis Cornelis van der Beets, age 23, serving as sailor on the fluteship Den Raven under skipper Jan Cornelis Raven, coming from Texel toward Lisbon. Van der Beets also notes the removal by Alewijns of the Edams cheeses and other goods, and adds that one of the Turks on board the fluteship was the brother of the governor of Algiers. In yet another notarial act concerning the same incident, two other sailors put the number of cheeses appropriated by Alewijns at 180, and note that the other property taken by Alewijns included ropes, sails, and the ship’s boat [inv.nr. 289, aktenr/blz. 53/71].


12. Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Notarial acten, not. Henrick Schaef – 1290 p.16, 21 Nov. 1644. See Cor Snabel's article 1644: Dutch Spies Aboard New Sweden Ships on this website. 

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