Adriaen van der Donck

Adriaen Van Der Donck
Portrait of a Man, mid 17th century Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, 1947.17.99 Reputedly a portrait of Adriaen van der Donck, the provenance of this image has been called into question. However, there are no other extant portraits of van der Donck.


In 1640, Adriaen Cornelissen van der Donck, the twenty-year-old son of Cornelis van der Donck, a prosperous burgher of Breda, was a student of civil and cannon law at the University of Leyden. Learning that Killian van Rensselaer, one of the founders and directors of the Dutch West India Company, intended to establish a patroonship at Rensselaerswyck, New Netherland, Van der Donck approached the patroon for a position and was appointed the first Schout (attorney-general) of the patroonship.

In 1641, Van der Donck sailed to New Netherland aboard Den Eykenboom (The Oak Tree). Shortly after his arrival in Rensselaerwyck, Van der Donck found that he was reluctant to enforce the 1629 Charter’s harsh laws affecting the tenants, particularly those forbidding trade. Although Van Rensselaer did not remove Van der Donck from office, he declined to renew their three-year contract when its term expired in 1644.

During his time in Rensselaerwyck, Van der Donck became friendly with some of the local Native Americans and learned their language. In 1645,Van der Donck acted as translator and mediator during Director Willem Kieft’s peace treaty negotiations with the Mohawk tribe. In return the Director granted Van der Donck a land patent for 24,000 acres on the mainland north of Manhattan. The 1646 patent extended from Spuyten Duyvil creek to beyond Yonkers. Van der Donck named the estate “Colendonck” (Donck’s colony) and he himself became known as the “Jonkheer,” the Dutch honorific for nobility. This title is the origin of the present-day place name, Yonkers.

At first, Van der Donck lived quietly, developing his patroonship and engaging in trade. He made friends in New Amsterdam, among them Cornelis Melyn, the chairman of the representative assembly the Eight Men. In 1643, the Eight Men had petitioned the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch parliament to have the Director, Willem Kieft, recalled to Holland to account for the devastation of the colony that had resulted from the terrible Indian War. The document was known as the Remonstrance of the Eight Men of the Manhatas and although the Dutch West India Company disregarded it, the remonstrance raised concern in the Dutch parliament, which then ordered Director Willem Kieft to return to Holland to answer for his conduct.

Director Kieft was replaced by Director-General Pieter Stuyvesent, who was sworn into office before the Dutch parliament on July 28, 1646 and arrived in New Netherland in May 1647. As he set up his administration, he requested the people to select eighteen representatives from among whom he would appoint a representative assembly, the Nine Men. The first assembly was appointed in 1648 but Director-General Stuyvesant deemed the members uncooperative and appointed a second Council in 1649. Adriaen Van der Donck was appointed to the second Council and became its president. The Nine Men suggested calling a convention of the inhabitants to deliberate on the needs of the country, and to prepare a petition to be sent to the authorities in Holland. Perceiving the convention as a threat to his control of the colony, Stuyvesant forbade the gathering and required the Nine Men to submit for his approval any representations that they wished to send to Holland. Prevented from holding the convention, the Nine Men went from house to house to meet with the inhabitants of New Amsterdam, and Adriaen van der Donck kept a journal documenting this work.

When the Director-General learned of these activities, he seized the journal and placed Van der Donck under arrest. The Court of Justice was convened on March 15, 1649, and when the Director-General ruled that Van der Donck could not appear before the court in his defense, Lubertus Van Dincklagen, the vice-director of New Netherland, vehemently opposed the Director-General’s curb on the free exercise of the right of petition. The Court ordered Adriaen van der Donck’s release but also ordered his removal from membership in the Nine Men.

Despite the prosecution, work on the Memorial and Remonstrance continued unabated and the memorial was signed by eleven men (the current and former members of the Nine Men) on July 20, 1649, “in the name and on behalf of the commonalty of New Netherland.” The Remonstrance was a much longer document aimed at educating the Dutch parliament about the New Netherland colony. Van der Donck, Jacob Van Couwenhoven and Jan Evertsen Bout were delegated to sail to Holland to present the documents to the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch parliament. The three men proceeded first to the Hague where they presented their papers to the parliament on October 13, 1649, and the matter was referred to a parliamentary committee. Several weeks later, Cornelis van Tienhoven arrived in the Hague to represent Director-General Stuyvesant and in a long, drawn out process eventually filed an answer to the remonstrance. He skillfully defended the Company and its officers, and questioned the character and motives of the remonstrants.

On the brink of war with England, the Dutch parliament had little time to consider matters in the colonies, but the three delegates repeatedly pressed their case to the legislature. Finally, the Dutch parliament issued its order requiring the Dutch West India Company to mandate that the Director-General replicate in New Amsterdam the form of municipal governance “in this City of Amsterdam.” Van Cowenhoven and Bout, believing that they had attained their goal, returned to New Netherland.

But the West India Company ignored the parliamentary order and Van der Donck was forced to continued the campaign. He had the Remonstrance printed as a pamphlet, Vertoogh Van Nicuw Nederlandt (1650), a quarto tract of forty-nine pages, and commissioned the beautiful Jansson-Visscher map of the American northeast. Together, these documents created great interest in New Netherland among the Dutch citizens.

The Dutch parliament entrusted Van der Donck with a letter dated April 1652 that required Pieter Stuyvesant to return to Holland to give an account of his administration. Immediately, Van der Donck prepared to depart for New Netherland. His family and some settlers he had recruited for his patroonship, Colendonck, embarked on a ship that was leaving for New Netherland and Van der Donck was about to join them when the Company, which owned the ship on which they were traveling, refused to allow him aboard. Soon afterward, the Anglo-Dutch war broke out and the Dutch West India Company immediately alerted the parliament to Stuyvesant’s extensive military experience, which lead parliament to the recall the letter ordering the Director-General to return to Holland.

Unable to join his family in New Netherland, Adriaen Van der Donck returned to the University of Leyden and was awarded the degree of Supremus in Jure which qualified him for admission to practice before the High Court of Holland. During this time, he also wrote a book that expanded on the themes of the remonstrance, and the work was copyrighted in 1653. The enthusiasm of the Dutch people for New Netherland changed the attitude of the Dutch West India Company toward Van der Donck and when he petitioned to return to New Netherland in 1653, permission was granted, although he was barred from politics and prohibited from appearing in court in New Netherland on the ground that no lawyer there was qualified to oppose him. His law practice was limited to the provision of advice to clients.

Adriaen Cornelissen van der Donck died at the age of 35 in Colondonck in 1655, just two years after his return from Holland. His book, Description of New Netherland, was a huge success and two editions were printed, one in 1655 and the second in 1656. A new, widely-acclaimed edition of this work was published in 2008, translated by Diederick Willem Goedhuys and edited by New York scholars Charles T. Gehring and William A. Starna.



The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-century Amerirca. Jaap Jacobs (2009).


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