Home and Community

Creating a New Culture

article coming soon

Over the course of two centuries, European society became the dominant force in the land now known as New York, despite the racial and ethnic diversity in the region’s makeup. The process was driven in large part by the European conviction that they followed a God-given mandate to impose their religion and civilization onto foreign soils, an idea that extended to their African captives. When it came to spreading their way of life among the Indigenous people, trade played a large role as well. In the end it was perhaps the Dutch, and later English, hunger for land and ability to occupy that land with a stream of settlers that made their cultural dominance the most successful.

Pearl Street, New Amsterdam, New Netherland

Almost as soon as settlement began in New Netherland, the Dutch established laws for land use that conflicted with the established practices of the Indigenous nations. Early colonial governors fought to maintain Dutch claim on the land while controlling the native population using European legal tradition.  Europeans believed that land not cultivated or otherwise imposed with a purposeful order, like a village or town, was being wasted.  The conflicts that arose as a result caused numerous wars and considerable loss of life. Over time, the European model persevered. The Munsee were almost completely removed from the lower Hudson Valley by the 1730s.  

Afterward, Native groups who visited the colonial cities for trading or diplomacy were bound by European laws and social standards governing daily activities, such as dining. Despite often traveling with large entourages of their countrymen and sometimes welcomed at the expense of local governors, members of Native groups could find themselves judged on, for example, the proper use of silverware, or how well they had absorbed and practiced European manners.  

Slavery was illegal in the Netherlands, and its adoption in New Netherland meant that laws designed to governed indentured servants needed to be revised, while new ones were made throughout the colonial period to manage the growing enslaved labor force. Africans brought to American soil had few options but to assimilate quickly. Elements of African culture, if not completely expunged in new arrivals, were experienced in secret, designed to appear European to avoid detection and punishment. Under the constant threat of violence, the enslaved learned the Dutch and English languages, how to cook unfamiliar foods in unfamiliar kitchens, and how to farm using different animals and equipment.

Both Native peoples and European new arrivals were deeply interested in the trade goods that the other had to offer, which brought the two groups together frequently along the coasts and rivers. Europeans were very interested in the raw goods that could be exported, especially timber and fur. The Native populations were interested in European manufactured goods. Because body covering was deeply tied to their religious beliefs, Europeans made few adaptations to the more severe weather extremes that were part of the American climate, but their cloth proved an attractive purchase for Indigenous peoples.  Dutch and English wools were adapted into traditional dress for leggings, skirts, and match coats, often ornamented with imported beads or silk ribbons. Ruffled shirts of fine, white linen came to symbolize status to Munsee and Haudenosaunee men in the same way they did for European gentlemen. These products and other items were frequently part of treaty agreements or ordinary trade, or given as diplomatic gifts.  

Beliefs and rules around what it meant to be to be civilized (or not) were more universally accepted between members of the various northern European groups who settled here. As more people immigrated into the colony, and the native population declined, northern European sensibilities had a more profound impact on daily life and culture overall.

As a new “American” culture developed during the colonial period, adaptations and adjustments to "Old World" ways continued to be made. Ultimately, it was northern European views, both Dutch and British, and the laws and ways of life based on them, that had the greatest influence on early American culture.


Colin G. Calloway,The Chiefs Now in this City”: Indians and Urban Frontier in Early America. Oxford University Press 2021