Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Witches (or Lack Thereof) in New Netherland

"Look she's fallen!"
"Stand back she must be a witch!"
It’s that time of year again; Halloween. Inevitably amidst all the costumes and candy the story of the Salem Witch Trials, from New Netherland’s neighbor Massachusetts, will be brought out again and a new generation of people will learn how mass hysteria led to 20 people being hung or pressed to death between February 1692 and May 1693. This of course leads to the question, how did the Dutch settlers of New Netherland deal with the witches in their midst?

17th Century Guide to identifying witches
            The Dutch certainly believed in witchcraft and magic. When describing Native Americans Reverend Jonas Michaelius wrote “They have so much witchcraft, divination, sorcery and wicked arts, that they can hardly be held in by any bands or locks.”[i] Director Willem Kieft believed the Native Americans were working hexes against him. Of course, given his treatment of Native Americans during his reign, he had ample reason to be suspicious. Peter Stuyvesant, when issuing licenses to magistrates instructed them to come to him and the council in the cases of witchcraft.[ii] Stuyvesant’s sister-in-law was accused of witch craft in Connecticut but a strongly worded letter from him saw her released.

            What is not seen in New Netherland though is a witch trial. Or really anything to do with witches, which should surprise no one as there was not a single witch execution during the 17th century in the Netherlands, and no trials after 1610. Perhaps witches simply avoided the colony? Or perhaps it is another example of the Dutch version of tolerance in which they let others do as they pleased as long as it didn’t effect business? Or perhaps the Dutch Reformed Church’s skeptical view on witches was already dominant?

            Whatever the cause the only witch trial to be held in New Amsterdam came in 1665 when it was English controlled New York City. A couple from the Eastern, English settled, end of Long Island were arrested and brought into the city for trial accused of using sorcery to kill a man and a baby.  They were brought to New York because of the new administration system set up when King Charles granted all the land in the area to his brother James. Prior to that the trial would have taken place in Connecticut. Either way the couple was quickly found not guilty of witchcraft although the husband had to put up a bond to guarantee his wife’s future behavior although that too was soon dropped.[iii]
New Netherland: Witch free since 1609!

            So to make a long story short, in the 17th century if you wanted to be a witch the place to do it was New Netherland. There were no trials and no executions. The fear and panic endured in other colonies never spread to New Netherland.

[i] Jameson, J. Franklin ed. Narratives of New Netherland 1609-1664 Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1959 p 127.
[ii] Burr, George Lincoln Narratives of the New England Witchcraft Cases New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1914 p 41-42.
[iii] Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer History of the City of New York in the Seventeenth Century: New Amsterdam Macmillan, 1909 - New York 74-75.

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