Footnotes of the New World

Most people know of the four major European countries that colonized the Americas in the 15th through 18th centuries; Spain, Portugal, France, and England. These powers divided the Americas between them and spread the European languages and culture to the New World. However while these were the longest lasting and largest of the European countries to plant their flag in the New World, they were not the only ones. Several other smaller nations set out with colonial ambitions of their own.

Aside from England, France, Spain, and Portugal, the Netherlands had the largest presence in the New World during the colonial era, and the only countries besides those four to have kept territory in the Americas until the present day. The history of Dutch colonization is intertwined with the trading empire that flourished from Amsterdam. Most of the colonies that the Netherlands established in the Americas were governed by the Dutch West India Company. The first colonies consisted of sugar plantations on the northern coast of South America and in the Caribbean. These colonies grew during the 17th century as Dutch planters brought in African slaves to work on the plantations. However, the Dutch colonies around Recife in norhteastern Brazil were lost to the Portuguese in 1661, and over the centuries the British and French whittled down the rest of the Dutch colonies. The last Dutch territory in South America was granted independence as the country of Suriname in 1975. In the Caribbean, the Netherlands still has territory in the islands of Curacao, Aruba, and Sint Maarten.

However, these were not the only colonies the Dutch had in the Americas. For almost sixty years in the 17th century, the Netherlands controlled various settlements in what is now the northeastern United States. In 1609 the Dutch East India Company commissioned Henry Hudson to find the fabled Northwest Passage, but he came back with only findings of the area around Long Island Sound and the Hudson River. Afterward, Dutch traders and settlers sailed to the newly discovered land and set up trading posts and forts on the Hudson and Connecticut rivers and on Long Island. These include Fort Orange at present-day Albany, Bergen in New Jersey, Fort Goede Hoop at present-day Hartford, and most importantly, the city of New Amsterdam, now known as New York. The intent of the New Netherland colony was to profit from the fur trade, and for a time it did. The colony even expanded taking over the Swedish colony of New Sweden on the Delaware River in the 1650s. New Amsterdam thrived as a trading center and the city grew quickly. However the English expansion in Virginia and New England quickly encroached upon New Netherland, and after England seized the colony in Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Treaty of Breda ending the war ceded the colony to the English in exchange for more valuable land in Suriname. However, the Dutch presence in New York can still be seen today with names such as Brooklyn (Breuckelen), Flushing (Vlissingen), and Harlem in New York City and the many placenames ending in ‘kill’ in the area such as the Schuylkill River and the Catskills (‘kil’ means river inlet in Dutch).

Along with the Netheralnds, Sweden also had a somewhat lasting colony in on the eastern seaboard during the early 17th century. The colony of New Sweden began in 1638 and was created, like New Netherland, to bypass the French and English monopoly on the fur trade. Swedish settlers built several forts and towns around the mouth of the Delaware River, including Fort Christiana at what is now Wilmington, Delaware. However, New Sweden lay within the area of the continent claimed by the New Netherland colony. In 1655, when Sweden was embroiled in a war with Poland in the Baltic, the Dutch seized the colonies and incorporated it into New Netherland. A century after the end of New Sweden, the Swedes gained another colony, this time in the Caribbean. In 1784 King Louis XVI of France gave the isle of Saint Barthelemy to Sweden in exchange for trading rights in Sweden. Sweden held Saint Barthelemy until 1878 when a referendum handed the island back to France.

Sweden was not the only Scandinavian country to have colonies in the New World. Denmark also settled several islands in the Caribbean. Danish interest in establishing a New World colony began in the 1620s, but due to the country’s involvement in the Thirty Years’ War, efforts were delayed for decades. The first Danish settlement was founded on the island of Saint Thomas in 1655, and over the next fifty years Denmark expanded its enterprise to include the neighboring island of Saint John. In 1733 Denmark purchased the island of Saint Croix to the south from France. Denmark kept these islands until 1917, when they were sold to the United States and became the U.S. Virgin Islands.

While those were the only definitively independent colonies held by minor countries, there were a few others that are more ambiguous. The more well known of these is the Scottish colonies. The reason the Scottish colonies are nebulous is because they were all created after the personal union between England and Scotland arose, but before the formal unification of Great Britain. The first of these occurred in the 1620s, when James I of England (and VI of Scotland) chartered Scottish colonies in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. These colonies were not extensively settled however, and only lasted a few years before they were ceded to the French as part of treaties between France and England. Later in 1683, the early organization of the New Jersey colony divided the region into English-settled West Jersey and Scottish-settled East Jersey. This arrangement lasted for twenty years before the integration of the two halves into a single New Jersey colony. However, before the 17th century ended, there was still one more colony established by Scottish settlers; the Darien colony in Panama. The Darien colony is also the only one of these that could be said to be truly Scottish. In 1695, as a last desperate show of Scottish independence, the Scottish Parliament organized a scheme to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama. The settlement of New Edinburgh was founded, but poor supply, hostility and attacks from the nearby Spanish colonies, and tropical diseases led to the failure of the colony within five years.

Lastly, there were also efforts by some of the small but wealthy German states to gain colonies in the Americas and take advantage of the Trans-Atlantic trade routes. The first colony settled by Germans was Klein-Venedig, or Little Venice. During the beginning of the Spanish colonization of the New World, large land grants were given by the Spanish government to nobles by the Habsburgs. As king Carlos I of Spain was also Holy Roman Emperor Karl V, he granted the Venezuelan coast to the Welser banking family in Augsburg in order to pay off debts. The Welser family organized expeditions to Klein-Venedig to found cities and explore inland in search of El Dorado. However after numerous failed expeditions the Spanish crown took an opportunity to take royal control of the province in 1540. Another minor attempt was made by Brandenburg when they leased the island of Saint Thomas from Denmark in 1685, but Denmark seized the island eight years later. Finally, one of the most interesting of the minor colonial powers was the Duchy of Courland in what is now Latvia. During the 17th century, Courland had built up a large merchant fleet and Duke Jakob Kettler sought to found trading posts in Africa and the Americas. Throughout the 1600s, Kettler made several attempts to establish a Curonian colony on the island of Tobago. However the Spanish and English had already colonized nearby islands and blockaded the settlements on Tobago. The island was officially ceded in 1690, but Courland continued appointing absentee colonial governors up until 1795 when the duchy became part of Russia.

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