The noted private fortunes of settlement and colonial times were derived from the ownership of land and the gains of trading. Usually both had a combined influence and were frequently attended by agriculture. Throughout the colonies were scattered lords of the soil who held vast territorial domains over which they exercised an arbitrary and, in some portions of the colonies, a feudal sway.

Nearly all the colonies were settled by chartered companies, organized for purely commercial purposes and the success of which largely depended upon the emigration which they were able to promote. These corporations were vested with enormous powers and privileges which, in effect, constituted them as sovereign rulers, although their charters were subject to revision or amendment. The London Company, thrice chartered to take over to itself the land and resources of Virginia and populate its zone of rule, was endowed with sweeping rights and privileges which made it an absolute monopoly. The impecunious noblemen or gentlemen who transported themselves to Virginia to recoup their dissipated fortunes or seek adventure, encountered no trouble in getting large grants of land especially when after 1614 tobacco became a fashionable article in England and took rank as a valuable commercial commodity.

Over this colony now spread planters who hastened to avail themselves of this new-found means of getting rich. Land and climate alike favored them, but they were confronted with a scarcity of labor. The emergency was promptly met by the buying of white servants in England to be resold in Virginia to the highest bidder. This, however, was not sufficient, and complaints poured over to the English government. As the demands of commerce had to be sustained at any price, a system was at once put into operation of gathering in as many of the poorer English class as could be impressed upon some pretext, and shipping them over to be held as bonded laborers. Penniless and lowly Englishmen, arrested and convicted for any one of the multitude of offenses then provided for severely in law, were transported as criminals or sold into the colonies as slaves for a term of years. The English courts were busy grinding out human material for the Virginia plantations; and, as the objects of commerce were considered paramount, this process of disposing of what was regarded as the scum element was adjudged necessary and justifiable. No voice was raised in protest.


But, fast as the English courts might work, they did not supply laborers enough. It was with exultation that in 1619 the plantation owners were made acquainted with a new means of supplying themselves with adequate workers. A Dutch ship arrived at Jamestown with a cargo of negroes from Guinea. The blacks were promptly bought at good prices by the planters. From this time forth the problem of labor was considered sufficiently solved. As chattel slavery harmonized well with the necessities of tobacco growing and gain, it was accepted as a just condition and was continued by the planters, whose interests and standards were the dominant factor.

After 1620, when the London Company was dissolved by royal decree, and the commerce of Virginia made free, the planters were the only factor. Virginia, it was true, was made a royal province and put under deputy rule, but the big planters contrived to get the laws and customs their self-interest called for. There were only two classes – the rich planters, with their gifts of land, their bond-servants and slaves and, on the other hand, the poor whites. A middle class was entirely lacking.

As the supreme staple of commerce and as currency itself, tobacco could buy anything, human, as well as inert, material. The labor question had been sufficiently vanquished, but not so the domestic. Wives were much needed; the officials in London instantly hearkened, and in 1620 sent over sixty young women who were auctioned off and bought at from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and sixty pounds of tobacco each. Tobacco then sold at three shillings a pound. Its cultivation was assiduously carried on. The use of the land mainly for agricultural purposes led to the foundation of numerous settlements along the shores, bays, rivers, and creeks with which Virginia is interspersed and which afforded accessibility to the sea ports. As the years wore on and the means and laborers of the planters increased, their lands became more extensive, so that it was not an unusual thing to find plantations of fifty or sixty thousand acres. But neither in Virginia nor in Maryland, under the almost regal powers of Lord Baltimore who had propriety rights over the whole of his province, were such huge estates to be seen as were being donated in the northern colonies, especially in New Netherlands and in New England.


In its intense aim to settle New Netherlands and make use of its resources, Holland, through the States General, offered extraordinary inducements to promoters of colonization. The prospect of immense estates, with feudal rights and privileges, was held out as the alluring incentive. The bill of Freedoms and Exemptions of 1629 made easy the possibility of becoming a lord of the soil with comprehensive possessions and powers. Any man who should succeed in planting a colony of fifty „souls,” each of whom was to be more than fifteen years old, was to become at once a patroon with all the rights of lordship. He was permitted to own sixteen miles along shore or on one side of a navigable river. An alternative was given of the ownership of eight miles on one side of a river and as far into the interior „as the situation of the occupiers will permit.” The title was vested in the patroon forever, and he was presented with a monopoly of the resources of his domain except furs and pelts. No patroon or other colonist was allowed to make woolen, linen, cotton or cloth of any material under pain of banishment.[1]

These restrictions were in the interest of the Dutch West India Company, a commercial corporation which had well-nigh dictatorial powers. A complete monopoly throughout the whole of its subject territory, it was armed with sweeping powers, a formidable equipment, and had a great prestige. It was somewhat of a cross between legalized piracy and a body of adroit colonization promoters. Pillage and butchery were often its auxiliaries, although in these respects it in nowise equalled its twin corporation, the Dutch East India Company, whose exploitation of Holland’s Asiatic possessions was a long record of horrors.


The policy of the Dutch West India Company was to offer generous prizes for peopling the land while simultaneously forbidding competition with any of the numerous products or commodities dealt in by itself. This had much to do with determining the basic character of the conspicuous fortunes of a century and two centuries later. It followed that when native industries were forbidden or their output monopolized not only by the Dutch West India Company in New Netherlands, but by other companies elsewhere in the colonies, that ownership of land became the mainstay of large private fortunes with agriculture as an accompanying factor. Subsequently the effects of this continuous policy were more fully seen when England by law after law paralyzed or closed up many forms of colonial manufacture. The feudal character of Dutch colonization, as carried on by the Dutch West India Company, necessarily created great landed estates, the value of which arose not so much from agriculture, as was the case in Virginia, Maryland and later the Carolinas and Georgia, but from the natural resources of the land. The superb primitive timber brought colossal profits in export, and there were also very valuable fishery rights where an estate bounded a shore or river. The pristine rivers were filled with great shoals of fish, to which the river fishing of the present day cannot be compared. As settlement increased, immigration pressed over, and more and more ships carried cargo to and fro, these estates became consecutively more valuable.

To encourage colonization to its colonies still further, the States General in 1635 passed a new decree. It repeated the feudal nature of the rights granted and made strong additions.

Did any aspiring adventurer seek to leap at a bound to the exalted position of patroonship? The terms were easy. All that he had to do was to found a colony of forty-eight adults and he had a liberal six years in which to do it. For his efforts he was allowed even more extensive grants of land than under the act of 1629. So complete were his powers of proprietorship that no one could approach within seven or eight miles of his jurisdiction without his express permission. His was really a principality. Over its bays, rivers, and islands, had it any, as well as over the mainland, he was given command forever. The dispensation of justice was his exclusive right. He and he only was the court with summary powers of „high, low and middle jurisdiction,” which were harshly or capriciously exercised. Not only did he impose sentence for violation of laws, but he, himself, ordained those laws and they were laws which were always framed to coincide with his interests and personality. He had full authority to appoint officers and magistrates and enact laws. And finally he had the power of policing his domain and of making use of the titles and arms of his colonies. All these things he could do „according to his will and pleasure.” These absolute rights were to descend to his heirs and assigns.[2]


Thus, at the beginning of settlement times, the basis was laid in law and custom of a landed aristocracy, or rather a group of intrenched autocrats, along the banks of the Hudson, the shores of the ocean and far inland. The theory then prevailed that the territory of the colonies extended westward to the Pacific.

From these patroons and their lineal or collateral descendants issued many of the landed generations of families which, by reason of their wealth and power, proved themselves powerful factors in the economic and political history of the country. The sinister effects of this first great grasping of the land long permeated the whole fabric of society and were prominently seen before and after the Revolution, and especially in the third and fourth decades of the eighteenth century. The results, in fact, are traceable to this very day, even though laws and institutions are so greatly changed. Other colonies reflected the constant changes of government, ruling party or policy of England, and colonial companies chartered by England frequently forfeited their charters. But conditions in New Netherlands remained stable under Dutch rule, and the accumulation of great estates was intensified under English rule. It was in New York that, at that period, the foremost colonial estates and the predominant private fortunes were mostly held.

The extent of some of those early estates was amazingly large. But they were far from being acquired wholly by colonization methods.

Many of the officers and directors of the Dutch West India Company were Amsterdam merchants. Active, scheming, self-important men, they were mighty in the money marts but were made use of, and looked down upon, by the old Dutch aristocracy. Having amassed fortunes, these merchants yearned to be the founders of great estates; to live as virtual princes in the midst of wide possessions, even if these were still comparative solitudes. This aspiration was mixed with the mercenary motive of themselves owning the land from whence came the furs, pelts, timber and the waters yielding the fishes.

One of these directors was Kiliaen van Rensselaer, an Amsterdam pearl merchant. In 1630 his agents bought for him from the Indians a tract of land twenty-four miles long and forty-eight broad on the west bank of the Hudson. It comprised, it was estimated, seven hundred thousand acres and included what are now the counties of Albany, Rensselaer, a part of Columbia County and a strip of what is at present Massachusetts. And what was the price paid for this vast estate? As the deeds showed, the munificent consideration of „certain quantities of duffels, axes, knives and wampum,”[3] which is equal to saying that the pearl merchant got it for almost nothing. Two other directors – Godyn and Bloemart – became owners of great feudal estates. One of these tracts, in what is now New Jersey, extended sixteen miles both in length and breadth, forming a square of sixty-four miles.[4]

So it was that these shrewd directors now combined a double advantage. Their pride was satisfied with the absolute lordship of immense areas, while the ownership of land gave them the manifold benefits and greater profits of trading with the Indians at first hand. From a part of the proceeds they later built manors which were contemplated as wonderful and magnificent. Surrounded and served by their retainers, agents, vassal tenants and slaves, they lived in princely and licentious style, knowing no law in most matters except their unrestrained will. They beheld themselves as ingenious and memorable founders of a potential landed aristocracy whose possessions were more extended than that of Europe. Wilderness much of it still was, but obviously the time was coming when the population would be fairly abundant. The laws of entail and primogeniture, then in full force, would operate to keep the estates intact and gifted with inherent influence for generations.

Along with their landed estates, these directors had a copious inflowing revenue. The Dutch West India Company was in a thriving condition. By the year 1629 it had more than one hundred full-rigged ships in commission. Most of them were fitted out for war on the commerce of other countries or on pirates. Fifteen thousand seamen and soldiers were on its payroll; in that one year it used more than one hundred thousand pounds of powder – significant of the grim quality of business done. It had more than four hundred cannon and thousands of other destructive weapons.[5] Anything conducive to profit, no matter if indiscriminate murder, was accepted as legitimate and justifiable functions of trade, and was imposed alike upon royalty, which shared in the proceeds, and upon the people at large. The energetic trading class, concentrated in the one effort of getting money, and having no scruples as to the means in an age when ideals were low and vulgar, had already begun to make public opinion in many countries, although this public opinion counted for little among submissive peoples. It was the king and the governing class, either or both, whose favor and declarations counted; and so long as these profited by the devious extortions and villainies of trade the methods were legitimatized, if not royally sanctified.


A more potentially robust aristocracy than that which was forming in New Netherlands could hardly be imagined. Resting upon gigantic gifts of land, with feudal accompaniments, it held a monopoly, or nearly one, of the land’s resources. The old aristocracy of Holland grew jealous of the power and pretensions of what it frowned upon as an upstart trading clique and tried to curtail the rights and privileges of the patroons. These latter contended that their absolute lordship was indisputable; to put it in modern legal terminology that a contract could not be impaired. They elaborated upon the argument that they had spent a „ton of gold” (amounting to one hundred thousand guilders or forty thousand dollars) upon their colonies.[6] They not only carried their point but their power was confirmed and enlarged.

Now was seen the spectacle of the middle-class men of the Old World, the traders, more than imitating – far exceeding – the customs and pretensions of the aristocracy of their own country which they had inveighed against, and setting themselves up as the original and mighty landed aristocracy of the new country. The patroons encased themselves in an environment of pomp and awe. Like so many petty monarchs each had his distinct flag and insignia; each fortified his domain with fortresses, armed with cannon and manned by his paid soldiery. The colonists were but humble dependants; they were his immediate subjects and were forced to take the oath of fealty and allegiance to him.[7]

In the old country the soil had long since passed into the hands of a powerful few and was made the chief basis for the economic and political enslavement of the people. To escape from this thralldom many of the immigrants had endured hardships and privation to get here. They expected that they could easily get land, the tillage of which would insure them a measure of independence. Upon arriving they found vast available parts of the country, especially the most desirable and accessible portions bordering shores or rivers, preëmpted. An exacting and tyrannous feudal government was in full control. Their only recourse in many instances was to accept the best of unwelcome conditions and become tenants of the great landed functionaries and workers for them.


The patroons naturally encouraged immigration. Apart from the additional values created by increased population, it meant a quantity of labor which, in turn, would precipitate wages to the lowest possible scale. At the same time, in order to stifle every aspiring quality in the drudging laborer, and to keep in conformity with the spirit and custom of the age which considered the worker a mere menial undeserving of any rights, the whole force of the law was made use of to bring about sharp discriminations. The laborer was purposely abased to the utmost and he was made to feel in many ways his particular low place in the social organization.

Far above him, vested with enormous personal and legal powers, towered the patroon, while he, the laborer, did not have the ordinary burgher right, that of having a minor voice in public affairs. The burgher right was made entirely dependent upon property, which was a facile method of disfranchising the multitude of poor immigrants and of keeping them down. Purchase was the one and only means of getting this right. To keep it in as small and circumscribed class as possible the price was made abnormally high. It was enacted in New Netherlands in 1659, for instance, that immigrants coming with cargoes had to pay a thousand guilders for the burgher right.[8] As the average laborer got two shillings a day for his long hours of toil, often extending from sunrise to sunset, he had little chance of ever getting this sum together. The consequence was that the merchants became the burgher class; and all the records of the time seem to prove conclusively that the merchants were servile instruments of the patroons whose patronage and favor they assiduously courted. This deliberately pursued policy of degrading and despoiling the laboring class incited bitter hatreds and resentments, the effects of which were permanent.


[1] O’Callaghan’s „History of New Netherlands,” 1:112-120.

[2] Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, 1:89-100.

[3] O’Callaghan, 1:124. Although it was said that Kiliaen van Rensselaer visited America, it seems to be established that he never did. He governed his estate as an absentee landgrave, through agents. He was the most powerful of all of the patroons.

[4] Ibid., 125.

[5] Colonial Documents, 1:41. The primary object of this company was a monopoly of the Indian trade, not colonization. The „princely” manors were a combination fort and trading house, surrounded by moat and stockade.

[6] Colonial Documents, 1:86.

[7] „Annals of Albany,” iii:287. The power of the patroons over their tenants, or serfs, was almost unlimited. No „man or woman, son or daughter, man servant or maid servant” could leave a patroon’s service during the time that they had agreed to remain, except by his written consent, no matter what abuses or breaches of contract were committed by the patroon.

[8] „Burghers and Freemen of New York”:29.

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