The Dutch in the Housatonic Valley

(Originally written in July 1998 by Former Executive Director, Robert Novak Jr. for the weekly newspaper Huntington Herald)

Imagine the scene, not long after the year 1614 – 

The waters of the Housatonic flow swiftly downstream through the Housatonic Valley. After tumbling over the Great Falls at present day New Milford, where the shad journeyed every year to spawn, they wind their way downriver to merge with the waters of its largest tributary, the Naugatuck. The shores on both sides are heavily wooded, trees growing right up to the shore of the mighty river. Here and there, on both sides, can be found Native American villages and encampments. The majestic stillness of the high bluffs and tranquil flood plains along the river is broken only by the occasional splash of a fish jumping, the chirping and screeching of birds both large and small, the howl of a wolf, or the calls of Native Americans.

The waters swirl past an unfamiliar small craft, being rowed, paddled, or possibly sailed up the river. Curious Native Americans on both sides of the river peer behind trees, bolder ones coming straight to the shore. Some of the Indians may have borne the marks of smallpox, the mysterious, imported disease which absolutely devastated the Native American population in Connecticut.

The men they gazed upon in the small boat were strange. They had hair on their faces. They were dirty. They spoke in a strange tongue. Their skin was pale, appearing sickly-looking to the Natives. Their clothes were of odd colors and materials. While their boat may have been a canoe purchased or procured by the Indians downriver, it may also have been a whaleboat, which would not have been suited for the swift current of the Great River.

The strangers for their part, continued around the long bend in the river at what is now Sunnyside in Shelton, gradually coming around Two Mile Island. Gazing upriver, European eyes for the first time beheld the confluence of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers. They probably put ashore at the point between the two rivers, at what is now Derby, but could just as easily have put ashore on the east (Derby) or west (Shelton) bank. As their boots touched the Great River’s shore for the first time, they bore witness to the first words ever to be uttered by a European in the Housatonic Valley, which may have been something like:


“Dit is een goede plaats om zaken te doen”

Literal translation: “Beautiful!” and “This is a good place to do business/trade”

Fast forward to July 7,1998. The local media swarms upon an archeological dig behind a private home on the coast of Branford, Connecticut. A local newspaper reports the next morning “Archaeologists from Wesleyan University have unearthed the remains of what may have been the earliest European settlement in Connecticut – a 17th century Dutch fort…”

Some of the Natives who gazed upon the first Dutch expedition up the Housatonic may have seen Europeans before. Many would spend their summers along the Stratford coast, particularly Lordship, where seafood was plentiful and easy to come by, and the weather was cooler and breezier. It was during the summer of 1614 that a strange ship, the 16 ton vessel Onrust (meaning “Restless” in Dutch), on a voyage of exploration under the command of Adrian Block, was sighted by the Indians on the shore.

The Onrust paused at the mouth of the Housatonic while the captain recorded the river was “a bow shot wide”. Naming it the River of Roodenberg, or Red Hills, he sailed east, fading over the horizon and out of sight of the curious and inquisitive Native Americans on the Lordship shoreline. Later the river became known on Dutch charts as the Mauritius River. Adrian Block would soon give his name to Block Island.

While the news that the Dutch were here decades before English settlement of the Connecticut shoreline may have been surprising to some, it has long been known that the Dutch were the first to explore the Connecticut shoreline and the Housatonic River. We also know that the Dutch had an extensive trading network in Connecticut, the chief trading post being the House of Good Hope located at present day Hartford.

The Dutch did, of course, settle along the Hudson in New Amsterdam. Being the first ones to explore Connecticut, their claim on the state reached as far as the Connecticut River. As late as 1642, Dutch trade existed in the Valley, as Adrian Van der Donck reported on the river “…to which the name Red Hills has been given…Many beavers are taken here, since a demand for our goods has stimulated the naturally slothful savages”. Dutch trappers may very well have journeyed along smaller streams in the Valley’s interior to search of them. It also appears that Dutch traders regularly visited Native villages and other sites on both sides of the river and bartered for beaver pelts and other goods.

It is very possible, even probable, that the first European structure in the Valley was Dutch. Most likely it would have been on Derby Point. While there may well have been a small, rude trading post there to do business with the Native Americans of the Housatonic and Naugatuck, it appears that all visits were temporary. None of the incursions, as far as recorded history is concerned, involved the actual, permanent relocation of Dutch settlers from Holland or New Amsterdam to Connecticut, the establishment of farms and families, and the subsequent dislocation of Native Americans as a result.

After the Pequot War of 1637, the English had begun to establish dominance on this part of Connecticut, which was claimed (but not occupied) by the Dutch, who were not in a position to enforce it. By 1640 places like Fairfield, New Haven, Milford, and Stratford were established and growing. The 1600s were very stressful for the English settlers. Relations with the Indians were never the same after the terrible carnage of the Pequot War, plus the Dutch in New Amsterdam were a constant thorn. The English settlers lived in constant fear of being attacked and possibly exterminated by the Indians or the Dutch.

In 1642, a group of English settlers under John Wakeman of New Haven built a trading post on Derby Point. We can speculate that they may have taken over a rough Dutch trading post that was already there but only occasionally occupied. What history does record, is the little trading post at Derby Point caught the attention of the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam. William Kieft sent a letter written in Latin to New Haven. The letter, dated August 3, 1646, accused the English of “possessing an insatiable desire of possessing that which is ours…have indirectly entered the limits of New Netherlands…and have been very injurious unto us.” The letter continued ominously “And because you…have of late determined to fasten your foot near the Mauritius River…and there not only disturb our trade…but utterly destroy it…if you do not restore the places you have usurped and repair the loss we have suffered, we shall…manfully recover them, neither do we think this crosseth the public peace, but shall cast the cause of ensuing evil upon you”.

The Housatonic Valley, and control of trade with its Native inhabitants, had now grown into an international incident. The governor of New Haven colony sent back a quirky reply to the Dutch, also in Latin. It recapped the Dutch accusation of the encroachment of the Housatonic, known at this point by the English as the Paugassett River, and stated “…we know no such (Mauritius) river…It is true we have lately fell upon the Paugassett River…built a small house within our own limits, many miles, nay leagues from the Manhattoes (Native Americans of Manhattan). The letter stated the Indians were “…free to trade with you, us, Connecticut, Massachusetts, or any other”.

By this time, a New Haven man named John Wakeman had explored the area, and in the Spring of 1642, The General Court of New Haven Colony agreed to excuse two of his employees from their mandatory guard duty “because of their imployment at Powgassett” – the first reference to the area in English records. Meanwhile, the Dutch were significantly weakened by the increasing numbers of English settlers, as well as a devastating war with the Indians around the Hudson. The war began in 1643, lasted about four years, saw atrocities on both sides, and greatly increased antagonisms and paranoia between the local Native Americans and English.

Fears of war turned into a reality when England and Holland declared war in 1652, only one year after Derby received its first permanent settler – Edward Wooster. The English were afraid the Dutch would turn the Native Americans against them, but the war was resolved quickly without any action taken in North America. An idea of the paranoia manifested in the area can be seen by the witch trials that occurred a year later. One woman each was executed in Stratford and Fairfield. That same year (1653) the United Colonies (Connecticut, New Haven, Massachusetts, and Plymouth) decided to send and expedition of 500 men against New Amsterdam, but the venture fell through when Massachusetts changed their mind and refused to comply. As relations with the Dutch continued to deteriorate, Connecticut and New Haven colonies jointly manned a frigate with 12 guns and 40 men to defend the coast in 1654.

In 1664 Col. Richard Nicolls, who was employed by the rejuvenated King Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York, arrived in Boston. Announcing he wished to annex New Amsterdam, a force was raised. Within two months the city surrendered without any bloodshed. The city was renamed New York, in the Duke’s honor, ending the Dutch presence in North America.

The writer is greatly appreciative of John A. Tieman and his family for providing the Dutch translations of certain words and phrases.