In 1629, as a means to speed colonization
of what was then called New Netherland
, the Dutch West India Company
established a program whereby any member of the firm who brought a minimum of fifty settlers
over the age of fifteen to America
during a four-year period would be given a large estate: sixteen miles of land along navigable
rivers, extending inland, astonishingly, so far as "it proved convenient."
Basically, this was the beginning of a feudal agricultural system in the New World. The patroon (from the Dutch, patron or employer) held title to the land perpetually, established and operated a civil and criminal court system, and appointed local officials. He provided shelter, tools, livestock, a schoolmaster and a minister for each community, and controlled virtually all aspects of the settlers’ lives, including their right to move, to go into business, and even to marry.
The settlers, for their part, were exempt from taxation for ten years, were forbidden to engage in manufacturing, and were required to pay the patroon in goods, services, and in many cases, money for the right to live on and farm the land they could never own. The settlers were, in effect, indentured to the patroon for at least a decade, if not, practically speaking, for life.
In such a manner, portions of what are now New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware found their Native American populations displaced by hard-working and, one imagines, somewhat frustrated white men with mud on their boots.
The system eventually failed. There was too much land, too many Indian attacks, massive mismanagement, and eventually the outright incursion of the English, who took over everything in 1664. The Dutch West India Company found itself ill-prepared to manage such an unwieldy social and political proposition. They turned their attention towards an effort to monopolize fur trading, and while their backs were turned settlers flooded in from New England, from Maryland, and from Virginia, not to mention all of Europe. The vast patroon estates were soon broken up into much smaller pieces of property.
The patroons’ manor houses, however, remain to this day, beautifully situated on the banks of the Delaware, the Connecticut, and, especially, the Hudson River.
The Van Renssaelaers, the Livingstons, and the Schuylers, to name the most prominent patroon families, comprised, it could be said, the first American dynasties.