No, there is no “s” at the end of “New Netherland”

by Michael J. Douma

Like many nineteenth-century New Yorkers of Dutch-descent, the historical scholar John Romeyn Brodhead was bothered by the poor treatment the Dutch had received in the written histories of colonial America. In these histories, there was one “vulgar error” in particular that drew his ire. This was, he said, the “absurd use of the term ‘the New Netherlands,’ instead of NEW NETHERLAND.”  “The original in Dutch in every case, he complained, “is “Nieuw Nederlandt” and not ‘de Nieuw Nederlanden.”[1]  

It was true that when Brodhead encountered the term in printed sources of his day, nine times out of ten, it was written with an -s at the end, as “New Netherlands.”  Was Brodhead correct, though, and the popular spelling was in error? Indeed, what is the correct form of the word and how should we spell it today?

Brodhead, who could read Dutch, was right to recognize that “Nieuw Nederlandt” was the dominant Dutch spelling of the seventeeth century colony that preceded New York. And Brodhead’s preferred spelling was singular, as Nieuw Nederlandt was a singular land. The Netherlands, meanwhile, is a plural form, referring to the various lands (Gelderland, Zeeland, Holland, etc), that comprise the nation dominated by the province of Holland. Since 1813, the Netherlands’ official name has been Koninkrijk der Nederlanden, Kingdom of the Netherlands. Before that, the county was the Batavian Republic, the Republic of the United Provinces, and, in the sixteenth century, the Spanish Netherlands. From a linguistic standpoint, Brodhead had a strong case.The Netherlands are a federal republic which unites together a number of low lands, literally “neder” lands. The colony of New Netherland, however, never had any political divisions, and was not united from earlier, separate political units, although it did conquer and acquire New Sweden.

But there is, however, a strong historical precedent against Brodhead’s preferred spelling.  Sir Dudley Carleton called it “New Netherlands” as early as 1621, and John Mason used the term in 1632.[2]  Cadwallader Colden also called it “New Netherlands” in 1727. The oldest uses of the term in newspapers from are 1774 in the Pennsylvania Gazette and 1775 in the Virginia Gazette, both of which are New Netherlands, with an s. [3] But like all good history, there are complications. Sometimes, when newspapers around the country reprinted articles from New York – such as when the Niles National Register in 14 June 1823, reprinted an article from the Albany Daily –  they used the term “New Netherland” without an S.  Of course, when the word was pluralized, it was generally preceded by the definite article “the” so that we read of “the New Netherlands.” But there are also cases in which a writer omits the “the,” so that we read that a book has “a map of New Netherlands” or that the English almost had “war with New Netherlands.” [4] The omission of the “the” is peculiar, because Americans would not speak of going to war or signing a peace with “Netherlands” but rather with “the Netherlands.”  This is because, even when Americans used the term New Netherlands with an “S” they thought of the place as a singular unit.

Essentially, only New Yorkers, and particularly New Yorkers closer to the source of the history, or historians themselves, used the term without a S.  For the rest of the county, it was “New Netherlands” with an S, likely because it was “the Netherlands” with an S, and no one without some knowledge of the Dutch would be aware that the singular “Nederland” or “New Netherland” was a possibility. But even New Yorkers did not agree about the spelling. For instance, the Long-Island Star used both versions of the term in 1829.[5] In 1840, Dunlap’s History of New York added, or perhaps rather, kept the S, depending on one’s perspective.  A publication of the Collections of the New York Historical Society in 1841 by an F. Taylor, also used the S. A lecture by Henry C. Murphy for the Flatbush Literary Association in 1841 was titled “On the Dutch Dynasty in New Netherland.” [6] The New York Times spoke of “The Hollanders and New-Englanders Contrasted” and referred to “the Dutch inhabitants of New-Netherlands.”[7]

The efforts to remove the “s” were spearheaded by historians familiar with the Dutch language. One of them was E.B. O’Callaghan, who published the first volume his History of New Netherland, or New York Under the Dutch in 1840. For years, however, newspapers around the country advertised the book with both spellings of the term.[8] The second volume appeared in 1848 and was subject to the same treatment.[9] Even google books today uses the “S” in the title, when O’Callaghan did not.  A similar story occurred with the naming of a hotel. From 1892 to 1927 fashionable visitors to New York stayed at the “Hotel New Netherland” (without the S) at 5th avenue and 59th street. Newspaper reports, however, often added an “s” at the end of the hotel’s name. Even in a 1927 article about the demise of the building, the Hotel New Netherland was incorrectly spelled with an S at the end.[10]

While the popular spelling generally included an “s,” historical scholars in the twentieth century tended to write about New Netherland, without the S. This was already the trend in scholarly writing early in the century, when W.E. Griffis wrote The Story of New Netherland: The Dutch in America (1909) and A. E. McKinley wrote an article for The American Historical Review titled “The English and Dutch Towns of New Netherland” (1900). This spelling was support by the formation of The New Netherland Project in 1974 and the New Netherland Institute which developed from that.

Scholarship on the Dutch in early America increased dramatically beginning in the 1990s, and all major books on the subject have chosen to spell New Netherland without an “S” including, for example, Jaap Jacobs’ The colony of New Netherland: a Dutch settlement in seventeenth-century America (2009),  Evan Haefeli’s New Netherland and the Dutch origins of American religious liberty (2012), and Joyce Goodfriend’s Revisiting New Netherland: Perspectives of Early Dutch America (2005). Empirical evidence also demonstrates this preferred scholarly spelling. Google scholar, for example, gives 11,200 results for “New Netherland” and 7,660 results for “New Netherlands,” but results that include the “s” at the end are more likely to refer to the Netherlands itself, and to new things about that country, rather than referring to the history of the “New Netherlands.” Many of these “hits” are references to centuries-old publications using “New Netherlands” in the title, such as Adrian Van der Donck’s A Description of the New Netherlands (1653) and D. Denton’s A Brief Description of New York formerly called New Netherlands (1845).  Modern scholarly publications that use the “New Netherlands” spelling tend to be lesser-known works, published in lower-ranked journals, and from scholars who are not as much involved in the scholarly circles active on this topic. In one example from the journal Itinerario, a reviewer even added an “s” the the “s-less”  New Netherland in the title of Jaap Jacob’s The Colony of New Netherland. [11]  Scholars who add the “s” to the end of “New Netherland” do so at their own peril, as they immediately out themselves as unfamiliar with the topic.

The American language has no academy that decides on proper usage or spelling, so we are all free to spell words as we wish, and as we can be best understood. While traditional usage is one measure we can use to determine best practice, we also ought to mind grammatical rules and common sense. The case for a New Netherland without the S is strong.

[1] John Romeyn Brodhead, Commemoration of the conquest of New Netherland (New York, 1864), 11.

[2] Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York 3:7, and 3:16.

[3] The Pennsylvania Gazette, 11 May 1774; The Virginia Gazette, 16 December 1775.

[4] Madisonian, 4 December 1840. Madisonian, 13 July 1841.

[5] The Long-Island Star, 23 April 1829; 23 July 1829.

[6] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 December 1841.

[7] New York Times, 10 November 1864)

[8] New-York Tribune, 18 December 1845; The Evening Post, 16 December 1845; Alexandria Gazette, 31 December 1845; Alexandria Gazette, 9 January 1846.

[9] The Evening Post, 5 September 1848.

[10] Star-Gazette, 12 May 1927.

[11] L. Cruz, review of Jaap Jacobs, “The Colony of the New Netherlands” Itinerario (2011)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: