About that “great, great wall”

Following the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump is officially the party’s nominee for president. Talk of a wall on the US-Mexico border has been less apparent in the headlines lately than plagiarism, Ted Cruz’s smirk, and various politicians and talk-radio hosts going off the deep end, but it’s still been on my mind as I research the 17th-century Hudson Valley, where fences and walls were a major point of contention. (Trump’s wall is still featured prominently on his website, but I’m not linking to that–sorry, you can find it yourself. And he talked about immigration plenty in his acceptance speech, sparking chants of “Build that wall!” from the crowd.)

Announcing he was running last October, Trump asserted, “I will build a great wall–and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me–and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

Turns out Trump isn’t the first white New Yorker to come up with the idea of trying to make people of color pay for a structure to physically divide a regional population based on race. On September 15, 1639 Willem Kieft, fifth director of the colony of New Netherland (renamed New York after the English assumed control of it in 1664), declared:

Whereas the Company has to bear heavy expenses both for the erection of fortification and the maintenance of soldiers and sailors, Therefore we have resolved to levy some contributions either in peltries, maize or wampum from the Indians residing hereabout, whom we have hitherto protected against their enemies and if there be any tribe, who will not willingly consent to contribute, we shall endeavor to induce them to do so by the most suitable means. [1]

So let’s break this down a little bit. The autocratic Kieft was appointed to run the colony because of his supposed business acumen (no governing experience), and one of his first acts was to demand payments from the indigenous population to maintain his invading population. He justified the levy by arguing the invading force was actually protecting the Natives who would pay the tax against attacks by other Indians. And he promised that if the Indians didn’t make the payments willingly, he would find a way to force them.

While there were undoubtedly some conflicts among Native communities, Kieft’s main concern seems to have been to try to supply a colonial population of only a few hundred people who were reliant on Indians to trade them provisions, since the colony was chronically undersupplied and farming had yet to really take off. More to the point, the fort was to protect the few colonists and whatever foodstuffs they managed to procure from Native neighbors who were more than capable of taking what they wanted from the beleaguered Dutch. Needless to say, the move didn’t endear him to the area’s Native inhabitants, and probably not surprisingly, continued friction led to a conflict named Kieft’s War by his political rivals–you can guess who they blamed. Cultural conflict is certainly a theme throughout the colonial era, but earlier years in New Netherland had been markedly friendly as Dutch merchants and a small number of colonists catered to Native trade partners, so this was a significant turning point in those relations.
Kieft did resign after an 8-year administration and departed for the Netherlands, but his ship wrecked in Wales, and the deposed director perished in 1647. He had managed to further develop New Netherland’s fortifications–albeit without significant direct contributions from the Natives. He’d also managed to make those defenses more necessary.

[1] Berthold Fernow, ed., Documents relating to the history and settlements of the towns along the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers (with the exception of Albany) from 1630 to 1684 (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1881), 6.

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