The menace of golf in 1659 New Netherland

In 1659, residents of Fort Orange and Beverwijck lodged a series of formal complaints “against the practice of playing golf along the streets.” Hackers and duffers no doubt posed the biggest menace, but even the most skilled of golfers could have been responsible for the allegations that the game “causes great damage to the windows of the houses and also exposes people to the danger of being injured, which is contrary to the freedom of the public streets.” Life could already be precarious in New Netherland’s northern reaches, struggles to secure a food supply compounding fears of Indian attacks amid escalating tensions with Natives just downriver. Fort Orange and Beverwijck drew settlers together and provided them a more defensible space and soldiers, but golf threatened the ostensible safety of the town. An errant golf ball could hardly be attributed only to a mischievous athlete, and enthusiasm for the sport apparently abounded. The town’s open spaces offered a promising set of ready-made links, while members of the town’s growing population could join the social event an ongoing game represented. But golf’s popularity and the no doubt less-than-developed skills of its practitioners menaced public safety and personal property, offering officials sufficient rationale for curtailing its play within the settlement. They promptly “forbid all persons to play golf in the streets, under penalty of forfeiture of f25 for each person who shall be found doing so.” Public thoroughfares would be free of the sport, forcing golfers to brave wrist injuries, ingenious gophers, and Indian threats in the open areas outside the town.[1]

Readers familiar with a scholarly literature emphasizing the strict religious orthodoxy and supposedly dour nature of social relations in New England’s Puritan colonies would hardly be surprised to learn that Dutch colonial officials had an equally sober response to fun in New Netherland. Likewise, readers familiar with Jamestown’s adoption of martial law to better govern colonists’ labor and leisure, and with English arguments that their Protestant labor improved North America’s lands as God directed and so legitimated their territorial claims even when Catholic Spain protested, might expect a similarly opaque role for religion in New Netherland. But others might be surprised to find other-than-economic factors shaping the governance of New Netherland civil society, particularly in light of scholarship on religion in the Dutch colony. Evan Haefeli has written about the Dutch origins of American notions of religious liberty, and in The Contest for the Delaware Valley, Mark Thompson pointed out that Delaware Valley colonists prioritized their own freedom of conscience as they negotiated with a succession of political regimes that claimed them as subjects across the 17thand 18thcenturies.

When these historical arguments about religious liberty intersect with contemporary impressions of permissive Dutch social attitudes—legal marijuana and prostitution in Amsterdam often shaping that sense—audiences sometimes read backwards to assume that early modern Dutch society, including in the colonies, was largely unconcerned with moral behavior and religious orthodoxy. After all, if something other early modern people took as seriously as religion was—in Dutch culture—allowed room for dissent in, that culture could hardly be expected to limit other behaviors, right? Yet a (long, and sometimes tedious) read through New Netherland’s court records will make clear that colonial officials spent plenty of time investigating and prosecuting intoxication, physical abuse, prostitution, slander, and underweight bread, and even a cursory scan will turn up compelling incidents. Pragmatic concerns with civil order no doubt motivated some of these efforts, but a moral imperative compelled some of this enforcement, as well. Haefeli acknowledges that Dutch approaches to freedom of conscience allowed for private worship rather than public, while Danny Noorlander’s forthcoming book, Heaven’s Wrath: The Protestant Reformation and Dutch West India Company in the Atlantic World, will make the case that the Dutch Reformed Church exercised more influence shaping Dutch colonialism than has previously been recognized.

In 1648, the colony cited a spate of hurricanes, epidemics, and floods plaguing “almost all countries, both in Europe and in these northern and southern parts of America, yes, even from this province,” as it proclaimed a day of prayer in response to “these sad and doleful tidings.” Explaining that “no other conclusion can be drawn than that the Holy and Almighty God of Israel, being justly provoked to anger and wrath on account of our sins and those of other nations, threatens us with a just retribution,” colonial officials “considered it highly necessary to proclaim and to order a general day of fasting and prayer which shall be held in the forenoon and afternoon of the first Wednesday in the month of May, being the 6thof the aforesaid month, and thereafter a monthly penitential sermon in the forenoon, to be held throughout our province of New Netherland on every first Wednesday of each month in succession.” To ensure the action was able to “conciliate ourselves and our subjects with God,” they specifically barred “all exercise and practice of golf, tennis, hunting, fishing, sailing, plowing, sowing, mowing and many other unlawful games, such as throwing dice and drinking to excess.” Clearly interpreting their experiences through a religious lens, the proclamation tied recreational activities such as golf—when they interfered with worship—to other vices, specifically gambling and drunkenness. Those were undoubtedly one set of the behaviors that drew God’s wrath upon the colonists in New Netherland and elsewhere, and therefore had to be eradicated for the good of the colonial project.[2]

They weren’t wrong to associate the game with other vices. Two years later in Rensselaerswyck, Steven Jansz testified that “a certain company of persons came to his house to drink, having played golf for brandy.” One golfer accused Jansz’s wife of “having erased two strokes at the same time,” and a second golfer joined the accuser. When the tavernkeeper stepped in to remind the two men “they should not make such charges without being able to prove them,” he was attacked and “received a wound in his left breast,” but was unable to identify the culprit because “three or four persons were wrestling together.” It later emerged that it was the original accuser Jacob Jansz who had “struck Gysbert Cornelisz, tavernkeeper, and Claes Andriesz with a golf club at the house of Steven Jansz.” The timeless tale of a golf cheat sparking a drunken brawl may be familiar, but it was also concerning to colonial officials determined to keep the peace. Perhaps equally important, the game elicited other immoral behaviors already blamed for contributing to the colony’s struggles.[3]

The worry for a New Netherland colony that was never very strong was more than merely a game causing disagreements. By 1659, when threatening golfers roamed the streets of Fort Orange and Beverwijck, the colony was no more secure. Tension with Natives had escalated into Kieft’s War in the 1640s, the Peach War in the early 1650s, and was accelerating towards the Esopus Wars of the late 1650s and early 1660s. Meanwhile, English colonists encroached on Dutch claims on Long Island and along the Connecticut River. Dutch colonists wary of venturing too far beyond the confines of their towns thus played golf in the relative safety of the streets, but created an internal danger to health and property that alien forces provided outside the settlement. Internal problems were concerning in their own right, but also because they introduced danger within what was supposed to be the safety of New Netherland’s northernmost settlement, and because they might draw the wrath of a God equipped with outside instruments—English and Native rivals—to administer His wrath to New Netherland. Besieged by forces both within and without the settlement’s boundaries, residents requesting a ban on the game ardently defended the “freedom of the public streets.”

[1]Charles T. Gehring, trans. and ed., Fort Orange Court Minutes, 1652-1660 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press), 473-4.

[2]A.J.F. Van Laer, trans., and Kenneth Scott and Keen Stryker-Rodda, eds., Council Minutes, 1638-1649 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1974), 506-10.

[3]A.J.F. Van Laer, trans. and ed., Minutes of the Court of Rensselaerswyck, 1648-1652 (Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1922), 132 and 137.

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