Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Laura Michel

Dutch (The) and The Netherlands

From seventeenth-century Dutch settlements in the Delaware Valley to twenty-first century business connections, the greater Philadelphia area has had longstanding and meaningful ties with the Netherlands. Not to be confused with the more numerous Pennsylvania Dutch—who are in fact German, or Deutsch, speakers—Nederlanders helped shape Philadelphia through migration and cultural, social, and economic exchange.

[caption id="attachment_28172" align="alignright" width="300"] This seventeenth-century Dutch relief map shows the region of the Delaware Bay and river, other natural features, and the presence of Lenape Indians. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Dutch played an important, though little recognized, role in the early European colonization of the region. From 1614 until the English seized the province in 1664 the Dutch colony of Nieuw Nederland (New Netherland) included parts of the future states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland. Settlement and trade along New Netherland’s Zuyd (South) River—the Delaware River—was limited compared to activity around the seaport city of Nieuw Amsterdam (later New York), but nevertheless significant to the region’s development.

The first director of New Netherland, Cornelius Mey (c.1580–?), originally envisioned the Delaware Bay as the ideal location for the colony’s capital. As a sea captain, Mey was one of the first Europeans to explore the New Jersey coast, and in 1624 he oversaw an initial settlement of two families and eight men on an island in the Delaware River. Known as Mattennecunk by the original Lenni Lenape inhabitants and Hooghe Eylandt (High Island) by the Dutch, the capital that Mey envisioned was short-lived. In 1626, then-director Peter Minuit (c.1580–1638) decided that the Noort (North) River (Hudson River) would provide a better hub for Dutch trade, and he relocated the capital to Manhattan Island. Hooghe Eylandt—later renamed Burlington Island— has sat uninhabited since the mid-twentieth century. The legacy of Cornelius Mey continued in place names: Cape May, Cape May County, and the city of Cape May, New Jersey, were all named in Mey’s honor.

In 1626, the Dutch built a factorij (trading post) on the eastern shore of the Delaware, near the future site of Gloucester City, New Jersey. Since the most productive Lenape fur traps were located on the other side of the river, the success of Fort Nassau—named in honor of the Dutch noble family of Orange-Nassau—was limited from the outset. These problems were exacerbated after 1638 by the arrival of the Swedes, who primarily settled on the Delaware’s western banks (later the site of Wilmington, Delaware). In 1651, intent on reasserting Dutch control of the Delaware Valley, Petrus “Peter” Stuyvesant (1612–72) dismantled Fort Nassau and built a new factorij, Fort Casimir, immediately downriver from New Sweden. Captured briefly by the Swedes in 1654, Casimir—and indeed the entirety of Swedish North America—was recaptured by Stuyvesant and his troops in September 1655.

Seeking to reinforce the Dutch position in the Delaware Valley, Stuyvesant also established the village of New Amstel near Fort Casimir. While this settlement was more successful than earlier efforts in the region—the ill-fated 1631 patroonship of Swaanendael (Swan’s Valley, later Lewes, Delaware) lasted just one year—Stuyvesant’s efforts to fortify the region for the Dutch ultimately proved unsuccessful. In 1664, New Amstel—thereafter known as New Castle—changed hands once again with the surrender of New Netherland to the English.

Colonial Philadelphia

The legacy of early Dutch settlement remained apparent by the time William Penn (1644–1718) received a charter for the Province of Pennsylvania in 1681, even though the English had controlled the region for almost two decades. Penn arrived in North America in October 1682 through New Castle (formerly New Amstel) and the city, with its Dutch urban planning and mixed Dutch, Swedish, and English population, served as Penn’s capital until the founding of Philadelphia. Penn located his new city between the Delaware River and the Schuylkill, a Dutch name meaning “hidden creek.” Penn also had personal connections to the Dutch and the Netherlands. While scholars disagree as to whether Penn’s mother Margaret Jasper (?–1682) came from a Dutch family or if her Irish-Protestant father was merely a merchant based in Rotterdam, her first husband, Nicasius van der Schure (?–before 1643) was a Dutchman. Penn also traveled to the Netherlands twice between 1671 and 1677 to spread Quaker teachings and recruit migrants to his new colony.

Penn’s recruiting proved successful, drawing several hundred Dutch Quakers to Pennsylvania in the 1680s and 1690s despite otherwise minimal emigration from the Netherlands to British colonial America. In 1683, approximately two hundred of these migrants founded the borough of Germantown. Understandably thought of as a German settlement, Germantown was in fact predominantly Dutch through the early eighteenth century.

As Philadelphia developed into a major Atlantic seaport, the Dutch emerged as an important—if illicit—trading partner. While British mercantilist policies officially limited most trade to within the empire, colonial American merchants regularly subverted these protectionist rules and widely participated in Atlantic smuggling networks. As committed free traders, Dutch merchants played a prominent role in facilitating this unsanctioned trade. Philadelphia-based merchants and their Dutch colleagues exchanged a variety of goods in the colonial period, from molasses to gunpowder. The lead-up to the American Revolution was a particularly lucrative period for American-Dutch illicit trade; in response to colonists’ boycotts of British goods, thousands of chests of Dutch tea were smuggled through Philadelphia and sold throughout North America.

During and after the Revolutionary War, the relationship between Philadelphia—the capital of the nascent United States until 1800—and the Netherlands continued to strengthen. Despite pressure from Britain and an official Dutch position of neutrality, thousands of barrels of gunpowder were shipped to the revolutionaries through the Dutch-Caribbean island of St. Eustatius. After independence, the Netherlands became the first nation to recognize and salute the American flag and was the second foreign power to establish diplomatic relations with the United States.

Netherlands Society of Philadelphia

The next major wave of Dutch migration to the United States began in the 1840s, spurred by a sluggish economy and tightening agricultural market in the Netherlands. Although Philadelphia served as an important port of arrival for these immigrants, few remained on the East Coast, opting instead to settle in the Midwest and Dutch enclaves such as Holland, Michigan. Nevertheless, an appreciation for the historical and contemporary ties between the Netherlands and the greater Philadelphia region remained strong. In 1892, Dr. Peter Dirck Keyser (1835–97), a Civil War veteran and prominent ophthalmologist, founded the Netherlands Society of Philadelphia. With full membership open to any man with Dutch ancestors who arrived in America before 1776, the Society sponsored talks on Dutch history, culture, and politics.

In addition to highlighting the historical role of the Dutch in shaping U.S. institutions, the Philadelphia Society also endeavored to foster friendly ties between Philadelphia and the Netherlands. Dutch-Philadelphians raised thousands of dollars on behalf of Dutch refugees during World War II, contributed to the Holland Flood Relief Fund following the devastating North Sea flood of 1953, and helped sponsor the Drexel Glee Club’s 1963 tour of Europe. The Society also played an active role in facilitating and planning two visits from the Dutch Queen Juliana (1909–2004) to Philadelphia in 1952 and 1982.

U.S.-Netherlands Relations and Philadelphia

Dutch investors and corporations have long been drawn to the economic opportunities of the greater Philadelphia region. In the nineteenth century, Dutch capital was one of the largest sources of international investment in American banking and infrastructure projects, which included several loans made to the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. With the globalization and the growth of multinational corporations in the twentieth century, a number of Dutch-owned businesses have also established their North American headquarters in the Philadelphia area. While not limited to any one industry, Dutch companies have been particularly active in banking, chemical, and technological industries. The Amsterdam-based chemical company Akzo Nobel, whose coatings are used on buildings, ships, cars, and other consumer goods, established a location in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Another major Dutch chemical company, DSM—which began in 1902 as a government-sponsored coal-mining venture in the Southern Netherlands province of Limburg—located a branch of its biomedical-manufacturing arm nearby in Exton. The Dutch also found a market for their expertise in flood control and environmental engineering. The design and consultancy company Arcadis, which began as the land reclamation company Nederlandsche Heidemaatschappij in 1888, established offices in Center City Philadelphia and Newtown, Pennsylvania. Overall, the Embassy of the Netherlands estimated that in the second decade of the twenty-first century Dutch-U.S. investment and trade supported almost one hundred thousand jobs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

[caption id="attachment_28504" align="alignright" width="300"] The 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show celebrated the Dutch floral industry. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia by Donald D. Groff)[/caption]

While membership in the Netherlands Society of Philadelphia dwindled at the end of the twentieth century, groups such as the Netherlands-America Association of the Delaware Valley (NAADV) continued to preserve and promote Dutch and Dutch-American culture in the region. Founded in 1957 by Dutch immigrants living in the area, the NAADV sponsored educational events, hosted language groups, and celebrated holidays like Koninginnedag (King’s Day) and Sinterklaas. In 2017, the Philadelphia Flower Show celebrated the world-renowned Dutch floral industry, working with floriculturists, designers, and sustainability experts from the Netherlands for the exhibition “Holland: Flowering the World.”

Through both permanent settlement and ongoing international connections, the greater Philadelphia region and the Netherlands have enjoyed close connections since the seventeenth century. Although the colony of Nieuw Nederland was short-lived, the legacy of early Dutch settlement in the Delaware Valley remained evident in place names and the efforts of groups such as the Netherlands Society of Philadelphia. With the Dutch as steady diplomatic and economic partners, Philadelphia has benefited from economic and cultural exchange with the Netherlands for more than four centuries.

Laura Michel is a Ph.D. student in History at Rutgers University—New Brunswick. She studies issues surrounding crime, poverty, and philanthropy in the early modern Atlantic World. (Information current at date of publication.)

Pennsylvania Prison Society

Founded in 1787 as the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the Pennsylvania Prison Society quickly became a leading advocate for the humane and salutary treatment of the incarcerated. From the restructuring of the Walnut Street Jail in the eighteenth century, to the construction and oversight of the Eastern State Penitentiary in the nineteenth, and its ongoing work as a social casework agency, the society’s efforts shaped correctional practices in Pennsylvania and beyond.

[caption id="attachment_24311" align="alignright" width="205"]A black and white portrait of Tench Coxe, head and bust, wearing a dark coat. Tench Coxe was one of the first members of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. His frequent changes of political party earned him the nickname "Mr. Facing Both-ways" among his political enemies. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Although it soon gained international renown, the Pennsylvania Prison Society began humbly. As was typical in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, many of the group’s founders, including Caleb Lownes (1754–1828), Christopher Marshall (1709–97), Isaac Parrish (1734–1826), and Thomas Wistar (1765–1851), were prominent members of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). From the outset, however, the Prison Society was decidedly nondenominational. William White (1748–1836), a bishop in the Episcopal Church, served as the organization’s first president, a position he held for forty-nine years until his death in 1836. Many of the society’s charter members were men of both local and national (and even international) repute. Physician and Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), politician Tench Coxe (1755–1824), and publisher Zachariah Poulson (1761–1844) all attended the society’s first meeting on May 8, 1787.

Spurred by reports of deplorable conditions in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, the society appointed an acting committee of six to ascertain the conditions of confinement and its effect on inmates’ moral and physical wellbeing. Prison Society visitors found a chaotic institution where inmates of all types, ages, and sexes mixed indiscriminately in an environment rife with obscenity, idleness, and vice. Realizing that the direct relief offered to prisoners in the form of bibles, clothing, medical care, and cash would not address these broader problems, the society also turned its efforts toward legislative change. Proposed reforms included abolishing the use of iron shackles and establishing a set salary for the jailer to avoid corruption.

[caption id="attachment_24314" align="alignright" width="300"]A line drawing of Walnut Street with the prison to the left. The prison is three stories tall and has a prominent cupola. The Pennsylvania Society for Relieving the Miseries of Public Prisons formed in response to stories of inhumane treatment and unsanitary conditions at the Walnut Street Jail. In 1790, the society built a new penitentiary at the prison where prisoners were expected to silently repent in private cells. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Most significantly, the Prison Society supported the solitary confinement of all prisoners. Influenced by the writings of the British prison reformer John Howard (1726–90), the proposed “separate system” would prevent hardened criminals from corrupting first-time offenders and would provide all inmates with the space needed for serious reflection and reform. Following legislative approval in 1790 for the separation of prisoners by age, gender, and crime committed, the Walnut Street Jail and the Pennsylvania Prison Society became models for prison reform efforts throughout the United States and in Europe.

Even as the Walnut Street Jail earned accolades from visitors, the Pennsylvania Prison Society was far from satisfied on the state of correctional practices. After a deadly riot at Walnut Street in 1820, Prison Society members escalated calls for a larger state institution purpose-built for the separation of all prisoners. In 1829, the first group of prisoners moved into individual cells at the new Eastern State Penitentiary. Though technically a state-run institution, the Prison Society served as sole outside overseer of the facility and active society members Roberts Vaux (1786–1836), Thomas Bradford (1781–1857), and John Bacon (1779-1859) filled three of the eleven state-appointed commissioner positions, while Samuel R. Wood (1776-?) served as the first warden of Eastern State.

[caption id="attachment_24313" align="alignright" width="196"]A membership certificate reading "The Pennsylvania Society for Relieving the Miseries of Public Prisons" above a portrait of the first president of the society framed in leaves. Below, an illustration of the eastern state penitentiary from overhead showing radi Nineteenth-century membership certificates for the Pennsylvania Prison Society prominently displayed first president Bishop William White and the Eastern State Penitentiary. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Much of the society’s activity in the nineteenth century centered on the oversight of Eastern State and defense of the separate system, which became known as the “Pennsylvania System.” In 1845, largely in response to growing criticism from opponents of such extreme solitary confinement, the society established Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy (later renamed The Prison Journal) to improve public outreach. Early editions extolled the successes of the Pennsylvania System alongside reports of the achievements and deficiencies of penal practices elsewhere in the United States and abroad.

Although the Pennsylvania System spread to Europe, Asia, and Latin America, the practice quickly fell out of favor in the United States. In part due to ongoing questions about the morality of solitary confinement, the scheme was ultimately abandoned because of the untenable costs of providing separate living, working, eating, and exercise quarters for every inmate. In response to these changes, the Pennsylvania Prison Society shifted its attention in the early twentieth century to other pressing issues, including parole and probation standards and the use of prison labor. Over the course of the twentieth century, the society’s activities were increasingly professionalized, with paid staff working with prisoners and their families to ensure legal and just treatment within the correctional system. Nevertheless, the Prison Society’s commitment to the humane and just treatment of prisoners remained at the core of its mission as the group continued to serve as an important advocate for the incarcerated and a leading voice in penal reform.


Laura Michel is a Ph.D. student in History at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. She studies issues surrounding crime, poverty, and philanthropy in the early modern Atlantic World.

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