The 400-Year-Old Rivalry

Liz Covart is the Digital Projects Editor at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the Creator and Host of Ben Franklin’s World, an award-winning podcast about early American history.

On June 29 and 30, the oldest rivalry in American sports will play out in London Stadium as the New York Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox. The rivalry between these historic Major League Baseball teams dates to the early twentieth century, when Boston team owner Harry Frazee sold his star player Babe Ruth to the Yankees, but the rivalry between Boston and New York goes back centuries. The great baseball rivalry, in fact, is the latest manifestation of an intense regional competition that developed from the fierce commercial rivalry between England and the Netherlands during the 1650s.

Two hundred years before the United States sought its independence from Great Britain, the Netherlands sought its independence from Spain. The fight lasted eighty years and the Republic of the United Netherlands emerged from its struggle as a scientific, artistic, economic, and military power.

The Dutch capitalized on their power. In 1602, the Republic chartered the Vereendige Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company. Through the VOC, the Dutch conducted trade throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans, waged war on Spain, and blocked newcomers like England from establishing trade in Indonesia. In 1621, the Republic chartered the Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie, or the Dutch West India Company, to do the same within the Atlantic Ocean.

England pushed back and ignited a trade war. In 1651, Parliament passed its great Navigation Act. The 1651 act sought to hurt the Dutch by placing limits on how imported goods could enter English ports. An intense commercial rivalry ensued. The English and Dutch fought three wars during the seventeenth century and a fourth in the eighteenth century. Known as the Anglo-Dutch Wars, they saw the end of the Dutch Golden Age, the rise of English naval might, and the independence of the United States.

In conjunction with their rivalry, England and the Dutch Republic established colonies in North America.

England planted its first North American colony in Virginia in 1607. The Dutch Republic established its first North American colony in New Netherland around 1614. Over time, the English came to occupy territory from present-day Maryland south and from present-day Connecticut north and east. The Dutch prevented the English from unifying its northeastern and southern colonies by occupying lands between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers.

In addition to English and Dutch officials disputing the North American claims of the other, individual colonists took it upon themselves to support the claims of their parent country.

New Englanders pushed their way into New Netherland and claimed more and more territory for England. In the 1650 Treaty of Hartford, New Netherland Governor Petrus Stuyvesant conceded and gave the English much of the lands they had settled to stave off further encroachment. For Stuyvesant, it became paramount to protect Dutch claims along the Hudson River.

Competition between Dutch and English colonists extended beyond land claims too. New Englanders jealousy eyed the fur trade the Dutch established in the upper Hudson Valley. Around 1614, the Dutch established an outpost near present-day Albany to trade with local Mahican and Haudenosaunee peoples. The Dutch wanted beaver pelts and these Native American peoples knew how to catch and skin the animals with great skill. The trade proved lucrative enough that in 1624 the Dutch replaced their outpost with the more permanent and defensible Fort Orange and erected Fort Amsterdam at Manhattan to guard access to the fort via the Hudson River.

Eager to unify their North American landholdings and for access to the fur trade, English officials in London dispatched a fleet to New Netherland. In August 1664, four English naval vessels appeared in New Amsterdam harbor. Overpowered, Governor Stuyvesant surrendered on August 27, 1664, and the Dutch colony of New Netherland became the English colony of New York.

Relations between the colonists of New York and New England did not improve with the English conquest of New Netherland. The end of Dutch rule did not grant New Englanders access to the fur trade nor did it mean more territory for New England.

For generations, New Yorkers and New Englanders distrusted each other. Their distrust often manifested in times of war. During Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), New Englanders accused New Yorkers of negotiating peace for New York and war for New England. During the American Revolution, the great American victory at the Battle of Saratoga (1777) almost didn’t happen as disputes over whether New England or New York should provide supplies threatened to tear apart the American army.

After the Revolution, tensions between the regions increased before they subsided. During the 1780s, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut fought over the boundaries between their states. Between 1783 and 1830, New Yorkers experienced a tidal wave of migration as 700,000 to 800,000 New Englanders moved into all areas of New York (often assisting New Yorkers in dispossessing Haudenosaunee peoples from their lands).

In the end, this post-Revolution migration helped New Yorkers and New Englanders negotiate the development of a new, shared American culture. Boston and New York City, however, continued to vie for economic and cultural supremacy.

Over the past 389 years, this great regional rivalry has led Bostonians and New Yorkers to produce many innovations in banking and finance, literature and the arts, education, medicine, methods of transportation, and now in tech and biotech. It has also led to the development of one of the greatest rivalries in American sports.

If you really want to understand the rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and why it matters that New York has 27 World Series Championships to Boston’s 9 championships, you must understand the historic roots of the competition between New York and New England and England and the Netherlands. There is a direct lineage from the English and Dutch commercial rivalry to the intensity of this modern-day American sports rivalry.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: This week the #Yankees and #RedSox across the Atlantic for the first-ever @MLB games in London. Their rivalry is over a century old, but as @lizcovart writes, the competition between New York and Boston goes back to…

  2. Fun post. Thank you for writing it.

    I would only add: English settlers on Long Island created headaches for the Dutch during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) by raising an English flag, even though they had previously subjected themselves to the Dutch West India Company. Governor Stuyvesant had to send diplomats to all his English colonial neighbors during that war to make sure they didn’t attack him (and would continue to trade). A large English fleet also assembled in Boston in 1654, ready to attack New Amsterdam, but word arrived of the peace in Europe and the invasion had to be called off. Had the news arrived just a bit later, the English invasion might have taken place a whole decade earlier than it eventually did. And who knows what would have happened or what difference it would have made.

    For baseball, probably no difference at all. The deep roots of this rivalry you’re describing would be more clear if we did a bit of team renaming: the Red Sox vs. the Orange Sox? Or do we already have the Orange Sox in the Mets?

  3. How does the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry remotely qualify as the oldest in “American sports” when Harvard and Yale have been at it since 1859 (rowing), football (1875), and baseball (1867)?!


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