Johanna de Laet was born into a life of privilege and opportunity on September 6, 1623 in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands. Her father, Johannes de Laet, was a famous historian and mapmaker as well as one of the founding directors of the Dutch West India Company. His investments in the company made him very rich. As a child Johanna received an excellent education and learned all about the opportunities of business and trade in the Dutch Republic.
When Johanna was about 21 years old, she married one of her father’s colleagues, Johannes de Hulter, another founding director of the Dutch West India Company. For the next six years, Johanna lived as a wealthy Leiden housewife. She was responsible for running her family’s home and raising their children. Her first opportunity for becoming a businesswoman in her own right came in 1649, when her father passed away. Under Dutch inheritance law, all children, even girls and women, were entitled to inherit a piece of their parents’ estate. Johanna inherited property in the colony of New Netherland, near present-day Kingston, New York. This property was the seed of a business empire that Johanna would grow for the rest of her life.
In 1653, Johanna and her husband moved their family to the New Netherland colony, where they could personally oversee their lands and investments. They brought servants and other settlers with them, and in return, received land grants from the colony’s government. The family settled in Rensselaerswyck, the territory that surrounded Fort Orange.
Johanna’s husband died in 1655. Johanna inherited half of his property, and she took on managing the other half for her children until they came of age. Her inheritance from her husband, combined with her inheritance from her father, made Johanna a very wealthy woman. As a widow, Johanna was allowed to represent her own economic and legal interests in the community.
Johanna embraced her new role as business manager for her family. Between 1656 and 1659, she appears in the court records for business disputes over ten times, and her court appearances reveal the diversity of her business holdings. She owned a tile manufacturing business in Beverwyck, rented homes and farms, fought challenges to her land rights, and regularly held sales of land and businesses she no longer wanted to oversee. One sale earned her 8,821 guilders in a single day, at a time when the average servant girl made between 30 to 50 guilders a year! In 1657, she was cited as a witness in a contract dispute, indicating that the court and her colleagues recognized her as a trustworthy member of the community.
As a widow, Johanna was allowed to represent her own economic and legal interests in the community.
Johanna remarried in 1659. Her new husband, Jeronimus Ebbing, was a rising star in the colony’s trade and political circles. As a Dutch woman of property, Johanna had the right to demand a contract that would have allowed her to hold her property separate from her husband and continue to conduct business as an independent woman, but she didn’t do this. She took her new husband’s name, and when they appear in the court records jointly, her husband is always referred to as her guardian and manager of her business interests.
Even so, Johanna continued to operate her businesses independently. She shows up in the courts at least ten more times before the English took over the colony, and her appearances in this period are spread out between Fort Orange, Kingston, and New Amsterdam, which means she travelled frequently. In 1663, she sued a man for keeping beaver furs he never paid for. The man counter sued, claiming that Johanna was supposed to teach him a trade and didn’t, so he kept the beaver furs as compensation. The court ruled in Johanna’s favor. This episode reveals that not only was she appearing in court independently, and winning, but she was still conducting business and making contracts without the oversight of her husband. As the daughter of a company director, and a very wealthy woman in her own right, who in the colony was going to question her right to do exactly as she pleased?
Given her life’s work, it is fitting that the last known reference to Johanna in the government records is not her death notice but a court appearance she made at the age of 53. A respectable matron of New Netherland, with seven living children, Johanna was still fighting for her economic interests, even after the transition to English rule made it harder for women to act independently. She is a powerful example of how women, when born into the right circumstances, could achieve the same success as men.