Willem Kieft was born in September 1597 in Amsterdam, Holland. Educated to become a merchant, his failed business ventures disgraced him within the mercantile community. There were also allegations of dishonesty, that when he was sent to Turkey with funds to ransom Christian captives, he misappropriated the money and left the captives to their fate. However, Kieft was related to the powerful Pauw family, one of whom was a Director of the Dutch West India Company, and upon the recall of Wotan Van Twiller, the Company appointed Willem Kieft the next Director of New Netherland.
Director Kieft arrived in New Amsterdam on March 28, 1638, on board the ship the Herring. Although an intelligent, educated and energetic man, he knew nothing of governance and had a tendency to be spiteful. He appointed Dr. Johannes La Montagne as the sole member of the Director's Council, and arranged the voting system so that he, the Director, always had the majority vote.
Shortly after his arrival, Director Kieft noted that the colony was in poor physical condition and in his first letter back to Holland, complained "The fort is open at every side, except the stone point; the guns are dismounted; the houses and public buildings are out of repair; the magazine for merchandise has disappeared; every vessel in the harbor is falling to pieces; only one windmill is in operation; the farms of the company are without tenants and thrown into commons."
Around 1639, the Dutch parliament became interested in settling the colony and put pressure on the Dutch West India Company to relax some of the strictures on settlers. The sixteen-year monopoly of the Dutch West India Company on trade was abolished, and trade and farming were open to all, whether a citizen or foreigner, provided that they took an oath of loyalty. This led to an influx of settlers, particularly in the following year, when the 1640 Charter of Freedoms and Exemptions came into effect. The new immigrants needed land for their settlements and this caused tensions with the Native American tribes already living in the area of New Amsterdam.
In September 1639, Kieft levied a tax on the Indians living on both sides of the Hudson River supposedly for the "protection" the Dutch provided to them from attacks by rival Indian tribes, and tensions escalated. Kieft ignored the advice of the representative assembly, the Twelve Men, and embarked upon the disastrous Indian War.
In 1643, Kieft established a second representative assembly, the Eight Men. Outraged by the war, the state of the colony and the hardships that they endured on a daily basis, the Eight Men drafted a Remonstrance that they sent to the authorities in Holland. The Dutch West India Company disregarded the document but the remonstrance raised concern in the Dutch parliament which, in 1646, ordered Director Willem Kieft to return to Holland to answer for his conduct.
During his years in office, Kieft had acquired a large estate which he sold before leaving the colony. On the journey back to Holland the ship upon which he was a passenger, the Princess Amalia, was shipwrecked off the coast of Wales on September 27, 1647, and Willem Kieft was among those who lost their lives.