But the West India Company didn’t abandon New Netherland. Instead, reasoning that it could be used to provision Brazil—and if Brazil were lost, that it might be the only Dutch possession of consequence in the New World—the company’s directors resolved to make another attempt to get the colony on its feet. Their first step was to find a man tough enough to ride herd on its turbulent inhabitants, and the obvious choice was a company veteran named Petrus Stuyvesant.

Stuyvesant came from Friesland, in the northern Netherlands, where his father, a Reformed clergyman, preached the stern, bellicose Calvinism of the Counter-Remonstrant party and the Synod of Dort. He enrolled in the University of Franeker at the age of twenty but was expelled two or three years later for seducing his landlord’s daughter. His father then sent him to Amsterdam, where he wangled a job with the West India Company and began to make something of himself (as “Petrus” rather than “Pieter” because the Latin form of his name showed that he had university training). In 1630 the company appointed young Stuyvesant its commercial agent on Fernando de Noronha, a tiny island off the coast of Brazil used for operations against the mainland. He was transferred to Pernambuco in 1635, and in 1638 the company moved him to Curacao, now its American headquarters and principal naval base in the Caribbean. In 1642, barely thirty years old, he became acting governor of Curacao, Aruba, and Bonaire.

Stuyvesant’s principal assignment on Curacao was to organize an expedition against the island of St. Martin. The Spanish had pried St. Martin away from the company some years earlier, and the Dutch sorely missed its valuable salt pans as well as its proximity to Puerto Rico, which had almost fallen to company forces in 1625 and remained an inviting target. In the early spring of 1644 Stuyvesant fell upon St. Martin with twelve ships and over a thousand men. When the Spaniards refused to surrender, he laid siege. He failed to prevent supplies getting through from Puerto Rico, however, and an enemy cannonball crushed his right leg. Surgeons amputated it just below the knee. Four weeks later, in excruciating pain, he called off the assault. Later that year he went home to the Netherlands to recuperate and get fitted for a wooden leg. It was, he always said, a sign that God had spared him for great things. The West India Company, for its part, hailed Stuyvesant’s peg-leg as a symbol of “Roman” sacrifice and named him director-general of New Netherland at the salary of three thousand guilders per year—fifty times the purchase price of Manhattan and twenty times the annual wages of a company sailor or seaman.

While waiting for the States-General to confirm his appointment, Stuyvesant married Judith Bayard, the daughter of a Huguenot clergyman from Breda. He and his bride left Amsterdam in December 1646. After a quick stop on Curacao, they reached New Amsterdam in August 1647.

The place was a wreck. Kieft’s “land-destroying and people-expelling wars with the cruel barbarians,” Stuyvesant later reported, had stripped the country of inhabitants, obliterated all but a handful of villages, and driven many settlers to head for home. Barely “250, or at farthest 300 men capable of bearing arms” remained in the entire colony. Around seven hundred people, still fearful of reoccupying their farms, cowered in makeshift huts around Fort Amsterdam, which “I found resembling more a mole-hill than a fortress, without gates, the walls and bastions trodden underfoot by men and cattle.” Kieft himself was holed up in his quarters counting all the money he had made—reportedly more than four hundred thousand guilders—and drinking himself into oblivion. The rest of New Amsterdam’s besotted inhabitants, Stuyvesant said, were “grown very wild and loose in their morals.”


Petrus Stuyvesant, painted in New Amsterdam by Hendrick Couturier, c.1660. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Certain that this was the work for which the Lord had spared his life on St. Martin, the new director waded in with the same combination of ruthlessness and piety with which the English Puritans were just then consolidating their power under Oliver Cromwell. “I shall govern you as a father his children,” he informed the townsfolk.


Uppermost in Stuyvesant’s mind was the need to turn New Amsterdam into the kind of community that would appeal to the Dutch taste for well-regulated urban life. For the Netherlands (unlike, say, England) was a nation of town dwellers, known for their civic consciousness and for the love of public tidiness that had led them to adopt the broom as a symbol of national identity and purpose. No sooner had he arrived, therefore, than Stuyvesant began to sweep New Amsterdam into shape with a succession of edicts, decrees, and orders. They would continue to stream from his pen for the next seventeen years—joined, after 1653, by a torrent of ordinances from the burgomasters he appointed to New Amsterdam’s first municipal government.

One of his earliest targets was the town’s confounding jumble of lanes and footpaths. Stuyvesant named three surveyors to establish reliable property lines and lay out regular streets, some of which even received names. He ordered the removal of building materials and other obstructions from the streets and imposed a speed limit on wagons and carts. In 1658 the residents of Brouwer (Brewer) Street received permission to pave their lane with cobblestones, creating New Amsterdam’s first properly surfaced roadway, now Stone Street.

In 1648 Stuyvesant declared war on New Amsterdam’s pigs, cows, goats, and horses. Residents had been accustomed to letting their animals forage freely through the town; while this helped remove accumulations of garbage it also damaged gardens and orchards, and rooting swine had pretty well ruined the fort’s sodded ramparts. Henceforth, Stuyvesant announced, the schout would seize wayward animals and drag them to a public pound, and soldiers were authorized to shoot on sight any hog grunting its way toward the fort. What was more, residents were forbidden to throw “rubbish, filth, ashes, oyster-shells, dead animal or anything like it” into the streets. Householders were required to clean the road in front of their dwellings. Any privy that released excrement at ground level was banned, for it “not only creates a great stench and therefore great inconvenience to the passers-by, but also makes the streets foul and unfit for use.” Butchers were warned not to discard offal in the streets. In 1657 an ordinance established five official sites for the dumping of garbage.

To guard against the danger of fire—“most of the houses here in New Amsterdam are built of wood and roofed with reeds,” Stuyvesant explained, and “in some houses the chimneys are of wood, which is very dangerous”—he prohibited further construction of wooden chimneys; later, thatched roofs and haystacks were banned as well. Four fire wardens were appointed to see that all chimneys in town were regularly swept. The wardens banned the use of fireplaces on dangerously windy days. After 1647 a fire curfew required that each evening all fires must be put out or covered up. A decade later the burgomasters began to assemble a municipal firefighting apparatus. Two cordwainers (shoemakers) were hired to produce 150 leather fire buckets, copied from a Dutch sample, and after being painted with the city seal by glazier Evert Duyckinck—the town’s first artist—they were placed at various street corners. The following year the town got ladders and fire hooks. As conditions improved and a sense of permanence began to take hold, Dutch brick “alia moderna”—some imported as ship’s ballast, some turned out in local kilns—began to replace wood as a building material.


New Amsterdam, c. 1650-53, copied so often that it has become known as the “Prototype View.” On the far left, just east of what is now Bowling Green, stands the company gristmill, while to its right the twin gables of the Reformed church rise above the walls of the fort. At Schreyers Hook in the foreground—just below what is now the intersection of Whitehall and Pearl streets—are the company’s wooden wharf, crane, and a beam for weighing merchandise (which may also have served the burgeoning community as a gallows). At the extreme right, the City Tavern faces the East River shore on present-day Pearl Street, near the head of Coenties Slip. (© Museum of the City of New York)

From the outset, the company had supplied New Amsterdam with a succession of midwives and zieckentroosters (comforters of the sick)—lay pastors who assisted ordained clergymen by reading Scripture and prayers to the ill. A year before the arrival of Governor Kieft, it sent over the first formally trained physician, Dr. Johannes La Montagne, a Huguenot refugee and graduate of the University of Leyden. The company balked at the expense of a proper hospital, however, until Stuyvesant decided that unsanitary conditions impeded the recovery of sick slaves and soldiers billeted in private homes. In 1658, as a result, New Amsterdam got its first hospital under the direction of matron Hilletje Wilbruch (in the Netherlands such charitable institutions were often run by women).

In 1649 and again in 1653, on the other hand, Stuyvesant refused requests to build an orphan asylum and appoint orphanmasters, claiming that the idea was inconsistent with “the weak state of this just beginning city.” Let the deacons of the church “keep their eyes open,” he said, and look after any destitute children they saw. Matters changed only after 1654, when company officials arranged with the burgomasters of Amsterdam to send children from that city’s orphan asylum to New Amsterdam, there to be bound out as apprentices and servants. Now Stuyvesant not only rented a house to lodge the first group—the town’s first public home for orphans—but, in 1656, established an Orphan Masters’ Court.

The company likewise resisted appeals to provide for the relief of the poor—a responsibility, it said with some justice, that properly lay with religious institutions. In 1653, accordingly, New Amsterdam’s Reformed Church opened an almshouse or “deacons’ house” for the aged poor on what is now Beaver Street. For funding, the deacons relied on contributions collected in church and at weddings, where guests dropped offerings in a poor box. In time, the system acquired a public character as the deacons began to assist the needy in general and were assigned revenues raised from municipal fines. In 1655 the first lottery took place in New Amsterdam as a fund-raising device for the almshouse.

Company involvement expanded in 1661, after the deacons complained that needy people from outlying villages had begun drifting into town for help, diminishing their ability to care for New Amsterdam’s own poor. Stuyvesant and his council enacted the colony’s first poor law, “to the end that the Lazy and Vagabond may as much as possible be rebuked, and the really Poor the more assisted and cared for.” The law required every village to take up weekly collections for its own poor. It also specifically relieved the New Amsterdam Church from caring for nonresidents who could not present a certificate of character and poverty from the deacon at their place of residence.

So, too, the company responded grudgingly when New Amsterdam’s residents asked for schools comparable to those in the Netherlands, where publicly funded education was widely available, even to the poor. The company had launched a common school in 1638, but it refused to build a schoolhouse, forcing teacher and pupils to find temporary quarters. Residents complained repeatedly—in 1649 they appealed again for construction of a “public school, with at least two good teachers”—but the company still declined to spend the money.

Townspeople petitioned as well for a Latin school that would provide more advanced instruction to the many children who could now read and write. The nearest grammar school, they pointed out, was in Boston, 250 miles away, and without an establishment of its own, New Amsterdam was not likely to become a “place of great splendor.” In 1659 the company belatedly agreed to help defray the expense of a teacher’s salary (but not erection of a school building), and a certain Dominie Curtius, “late professor in Lithuania,” soon commenced classes with seventeen pupils. By 1664, with the additional assistance of private teachers—the only schooling available to non-Dutch-speaking children—probably a majority of New Amsterdam’s white population could read and write. As in Holland, a larger number of women had received an education than was common in other European countries or their colonies.

The company also resisted establishing a police force until 1658, when, partly inspired by fears of Indian trouble, the magistrates organized a rattle watch. A captain and eight men received twenty-four stivers a night (plus an allowance for firewood) to walk around town and “call out how late it is, at all corners of the streets from nine O’Clock in the evening untill the reveille beat in the morning.” Given the absence of streetlights, keeping a lookout for crime or fire wasn’t the easiest of tasks. If the watchmen discovered anything amiss, they were to use their rattles to rouse the populace.

Stuyvesant was, however, prepared to spend “a considerable amount of money” for “very proper and highly necessary public works”—by which he usually meant projects that enhanced the town’s security, commerce, or moral order. He had masons patch up the fort and oversaw renovations to the church. He established a post office and authorized a municipal pier on the East River, at the foot of what is now Moore Street. Drawing on Dutch skill in mastering marshy terrains, he had a sullen creek on the site of modern Broad Street deepened and widened into what became known as “the Ditch”—and then had its sides planked up to make a little canal, rather grandly called the Heere Gracht. The canal in the heart of town was both useful and, like the windmills, a comforting reminder of life in the Netherlands. To pay for all this the director-general placed “a reasonable excise and impost on wines, brandy and liquors which are imported from abroad.”

Within a decade of his arrival, and despite bouts of official penny-pinching, Stuyvesant’s campaign to tidy up New Amsterdam helped spur its evolution from a seedy, beleaguered trading post into a well-run Dutch town. His success was hardly total, and a conspicuous gap remained between prescription and practice: foraging swine, wooden chimneys, overflowing privies, smelly accumulations of garbage, and tavern brawls continued to frustrate municipal authorities for years. Nor indeed would he have been able to accomplish so much had he not also been able to resuscitate New Amsterdam’s economy.


One of Stuyvesant’s most pressing concerns was to create more orderly markets in the city. To combat widespread fraud in the sale and transfer of real estate—the transition to private ownership in New Netherland had given rise to a rather chaotic land market—he announced that all conveyances of real estate would be invalid without his approval and until properly recorded by the provincial secretary. To regulate the sale of local produce and ensure an adequate supply of food—the indispensable precondition for municipal growth—Stuyvesant directed that a municipal market be held every Monday along the East River shore for “meat, bacon, butter, cheese, turnips, roots, straw, and other products of the farm.” Eight years later, in 1656, Saturday officially became the day when “country people” might offer their goods and wares to townsfolk “on the Beach or Strand, near the end of the Heere Gracht,” and farmers from Brooklyn, Gowanus, and Bergen sold produce from their boats parked in the canal, their dickering with householders reminiscent of similar scenes in the Netherlands. Stuyvesant also established a ten-day free market, to be held every St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24). “Corresponding to the legal Amsterdam Fair,” it would be a time when ordinary municipal regulations were suspended, prices would be subject only to the law of supply and demand, and no stranger could be arrested. In 1659, moreover, the burgomasters made the space in front of the fort available for a forty-day-long “market for fat and lean cattle” each autumn; soon the market would be housed in a new building with tiled roof, later called the Broadway Shambles. Proclamations for these events were issued in English as well as Dutch and attracted farmers and their herds from as far away as Southampton.

Stuyvesant kept close watch on retail markets too. He required all persons who kept a “private shop” in cellar or garret, or who carried “on any Trade by the small weight and measure,” to use “genuine Amsterdam ells, measures and weights” that had been inspected at the fort. He was not, on the other hand, prepared to establish price con­trols. When townsmen petitioned him in 1657 about the high cost of “Necessary commodities and household supplies”—charging that not only “Merchants, but also, consequently, Shop-keepers, Tradesmen, Brewers, Bakers, Tapsters and Grocers, make a difference of 30, 40 & 50 percent when they sell their wares”—he took no action. Instead, he banned “Scotch traders”—itinerant merchants from Holland or elsewhere who began visiting the colony soon after the West India Company abandoned its monopoly on trade in 1639. By selling their wares at steep discounts and paying outrageous sums for beaver pelts, these “destroyers of trade,” as Stuyvesant called them, could beggar the town’s permanent residents. He therefore prohibited anyone from doing business in New Amsterdam who had not built a “decent citizen dwelling” and lived in it for three consecutive years. The directors of the West India Company were avid supporters of free trade, however, and they overruled his ban on “Scotch traders.”

Stuyvesant was prepared to impose stricter controls on artisans than on merchants, especially in such vital local enterprises as brewing, slaughtering, and baking. In the face of repeated complaints about the supply and quality of “black” bread—a mainstay of the local diet—he established the assize of bread customary in the Netherlands, ordering bakers to produce only eight-, four-, or two-pound loaves, at fixed prices, using unadulterated wheat or rye flour “as it came from the mill.” At the same time, to stimulate domestic production, Stuyvesant handed out monopolies for the manufacture of tile, bricks, potash, salt, and other products (it isn’t clear how many such enterprises were actually launched, or how long they survived). Here again West India Company officials rejected policies they thought might discourage prospective settlers. Interference with the law of supply and demand, they explained, reduced “the expectation of gain” that “is the greatest spur to induce people to go thither.” Similarly, Stuyvesant’s monopolies seemed “very pernicious and impracticable especially in a new country, which begins only to develop, and must be peopled and made prosperous by general benefits and liberties to be granted to everybody.”

Soon, however, the burgomasters were issuing ordinances to the same effect. “All bakers, brewers, shopkeepers and merchants” should “sell their goods at reasonable prices to the people,” they announced in 1658. Porters, cartmen, tradesmen, and laborers were told what they could charge for their services; outsiders or “strangers” were forbidden to offer their wares for sale except at stated times and places.

Now it was the bakers who protested, openly defying the ordinance requiring them to sell coarse bread at fixed prices. Squeezed by the rising cost of grain, they routinely sifted their flour with bran, short-weighted loaves, and surreptitiously produced more of the higher-priced white bread and cakes than the law allowed. In 1661 the most frustrated bakers, led by Joost Teunissen, suspended work altogether on the grounds they could no longer earn a living. The magistrates were sympathetic but unrelenting: they warned the bakers to resume production or face the loss of their licenses, raised the fines for substandard loaves, and appointed inspectors to check the weight and quality of all bread sold within New Amsterdam. As the court told Reynier Willemsen, the public interest always came first: to practice your trade in New Amsterdam, you must agree to “bake good and fit bread for the best possible accommodation of the community.”

Stuyvesant did address one of the greatest concerns of the bakers, and of everyone else in the colony: the steady inflation of wampum, New Netherland’s principal currency. Too much of it, Stuyvesant observed, wasn’t the genuine article—“unpierced and only half-finished, made of stone, bone, glas, shells, horn, nay even of wood, and bro­ken.” As always, bad money drove out the good, and people were complaining that “they cannot go to market and buy any commodities, not even a little white bread or a mug of beer, from the traders, bakers and tapsters.” At the same time, the quantity of wampum in circulation was rising sharply. The New England colonies had recently demonetized wampum, started to coin their own money, and begun to dump huge quantities of wampum, good and bad, on their Dutch neighbors. Wages and prices in New Amsterdam soared, and it was getting hard for anyone to make a living in the fur trade.

Stuyvesant responded by ordering that all wampum used as money must henceforth be strung (“upon a wire, as hitherto it has usually been done”) and that its value would be fixed at the rate of six white or three black beads per stiver for high-quality “merchantable” or “trade” wampum and eight white or four black beads per stiver for inferior wampum. Shopkeepers and tradesmen who refused to accept the poorer grade, if properly strung, faced stiff fines. Stuyvesant also pleaded with the company to ship over enough hard coinage to serve the colony’s needs or let it mint coins of its own, as the English had done. Neither he nor the company considered demonetizing wampum, however, and it remained legal tender.

But Stuyvesant’s most far-reaching suggestion for New Amsterdam’s economic revitalization came in response to events unfolding on the international scene. In 1648 the Dutch finally won their long struggle for independence—a boon for the nation’s private merchants but a disaster for the West India Company, which had always depended on war with Spain to justify its existence and generate income. Soon after Stuyvesant arrived in New Amsterdam, the company’s prospects looked grimmer than ever. By 1649 it couldn’t afford to launch a single ship for the defense of Brazil, and the price of its shares on the Amsterdam Exchange had sunk to an all-time low.

As Brazil slipped from its grasp, the company instigated a momentous revolution in the Atlantic slave trade. During the 1630s and 1640s it had imported nearly thirty thousand slaves from Africa to work the Brazilian sugar plantations. The increasing precariousness of those markets prompted the company to direct its attention elsewhere—above all to the British and French West Indies, where white indentured servants had been producing tobacco on myriad small holdings. On one island after another, company agents as well as independent Dutch merchants not only convinced the planters to adopt slave labor but loaned them money and equipment to make the switch to sugar, several times more profitable than tobacco. By the early 1650s sugar was well on its way to becoming the principal crop of the Caribbean, large plantations were emerging as the basic unit of production, and the company was funneling tens of thousands of African slaves every year into the region. (On Barbados, richest of the new sugar colonies, the black population soared from a few thousand to better than thirty-two thousand by the 1670s.) Dutch slavers had even started probing Virginia and Maryland, and there was good reason to believe that Chesapeake planters would soon follow their West Indian counterparts in adopting slavery.

It was in this context that it occurred to Stuyvesant and company strategists that New Amsterdam would make a convenient entrepot for the slave trade in North America and a source of vital supplies for the plantation economies developing to the south. It might also be profitable to establish a local market for slaves, perhaps even bring them directly from Angola, thus bolstering New Amsterdam’s labor force, hastening the reoccupation of its hinterlands, and securing the entire colony against encroachment from New England. Stuyvesant was one of the new policy’s most ardent supporters. His tour of duty on Curaçao coincided with the construction there of vast pens capable of holding thousands of slaves at a time, and it was he who suggested the administrative unification of Curaçao with New Netherland.


Nieu Amsterdam, mid-seventeenth century. The figures in this Dutch print—two colonists, a woman holding a basket of fruit and a man with tobacco leaves, as well as the bare-chested slaves behind them—are identical to those in a contemporary depiction of Barbados, except they are seen here with New Amsterdam in the background. Which came first is unknown, but this version nicely conveys the West India Company’s growing involvement with slavery and the slave trade in New Netherland. (I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

The last Dutch stronghold in Brazil fell to the Portuguese in 1654, and implementation of the new policy got underway the very next year. A company ship, the Witte Paert (White Horse), anchored in the East River with nearly three hundred Guinea slaves—the first specifically intended for local buyers—stowed below decks in conditions so cramped and filthy that residents must have been able to smell the ship from the far side of town. Additional shipments arrived before the end of the decade, though the real surge of imports did not come until after 1660, when some four hundred slaves were sold at public auction in the space of three or four years. By the mid-1660s New Netherland had about seven hundred slaves all told, three hundred of whom were held in New Amsterdam, far outnumbering its seventy-five or so free blacks and constituting over 20 percent of the town’s total population.

That population had meanwhile grown rapidly, for at the same time it began importing slaves, the West India Company had mounted its most ambitious campaign yet to attract free colonists. It issued a more liberal set of Freedoms and Exemptions and published a barrage of promotional pamphlets praising New Netherland’s abundance of rich, easily cultivated land.

Although immigration figures are incomplete and inexact, it appears that the company’s efforts—in tandem with Stuyvesant’s reform program—succeeded admirably. By the mid-1650s New Netherland’s population had climbed to perhaps thirty-five hundred men, women, and children; a decade later, to nine thousand. Of that number, some fifteen hundred lived in New Amsterdam alone, roughly three times as many as Stuyvesant found fifteen years earlier. Only one-fourth of the town’s three hundred adult white males could claim to have lived there longer than he had. The newcomers were as diverse as ever, too: half of them hailed from Germany, England, France, and the Scandinavian countries. By the mid-1660s, indeed, only 40 percent of New Netherland’s population was actually Dutch, while 19 percent was German and 15 percent English. But these weren’t the same kind of people who had been drawn to the colony during its first twenty or thirty years. Seventy percent came over in family groups, many of them couples in their early twenties with small children. Only one in four was a single male, and for the first time a small but significant proportion, about 6 percent, were single women. Better than half were farmers or skilled craftsmen (a few fishermen showed up as well). Only one in eight was a laborer or servant. The rest were soldiers.


Travelers disembarking at the new East River pier in these years would have found themselves near the heart of a bustling, cosmopolitan little seaport. Directly in front of them, facing the river, lay the Strand, a two-block stretch of Paerle Straet (Pearl Street) crowded with taverns, workshops, warehouses, cottages, and brick residences built in the Dutch manner, one or two stories tall, gable-ends out. Just upriver, one block to the right, was the entrance to the Heere Gracht, now lined with houses almost up to what is now Exchange Place. A block to the left stood Stuyvesant’s new Great House, a “costly and handsome” two-story residence of whitewashed stone—later known as the White Hall (whence the present Whitehall Street)—which boasted extensive gardens and a private dock for the director-general’s barge of state. From there it was a short walk across the Marktvelt, past Brugh (Bridge), Brouwers (Brewers, now Stone), and Marktvelt (Marketfield) streets—all densely built up—to the parade-ground (now the site of Bowling Green) at the front gate of Fort Amsterdam. The Heere Wegh (Broadway), which led north from the parade-ground, past the company’s garden, was only beginning to attract construction, though. Indeed most of the area beyond the upper end of the Heere Gracht was still occupied by orchards, gardens, and grazing cows.

Although the physical transformation of New Amsterdam was remarkable enough, the really striking change, less apparent to the casual observer, was the appearance of an embryonic class system where once there had been only employees of the West India Company. At the top of this new social order stood a few dozen wealthy, socially established, and politically well-connected private merchants from Holland. They were a new phenomenon in town, so much so that in 1656 an embarrassed schout had to ask where he should jail “persons of quality, or of good name and character,” who broke the law. (He was told they could be held in a tavern, if they had the money to pay for their lodgings.)

Some of these “persons of quality” were representatives of the handful of Dutch commercial syndicates that dominated the colony’s trade after the West India Company abandoned its monopoly in 1639. Their business consisted for the most part of exchanging a few basic items of local origin (furs, skins, tobacco, timber) for imported essential trade goods (duffel cloth, liquor, gunpowder). Johannes Pietersen Verbrugge and his cousin Johannes Gillissen Verbrugge came over for the firm of Gillis Verbrugge and Company; Allard Anthony, a prosperous Amsterdam merchant, served as New Amsterdam agent for the firm of Pieter Gabry and Sons. Other important newcomers—Abel de Wolff, Cornelis Steenwyck, Jan Baptiste van Rensselaer, and William Beekman—enjoyed close family and professional ties with leading West India Company stockholders, private merchants, government officials, and military men. Cornelis van Werckhoven had served as governor of the Amsterdam poorhouse and was an officer in that city’s burgher guard. Arent van Hattem was a nobleman and former alderman of the city of Culemborg.

Women like Annetje Jans played a major part in the accumulation of wealth by this nascent upper class. Jans was one of two daughters of Tryn Jonas, the West India Company’s midwife. Around 1630 Annetje married Roeloff Jansen, an Indian trader and agricultural foreman up at Fort Orange. Thanks largely to her business acumen, the couple prospered, and later they moved down to Manhattan, where they occupied a sixty-acre farm along the North River shore near the foot of what is now Jay Street. Roeloff’s sudden death in 1636 left Annetje with several children to raise on her own but with an attractive estate. Two years later, after getting him to sign a prenuptial agreement that protected the interests of her children by Jansen, she married Dominie Bogardus, moved into his new house near the fort, and leased out her North River farm. Over the next ten years, while bearing several more children, she parlayed the farm’s income into a modest real estate empire. After the dominie’s death in 1647 she did not remarry but continued to manage her various properties and the marriages of her numerous children. By the time of her own death in 1663 she had become the titular head of a large and powerful clan that included affluent merchants and entrepreneurs (women as well as men), influential magistrates, and the colony’s only physician.

Annetje’s younger sister, Marritje, was equally gifted at making her way in the world. Her first husband was the West India Company’s chief shipwright on Manhattan, her second a carpenter turned farmer. When she married for the third and last time it was to Govert Loockermans, a fur trader and landowner who was probably New Amsterdam’s richest man at the time of their marriage in 1649. As it happened, Govert’s sister, Anneken, had married Oloff Stevensen van Cortlandt, one of the soldiers who came over with Van Twiller. Although Oloff, like Govert, had a talent for making money and knew the right people (Kieft helped him along with the job of company commissary), it was Anneken who guided the family fortunes for thirty-odd years. She invested heavily in real estate around New Amsterdam (acquiring along the way a big farm in what is now Greenwich Village), and she is said to have talked Oloff into opening a lucrative brewery by the fort. Like her sisters-in-law Annetje and Marritje Jans, she also passed her business and social talents on to her children. One daughter, Maria, having run the family brewery while still in her teens, married Jeremias van Rensselaer and ran Rensselaerswyck by herself for fifteen years after his death. Two other daughters found husbands in the Philipse and Schuyler families, while a son, Stephanus, would become one of the colony’s greatest landowners.

None of this would have seemed odd or unusual back in the Netherlands, where strong and assertive Dutch wives were commonplace. In Dutch law, a unique mixture of Roman and Germanic antecedents, women enjoyed far greater autonomy than they did in the patriarchal English-speaking world. A Dutch woman had recourse to legal process and could file claims against a man. She could own property and retain control of it after marriage. With her husband’s permission, she could borrow money, conduct business, and make contracts in her own name. Prenuptial agreements spelling out these rights were mandatory, and the law allowed husbands and wives to prepare mutual wills stipulating that the death of one would not deprive the other of their common property. A Dutch wife wasn’t her husband’s peer: the law gave him extensive authority to control her actions and allowed him, among other things, to sell or bequeath their common property without her consent. Even so, culturally as well as legally, his power was qualified by the conviction that a submissive wife was incompatible with a strong household.1

In other ways as well—and in sharp contrast to the bulk of New Amsterdam’s inhabitants—the members of this emerging municipal elite were unmistakably Dutch in taste, manner, and outlook. They commissioned comfortable brick and stone townhouses whose steeply pitched gables, high stoops, double doors, and manicured gardens of roses, tulips, and lilies wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of Amsterdam’s better neighborhoods. Those who could afford to followed Stuyvesant’s example in furnishing their houses, as did wealthy inhabitants of Amsterdam, with furniture of rare woods, paintings, fine china, and heavy silver. Wives of wealthy merchants dressed in the fashionable styles of Amsterdam and Paris, with dresses sent over from Europe or made locally by seamstresses. Their husbands’ tastes ran to silk or velvet breeches and to coats flowered with silver lace. Emulating the merchant nabobs of the Dutch empire in the East Indies, they surrounded themselves with servants and slaves. Many imported spinets and virginals to satisfy their love of music. A few amassed modest libraries. Jonas Bronck, for one, owned twenty printed books, eighteen pamphlets, and seventeen manuscript books. Some even wrote themselves: Jacob Steendam, a man of substance with interests in the slave trade and local real estate, found time to compose poetry. His “Complaint of New Amsterdam to her Mother”—the city’s first poem—presented the town-as-narrator describing ill treatment at maternal hands (“I, of Amsterdam, was born/Early of her breasts forlorn,” etc.).

They were highly sociable, too. The director, the council, the burgomasters, and the orphanmasters frequently held meetings in taverns. Many commercial bargains were struck in the taprooms where merchants gathered to exchange and discuss news. Jollier still were the drinking clubs whose members gathered at favorite taverns to eat and drink. Arguably the best-known establishment was the Stadts Herbergh or City Tavern on the East River. Its ground-floor taproom was always thronged with merchants, sea captains, and Indian traders, and it was one of three places in town designated for the posting of official notices. Metje Wessels’s tavern over on Pearl Street was noted for its terrapin feasts. On the Sabbath, after the sermon, many families dined at an inn, and some publicans provided bowling greens, where customers could play ninepins at all times except during divine service. The more vigorous enjoyed ice-skating, boat racing, and angling parties, especially up at an island in the middle of the Kalch-hook pond where the Lenapes once fished.


Below the mercantile elite of New Amsterdam’s new social hierarchy were the white working people of modest means, not exclusively Dutch, who provided the growing community with its basic goods and services. The backbone of this middling class consisted of a hundred or so skilled craftsmen and their families, plus a few dozen innkeepers, boardinghouse owners, surgeons, and notaries.

Only a few artisans still worked for the West India Company. Back in 1644, surveying the havoc wrought by Kieft’s War, the company’s Board of Accounts had recommended slashing the number of its salaried “officers and servants” throughout New Netherland. “Carpenters, masons, smiths and such like ought to be discharged,” the board added, “and left to work for whomsoever will pay them.” The directors evidently concurred, for over the next ten or twenty years company employees became a distinct and shrinking minority of the colony’s population. In New Amsterdam, counting everyone from Stuyvesant down to the poorest laborer, only seventy-five of the town’s adult white males, roughly one in four, remained in the company’s service after 1660.

Many former employees stayed on and put down roots in New Amsterdam. Abraham Willemsen, for example, had been a seaman in the company’s service who married a local girl in 1647, petitioned the court to release him from his obligations to the company, and settled in town as a carpenter. (It’s more than likely that he’d been moonlighting as a carpenter for some time already. As Stuyvesant explained to his superiors in 1659, a common soldier employed by the company, “except on extraordinary expeditions, has only to go on guard duty in his garrison every third day” and the rest of the time endeavored “to earn elsewhere something to supplement his small pay and board-money”—no better, in most cases, than thirty guilders per month.)

By the early 1660s old-timers like Willemsen had been joined by a new generation of immigrant artisans representing a wide variety of trades. Coopers made the barrels, hogsheads, pipes, and kegs in which merchants exported flour, salted meats, fish, and beer. The town’s bakers (ten of them now) made bread, special cakes for festivals and weddings, and the hard biscuits that formed a large part of the diet of sailors at sea. Evert Duyckinck, the glazier and fire-bucket artist, installed leaded glass, painted with family coats of arms, in the windows of the church at two and a half beaver skins a pane. There were brewers like Isaac and Joannes Verveelen, who ran the famous Red Lion Brewery, carpenters like Frederik Flipsen and Thomas Lambertsen, shoemakers like Coenraet ten Eyck, and tailors like Hendrick Kip, along with twelve butchers, several tanners, three silversmiths, and assorted hatters and masons.

These middling people of New Amsterdam tended to live in houses like the one built for schoolmaster Roelantsen. Made entirely of wood, it was thirty feet long, eighteen feet wide, and eight feet high, with a small garret above the beams. The single chamber served as a combination dining room, living room, and bedroom, with a built-in corner bedstead for the husband and wife (children slept on straw pallets in the garret). It was illuminated by transom windows by day, homemade candles at night. In the rear was the fireplace, where Mevrouw Roelantsen kept her iron pots and pans, and a door to the back garden, where she grew Indian corn. In quarters like these, furniture was crude, books few, and paintings absent. With the arrival of housewives skilled in domestic arts, however, came an increase in the apparatus of domestic production—vessels and implements for making butter, cheese, candles and soap, for spinning and dyeing yarn, and for cutting and stitching imported duffle cloth into articles of clothing. These shirts and shifts, along with household linen, were washed and dried by the housewife or her young daughter, down by the grassy banks of a pebbly brook that ran from Nassau Street to the East River, along what is today Maiden Lane.

The remainder of New Amsterdam’s free white inhabitants comprised a diverse, shifting lower class of laborers, cartmen, transient sailors, apprentices, soldiers, minor West India Company functionaries, farmhands, and indentured servants (too many of the latter, Stuyvesant complained, were runaways)—the same kind of people who until recently had made up the bulk of the colony’s population.

Popular culture in New Amsterdam centered on the town’s always numerous taverns, grogshops, and pothouses, where noisy, pipe-smoking crowds of men and women drank, gambled, and played games like backgammon, handball, and bowling. (Women were particularly fond of a pipe, Nicasius de Sille observed in 1654. “Young and old, they all smoke.”) The Wooden Horse, a particular favorite of sailors and soldiers, was located in a thatched cottage on the corner of Whitehall and Stone streets. In its small single room, boasting only one window and reeking of smoke and stale beer, men sat at long wooden tables, dimly lit by flickering candles, drinking West Indian rum, French brandy, and local brews. The owner was a Frenchman named Philip Gerard, who had once been sentenced to ride the wooden horse in his days as a soldier for the West India Company.

Places like the Wooden Horse tended to treat the nine o’clock closing law casually, and their patrons often disturbed the peace with drunken brawls, sometimes involving knives, cutlasses, and pikes. Jan Peeck, a cantankerous old Indian trader, lost his license for entertaining “disorderly people” in his taproom near Smits Vly on the East River shore. (His equally troublesome wife would be banished from New Amsterdam ten years later for selling liquor to the Indians.)

The upsurge of immigration to New Netherland during the mid-1650s and early 1660s was accompanied by an exuberant revival of holidays long associated with popular culture in Europe. For centuries, peasants and craftsmen, soldiers and sailors had periodically thrown restraint to the winds and indulged themselves with feasts, games, mock courts, races, processions, and wild merrymaking that inverted the everyday order of society. A King of Misrule presided over Twelfth Night festivities, maidens chased young men about the streets on St. Valentine’s Day, servants frolicked in the market on Pinkster (Whitsunday or Pentecost to the English), and whole villages cavorted about maypoles on May Day. In the Netherlands, the Shrove Tuesday festivities, marking the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent, involved Rabelaisian consumption of meat and drink (hence Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday”).

By the end of Stuyvesant’s first decade in office, the people of New Amsterdam were celebrating these and other volksvermaken or “folk pleasures” with gusto. Just as in the Netherlands, they greeted Pinkster with singing and dancing while a “Queen of the Feast” or “flower bride,” dressed in white and holding a May-branch in her hand, led a procession of maidens through the streets of the town. In 1663 the tranquility of Harlem was shattered by young men “shouting, blowing horns, etc.” around a maypole. Shrove Tuesday, too, was now routinely commemorated by the traditional bacchanal of eating and drinking while, as in Europe, young men dressed up like women and paraded about the streets. Another traditional bit of Shrove Tuesday fun, likewise resurrected in New Netherland, was Pulling the Goose. In this rough country sport, a live bird, its neck smeared with oil or soap, was tied by a rope between two poles: contestants on horseback then rode at full gallop toward the tethered goose and tried to yank off its head.


The bottom rungs of New Amsterdam society were occupied by Africans, though their lives and working condidons varied widely. Most still belonged to the West India Company and worked on important agricultural, public, and military projects. In 1660 Stuyvesant requested additional slaves be sent up from Curasao for company use: “They ought to be stout and strong fellows,” he explained, “fit for immediate employment on this fortress and other works; also, if required, in war against the wild barbarians, either to pursue them when retreating, or else to carry some of the soldiers’ baggage.” Four years later he reported that he had utilized a recent shipment of slaves to harvest food, chop wood, and repair oxcarts.

In time, because of the company’s chronic unwillingness to spend money, its slaves were also trained for more highly skilled tasks. In 1657 Stuyvesant appealed to the directors in Amsterdam to send him some ship’s carpenters, only to be told that Dutch workmen were far too expensive and that carpentry, bricklaying, and other trades “ought to be taught to the Negroes as it was formerly done in Brazil.” He appears to have followed orders, inasmuch as contemporary deeds begin referring to Negro caulkers, blacksmiths, and carpenters.

Other of New Amsterdam’s slaves worked in private households, either as domestic servants or agricultural laborers. Stuyvesant himself acquired forty slaves, far more than anyone else in the colony; some were domestics, the rest labored in the fields and orchards of his private bouwerie, a country estate lying between what are now 5th and 20th streets, east of Fourth Avenue all the way to the East River—a “place of relaxation and pleasure” (as one admiring visitor described it) that Stuyvesant acquired by taking over, either by purchase or fiat, several of the “Negro Lots” or “Negroes’ Farms” the West India Company had previously set aside for former slaves. (Nicholas Bayard, his son-in-law, combined six others into a two-hundred-acre farm nearby.) Most privately owned slaves in the colony, however, belonged to farm families in outlying villages like Flatbush, where they and their masters often slept in the same houses, ate the same food, and worked side by side in the fields. Overall, they were predominantly male—roughly 130 men for every hundred women.


The Peasant Dance, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. After 1650, such scenes of fun and frolic were becoming more common in New Amsterdam and neighboring villages. (Art Resource, Inc./ Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Some Africans were free because the company continued with its half-freedom policy of conditional manumissions. In 1662 three slave women were liberated, on condition that one of them do housework for the director-general each week. The next year Mayken, an old and sickly black woman, was granted outright freedom by the West India Company, “she having served as a slave since the year 1628.” Mayken was almost certainly one of the original three females imported from Angola thirty-five years earlier, whom Dominie Michaelius had accounted “lazy and useless trash.”

Disparities in condition and location made it difficult for Africans in New Amsterdam to establish communities of culture, yet not impossible. Men and women formed families against great odds—there were twenty-six black marriages recorded in the Dutch Reformed Church between 1641 and 1664—although the dominies were increasingly reluctant to baptize either slaves or their children. In 1664 Dominie Henricus Selyns informed the Classis of Amsterdam that he and his colleagues had halted the latter practice altogether—“due to their lack of knowledge and faith, and because of their worldly aims. The parents wanted nothing else than to deliver their children from bodily slavery, without striving for Christian virtues.” In some instances couples adopted orphans, gathering them into kin units at great cost. In 1661 free blacks Emanuel Pietersen and his wife, Dorothy Angola, sought freedom “for a lad named Anthony Angola, whom they adopted when an infant and have since reared and educated.” Their petition was granted, after they paid the West India Company three hundred guilders (five times the original purchase price of Manhattan).

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