The Founding of New York Chapter III

A Series of Articles Written by Thomas A. Janvier for the New York Times, In commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of the City of New York.
Chapter III: The Dutch Rule of New Netherland

With the change in the ownership of our island that came in the year 1622, when New Netherland was granted to the West India Company, came also a change in its name. The trading post here had been called until then the Manhattes; by its new owners it was called New Amsterdam, after the city in Holland in which the Chamber (or section) of the West India Company especially charged with the colony's government had its home.

New Amsterdam was made the capital of the colony, and for good reasons. The original trading post was established on our island because the many waterways which come together here made it a good place for trading with the interior of the country. As exploration continued the fact became known that it was absolutely the best place for trade on the Atlantic coast of North America; that there was no other such great land-locked harbor that so easily was reached from the sea, and that was the opening to so many rivers running far into the land. Until railroads were built these same causes continued to make our city the most important seaport of the country; and by the time that we got along to railroad building our city was so securely established as the country's chief sea outlet that the main lines of railroad had to have their seaboard terminals here.

But New Amsterdam was a very little capital in those early days, and it had a very shadowy title to its high-sounding name. The first Director General (as our Dutch Governors were called) who was sent here, in the year 1622, was the nominal ruler over a large part of the continent; but he could be sure that his orders would be obeyed only in the scrap of territory on this island south of the present Beaver Street. Everywhere else still was wild country, peopled by wild Indians who still did just exactly what they pleased. It was at this time that the first little fort was built in order to have a place in which the colonists could take refuge in case the Indians should be pleased to do something of a displeasing kind. A few years later a bigger fort was built, precisely on the spot, at the foot of Broadway, where the new Custom House is in course of building now. The history of our city is full of references to "the Fort." It was the most important building in the settlement. Within it, for many years, stood the church; and within it, also, was the home of the Director until, toward the end of the Dutch times, Director Stuyvesant built near it a fine house for himself, called the White Hall; the house that gave the present Whitehall Street its name.

Peter Minuit, the third director General was appointed in the year 1626, and one of the first things that he did after his arrival here was a very important thing: he made a treaty with the Manhattes by which he bought from them their island that then became our island "for the value of sixty guilders" in the goods which he gave them. What we call the "face value" of a guilder is a little more than 40 cents; and so it is customary to say that for $24 the Dutch bought the whole of New York. But the points to be considered are that the Indians were satisfied with their bargain, and that the Dutch deserve praise for buying what they might have taken by force.

The first shipload of regular colonists who came here with the intention of staying here arrived in the year 1623, about May day; and their coming at that time may have been the starting point of our New York custom of making leases run from that date. By the year 1630 the population of the town numbered about 200 souls; and many trading posts including Fort orange, now Albany had been established in the interior. In order to encourage the establishment of such outpost colonies, the West India Company granted very large tracts of land and especial trading privileges to "Patroons"; each of whom, in return, was to bring over fifty or more new settlers. This plan worked out badly. It created, virtually, a class of nobles with greater rights than the rights of the common people; and therefore traversed the rule that a good government must protect the weak against the strong.

We can see in the tangle of streets below the Bowling Green how the foundations of our city were laid. Any settler was free to build his house where he pleased. The town was not laid out in accordance with a fixed plan it just grew. Those narrow and crooked streets had their beginning in chance footpaths and lanes. Down the centre of what now is Broad Street ran a creek, that later was enlarged into a canal and so that one street, the canal having been filled in, is straight and wide. Pearl Street led along the water side from the Fort to the Brooklyn ferry, (at about the present Peck Slip.) Broadway was the high-road northward, but reached only to what now is the City Hall Park. Thence the road went on through the former Chatham Street and the Bowery into the wilderness. A good many years later,  (1653) when there was a probability that the English would attack the city, a stockade was built across the island on the line of the present Wall Street and so gave that street its name. In an old map, called "The Duke's Plan," made about the year 1661, we see what our town looked like at the end of the Dutch times.

I am sorry to say that the Dutch Governors governed New Netherland very badly. For their, bad government the West India Company directly was responsible. It sent incapable men to rule over the colony, and it gave the colony harsh and unjust laws. By its orders heavy customs duties were laid, and were laid in a fussy way that gave the merchants needless trouble; and it so restricted the rights and the liberties of the colonists that as they said themselves they were little better than the company's slaves. That is too strong a way of putting it; but they certainly were very unfairly and very severely dealt with in many ways. And all of this misrule was due to the fact that the West India Company having matters of more importance to attend to did not much care how the colony was governed so long as money could be made from it. When the company was organized, as I have told, it mixed its patriotism with its desire for cash. In its management of our colony it went still farther, and left patriotism altogether out of the account.

When Peter Stuyvesant, the last of the Dutch Governors, took over the government of New Netherland, May 11, 1647, things were in a very bad way. The Director whom he succeeded, Kieft, had brought the colony to the very edge of ruin by engaging in a most cruel and unnecessary war with the Indians. The colonists were downhearted and discontented, and they also had got into very lawless ways. They had begun by breaking laws which were unjust, but they had gone on until they got into the habit of breaking any laws which did not suit them. Even a very good Governor would have had his hands full in governing such a community; and Stuyvesant was a fussy, hot-tempered little man, with a very great sense of his own importance, and with a very arrogant determination to have always just his own way. He really did try to reform the colony; but because he was that sort of a person most of his attempts at reformation went wrong.

But in Stuyvesant's time one great reform was instituted here: On Feb. 2, 1653, New Amsterdam which until then had been governed by officers appointed by the Director was changed into a self-governing city. the Government now existing is the lineal descendant of the Government that then was established. Changes have been made from time to time in its Constitutional organization, but not in its essence. As a city, New York has existed for two hundred and fifty years. It is that great event in our history that we now are celebrating; and we are celebrating it after the date of its occurrence because February is not much of a month, in this part of the world, for celebrating anything out of doors.

We did not get a satisfactory government, and we did not get it in a satisfactory way. By the terms of the grant from the Amsterdam Chamber of the West India Company, the municipal organization was to resemble "as much as possible" that of the parent city in Holland. Actually, that resemblance was in the nature of a caricature. Mr. Brodhead, our most authoritative historian, tells us that "the ungracious concession of the grudging Chamber were hampered by the most illiberal interpretation which their provincial representative could devise." Stuyvesant, was determined to, and did, keep the real control of affairs in his own hands. The officers of the new city should have been elected by the citizens; but, instead of arranging for an election, he issued a proclamation by which he himself appointed them. What was still worse, he appointed to the principal offices in order to make sure of having men who would obey his orders men who were not fit to hold any offices at all.

That feature of the event that we now are celebrating seems to me to be the feature that we most, and most earnestly, should think a bout; and especially should we bear in mind the fact that the vigorous protests of the citizens of that day resulted in getting the worst of Stuyvesant's officers turned out and a better man put in his place. In that there is a practical lesson for us. Assuredly, the best way that we can celebrate annually our city's founding is to renew annually the fight against bad rulers which with its founding began.

                                                                                                                                                          THOMAS A. JANVIER

Mr. Janvier's fourth article will be entitled "How New Netherland Became New York." It will tell of the English claim to ownership of the region colonized by the Dutch; of the causes which led the English to press that claim, and of its final enforcement by England's seizure of New Netherland.

Note: Thomas A. Janvier is the author of "In Old New York," "In Great Waters," "The Passing of Thomas," "In the Sargasso Sea," "The Uncle of an Angel," and "The Aztec Treasure House."


Website: The History
Article Name: The Founding of New York Chapter III
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times May 27, 1903 Page: 8
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