Early Schools and Schoolmasters of New Amsterdam Part I

by Emma Van Wechten

DURING the f1rst few years after the founding of New Amsterdam little attention was paid to the education of the children. The West India Company regarded the settlement in the light of a trading-post rather than of a colony and was bent on receiving rather than giving privileges.1 Although it had made vague promises guaranteeing to settlers many advantages, spiritual and material, it was in no haste to redeem its pledges. The settlers for their part were so much occupied with planting grain, raising their thatch-roofed cottages, and repairing their rickety old fort, that the children were neglected and roamed unvexed of schoolmasters, in ignorance and bliss, along the banks of the broad canal, or clambered across the rocks of the Capske at low tide.

So things went on for seven years ; then came a change. The spring of 1633 opened propitiously for the little colony. Surely it promised great things that the same year should bring to the settlement a new governor, a new minister, and a new schoolmaster, the first who had ever set foot in the colony. Yet it was but a very short time before the new Governor had earned his title of "Walter, the Waverer," before the new domine, Everardus Bogardus, proved himself a quarrelsome shepherd, and the new schoolmaster had shown his unfitness to train the youthful burghers of New Amsterdam either in wisdom or virtue.

The career of Adam Roelantsen, this first pedagogue of New Amsterdam, was a checkered one, and hardly bears inspection, if we wish to believe in the worth of the founder of our schools. Valentine gives a sad account of his misdoings, and though that Froissart of our city chronicles is generally to be taken with many grains of caution, in this instance he is so reinforced by the court records that his testimony must be accepted as in the main fair and just.

Roelantsen was born in Dokkum, a city of Northern Holland, in 1606, and was therefore twenty-seven years old at the time he landed in New Amsterdam. Within a few years after his arrival he had entered upon his turbulent and litigious experiences. On September 20, 1638, we find a suit before the court in which Roelantsen f1gures as plaintiff against Gillis de Voocht, on a demand for payment for washing defendant's linen. The defendant made no objection to the price asked ; but claimed that Roelantsen had agreed to do the washing by the year, and that time being not yet expired, the payment was not due. The court held with the defendant, and Roelantsen was compelled to subsist till the end of his contract upon his professional stipend, which was unquestionably meagre. In the same year the schoolmaster appeared again in the courts, making aff1davit this time against Grietje Reyners for misconduct. He soon had occasion to prove the truth of the proverb of his race -Wie zijn buren beledigt maakt het zich zel- ven daarna zuur (He who slanders his neighbors makes it sour for himself), for when he undertook to circulate evil reports touching Jochem Haller's wife, that angry burgher haled him before the court on a charge of slander. Roelantsen in his turn accused various people of slander, though it is hard to see what fiction worse than truth could have been invented about him by his neighbors.

No wonder the old record states that " people did not speak well of him." In spite of his reputation, however, he succeeded in marrying a widow presumably possessed of some property, as we hear no more of his taking in washing, and in 1642, after his return from a temporary sojourn in Rensselaerswyck, we read of the following contract made by him for a house to be built on the north side of Brouwer Street, between Whitehall and Broad, and next door but one to Van Courtlandt's brewery. By the terms of the contract "John Teunison agrees to build the same of the following dimensions : In length thirty feet, in width eighteen feet, in height eight feet; the beams to be hewn at four sides, the house to be well and tight clapboarded and roofed with substantial reed thatch ; the floors tight and made of clapboard ; two doors, one entry, a pantry, a bed-stead, a staircase to go to the garret ; the upper part of the chimneys to be of wood ; one mantelpiece ; the entry to be three feet wide with a partition. The house to be ready by 1st of May next."

For the building of this house Roelantsen agreed to pay three hundred and fifty guilders ($140), half payment to be made when the timber was brought, and the rest when the house was finished.

This appears to have been the most prosperous period of Roelantsen's life. He had a daughter, Tryntje, baptized in the old church, and as a husband, a father, and a landholder he seemed to have given hostages to fortune, and engaged to comport himself as a good and thrifty citizen. In 1643, he was made "Weigh- master" ' and added to his possessions by the purchase of another lot of land. In 1644, a son was born to him, and baptized Daniel. Two more children were added to the household before the death of his wife (spoken of in subsequent records as Lyntje Martens), and then the prosperity began to suffer eclipse.

In 1646, he set sail for Holland ; but made only a short stay, for in the fall of that year we see him once more in litigation in the New Amsterdam court. The skipper of the vessel in which he returned had endeavored to collect passage money ; Roelantsen refused payment, and claimed that the skipper had agreed that he should cross the ocean "free of passage money and freight of his trunk provided he would work as one of the sailors, and the skipper had also said repeatedly that he should ask no pay from Roelantsen because he said the prayers." Apparently the worth of Roe lantsen's prayers was accepted by the court as an equivalent for the passage money, since it is recorded that the skipper was non-suited.

A month later Roelantsen was brought before the court as a malefactor charged with an offense so flagrant that the court declared such deeds "may not be tolerated in a country where justice is revered ; therefore we condemn the said Roelantsen to be brought to the place of execution and there flogged and banished forever out of this country." In consideration of the defendant having four mother-less children the sentence was delayed ; though it is difficult to see what benefit was to accrue to the little half-orphans from the guardianship of such a father. This singular vagabond seems to have had some peculiar charm for the staid burghers of New Amsterdam, for, in spite of his misdeeds, I find it stated on excellent authority that in 1647, he was appointed Provost, and in 1653, was a member of the Burgher-Corps of New Amsterdam. With this date this strange figure in our early history vanishes from the records, to give place to a long line of pedagogical successors, often worthier, but seldom either so picturesque or so clearly etched out against the background of the past.

His career is the more amusing in the light of the duties of the Parochial Schoolmaster, as set forth in his commission ; these were " to promote religious worship, to read a portion of the Word of God to the people, to endeavor, as much as possible, to bring them up in the ways of the Lord, to console them in their sickness, and to conduct himself with all diligence and fidelity in his calling so as to give others a good example as becometh a devout, pious, and worthy consoler of the sick, church- clerk, Precenter and Schoolmaster.'" The form of this commission shows how closely State, Church, and School were bound together in Old Holland, and New. The old Dutch records expressly declare that "School- keeping and the appointment of Schoolmasters depend absolutely from the Jus patronatus and require. a license from the Director-General and Council."' The offices of teacher and preacher were closely allied and the duty of consoling the sick equally devolved upon both domine and schoolmaster.

The requirements for the office of schoolmaster in all its capacities were severe. At one time the Consistory stated them as follows :

" First : That he be a person of suitable qualifications to officiate as schoolmaster and chorister, possessing a knowledge of music, a good voice so as to be heard, an aptitude to teach others the science, and that he should be a good reader, writer and arithmetician.

" Second : That he should be of the Reformed Religion, a member of the church, bringing with him testimonials of his Christian character and Conduct.

" Third : That whether married or unmarried he be not under twenty-five nor over thirty-five."

The duties of this off1cial were as varied as his qualifications, since he was expected to keep the books for the Consistory, to read and pray with the sick, and in every way to supplement the work of the minister, even to turning the hour-glass during church service as a reminder that the sermon had continued beyond the allotted time. This semi-ecclesiastical character belonged only to the off1cialschoolmaster, appointed by the West India Company and acting under the direction of the church. Other teachers independent of such control, though requiring a license from civil and church authorities, appeared in the colony from time to time and sought to earn a livelihood by tuition fees ; but these fees seem to have proved discouragingly small, and the schoolmaster generally tried to combine school-keeping with some more remunerative occupation.

One Arien Jansen Van Ilpendam opened a school in New Amsterdam a year before the sentence of banishment was passed upon Roe- lantsen.1 His terms of tuition were two dried beaver skins per annum. His school was so successful that it continued for over a decade.

The official successor of Roelantsen was Jan Stevensen, whose school-keeping is set down in the Register of New Amsterdam as dating from 1643, the year in which Roelantsen was made Weigh-master. The Company granted Stevensen a patent of a lot of land located on Broadway, then the " Heere Straat,", adjoining the old churchyard. The question of a public schoolhouse was by this time seriously agitated. There was talk of building a schoolhouse when the stone church in the Fort was begun; but that edif1ce used up all the funds available, and the children found themselves with no better accommodation than a room in a private house, and those who have studied the conditions of life in the New Amsterdam of Stuyvesant's day, and appreciate how small were those private houses, built of mud and reeds,' will understand how inadequate a single room in one was likely to prove. In 1647, public education was entirely suspended, owing to the lack of suitable accommodation. The Director appealed to the Commonalty for aid, saying: '' Whereas, for want of a school house, no school has been kept here during three months, by which the youth are spoiled, it is proposed to consider where a convenient place may be f1xed upon so as to keep the youth from the streets and under strict subordination." Contributions for erection of the school-building were called for, and some response was made; but still without result, for a petition addressed to the States-General by the New Netherlanders in October, 1649, sets forth that '' the bowl has been going round a long time for the purpose of erecting a school house and it has been built with words [observe the f1ne sarcasm] for as yet the first stone is not laid, some materials only are provided. The money, nevertheless, given for the purpose has found its way out and is mostly spent so that it falls short and nothing permanent has as yet been effected for that purpose."

To this remonstrance the West India Company made rather tart answer that "the Director hath not the administration of the
money that was taken up on the plate; but Jacob Couwenhoven who is one of the petitioners, hath kept account of it in his quality of churchwarden." These bickerings and recriminations continued for several years ; meanwhile Stevensen was succeeded, in 1648 or 1640, by Jan Cornelissen, reputed to have been lazy, and much given to the use of " hot and rebellious liquors." Perhaps the Directors of the Company began to perceive that such service was worse than none, and that it was hopeless to secure better without both assured income and a suitable place of instruction, for in the spring of 1652 we f1nd them writing to Stuyvesant:

" We give our consent that a public school may be established, for which one schoolmaster will be suff1cient, and he may be engaged at 250 florins [$ioo] annually. We recommend you Jan de la Montagne whom we have provisionally favored with the appointment. You may appropriate the city tavern for that purpose, if practicable."

The city tavern herein noted was no other than the old inn which later gained greater renown as the Stadt Huys. It raised its quaint "crow-step gables" far above the lowly thatched roofs of the village that clustered around it, and its walls and chimneys of substantial brick and stone were built to withstand wind and weather and, like the old church, to bear enduring testimony to the greatness of Director William Kieft, who ordered it erected, in 1642, at the head of Coenties Slip.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Early Schools and Schoolmasters of New Amsterdam Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Historic New York by Maud Wilder Goodwin Published by G.P. Putnam's sons, 1899
Time & Date Stamp: