Manhattan History – First Deals In Golden Earth

LATER generations have amused themselves by picturing Father Knickerbocker as an affluent old gentleman with ruffles and silver buckles. He did, indeed, acquire lands and riches; but to do so required long, hard years of toil plus persistent agitation to break down barriers raised by the trading company and the home government. So let us picture young Knickerbocker as a sweating, rough fellow, with peasant shrewdness, always after more than he had, and far keener to make his way than to serve officials from overseas.

Peter Minuit’s official head was destined to fall in consequence of failure of patroonships. Recalled in 1631, he sailed away to Holland, where he tried to reestablish himself in the good graces of the company. Failing therein, he took service under the Swedish West India Company to establish a Swedish colony on the banks of the Delaware, which was captured by the Dutch of New Netherlands in 1655 and continued in their possession until the English occupation. The founder of two American colonies, New Amsterdam and New Sweden, is without a proper memorial in either, yet on the whole he seems to have been a just man of goodly abilities. In New Amsterdam his position was difficult from the first because of the irregularity of trade and the rigid land policy of the directors; but what definitely undid him was the failure of his patroonship plan, which alienated large tracts without stimulating settlement to a corresponding degree. One year with another, the trade of the entire colony brought only 50,000 guilders during Minuit’s regime and registered an actual loss after deduction of costs.

The change of leaders brought no marked improvement in the condition of the common man of the colony, who remained under severe handicaps. While he now had the right to cultivate land, title to it was not his as yet. All trade was monopolized by the company as far as it could bring force to bear, but smuggling —the common man’s common-sense reaction to monopoly—thrived, reaching in time a serious volume. The legitimate oversea trade began to decline as compared with the colony’s first four years of life. In the six years from 1630 to 1635 inclusive, the company ex-ported furs worth 437,472 guilders and imported goods worth 164,601, for a gross profit of approximately 275,000 guilders, or roughly $70,000. After allowance for shipping costs and interest on investment, it is clear that New Netherland was a losing venture for its proprietors; and yet the people were not being benefited greatly. Too much overhead, not enough volume!

There were, however, some material advances by new directors general, eager to create improvements. The company built a bakery at the corner of present Pearl and State streets. Wouter van Twiller’s arrival in 1633, when he succeeded Sebastien Krol as director general, stirred something like a boom. To the six stone houses which he found—the countinghouse, and “five houses” used as shops on Winkel Street—were soon added a church at present 39 Pearl Street, a house for the smith, corporal and cooper, a small house for the midwife, a goat house, and a “large shed where sloops and yachts were built, and the sailmaker’s loft above.” On Bouwerie No. 1 were built a “very good barn, dwelling house, boat house and brewery covered with tiles,” and on his plantation near Saponikan (present Greenwich Village) the Director General erected a house. Fort Amsterdam, on which work had lagged, was rushed to completion in 1635. Inside the fort was a church and a house for the minister, Dominie Bogardus, who had succeeded the quarrelsome Michaelius. As burial grounds had already been laid out on the Heere Weg, the small community seemed now to be equipped for all the adventures of primitive existence from birth to death. It had the midwife in her small stone house, the clergyman in his church, the clerk in the countinghouse, the shipbuilder and sailmaker, the farmer and his barns, the brewer and cooper.

Outside the city Van Twiller granted some sixty acres to Roelof Jansen, whose widow Anneke or Annetje Jans (a shortened form) married Dominie Everhardus Bogardus. This tract fronted on the Hudson River, and between 1634 and 1636, probably in expectation of the forthcoming grant, the Jansens built a house between present Harrison and Jay streets, then close to the river’s edge which has been since filled in. After Anneke’s second marriage this farm was known as the Dominie’s Bouwerie. In Queen Anne’s time it was given to Trinity Church; and part is included in Trinity’s vast wealth to this day, various efforts of mythical heirs of Anneke Jans having failed to shake Trinity’s title, though litigations of this character have been repeatedly brought into court. As a result the name Anneke Jans is better known to the American reading public than that of any other Dutch vrouw of New Netherland.

Two other grants, during the period, of land in the rural area of Manhattan bring forward the name of Jacobus van Curler, who, as commissary general for the patroonship of Rensselaerwyck, became the founder of Schenectady and the great “Corlaer” of Dutch-Iroquois relations. Van Curler also had a grant on Long Island.

Van Twiller’s daring, which had commended itself to the colonists at the start of his administration—he arrived with a Spanish vessel captured on the high seas—soon came to be considered arrogance carried to a degree so high that it discouraged immigration. Unbalanced and headstrong, he had two pet obsessions which caused his downfall. One was that the Dutch colony should expand; the other, that the West India Company was rich enough to pay the bills of imperialist ambitions. Thus he bought part of Connecticut from the Pequot Indians in 1633 and established a colony at present Hartford, but was forced to retire by the opposition of Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts and the settled pacific policy of the company, which was out for trade and not for glory. In the other direction he bought Indian lands on the Schuylkill and built a fort in that region, bringing the Dutch into position to contest for prior possession of the Delaware, a fact which eventually threw Pennsylvania into the hands of the Duke of York, who passed it on to William Penn. New Netherland was too poor to support so expensive a director general, and he was recalled in 1638. In early histories much has been made of Van Twiller’s lax way of life, which affronted the pious so that he was often reported to the directors in Holland as drunk and shiftless; the later view is more kindly, and he has been protrayed by Peter Nelson as a worldly man thrown into a crude environment where “gentleness would not have been in place.”

During the five years of Van Twiller’s administration, the little trading settlement of New Amsterdam began to harden into a definite community. It was still a company town, where tenants held land under lease from the company, but after restrictions on land ownership on the rest of the island were relaxed, the town itself began to grow. Soon after his arrival, Director General William Kieft, acting under instructons from Amsterdam, accepted and proclaimed an ordinance of his council granting to “his free people” in answer to their prayers, permission to take out patents for land, thereby making effective the Charter of Exemptions and Privileges as relating to landlords below the rank of patroons. The councilmen, being freemen, wished conveyances and after long delay forced the director general’s hand. A number of patents were issued, but these covered outlying lands, no town lots being deeded until 1642. Probably no title on a town lot is dated earlier, as until that time settlers had occupied properties, and had built upon them, merely by unwritten sanction. In some cases, however, written sanctions may have been granted, but these established no freeholds.

Under the regulations of 1638 a waiting period of ten years was set up, during which the occupant paid the company ground rent of “one couple of capons” for a house and lot. Thereafter the rent was to be one-tenth “of all crops which God the Lord shall grant to the fields.”

The first recorded ground brief to Manhattan land dates from this period of Kieft’s first year, when Andreas Hudde (or Hudden) received a brief for 100 morgen (200 acres) to land in Harlem first known as Muscoota Flats and later as Montagne’s Flats, which had been previously set out to tobacco by Hendrick de Forest, the first settler of Harlem, who died July 26, 1637. Vrouw de Forest did not long remain a widow, marrying Hudden in time to let him take the ground brief under Director Kieft’s new regulations. De Forest’s estate was liquidated by his brother-in-law, Dr. Jean de la Montagne, and the de Forest house, the first built in Harlem, was sold at auction for the benefit of, the heirs by Dominie Everhardus Bogardus, who combined the duties of realtor and auctioneer with those of preaching and teaching. This palisaded house was of some proportions for its day, being 42 feet long by 18 feet wide. Harlem lay, of course, outside of the confines of New Amsterdam. The first lease of this nature in the town itself, to Jan Jansen Dam, for two lots, is dated April 19, 1638.

In 1639 the fur trade with the Indians was thrown “free and open to everybody,” and this relaxation of a company monopoly, together with the easing of the land laws, created a stir or activity which attracted men of other bloods. Thomas Hall, the first English resident and a marked man among his Dutch neighbors, took up a half-share in a tobacco farm on Turtle Bay, along the East River. A Dane, Jochem Pietersen Kuyter, started a plantation on the Muscoota Flats which he most practically named Zegendale or Vale of Blessing, the area lying between 109th and 134th streets.

The values then ruling may be judged from the following transactions:

Jacobus van Curler sold 200 acres in the Bowery region, including “a house, farm implements, four mares, three cows, a boat and a tackle” for 2,900 guilders or about $1,100.

Claes Cornelissen Switz, for 400 florins sold a house and plantation on the North River.

The baker, Barent Dircksen, bought the Anthony Jansen bouwerie for 1,590 guilders, or about $600, payable in two years’ time, and soon after sold his former tobacco plantation at present Christopher and Hudson streets, for 1,182 guilders payable in instalments.

As in all boom periods in new countries where cash is scarce, a large proportion of these early transactions was made on credit and on instalment.

One Jan Thomasen, described as a cadet, leased a bouwerie near Werpoes, a former Indian village on the shore of the Fresh Water, or Kalck Hoek Pond, for five years at a rental of 150 guilders a year. The village site became part of the Bayard Farm. The Fresh Water, or Kalck Hoek (Collect), would likewise vanish in time after the stream which drained it had dried up, the result of an artificial waterway, lowering the level of the Pond. This canal later was put under present Canal Street.

The first private deed on record showing the value of a town lot is that of Van Steenwyck to Jansen of a 30 by 117 foot lot on Brugh Straet (present Bridge Street) for 24 guilders, less than $10. This lot was almost in the shadow of the fort and behind the present Customhouse.

One of the neatest real estate deals of the period, and the first to show trace of the latter-day velocity of that trade, was recorded in 1641 when Maryn Adriaensen bought the Hendrick Jansen homestead for 2,500 Carolus guilders, payable in three instalments, and sold it the next day to Jan Jansen Damen for 3,000 of the same sort of guilders, after agreeing to sow the land to the satisfaction of the purchaser. An excellent deal indeed, considering the low price for seed and labor.

Kieft’s administration reached its zenith in 1643 when the governor completed the City Tavern, or Stadts Herbergh, the first public inn in New York City, located on what is now the northwest corner of Pearl Street and Coenties Alley, facing the East River. Kieft built it as he was wearied of entertaining guests in his residence. Its first landlord was Philip Gerritsen. Later, in 1653, it became the City Hall and was so used until 1699, when it was sold to John Rodman, who promptly tore it down, thus destroying what would now be an historic shrine of great pulling power with tourists.

Although all the testimony shows that Kieft was tyrannical and vengeful, prompt in hypocrisy and laggard in good causes in which he obeyed beneficial orders from home in haughty ways infuriating to the solid men of the community, his administrative ability seems to have been rather better than it is generally described. One cause for the mistrust in which he was held by the public seems to have been the granting of titles to twelve lots on lower Broadway, then called “The Great Highway,” or “Heere Weg.” These seem to have been taken by servants of the company upon speculation, as years elapsed before they were built upon, and in the meantime they had passed to other hands. Thus early begins, at practically the first opportunity, the flirtation between privilege and New York real estate. The inside track to realty profits was thus marked out while Broadway was still a rough cart-track through raw land.

But at least this bit of enterprise put the Heere Weg on the map as a thoroughfare. Hitherto it had been only a rude country lane, flanked by the burial ground and giving entrance from the rear to the country seats of Vandiegrist and Van Dyck which fronted on the Hudson.

Kieft, like his predecessors, was riding to his fall; but in 1642 he was still the grand seigneur in bearing and to some extent in deed. He ordained import duties for foreign ships, and so many English ships stopped at New Amsterdam that he had to hire an English secretary. New Amsterdam drove a lively trade considering that its population was considerably less than one thousand. Although weaker in population than Massachusetts, its exports were larger, early proof of the superior location of New Amsterdam, which drew upon the resources of a vast interior and was also a common port of call in the trade between New England and the West Indies. A ferry, established in 1642, plied the East River at a narrow point above the village, providing regular communications with Long Island between what are now Peck Slip on Manhattan and Fulton Street in Brooklyn.

The first public building on present Broadway, now devoted almost entirely to entertainment and trade, was Martin Cregier’s tavern, erected in 1643 on the lots now numbered 9 and 11 Broadway. Cregier’s tavern gave way to Burns’ Coffee House of Revolutionary fame, which endured to 1860 as the Atlantic Gar-dens. Another famous Broadway number—26, the Standard Oil Building so well advertised by the “muck-rakers” of a later day—enters the record in this same period when Albert Cuyn conveyed for 350 Carolus guilders to Isaac Allerteen and Govert Lookermans a “house and two lots situate and being on the Great Highway on the Island of Manhattan.”

The houses transferred in these documents were mostly humble dwellings worth no more than $150 and renting for about $25. The Dutch settlers, according to Valentine, never acquired the knack of building log houses after the practical fashion of the New Englanders. The first habitations of the common folk were either roofed-over holes in the ground or bark dwellings in the Indian manner; but after the Dutch began to get out lumber on Saw Mill Creek, which emptied into the East River near Blackwell’s (Welfare) Island, they built their habitations of boards. Rough one-story affairs, with two rooms and a garret, these were thatched with straw. They were heated by large stone fireplaces, with a Dutch baking oven attached, the chimney being constructed of boards plastered on the inside with common mortar. What with straw roofs and board chimneys, the wonder is that the in-habitants did not all burn in their beds; yet there is no record of an extensive conflagration. No doubt many of these humble houses did go up in smoke, but a general conflagration was avoided by their wide spacing. It was not until 1660 that the establishment of a local brickyard permitted the common man of Manhattan to have a brick chimney; but more pretentious buildings were protected by brick, tiles and flues from Holland. The early Dutch tiles used for fireplaces are now treasured by antique collectors.

Kieft’s misguided Indian policy, which brought ruin to many isolated sections and disturbed the Manhattan community for years, also brought as a by-product a salutary reform in the creation of a Council of Twelve selected by the heads of families, in place of the advisory council dictated by the company. This marked the beginning of self-government in New York, but Kieft outmaneuvered his public and paid but slight attention to his advisers. However, the Council gave the community a voice loud enough to be heard, eventually, in Amsterdam, where the directors appointed Peter Stuyvesant director general in 1645. Stuyvesant, the most colorful ruler of the Dutch regime in America, arrived in 1647, Kieft having held over-in the miserable interval.

On his departure, under charges to be tried in Holland, Kieft was accompanied by several opponents who were to testify at his trial. All perished, however, in a storm off the coast of England, Providence making no distinction between the tyrant of New Amsterdam and his accusers, a fact which the dominies of Manhattan found difficult to explain, but which had no effect on real estate values. These began to climb again as men regained confidence now that the heavy hand of William Kieft had been jerked away from their collars.