Manhattan History – The English Conquest

PETER STUYVESANT overshadows his predecessors in authority over New Netherlands as an historic figure, living in the folklore of America as a crotchety person with a wooden leg, frightening boys away from his famous pear trees. If any man could make these stubborn settlers respect distant rule, Stuyvesant was well fitted to make them do so. As a matter of fact, even his domineering nature failed to conquer, and his conflicts with the inhabitants brought forth a great remonstrance to the director. A melancholy old man bitterly aware of failure, we shall find him surrendering this golden earth to the British after ruling it for nineteen years.

This, the fourth and last, director general of the West India Company received his commission in 1646 and arrived to take over his duties in 1647. Selected to undo the devil’s work of his predecessor, he found the prestige of the Company low, Indian relations still unsettled and land-grabbing going forward briskly in the back country. For years the speculators and squatters had been doing about as they pleased with company lands, taking possession and defying the authorities to put them off.

The most fertile and accessible areas of Manhattan and near-by shores had already been appropriated when Stuyvesant arrived, waterfront sites being advantageous. One grant of this nature, to Isaac de Forest, on the Harlem opposite Bronck’s Kill (the Bronx River) soon became the site of the village of New Harlem. Another waterfront property was available to Stuyvesant when, after shaking down into his new position, he decided to become a large proprietor of Manhattan real estate. This was the so-called Great Bouwerie of the West India Company (No. 1), title to which had been firmly held against all seekers, from the establishment of the colony. On the east it touched salt water, not indeed the East River of today, since the western shore line has been established by numerous fills; but rather an East River of numerous small bays and coves, into which ran small streams long since filled in or confined to underground sewers.

The Great Bouwerie, or Bouwerie No. 1, located as described in Chapter III, including some 120 acres, was the earliest laid out and the best improved and stocked. Soon after his arrival Stuyvesant undertook its cultivation with a view to purchase, and in 1650, when he took title at a price of 6,400 guilders, the property included a dwelling house, barn, hayrick, six cows, two horses and two young Negro slaves. Eventually Stuyvesant took over the No. 2 Bouwerie to the south, part of No. 3, and another large farm to the north, becoming the largest landholder on the island, with about 400 acres vested in him.

Stuyvesant bought his properties at what were esteemed fair prices, though certainly favorable, because he, too, was on “the inside track.” Others were not equally scrupulous. Land-hunger and profit-hunger are not quite the same thing, the one often representing a settler’s desire for a secure but modest life, the latter a speculator’s desire for easy money. In an age when real property constitutes the chief dependable wealth, these two sorts of hunger often wait hand in hand and cannot be separated. Upon the basis of Indian grants to large areas at a few cents an acre, speculation in land throve to the point of scandal, since the Indians were usually unaware that they were actually conveying title.

On March 21, 1651, the directors at Amsterdam called Stuyvesant’s attention to the fact that many people did not scruple to take the best land in New Netherland “without formality and without determination by survey as if the company and its officers had nothing to say about it and had been robbed and deprived of their prerogatives.” Stuyvesant is to look sharply into these cases, refuse grants except upon acknowledgment of the company’s authority and an examination into the applicant’s means to populate, cultivate and bring under good tillage; certain old grants are virtually unimproved, including that of former Director General Wouter van Twiller himself.

Of course, cheating an Indian was scarcely a crime; the whites had been doing it from the foundation of the colony, though rather less openly than elsewhere: but the cheats had become so flagrant that Indian relations were disturbed and the company lost control of some of its best assets. After all, the native inhabitants had their uses as fur-hunters; and they were not without political influence, since the French were ever seeking their favor. The Indians were being alienated from the Dutch by settlers “covetous and greedy of land” who would get from the red men grants to land and never file those grants with the company. It is a little difficult to tell from this account whether the company was more desirous of saving its Indians or saving its own fees and revenues; but at any rate from 1652 on, the company forbade unauthorized dealings for Indian lands, and although they were not always able to enforce that ruling, Stuyvesant tried to keep purchase of Indian lands within bounds.

New Amsterdam came into official existence on February 2, 1653, when the first magistrates of the Manhattan town were sworn in, the community taking rank as a full-fledged city, said by Mrs. Van Rensselaer to be the first in the United States to obtain the municipal form of government. In status it had no rival in the English colonies of America; and though it was out-ranked in priority of settlement by St. Augustine, Jamestown and Santa Fe, none of the latter acquired a charter as early as New Amsterdam. The date (Candlemas Day) was that on which the magistrates of its namesake city in Holland had been installed from olden times.

Events in Europe, where the English under Cromwell were beginning to contest Dutch sea power, reacted upon Manhattan directly enough to result eventually in the establishment of America’s most misunderstood and most hated thoroughfare, Wall Street. Admiral William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania, was in the West Indies, with an English fleet which, it was expected, would soon head north to at-tack New Netherland. Since Fort Amsterdam could neither house the inhabitants nor defend all the dwellings in the community, it was decided “to surround the greater part of the city with a high stockade and a small breast work to draw in time of need all inhabitants behind it and defend as much as possible their persons and goods against attack.”

This wall, which gave its name to Wall Street, about 180 rods in length, ran across the island from the East River shore, cutting through the Van Damen farm along the line of Kieft’s fence. Bluffs on the North River shore, long since leveled, were held to be sufficient defence on that side. Block houses were created, the “Water Poort” at the East River end, at the corner of present Pearl and Wall streets and the “Land Poort” where the wall intersected the Heereweg, or Broadway.

This palisaded line of defence did not follow the present line of Wall Street precisely, being forty to fifty feet north of the famous thoroughfare, which began life as a pathway intended for the servicing of the rampart and its defenders with supplies, ammunition and reinforcements. Since the city did not grow up to the wall for years, the land between the palisade and the marsh and ditch which commenced at present Broad Street opposite Exchange Place, continued to be used as a sheep pasture and was known as the Sheep Walk down to the end of the Dutch sovereignty over Manhattan. Lambs gamboled there and were well sheared by their shepherds, then as now; the mod-ern lambs go on two legs instead of four, but still display the innocence of the lamb and the patience of the sheep. After the first war scare passed, the wall fell to ruins and its decay was one reason why Stuyvesant, eleven years later, saw that he could make no adequate de-fence against the English fleet under Colonel Nicolls.

As their wall decayed, New Amsterdamers thrived, another example of the truth that prosperity carries the seed of ruin. The later years of Stuyvesant’s administration were years of active trade and growing population, immigration from Holland being encouraged. New bouweries were laid out; houses rose on every hand. In 1656 there were 120 houses; in 1660, 1,500 persons occupied 342 houses inside the wall, and many of the flimsy pioneer dwellings described in the previous chapter had been supplanted by better construction. The province of New Netherland was considered to have 10,000 souls, 7,000 of them Dutch, a larger population than French Canada, though far less than New England. The population had more than quadrupled since Kieft’s departure thirteen years before. A survey decided upon in 1654 had been made in 1656, and the map of the new city established “to remain from that time forward, without alteration.” In all respects except that of defence, New Amsterdam had made tremendous strides under Stuyvesant; and it was not the doughty governor’s fault that in this boom the settlers neglected to preserve either the martial spirit or the defensive breastworks. He kept at them continually to provide the means of resistance, but neither the director in Holland nor the affluent burghers at home would finance measures of resistance. While they would build no more walls nor even keep the old one in repair, the citizens were active in furnishing facilities for trade. They pushed the town’s one pier fifty feet farther into the water, to accommodate larger ships; established a market place and market days, the vegetable market being near Hans Kierstedt’s house, near the present northeast corner of Pearl and Whitehall streets; the meat market on the plain in front of the fort, near present Bowling Green, where from 1659 onward a great yearly sale of cattle was held, the prices being set in all the various moneys of the colonies—guilders, beavers, wampum, the beaver-skin holding at eight guilders.

The community came abreast of the time also by planking the sides of “the Ditch,” originally dug to drain the swamp, at present, Broad Street, to turn it into a canal. This waterway, known as “Heere Graft” was completed in 1659, and regulations were imposed for boats, canoes and skiffs.

The first sale of property in this outlying region was that of a house on the east side of Broad Street near the corner of Beaver for 950 Carolus guilders current wampum, as previously mentioned, house and lot for $380, the lot being valued at $100.

Broadway, near Wall, came into the market five years after the wall was built, an irregular piece of land about 50 feet wide on the front by 166 deep on one side going for 600 guilders, of which all but 100 guilders was represented by a mortgage: in dollars, $240 for the lot. A brewery and lot on Maiden Lane (then the Maagde Paatje), near William Street, brought its owner 345 guilders in cash and a 1,031 guilder mortgage, representing a total value of $550.

The most valuable real estate in town from 1650 to 1660 lay farther south than any of the streets mentioned, the heart of the little community being the fort, short streets lying between the fort (occupying approximately the site of the present Customhouse) and Hanover Square. Here the prices ranged higher. In 1655 Brower Street (now Stone) had ten houses, and three years later it became the city’s first paved street, cobblestones being laid down at the expense of the residents. The pavement was laid to drain to the center. No sidewalks were put down; in fact, sidewalks were no concern of the city for many years to come. The pavement, however, put Brower Street decisively in public favor. Two sales of lots occurred there in 1658, one for 1,500 guilders and another for 1,250 guilders. This represented the high-water mark of Manhattan realty thirty years after the settlement. Near-by property shared in Brower Street’s boom, a small lot on Whitehall bringing 95 beaver skins, or approximately $192.

Great improvements were made in housing after the opening of the brickyard; it is said that Stuyvesant found New Amsterdam a wooden town and left it a brick town. Some excellent houses arose. That of Cornelius Steenwyck, long known as 27% Whitehall Street, was built in 1658 and inventoried at £700 after his death many years later. Prior to 1763, this house became the King’s Arms Tavern.

Stuyvesant had a care for appearances. He and his councilors kept dinning the disgrace of having large vacant lots, “even in the best and most convenient part of New Amsterdam” kept without buildings for pleasure of speculation. Ordinances demanded improvement and embellishment, citing the discouragement of newcomers unable to secure suitable locations at reasonable prices. Here begins what has become an old, old American story, the withholding of land from use for private profit. In one generation the inhabitants begged for titles as necessary to the well-being of freemen, and in the next generation they forgot that other freemen had right to occupy the earth. Finally the Council voted a tax of one-fifteenth of their value upon vacant and unimproved lots, the value to be determined by a sworn surveyor who found open to the tax hundreds of lots inside the walls. Thereupon it was decreed that no one should build within cannon shot of the city wall. This indicates not only Stuyvesant’s desire to build up the town solidly but also his concern for its defence. The latter fear is revealed also in the determination to devote the proceeds of the land tax to repairing and enlarging the fortifications of the city.

This is apparently the first general tax levied on Manhattan Island, the fees which the government received earlier being rent in kind rather than taxes. Certain of the provisions of the land tax of 1657 have a completely modern ring. Lots were to be appraised “according to the value and situation of the locality”; assessment was to be made and recorded in due form. Those who refused to comply were to be punished by being forced to part with their lots at the assessed price to the burgomaster of the city. The municipality went even further, decreeing that unimproved lots could be condemned at the appraised valuation and conveyed to others who would improve them. No American city has as prompt a way of forestalling real estate speculation as that, owing to Constitutional protection of private property. As a matter of fact, neither this regulation nor the tax proved highly effective in practice; then, as later, landowners were shrewd in defeating legislation aimed at them. The returns were below expectation, and the defences dwindled accordingly.

Stuyvesant’s troubles began afresh in 1658, resulting in a memorial to the directors at Amsterdam setting forth the poor state of trade, high prices of goods, heavy imports and the scarcity of means for liquidating debts in New Amsterdam. All the marks of depression after a boom are here. The director general himself seems to have been pinched in it, as he had built, at the foot of present Whitehall Street, and fronting the East River, “a handsome and costly residence” known in later years as “Whitehall.”

New Amsterdam had become a “brave place” with “full over 350 houses” by 1660, most of which were compactly placed near the fort but elsewhere within the wall. “There was room for great trees and shady groves of aboriginal growth . . . great crops of rye, barley and tobacco . . . fruit trees and garden flowers.” Bouwerie Village was likewise thriving, and New Harlem, near present Mount Morris Park, had thirty-two male inhabitants, half of them Flemings and Walloons. But such prosperity, rising on so slight a base, had left the little community vulnerable. Internally it was debt-ridden and disunited to the point where no adequate defence program could be carried forward by Stuyvesant; and its enfeebled condition was not lost on the English, who had direct news of the situation by way of New England and Long Island, whose eastern region had been settled by English colonists.

The masters of Dutch naval power, though defending their home waters and East Indian possessions vigorously, had never accepted New Netherland as a serious responsibility. Perhaps they were aware that, sandwiched between more populous English colonies to the north and south, it was actually indefensible. But if New Netherland were to exist on sufferance only, surely it was unwise to have the Dutch colony move westward to the Delaware and absorb New Sweden, which was one of Stuyvesant’s military moves. That immediately raised the question, and once raised it could have only one answer. England would pick up New Netherland, as ripe fruit fallen to the ground, whenever a reasonable excuse and a belligerent mood coincided.

This came in 1664, when the English, their fleet again built up after the Restoration of Charles, resolved to do battle with Holland. Although hostilities were not declared in Europe until 1665, a surprise stroke was launched in the New World in the summer of 1664, the excuse being unjust tolls levied against English shipping. Without adequate defences, the town lay at the mercy of Colonel Nicolls’ squadron for ten days while the citizens who had refused to prepare resistance in time argued this old lion, Stuyvesant, out of making a desperate and hopeless defence. The white flag showed on the fort on September 11th, and Colonel Nicolls came ashore to take possession of an empire for his master, the Duke of York, brother of King Charles II and Lord High Admiral of the British fleet, the Duke having taken the precaution of getting personal control of whatever his sailors could pick up in the New World. Thus, almost without opposition, the richest province in the New World changed hands and name, but not its blood and titles, since Nicolls wisely decided to let the Dutch inhabitants take the cash while he and his master took the glory of empire. Peter Stuyvesant retired to his bouwerie to reflect in the shade of his pear trees on the stupidity of men and the ingratitude of states.