Peter Stuyvesant’s New York Legacy

Peter Stuyvesant statue at Stuyvesant Square Park in New York City (Tony/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3)
He was a far-seeing reformer, but cruel and narrow-minded as well.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE C ast in bronze, he towers amid the lilac sweetness, so pungent it overwhelms the cannabis smoke hovering in the steamy air above Stuyvesant Square Park. The arch of his back rises from the good leg. He lost the other to a Spanish cannonball in the siege of St. Martin — the stump in its place a grisly display of will to the wayward and irreligious newcomers, his walking stick less a crutch than an instrument of punishment.

He faces down Stuyvesant Street, which cuts aslant in defiance of Manhattan’s grid. Farther south, Stuyvesant High School, the most selective in the city, is tucked at the bank of the Hudson River. His farmhouse at the corner of 16th Street, a short walk from the statue, is now a convenience store. It sells flowers, stale candy, and mega-million dreams in the shadows of the Stuyvesant Town high-rises.

What would he make of it now, this stunning metropolis, the shock of its skyward reach, how improbably it had prospered? Would he recognize a place ravaged by disease and civil strife, ruled once more by hapless leaders and abandoned by its residents? Statues to men who would wrest away his colony into a mighty republic are being defiled and toppled. But not the old Peg Leg. Suspended in a proud contrapposto, Peter Stuyvesant, the New World’s first reigning theocrat and anti-Semite, stands unmolested in a park that bears his name.

* * *

It almost didn’t happen. New Amsterdam, a fur-trading outpost set up by the Dutch West India Company at the southern tip of Manhattan, had soured into a cluster of putrid “hovels and holes” in less than a generation. By 1638, a succession of directors had been sent to avert disaster. From the slippery Peter Minuit to the better connected but just as crooked Willem Kieft, they stepped ashore to unpaved footpaths lined with feces, both animal and human, dead hogs, and a stench of decay so powerful it could be felt as far east as the flatlands of Long Island.

Cut off from their mother country, the dwindling population of mostly footloose men meant frequent drunkenness, theft, rape, and assault. Kieft himself established the first distillery in Staten Island — there wasn’t enough imported alcohol to feed the stupor. Despite the company’s official Charter of Liberties, which mandated the legitimate purchase of new land, clashes over property with the native people quickly turned violent. From the Pig War to the later Peach War, both sides carried out attacks and reprisals of such unspeakable carnage that they, as settler and battle-tested captain David de Vries described them, could “move a heart of stone.”

There were no Jews yet in New Amsterdam. But its inhabitants, according to Gotham, a seminal two-volume history of New York, were nevertheless “the motliest assortment of souls in Christendom.” Only a narrow majority were Dutch. The rest spoke at least 18 different languages and included “various Frisians sometimes confused with the Dutch, one Cicero Alberto (known around town as ‘The Italian’), and Anthony Jansen van Salee (a Muslim mulatto of mixed Dutch and Moroccan ancestry whom everyone called ‘the Turk’).”

If the company was to have any hope of resuming trade, it needed order, a more capable workforce, and an increase in population. The Portuguese and the Spanish had prospered in the slave trade from the west coast of Africa, but the Dutch patrons of New Amsterdam remained split on the subject of owning and selling humans and frequently consulted the clergy. In the end, rapidly losing interest in a permanent settlement amid “confusion and ruin,” they considered shutting it down and bringing everyone home.

* * *

“I shall govern you as a father his children,” Stuyvesant declared upon arrival in New Amsterdam in 1647, a vow made to roughly 700 people, who were scattered and too afraid to return to their own farms.

In the decade to come, the new director general would clear footpaths, pave roads, and mark property lines. Dumping household refuse and feces was now strictly prohibited, and harsh ordinances were issued to punish the violators. For the first time, fire-safety measures were put in place. In particular, further construction of wooden chimneys was halted.

Stuyvesant also convinced the company, loath to incur extra expense, that the colony needed a proper hospital to treat sick workers, soldiers, and later slaves. It would be followed by the first public home for orphans, the Orphan Masters’ Court, established in 1656; a “public school with at least two good teachers” comparable to those in Netherlands; the city’s first police force; and other public works for security, commerce, and moral order.

To enforce the last of these, the harsh Calvinist son of a clergyman outlawed sex with the native women and imposed 9:00 p.m. curfews on all “brewers, tapsters, and innkeepers.” Men “quarrelling, fighting and hitting each other” faced up to a year of hard prison labor and a diet of bread and water. There would be no more folk music, dances, maypoles, plays, or any other pleasures of pagan origin.

Perhaps the most consequential restriction would be his opposition to free trade, especially real-estate speculation. Stuyvesant had ruled that all transfers and exchanges of private property would be subject to his approval. Sales of all produce and goods would also be strictly regulated: No outsiders or “strangers” were allowed to offer wares unless otherwise ruled.

Local tradesfolk and laborers, as well as the English from the rival settlements to the north, balked. So did Stuyvesant’s employers, calling these monopolies “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.”

In place of open markets, Stuyvesant, inspired by the Caribbean plantations with their generous profit from the sugar crop, asked for slaves from Curaçao, “stout and strong fellows fit for immediate employment” and “if required, in war against the wild barbarians, either to pursue them when retreating, or else carry some of the soldiers’ baggage.”

A class hierarchy had soon emerged: merchant gentry from Holland known as “persons of quality”; the white common folk, mostly laborers and craftsmen; and beneath them the African slaves, assigned to several “Negro Lots.” Stuyvesant himself owned at least 40 slaves, more than anyone else in the colony.

In the mid-1650s newcomers surged, seeking safety and the promise of a profit: first the Puritan nonconformists fleeing Massachusetts, then the Lutherans — Dutch, Finns, and Germans. All were met by Stuyvesant’s wrathful oppressions. Still they kept coming: Protestants, Roman Catholics, and even the hated Quakers, to be subjected to whippings, chains, and “work at the wheelbarrow with the negroes.”

Shocked by Stuyvesant’s excesses, his employers counseled moderation: “Govern the people with utmost caution and leniency,” they wrote. “For you have now learned by experience how too much vehemence may draw upon you the hatred of the people.”

But if there was anything Stuyvesant despised even more than frenzied Quakers, foraging swine, public drunkenness, and the stench of feces, it was the Jews.

* * *

Little is known of Solomon Pietersen and Jacob Barsimson, both traders from Holland, but they may have been the first two Jews in Peter Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam. According to the revised Charter of Liberties, “no other religion shall be publicly admitted in New Netherlands except the Reformed [Church].” Pietersen and Barsimson survived only because, as the colony grew in size and diversity, the rule was becoming mere pro forma — as long as they worshiped in private.

But in September of 1654 word spread across the colony that more Jews were coming. Enraged, Stuyvesant declared that “if obstinate and immovable Jews came to settle here” with “their usual usury and deceitful business,” it would spell the end for New Amsterdam. “These people have no God than the Mammon of unrighteousness,” he announced, pledging not to let them in, “and no other aim than to get possession of Christian property.”

In fact, they were 23 weary Sephardim from Brazil trying to get to Holland — four couples, two widows, and 13 children. Their ship was soon captured by Spanish pirates, then rescued by a French privateer, a bounty-hunter vessel whose captain agreed to take the Jews to New Amsterdam in exchange for everything they owned. Some were jailed as hostages en route until the entire sum had been paid.

What lured them, Stuyvesant wrote, was a vision of “an imaginary liberty in a new and, as some pretend, free country.” But the company managers no longer saw it that way. What started as a conflict between Stuyvesant’s strict Calvinism and the economic imperatives of his Dutch employers touched off a clash between religious idealism and the enlightened humanism that would form the nation to come.

It is unclear whether it was because the Jews of the Netherlands appealed to the company’s reason and fairness or because “the large amount of capital they have invested in this Company” was instrumental in defending Brazil, or perhaps because of a letter from the English settler John Bowne on behalf of the Quakers pleading for “law of love, peace and libertie,” sent directly to the Board of Accounts, the company decided that Stuyvesant had gone too far.

A letter came back from Amsterdam:

Although it is our anxious desire that similar and other sectarians may not be found among you, yet we doubt extremely the policy of adopting rigorous measures against them. In the youth of your existence, you ought to rather encourage than check the population of the colony. The consciences of men ought to be free and unshackled so long as they continue moderate, peaceable, inoffensive, and not hostile to the government. Such have been the maxims of prudence and toleration by which the magistrates of this city have been governed; and the consequences have been that the oppressed and persecuted from every country have found among us an asylum from distress. Follow in the same steps, and you will be blessed.

The span of the Atlantic made no hearts grow fonder — Stuyvesant’s disputes with the company intensified — but the end of the Dutch rule was ultimately determined by greater forces. James, Duke of York, younger brother to the newly crowned King Charles II of England, had a vision of Britain as commercial hegemon across America’s entire eastern seaboard, from Cape Fear to Maine, and up the Hudson–Champlain corridor as far north as French-held Montreal. That meant seizing New Amsterdam, the most strategic trade settlement between Boston and Havana.

But there was another reason: The Duke of York was a practicing Catholic.

Stuyvesant destroyed letter after letter from Colonel Richard Nicolls of the British Royal Navy with offers of peaceful surrender “to avoid effusion of blood” and guaranteeing “every man in his Estate life, and liberty.” The final humiliation came when the people of New Amsterdam, weary of Stuyvesant’s intolerances, awoke to four British battle frigates with their guns aimed squarely at the colony. The ships carried at least two thousand British troops. Stuyvesant tried to make a show of resistance, awkwardly climbing the fort with his rifle, but one of his own magistrates “took him firmly by the hand and led him down.”

* * *

Those 23 Sephardic Jews did ultimately reach the shores of Manhattan and in 1655 were allowed to stay. That year they celebrated Passover as the Shearith Israel, or Remnant of Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North America. A year later they were allowed to bury their dead. Centuries of erosion and relentless development have eaten away at what became known as Chatham Square Cemetery. But it is still there, in today’s Chinatown, a tiny triangle of ancient soil topped with faded gravestones.

Today Congregation Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, meets in a neoclassical temple on West 70th Street. Dwarfed by art-deco buildings along Central Park West, it is the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. Farther up Central Park West, Teddy Roosevelt’s monument stands in front of the Museum of Natural History. Two men — one Native, one African — walk alongside his horseback likeness. Years of appeals against what some view as a “racist symbol,” along with a recent wave of protests against Confederate statues, have renewed calls for its removal.

“If you look at it now, I think it gives the wrong message,” said Kermit Roosevelt III, Teddy Roosevelt’s great-great-grandson and a professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The statue is scheduled to be taken down from the museum plaza.

Similar petitions have long circulated against the monument of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle. Perched atop a tall obelisk, it is the centerpiece of a head-spinning roundabout of sleek condos and Time Warner towers at the southwest corner of Central Park. But New York governor Andrew Cuomo will have none of it: “Columbus has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian-American contribution to New York State,” he told reporters at a press conference.

“The year Columbus left Spain to find a sea route to the Indies was the year that royal lover of God, Isabella, drove the Jews of Spain into the sea,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in her 1974 essay All the World Wants the Jews Dead. Columbus’s statue may endure because Italian Americans, inside and outside the political class, will go to the wall to defend it. Peter Stuyvesant, the man who tried to bar Jews from entering the Western Hemisphere, is as short on backers as he is on foes.

Head west from Shearith Israel and you’ll cross Columbus Avenue, then Amsterdam, ending up at the heel of Riverside Park, just beneath the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial. From Pier 1, Trump Place condos block Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, and other great lanterns of Manhattan. But on a clear day the George Washington Bridge can be seen stretching across the Hudson River. These streets and avenues, with their buildings, monuments, and bridges, are Gotham’s fine lines, and sometimes scars. There is no Botox for this layout, no plastic surgery that can de-age it, that can extract birthmarks without turning this magnificent city into a faceless paddle doll.

It’s dusk back in the park, and Stuyvesant is in the spotlight of the Empire State Building. Its crown glows blue to honor the medical workers, some getting ready to start the night shift at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital one block east of the statue. To the west, he is flanked by the Quaker Religious Society of Friends, with St. George Episcopal Church next to it, and behind him by the East End Jewish Temple. Now and then a dog lifts its hind leg over the statue’s basin. And perhaps that is enough penance: a ruthless patron rendered still and silent, surrounded by Jews and Quakers, forever on the verge of some ban that he will never decree. And even if he could force his bronze lips into a grimace, we wouldn’t be able to read them — somebody has strapped a surgical mask over Stuyvesant’s face.

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