New Amsterdam – The Beginnings of New York City

By Daniel Curry in 1853

New Amsterdam by Nicolaes Visscher in 1656

New Amsterdam by Nicolaes Visscher in 1656

For the first 20 years after they discovered New York, the Dutch possessions on the Hudson River had much more the character of a trading post than that of a colony. Holland was at that time becoming a nation of merchants, and such was the growth of trade at New Amsterdam that in 1632 the exports amounted to a considerable sum of $57,000. In 1629 a grand scheme for colonizing the Dutch territories in America was formed in Holland. Liberty was given to the Dutch West India Company members to plant colonies in New Netherland on certain easy conditions. It was decreed that whoever should, within four years after giving notice of his purpose to do so, form a settlement of not less than 50 people 15 years old and over should be entitled to occupy and possess a tract of land 16 miles in extent, along the seashore, or the bank of any navigable river, (or 8 miles when both banks were occupied,) with an indefinite extent inland. The persons who formed colonies under this provision were called patroons and were entrusted with extensive powers within their several manors, both proprietors and civil magistrates.

Dutch Fur Trade with the Indians

Dutch Fur Trade with the Indians

Under this system of colonization, the lands about the bay and on both sides of the Hudson River were speedily taken up by the more enterprising Dutch West India Company members. The island of Manhattan, however, was wisely reserved for the company’s use. To secure the lands they had appropriated, the patroons made great efforts to obtain the requisite number of colonists. Emigrations from Holland obtained some and some from the English colonies. To forward this purpose, liberal conditions were offered by the patroons, and, following the example of the home government, the colonial authorities granted complete tolerance to all Christian sects.

In 1633 the little colony of New Netherland received a governor from the fatherland — Wouter Van Twiller. The scattered settlements and trading posts on the Hudson River were erected into a province of the United Netherlands. The new governor brought a company of 104  soldiers, a schoolmaster, and a minister. But, as the trade with the Indians was an all-engrossing matter of interest, little was done to introduce permanent settlers into the province. The governor, however, applied himself vigorously to his public duties, and several improvements were undertaken. The fort was rebuilt, with barracks for the soldiers; a church and parsonage were erected, a house for the governor, and mills and other buildings necessary for the welfare of the settlement. The island of Manhattan was divided into farms, called “boweries,” and on the one nearest to the fort, the governor had a dwelling, barn, brewery, and boat house built. Buildings were also erected on some of the other “boweries” of the company.

During the whole term of Van Twiller’s administration, the little colony was in a state of disquiet or alarm. On the east, the English were steadily encroaching on the company’s territory, and on the Delaware River, the Indians were carrying on a destructive war against the feeble settlements. Nor were the internal affairs of the government less troublesome. Between the government and the patroons, continual disputes were kept up regarding their respective rights, especially the privilege of trading with the Indians, of which both parties claimed a monopoly. At the same time, the governor was not altogether forgetful of his private interests. In company with several others, he purchased from the Indians a fertile tract of land on Nassau or Long Island, upon which the new proprietors proceeded to establish farms. For his use, he also purchased the tiny island just south of the fort, called Nutten Island initially, from the significant number of nut trees found on it; but, from its being the property of Governor Van Twiller, it has since been known as Governor’s Island. But, the discontent that prevailed in the colony eventually came to the company’s notice, and, from the character of the complaints, it was deemed best to recall the governor after an administration of four years.

The judgement of Wouter Van Twiller

The judgment of Wouter Van Twiller

The new governor, William Kieft, did not arrive in the colony until March 1638. He then found the company’s affairs much neglected and the public property in a ruinous condition — the buildings going to decay, — the boweries or farms untenanted and stripped of their stock, and the purchase of furs, which constituted the principal objective in the colony, engrossed by private traders, and conducted most extravagantly. The new governor endeavored by orders and proclamations to remedy these evils but with only partial success. A few additional settlers were brought into the province about this time, and further land purchases from the Indians were made. Still, the growth of the settlements was as yet inconsiderable.

About this time, Peter Minuets, the former director of New Amsterdam, with a company of Swedes, under the patronage of Queen Christina, entered the Delaware River and purchased of the Indians a tract of land on the western side of the bay and built Fort Christina. Kieft was greatly dissatisfied with this intrusion upon territory claimed by the Dutch West India Company and, by repeated and violent protests, to which Minuets paid no attention, forbade the intended settlement. But, the Dutch governor deemed it unsafe to attempt to dislodge the intruders by force, and the power of Sweden in the affairs of Europe was such as to forbid the home government from interfering in the matter. So, the little Swedish colony was left to pursue its course in peace.

The little progress made by the colony, at length, induced the directors of the West India Company to mitigate some of the rigors of their policy. The trade monopoly to the colony was so far modified as to permit anyone who might choose to do so to engage in it, though only the company’s ships could be used for transportation. Free passage was given to all who wished to move from Holland to the colony, and emigrants were offered lands, houses, cattle, and farming tools at an annual rent and clothes and provisions on credit. The authority of the patroons was defined and somewhat diminished. To every person who should bring six persons into the colony, 200 acres of land would be given; and the towns and villages would have their magistrates. Other provisions of a similar character were made, regulating the trade with the Indians and providing for the people’s religious and educational wants.

New Amsterdam in 1660

New Amsterdam in 1660

Under the new arrangements, several emigrants were drawn from Holland, some of the men of considerable property. Some English indentured servants, who had served out their time in Virginia, also settled in New Netherland; and some Anabaptists and others, who had been driven out of New England by religious intolerance, sought a place of safety here. The settlements were now rapidly extended in every direction around New Amsterdam. In addition to the settlements at Wallatout and Flatlands on Long Island, another commenced in 1639 at Breukelen [Brooklyn]. Staten Island and the region west of Newark Bay were granted to patrons, and settlements commenced. New Amsterdam only indirectly shared these improvements, but its progress, was slow, though steadily onward. “A fine stone tavern,” says an old chronicler, was built, and the “mean old barn” that had served for a church was replaced by a new stone building, erected within the enclosure of the fort and paid for partly by the company, and partly by subscription.

The foreign relations of New Netherland became, by degrees, more and more complicated and embarrassing. The encroachments from the New England colonies were becoming genuinely alarming, and, on the south, the Swedes were firmly seated in their position and threatened to exclude the Dutch entirely from their possessions on the Delaware River. The growing importance of the colony of Eensselaerwick (Albany) in the north, which began to assume a kind of independence, became a further cause of uneasiness. However, these difficulties, though sufficiently embarrassing, were not the worst that the governor had to oppose. A more terrible calamity than any of these presently threatened the colony from a nearer and much more implacable enemy.

Iroquois in War

Iroquois in War

The Indian tribes of the regions about New Amsterdam became incensed against the whites by a thousand petty provocations arising from the thoughtlessness and greed of the colonists and, in return, committed such acts of revenge as seemed to demand chastisement from the government. The Raritan, a tribe residing on the west side of the Hudson River, was the first to feel the prowess of the white man. Both parties were sufferers in the conflict, and the Indians gladly accepted the proffered peace terms. Soon afterward, a Dutchman was killed by an Indian belonging to a tribe located near Tappan Bay, and the murderer was protected by his tribe, which resulted in the government sending 80 men to punish them. Alarmed at the threatened invasion, the Indians promised to give up the murderer. The expedition returned to New Amsterdam, but the promise was never fulfilled. A quarrel subsequently broke out between the colonists and the Hackensack tribe, and two white men were murdered. The chiefs offered wampum (sacred shell beads) in atonement, which the governor refused, and demanded the murderers. Just before this time, the Tappan Indians, fearing an attack from the powerful tribes of the Mohawk, removed down into the neighborhood of New Amsterdam and were mingled with the neighboring tribes, especially the Hackensack. Soon after, these united bands came and encamped in two bodies at no great distance from the fort. Their design was not hostile, but the enemies of the Indians seized the occasion at New Amsterdam, and an order to attack them was obtained from the governor while under the influence of wine at a holiday feast. The attack was wholly unexpected by the Indians, and very little resistance was made. A terrible slaughter ensued. About 80 Indians, including old men, women, and children, perished miserably in the conflict or were murdered in cold blood afterward. The battle’s noise and the women’s and children’s shrieks could be heard at the fort. The next day the war party returned to the town, bringing 30 prisoners.

These atrocities, with others of a like character, soon after perpetrated, aroused the Indians to a high pitch of exasperation. Eleven small tribes united to make war against the Dutch, whose unprotected boweries, reaching in every direction many miles from New Amsterdam, offered easy prey to the Indians. Many houses were burned, the cattle were killed, the men were slain, and several women and children made prisoners. The terrified and ruined colonists fled on all sides into New Amsterdam and all who could sail for Holland. The expeditions sent against the Indians were only partially successful in subduing them, and, worst of all, discontent and mutual criminations distracted the governor’s councils. The Indians, at length, satiated with blood, offered terms of peace, which were gladly accepted by the whites, and a respite given from the bloody and ruinous conflict.

Treaty with the Indians at New Amsterdam

Treaty with the Indians at New Amsterdam

But, the peace was of short continuance. A new confederacy of seven tribes again spread consternation and ruin among the frontier boweries; the settlements beyond Newark Bay, and those on the west end of Long Island, were laid in ruins, and only three boweries were left on Manhattan Island. The colonists were clustered in straw huts about the fort, which was in a ruinous and hardly tenantable condition — themselves short of provisions and their cattle in danger of starving. A palisade was erected to the north of the town, which remained for half a century, and is still commemorated in the name of the street (Wall-street) that finally took its place. The following year, in 1644, was occupied by an expensive and harassing Indian war. The Indians’ villages on Staten Island were burned, their corn destroyed, but they eluded their pursuers. An expedition against a small village near Stamford produced nearly the same results. Not so, however, with an expedition of nearly 200  men under the command of Captain John Underhill sent against a hostile band near Hempstead on Long Island, where more than 100 Indians were killed and more made prisoners. But, the greatest slaughter took place later in the season when a second expedition, under the same commander, was made against the Indians in the neighborhood of Stamford. The villages were reduced to ashes, and fearful destruction of life occurred, with all the accompanying horrors that distinguished the famous Pequot War.

At about this time, 130 soldiers arrived in the colony from the West Indies and were quartered in New Amsterdam. The Indians had suffered dramatically during the summer and autumn but soon ceased active hostilities and asked for peace. Treaties were made with the principal tribes during the ensuing year, by which the Indians agreed to remove to considerable distances from New Amsterdam and not to approach any of the settlements with their war parties. So, the colony was once more freed from the horrors of savage warfare.

These protracted wars almost ruined the settlements about New Amsterdam and, at their close, could number scarcely 100 men. Five or six of the 30 flourishing boweries remained, and everything bore like marks of ruin and disorder. Complaints were freely uttered against the governor’s administration, which induced the directors to recall him. He accordingly sailed for Holland in a vessel laden with furs valued at nearly $100,000. However, the vessel was wrecked on the coast of Wales, and about 80 people, including Governor Kieft, perished.

The successor of Kieft was Peter Stuyvesant, the late governor of the Dutch West Indies — a soldier by profession and a man of good parts and much energy of character. Several considerable concessions of popular privileges distinguished the beginning of his administration. The monopoly of transportation, hitherto enjoyed by the company, was relinquished, and trade was thrown open to free competition — though New Amsterdam continued to be the only port of entry.

Peter Stuyvesant's army entering New Amsterdam

Peter Stuyvesant’s army entered New Amsterdam.

The population of the entire province of New Netherland at this time (1647) could not have been more than about 2,000 people — nearly half of whom were within the patroonship of Van Eensselaer. New Amsterdam was a village of wooden huts, with roofs of straw, and chimneys of mud and sticks, abounding in grog shops and places to sell tobacco and beer. At the west end of Long Island were six plantations, governed by a local magistracy, partly self-elected, but New Amsterdam was still governed by the governor’s sole authority and policies. About this time, Breukelen (Brooklin) first received a village charter.

In 1652 the inhabitants of New Amsterdam, by petitioning the authorities at home, obtained enlarged municipal privileges. A board of magistrates, or city court, was created, composed of two principal magistrates and five civic officers, annually selected by the governor from twice those numbers nominated by the magistrates of the preceding year. A movement was also made toward a more popular form of government by calling a convention of two delegates from each village to provide against a threatened war with New England. But, the governor dissolved the convention as irregular and sneeringly characterized it as a New England invention with which he would have nothing to do with.

For several years Governor Stuyvesant was chiefly occupied with the foreign relations of the colony, and, after protracted negotiations, all difficulties were adjusted with the New Englanders on the east and the Swedes on the south, and the province of New Netherland reposed in quiet and safety. However, the Dutch governor did not obtain all he wished in these negotiations; for a while, he claimed both the Connecticut and the Delaware Rivers as parts of his province; he obtained peace only by relinquishing both of them and their territories. The governor was likely to lose his capital while engaged in these transactions with the neighboring colonies. The Indians, taking advantage of the absence of the soldiers from the town, made a descent upon it with 60 canoes, causing great alarm and doing some inconsiderable damage. Still, they dispersed and disappeared as soon as the forces returned.

Peter Stuyvesant

Peter Stuyvesant

The affairs of the colony now began to assume a more cheering aspect. Settlers arrived from various quarters; among them, several Jews, exiles from various parts of Europe, and fugitives from New England driven out by religious intolerance. New Amsterdam already contained a population of almost every European country and nearly every religious creed. This leniency in matters of religion was not agreeable to the governor’s taste, who liked the Lutherans and the Quakers as little as his neighbors in New England. Still, he was overruled by his superiors at home, who commanded that the same indulgence that made the parent city a general asylum for the oppressed should also prevail in its namesake on the Hudson River; so, though quite contrary to his wishes, the governor permitted them to remain in peace.

New Amsterdam, New York People by Karl R. Free.

New Amsterdam, New York People by Karl R. Free.

In the meantime, the Dutch West India Company was concerned mainly with the slave trade. Special permission was given to particular merchants to send two or three ships to the coast of Africa to purchase slaves and promote the country’s settlement by importing them into New Netherland. Most of the slaves thus introduced remained the company’s property, and the more trusty and industrious of them, after a certain period of labor, were allowed little farms, paying a certain amount of produce in return. Thus, early was the African race was introduced among the colony’s population, and the system of African slavery was incorporated among its institutions to remain a scourge and reproach for nearly two hundred years.

Unquestionably as was the Dutch’s right to the country they occupied on the Hudson River, that right had never been acknowledged by Great Britain; but, on the contrary, the whole region was claimed as a portion of the possessions of that kingdom. Several faint attempts to assert that claim had been made at different times but without success. Soon after the restoration of Charles II, this whole territory was granted to his brother, the Duke of York, who proceeded immediately to take measures to seize the colony. The Dutch knew nothing of these transactions before the ships bearing the duke’s forces had sailed. Rumors of the intended invasion had reached New Amsterdam before the arrival of the hostile fleet, but no adequate provisions were made for the public defense. Governor Stuyvesant would have given battle to the invaders or suffered the rigors of a siege, but his feelings were not those of the colonists generally. The Dutch cared little whether they were under a Dutch or an English yoke, and the English, who constituted nearly half of the entire population, favored than opposed their countrymen’s claims. Accordingly, after several days of negotiations, the entire colony was surrendered to the English on September 8, 1664, on terms entirely satisfactory to the inhabitants.

With a change of masters also came a change of name to the conquered colony, and from that time, both the province and the chief town were called New York, in compliment to the duke, who now became their proprietor and ruler. Though vastly improved under the administration of Governor Stuyvesant, the fledgling city consisted of a few narrow streets near the southern extremity of Manhattan Island. A few handsome buildings were covered with tiles from Holland, but most houses were thatched cottages.

The Fall of New Amsterdam

The Fall of New Amsterdam

Soon, the water line was carried out far beyond its original place, so what was once outside streets were now a considerable distance from the water. The fort occupied the southernmost point, which, however, did not lie immediately upon the water’s edge, as a ledge of sunken rocks extended off this point, rendering it inaccessible to all kinds of watercraft. Within the fort were the residence of the governor, the public offices, and the Dutch Calvinist church. Between this and the beach was an irregular and unoccupied space used as a resort for outdoor exercises by the townspeople.

Just above the fort was a triangular space devoted to no particular purpose, ready to be occupied in any way that public convenience might require. This was the campus where the field sports of the men and boys of New Amsterdam took place. In an early period, it was used by the garrison soldiers for their manual exercises; hence, it was called the Parade. It was also used as a cattle market, and in 1659, an ordinance was made by the town authorities regulating the manner of keeping the cattle here offered for sale. At a much later period, it was enclosed and devoted to the purpose that has given it its name — the Bowling Green, where residents played the game of lawn bowls.

Fort Amsterdam, New York

Fort Amsterdam, New York

From the fort and beyond the triangle of the Bowling Green, a broad and straight roadway led back toward the cultivated boweries farther up the island. From the beginning, this was the town’s principal street, though not a favorite one for residents because of its distance from the water. The Dutch called it “De Heere-straat,” or Main-street. In 1665, when an enumeration of all the houses in the town was made, this street had only 21 dwellings. The English changed its name to Broadway. Passing along the south side of the fort, a street extended along the East River to the great swamp, where it turned away to the northward, leading to the boweries. The Dutch called the western portion of this street ” Perel-straat;” and the more easterly” Hooghstraat,” or High-street. This was a favorite place for residences with the Dutch settlers — about one-quarter of all the houses in the town at the time of the conquest were on this street. To the east of the fort, a short distance, was a small stream, ending in a deep marshy inlet, just eastward from the rocky point of Manhattan Island. In the early days of the colony, this stream and inlet were excavated and turned into a drain and canal called “De Graft.” Houses were afterward built upon its banks, after the manner of Amsterdam in Holland, and, as several smaller “grafts” had been made, this began to be called “De Heere Graft,” or main canal. Into this canal, all vessels trading to New Amsterdam were accustomed to entering for loading and unloading. Here was the customs house, and, of course, the “graft” was an object of little interest to the government. Twenty dwellings were located on its banks in 1665.

Surrender of New Amersterdam in 1664 by Charles Harris

Surrender of New Amsterdam in 1664 by Charles Harris

Immediately under the fort’s east wall and reaching down to the water close by, the rocks ran a little street that seemed to have been as old as the town itself. The Dutch called it “Winchel-straat,” or Shop Street, and it was paved as early as 1658, before any other street, though it had five houses. In the subsequent period, a battery called Whitehall was erected near the foot of this street, and that name was later given to the street. A street was opened leading eastward from the southeast angle of the fort and, passing the “Heere graft” by a bridge, ending in “De Hoogh-strata.” The name of Bridge Street was naturally given to it and has never been exchanged for another. Above this, abutting the east side of the fort, was another small street called “Brewer’s Street,” as it was the site of Van Cortlandt’s brewery. Later, it was renamed Stone Street. Opposite the Parade, eastward, a drain was opened leading into the central canal, called “Beaverdrain.” On the opposite side of the canal, another drain called “Prince’s” entered from the east. On the banks of these drains, the Dutch had erected about thirty houses before the conquest. Beaver Street would later occupy the place of those canals. Below Beaver drain, and parallel with it, was a narrow and inconsiderable street called Marketfield Lane, along which were erected eight dwellings. On the eastern side of the town was a street leading to and beyond the city wall, called by the Dutch the “Valley,” and by the English, Smith’s Valley, which later became William Street. About twenty houses were found on this road when the town fell into the hands of the English.

The whole number of dwellings in the town at the time of the capture, including several outside of the palisade, was less than 250, and the population was less than 2,000. Such was the famous city of New Amsterdam when it became the capital of the Anglo-American colony of New York City.

Compiled by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated August 2023.

About the Author & Article: The Discovery of what would become New York City is excerpted from the book New York: A Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Metropolitan City of America by Daniel Curry, published by Carolton and Phillips in 1853. However, the text as it appears here is far from verbatim, as it has been heavily edited, truncated, and updated for the ease of modern readers.

Also See:

Discovery, Description & Early Occupation of New York City

The Dutch Colony of New Netherland

Henry Hudson – Northeast Explorer

New York State History