Historic Dutch New Amsterdam
and Early New York City

NEW AMSTERDAM was the name given to what is now New York City by the Dutch settlers of the Dutch West India Company who established a fur trading company here in 1625.  New Amsterdam was the capital of the territory of New Netherland which encompassed an area that included the current states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.  The British renamed New Amsterdam in 1664 calling it New York (meaning "place at the water") in honor of the Duke of York the brother of England's King Charles II.

The name, Manhattan came from Manna-hata – Indian for “hilly islands.” Historians have found the word "Manhattan" spelled in almost 50 different ways.  The Mohawk Indian tribe called Manhattan "Ganono" meaning "place of reeds" probably due to the reed marshes that once surrounded much of the island. 

The Lenapes (the "Ancient Ones"), Raritan, Hackensack, Tappan, Rechgawawanche, Wiechquaesgeck, and Siwanoy tribes were the Native American inhabitants of the island.  The isle of Manhattan was purchased by Peter Minuit, Director General of the Dutch West India Company, for beads and trinkets worth 60 guilders or approximately 24 dollars.  The tale of the Indians selling Manhattan for a mere $24 is at best a half-truth.  Some historians believe  the Indians were under the impression that they were only selling fishing and hunting rights to these new European visitors.  Others say  the land the Indians sold to the Dutch did not really belong to them (so then the question becomes who truly got fooled or taken in this deal?).  Some historians say the sale of Manhattan by the Indians occurred in the Inwood Heights neighborhood where the Lenape Indians lived in northernmost Manhattan.  However, that fact has been disputed by other historians.   

Most of the Indian tribes did not live in Manhattan but came to the island to fish and hunt.  The original island of Mannahatta "had more ecological communities per acre than Yellowstone, more native plant species than Yosemite, and more birds than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park" according to Eric W. Sanderson author of MANNAHATTA A NATURAL HISTORY OF NEW YORK.  

The first Dutch settlers, who arrived on the Nieuw Nederlandt ship in May 1623, were French-speaking Protestants, the Walloons, who came to the New World to escape religious persecution.  The settlers' transportation to the New World was provided by the Dutch West India Company and once they settled here, the company would provide them with clothing and supplies at a low cost for the first two years and allocated land to them which were determined by family size.  In return, the Walloons agreed to stay for six years.  They first lived on Nut Island, now known as Governors Island and originally named for its nut trees which offered more protection than the vast wilderness of Manhattan.  The move to Manhattan came a few years later when the Dutch established a trading post there.  Plans for the construction of a fort were brought by the Amsterdam engineer, Crijn Fredericxsz.  The Dutch truly defined the trading and commercial town of New Amsterdam and influenced, in many ways, the character of New York City and the City it was to become.  The Dutch welcomed all refugees and the City of New York and this country developed its tolerance for all people and religions (although there were times when both Quakers and Jews were not given permission to enter New Amsterdam).  During the time when New Amsterdam was controlled by England, Anglicanism was the "sanctioned" religion although many New Yorkers were either Dutch Reformed, Quakers or Presbyterians.   

The geographical area of early New Amsterdam was, of course, much smaller than modern New York City.  New Amsterdam occupied the southern (downtown) tip of  Manhattan.  A market place, brewery, church and mill formed the town centre by the 1630s.  A map of Manhattan in 1664 shows Fort Amsterdam, the Dutch West India Company farm, public cow pastures, Thomas Hall's tobacco plantation, The Common and the Swamp, a poor house, and the Tavern of Wolfert Webber.   By 1643 Manhattan's population was estimated to be between 400 and 500 and by 1664, when the British took over, the population had increased to 1500.  By the year 1783, the city’s boundaries ran from Battery Park (the southernmost point) to the area which is now City Hall (the northernmost point) and a walk through the City would have been a short one.  The island was a vast forest consisting of oak, maple, cedar, pine, walnut, and chestnut trees and blackberry, raspberry and strawberry bushes.  A natural marsh separated downtown New Amsterdam from the rich farmlands of Greenwich Village, two miles north where tobacco was grown. 

Greenwich Street connected lower Manhattan to Greenwich Village which was considered “the country” and became a refuge for many New Yorkers during a yellow fever epidemic in 1822.  As late as 1871 some New Yorkers laughed at Cornelius Vanderbilt when he decided to build a railroad terminal (Grand Central) way uptown as far north as 42nd Street.  However, the City continued to expand and Grand Central Terminal became one of the busiest terminals in the world.  In the 1830's a walk to the edge of the city would end at 14th Street and by the early 1870's at streets in the 70's.

New York City owes much to black slaves who help build a large part of the early City.  The first black man to come to Manhattan is thought to have been the explorer Jan Rodrigues, a mulatto from San Domingo, who came on a Dutch ship in 1613 with Captain Adriaen Block.  Slaves were first brought from Africa in 1625.  Slave labor and trade would play an important role in the development of New York City and the eastern coast of the entire country.  In 1657 Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the West India Company in New Amsterdam, requested Dutch carpenters from Holland, but was told that they were too expensive and that such work could be performed cheaper by Negro slaves.  Black slaves would build much of New Amsterdam including a fort, docks, and many important public works projects and city buildings such as the first City Hall, the city prison and hospital, the first churches, schools, counting houses, stores, residence, and Fraunces Tavern (where George Washington said goodbye to his troops at the end of the Revolutionary War).  Slaves would also serve in the Continental Army and fight beside white soldiers in an integrated army (the only American conflict until the Korean War when whites and blacks fought alongside each other; African-American units were segregated during the World Wars). 

Before the Revolutionary War, there were more slaves in New York than in any other American city except for Charleston, South Carolina.  Forty percent of New York City's households owned slaves.  Slaves were traded at a slave market operating on Wall Street beginning in 1711 and a cage, whipping post and stocks were built for disciplining slaves at the old City Hall (Wall and Broad Streets).  Slaves were also sold at wharves along Manhattan's waterfront and sometimes at local taverns.  By 1810 New York City had the largest community of free blacks in the entire country.  And, by 1820 there were only 518 slaves in the city.

Fort Amsterdam was built just south of Bowling Green where the U.S. Custom House (now the Museum of American Indians) stands today.   The Fort contained the Governor's House, a jail, a stone church, officers' quarters and barracks.  Wind-driven windmills (said to frighten the Indians) and windmills driven by horses were erected near the Fort.  The area that is now City Hall Park was known as the Commons and in 1777 a British barracks, an armory and a prison for the American soldiers of the Continental Army were located there.  In addition to the Native Americans living in the City, local residents also included a large number of fur traders, carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers, brickmakers, tailors, merchants, shoemakers and leathermakers as well as soldiers, sailors, trappers, slaves and artisans.  

Tobacco and corn were two crops grown and sold in the city and country and important to the economy.  Images of tobacco leaves and stalks of corn can be found on the marble engravings of early city buildings as well as acorns and pineapples motifs (the latter symbolizing hospitality).

It's fun to envision what New York City looked like in its early days.  Imagine the city centuries ago -- a city with unpaved and/or cobblestone streets full of horses, carriages and stagecoaches and without modern conveniences.  Stone Street, originally named Brewer Street for the breweries that lined it, became the first paved city street in 1657 or 1658 and by 1661 all of the main roads in the City were cobblestone.  Horse-drawn omnibuses were introduced in 1832 and electric streetcars in 1900.  Carts, steamboats, railroads, elevated railways, trolleys, clipper ships, ferries, automobiles, taxis and subways (the first line opened in 1904) are some of the many modes of transportation used in the city over the years.  Also imagine New  York Harbor as a thriving port brimming with ships and the silhouettes of their masts and sails. 

Beginning in the year 1679 residents were required to have candles lit (mounted in a lamp or lantern) at every 7th house "when there is no moon."  These street lanterns were  replaced by whale oil lamps and then later by gas lamps (on cast-iron posts) which were introduced in 1825 but only in Manhattan below Canal Street; the remainder of the City was still lit by candles.  One visitor in 1825 described a gaslight in the shape of a harp and Broadway was lined with gas lights.  Electric lamps were introduced in 1879.  Even in 1913, there were still gas lamps on the streets.   

The Dutch built one-story wood houses with two rooms.  Popular colors used to paint the houses were red, gray and cream.  Later houses and buildings were built of Dutch red-brick.  The custom of high stoops (used in Amsterdam to keep water out) was retained here and many houses had a stoop with a steep flight of steps leading to a front door with a large brass knocker (usually shaped like a dog or lion's head).  In warmer weather the stoops also became a place for family gatherings.  Front doors had both upper and lower halves which allowed the home's occupants to open the upper part of the door to chat with neighbors or by-passers.  The closed lower part of the door kept children inside and livestock out of the houses.  Many houses had both flower and vegetable gardens.  At first roofs were made of straw but eventually tile roofs were built in order to prevent fires from breaking out from flying chimney sparks.  The majority of the early settlers chose to live in farms and houses and by 1639 Dutch plantations lined the East River where ships were anchored. 

New Amsterdam had a small fire department equipped with large leather water buckets and ladders.  A fire warden/watchman was stationed atop City Hall.  Policemen and night watchmen patrolled the streets with rattles -- shaking the rattles to signal thieves that they were approaching and also calling out the hour of the day.  All kinds of livestock roamed the streets including pigs that were allowed because they would eat street garbage.  A typical street might be lined with wooden-framed houses, shops of various kinds, boarding houses, and, of course, the highly popular taverns.  There were also oyster saloons, beer saloons, ladies of the night and pickpockets, and dance halls with fiddlers who would play a tune for a small fee.  P.T. Barnum's popular American Museum with its exhibits of oddities, freaks and deformed animals was near City Hall at Broadway and Ann Street.

Ron Chernow, author of a biography of Alexander Hamilton, notes that the area next to Trinity Church and King's College (founded in 1754 and which later became Columbia University) was a famous red-light district where as many as 500 ladies of the night walked the streets each evening.  It was known as the "Holy Ground." 

The original Pearl Street was at the river and so named because it was made of mother-of-pearl shells left there by the tides.  The area along Pearl Street and the Hudson River became known as the Strand due to the large number of shops located there.  In 1653 a 2,340 foot wall of oak posts with sharp tips was constructed between the East River and the North (Hudson) River at what is now Wall Street.  The wall was designed to protect New York City from an anticipated military attack by the British.  On August 26, 1664, the British moved a fleet of ships into New York Harbor and captured the City without firing one single shot (the Dutch were hugely outnumbered), but the wall stood until 1699.  Maiden Lane was named for the Dutch maidens who washed their laundry in the stream there.  The Bowery was named for its "bouweries" or the 12 farms (six on each side of the street) there. 

In 1642 a city tavern, Stadts Herbergh -- five stories tall -- was built in downtown Manhattan.  This popular tavern housed seamen and was designated as the city's first City Hall (Stadt Huys) in 1653 by Governor Peter Stuyvesant.  It faced the East River overlooking the Great Dock (a wharf at Whitehall Street).  A weather vane and cupola with a bell were added to the structure, at Pearl Street and Coenties Alley where the local government, the Council of Legislators, met.  Courts, a school, a firehouse and a jail were also located there.  Stuyvesant, a Dutch Reformed Christian, enforced the Sabbath laws which banned the sale of liquor after 9 p.m.  He also complained about the immorality of the city's citizens and the large number of taverns in the city saying:  "one full fourth of the City of New Amsterdam has been turned into taverns for the sale of brandy, tobacco and beer."  The taverns served homemade beer and imported Holland gin.  Taverns offered rooms for rent and provided entertainment such as gambling, billiards, shuffleboard, puppet shows, concerts and even cock-fighting and dog-fighting.  They were also used for political meetings and auctions.  Some of the taverns were the Lovelace Tavern (1697), Spread Eagle (at Whitehall Street), and The King's Head (on Pearl Street).  The Great Fire of New York on September 21, 1776 is suspected to have been started at the Fighting Cocks Tavern (on Whitehall Slip) by American patriot arsonists after British troops, led by General William Howe, occupied New York City on September 15, 1776.

Evidence has been found that Native Americans lived in uptown Manhattan in the Inwood Hill Park area in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Prehistoric roots which include caves, valleys and ridges left by shifting glaciers have been found there.

An excellent description of life in early New Amsterdam is presented in the first chapters of THE EPIC OF NEW YORK CITY by Edward Robb Ellis.  Other wonderful details of daily life in the City of that period are found in THE WOMEN OF THE HOUSE by Jean Zimmerman.  Luc Sante's LOW LIFE:  DRINKING, DRUGGING, WHORING, MURDER, CORRUPTION, VICE AND MISCELLANEOUS MAYHEM IN OLD NEW YORK is also full of fascinating information about old New York.

In THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD:  The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, author Russell Shorto reports on The New Netherland Project, created by Dr. Charles Gehring to collect and publish documents and papers from early New Amsterdam and New Netherand.

Important figures in history of New Amsterdam include:

  • Adriaen van Donck, an early Dutch settler who saw the potential of New Amsterdam;
  • Peter Minuit, who purchased Manhattan from the Indians and became commander of New Amsterdam; and
  • Peter Stuyvesant, Director General of New Netherlands.

The first "recorded" murder in the New York area occurred on September 9, 1609  and days after the arrival of the Henry Hudson's Half Moone.  It was the murder of John Colman, a English sailor, and it was never to be solved.  Colman and four other sailors from the ship, exploring Kill Van Kull and Newark Bay in a 16-foot scallop, were attacked by indians.  The one account of the event, from the journal of the ship's firstmate, reports that Colman was shot in the neck by an arrow and bled to death.  Two crewmen were also wounded.  The 400 year-old-case is now known as  New York's oldest cold case.  Colman's body is thought to have been buried at a place named Colman's Point by Henry Hudson in either Coney Island, Staten Island, Sandy Hook or Keansburg, N.J. 

Unfortunately, the only remains of Dutch New Amsterdam in today's modern City of New York, according to Eric Homberger, author of The Historical Atlas of NEW YORK CITY A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City's History, are "the irregular layout of lower Manhattan's streets and the remants of some Dutch street-names."  And, none of the buildings of 17th Century New Amsterdam survived the fires of 1776 and 1835.