William Kieft, once director-general of New Amsterdam, may no longer be remembered in New York, but reminders of his successor can be found in many places. Peter Stuyvesant’s name has been given to a high school, a street, a square, a housing complex, and city neighborhoods. A statue of him has been erected, and his remains are buried in a New York City church graveyard. But even if Stuyvesant had never made it to New Amsterdam, he would have had a memorable career.

Son of a minister in the Netherlands, he joined the West Indies Company and was sent to Dutch possessions off the cost of Brazil. After a half dozen years there, he was transferred to Curaçao, and shortly after he turned thirty, he became acting governor of that island, Aruba, and Bonaire. A few years later, he led an attack on St. Martin, an island the Spanish had captured from the Dutch. Hit by a cannonball, Stuyvesant had his right leg amputated below the knee. He returned to the Netherlands where he was fitted with a wooden leg, leading to his nickname–no surprise here–Peg Leg Pete. When he regained his strength, he was sent to New Amsterdam to replace William Kieft.

For several years he went about improving the ragged condition of New Amsterdam, and in 1653 he built The Wall. Although there are no records enunciating the reasons why it was built, fear of Indians could have been a cause. New Amsterdam was situated among tribes that were ancient enemies with each other, and that led to a restiveness that may have concerned the Europeans. And, of course, not long before, under Kieft, the Europeans had massacred Indians.

Other forces from the wider world came into play. England and the Netherlands were commercial rivals, and the mid-seventeenth century saw Anglo-Dutch wars in various parts of the globe. (I don’t remember my education ever covering these wars. Why is that?) The leaders of the sparsely settled New Amsterdam were concerned about being attacked by the English. These concerns were heightened by the Dutch colony’s precarious perch in North America. Although the Dutch claimed what is now Delaware, Swedes had been settling there, and to the northeast, New England seemed to be expanding–and warlike.

The Dutch had overlapping claims to land with the English New Haven colony, and it seemed to the Dutch in America that New Haven was trying to expand into Dutch territory. (New Haven was a Puritan settlement, and as far as my reading goes, the least joyful and the most petty and mean of the Puritan settlements. This says a lot about New Haven. We can be glad that the New Haven colony did not expand. I will concede that later New Haven did produce good, even if over-hyped, pizza. But, of course, New Haven also subsequently gave us Yale.) Furthermore, rumors flew that a former resident of New Amsterdam was raising an army in Rhode Island to attack his one-time settlement.

In response to these multiple threats, in 1653 Stuyvesant had a wall built across the northern border of New Amsterdam. (And again what are the odds? It stretched along the present Wall Street.) Descriptions of the wall differ. One gives a suspiciously exact length of 2,340 feet. In any event, the wall was not long because New Amsterdam was a small place, smaller than today’s Manhattan below Wall Street. From early on, inhabitants threw all sorts of things into the waters that surrounded the island, and this landfill expanded the land mass. The present shoreline is now several blocks further out into the waters than it was in the seventeenth century. Even with this expansion, however, lower Manhattan south of Wall Street is a small place. In my jogging days, I would run around the perimeter of the tip of Manhattan, and even though I was covering more ground than that which existed in New Amsterdam, it took only about ten minutes. My guess is that the entire perimeter of New Amsterdam could have been walked in 1650 in less than a half hour.

Not all agree what The Wall looked like. One historian describes it as a palisade by which he apparently means logs upright in the ground with sharpened points on top—think those forts in the John Ford westerns or, perhaps, F-Troop. (These cinematic structures were often placed on the treeless plains. Where did all those logs come from?) On the other hand, most of the historians I have read state that while a palisade was the original intention, The Wall in fact consisted of vertical planks. One historian, however, said it was a double row of upright planks with Wall Street in between.

(To be continued.)

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