In response to the multiple threats against the settlement, in 1653 Peter 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 refuse 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 of those forts in 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, however, has said it was a double row of upright planks with Wall Street in between.

The construction of The Wall across the northern border of New Amsterdam teaches some additional lessons. Planks were needed, and this meant money was needed, and wealthy people stepped forward, as they always do—not to selflessly aid their homeland, but to make more money. The well-to-do loaned money for the building of The Wall at ten percent interest. What do we think will happen if we build a wall today on our southern border? Many contracting and supply companies will be involved, and no doubt most will make money—which will come from our tax dollars. (If we hold our breath waiting for Mexico to pay for it, even the red staters will have turned blue.) Construction, however, can be a risky business, and some of the construction companies may have financial difficulties and perhaps will not make money. On the other hand, I am confident that those who finance the wall, as they did for the seventeenth century wall, will profit. One of the certainties is that financiers will always make money out of wars and defense spending (and today pay a lesser tax rate than they would had they physically toiled for their gains.)

But I digress. Some of the money went for the planks, and many, if not all, were purchased from Thomas Baxter, an Englishman. It might seem strange that he was selling the material for a barrier against his fellow countrymen. Perhaps the reason was simply the frequent one of profit above all else. But Baxter had left England, and this might indicate that he felt few ties to his birth place. And while New Amsterdam was Dutch, it was not a hostile place to others.

New Amsterdam was a commercial establishment. The Company wanted to increase the population of Manhattan to increase trade and agriculture and thereby to grow profits. All things considered, Holland was a pretty nice place to live. Not enough Dutch wanted to move to the new world, and consequently the West Indies Company did not shun non-Dutch immigration. Thus, many of the New Amsterdam residents came from places other than Holland. In 1643, one correspondent said that he counted eighteen languages being spoken in the settlement. Twenty years later records indicate that perhaps from a third to a half of the possibly 2,000 inhabitants were non-Dutch.

Peter Stuyvesant, however, had one exception to this open-border policy. Stuyvesant was a devout member of the Dutch Reformed Church, which was the established church in New Amsterdam. (At least in my childhood experience, it was the Dutch Reformed Church, or at least that was what it was called by my high school friends who were members of it. With our never-ending adolescent humor, we called them dike jumpers. We also checked their thumbs to see if they could plug a hole in a dike to keep back the flood. Their church was stricter than those attended by the rest of us. On Sunday afternoons, we often played pickup baseball or football games, but Dutch Reformed kids were not allowed such frivolity on the Christian sabbath. That did not stop them from playing with us, but we had to move our games to some out-of-the way location where their parents were unlikely to drive by and spot them. Many years later, I ran into one of these childhood friends who had become a minister. When I referred to the denomination as Dutch Reformed, he corrected me and said now it was simply The Reformed Church.) While accepting of the non-Dutch generally, Stuyvesant was, to put it mildly, not overly fond of Jews, and when some moved into his town, he sought to expel them. His bosses did not take kindly to that and ordered Stuyvesant to allow the few Jews to remain. A healthy economy, they realized, required immigrants (there is a lesson here). Only the Dutch Reformed Church was permitted to have public services, but Jews, Puritans, Lutherans, Catholics, and Quakers were allowed to worship in the privacy of their homes. Jews could even have land for a burial ground about a mile north of The Wall. That plot is the oldest European cemetery on Manhattan. (Many of us owe a debt to the New Amsterdam Reformed Church. The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas; it was just another work day. Many of the Dutch in America saw Christmas time as both solemn and joyous. The joyous part included “Sinter Klaus” who gave presents on St. Nicholas Day, December 6.)

This acceptance of immigrants may have meant that many of the non-Dutch came to see New Amsterdam as home and felt little allegiance to their countries of origin. Certainly, Thomas Baxter, the Englishman who sold the planks to build The Wall to keep out the English, did not seem to have had much loyalty to the English. After his plank salesmanship, he became a pirate and preyed on English ships. But that does not mean that he had developed an attachment to the Netherlands. He also went after Dutch ships. It appears that his allegiance was simply to money.

(concluded December 12)

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