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Thursday, May 5, 2016

I'll take Manhattan

Monday, February 27, 2012

Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of New Netherland
In every family there are stories of long lost relatives who have accomplished great things, or attained high places, or at the other extreme, have committed foul deeds, and have gotten themselves in serious trouble. We tend to not talk about those folks. In our family we have a situation, which might lie between the two extremes. On my mother's side, we trace our lineage back to Holland, in the 1600s, to the family of one of the Dutch families that came to colonize the New World. They were sponsored by the Dutch West Indies Company, as part of the Company's plan to compete with the Spanish for the American fur trade. Eventually the Dutch traders had trading posts at the present cities of Albany New York, Hartford Connecticut, and Trenton New Jersey.

In 1626 Peter Minuit, the Dutch Governor established a trading post at the mouth of the Hudson River. The post was disputed by the Indians who hunted there. That dispute was settled when Minuit paid those Indians some $24 worth of beads and provisions for the property, now known as Manhattan Island, an important part of New York City.

The Dutch settlers and their governors were very strict and straight laced. They quarreled with everyone -- with the other Dutch settlements, and with the Indians, inviting frequent raids on their settlements. They did not tolerate freedom of religion in their colony, so were at odds with the Quakers and the Jews, who were beginning to come into the area.

In 1647 Peter Stuyvesant was appointed Governor of New Amsterdam and assumed his office amid a great deal of turmoil. He bolstered the defenses at Fort Orange (Albany New York) against Indian attacks, and took an active part in settling disputed boundaries between the Dutch Colony at New Haven in Connecticut and the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, in upstate New York.

Peter Stuyvesant was a tough old bird. He was born in Holland around the year 1600 (the year is in dispute). He served in the Dutch Army for a time, then went to work for the Dutch West India Company, and served as Governor of the Dutch Colony of Curacoa. It was during this period that he led an invasion of the Portuguese Island of St. Martin. The invasion was a failure, and in the battle Peter lost his right leg.

He was sent to Holland to recover and was fitted with a wooden peg, which he learned to use quickly and well, and in 1647 he was sent to America to assume the Governorship of New Amsterdam. In New Amsterdam he was known (behind his back) as Old Silver Peg, because of the silver bands with which he had adorned his "Peg Leg."

In 1650 Stuyvesant convened a council at Hartford Connecticut to work out the disputed boundary between New Haven and Rensselaerswyck. When the council settled the matter, to the satisfaction of neither side, Stuyvesant settled the matter, saying that his authority would remain undiminished, and a new form of municipal government was handed down by the Dutch East India Company through Governor Stuyvesant.

In 1653, when two deputies from each village in New Netherlands met to demand reforms from the government, Stuyvesant dismissed them, saying, "We derive our authority from God and the Company, not from a few ignorant subjects." Case closed.

Since most of the colony's business had to do with trading and shipping, the life of the community on the Hudson was centered below Wall Street. When New Amsterdam was incorporated as a city in 1653, it was like a small country village with narrow dirt roads and a few scattered houses, but the town thrived under Peter Stuyvesant's administration. In the 1650s about 1,000 persons lived there.

In 1664 Charles II of England ceded a large tract of land in America to his brother James II of England. This tract included all of New Netherland. To take control of his new land holdings, James II sailed up the Hudson River with four English war ships and 450 men. Peter Stuyvesant was in no position to resist, so he signed a peace treaty at his home, the Bouwerj (Bowery) House. The treaty promised "life, estate, and liberty to all who would submit to the English King's authority." Stuyvesant further obtained civil and religious freedom for his people. This was important, as most of the Dutch were of the Dutch Reformed faith (a strict Calvinist denomination), as compared to the English Anglican faith.

Under the English, New York, as New Amsterdam came to be called, saw many improvements -- such as postal service and street lights. In 1686 the English granted the city a charter, and New York City began its phenomenal growth.

Peter Stuyvesant made one more trip to Holland, to report upon his Governorship and surrender, then returned to New Amsterdam, now New York, to live out his last days (till his death in 1672) on his farm on the edge of the city. Stuyvesant's farm was not large, just 62 acres, but those 62 acres represented what is now some of the richest real estate in America, if not the world. It included the Wall, which was built for protection against the Indians, and became Wall Street, the dusty little road called Broadway, the canal that became Broad Street, and the Bowery, extending to the outskirts of Haarlem (Harlem).

So much for the history of Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch in New York. Our branch of the family spread out across America, first to New Jersey, then Wisconsin and South Dakota and eventually to Nebraska, leaving Manhattan far behind, as an interesting footnote on the family tree, almost forgotten -- except for one distant cousin of my mother.

Greenlief (a family name) X, as he will be called, dabbled in history and the branches of the family tree, and some years ago discovered what he believed to be a golden opportunity. He discovered that one of the heirs of the Stuyvesant farm was on our family lineage. What is more, Greenlief maintained that when the property was sold, this relative did not sign the agreement, thus failing to relinquish her share of the property. Further, Greenlief stated that he had lined up lawyers who were prepared to do battle in the courts to recover her share, which in the 20th Century had become a tidy little fortune. He explained that all he needed was few dollars from each of the potential heirs of this windfall to hire the lawyers that would make all concerned rich beyond their wildest dreams.

(I only learned of this after I was grown. My Mother said that she did not want to take a chance that I might be interested in pursuing this pipe dream -- thus wasting my life.) Anyway, one of these letters from Cousin Greenlief asking for money came to our family, with an address where it should be sent, at a time when my Dad was making a trip to New York, so he took it upon himself to look up Cousin Greenlief and see what progress he had made in our behalf.

What Dad found was most revealing. Taking a taxi to the address given, he found himself at a very seedy hotel, in a not very desirable part of town, near the Bowery. He said that he was reluctant to leave the taxi in such a neighborhood. When he asked about Greenlief the desk clerk was evasive, then answered, "Oh, you must mean Slim. I never did know his name. I saw him go out a little while ago. Probably to get a bottle. He should be back soon. Do you want to wait for him -- or leave a note? " Dad decided to do neither. He had his answer. He slipped away without making contact with Cousin Greenlief---and the family stake in downtown Manhattan is still unclaimed.

Source: "Peter Stuyvesant Biography," "The Island at the Center of the World," History.com, Family lore

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By