Peter Stuyvesant's Country Escape
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On May 11, 1647, Peter Stuyvesant arrived to take control of the colony of New Amsterdam. There was not much of a colony to speak of — what he found was in disarray. New Amsterdam, in the words of historian Russell Shorto, was "a tiny collection of buildings perched on the edge of a limitless wilderness," where half the residents spoke a foreign tongue (Shorto 2004, 2). Stuyvesant arrived with his thirty seven year old wife Judith, who was four months pregnant, and stayed at Fort Amsterdam, a military garrison at the southern tip of Manhattan, in a brick house beside a church.

Stuyvesant lived with his family at the fort and in 1658 established a residence nearby on the coast of the East River called the Great House. The English later called it White Hall because of its whitewashed exterior, which lent itself to the name of the present-day Whitehall Street.

The Great House was a large, two-story structure with fenced-in grounds that boasted formal gardens, a small canal, and a docking space on the river for Stuyvesant’s barge. The gardens would probably have been kept in the style popularized in William of Orange’s reign: roses, tulips, and lilies, with plants heavily groomed into geometric patterns. With Stuyvesant as one of the few dozen wealthy inhabits at the time, the homes were decorated with rare woods, paintings, fine china, and silverware. In spite of the efforts to create a relatively opulent residence, Stuyvesant had no real interest in living in town. In 1648, the year after his initial arrival, he secured a land grant for a bouwerie to be located outside of the city.

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By definition, a bouwerie was a complete self-sustained farm, with crops, orchards, and livestock. (A plantation, on the other hand, would concentrate on growing a specific cash crop such as tobacco.) He would have received a land grant from his employer, the Dutch West India Company, but that is not the only way he managed to amass a property of almost 550 acres, stretching from around Fifth Street up to Fifteenth, and from Fourth Avenue all the way to the East River.

At the time, the area in today’s Greenwich Village and East Village was mostly virgin wilderness, dotted with swamps, ponds, hills and rocks. There was one Dutch farm and several others that belonged to quasi-freed slave families. Earlier in 1644, the Dutch West India Company had granted partial freedom to nine slaves who had been petitioning to be released. Despite appearing to grant some liberty to the slaves, it was a decision that mostly benefited the Company.
The slaves were emancipated and given plots of land outside of the city proper, for which the freedmen paid an annual tribute in wheat, beans, maize, or a pig. This way, the freedmen could provide for their families, and in turn the Company would not have to care for children or the elderly. Additionally, the Company could still call them for paid work, would still have the freedmen’s children to use as slaves, and had advanced warning of any Native American attacks advancing on New Amsterdam.

Stuyvesant took advantage of the situation. In addition to the land he was granted by the Dutch West India Company, he quickly began purchasing these ‘Negro Lots’ wherever possible, and in some cases simply issued decrees that transferred the land back to the Company and into his hands.

In addition to his own 550 acres that he consolidated, his son-in-law Nicholas Bayard managed to accumulate another 200 acres nearby. Stuyvesant himself kept about forty slaves, by far the largest amount in New Netherlands. The slaves were either domestic servants at the Great House or workers on the fields of the bouwerie. His home was another two-story house that would have been located around 10th St, west of the churchyard of today’s St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery. The home and the bouwerie charmed Stuyvesant’s visitors, one of whom described it as a place ‘of relaxation and pleasure.’ (Burrows and Wallace 1999, 55-56)

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In addition to being a pleasurable escape from the cramped, dirty colony, his house would play a role in the transfer of New Amsterdam into English hands. During the reign of Charles II, the English were focusing their attention on expanding their colonies in the New World and cutting into its trade market, which the Dutch largely controlled. In 1664, Charles II appointed his brother, the Duke of York, to be the proprietor of the English colonies around the Delaware and Connecticut rivers, which included all of the territory of New Netherlands.

At his own expense, York shipped 2000 men to the colonies to secure his new territory. They seized the ferry of Breukelen, occupied Staten Island, and called for Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company to surrender New Amsterdam. Stuyvesant refused in spite of the fact that the city could not have mustered more than 200 men.

When word got out to the citizens of New Amsterdam, ninety-three men, including Stuyvesant’s son, petitioned him to surrender the city and thereby avoid any bloodshed. Stuyvesant relented in the face of public opposition, and parties from both sides met at his bouwerie to negotiate the Articles of Capitulation, which marked the official surrender of the Dutch West India Company and the transfer of New Netherlands into English hands.

After the surrender, Stuyvesant was summoned back to Amsterdam to account for what happened. The Dutch West India Company tried to blame him, but Stuyvesant staunchly defended his actions and years of service to the Netherlands. At the time, a full-scale war had erupted between the Netherlands and England and the States-General was preoccupied with affairs abroad. During the war and subsequent peace negotiations, Stuyvesant was able to quietly leave the country and return to New York, where his bouwerie waited for him. Some historians say that this was the voyage on which he took a pear tree, that later grew on Third Avenue until 1867.

He lived at the bouwerie quietly until his death in 1672, less than a decade after his return. His home and estate eventually fell victim to inevitable expansion. The house was destroyed in a fire in 1777. Less than two decades later, the family chapel was donated to the Episcopal Church, of which his Dutch descendents had become members.

The rapidly expanding New York City planned a master street grid, which began cutting Third Avenue into the estate as early as 1812. In spite of Stuyvesant’s grand plans, his impressive land consolidation could not stand up to the inexorable urbanization of New York. The lonely reminders are the Bowery, the street name that refers to his farm, and the small Stuyvesant Street, which intersects it in defiance of the street grid.

Works Cited:
Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York to 1898. USA: Oxford University Press, 2000.
“Manhattan Closeup: Party to Honor a Forgotten Stuyvesant” Newsday, September 15, 1986.
Shorto, Russell. The Island At The Center of the World. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
Urban, Sylvanus. “Sale of Stuyvesant Property Recalls Old Bouerie’s Story” New York Times, Jan 12 1902.

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