11 Fascinating Things I Never Knew About The History Of Manhattan

Wall street wallColumbia UniversityThe Castello Plan, New Amsterdam in 1660

A few months ago, I published a history of how private English entrepreneurs were actually America’s first settlers.

But their businesses basically failed, and it took wealthy religious separatists to get English America off the ground.

There was more to the story of America’s entrepreneurial roots.

A couple hundred miles south of New England, the Dutch West India Company — the sister firm of the world’s first publicly-traded private firm, the Dutch East India Company — had founded the colony of New Netherland

The best, most recent history of the period, “The Island At The Center Of The World,” by Russell Shorto, was published in 2004. Here are 11 amazing things I learned.


Captain Henry Hudson was a Dutch agent, and his crew hated him.

Hudson had been fired from the English Muscovy Company for failing to find a Northwest Passage to Asia. He was when a chance meeting with a representative of what would become the Dutch West India Company changed his life. He was recruited to continue his search, and this time navigated his way down what he called (and is still called by some) the North River.

Hudson would ultimately come to meet a grisly fate, as he refused to give up on his quest for a Northwest Passage. His freezing crew marooned he and his son off in modern Hudson Bay.

Most of the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam were actually Belgian.

If you look at contemporary maps, you’ll see the area was labelled New Belgium. That’s in part because the earliest Dutch settlers, including the Dutch West India Company’s third governor, Peter Minuit, were largely of Walloon extract.

Yes, Peter Minuit bought Manhattan for $US24.

Minuit was the Dutch West India Company’s third New Netherland governor. He purchased Manhattan from a local Lenape Indian tribe for the modern-day equivalent of about $US700. Shorto says the Indians were not swindled, but rather expected the Dutch to enter into a military and economic alliance with them. For several years, at least, that was largely true…

New York’s first city hall was in a tavern.

It was at the corner of Pearl Street and Coenties Slip downtown. It was long ago torn down, but there’s a historical marker there. Here’s what it looked like:

There used to be a wall on Wall Street.

It was built by slaves in 1653 to keep out the English. Here’s a pic:

Wall street wallColumbia UniversityThe Castello Plan, New Amsterdam in 1660

The main export from New Amsterdam: beavers.

80,000 beaver pelts per year passed through Manhattan. “Traders in New Amsterdam, with their ties to the world’s greatest trading power, were among the most sophisticated on earth,” Shorto says.

Peter Stuyvesant was basically Captain Ahab.

New York’s third and longest-serving governor had lost a leg to cannon shot fighting the Spanish near South America. He’d previously been in charge of Curacao when The Company promoted him to run New Netherland. He ultimately comes off as a sympathetic figure, though his citizens ultimately started a quasi-uprising against him. But he loved New Amsterdam and had to be haggled by his own citizens into surrendering to the English. Here’s a famous painting of the act:

Stuyvesant new netherlandGoogle Images‘The Fall Of New Amsterdam’ by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1931

New Yorkers and local tribes got along great, until a stupid governor massacred surrounding Indians.

New Amsterdam was dealt a severe setback when governor William Kieft decided to take revenge for the murder of one of his citizens by massacring an entire Indian settlement in New Jersey. This basically put all the surrounding tribes on a permanent war footing with New Amsterdam’s leaders.

The hero of New Amsterdam ended up imprisoned by Dutch authorities and was massacred in his home by Indians.

Adriaen van der Donck was a lawyer by training and was called “the Jonkheer” by his fellow citizens as a sign of respect, and this is where we get the town Yonkers. Van der Donck sailed to Amsterdam to try to fight for New Amsterdam’s freedom from the Dutch West India Company, and for his efforts was temporarily imprisoned by Dutch authorities. He was ultimately released but was banned from serving office for life. Soon after moving back, he was massacred at his home on the site of the modern Van Cortlandt Park.

Adriaen van der DonckGoogle ImagesAdriaen van der Donck

By the end, New Yorkers ultimately didn’t care whether they were ruled by the Dutch or English

Shorto makes the case that New Amsterdamers were the first to have a true sense of their American identity, and that this fuelled van der Donck’s mission.

And the Dutch were already on the wane anyway.

The British Navy was in its ascendancy, and the Dutch had provoked their ire by massacring English colonists in far-off (modern) New Guinea. This helped lead to two wars. And England’s ambassador to the Netherlands, George Downing, was probably the most important diplomat of all-time, having negotiated the Dutch out of several key American colonies, as well as launching the slave trade. The Dutch West India Company ultimately went belly-up.

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