Peter Stuyvesant

Peter Stuyvesant (ca. 1610-1672), Dutch director general of the New Netherland colony in America, was compelled to surrender his colony to England.

The last and most efficient of Dutch proconsuls in the European struggle for control of North America, Peter Stuyvesant is remembered as the stubborn, somewhat choleric governor of the Dutch West India Company's base on the mainland. A zealous Calvinist, he brought a relatively effective government to the colony, absorbed the nearby rival Swedish settlements, and attempted to remold New Netherland in his own and the company's image. His efforts at reform were cut short with the seizure of New Amsterdam (later, New York) by a British force in 1664.

Born at Scherpenzeel, Friesland, Stuyvesant was the son of a Calvinist Dutch Reformed minister. He attended school in Friesland, where he heard much about New Netherland and about Holland's war with Spain. He became a student at the University of Franeker but was apparently expelled, for reasons unknown, about 1629.

Patriotic, and desiring adventure, Stuyvesant entered the service of the Dutch West India Company—first as a clerk and then, in 1635, as a supercargo to Brazil. By 1638 he had become chief commercial officer for Curaçao; in 1643 he returned there as governor. The following year he led an unsuccessful attack against the Portuguese colony of St. Martin in the Leeward Islands. During the siege he was wounded in the right leg, and the crude amputation required resulted in a lengthy convalescence and a trip to Holland to obtain an artificial limb. (Because of its adornments ments, he was thereafter often nicknamed "Silver Leg.") In Breda he married Judith Bayard, the sister of his brother-in-law.

On Oct. 5, 1645, Stuyvesant came before the chamber of the nearly bankrupt West India Company and volunteered his services for New Netherland. The next July he was appointed director general of that colony. On Christmas Day he sailed for America with four vessels carrying soldiers, servants, traders, and a new set of officials. Also on board were his widowed sister and her children, together with his wife. The ships, proceeding by way of Curaçao, arrived at New Amsterdam on May 11, 1647, to be greeted by cheering settlers.

The inhabitants soon learned, however, that their new governor was not so liberal as themselves. Stuyvesant's first domestic order restricted sale of intoxicants and compelled observance of the Sabbath. He became a church warden of the Reformed congregation and commenced rebuilding its edifice. Clerics and councilmen easily persuaded him (in a move aimed at Lutherans and Quakers) to forbid meetings not conforming to the Synod of Dort. Though Amsterdam reproved him on this point and counseled tolerance, under the narrowly religious Stuyvesant dissent was always frowned upon.

Though harsh and dictatorial, Stuyvesant introduced a number of needed reforms, particularly directed toward improving New Amsterdam's living conditions. He appointed fire wardens and ordered chimney inspections, instituted a weekly market and annual cattle fair, required bakers to use standard weights, somewhat controlled traffic and sanitation, repaired the fort, and licensed taverns. Stuyvesant concerned himself about all aspects of town life. He organized a night watch, had streets paved, encouraged local bakeries and breweries, and promoted the colony's commerce whenever possible.

Stuyvesant expected the people to obey his will and opposed the New Amsterdam citizen's desire for a separate municipal government for the city, but he early established the Board of Nine Men to advise him in promoting the public welfare. Citizens found onerous his diligent attempts to enforce Dutch trading restrictions and to collect taxes and tolls—though when their "Remonstrance" to Holland finally procured a distinct government for New Amsterdam (1653), they continued their delinquency about such obligations.

One of Stuyvesant's first official acts was to organize a naval expedition against the Spaniards operating within the limits of the West India Company's charter. A force sent against Ft. Christina in 1655 conquered Sweden's province on the Delaware River and absorbed the settlements into New Netherland. Peace was made with marauding Native Americans, and captive Dutch colonists were ransomed. Stuyvesant promoted trading relations with New England and succeeded in achieving a modus vivendi respecting the troublesome boundary with Connecticut. In 1657 he granted a system of "burgher rights, " providing (at a price) eligibility for trading and office holding; at first limited to New Amsterdam, this came to apply throughout the province.

The governor's salary plus allowances (approximately $1, 600, all told) enabled Stuyvesant to purchase a bouwerie, or farm, of 300 acres north of the city wall and a town lot for a house with gardens beside the fort. He lived comfortably in these, and his two sons were both born in New Amsterdam.

In 1664, while England and Holland were still at peace, Charles II decided to seize New Netherland for his brother James, Duke of York. When four British warships under Col. Richard Nicolls reached New Amsterdam, the colony was completely unprepared. Stuyvesant wanted to resist this aggression, but word of Nicolls's lenient terms eroded his already scanty support, and after lengthy negotiations he capitulated on September 7. He obtained provisional trading rights for the West India Company in the province and, to defend his official conduct, went to Amsterdam in 1665—though his evidence as to the company's neglect of colonial defense did not endear him to its directors. Returning to New York in 1668, Stuyvesant retired to his farm until his death in February 1672.


Further Reading on Peter Stuyvesant

Henry Kessler and Eugene Rachlis, Peter Stuyvesant and His New York (1959), is the most scholarly and readable study of Stuyvesant. Informative is John Franklin Jameson, Narratives of New Netherland (1909; new ed. 1952). Bayard Tuckerman, Peter Stuyvesant (1893), although outdated, is valuable. Hendrick Willem Van Loon, Life and Times of Pieter Stuyvesant (1918), provides a provocative character interpretation.

Additional Biography Sources

Picard, Hymen Willem Johannes, Peter Stuyvesant, builder of New York, Cape Town: Hollandsch Afrikaansche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1975.