By Richard Howe
As little as we know about the 1625 Manhattan settlers and what they did when they first got to the island in the late spring of 1625, we do know what the West India Company had instructed Provisional Colony Director Willem Verhulst to do, which was not to settle on Manhattan but rather on High (Burlington) Island in the South (Delaware) River. High Island was, in the Company’s opinion, more suitable for settlement, though the Company didn’t exclude the possibility of its being established at “the hook of the Manattes,” or, and preferably, if not on High Island, then “about where the runners pass from the North to the South river,” which may have been on the west bank of the North River opposite lower Manhattan.
Fort Amsterdam was probably intended to be a “star” fort, in this case a regular, i.e., equal-sided / equal-angled pentagon, with bastions at each of its five points. Bastions are earthworks more or less in the shape of arrowheads protruding outward at intervals from ramparts. Bastioned earthworks had emerged in Tuscany in the sixteenth century as a response to the new threats posed by cannons and muskets. Earthworks resisted cannon fire much better than masonry walls, and bastions made the entire perimeter equally defensible, so that there were no particularly weak places at which an attack could most effectively be concentrated. As a further defense for the settlement, there was to be a moat 50 feet wide and seven feet five inches deep in front of the outer walls of Fort Amsterdam’s ramparts and bastions.
Fort Amsterdam was not meant to be built within the town; rather the town was to be built within Fort Amsterdam, i.e., the settlement was conceived to be a fortified town, its earthworks and bastions no more than a modern update of the underlying medieval concept of a town as a walled settlement. The plan called for 110 houses to be built within the ramparts, plus a large building that would serve as a church, a school, and an infirmary. The town’s streets were specified, as were two roads outside the perimeter ditch. Ten farmhouses were planned outside the ramparts but within the perimeter moat, bringing the total number of houses to 120.
All but twenty-five of the planned houses were to be (in round numbers) about 23 feet wide and variously 32, 37, and 46 feet deep on their lots; one of them was to be a 46 foot square, and 20 were to be 18 feet six inches by 37 feet. The remaining four were small triangular odd lots resulting from the pentagonal shape of the fort and suitable only for tool sheds and the like. The ten houses outside the fort were to be for the five head farmers, two foremen, the comforter of the sick, and the two deputies for commerce. These houses were to be of a type that the company planners called “model E” and provided drawings for, but neither the drawing(s) nor the written specifications for the model E houses have survived. They might have been common rural Dutch house barns, with living quarters in front and cattle stalls in the back, but this is just a conjecture, though not an implausible one.
The model D houses were to be roofed with thatch or straw if available, though it was allowed that wooden shingles might be used if they were not. Exterior wall materials were not specified, but brick would have been very Dutch, and many of the later houses in New Amsterdam were faced with brick. But bricks in the quantities that the plan would require would have been far too many to bring over from Amsterdam as ballast (though some doubtless were), so brick walls would have to wait until the settlers could make their own. Kitchens were to be ten feet deep for houses on lots 32 feet deep, but were allowed to be larger in houses on lots 37 or 46 feet deep. The very first four houses to be built were initially to have no “inside work” — meaning no interior partitions — in order to be able to house the first settlers communally while the rest of the houses were being built. It is likely that all the houses were intended to be ordinary “Nederlandic” construction: a series of “bents” (framing units) at eight to ten foot spacings, connected by beams.
The extent of planned settlement was also not large. The area bounded by the perimeter ditch and the river came to a little over 63 acres; the area within the ramparts would have been not quite twelve acres and the area available for building about ten acres. The whole area of the settlement, including the lots planned for the head farmers and the company officials, but excluding the lots to be granted to the families, came to about 1,000 acres: a not quite square rectangle with the longer sides just over a mile and a quarter long, and the shorter sides just under a mile wide; an additional 600–1,000 acres would be needed for the lots allocated to the families. One of the two long sides of the planned area was to face the river. Although the Company’s specifications didn’t say where the settlement was to be located, they are specific enough for us to see how close to the southern end of Manhattan it could have been if it were located there and if it were built to plan.
The southernmost point on Manhattan’s 1609 North River shoreline where the southwest corner of the settlement could be located and still have the settlement extend a mile and a half inland would be roughly — very roughly! — at the corner of today’s West Broadway and Park Place; the southeast corner at Clinton and South Streets; the northeast at First Avenue and 11th Street, and the northwest at Greenwich and Gansevoort Streets. This would put the southern edge of the settlement about half a mile north of what was in 1625 the southernmost tip of “the hook of the Manattes,” which in turn suggests that the plan was never intended for Manhattan, since it’s unlikely that the Company would want to leave that much open space south of the settlement for a hostile force to assemble in. But the plan could not have been intended for High Island either, which is only about 300 acres in extent, and the plan calls for 1,000 acres. There would have been enough open space on the west bank of the North River opposite lower Manhattan, but in 1625 no one seems to have given that alternative much if any thought.
The West India Company’s plans were dropped right away, never to be taken up again. The town of New Amsterdam that was built instead was almost the exact opposite of the town planned by the Company: the fort was in the town rather than the town in the fort; it was much smaller than the one called for by the plan, and four-sided rather than five-sided; its ramparts were supposed to be faced with stone, but they were not. The scaled-back Fort Amsterdam was, at least, bastioned, or so it appears in the famous 1639 “Manatus” map attributed to the Amsterdam cartographer and painter Johannes Vingboons. The town of New Amsterdam itself was unfortified: even the eponymous wooden palisade that was later built along what is now Wall Street could hardly be called a fortification, at least not in comparison to what the West India Company originally had in mind for Fort Amsterdam.
Though there’s not much we know for sure about what the 1625 settlers were doing when they arrived on the island of Manhattan, we can say this much: they were not building the planned town of Fort Amsterdam, and — above all, because it is so easy to forget — they were not founding the City of New York, or anything like it. Nor were they founding a “citty upon a hill, the eies of all people uppon them” — Colony Provisional Director Verhulst was no Winthrop, and neither, later on, were Minuit, Krol, van Twiller, Kieft, or, for that matter, Stuyvesant. What the settlers were doing on Manhattan in 1625 was surviving, and — as it turned out — that was enough for them to have left their mark on history.
Richard Howe is a frequent contributor to the Blotter, and is writing a history of New York as a built environment. He runs the photographic study New York in Plain Sight: The Manhattan Street Corners.
The West India Company’s 1625 instructions to Verhulst and Fredericxsz are translated in A. J. F. van Laer’s 1924 Documents of New Netherland 1624–1626, never reissued, but the texts and notes are on-line at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nycoloni/huntoc.html.
F. C. Wieder’s 1925 study De Stichting van New York in Juli 1625 (The Founding of New York in July 1625) has never been translated and also never reissued, but Wieder’s drawings of his reconstruction of the plan of the settlement are reproduced in John Rep’s 1965 The Making of Urban America, still in print.
Jaap Jacob’s 2009 The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America provides a thorough introduction to the colony of New Netherland, and Jan de Vries’ 1976 The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 1600–1750 is a concise introduction to the European background.
Ron van Oers’ 2000 Dutch Town Planning Overseas during VOC and WIC Rule 1600–1800 surveys the East and West India Companies’ overseas settlements, and includes a detailed atlas of nineteen of them.
Jeroen van den Hurk’s 2006 dissertation Imagining New Netherland: Origins and Survival of Netherlandic Architecture in Old New York analyzes the relationship of seventeenth century building practices in New Netherland to those in the Netherlands.
John R. Steven’s 2005 Dutch Vernacular Architecture in North America, 1640–1830 is a treasure trove of photographs, drawings, and analysis of Dutch buildings and building practices in the New World.
Len Tantillo’s 2011 The Edge of New Netherland provides an excellent account of the seventeenth century Dutch fortification practices that informed the plan for Fort Amsterdam.