What in fact happened was that the new arrivals all settled on the island of Manhattan, and not on High Island in the South River. But in any case, Verhulst was instructed first of all to have the site surveyed and platted, and then to grant the lots to the settlers. The carpenters were to cut timber with which to build temporary houses, barns, and other storage facilities. The instructions said nothing about these temporary buildings beyond noting that “for the present [it would be] sufficient if they are tight and dry, without ornament, in order that no time may be lost.” The specifics of their construction were left up to the carpenters and other craftsmen, whose prior experience in the Dutch Republic and elsewhere the Company could rely on.
Dutch overseas town plans generally specified locations, fortifications, street layouts, and building designs and materials, and the specifications that the West India Company gave Fredericxsz were no exception, specifying in some detail the settlement’s streets and roads, the size and shape of its fortifications, the sizes of its houses, and the sizes of the fields adjacent to the town. Verhulst’s instructions had called for barns, storage places, and a sawmill, but Fredericxsz’ instructions made no mention of them. Verhulst’s instructions had also specified the size of the lots to be granted to each family: 600 × 2,400, or about 33 acres (I have converted the plan’s old Amsterdam measures to our feet). Fredericxsz’ instructions didn’t mention these lots either, but they did specify ten much larger ones for the head farmers and the Company’s officials, eight of them to be 660 × 5,400 feet (about 82 acres) and the other two to be 965 × 5,400 feet, (about 120 acres).
The fortified Dutch town of Deventer in the seventeenth century, one of the many cities and towns in the Dutch Republic that were enclosed within bastioned earthworks to defend against Spanish and other artillery after the Dutch declared their independence from Spain in 1581. (Image: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen)
The settlement was to face the river —- the instructions didn’t say which river -— within a rectangle 1,858 feet long and 1,486 feet wide. One of the two long sides was to be the shoreline of the river, the other three sides were to be bounded by a ditch, 22 feet wide and three feet eight inches deep. Within this perimeter ditch a five-sided fort was to be built, some 929–975 feet in diameter. The ramparts of the fort were to be 37 feet wide, their outer walls sloping up at about a 45º angle to a height of 18 feet six inches, surmounted by a parapet five feet six inches high, with a walkway 13 feet wide along the top of the ramparts behind it. The downward slope from the walkway into the town wasn’t specified, but 45º would be a good middle of the road guess, which adds 18 feet to the width of the ramparts, bringing the total up to 56. The drawings that accompanied the Fredericxsz’ instructions could tell us what slopes the Company actually had in mind, but, alas, the drawings have been lost, along with so much else.
There was nothing odd or unusual about the West India Company’s planning their new outpost as a fortified town. Ever since the seven northern provinces of the formerly Burgundian Netherlands had abjured the sovereignty of their by then Hapsburg monarch, Philip II of Spain, in 1581, the loose confederacy that was the Dutch Republic had been fortifying the perimeters of its cities and towns with bastioned earthworks, as the seventeenth century towns of the Republic amply demonstrate. The Dutch trading companies also used bastioned earthworks to fortify many of their outposts overseas, and where a fully fortified town was deemed unnecessary they often built small forts within the town. Bastions were by no means a Dutch exclusive: they were a commonplace of fortification everywhere.
Eighty-four of the houses were to be of a type that the Company called "model D." Here too drawing(s) were made, but have not survived; however, the written specifications have survived, at least for the main block of twenty-four houses, including a double width house for the commissary (the chief commercial agent). A model D house was to be 23 feet square and built to a height of two stories plus a garret or attic under the roof. The first story was to be 14 feet high, the second eight feet four inches high. The pitch of the roof — and thus implicitly height of the garret — was not specified, or if it was, it was so only in the drawings. The first floors and the garrets were for the residents. The second stories were to be a loft space for the company, with adjacent lofts connected by doors between them. Left unsaid was whether these houses were to be built as row houses with party walls between them, and whether their gable ends were to face the street, like the houses in Amsterdam, or to be perpendicular to it, and, if so, whether the roofing was to be continuous across the whole row of them.
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.
Even on the scale of late medieval to early modern European towns, the town of Fort Amsterdam would have been a small one. In its early years, when the population numbered only a few hundred, Fort Amsterdam would scarcely have qualified as a village in seventeenth century northwestern Europe. Recent scholarship argues that at the time of the English takeover in 1664 the town’s population would have reached some 2,500 (Africans included, and taking natural increase as well as immigration into account). This was enough to call it a town, though not really enough to call it a city, the population threshold for which historical demographers usually put at about 5,000 in late medieval to early modern Europe. If anything was unusual about Fort Amsterdam, it was that the West India Company would plan to fortify such a minor outpost in this way. This may have simply been a mistake of the kind that bureaucracies of all kinds, even seventeenth century Dutch monopoly trading companies, are prone to making, namely doing — or at least attempting to do — only what they know how to do, no matter whether this is appropriate to the situation or not.
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.
As so often happens with the grand plans of a home office for a remote site — even today — the West India Company’s instructions to Verhulst and Fredericxsz had a rough landing on the far distant field to which they were dispatched. It was soon apparent that the Company’s plans for the settlement not only didn’t fit the geography of Manhattan but were altogether too ambitious to be undertaken by what all in all could not have been much more than 150 or so people to begin with, if that. The southern tip of Manhattan was heavily forested, although there may have been some clearings by the native Americans or by the Nut Island settlers — if indeed there were any — so the Company’s plans would have required the settlers to clear at least 1,000 acres of forest, plus another 600–1,000 acres for the families fields and pastures, something that could have taken 100 able-bodied men as much as a year or more to accomplish. The settlers had neither the material nor the human resources to execute the Company’s plans for the planned town of Fort Amsterdam: their top priority in the late summer and fall of 1625 was simply to build enough temporary barns and houses — no matter how temporary — to enable them and their cattle to survive the coming winter.
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.
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