New York’s Municipal Setup 300 Years Old

New York’s Local Administration Founded by Peter Stuyvesant

by Walter H. Van Hoesen

From de Halve Maen, January, 1953 Vol. XXVII no.4


Three centuries of municipal government in New York City will be marked on February 2. It was on the same day in 1653 that Peter Stuyvesant issued an edict creating a system of local administration for New Amsterdam, in accordance with orders issued by the Amsterdam Chamber in Holland, as an outcome to years of complaints and appeals from leaders in the colony.

As time is measured three hundred years is not a record compared with cities of Europe, but it is a long span for Manhattan and the other four boroughs comprising the present New York. Traces of the earliest days disappeared long ago with building and constant rebuilding. Even the contour of the land has been changed and events which transpired in 1653, as well as before and later, are preserved for posterity only in records which have been gathered after extended search. Names of streets and localities and plaques erected over the years by The Holland Society of New York and other groups help to preserve the history of those days.

Observance of the city’s tercentenary as an incorporated community will take various forms during the next few months. Proposals made nearly a year ago for a citywide program have failed to materialize and action will be up to various civic groups. The anniversary will be appropriately noted at gatherings of The Holland Society of New York and its branches.

The New York Historical Society will have a series of exhibits of documents relating to the settlement and growth of New Amsterdam, as the city was first named. The Staten Island Historical Society is planning a program for next May centered around the old Voorlezer’s House in Richmondtown, the only public building within the city limits dating back to the 17th century.

The history of New Amsterdam goes back to 1609 when Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the service of the Dutch East India Company, took De Halve Maen, a tiny sailing vessel, through the Narrows and up the North River to a spot later the site of Port Orange and finally changed to Albany. The 300th anniversary was marked in 1909 by the Hudson-Fulton celebration in which members of the Society took a leading part.

It had been Hudson’s assignment to find a shorter passage to the East and when he returned to Amsterdam after delays along the way his report to the Dutch East India Company was a disappointment. It bore fruit in other quarters, because an organization of merchants was formed and a second vessel was dispatched under one of Hudson’s aides to trade with the Indians. Success of the venture led to a voyage by two vessels, the Fortune and The Tiger, in 1612. In 1613 or 1614 three other vessels made successful trips.

The Fortune was commanded by Hendrick Christiaensen, who proceeded to the Delaware River and established Fort Nassau, while Adriaen Block decided that it would be well to erect several rude houses of boards, roofed with bark, as a headquarters on Manhattan Island, at a site of the present 29 Broadway.

New Amsterdam and other settlements by the Dutch in the area known as New Netherland were governed by directors general sent out by the Dutch West India Company, which had been formed to exploit the territory, just as the Dutch East India Company was chartered to trade with the East Indies. The first director general was Peter Minuit, who was sent over in 1626. He was succeeded by Bastiaen Janszen Crol (or Krol), who held office until the arrival of Wouter van Twiller in 1633. Wilhelm Kieft became the third governor in 1638.

During the regime of Kieft, authority continued almost entirely with the director general, accountable only to the Dutch West India Company, but he undertook to consult with eight of the leading men in the colony. There was some complaint against taxes and administration of affairs and finally one of the group, Cornells Melyn, addressed a petition to the States-General in Holland as a statement of grievances. In October 1644, the eight men signed a memorial written by Andries Hudde, addressed to the Amsterdam Chamber, discussing problems of the colony which they claimed had been caused by Kieft and they asked his dismissal.

Peter Stuyvesant was commissioned governor of New Netherland in May 1645. He was governor of the Dutch West Indies and on his recommendation, they were joined to New Netherland. It was not until the spring of 1647 that Stuyvesant arrived on Manhattan Island and soon thereafter trouble developed with the settlers because of his autocratic rule. He was unable to smooth out difficulties which started with the administration by Kieft, although he did order an election in which the people chose a board of eighteen representatives from which he selected nine to be his counsellors. They were to meet as a body only when called by Stuyvesant and then only to discuss and advise on such matters as he might bring before them. The governor or someone delegated by him presided at meetings.

Feeling became intense between Stuyvesant and the men. Petitions for relief were sent directly to Holland over the objection of Stuyvesant, who went to the extent of banishing Melyn and Kuyter as leaders of the opposition. The bickering and filing of complaints back and forth went on until 1650 when the Amsterdam Chamber, seeing that something must be done for New Amsterdam, directed Governor Stuyvesant to organize the settlement as a suitable Burgher Government within the New Netherland colony. He was authorized to appropriate 250 gilders per annum to pay a school master and remove the duty on tobacco in the hope of promoting trade with Virginia.

Under the instructions of the Amsterdam Chamber, the people of Amsterdam were permitted to elect, as much as possible under the custom of Amsterdam, a burgher government composed of a schout (sheriff or prosecutor) who also had the duty of presiding over meetings of the magistrates. Two burgomasters (mayors) and five schepens (aldermen) were to be included in the group of officials. This was too much like democracy for The autocratic Stuyvesant, whose aim was to keep complete control in his own hands, did not allow an election but instead chose the officials himself. The city government was proclaimed in force from the second day of February, 1653. Stuyvesant made the official announcement in front of the Governor’s House within the fort, which stood on the site of the present custom house facing Bowling Green. At that time, the community numbered about 800 persons.

The appointments of Stuyvesant’s included Arende van Hatten and Martin Cregier as burgomasters and as schepens Allard Anthony, Maximilian van Gheel, Willem Beekman, Paulus Leendertsen van der Grist, and Peter van Couwenhoven. All of the appointments were good, and only the method of selection did not conform to instructions or the custom in Amsterdam. Stuyvesant decided not to give the burghers a schout of their own but vested the duties of that officer in the schout-fiscal for New Netherland. He happened to be Van Tienhoven, who was much hated and, since he was charged with presiding over meetings of the magistrates, friction developed almost immediately.

The first important issue that arose was in connection with the public defense. The magistrates agreed to raise funds for that purpose provided Stuyvesant would turn over receipts from wine and beer taxes to the city instead of to the West India Company. He refused, and at a mass meeting of citizens on August 2, 1653, the magistrates were upheld. Both sides held firm until the lack of funds forced Stuyvesant to agreement on the receipts in November. The magistrates began to raise a fund and when it was found that only a part of the excise money was going for municipal use they threatened to resign, but Stuyvesant would not yield.

Disagreement reached a state where the magistrates made an appeal to the directors of the West East India Company. They asked for surrender of all the excise funds, the right to select the city schout, to have a city seal, authority to impose taxes, to lease a ferry to Breuckelen (Brooklyn), the use of arms and ammunition for city defense, and the power to administer affairs of the city in the same manner as followed in Amsterdam.

A converted warehouse and tavern on the edge of the East River, at the present site of 73 Pearl Street, was designated as the “Stadt Huys” or first city hall on February 24, 1663. History records that one of the meetings held there was on November 26, 1663, called by Governor Stuyvesant to consider the danger from piracy and privateering along the coast. Two members of the governor’s council, two city magistrates, and delegates from Gravesend, Flushing, and Middleburg attended.

The high-handed acts of Stuyvesant resulted in continued difficulties with the people of New Amsterdam and other settlements in the province of New Netherland. Invasion of the territory was threatened by England in 1654 and caused a temporary better feeling until the conclusion of peace between Holland and England gave the Amsterdam Chamber an opportunity to consider.

Appeals which had been filed were addressed, and all of the demands for the right to collect taxes and other authority were granted, except that the Chamber reserved the right to name the city Schout. Stuyvesant and the city magistrates went from one dispute to another. He claimed they had not paid for fortifying the city and that they should pay for the support of soldiers who had been sent from Holland as well as the officials of New Amsterdam. The magistrates said they would support a schout of their own choosing, the burgomasters, schepens, a secretary, a court messenger, and such other official service as the city might need, one minister, one beadle, and one precentor provided he would serve as a school master.

Matters went along with constant bickering until 1664 when a British fleet sailed into New York harbor. On September 8 of that year, the town and fort were delivered, and Colonel Nicholls was installed by the burgomasters as deputy governor for the Duke of York. New Amsterdam became New York, and Fort Amsterdam was changed to Fort James.

Peter Stuyvesant was called to Holland in 1665 to report on his administration. He reached there in October and after detention until 1668, he was permitted to return to America. He retired to his farm, or Bouwerie, which occupied the area now bounded by the East River, Sixth Street, Third Avenue, and Sixteenth Street, where he died in the early part of 1672. His body lies in a vault of Saint Mark’s Church.

In the local government, Dutch city officials were left to continue their functions and administer justice as before the surrender until other and permanent arrangements could be made. Changes came more or less gradually, but the Dutch element in the population continued of major prominence. The general form of municipal administration was retained and has continued down through the years except for revision dictated by the passing of time and arising of added requirements with the growth of the city.

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