Petrus Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Netherlands, was a man who made a considerable impact on the early history of New York City. He was a strict man, whose “iron aspect”, according to Washington Irving, was “enough to make the very bowels of his adversaries quake with terror and dismay.” (Irving 1776, 250) It would seem that even in the years before he bent New Amsterdam to his will, he was a man not content with taking orders, but rather carving his own way.
Pieter Stuyvesant, as he was originally known, was born in 1612 in the town of Scherpenzeel, a place that was “known for nothing because no one knew of it at all.” (Shorto 2004, 148) His father, Balthasar Stuyvesant, was a clergyman of the Frisian Reformed Church, which preached a strict and fiery branch of Calvinism. In those days, the eldest son would almost certainly have followed in his father’s line of work, but Pieter abruptly left home as a teenager. A possible cause for this break is that after his wife’s death, Balthasar Stuyvesant quickly remarried and “zestfully set to work siring a new family.” (Shorto 2004, 148) The young Stuyvesant moved to a town called Dokkun, where he studied Latin, then went to the University of Franeker, his father’s alma mater. Rather than moving into theology as his father had done, however, he studied philosophy. And going against the grain of the strict Protestant propriety of his time, he seduced his landlord’s daughter. After being caught in bed with her, he was thrown out of school for what was considered a gross breach of hospitality.
After his expulsion, Stuyvesant moved to Amsterdam and secured an administrative job of the lowest level at the Dutch West India Company. At this time he restyled himself ‘Petrus’, because having a Latinized name implied having a university education. It would seem that he impressed someone with his work ethic, because in 1630 he was appointed to a position on the island of Fernando de Noronha, off the coast of Brazil. It was a questionable honor, as the island was known by Company employees for its rat infestation. (Shorto 2004, 149) From there, he was moved to Pernambuco, then later to Curaçao; by the age of 30, he was the governor of Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire.
While there, the Dutch West India Company assigned him the task of conquering the island of St. Martin, which they had lost to the Spanish but wanted back for its salt deposits and proximity to Puerto Rico. In 1644, under the assumption that the Spanish were poorly fortified, he laid siege to the island. Unbeknownst to him, however, the Spanish fort had smuggled supplies in from Puerto Rico, and were quite prepared for a lengthy resistance. Rather than being intimidated, he saw this as an opportunity to prove himself. Grabbing a Dutch flag, he ran up a hill and began waving his men forward. In the return fire, a cannonball hit him directly in his right leg. Before losing consciousness shortly after, Stuyvesant ordered that the siege continue. At the time, amputation was the only option for a wound like his, which would have been accomplished by sawing through the bone without anesthetic or sedatives. In many instances, patients died before the procedure could be completed. Stuyvesant not only survived but continued on with his siege for another four weeks before he finally, in extreme pain, called off the assault.
After the siege ended, he stayed on in Curaçao, ignoring his festering leg, to micromanage everything under his jurisdiction as governor: reports on the salt flats, the transportation of food and goods, and keeping English and Spanish pirates at bay. The hot, humid climate, however, was doing nothing to help with the healing of his wound, so he eventually went back to the Netherlands to recuperate in a more forgiving climate. While there he stayed with his sister Anna and her husband Samuel Bayard, and was nursed back to health by Samuel’s sister Judith. At thirty-seven, Judith was considered to be a spinster, but within the year the two were married. The Dutch West India Company, impressed with his sacrifice and determination, named him Director-General of the colony of New Netherlands. It would seem that Stuyvesant had picked a woman with similar mettle, because she spent the first trimester of her first pregnancy at sea on the Atlantic. The Stuyvesant who arrived in North America, complete with a peg leg, a wife, and a family on the way, was ready to create a permanent home in the new world.
Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace. 2000. Gotham: A History of New York to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press.
Irving, Washington. 1776. A History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. London: Bradbury & Evans.
Shorto, Russell. 2004. The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. Westminster, MD: Doubleday.