This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
It was once an occasion worth marking—when, on September 8, 1664, the English took the city. The bicentennial of the event was toasted with an elaborate New-York Historical Society dinner at the Cooper Institute, a welcome way to set aside the strains of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s reelection campaign. The founding date “1664” decorated the New York City seal for a good part of the 20th century. The 300th anniversary was a proper occasion—or perhaps a good pretext—for the 1964 World’s Fair and conjointly began the Operation Sail tradition of tall ships sailing up the Hudson River. But, somehow, it has been speculated, there won’t be much commemoration this week of the 350th anniversary of the day New Amsterdam became New York.
In these last 50 years, historians have taken a more nuanced look at the Dutch colonial period, and they continue a sometimes spirited debate about how much of New York City’s character is derived from its Netherlandish or its English legacy. In the 1970s, City Council President Paul O’Dwyer conducted an almost single-handed, and ultimately successful, crusade to change that date on the city seal backwards to 1625.
The 17th century scene for the takeover of New Netherland had been set by a Restoration England that was consolidating its imperial power while, in the Americas, English settlers and towns had begun to surround New Amsterdam. For both trade and strategic reasons, New Amsterdam was a prize for the ambitious English and particularly for King Charles II’s brother, James, the Duke of York. York (the future James II of England) was responsible for the operation that brought his four ships to Gravesend Bay under the command of Colonel Richard Nicolls in late August. Although the invasion force was expected, Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s small colony and its inadequate supplies in the fort were no match for it. When presented with the ultimatum to surrender, the volatile Stuyvesant reacted with characteristic—but understandable—fury, tearing up the letter of intermediaries in the presence of a delegation of city burghers. However, he found no civilian takers to put up resistance, especially as Nicolls’s terms seemed generous, guaranteeing freedom of religion to the Dutch inhabitants and honoring property and contracts.
Many of the Dutch burghers didn’t mind the change as business could go on, in some cases, more freely than before. The soldiers of the Dutch West India Company in the fort wanted to offer resistance because, as one female resident reasoned, “Those lousy dogs want to fight because they have nothing to lose, whereas we have our property here, which we should have to give up.” Stuyvesant finally agreed to send commissioners and was given three days to decide, during which the English showed force, landing 400 troops in Brooklyn to overtake the ferry, raising new companies of English soldiers from the surrounding areas, and sailing the frigates past the fort. So, the matter was concluded with a certificate of consent from Stuyvesant and his council on September 8th, and the Dutch soldiers marched out to their ship while the English soldiers, according to a witness, “kept themselves out of their sight on the bouwery.” Not a shot was fired.
After explaining himself to the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam, Stuyvesant would return, living out his life on his plantation, or “Bouwerie,” as an ordinary citizen and chum of Governor Nicolls. Buried there in 1672 on the site of what is now St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, he did not live to see the colony return briefly to Dutch rule in 1673.
This fluid time may be best marked by the attractive map, likely drawn in 1664 to present to the Duke, showing the English flag over what is now called Fort James and plenty of English warships, but nonetheless depicting New Amsterdam as it was in 1661. The original manuscript rests in the British Library, where it was rediscovered by the New-York Historical Society’s Librarian, George H. Moore in 1858. He dubbed it “The Duke’s Plan,” the way it is known by historians and map aficiondados today.
Richard Nicolls, the new governor, right away began dating his correspondence “N: Yorke.” On September 16, when seven members of the sitting City Court wrote as “loyal, sorrowful and desolate subjects,” to the directors of the Dutch West India Company to explain what had transpired, they sent it from, “Jorck heretofore named Amsterdam in New Netherland.” They relate what had happened, bitterly attributing it to their foreign directors’ “neglect and forgetfulness of your promise;” they enclose the Articles and conclude, “How that will result, time shall tell.” It is an ongoing story that we at the Historical Society continue to tell.