Black New Netherland: Enslavement and Freedom in Dutch New York
On January 21, 1672, Anthonÿ Backers wed Mayken Arta on Stuyvesant’s bowery (originally denoting a plantation or farm, not a specific thoroughfare as later became renowned), located about sixty blocks south of today’s Gracie Mansion site. Their names linked them to one another but also to the history of the place. “Mayken” was the name of one of the first African women to arrive in New Netherland, who as an elderly person successfully petitioned for her freedom, which was granted with the stipulation that she continue to clean Stuyvesant’s house. “Backers” was the family name of Jacobus Backer, the man whom Petrus Stuyvesant’s half-sister, Margietje, wed. Anthony was, or presumably had been, the slave of Jacobus Backer or another member of this family closely allied with Stuyvesant.
On November 17, 1672, Willem Anthonissen and Margariet Pieters were married on this bowery as well. The Anthonissens had gained their freedom under Dutch rule, and Margariet Pieters was descended from the Pieters family who were also freed and had been granted land grants surrounding the plantation.
Four other couples would follow the pattern of these first two, and marry on Stuyvesant’s bowery, a public profession of their desire to build lives that were connected to the history and community of the surrounding neighborhood inhabited by many like them of African and African- descent. They would bear names that were woven into this community of Africans like those who preceded them during the entire Dutch colonial period since its advent.
Reach and Magnitude
New Netherland was part of a larger system of enslavement that spanned the Western Dutch Empire, from Recife and other locations in Brazil, through Caribbean islands like Curaçao, and into the North American mainland along the Delaware and Hudson River Valleys. While an outpost, this northernmost colony was important to solidifying the reach of the empire further into the continent, and an enslaved workforce was critical to this expansion. As a share of total population, more people of African descent or origin lived in the colony of New Netherland between 1630 and 1670 than in any of the other colonies that would one day join the United States (3-12% of total population, surpassed only by South Carolina in 1670).
New Amsterdam, located at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, was a settlement on the edge of an empire. Bordered by powerful native nations and confederacies, like the Mahican, Haudenosaunee, Mahicannituck, Wappinger, and Lenape, the town was part of the northern outskirts of the Dutch colonial holdings. Until its final loss to Portugal in 1654, the sugar-producing colony of Brazil was the main focus of the Netherlands in the Western Hemisphere. New Netherland, on the other hand, was seen predominantly as a region which could supply the empire with furs, timber, and food, and was administered in concert with the Dutch Caribbean settlements.
Enslaved people were brought to the colony of New Netherland to support its growth and augment its workforce. The Dutch West India Company – the corporation that managed the Dutch colonies in the Western Hemisphere, also known as the WIC – declared in 1629 that the Company would try “to supply the colonists with as many blacks as it possibly can (om aen de Coloniers soo veel Swarten toe te stellen / als haer moghelijck wesen).” While individuals were permitted (and encouraged) to purchase enslaved people, the WIC also held slaves. These “company blacks” were managed by the directors of the colony and their administrators, and were put to work building fortifications, farming foodstuffs, or serving in the various battles against local native groups. Many practiced skilled trades, such as carpentry, masonry, milling, smithing, or horse grooming. Some were also loaned out to private individuals to support increased workloads at times of harvest or for other purposes.
New Amsterdam was not the only settlement within the colony of New Netherland where enslaved people were held. Fort Orange (modern day Albany), at the head of the navigable Hudson River was a key trading location between the Dutch, the Haudenosaunee, and other native groups, and the surrounding land of Rensselaerswyck was one of a series of patroonships—or large landholdings spanning hundreds, thousands, or more acres—that covered the Hudson River Valley. Rensselaerswyck was the largest of the patroonships, and the only one to survive intact through the fall of the colony to the English. Enslaved people were owned and exploited by the patroons, traders, and merchants throughout this region, and were occasionally exchanged with or sold to merchants and administrators living in New Amsterdam.
Enslaved people were also involved in the expansion of Dutch colonial reach to the lands south of New Amsterdam. The southernmost portion of New Netherland lay along the Delaware River Valley, between modern-day Baltimore and Philadelphia. Formerly known as New Sweden, the “South River” colony was captured by Dutch forces in 1655 and incorporated into the broader colony of New Netherland. Local administrators saw the value of enslaved labor to their efforts to grow the colony and requested that “50 negroes who are particularly adapted to the preparations of the valleys… and other heavy work” be sent to the settlement by the WIC. These enslaved people were intended to be the core of the agricultural workforce that would advance the productive output of the valley.
Because of the interconnected nature of the Dutch colonies, enslaved people often found their lives frequently uprooted. One man, a horse groom named Andries, had been enslaved in Curaçao to the vice-director of the colony, Lucas van Rodenburgh. He traveled with the van Rodenburgh family, first to Amsterdam, then to New Amsterdam. When van Rodenburgh died, he was taken to northern New Netherland by van Rodenburgh’s widow, who then sold Andries, for the “sum of 50 beavers” to the largest landholder in the area, the patroon Jan Baptist van Rensselaer. When Jan Baptist moved back to Amsterdam, he wanted his best horse groom Andries to follow, but Jan’s younger brother Jeremias who remained in New Netherland, would not part with Andries, though he complained that he frequently resisted his enslavement.
The first non-Native inhabitant of Manhattan was an Afro-Portuguese man from Spanish Santo Domingo named Juan (Jan) Rodriquez, who arrived on the island alongside some Dutch colleagues in 1613. Skilled with languages, he learned the local Algonquian dialect and married into the Lenape community, choosing to stay behind as a trader and merchant when his ship, the Jonge Tobias, returned to the Netherlands later that year. While the remainder of the seventeenth century during the period of Dutch colonization would see close to one thousand people of African extract arrive on the island of Manhattan, nearly all of them would arrive in bondage.
Many of the people who were held in bondage on the island of Manhattan during Dutch rule were not born in the Americas. Most of the enslaved in New Netherland arrived in the colony directly from Africa. The Caribbean would become an increasingly important waystation as the seventeenth century progressed, particularly the Dutch island of Curaçao. St. Joris and other landholdings on the island became prime “seasoning camps” during the later decades of the seventeenth century, where enslaved people from Africa were held and acclimated to a life of slavery in the Western Hemisphere before being transported to their final destinations. But this was not the case during most of the years of the Dutch administration of New Netherland. The Witte Paard, for instance, sailed directly from Loango (in modern-day Republic of the Congo) to New Amsterdam, where 391 enslaved people disembarked in 1655.
The enslaved community came from various colonies across the Caribbean, Brazil, Spanish South America, as well as from Western Africa. According to the Slave Voyages Database, records exist for eight slaving vessels who transported people from Brazil or the Caribbean to New Amsterdam between 1626 and 1664, with approximately 200 people arriving on the island of Manhattan. In contrast, the two ships that transported people from Africa during that time period, the Witte Paard and the Gideon, carried over 700 people. Many of those enslaved in New Netherland developed or arrived with a knowledge of multiple languages, spanning European (Dutch, English, Spanish, Portuguese, or others), African (Bantu, Kikongo, Kimbundu, or others), and Native North American (Algonquian, Mohawk, or others).
Work and Life in New Amsterdam
Large farmlands, or boweries, existed north of the Wall that formed the northernmost border of the town of New Amsterdam, and many enslaved people were forced to work these lands. New Amsterdam and its boweries were among the first sites of enslaved work on a large scale in the Northeast, as well as places for creating networks that underpinned an interconnected black community.
This black community of New Amsterdam included both enslaved and free people. In 1644, eleven of them successfully argued for freedom for themselves and their spouses. Citing their long tenure of service, among other factors, they were released from captivity and granted parcels of land. But in exchange for this liberty, they were required to make annual payments to the colony’s director under pain of re-enslavement, and their children remained enslaved. Several other individuals would follow in their footsteps and gain freedom before the fall of the colony to the English twenty years on. Free black communities that survived into the English period were founded by these manumitted individuals.
Enslaved and free black people working on and around the boweries of New Amsterdam would spend their days farming a variety of crops, including rye, wheat, barley, peas, and beans, tending cattle, or clearing woods. Some were tradespeople, and provided essential services like smithing, horse grooming, and milling. Others would work as domestics or housekeepers. In fact, several of the women freed in 1644 were obligated to clean and tend to Director-General Stuyvesant’s house as a condition of such a step to full freedom, including an Angolan woman named Mayken, who was one of the first three black people to arrive in the colony.
The WIC would sometimes place its enslaved workforce of “company blacks” in a chain gang, where they were tasked with general construction and infrastructure upkeep, such as re-liming the fort and constructing the palisade that surrounded New Amsterdam. The company blacks were also deployed to augment other workforces. On the eve of the fall of New Netherland, Director-General Petrus Stuyvesant sent his personal servants and the company blacks into the fields to harvest and thresh the wheat growing there in order to replenish the stores of the fort when he was unable to redirect the efforts of other settlers to this task.
Beyond the toil of work, the boweries acted as a hub of the black community, and Stuyvesant’s bowery, in particular, functioned as a sort of village. Some of the enslaved workforce occasionally lived in the surrounding area, and many of the free blacks (both men and women) were granted parcels of land (known as “Negro lots”) nearby. Stuyvesant relocated many of those in the free black community onto plots of land along the Bowery Road in the run-up to the second Esopus War, ordering them in 1659 to “take down their isolated dwellings for their own improved security… to establish and erect the same along the common highway near the honorable general’s farm.” Whether this was for their security or to help protect his farmland from Native attack is, of course, debatable, particularly as he advised his secretary to have them keep a good watch on his farm.
The idea of using black people to help defend the bowery was already well-established by this point – there was a longstanding practice of employing the company blacks to support the various war efforts of the colonists, whether as soldiers, builders, or messengers. During the next summer, in 1660, an enslaved man arrived at Rensselaerswijck carrying a note of vital importance. The note allowed the man to traverse the distance between the Esopus River and Rensselaerswijck without concern for slave catchers, which was a considerable asset as the countryside teemed with bounty hunters keen to capture runaways. Even after he arrived at the patroonship, the details of his journey crossed the Atlantic to Holland. Later that year, Jeremias van Rensselaer wrote to Jan Baptist, “There came the Negro of Mr. Lamontagne, bringing with him a note saying that in the Esopus there had been trouble between the Dutch and the Indians and that on both sides people had been killed.”
The Bowery Road extended from De Heere Straat (commonly referred to as the “brede weg” or “wide way,” which is now present-day Broadway) north of the Wall through both the company-owned and privately-owned farmlands. Stuyvesant’s Bowery was a farm on a large tract of land, which was formed when the Director General acquired and combined two smaller boweries. It was seen by many – both enslaved and free – as a gathering place for those spending time north of the town. Domine Henricus Selijns, the Dutch Reformed minister contracted by Stuyvesant to lead worship service at the chapel on his Bowery, wrote to his leadership back in the Netherlands, describing the African world that he encountered, a world that included both free and enslaved black people who attended service at the chapel.
There was a bustling weekly market nearby the bowery and the so-called “Negro lots”, at the crossroads of the roads to Fort Orange and New England. Many of the free and enslaved people would buy and sell goods at this market, recreating, as scholars have noted, a semblance of the market life that they would have known in the bustling cities of their homeland. A hospital had also been erected in the area in 1650, intended to treat the wounds received by soldiers and tend to the health needs of the company blacks. A segregated burial ground was erected in the mid seventeenth century and set apart from areas used to inter other colonists, which remained in use until the later decades of the eighteenth century. The site, the oldest and most extensive black burial site excavated in the United States, is currently a National Monument.
Free communities and landholding
Free blacks in New Netherland were not resigned to merely be tenants for the remainder of their days, but could, and often did, become landholders. Each of the enslaved people manumitted in 1644 were granted and received plots of land in addition to their freedom, a practice that would continue for many of those freed from slavery during the later years of the colony. Among those granted land alongside freedom was Catelina, the widow of a man named Jochim Antony. Women in the Dutch colonies were able during this period to own land and property, and to pass it down legally and officially through inheritance rights and customs. This was uncommon in most European lands, where women themselves were often treated as property of their male relatives, whether “free” or not.
Double Standards of Punishment
New Netherland’s black residents lived lives constrained by racial inequity and their punishments diverged from those of other colonists. One little girl, a free black person named Lysbeth Anthonissen, was charged with theft of wampum (also called sewan) the native shell currency that fueled local markets. Her sentence punished not just her, but also her parents, as she was to be publicly whipped by her mother in front of the magistrates. Several years following the public whipping, as a young teenager, Lysbeth reappeared in the court record, this time facing a death sentence in an arson case. She had been forced to work as a sex worker by the couple who held her indenture and she attempted to set fire to their house. At the last minute her sentence of death was commuted and she was sold into lifelong heritable slavery to her abusers (although they quickly put her up for sale).
Being made to work like or alongside black people was seen as dishonorable in New Netherland, and it was used as a punishment meted out to several white colonists. Gysbert Cornelissen Beyerlandt was branded a troublemaker in 1639 for wounding a soldier at the fort in New Amsterdam and was sentenced to “work with the Negroes for the Company until such time as the first sloop shall sail for the South river and to serve the Company there.” In 1658, soldier Peter Hendricksen deserted his post and received a sentence that included having his head shaved and being made to work with the Negros for two years. In 1661, another man named Gerrit Pelser was condemned to two months of hard labor “with the negroes.”
Transition to English rule
The lives of enslaved and free black people were, like many of the inhabitants of the colony of New Netherland, impacted by the capture of the land by the English. When the colony fell in 1664, those who had gained their freedom and landholdings remained free property owners. When it was retaken by the Dutch in 1673, several of those landholders swore oaths of allegiance to the Dutch in an effort to ensure their property rights. But, when the colony was given to the English at the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the black community suffered retaliation, with some ultimately losing their landholdings. For those who were able to maintain their property, they faced racism and discrimination from both their remaining Dutch and new English neighbors. When a slave uprising broke out in 1712 in New York City, which resulted in the deaths of several white colonists a dragnet ensued, leading to mass arrests and the swift and draconian public torture and execution of those black people convicted. In its wake, free blacks were blamed and most lost control of their property on the island of Manhattan. Nonetheless, some communities that had been seeded by such free black founders during the decades of Dutch rule, such as those on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley, remained into the middle decades of the eighteenth century.
Slavery continued to grow after the fall of the colony, as other large, patroon-style landholdings, called “manors,” were established along the Hudson River Valley. Among the manorial estates granted patents were the Manor of Livingston, Phillipsburg Manor, and the former patroonship of Rensselaerswyck, which were located in modern-day Albany, Columbia, Dutchess, and Putnam Counties. These large landholdings had correspondingly large slaveholdings, and their manor lords held the greatest number of enslaved people in the northern colonies.
Vestiges of the original Afro-Dutch culture continued, however, remaining in the language, culture, and religious practices of some black New Yorkers well into the nineteenth century; a history essential to any understanding of New York’s colonial origin story despite many enduring myths and lapses.
Nicole Saffold Maskiell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History, University of South Carolina, Columbia
Author of the upcoming book, Bound by Bondage: Slavery and the Creation of a Northern Gentry
Letter: Jeremias van Rensselaer, Rensselaerswyck, to Jan Baptist van Rensselaer, 20 August 
August 20, 1659
van Rensselaer, Jeremias
New York State Library. Van Rensselaer Manor Papers. Correspondence of Jeremias van Rensselaer. Letter books of Jeremias van Rensselaer SC7079 Box 4, Folder 17.
This record is not part of the New York State Archives’ collection and is presented on our project partner’s behalf for educational use only. Please contact the home repository for information on copyright and reproductions.
Silver pendant recovered with Burial 254 at the African Burial Ground (NPS)
Burial 254 is of a child between 3 ½ and 5 ½ years old. A silver pendant was recovered during laboratory cleaning of the skeletal remains. It was found near the child’s mandible and may have been worn as an earring or strung around the neck. The original artifacts were reinterred with 419 ancestral remains in 2003; however, replicas of some of the original artifacts are displayed at the Visitor Center.
Rights: National Park Service
Patent of Catelina, widow of Jochim Antony, for land on the island of Manhattan
Patent. Catelina, widow of Jochim Antony, negro; 4 morgens and 91 rods of land on the island of Manhattan, next the above, a common double wagon road remaining between both.
July 13 1643
New York State Archives. New Netherland. Council. Dutch colonial patents and deeds, 1630-1664. Series A1880. Volume GG.
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