Peter Stuyvesant: A citizen of old New Amsterdam, carrying on nearly 400 years later in New York City

Statue of Peter Stuyvesant, St. Marks-Church-In-The-Bowery.

Statue of Peter Stuyvesant, St. Marks-Church-In-The-Bowery.

Before there was New York, there was New Amsterdam. Founded by the Dutch in 1614, New Amsterdam occupied much of the tip of lower Manhattan, with today’s Wall Street taking its name from the outer walls of the settlement. New Amsterdam was a company town, ran by the Dutch West Indies company. The main source of income was originally furs, which the Dutch gained in trade with the Native Americans, and then shipped back to Europe.

But New Amsterdam quickly became a thriving center of trade, drawing a wide variety of ethnic stock to its muddy streets. The Dutch believed in tolerance, both in religion and of people whose skin might be a different color, and thus was born the melting pot which became New York City.

As much of the population at any given time was sailors, New Amsterdam could be a rowdy place, known for drink, prostitutes and brawls. The Dutch West Indies Company decided a firm hand was needed to keep the population in line, and so sent what was to be the last Dutch Director General of the settlement, Pieter or Peter Stuyvesant.

Peter was a company man running a company town. The son of a minister, he was the director of the Dutch West India colony of Curacao, where he led an ill-fated attack on the Spanish-ran island of Saint Martin. A cannon ball smashed into Peter’s right leg, and the leg lost. He gained the name of Old Sliver Leg because he wrapped his wooden leg in silver bands for extra stability.

Peter rolled into town on May 11, 1647, to a generally icy reception from the citizens of New Amsterdam, and he never really warmed to the place. Not did it warm to him, despite many improvements he accomplished, such as the erection of the wall, and the digging of a canal which eventually became Broadway. To some extent he was able to get the drinking and other vices in order by wielding an iron fist. His life became a political nightmare, and he was almost driven from the post by those who thought the colony would thrive under self-rule, rather than Peter’s scowl.

Stuyvesant also clamped down on religious tolerance, which didn’t do much to help with his popularity. He ordered the torture of Robert Hodgson, an influential Quaker, which eventually irritated the populace so much that they demanded his release, and a gave birth to a written protest known as the Flushing Remonstrance, which is thought to be the precursor of the freedom of religion clause in today’s Bill of Rights. He also fought, and lost the fight to keep the Jewish population of New Amsterdam from growing larger.

Then in 1664, England claimed all of New Netherlands, including New Amsterdam, and four warships with nearly 500 soldiers bore down on New Amsterdam. There was no way that Stuyvesant could hold back so large a force, and so New Amsterdam quietly and without violence, became New York. But before ceding power, he managed to get in writing the Articles of Capitulation, which gave the Dutch population civil rights and freedom of religion, rather than being forced like all other British colonies to convert to the Anglican church.

Peter returned to Holland to report on his term, then sailed back to Manhattan to live out his life on his estate, 62 acres which he referred to as the Great Bouwerie, which stretched all the way to Harlem, which at the time was nothing but woods and swamps. In 1672 at the age of 80, he died, seemingly content with his place in the world. His home lasted until 1777 when it burned to the ground. A pear tree which he brought back from Holland stood at Thirteenth Street and Third Avenue before giving up the ghost.

St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery, Manhattan, New York City, New York

St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, Manhattan, New York City, New York

He was interred in the floor of his private chapel, in what is now the Bowery. It was replaced in 1799 by St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. Before the fire that destroyed his home, Stuyvesant’s servants reported seeing their master’s ghost roaming his estate. The morning after fire swept through the former governor’s mansion, bystanders claimed to see a peg-legged figure inspecting the mess in the mist.

Disturbances to Peter’s mausoleum seemed to rankle the old governor. In the mid 1800′s, when workers ran Second Avenue through the church yard, they reported hearing loud noises coming from Stuyvesant’s resting place. This kept up as his estate was divided up and sold off. Then when Second Avenue was widened around the turn of the twentieth century, the bell began ringing, pulled by invisible hands.

After his chapel was replaced by St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, in 1865 the sexton of the church heard a figure approaching him in the church. At first he could see no one, and creeped out, began withdrawing from the building. When he turned to look behind him, he saw a menacing figure walking towards him with the aid of a cane. Noticing the peg-leg and period clothes, realizing it was Old Silver Leg himself, he took to flight, screaming as he ran from the church. His screams were loud enough to arouse the interest of neighbors, who came out to see what the commotion was about.  While the sexton related his story, the bell began tolling, and some of the bravest among them went to investigate. What they found was a shortened rope hanging from the bell, too short for human hands to reach. The rest of the rope was found on Peter’s crypt.

In 1995, church services were disrupted by the sound of a voice counting out an inventory of rum, and when people went to investigate, they reported seeing a man in early Dutch costume disappearing into the wall. Peter also disrupted services in 1884 by singing Calvinist hymns in Dutch, apparently irritated by the the English Episcopal hymns. Peter was also reported to be sitting in the congregation in full Dutch regalia, sitting next to a woman in colonial costume in the 1930s. According to a young man who sat near them, they exchanged gossip about the preacher, and only occasionally paid attention to the sermon.

It was thought that with the death of his last direct descendent, Peter might finally find some rest. Six generations from Stuyvesant, and buried in the family crypt, the fellow gave instructions to have the vault permanently sealed with concrete. During the ceremony, a number of people heard Peter’s peg leg hobbling along the stone floor.

Apparently though, concrete can’t keep Peter in his final resting place. As late as 2002, Peter Stuyvesant has been heard tapping his way through the church. Nor is Peter the only ghostly occupant of St. Mark’s.

Stained glass window of Peter Stuyvesant in St. Mark's Church-In-The-Bowery

Stained glass window of Peter Stuyvesant in St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery

In the nave, the apparition of a woman has appeared in the center aisle. Another ghostly lady, in wide skirts no less is known to take up her position near the rear entrance, and a third in the balcony next to the organ.

Peter still evidently wanders his old estate as well. He’s been spotted walking with a cane on the sidewalks of the Bowery, and most often clip clopping down Stuyvesant Avenue toward Cooper Square.

It’s hard to walk the streets of Manhattan and imagine the wild countryside of Stuyvesant’s day. Fire and time has taken nearly all signs of the early Dutch colony. And yet it’s still there, buried under tons of concrete, asphalt and steel. Today, you find New Amsterdam in a scattering of architectural remains, and in street names. The house he built for his daughter remains, though that was when New Amsterdam had become once and for all New York.

But in St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, when you find yourself there alone, or perhaps at night in the courtyard, next to the entrance to Peter’s crypt, it might still be possible to come into contact with one last relic of the old colony. In the city that never sleeps, Peter Stuyvesant seems to have taken that adage to heart, even in death.

Gothic Travel Rating: Alas, this is New York City, and it’s hard to find a time when it’s quiet enough to get the adrenaline pumping, unless you count fear of mugging. I’ll give it an extra crypt if you visit at night, but you’re not going to get much satisfaction except for sitting on the steps outside the gate. An essential stop on a tour of haunted New York City or of old New Amsterdam, but more memorable for what it was, than what it is.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mr. Hyde December 31, 2010 at 6:51 pm

I love your postings. This one is particularly good. Keep up the good work. I hope that you don’t mind, I linked you on my blog.

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Amsterdam Guy January 14, 2011 at 11:33 am

Thanks for the info. I had no idea that New York had any ties to New Amsterdam. Great to see how things all got started.

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