Peter Stuyvesant: Biography & Facts

Instructor: James Moeller
Peter Stuyvesant was the director general of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands and was its governor from 1647 to 1664. This lesson will detail his life's experiences, with emphasis on his leadership in North America.

Peter Stuyvesant: His Life & Accomplishments

Peter Stuyvesant

To understand Peter Stuyvesant, you have to understand the world he lived in. In the 17th century, the Dutch were the master traders, seaman, and explorers of the globe. They formed one of the most powerful and economically successful corporations ever known: The Dutch East India Company. It was the 'Sony' of its day, a multinational company with branches all over the world. The company was virtually a state within a state complete with its own army, navy, and government.

It was into this kind of world the infant Peter Stuyvesant was born in the Netherlands circa 1612. His father was a Calvinist clergyman who instilled in the boy a general fondness of all things military, later prompting him to lead a soldier's life. In 1632 he joined the Dutch West India Company, the 'little brother' of the much larger Dutch East India Company. Impressed with his performance, they named him director general of the colonies of Curacao, Aruba, and Bonaire, islands located in the Caribbean. Stuyvesant led an expedition to take the Portuguese-held island of St. Martin. In a losing effort, a cannonball took off the lower part of his right leg requiring him to wear a wooden leg.

Concurrently in North America explorer, Henry Hudson, sailed into what is today New York City harbor, in 1609. Reporting back to his employer, the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam, he described an area ripe for colonization including an excellent natural harbor. So impressed were the Dutch that they founded the colony of New Netherlands in 1623-24, after purchasing it from an Indian tribe, known as the Manna-hata (where the island of Manhattan gets its name).

Things seemed to be going well until an incompetent director general (an office similar to a modern state governor), Willem Kieft , mismanaged affairs, resulting in lower profits for the company, general lawlessness and drunkenness. In addition, a war with the local Indian tribe over his attempt to tax them cost many colonists their lives. Kieft was fired by the Dutch West India Company in 1647, and the search for a new director ensued.

Peter Stuyvesant Arrives in New Amsterdam

What's a big company to do? They did what any modern-day multinational corporate giant would do: they brought in a branch manager from another area with a record of success. On May of 1647, Peter Stuyvesant arrived in the city of New Amsterdam (the capital of the colony of New Netherlands) with orders from the Dutch West India Company to, 'shape things up!'

Jansson Visscher Map of New Netherlands, 1650 / Note the windmill at the bottom of the map

The situation he found there was appalling! Drunkenness was rampant, supported by the fact that there was a tavern for every 20 citizens. Vices of all kind could be found, including gambling, 'Black Market' activities & prostitution. Taking his orders seriously, he began to make changes rapidly. He initiated a curfew, forbade drinking on Sunday, levied fines for not attending church, and also forbade fornication with Indians.

Another problem involved the colony becoming too diverse. Due to labor shortages the city Burghers (a kind of city-council) allowed almost anyone to come to New Amsterdam. The result? About 18 different languages could be heard on the city's streets including: French, English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Stuyvesant called it, 'a Babel of confusion', a biblical reference to the Tower of Babel, where many languages were spoken.

Improvements were also made in the city's defenses. A 3,040 foot wall was erected to keep Indians and the English out. It ran along one of the main streets of the city which was later renamed, Wall Street. The wharf area was also improved and, in general, things began to shape up, and both the economy and the population increased, reaching 3,000 souls by 1664.

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