Author Archives: Joshua Simons

“Juan: Singular Sensation”, New York’s First Immigrant

“Juan: Singular Sensation”, New York’s First Immigrant
Jamie Lewis

Jamie H. Lewis is a graduate of the SUNY New Paltz Social Studies Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program

“Juan Rodriguez, first merchant and non-Native American resident of Manhattan Island in 1613." Watercolor by Charles Lilly, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

“Juan Rodriguez, first merchant and non-Native American resident of Manhattan Island in 1613.” Watercolor by Charles Lilly, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

In 1609 the English explorer Henry Hudson discovered the river that now carries his name. Today we make a major hullaballoo around this alleged “first European contact”, but back then there was little interest – even from those who’d sent him. However, the rough map of the lower river Hudson provided his Dutch masters was passed along to other traders.

One company, the van Tweehuysen syndicate, was keen to get a foothold in the burgeoning fur trade; it sent out skipper Hendrick Christiaensen to investigate in 1611. Upon arrival, the wary captain anchored away from the unfamiliar coast, and made sorties ashore. During one of these he kidnapped two boys from a local Lenape village. Christiansen felt the two boys – he renamed them Orson and Valentine – would generate public interest upon his return to Amsterdam. This was the same sort of calculated publicity stunt that echoed Columbus and pre-dated John Rolfe’s promotional promenade of Pocahontas by five years.

Unfortunately for Christiaensen, the publicity meant his new highly profitable source of furs was now an open secret.

First map of New Netherland by Adriaen Block, 1614

First map of New Netherland by Adriaen Block, 1614

The next spring, a Dutch merchant working for the same company, Adriane Block, returned to map the area in order to establish a permanent trading post. Block and the van Tweehuysen company enjoyed two months of uninterrupted trade. Then when he was preparing for the return journey to Amsterdam in the late summer another Dutch ship, captained by Thijs Mossel, arrived in the Hudson Bay via Santo Domingo, the biggest port in Spanish Hispaniola – the island we now know as the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Captain Mossel had a secret weapon aboard: Juan (or sometimes Joao or Jan) Rodriguez, a gifted linguist hired in Hispaniola to act as interpreter. Born in Santo Domingo to an African mother and a Portuguese sailor, Rodriguez neither looked, sounded nor thought like his employers. Whilst the merchants argued about prices and market shares, Rodriguez apparently decided that a return trip to the West Indies was not in his best interests (As the mulatto child of a slave, his future prospects in the West Indies or the Netherlands were equally poor). He obtained the balance of his salary from Mossel and promptly departed for the wooded shoreline of Mannahatta (from the Lenape word meaning “land of many hills”).[i]

Taking up residence on shore is what cements Rodriguez’ place in the history books. Previously, the Dutch had stuck to the security and relative comfort of their anchored vessels. Rodriguez decided to set up shop and trade the goods he’d received from Mossel to the local tribes. His plan obviously worked, because when Block, Mossel and Christiaensen returned, not only had Rodriguez survived the winter – he’d established a business relationship with the Lenape.

We have an incredibly detailed account of what happened next thanks to the work of Dr. Simon Hart, an archivist for the Lutheran church in Amsterdam. Hart translated mountains of notorial records containing dozens of first-hand testimonies from the crews and the merchants themselves, records that were later turned over to the New York Public Library. (Hart published his own history of the colony in 1959.)

Juan Rodrigues Mural (2009), Harlem River Park, Burger International Photography

Detail from the mural “Harlem River,” copyright 2009 Creative Art Works. All rights reserved.

Rodriguez approached Christiaensen and proposed a collaboration, to which the latter agreed. When Mossel did return, he was publicly furious that Rodriguez had double-crossed him. Towards the end of April 1613, when a canoe of Lenape paddled out to meet Christiaensen’s ship to trade, Mossel’s crew fired on the canoe and then rammed it with their boat, forcing the natives to seek refuge on Christiaensen’s sloop.

Mossel’s crew then turned their attention to Juan Rodriguez. Seeing them approachwith possibly murderous intent, Rodriguez fired a shot from his musket but was overwhelmed by four crew members, who took his musket and attempted to arrest him. Rodriguez grabbed a sword from one and fought his way back to the sloop and the protection of Christiaensen’s crew. Mossel’s crew withdrew in frustration whilst hurling a series of racist epithets, the more offensive of which the court records of 1614 refused to repeat.

That was the last record of Rodriguez that we have. He seems to have avoided the Dutch for the rest of his life. But regardless of his fate, in those few months Rodriguez not only became the first immigrant to move to New York, but also the first African, the first Latino, the first resident of European descent, the first Dominican, the first business owner and the first black man to be arrested in New York by white men. He anticipated, in a single persona, the diversity of New York.

Rodriguez’ legacy is remembered with a plaque and mural in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. In 2012 on the 400th anniversary of his move to Manhattan, the city co-named a 59-block-long stretch of Broadway starting in Washington Heights as Juan Rodriguez Way, an important tribute to the historic status and recognition of the substantial local Dominican community.

What of the rival merchants; the fledgling Dutch trade and the two kidnapped Lenape boys?

Christiaensen headed further up the Hudson and built a fort for protection during the winter, which he named Fort Nassau. Block returned to the area a couple of weeks later and threatened to sink Mossel. The two remaining factions were so busy arguing that they failed to notice a fire had mysteriously broken out on Block’s heavily-armed ship, which promptly sank. (This had more than a whiff of suspicion about it, but Block never accused Mossel directly.) Amazingly, the soggy remains of Block’s ship were discovered centuries later by workers excavating the foundations for the World Trade Center.

Several of Block’s crew mutinied and captured Mossel’s ship. Just as Mossel had claimed to have nothing to do with the fire that destroyed Block’s ship, Block expressed surprise and protested his innocence in the capture of Mossel’s ship. The mutineers set off for the West Indies in Mossel’s ship, leaving the Dutch merchants to face a winter in New York. The fact that they left him behind with Mossel seems to confirm Block’s version of events.

Mossel and Block were eventually picked up and returned to the Netherlands, where they promptly started mutual litigation. Block came off the worst, eventually being forced to pay for the loss of the 6 valuable cannon that sank with his ship. Whilst they were in court arguing, the Dutch government granted the exclusive trading rights to group of merchants who referred to themselves as The New Netherland Company. For the next 60 years, many Dutch colonists would follow in Rodriguez’ footsteps.

The harshest fate befell Christiaensen: he continued to travel and trade with the two kidnapped Lenape boys, Orson and Valentine, using them either as translators or a warning to others. In 1616, on a return trip to Fort Nassau, Orson finally got his revenge and murdered his publicity-hungry Dutch captor.


[1] Mossel paid him “eighty hatchets, some knives, a musket, and a sword” which seems unusually generous. As Hart notes, “Later it appeared that this payment also included an advance on services still to be rendered” which begs the question: Was Rodriguez still working for Mossel? Mossel’s behaviour upon his return (outrage and the arrest attempt when he discovered Rodriguez was working for Christiaensen) would seem to confirm this.


Jamie H. Lewis was raised in a museum. He teaches, writes for various historic publications including the Museums Journal and The 28th. He knows he needs to get out more.
Sources:

Hart, Simon. “The Prehistory of the New Netherland Company.” Amsterdam, City of Amsterdam Press, 1959.

Phelps-Stokes, I. N. “The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909” New York, 1928, Vol. VI, 4.6

John Jacob Astor: the original self-made New Yorker?

John Jacob Astor: the original self-made New Yorker?

Susan Ingalls Lewis

Portrait of Astor by Gilbert Stuart (1794)

Portrait of Astor by Gilbert Stuart (1794)

Before Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J.D. Rockefeller, before Horatio Alger created his fictional rags-to-riches formula for success, there was John Jacob Astor. Arriving in New York City with very little cash but unlimited aspirations, Astor became the first American multi-millionaire and the richest man in the United States by the time of his death in 1848. Business Insider recently identified him as the fifth richest American of all time, just behind Bill Gates. Adjusted for inflation, his fortune from the China trade and real estate investment has been estimated at $121 billion.[1]

All this is known. What is less recognized is that Astor began his business as a dealer in musical instruments, that he started fur trading not in the Pacific Northwest, but in New York State, and that his wife Sarah Todd was a vital partner in his business enterprises.

Johann Jakob Astor, the youngest son of a successful butcher, was born in Walldorf, Germany in 1763. As a teenager, he followed his older brother, George, to London. From George, Johann learned the business of making and selling musical instruments. Meanwhile, another brother – Henry – had joined the Hessian mercenary force as a cook, and accompanied the British army on its way to attack New York at the beginning of the Revolution. Henry liked what he saw of America and deserted immediately after the Battle of Long Island in 1776, setting himself up as a butcher in New York City. Letters to his brothers in London stressed the opportunity and economic mobility possible in New York.

The peace treaty that granted U.S. independence in 1783 allowed John Jacob (his name now anglicized) Astor to undertake the journey to America. The young man landed in Baltimore with nothing but a few flutes in his baggage, and made his way to New York. Though Henry expected his youngest sibling would join him in business, John Jacob had learned on his voyage across the Atlantic that large profits could be made in the fur trade. Starting with no knowledge or skills, he went to work for a New York fur dealer and scoured the port for individuals (Indians or traders) willing to sell their furs. With very little cash John Jacob was able to purchase enough furs to return to London, sell at a substantial profit, and invest in more musical instruments. By 1786, only two years after his arrival in the city, Astor was advertising “an elegant assortment of musical instruments” including “piano fortes, spinnets, piano-forte guitars, the best of violins, Herman flutes, clarinets, hautboys, fifes” to tempt upper-class New Yorkers.[2] The same year, he married Sarah Todd, the daughter of his landlady, who gave the young couple a showroom for the instruments and living space in her house. With Sarah’s dowry of three hundred dollars and John Jacob’s savings, he set off to buy more furs.

From Albany, Astor ranged west into territory that still officially belonged to the Iroquois, though their confederacy had been shaken and their numbers greatly diminished as a result of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign (a military operation to subdue and punish the Confederacy) during the Revolution. He went as far west as Buffalo, and as far north as the Adirondacks. Though we usually think of furs only as the basis of New York’s early colonial economy, it seems that there were still enough pelts available for Astor to find them in the “backwoods of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey” and to make it worthwhile for him to establish “trading depots at Albany, Schenectady, Fort Schuyler (Utica), and in the Catskills.”[3] In addition to beaver, Astor was able to buy luxury furs like marten, mink, ermine, and otter. According to a recent biographer, “he did it all himself, hauling the furs back to Albany, baling and loading them on barges down to New York for reshipment to London.”[4]

A portrait of Sarah Todd Astor.

A portrait of Sarah Todd Astor.

Yet the story of John Jacob Astor’s rise must also include the contributions of native New Yorker Sarah Todd Astor, whose mother was descended from a prominent Dutch family, the Brevoorts. Sarah remained in New York City and supervised their music store while giving birth to a growing family of eight children (only five of whom survived to adulthood). After Jay’s Treaty opened trade with British Canada in 1794, Astor established a base in Montreal, from where he shipped furs down to New York City, then to London, and eventually to China where his cargoes sold for huge amounts. John later insisted that his wife was the best judge of the quality and value of his furs. Eventually, he paid her $500 an hour (adjusted for inflation, that would be far more than $5000 an hour), which she used for charitable contributions.[5]

Although John Jacob Astor is a model of the self-reliant, ambitious, and entrepreneurial New Yorker, his story illustrates that even this quintessential self-made man depended on family networks and especially his spouse.[6] Sarah’s knowledge of New York City and her family connections also encouraged John’s decision to invest in city real estate (beginning in 1799), which eventually became the major source of their family wealth.[7] In 1836, Astor built New York’s first mammoth luxury hotel, located on an entire city block along Broadway. Although originally called the Park Hotel for its location across from City Hall Park, the landmark soon became known simply as the “Astor House.” Once the most famous building in the city, it fell out of fashion and was demolished in the early 20th century.

A print of the Astor House hotel.

A print of the Astor House hotel.

Existing locations in New York named for Astor include Astor Place in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan (site of a famous riot, but that’s another story), Astor Row in Harlem, the Astoria neighborhood in Queens,and Astoria Park (also in Queens). As noted by his biographer, Alexander Emmerich, today the name of Astor has become more associated with the wealth and refinement of his descendants – his grandson’s wife became the “Mrs. Astor” who dictated social status during New York’s Gilded Age, while two of his great-grandsons established the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel — than the struggles of the original self-made immigrant.[8]


 

[1] Gus Lubin, “The Thirteen Richest Americans of All Time,” Business Insider (April 17, 2011): http://www.businessinsider.com/richest-americans-ever-2011-4?op=1#ixzz35a2TFbrn

[2] Axel Madsen, John Jacob Astor: America’s First Multi-Millionaire (John Wiley & Sons), p. 19.

[3] Eric Jay Dolan, Fur, Fortune, and Empire, The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), pp. 192-93.

[4] Maxden, p. 24.

[5] Caroline Bird, Enterprising Women (New York: New American Library, 1976), p. 26.

[6], Bird, pp. 25-27.

[7] Victoria Sherrow, “Astor, Sarah Todd.” A to Z of American Women Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs, A to Z of Women. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp? ItemID=WE52&iPin=WBL007&SingleRecord=True (accessed July 12, 2014)

[8] Andrew Emmerich, John Jacob Astor and the First Great American Fortune (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2013), p. 166.

LINKS:
Kenneth H. Williams, “John Jacob Astor,” American National Biography Online: http://www.anb.org/articles/10/10-00054.html

Alexander Emmerich, “John Jacob Astor (1763-1848),” Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=6

Sherry Cortes, “John Jacob Astor: New York’s Landlord,” (July 31, 2013) From the Stacks: the N-YHS Library Blog, New York Historical Society: http://blog.nyhistory.org/john-jacob-astor-new-yorks-landlord/

 

 

 

 

 

New York in the Civil War

CIVIL WAR STORIES and review of Irrepressible Conflict at New York State Museum

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

Civil War Museum

Courtesy of the New York State Museum

In my last blog, I argued for an integrated narrative of New York State history, one that incorporates rather than isolates both the peoples of New York and the regions from which they hail. The Civil War, though not fought on New York’s soil, was a cataclysmic event that united the state and its diverse population in a conflict that was both external and internal. From all corners of New York, volunteers and draftees formed into companies, battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps, and finally armies. At the same time, civilians, men and women, turned their energies to supporting the war effort and the troops through both industry and voluntary efforts. Finally, politicians and citizens within the state disagreed about the necessity for the war itself, the conduct of the campaigns, the appropriate war aims, and who should serve.

William H. Seward, Secretary of State, 1861-69

William H. Seward, Secretary of State, 1861-69

The recent exhibit at the New York State Museum, An Irrepressible Conflict, began with a quote from William H. Seward of Rochester (graduate of Union College, NYS Governor 1839-1842, Senator 1849-1861, Secretary of State 1861-1869):

“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.” October 5, 1858

Seward was a major figure in United States history, but I suspect that for most New Yorkers he is better-known as a member of Lincoln’s cabinet and later promoter of the acquisition of Alaska than as a New Yorker. Although his words clearly echo Lincoln’s points in the far more famous “House Divided” speech of June 1858, using Seward’s quote to open the exhibit and name it put New York – quite properly – at the center of the national debate over slavery.

Displays featuring Gerritt Smith, John Brown and Frederick Douglass connected New York to the national debate and sectional crisis. Most interesting was the discussion of Smith’s economic, social and political experiment, Timbuctoo (1846-53), in which he offered 120,000 acres of his own land far upstate, in Franklin and Essex counties, to 3,000 men of African descent, divided into 40-acre parcels. Smith hoped that turning these individuals into land-owning farmers would increase the African American vote in New York; the state constitution of the time required that black men own at least $250 worth of property, although there was no such requirement for white voters. Smith’s experiment brought the fervent abolitionist John Brown to North Elba, where he purchased a 200-acre farm from Smith with the goal of assisting the black families – and is the reason why Brown was later buried at North Elba. The exhibit also pictured less-noted New York abolitionists, among them Abigail Mott, a Quaker businesswoman from Albany, active in the underground railroad.

Once war was declared in 1861, New York State provided the most soldiers and raised the most money of any state in the union. New York banks made loans to both the states and federal government; citizens across the state paid an income tax and added millions in private donations. The exhibit highlighted contributions of New York industry, such as Erastus Corning’s ironworks and railroads, and the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring.

Who knew that the first martyr of the Civil War was New Yorker Elmer Ellsworth, who was shot on May 23, 1861 while cutting down a Confederate flag on an inn in Arlington, Virginia, or that the first hero was Francis Brownell of Troy, who then avenged Ellsworth’s death by killing his killer (the innkeeper)? Born in Malta, New York, Ellsworth had moved to Illinois, but returned to New York State to raise a regiment for the war.

 69th New York, Library of Congress

69th New York, Library of Congress

Although original enlistments were for 90 days only (!) many volunteers re-enlisted for three years. Materials illustrating the diversity of troops included the papers of one William Kenney, identified as Iroquois member of the “Tuscarora Company,” who was captured in North Carolina, and later died in Andersonville prison in 1864, as well as a photograph of a Roman Catholic mass held for the largely Irish 69th New York in 1861. Other volunteers associated with particular locations or ethnic groups included Max Weber’s German Turner Rifle Regiment, and the 14th Brooklyn called “red-legged devils” by Stonewall Jackson after four charges at First Bull Run. That the war created unlikely allies can be illustrated by contrasting the Irish and German volunteers to the 71st Infantry “American Guard,” whose Know-Nothing roots dated to its founding as part of the National Guard in 1850.

Drummer boy David Lyons of Ogdensburg, Courtesy of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association

Drummer boy David Lyons of Ogdensburg, Courtesy of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association

The efforts of men, women, and children were featured within a chronological narrative that followed the war year by year. In the Civil War children under the age of 16 served as drummer boys and marched with the troops. While men from New York fought in major battles and minor skirmishes across the South, New York’s women sewed, nursed, and raised millions through mammoth “Sanitary Fairs.”

 New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

The most notable New York woman highlighted by the exhibit was Mary Edwards Walker of Syracuse, the first female surgeon to serve in the U.S. army and only woman ever to win the Medal of Honor. (Interestingly, the army revoked her medal – among others — in 1917, but Dr. Walker refused to stop wearing it. Her right to the medal was reinstated in 1977.)

 

 

New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

Coverage of ordinary soldiers was balanced by portraits and short biographies of the state’s most noteworthy leaders. One of the last portraits was that of Ely S. Parker, the Seneca chief, lawyer, and engineer who became Grant’s aide and was not only present at Appomattax, but was responsible for writing out the terms of the Confederate surrender.

The exhibit also featured displays on less celebrated aspects of New York and the Civil War, including the New York City Draft Riots and the Elmira Prison Camp. In the case of the prisoner of war camp, however, the accompanying objects and images did not quite convey the grisly details of that chapter of New York history. Lacking adequate food, shelter, clothing, sanitation, and medical care, almost 25% of the Elmira inmates died in the single year of its operation — uncomfortably close to the 29% who died at the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia.[1]

Jewelery Made by Confederate Prisoners at Elmira

Jewelery Made by Confederate Prisoners at Elmira

The exhibit text reported these statistics next to a photograph of camp buildings. Offsetting this grim picture, a nearby case featured intricate jewelry made by the prisoners – blandly describing them as having “idle time on their hands.” However, scholars have found that such items were made not simply to pass the time, but instead to trade with the guards, who then resold the trinkets those outside the camp. This prison “industry” assisted Confederates in making extra money for needed supplies not provided by the U.S. government.

My disappointment in the exhibit’s coverage of the Elmira Prison Camp is a minor point. Overall, this was an outstanding and effective effort and, I hope, a model for the way major historical events can be used to tell the story of the whole state and its peoples. Although the exhibit itself closed in late March, it lives on in digital form on the New York State Museum’s website (see link below).

LINKS:

An Irrepressible Conflict, The Empire State in the Civil War, New York State Museum:

https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/civilwar/

On the Irrepressible Conflict, William Henry Seward, delivered at Rochester, NY, October 25, 1858,

New York History Net: http://www.nyhistory.com/central/conflict.htm

[1] Michael Horrigan, Elmira, Death Camp of the North (Stackpole Books, 2002), p. 180.