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New Online Archive Shows Colonial New York Was Rowdy, Filthy, Smelly

Early manuscripts newly posted online depict New Amsterdam as an intoxicated Dutch settlement and show its leader, Peter Stuyvesant, struggling to bring order.

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This image of New Amsterdam (modern-day New York City) circa 1670 is one of the documents now available online in the New York City Municipal Archives' collection.


"WHEREAS we have experienced the insolence of some of our inhabitants, when drunk, their quarrelling, hitting and fighting each other even on the Lords day of rest, of which we ourselves have witnessed the painful example last Sunday in contravention of law, to the contempt and disgrace of our person and office, to the annoyance of our neighbors, and to the disregard, nay contempt of Gods holy laws and ordinances ..."

So begins the first edict issued by the newly appointed director-general of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant. The decree went on to prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sunday before "preaching" was over.

Most of the inhabitants of the colony's capital, New Amsterdam, likely never read that official diatribe when it was issued on the last day of May 1647 by their prudish and peg-legged leader. But today, nearly four centuries later, the residents of that once lawless outpost—now known as New York—and anyone else with an Internet connection can read some of the earliest laws promulgated in North America.

New York City's Municipal Archives has posted the first batch of some 10,000 pages of colonial manuscripts, along with early Dutch maps and illustrations. The newly digitized trove contains ordinances from 1647 to 1661, when the island of Manhattan was run by the Dutch and known as New Amsterdam. It also includes handwritten and typeset English translations from the 19th century. The release marks the start of a much larger digitization project planned for next year.

The Thanksgiving Day release was "appropriate to reflect on the development of New Amsterdam as an exuberant center of commerce, open to settlers of diverse backgrounds, in contrast to the Puritan colonies," said Pauline Toole, commissioner of New York City's Department of Records and Information Services, in a statement. "These ordinances show how New Amsterdam officials tried to maintain order in a fractious and rowdy city, and shed a light on our city's early development."

America's origin myth overlooks the future nation's cacophony of religions, races, and ethnic groups—not to mention smugglers, pirates, and prostitutes. Instead, it centers on the prim, theocratic monoculture of the Pilgrim and Puritan colonies of New England.

When the English wrested control of New Amsterdam in 1664, the unruly Dutch trading town was all but written out of the story. The exception was the quaint tale that the Dutch bought Manhattan from native Americans for $24 in trinkets, perhaps the first urban myth.

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The "Duke's Plan" map was created to celebrate the takeover of New Amsterdam by the British in 1664, when the city was renamed New York, after James, the Duke of York.


"Drinking Songs and Angry Curses"

When Stuyvesant arrived in 1647 to take over the settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan, an outpost of the Dutch West India Company, the son of a Calvinist Dutch Reformed minister replaced an inept and tyrannical director-general.

Stuyvesant found a city where alcohol was made or sold in one of every four buildings. This caused, he fumed, "not only the neglect of honest handicraft and business, but also the debauching of the common man and the Company's servants and what is still worse, of the young people from childhood up, who seeing the improper proceedings of their parents and imitating them leave the path of virtue and become disorderly."

It was a place, wrote Russell Shorto in his bestseller about Dutch Manhattan, The Island at the Center of the World, where "with nightfall, the soft slap of waves along the shore was drowned out by drinking songs and angry curses."

The Dutch West India Company sent Stuyvesant to that sodden shore because it "was trying to impose order on it," Shorto said in an interview. "It was in the middle of nowhere, and it attracted the dregs of society."

Indeed, the Dutch Golden Age was in full swing and respectable burghers stayed in the Netherlands.

The archives' manuscripts vividly illustrate Stuyvesant's challenge.

Despite his immediate crackdown on Sunday drinking and fighting—drawing a knife or sword "rashly or in anger against another" could get you six months of "menial labor" on bread and water—less than a year later a frustrated Stuyvesant acknowledged few had paid attention.

"Our former orders issued against unreasonable and intemperate drinking at night and on the Sabbath of the Lord, to the shame and derision of ourselves and our nation, are not observed and obeyed, as we intended and meant, we renew them herewith," he decreed on March 10, 1648.

Few tipplers became teetotalers, though.

On December 31, 1655, the council that Stuyvesant chose to help him govern observed that "on New Years Day and Mayday, the firing of guns, the planting of Maypoles and the intemperate drinking cause, besides the useless waste of powder, much drunkenness and other insolent practices with sad accident of bodily injury." To restore order on the holidays, the council forbade such celebratory gunfire and approved a fine of 12 florins for the first offense and double or more for repeat shooters.

Alcoholism was so rampant that on December 3, 1657, citing "daily complaints" of tavern keepers detaining people for not paying their tabs, an ordinance prohibited them from accepting pawned goods from patrons who had spent all their money on drink.

Stuyvesant, however, never tried to enact total prohibition. When he and his council weren't trying to moderate drinking, they were trying to tax it—often without success. Several decrees dealt with the government's inability to collect excise taxes on homemade—and illegal—beer and wine that went unreported to authorities.

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In 1865, a Dutch farmhouse stood on the corner of 7th Avenue and 50th Street, now a busy intersection not far from Central Park.


Hogs Running Free in the Street

Stuyvesant did more than try to sober up his subjects. To tamp down frequent fires, he and his officious burgomasters on the council appointed chimney inspectors; required buckets, ladders, and hooks on street corners; and banned roofs made of hay and reeds. They also issued standards for bakers and tried to rein in haphazard construction. And they tried mightily to clean up the city streets.

"They started realizing that they needed to task people with kind of owning up to being responsible," said Sylvia Kollar, director of the New York City Municipal Archives.

The city's health and building departments can trace their beginnings back to Stuyvesant's New Amsterdam edicts.

In 1650, just a quarter century after the Dutch built Fort Amsterdam, an ordinance was passed forbidding animals to run free. It noted the "decayed fortress, formerly in fair condition, has mostly been trodden down by hogs, goats and sheep."

Hogs apparently were still on the loose eight years later, though. On a hot day in August 1658, the council banned "privies" that emptied into the street where "hogs may consume the filth and wallow in it." This, the decree stated, created "a great stench."

Incredibly, the stink must have been even worse the year before when, on February 20, 1657, the New Amsterdam council banned the common practice of throwing "any rubbish, filth, ashes, oyster-shells, dead animals or anything like it" in the street.

The online portrait of New Amsterdam "sounds like kindergarten gone wild and the leaders trying to impose order desperately," Shorto said. But he added that the ordinances alone give a skewed picture of life in the Dutch colony.

Over the next year, a more well-rounded portrait should emerge as archivists post thousands of court proceedings, minutes, petitions, correspondence, and other documents, the originals of which have undergone painstaking conservation efforts.

"There's something about the actual written documents and something beyond the words—the paper, the texture, the change in handwriting, the stains on the document," Shorto said. "It's a physical document, and to get some sense [of it] in digital form is a wonder."

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