It turned out the pitch-blackened corpse hanging near the dock was a kind of scarecrow, a warning to potential wrongdoers, but there were plenty of tall trees in the colony and no lack of real hangings. Inside the fort there was a stockade open to all weather that served as the town jail, and two whipping posts.
Nieuw Amsterdam was not, however, as desolate and forbidding as Lucas and Sally imagined at first sight. Apart from the crumbling earthworks of the fort -- forever in need of repair -- and the macabre display at the waterfront, there was much to please the eye.
Thirty-five years had passed since Peter Minuit bargained with the local tribes for the island. Now the compact settlement occupied about a third of the narrow southern tip of Manhattan, running a scant half-mile from the fort to the wall and sheltered by the hilly, thickly wooded landscape of the rest. To be sure, Nieuw Amsterdam's streets were crooked and narrow, created by simply widening the footpaths of the red men, and it was not long since the settlers were living in pits roofed with reeds, but by 1661 proper houses had been erected. Stuyvesant and his council, the burgomasters and schepens, had outlawed thatched roofs because of the fire hazard they presented, and had begun importing enough glazed yellow bricks to allow the wealthier residents to duplicate the sturdy, cheerful dwellings of Holland.
To Lucas's eye, even the simpler wooden houses built of local materials were unmistakably Dutch. Most were small two-story structures with steeply pitched roofs and dormered windows, nestled side by side and built gable end to the road so there might be more of them in a row. The Netherlanders had long considered it a sign of affluence to live in a populous city.
Doubtless thoughts of home also inspired the tidal canal that had been dug from the beginning of the curve of the eastern shore northwest for some eight hundred of a tall man's strides. When it froze the locals used it for skating. Those who had neglected to bring their blades to the New World strapped beef shinbones to their shoes instead.
The rest of the year the canal made it possible for cargo ships to offload directly into the warehouses of the richest merchants. They were the ones who built their substantial yellow brick residences along the canal's banks, and found space for a garden in front of each house. There were gardens as well in front of the brick homes on the street called Pearl that ran beside the waterfront (almost the first thing the Dutch did when they arrived was to pave the river road with shells from the nearby oyster beds) and still more gardens adjoining the prosperous dwellings lining both sides of the Brede Wegh.
If Lucas put his back to the sea and stood on a high point such as the middle of the three bridges crossing the canal, his strongest impression was of a neat little town hugging the tip of the island, protected by the mountainous and wooded terrain to the north. It was "a brave and a pretty place," as the pamphlet encouraging immigration had put it. What the view from the bridge concealed was the rowdy and raucous life that made this town unlike any other in the New World.
Boston and Providence and the rest had all been founded in pursuit of some high ideal of philosophy or religion, and were occupied by English folk of like mind. Nieuw Amsterdam was created by rich Dutchmen who wanted to become richer. Any who could further that aim were welcome. On a given day you might hear eighteen different languages at the intersection of the Brede Wegh and Wall Street.
Lucas did not find here the huddled poor who were such a fixture in Dover and London and Rotterdam. There appeared to be money to be made in every lane and at every crossing. All you needed was an eye for a trade. And courage. And, of course, luck and a strong stomach.
Copyright © 2001 by MichaelA, Ltd.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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