Amsterdam, fort (New York)

Fort Amsterdam was the headquarters of the Dutch West India Company in New Netherland. Located at the southern tip of Manhattan, it controlled access to the Hudson River and was a palpable symbol of the Company’s rule over the colony. In April 1625, orders were given to engineer and surveyor Crijn Fredericxsz and others in charge to take up “the construction of the fort, which is to be called Amsterdam.” In 1626, some kind of fortification was apparently in place. The Amsterdam directors had specified the construction of a large five-pointed fortified settlement (a pentagon with a diameter of almost 300 metres), surrounded by an outer moat (ringhsloot) of eight metres wide. Within this area all colonists would have their lodgings, and it would encompass public buildings as well as a central market square of about 28 by 47 metres. These instructions were not fully executed as planned as the bedrock on the location of choice was too close to ground level for a deep ditch to be dug, and elevations made building a fortification of the suggested size an impossible task. It is likely that soon after 1626, director Minuit and his councillors decided to build a much smaller four-pointed fort, which was under construction by 1628 and probably more or less completed by 1635. Enslaved blacks, owned by the West India Company, carried out most of the work. Although the information from 1628 indicates the plan was to build the entire fort in stone, later documentation suggests that only one of the four points was completed that way. The rest of the fort consisted of wooden palisades and earthen bulwarks. As a result, the fort required constant repairs throughout its existence. By the late 1630s the fort was already in a bad state. The war with the Native Americans in the 1640s made clear to the West India Company that an upgrade of the fortifications was in order, but the costs were considered prohibitive by the WIC directors in the Netherlands. As a consequence much of the expenses and labour to keep the fort in a reasonable condition had to be supplied by the colonial government in New Netherland. This was not an easy task. The West India Company soldiers argued that construction work was not part of their brief and refused to undertake it, unless separate compensation was forthcoming. In all likelihood Company slaves carried out the bulk of the work, assisted by convicts sentenced to hard labour. The colonial government also attempted to raise funds from the local community. Within a few months of his arrival in New Amsterdam 1647, Director General Petrus Stuyvesant introduced a new excise on wine, brandy, and liquors. The income was intended to defray the costs of several public buildings, including the fort. In 1647, Stuyvesant planned to improve the fort, but nothing came of the plans. Meanwhile, the fort suffered from hogs, sheep, goats, horses, and cows, which the colonists allowed to roam free on the ramparts. In June 1650, director general and council tried to keep animals away by threatening to fine their owners. Yet the multiple repeats of this edict suggest that little heed was paid. When the First Anglo-Dutch War broke out, the directors quickly ordered their man in New Amsterdam to put Fort Amsterdam, Fort Orange, and Fort Casimir, in proper defensive states, so as to be able to defend themselves against attacks from the surrounding English colonies. Director general and council thereupon took various defensive measures, for instance “repairing and strengthening the fort, the old moat be dug up and fortified with gabions.” They also planned “to build some new inner lines of fortifications, so that one can be protected by the other and, if necessary, we can retreat from one to the other.” Whether all these plans were actually carried out is unclear, as soon afterwards, just when an English attack appeared imminent, news of peace in Europe arrived. By 1656, new repairs to the fort were considered necessary. At the repeated request of Stuyvesant and his council, the Amsterdam directors recruited three masons “to expedite the walling in of the fort” and sent them over to New Amsterdam. Soon after their arrival they began complaining that their salary of fourteen guilders a month was not sufficient. After their wages were raised, work progressed steadily. In July 1659, Stuyvesant reported to Amsterdam that if the masons kept up their work, one end of the fort would be ready next summer. The next task would be to make carriages for the guns. Stuyvesant informed the directors that these could be made in the colony, except for the iron parts, which had to be imported from the Dutch Republic. The building works appear to have been completed in 1661. Despite the efforts of Stuyvesant, Fort Amsterdam was in a bad state when the English arrived in 1664. After taking over New Netherland in that year, they changed the name of Fort Amsterdam into Fort James, after the Duke of York. It was eventually demolished in the summer of 1790. The debris was used as landfill. Today, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom house stands on the location.


Sources and literature

Jacobs, J., Dutch Colonial Fortifications in North America 1614-1676 (2015)

Westra, Frans, Lost and found: Crijn Fredericx

Hurk, Jeroen van, Plan Versus Execution: The “Ideal City” of New Amsterdam. Seventeenth-Century Netherlandic Town Planning in North America

Wieder, F.C., De stichting van New York in juli 1625. Reconstructies en nieuwe gegevens ontleend aan de Van Rappard-documenten (1925)

Laer, A.J.F. van trans. & ed., Documents Relating to New Netherland, 1624-1626, in the Henry E. Huntington Library. San Marino (1924)

Meurs, P., Nieuw-Amsterdam op Manhattan 1625-1660

Phelps Stokes, I. N., The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909 (1915-1928)

Huey, Paul, Dutch Colonial Forts in New Netherland