New Amsterdam, walls of

In March 1653, when the news of the outbreak of the First Anglo-Dutch War arrived in New Amsterdam, director general and council met with the newly instituted city government of burgomasters and schepenen to discuss improvement to the city’s defences. The meeting decided “to fence off the greater part of the city with an upright stockade and a small breastwork, so as to be able to draw all inhabitants behind it in time of need and defend as much as possible their persons and goods against an attack.” A joint committee was set up to supervise the work. A month later, director general and council, upon hearing new rumours from New England, in a joint meeting with the city government decided to add a ditch to the defence works on the northern edge of the city. It is sometimes asserted that enslaved Africans built the wall , but they formed only a part of the labour force. All inhabitants were called upon to dig a moat or a canal (graft) from the East River to the North River, which was to be four to five feet deep and eleven to twelve feet wide, sloping inward slightly toward the bottom. At the same time, the carpenters were urged to complete the work on the palisade. By early July, the palisade had been completed both along the northern edge as well as along the Strand at the East River. The city gate at the side of the East River was very likely also constructed at this time.

New measures to improve the city’s defences were agreed upon only when the Indian attack of 15 September 1655 instilled urgency into the city fathers. On 20 September 1655, the city government determined “that the aforesaid erected works shall be heightened with planks of five to six [feet] high, nailed horizontally to the side of the palisade.” In collaboration with director general and council, burgomasters and schepenen decided upon a ‘voluntary’ subscription, for which purpose all inhabitants of the city were assessed.

In 1656, Stuyvesant again needed to remind the city government of its duty to keep the defences in good order. Mindful of the situation in the Dutch Republic, the burgomasters and schepenen replied that the burden of fortifying a “frontier place” (frontierplaetse) like New Amsterdam should not exclusively be born by the city’s inhabitants. In their view, the costs should be defrayed from the general revenue (gemeene lants middelen). Despite continuing discussions like these, some additional work was done to strengthen the outer defences. This included a prohibition to build houses within a cannon shot from the city walls as well as the planned construction of new defence works consisting of a double row of palisades, with two or three openings which could be closed by night, both for reasons of security and to prevent smuggling. Yet the plans put forward by Stuyvesant in the same month suggest further improvements were required. The director general desired further repairs with sods to the palisades as well as the construction of a forward star-shaped sconce at Maiden Lane. Both corners at the North and East River were to be fortified with a hornwork of horizontally positioned logs. The elevations on the shore of the North River, which could provide shelter to landing forces, had to be levelled and a proper palisade erected. Stuyvesant wanted a battery on the north side of the city as well as on the little cape (t Capsken) at the south point. As funds were scarce and the need arguable, it is unlikely that any start was made to execute these plans.

By early 1664, the need to improve fortifications was much more urgent. The New Amsterdam city government suggested building a stone wall (steene muer) strengthening the East River city gate with a bulwark (bolwerck), and erecting a closed palisade (dichte geslooten palissaden) along the East River from the city gate down to the roundel (rondeel) in front of the City Hall. Down to the little cape another palisade would provide protection, while the cape itself required a water fort (water fort). Along the North River palisades were also required to prevent enemy forces from landing. Through a loan on its citizens, New Amsterdam was able to raise a total of ƒ 27,500. Making use of the labour of West India Company soldiers (who were required to do guard duty only one day out of three), the city government very likely made some progress over the summer. As it was, the improved fortifications were not put to the test when the English frigates arrived later that year.

Sources and literature

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