This post was originally part of a 4-post series. I have since consolidated the series into one post, with a few revisions. Click here to get the full updated version.
After months at sea, finally reaching New York Harbor must have seemed like sailing into heaven for the passengers of the Ship Rensselaerswyck. It was March 4th, 1637—more than sixth months after the ship had left Holland.
Fort Amsterdam and a windmill stood on a small hill surrounded by a scattering of rough buildings. There was no proper pier—people arriving by ship would have been rowed to the shallows to splash up the muddy shore on foot. It was still a pretty ramshackle settlement, and the few hundred townspeople surely had no idea of the growth spurt their little town would undergo in the next few years—let alone that this lonely outpost would one day be the financial center of the entire world.
I imagine that Pieter Claesen, who had turned twelve during the voyage, would have viewed the scene at New Amsterdam with great excitement. It is apparent from his later achievements in life that Pieter was intelligent, strong, gregarious, and lucky. He was a born survivor. And even though his early life had been rough—losing his mother, possibly being abandoned by his father, signed into servitude and sent across the ocean to an uncertain future—I think he would have formed bonds with his fellow passengers during the trip that would have helped sustain him emotionally. They were a community of sorts, facing their difficulties together.
It has been suggested that Pieter had grown up around ships—at one time his father had a trading business in the Baltic and North Seas. Perhaps Pieter, young and naturally resilient, adapted to life at sea more easily than his fellow travelers. Maybe he even found ways to make himself useful to the crew…ingratiating himself to people in power positions seems to have been one of his traits in later life.
Anyway, I imagine that Pieter, clomping ashore with the others, probably stood dazed and disoriented for a time until his head had cleared, then turned his full attention toward getting to know his new world. The bedraggled group would have made their way up to the Fort to be received by the director-general of the West India Company, who must have been relieved to see them after such a long delay. They were probably packed into some rough barracks, where they would spend the next few weeks waiting for the river to thaw before they could continue to Fort Orange—their final destination.
Of course, it is possible the passengers were required to stay on board the ship and were not allowed to roam freely in town. But I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem to be in the Company’s interest to have confined the people so cruelly after such a voyage. After all, they wanted them to be fit—at least enough for 6 or 7 years of hard labor.
In my imagined scenario, Pieter would have had time to ramble around the town with the other kids, exploring the few crude shops, the beaches, the woodlands, and the little farms. Perhaps there was a bakery, a stables, a church and a blacksmith shop. There was certainly a tavern.
The captains’ log mentions another ship in the harbor—an English vessel. The waterfront would have been busy with cargo being loaded and unloaded, the streets bustling with strange faces speaking foreign languages. To Pieter, the strangest of all would have undoubtedly been the Native Americans, who were often in town meeting or trading with the townspeople.
At some point, the director-general would have gathered the people together to assign them their stations—laborers would be assigned to serve farmers. I think that Pieter would have hoped to be assigned to one of the young families. Motherless since the age of six, with no brothers or sisters, no family at all…maybe the idea of being sent into the wilderness together with a family may not have sounded so bad.
On this matter, however, he was not to be so lucky.
Find out what happens when the ship reaches Fort Orange and Pieter meets his new master. Click here to go to the final post in the series.
Read more about the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House
“A Description of New Netherland”, by Adriaen van der Donck and first published in 1655. Newly translated by Diederik Willem Goedhuys.
“The Island at the Center of the World”, by Russell Shorto
“New York”, by Edward Rutherfurd
“Daily Life in Holland in the Year 1566”, by Rien Poorttvliet
“White Servitude”, by Richard Hofstadter (article on-line)
“Dutch and English on the Hudson”, by Maud Wilder Goodwin (available on-line via project Gutenberg)
The Rise of Pieter Claessen Wyckoff, Social Mobility on the Colonial Frontier, by Mortom Wagman.
The Wyckoff Families of Old Canarsie Lane, by Mae Lubizt.
The Old World Progenitors of the Wyckoff Families, by William L. Wyckoff and Herbert J. Wyckoff.
The Wyckoff Family in America, Published by the Wyckoff Association in America
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