Revisiting Captain Kidd and the Pirate Port of New Amsterdam [HISTORY]

Posted on: July 9th, 2018 at 9:38 am by

Fort Amsterdam Postcard; 1638 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Ahoy, 17th century Manhattan.

In the mid to late 1600s, fledgling New York was crawling with buccaneers, but none quite as enduring as Captain William Kidd, a by-the-book privateer whose story and missing treasure put the city on the proverbial pirate map along with the tropical islands of the Caribbean. Today we revisit Captain Kidd’s New York story and the places and parties that comprised his steadfast legend.

Let’s begin with a definitive work by Jean Leon Gerome, who painted a vivid picture for us showing Captain Kidd in New York Harbor aboard his ship, “The Adventure Galley.” This is said to be dated to the 1690s. Notice Fort Amsterdam in the background which at the time was called Fort William Henry. The Fort, though many described it as it as crumbling mounds, was built in 1625 and renamed about every 10 years or so until its demolition in 1790. In chronological order, it was Fort Amsterdam, Fort James, Fort Willem Hendrick, Fort James (again), Fort William Henry, Fort Anne and finally, Fort George. In other words, Dutch, English, Dutch, English.

I am not deviating despite the digression; this structure would have been part of Kidd’s daily life in New York, as was the iconic windmill sitting in the Commons.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress; “Captain Kidd in New York Harbor” / J.L.G. Ferris.
Creator(s): Ferris, Jean Leon Gerome, 1863-1930

More about the windmills simply because they are still front-and-center on the seal of our great city. From John D. Champlin Jr.’s The Old Fort In New York

In 1633 Director-General van Twiller arrived, and immediately set about making repairs and improvements. The buildings erected in the fort by Minuit were rough plank structures thatched with reeds. Van Twiller built a governor’s house of brick, a guard-house, and substantial barracks for the soldiers, and set up a Windmill on the southwest bastion, to grind corn for the garrison. The work was done chiefly by negro slaves, and cost about four thousand guilders. Besides facing the northwest bastion with stone, he probably did little to the walls, as Director-General Kieft complains, on his arrival in 1638, that the fort was “open on every side, so that nothing could obstruct going in or coming out except at the stone point.”

Courtesy of Seal and Flag of the City of New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York: The Knickerbocker Press 1915

From The New York Times in 2008:

There were no fewer than four windmills in place in 1638, when New York was still New Amsterdam and owned by the Dutch, according to the authoritative tome “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898,” by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. Granted, they were in various states of disrepair even then: “Only one gristmill and one sawmill remained in operation,” the book states…

“There was a windmill just north of the fort,” he said, referring to Fort Amsterdam, at the foot of Manhattan. “Where the Customs House is now, to the northwest of the fort. You see it on early drawings of the city.”

The windmills were used primarily at sawmills, he said. “A series of wooden gears and so forth would work a shaft hooked up to a gang of saws,” he said. “It was a very sophisticated operation.”

The windmills served another valuable purpose: as an early version of an emergency broadcast system for boat pilots on the East River.

Now for a map whose “x” sort of marks, or actually is, Fort Amsterdam.

Behold! The Castello Plan – the first map of New Amsterdam by surveyor Jacques Cortelyou, General Governor of Nieuw Amsterdam at that time courtesy of the New York Public Library. “The Castello plan is the earliest known plan of New Amsterdam, and the only one dating from the Dutch period. The text at the top of the image translates to: “Image of the city Amsterdam in New Netherland”.

Fort Amsterdam, check. Windmill, check. The wall, check.

Wall Street was actually a 12-foot-tall wall running along the northernmost border (at the right of the image), built to keep the natives out. (So many appropriate Trump/wall jokes here, but not the time.) Broadway began at the star-shaped Fort Amsterdam and traveled northward.

Okay. Now that the scene is set, let’s introduce some players: England and France, Trinity Church, and Captain William Kidd.

The countries were amidst King William’s War, and each side commissioned private vessels to attack the opposing fleets. Privateers carried “Letters of Marque” which permitted them to get away with basically everything. ‘Twas like a piece of paper that made the illegal, well … not. The first such Letter was issued in 1243 by Henry III of England, and became a common practice for the next six centuries. When the Declaration of Paris was signed in 1856, this type of legitimized piracy was outlawed.

Below is the Letter of Marque which King William III issued to Captain William Kidd in 1695 (seriously, WikiCommons has this gem).

A buccaneer is to a pirate as a corsair is to a privateer as a swashbuckler is to a thief. In other words, the same with slightly different geographies.

In 1698, Captain William Kidd lent his runner/block, a machine used to hoist stones, generally used by sailors for ballast stones, to Trinity Church. (These stones were placed in ship hulls to prevent capsizing before the cargo holds were filled with goods.) He also donated money to help build the house of worship. Yes, that is correct – the first Trinity Church was, in part, built by a pirate. Yet we have a timeline carbuncle here.

Trinity Church in its third incarnation says this:

In our Vestry Meeting Minutes from January 6, 1982, it is noted in the Rector’s report that:

“Captain Kidd, the infamous pirate who died on the gallows, was never a Vestryman of Trinity Parish in spite of the claim made by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” He was on the pew list of 1696 and lent equipment for raising stones of the first Trinity Church. Since Captain Kidd left New York in September of 1696, two years before Trinity held its first service, he never worshiped in the church.”

However, Kidd did not leave New York in 1696. He arrived that year, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Not only did Kidd provide assistance to Trinity in their earliest days, but he also rented a pew at Trinity Church that remained with his heirs after his death.

Courtesy of Trinity Church Archives

Trinity, perhaps to dissociate with piracy, might deny that Captain Kidd ever worshiped there, but they cannot deny that the Colonial Governor of New York in the 1690s – a man named Benjamin Fletcher who was fired for his relationships with pirates – “approved the purchase of land in Lower Manhattan by the Church of England community for construction of a new church. The parish received its charter from King William III on May 6, 1697. Its land grant specified an annual rent of 60 bushels of wheat.” So much for dissociation.

Moving right along, here’s an illustrative glimpse of New York in the the late 1600s from Edwin G. Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s Gotham:

Pirate money pulsed through New York. “This boodling was worth a hundred thousand pounds a year to the city…Tavern keepers, whores, retailers and others flourished as buccaneers swaggered through the streets with purses full of hard money — Arabian dinars, Hindustani mohurs, Greek byzants, French louis d’or, Spanish doubloons.”

New York merchants such as Stephen De Lancey – you know all about his son, James – financed ships that sailed across the seas, even selling weapons to New York pirates along the way. Shares invested in these voyages were openly traded in taverns along Wall Street, one of which, the Tontine Coffee House, became the home of the New York Stock Exchange.

Side-note about Stephen – he was born Etienne de Lancy in France and arrived in NYC by way of England (after fleeing French Catholic persecution) on June 6, 1686. It’s important! It’s all important and more importantly, this is all connected…

Delancey changed his name, married Anne van Cortlandt (gawd, this whole first families intermarriage is endless) and built a house on land purchased by his father-in-law on Pearl Street. Their home, 54 Pearl Street, is now known as Fraunces Tavern after Samuel Fraunces who purchased it in 1762. Below it is shown in two incarnations, 1777 and 1854:

Courtesy of NYPL

Courtesy of NYPL

(I should just accept that attention spans are much shorter than I’d like but even my tangents have digressions.)

Below was Kidd’s home, a stately white house (possibly numbered 119 Pearl) on the corner of Hanover Square and Pearl Street. The street was comprised of oyster shells, hence the “Pearl,” just steps up from the Water Gate that once stood at the intersection of Wall and Pearl.

Courtesy of NYPL

Look at that.

Just look at that. Can you imagine? Let me just park my boat across the dirt road from my house in MANHATTAN. Sigh.

I finally found the famed Howard Pyle illustrations in Harper’s Monthly Volume 106, the most referenced and reproduced image of Captain Kidd.  Thank you, Princeton University.

It was a happy life for Captain William Kidd until he decided to board “The Quedagh Merchant” in January of 1698. Capturing this vessel, despite his Letter of Marque, would ultimately prove fatal.

This story has multiple pages:

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