New York City Department of Records

A collection of newly digitized ordinances from the 17th-century settlement that would become New York City reveals a riotous city full of crime, trash, and “insolent practices with sad accidents of bodily injury.”

Running the fledgling city of New Amsterdam was a rough business. Its inhabitants were inclined to cheating and drunkenness. Pigs and goats ran loose and trampled the walls of the settlement’s old fortifications. Homeowners were lax about chimney maintenance, which led to fires that threatened surrounding structures. And, like the inheritors of the place more than three centuries later, they weren’t always meticulous about how they disposed of their trash.

“It has been found, that within this City of Amsterdam in [New Netherland] many burghers and inhabitants throw their rubbish, filth, ashes, dead animals and suchlike things into the public streets to the great inconvenience of the community,” reads a New Amsterdam ordinance dated February 20, 1657.  The law goes on to stipulate that residents need to bring their refuse to one of several collection places (one of which is “near the gallows”) or face penalties ranging up to six florins.

That snapshot of the settlement that would become New York City is just one of many illuminating treasures to be found in the digitized ordinances of New Amsterdam just put up online by the city’s department of records. The material, which covers rules and laws issued during the period from 1647 to 1674, includes original Dutch manuscripts as well as English translations. (Quotations for this piece are taken from an 1897 translation by Berthold Fernow that is available on the new site.)

“You get this real flavor of what New York was like in that time,” says Michael Lorenzini, deputy director of the New York City Municipal Archives and one of the moving forces behind the project. “This is a town on the frontier, at the edge of the known world. People are living an existence that’s marginal. They’re trying to make a town modeled on where they came from, a multicultural center of commerce, but it’s not easy.”

(New York City Department of Records)

Lorenzini says that the digitization of the New Amsterdam records has been a priority under the new commissioner of the Department of Records and Information Services, Pauline Toole. The release of the ordinances, in the original Dutch and a series of translations, is just the first phase of a project that will move on to encompass court records, as well as documents covering the early settlements in present-day Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

The hope, says Lorenzini, is that scholars from around the world will be able to use the documents for original research into the origins of New York and its unique history as a city that tolerated people of all religions and races in the name of creating a favorable economic climate—though never without strife. (Russell Shorto has written brilliantly about the Dutch roots of New York’s singular gestalt in his 2005 book The Island at the Center of the World.)

The papers reveal a city that was full of violence and random peril, in which the native people were often exploited and abused by European colonizers. Many of the laws have to do with dishonest business practices, such as the selling of short-weighted or adulterated loaves of bread and the circulation of “bad wampum” that proved worthless for trade. Ordinances prohibited “the firing of guns… [and] the planting of Maypoles” on New Year’s Day and Mayday, when drunken revelry often led to “insolent practices with sad accidents of bodily injury.”

Alcohol, indeed, is at the center of many of the problems and was the subject of many restrictions. “It’s a rowdy town,” says Lorenzini. “People are drunk all the time.” A 1648 declaration from Petrus (Peter) Stuyvesant, director general of New Netherland, laments that “one full fourth of the City of New Amsterdam has been turned into taverns for the sale of brandy, tobacco and beer,” leading to “the debauching of the common man… and what is still worse, of the young people from childhood up, who seeing the improper proceedings of their parents and imitating them leave the path of virtue and become disorderly.”

Lorenzini says the many hours he’s spent with these intimate records of New Amsterdam have given him a particular perspective on the metropolis as it is today. “One of my favorite pet peeves is to hear somebody say the city is so dirty and dangerous, or things have gone downhill from some previous golden age,” he says. “You have no idea how disgusting this city was.”

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