The Dutch & the English, Part 3: Construction of the Wall (1653-1663)

This is Part 3 of a series. Read the other parts here: Part 1Part 2Part 4Part 5

Soon after New Amsterdam was established, work began on Fort Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, completed sometime around 1625. Over time, this earth and sod fort was hardened with stone, but it was small and could not hold the growing population. In 1653, during the First Anglo-Dutch War, a stockade wall was built along the northern edge of the city to block an invasion from the English colonies. This wall is commonly imagined as a crude structure unable to stop an English army. However, due to the local geography, an English invasion force would have had to sail into the harbor, where the guns of Fort Amsterdam could be brought to bear on them. More worrying were the English residents and troops in the colonies of New England, who could march on the city from the north, with few natural barriers. The stockade wall would not have stood up against cannon fire, but the New England colonists scarcely had artillery much less the means to drag them across the wilderness. The wall merely had to stop a musket ball and withstand breaching, both of which it was equipped to do.

Walled cities were common in Holland, and certainly a military man such as General Stuyvesant would have been versed in their construction. The main features are all apparent in the original plan—earthworks with a ditch or canal in front of wall. Since the development of gunpowder, these walls would not have been the high fortresses of the Middle Ages, but low targets with solid earthworks that absorbed cannon fire. In Europe they would consist of stone, but in the frontier, wooden palisades were standard. The whole approach would have included 12 feet of obstacles to cross before reaching the wall, as detailed in a drawing and technical specifications in the court minutes (post one).  In the drawing, at the top of the wall a horizontal line seems to indicate a fraise, an obstacle of pointed stakes to impede scaling the wall. Since the distance from the top of the earthwork to the top of the wall was only 5 feet, a fraise would have been a wise addition. A British military field manual first published in the 1880s and used until World War One describes use of remarkably similar fortifications in "savage" lands.

In addition to palisades, the original plans call for a breastwork with a ditch. The whole approach would have been 12 feet of obstacles before reaching the wall. At the top of the wall the horizontal line seems to indicate a fraise, another row of stakes to impede scaling the wall. This version of the wall was never constructed, as it was more expensive than anticipated. The built version had larger earthworks, a ditch 5 feet deep and 11 across, and a 9 foot high plank wall.

Illustration of stockade fences from an 1910 British army manual. At first glance the example at the lower right seems almost an exact duplicate of our little plan from 1653, except in this case the ditch seems to be a trench interior to the fort and the breastwork seems to be for firing position. Hutchinson: Field fortification: Notes on the text-books, specially designed and arranged for the use of officers preparing for promotion examinations.

Regardless, due to cost, this original plan was scrapped in favor of a plank wall. Completed in less than four months, the wall ran from the East River to the North (Hudson) River, with rudimentary gates at Broadway (the Land Gate) and Pearl Street (the Water Gate). Each wall section was 15 feet long and nine feet high (one foot wide planks), and the committee requested enough sections to cover a distance of 2340 feet, or 156 sections of wall. The distance from river to river at this time was only about 1850 feet, but the extra sections would have allowed them to turn the corner at the East River (present day Pearl Street) and protect the vulnerable flank down to the present Hanover Square.

The Wall in 1653 extended across the island from shore of the Hudson River (Greenwich Street) to the shore of the East River (Pearl Street) and then south to Hanover Square. The total length was around 2,340 feet. Fort Amsterdam was located on the site of the National Museum of the American Indian. The blue mask shows the original shoreline of Manhattan.

On July 28th, Stuyvesant reported that "the City has... been surrounded with palisades on the land side and along the Strand on the Eastriver... done now three weeks." Although these were not true palisades, the ditch had become a far more formidable obstacle, four to five feet deep and 11 to 12 feet wide. The records do not record how far in front of the wall the ditch was located, but I.N. Phelps Stokes consulted property records, and calculated the "space between the palisades and the ditch was widest at the Highway, narrowest at the Strand; it was just forty-four feet wide at a point 140 feet east of Broadway, and thirty-seven feet wide at a point 190 feet west of Pearl Street.”

The winter must not have been kind to the wall, and storms probably washed away the palisades from the East River. The “troubles with the English” were still ongoing, and Thomas Baxter, the Englishman who had delivered the lumber for the wall, had become a pirate, robbing inhabitants in outlying villages and stealing ships. By the spring of 1654, Stuyvesant noted that the works were in decay and asked the Long Island towns of Breuckelen, Midwout and Amsfoort for help in repairing the palisades along the river. In addition, they built a breastwork and installed cannon in front of the Stadt Huys (the City Hall on the corner of Broad Street and Pearl). There was also talk of closing off the city with palisades along the North River (Hudson), but this work was not completed, and by August 1654, peace with the English was declared.

After the initial danger from the English passed, the quickly-built stockade seems to have fallen into disrepair. In 1655, an unexpected attack by native tribes threw the colony into a panic. The Native Americans had come from the southern shore, arriving in canoes, rather than scaling the wall, but portions of the wall may have also been burnt in the attack. Due to "the dangerous condition of the times," on September 20th, Stuyvesant ordered the "works of this City be again repaired... with plank of 5 or 6 feet high nailed to the sides of the palisades." It is unclear from this passage if the intent was to make the wall thicker, possibly repairing burnt sections, or to make it higher, perhaps a few feet higher than the initial nine-foot wall. Regardless, it was quickly finished and on September 30th he reported that the:

Outer works have been furnished with a curtain of Planks against an assault of the barbarous Indians who on the night of the 15th instant unexpectedly fell upon us with murder, robbery and fire.

In February of 1656, the council resolved to build a “large and suitable gate” (the Water Gate), and to “raise up the fence” and reinforce the riverbank. The repairs were short-lived, on September 4, 1656 Stuyvesant again appeared in court and declared that due to lack of requested supplies:

to our sorrow, not only our city works retarded and delayed—the encircling this, in time, with palisades and other forts of defenses, and rendering it defensible and close against sudden assault either of Indians or others—but what is worse and what afflicts us more... what has been already done is wholly in ruin...

It is hard to tell how much of Stuyvesant's statements are hyperbole, but he pleaded for the council to repair "the decayed works, and endeavor to complete the work begun with palisades on the North River."

The Wall in 1660 had a wing along the Hudson River shore (Greenwich Street), and extended across the island to the shore of the East River (Pearl Street). The shoreline along Pearl Street was plank bulkhead, and may have had a raised wall at times. Bastions were placed every 250 feet along the north side. The total length was around 3,200 feet. Fort Amsterdam was located on the site of the National Museum of the American Indian. The blue mask shows the original shoreline of Manhattan.

In addition to concerns about Indian attacks, the magistrates worried about smugglers who failed to pay import duties. In 1659, the council approved encircling the city with palisades and building a pier. We know the North River palisades were completed (which required the leveling of the once high bank on the western shore), because they show up on the Castello Plan of 1660, the earliest map of New Amsterdam to show the walls. The Castello Plan depicts the wall built along the western shore from the fort up to Wall Street, along the lines of present day Trinity Place and Greenwich Streets. It then cuts across the island along Wall Street and curves to create a half-moon battery on the shore along with a blockhouse for soldiers, and a gatehouse above the road. The bulkhead along the shore appears well established, but the portion of the 1653 wall that ran along the Strand is gone.

Redraft of the Castello Plan, New Amsterdam in 1660. James Wolcott Adams, 1916. I.N. Phelps Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909.

Although their construction is never mentioned in the minutes, the wall included five bastions extending from the wall to the north. Their design and construction might have been described in the missing 1657-1659 court minutes. They may have initially been of palisades, but must have been filled with stone and earth by 1660, because cannons were placed on them. Jacques Cortelyou, Surveyor General of New Amsterdam, made the initial Plan, so we can assume it is reasonably to scale. That allows us to calculate that the bastions in 1660 measured approximately 40 feet wide, and extended about 40 feet from the wall. The distance between them was around 250 feet and could have been covered at a brisk pace in half a minute. To walk the whole wall from Pearl to Greenwich, down to Bowling Green would have taken 10 minutes.

Amsterdam in 1544, the model for New Amsterdam. Note the Cingel (see last post) the canal and wall that were the original defenses of Amsterdam. Map courtesy the Stadsarchief Amsterdam. Engraved and published by Cornelis Anthonisz. 

In 1660, New Amsterdam very much resembled one of the walled towns of Holland, with a smart set of gates, but by 1664 the walls again needed mending. In addition, a recent uprising of English villagers on Long Island made the Dutch uneasy. The Burgomasters had big plans, and in February of that year they wrote to the Director General, worried about their “neighbors of the English nation” and their “desire, to plunder our City or obtain booty.” They proudly noted their city “surpasses nearly every other place in these parts of North America,” and asked that it be “properly fortified.” They included detailed plans to encircle the entire city with a “stone wall on the land side and palisades along both the river fronts,” batteries, and a fortified port. They even dared to dream that the city might become a “place of refuge, if, God prevent it, our Netherlands should be visited by cruel wars,” or a failure of crops. Stuyvesant and the Council consented to the request and plans were made to begin the work the following summer. The city was finally prospering, and there must have been a great swelling of civic pride at this moment. 

Next time: The English Invasion

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For further examples of frontier fortifications check out The Geometry of War at the University of Michigan and Field Fortification: Notes on the Text-books.