Peter Stuyvesant’s Bouweries and their Legacy Today

On March 12, 1651, Peter Stuyvesant, Director General of the Dutch West India Company, purchased Bouwerie (Dutch for ‘farm’) #1 and part of Bouwerie #2 in what is today’s East Village and surrounding neighborhoods. While it only remained farmland for a fraction of its existence, the land between present-day 5th and 20th Streets, from Fourth Avenue to the East River, would nevertheless remain in the Stuyvesant family for many generations. Though the land eventually traded hands to new owners, the Stuyvesant family imprint can still be seen on the area today in a number of ways.

Stuyvesant Fish House at 21 Stuyvesant Street

Following the arrival of New Amsterdam’s first settlers in 1624, the Board of the Dutch West India Company sent detailed instructions about how the outpost should be laid out. Commissary Verhulst, assisted by Surveyor Cryn Fredericks, was to erect a fort at the tip of the island, lay out streets, and build houses – twelve of them with sufficient land for farming and grazing. Five of the farms, or bouweries, were to be leased to colonists for a period of six years. The rest would be provided to the company directors.

The original fort was built on the spot that is now the old Customs House near the Battery in Lower Manhattan. The houses were built around it. But there was no room there for the farms, so Verhulst and Fredericks looked north. They followed one of the Native American footpaths that passed along the shore directly behind the fort. It veered east through the woods along what is now Park Row and turned north through Chatham Square. To its west was a huge freshwater pond, and several streams crossed through the area. A Native American settlement called Werpoes, inhabited by the Manhates of the Lenape, planted corn, beans, and squash.

This 1644 map show some of the southern bouweries. Stuyvesant’s was much farther north.

Fredericks realized that he had found the perfect location for the bouweries. Twelve bouweries were laid out north of where the wall would be built in 1653 (later to become Wall Street), and along the Native American footpath that would later become “The Bowery” – six on each side of the path.

The bouweries varied in size from about 50 to 200 acres. The West India Company noted that the largest was to be reserved for the use of the director of the colony. Fredericks designated the northernmost farm, Bowery #1, for the company director. This huge plot became the home of all New Netherland’s directors — first Willem Verhulst, then Peter Minuit, Wouter Van Twiller, Willem Kieft, and finally, Peter Stuyvesant.

This map shows where Stuyvesant’s Boweries were located – far north from the settlements south of Wall Street.

Stuyvesant was not content to simply occupy this land, and in 1651 he purchased it from the West India Company. He increased its size by purchasing adjacent tracts. Stuyvesant cultivated much of the land, using the labor of his approximately 40 slaves. In 1660, Stuyvesant built a Dutch Reform Chapel that would be known as his “Bouwerie Chapel”, the site that would eventually become St. Marks Church in The Bowery in 1795, and underneath which he remains interred.

St. Marks Church in the Bowery

When the British took over in 1664, Stuyvesant was promised land if he would surrender. Stuyvesant lived out the rest of his days on a 62-acre tract of land that was part of his Bowery #1, now part of today’s East Village and Stuyvesant Town. His house was located around where First Avenue and 16th Street are today, but was destroyed by a fire in 1777.

Peter Stuyvesant’s home – it was destroyed by a fire in 1777.

His family inherited the land. His great-grandson, also named Petrus (Peter) Stuyvesant, widened the lane that separated Bowery #1 and Bowery #2. It became Stuyvesant Street in the late 18th century, anticipating the northern expansion of the street grid. In 1804, he built a house for his daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, Revolutionary War veteran Nicholas Fish. This wide, federal style home that still stands at 21 Stuyvesant Street would become known as the Hamilton Fish House, or the Stuyvesant Fish House. Future NY Governor and Senator Hamilton Fish was born to Elizabeth and Nicholas here in 1808.

In 1836, Peter Gerard Stuyvesant, the great-great-grandson of Peter Stuyvesant, sold four acres of the Stuyvesant farm for a token five dollars to the city to develop a park. Originally planned as Holland Square, Stuyvesant Square is located between 15th Street, 17th Street, Rutherford Place, and Nathan D. Perlman Place. Second Avenue divides the park into two halves, east and west, and each half is surrounded by the original 1847 cast-iron fence. In the early 1900s, Stuyvesant Square was among the city’s most fashionable addresses.

Stuyvesant Square includes a Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney statue of Peter Stuyvesant.

Stuyvesant Town was built on Peter Stuyvesant’s former farmland in the 1940s. It includes 8,757 apartments in 89 residential buildings over about 80 acres. In 1842, gas storage tanks were built on the site, and by the late 19th century the area had become known as the “Gashouse District”. It was an undesirable and dangerous area. The slum clearance project that resulted in Stuyvesant Town razed 18 city blocks including 600 buildings, removing 11,000 people. In 1945, The New York Times called the displacement “the greatest and most significant mass movement of families in New York’s history.”

East 20th Street looking east in the direction of First Avenue in 1938. This picture shows two of the huge gas holders that gave the area the name Gas House District; the block in the foreground did not become part of the Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village complex, but the area on the east side of First Avenue, where the tanks are, did. (Photo by Berenice Abbott)

Click here to read more about Stuyvesant and St. Marks in the Bowery. Click here to read more about Stuyvesant Street and its lasting impact on the neighborhood. Click here to read more about Peter Stuyvesant. Click here to read more about the Stuyvesant Fish House.

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