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Juan Rodriguez: African-Dominican Descendent was the First ‘non-native’ Citizen of New York

12 May
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A contemporary illustration showing Juan Rodriguez (holding pan) establishing a trading post with Native Americans on Manhattan Island in 1613. Credit: Charles Lilly Art and Artifacts Division, New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The previous story about ‘Black Indians’ would not be complete without also sharing this piece of ‘hidden history’ of African-Dominican Juan Rodriguez – the first documented ‘non Native-American’ to live on Manhattan Island.

Who was Juan Rodriguez? He was born in Santo Domingo (formerly, present day Dominican Republic) to an African woman (not clear if she was enslaved or free) and a Portuguese ‘sailor’. Except for a small number of Spanish officials and colonists, the majority of people on Santo Domingo were black or mixed race—some enslaved, some free—and many shared a culture that was influenced by the indigenous Taino population.

Rodriguez was known for his linguistic talents and was hired by the Dutch captain Thijs Volckenz Mossel, captain of the Jonge Tobias to serve as the translator on a trading voyage to the Native American island of Mannahatta (Island of many hills).

In the Spring of 1613 the Jonge Tobias arrived in the Hudson Harbor to explore the potential wealth of the area, especially the potential for trade with the local Native Americans for animal furs that could be resold in Europe’s garment market. The ship’s crew included a black or mulatto free man “born in Saint Domingo” (the Spanish colony-island in the Caribbean also known as La Española) and whose name appears spelled as Jan Rodrigues in the few pages of Dutch notary records that have survived on the matter, currently held in the City Archives of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Rodriguez is also described in Dutch records as “Spanish” and a “black rascal,” After spending some time in the Hudson area, the sources state that the Dutch captain decided to return to the Netherlands with his crew, only to find out that Juan Rodriguez who soon came to learn the Algonquian language of the Lenape people and married into the local community, did not want to continue the trip to Europe and wanted to stay in the Hudson Harbor instead, and even threatening to jump overboard at the first opportunity if he was forced to go on the ship to the Netherlands. Ultimately, the captain agreed to leave Rodriguez behind and left for Europe. Rodriguez with his native American family had set up his own trading post with goods given to him by Mossel, consisting of eighty hatchets, some knives, a musket and a sword.

The following year, 1614, another Dutch expedition arrived from the Netherlands with the intention of engaging in fur trading with the Native Americans of the area as the 1613 expedition had done. They found Juan Rodriguez in the Hudson Harbor area and hired him to work for them. Shortly afterwards the captain of the ship that brought Rodriguez to the Hudson the year before arrived on a second expedition and found Rodriguez working for the crew that had arrived a few weeks before him. A confrontation erupted between the two competing expeditions and in the process Rodriguez hurt some individuals while himself sustaining a wound. When the warring merchants returned to Holland, they went before the Dutch authorities to dispute each other the concession of a trade monopoly in North America. In presenting their case, they described the incidents and skirmishes in which they had been involved on the other side of the Atlantic, in the Hudson Harbor, including a few comments about the participation of the “black” or “mulatto” man from Santo Domingo in the events. We do not know exactly how the dispute between the trading crews concluded in the Netherlands, and subsequently the notarial records containing the testimonies or depositions given by the Dutch sailors from both crews seem to have gone into a lengthy archival silence of more than three centuries, until well after World War II. No additional data has been found on Rodriguez in the Dutch historical records.

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Mural of Jan Rodriguez in Harlem River Park, Manhattan, New York City (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

In the early spring of 1613, fur trader Adriaen Block, a Dutch ‘private trader’ and navigator, with the help from the Lenape people, built the 44.5-foot (13.6 m) ship 16-ton called the Onrust (Dutch for “Restless”). Block complained bitterly that a ‘competitor’, Thijs Volckenz Mossel, commander of the Jonge Tobias, had tried to “spoil the trade” by offering three times more for a beaver than Block did. In his report against Mossel, which he submitted to the Amsterdam Notary upon his return to Holland, Block topped off his list of accusations against Mossel with his outrage that, ‘crewman Rodriguez had become a permanent fixture in the Manhattan frontier, trading and living alone among the natives. When the said Mossel sailed away from the river with his ship, Rodriguez, born in Sto. Domingo, who had arrived there with the ship of said Mossel, stayed ashore at the same place.’ According to Block, Mossel denied that Rodriguez was working on his behalf. Rodriguez had taken it upon himself to gain friendship with the natives, set up a trading post, and live comfortably on Manhattan Island. Mossel declared that ‘this Spaniard [Rodriguez] had run away from the ship and gone ashore against his intent and will and that he had given him the said goods in payment of his wages and therefore had nothing more to do with him.’

Block closed his report by writing that he knew of no other crewman who stayed behind but Rodriguez. And the natives, who preferred the goods and ironware sold by Rodriguez over their own, seem to have accepted him as the island’s first merchant. By the autumn of 1613, three Dutch ships had arrived: De Tijger, captained by Block; the Fortuyn, captained by Hendrick Christiaensen; and the Nachtegaal, captained by Mossel. This time it was Christiaensen who wrote about Rodriguez. His log states that Rodriguez came aboard the Nachtegaal, presented himself as a freeman, and offered to work for Christiaensen trading furs. The historical record leaves us with few details about the remainder of the life of Juan Rodriguez.

More than three hundred and forty-six years passed before Juan Rodriguez was mentioned again in any written source, until 1959, when historian Simon Hart included a narration of the 1613-1614 Dutch expeditions to the Hudson in his book The Prehistory of the New Netherland Company: Amsterdam Notarial Records of the First Dutch Voyages to the Hudson, including in it the brief data about Juan Rodriguez originally shared by the Dutch sailors in the depositions they gave to a notary in the Netherlands at the time. Hart also included, as an appendix at the end of his book, what were full translations of the few pages of testimonies given by the sailors. These scant pages became the only solid source on Juan Rodriguez and his stay in the Hudson Harbor in 1613-1614.

Legacy: Most people in upper Manhattan are more aware of the history of Juan Rodriguez, which has a large Afro-Dominican community. In October 2012, 20140317204954-1525434_10152186966069184_521162299_nthe New York City Council enacted legislation to name Broadway from 159th Street to 218th Street after Rodriguez. The first street sign was put up in a celebration with a small ceremony at 167th Street and Broadway on May 15, 2013. The Dyckman Farmhouse (built c.1785), is a Dutch-colonial style house, and the oldest remaining farmhouse on Manhattan island. Even though the house was built long after Juan first set foot on the island (c1613) its location is of significance to the Dominican community, situated at the corner of Broadway and 204th Street also along the stretch of road named ‘Juan Rodrigues Way’.  Meredith Sorin, the Director of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, shared with me that they have ‘invited the community’ to become partners with the museum and have made a point to share the history of Juan as part of their expanded narrative. This year Dyckman Farmhouse celebrates two centuries in Northern Manhattan with a special exhibition by Camilla Huey (May 12 – August 28). The Native American – African – Dutch Heritage would not be complete without the Dycman Farmhouse Musuem!  Source: Juan Rodriguez and the Beginning of NYC, Dominican Studies Institute, CUNY (2013)  and Dyckman Farmhouse Museum.

 

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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York

 

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