Old Silver Leg
THE Dutch took possession of the Hudson River settlements, and for forty years their Governor ruled over the colony at the mouth of the river. They called their town, New Amsterdam. Traders came from Holland to traffic with the Indians, and to bring supplies to the merchants of the town. The fat old burghers sat on the door-steps of their quaint Dutch homes, and smoked their pipes of peace, perfectly satisfied with themselves and with all the world.
At last came Peter Stuyvesant from Holland to govern the colony. He had been a fine soldier, and had lost a leg by fighting in the West Indies. He had a wooden leg, of which he was so proud that he had silver bands put around it as ornaments. He used to tap it with his heavy stick and say, "I value this old wooden leg more than all my other limbs put together." The people called him "Old Silver Leg."
Peter was very high-tempered and obstinate. He made his own laws and had them obeyed; but they were very good laws and he was a just old governor, even if he was cross at times. He had a Council of nine men, chosen by himself, but as they were self-satisfied and sleepy old merchants, all they did was to smoke their pipes and hear what Stuyvesant had to say.
If the people did not suit him, or quarreled among themselves, or disobeyed his laws, the irate old man would berate them with his heavy stick, and storm up and down the village streets. But as he was generally right in all he did and required, the people let him have his way, however much he belabored some of them over their backs. Meanwhile, the colony prospered, the Indians were friendly, ships came and went, schools and churches were opened, and the people were contented and happy.
And so the years went by, until the English settlements, up in Connecticut, began to worry the Dutch. As a matter of fact the English still claimed the land the Dutch had occupied, because the territory had been explored by John Cabot, an Englishman, and because Henry Hudson was an Englishman, even if he did sail under a Dutch flag. At last the King of England boldly gave the Dutch colony to his brother, the Duke of York, and told him to go and take possession. This was not very just, but it was the way kings did things in those days.
Stuyvesant was in Boston when he heard of those high-handed plans, and he at once sent word to the Dutch to prepare for war. The Council met and decided to build defenses for their town; but as this cost money and as the people were very thrifty, and as the enemy was not in sight, the poor little city got no fortifications at all.
When the English fleet appeared off the coast of New Amsterdam, demanding the surrender of the town, the people ran to their houses and hid themselves, praying for the brave old Governor to come home and tell them what to do. When Stuyvesant returned from Boston he was in a great rage because nothing had been done. He stormed and threatened the Council for not obeying his orders, and he swore he would not surrender his town.
The burghers listened with dismay. The English commander had told them to surrender, and they could live peaceably under the English flag. Otherwise he would destroy their town and drive them away. They did not care whose flag they lived under so long as they were let alone. English or Dutch, it was all one to the peace-living merchants of New Amsterdam.
They showed Stuyvesant a copy of the summons to surrender. But he thrust it in his pocket, and told the Council to go home; he would defend the colony all by himself, he said. The burgomasters called a meeting of the people, who agreed to surrender the town, and a note was sent to Stuyvesant to that effect. He used the note to light his pipe, and made no reply.
Governor Winthrop, of Connecticut, wrote him a letter, advising him to surrender. The burgomasters came in a body to present this communication. But Stuyvesant tore it into bits, threw the pieces in the face of the nearest man, hit another over the head with his pipe, and kicked the rest down stairs with his wooden leg. "You are a pack of cowards," he called after them. "Out of my sight! I have done with you!"
In the meantime, the English had sent their own men among the Dutch, and had told them of the terrible things that would happen to them if they did not surrender. On the other hand, they were promised they would not be molested if they quietly gave up their town.
And so the Dutch, who loved their stores, houses, gardens and cattle, and cared little for the Dutch flag, decided they would surrender anyhow. When Stuyvesant heard of it, he swore a great oath, but had to agree, for there was nothing else to do.
The treaty of surrender was brought to him to sign. He threw away the pen and tore up the paper. The next day the people gathered in a crowd before his house, and harangued him for three hours. They put the treaty on the end of a pole and thrust it up to his window. At last he signed it, threw it out, and closed the shutters. The British then entered the city, and changed the name from New Amsterdam to New York.
Stuyvesant retired to his farm on Manhattan Island, where he lived quietly the rest of his days, dying at the ripe old age of eighty years.