“Later on, I’m going to tell you about the first whiskey distillery in America which was, of course, not founded by the Puritans, but by the good, foolhardy Dutch, and which was destroyed in a subsequent fire, as part of the many wars that were waged on Staten Island in those days.”
This is what Artyom Anikin says as we head down Hylan Boulevard. Anikin is an old high-school friend of mine, and his entire life seems to be lain with hints that he would one day be here, driving around Staten Island, discussing its Dutch history.
He was born in 1987 in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, which, he likes to point out, was designed to resemble Amsterdam. In 1989, his family moved to the Bronx, where young Anikin had a babysitter who lived on Holland Avenue. Twelve years later, in 2001, his family relocated to Staten Island and he began commuting to Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School — namesake of the last director of New Netherland, the 17th-century Dutch colony that included settlements in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. After graduating, for no particular reason, Anikin decided to study in Utrecht, Holland, where he learned Dutch, and majored in history and literature. He then attended the University of Amsterdam, where he focused on narratives describing New Netherland. These days, Anikin resides with his Dutch wife in Amsterdam, and is working on a doctoral thesis about the history of New Netherland. He returns to New York twice a year to catch up with family, and old friends.
A few months ago, Anikin took me along for a historical tour of post-Sandy Staten Island. At times, he was flippant and comical, as old friends can be with old friends, but as we progressed through stories of the island’s earliest downfalls, and streets of crumbling contemporary homes, his history of the place became simultaneously current, real and somber.
* * *
Artyom Anikin (pictured above): “Staten Island was the first place where Verrazano landed. He was the first person to describe New York Harbor. He found a bunch of Indians wearing suits made out of bird feathers that he said looked really cool. That was in 1524, then no one came back. Well, people passed by, but no one really explored it until Henry Hudson in 1609. It’s possible that he landed in Staten Island, although the usual narrative is that he landed in Sandy Hook. Some people even claim he landed in Brooklyn. I’m convinced it was Staten Island, though, based on the writings of this guy whose name I forgot. The name of the book he wrote is Henry Hudson and the Algonquins of New York.”
“There were two tribes in Staten Island: the Unami tribe and another under the broader group of the Iroquois, who were all over the Northeast at that time. They’re pretty interesting, the Dutch wrote a lot about them. We know a lot about them from that. The English just thought they were terrible people who should either be converted or killed. The Dutch were looking at them more as a sort of economic resource to be exploited.”
“Starting in 1614, the Dutch built their first settlements in Albany and on Governors Island. They were little trading shacks – one or two people would be trading for beaver pelts, and the like. In 1615, they built a fort on the southern tip of Manhattan, Fort New Amsterdam. By 1626, it was no longer just a colonial, military, corporate sort of fort. They had opened it so normal people could settle there. And so in 1626, Fort New Amsterdam became the town of New Amsterdam. That’s now considered the founding date of New York City.”
“Around that time, they also started settling in other parts of the Hudson River: across the water in New Jersey, because that was also a part of the colony of New Netherlands, and in Brooklyn and Queens. Staten Island was bought along with the rest of New Jersey by a man named Pauw –Patroon Pauw – in the 1630s, but he never really did anything with the land. So in 1639, Captain David Pieterszoon de Vries decides to buy the land from Pauw. He does, and he decides to set up a colony there. That’s the first time that anything is ever settled in Staten Island. A bunch of families come from Holland in 1639 with de Vries and start building colonies along the north shore of Staten Island. Two years later, some Indians steal a pig from the farm of one of the farmers living in this colony.”
“This triggered a war called the Pig War, the First Pig War. There were several pig wars in America, but that was the First Pig War, and that one ended with the entire colony being burnt to the ground in 1641, just two years after it was founded.”
“So de Vries’s colony failed. He sort of gave up on the project and decided to live in New Amsterdam. He found this guy named Melyn, and though he still considered himself the legal owner of Staten Island, he allowed Melyn to try to build a colony there. Melyn gave it a shot one year after the first one burnt down, and he set up the second colony, where he was given the mission to build the first whiskey distillery in North America and to process goat’s leather, somehow, using a byproduct of that whiskey. I don’t really know how that worked. Anyway, first whiskey distillery of North America: They managed to make whiskey out of something, I’m not sure what exactly.”
“They brewed their first batch and aged it probably not so long because in 1642 they harvested it. To celebrate, they drank it with the locals and then, as far as I can tell from one source, when the Indians were drunk, ‘they took advantage of them.”
“So that caused another war, and the Indians burned the entire settlement to the ground again. That was called the Whiskey War.”
“Melyn survived. He went to live in New Amsterdam in Manhattan. In the meantime, the Director of New Netherland, Willem Kieft, had been recalled for instigating terrible wars. Every time there was a war on Staten Island, it escalated and ended up being a war in Manhattan and Brooklyn and New Jersey, and it was just awful, and Willem Kieft was encouraging the whole thing. So 1649, Melyn wants to set up another colony, again. This time, the governor isn’t Willem Kieft. It’s Peter Stuyvesant, who was a famous asshole and an anti-semite who lost his leg to an English canon ball in Jamaica and had it replaced with a silver peg.”
“Melyn asks Stuyvesant if he can try to set up another colony. Stuyvesant is like, ‘Yeah, Staten Island, that’ll work out great.’ So Melyn is like, ‘No, but I really want to do it. It’ll work out this time.’ Stuyvesant’s like, ‘Yeah, sure it will, let me see the paperwork.’ Then Melyn actually goes to Amsterdam, sues Stuyvesant in absentia, gets paperwork from the bureaucrats in Holland that says he’s legally allowed to set up a colony, and he comes back and sets up a colony, brings like fifty families, builds some farms there and lives there for about a year and a half.”
“One day, he goes to Manhattan to get some rope or some random supplies or something, and he gets there, and Stuyvesant and his goons are there. Stuyvesant, propped up on his one peg leg, says to him, ‘Ah, so you decided come back to New Amsterdam. How’s your colony working out in Staten Island?’ And then his goons grab Melyn and throw him in ‘a dark hole.’ That’s how it’s described in history books.”
“One month later, Melyn is still in the dark hole. Back on Staten Island, one of the farmers has a peach stolen from him by a native woman, and he shoots her. Then the Indians come, and it starts this whole thing. They burn down all of Staten Island. Two-thousand natives cross from New Jersey and invade Manhattan. They try to burn down all of New Amsterdam, but the Dutch just hide in their fort, so that doesn’t really work out.”
“Then Stuyvesant came to Melyn in the dark hole, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, totally worked out just like I told you.’ He released him and sent him back to Staten Island. There was nothing left, and then Melyn, just totally disappointed and ashamed, went back to Holland to never return to North America.”
* * *
“That house (pictured above) is called the Billiou-Stillwell-Perine House. It’s the oldest standing building on Staten Island. Originally built by Billiou, a Huguenot who arrived in New Amsterdam fleeing religious persecution in Europe in 1661 and founded Outer Dorp in the same year. So 1661, that’s when this house was built, and that’s when the settlement really stuck on Staten Island. None of this bullshit with whiskey distilleries, peaches, pigs. Finally, it’s all in the past. This was the first house built after those wars, and it’s still standing, and they went on to build houses all over the place.”
“There has been a lot of destruction in the history of Staten Island, and it’s difficult to imagine or really care about those houses from colonial times because we can’t really imagine what they look like very easily and we can’t imagine what they look like devastated and can’t relate to what was going on there.”
“But I think today we’ve seen what those houses would have looked like. We’ve also seen what it looks like when a community is destroyed. Maybe these things together can contrast each other and give us sort of an idea of what it was like when there were actually wars being fought in a borough of New York City hundreds of years ago.”
Originally published on Narritively.