Juan (Jan) Rodriguez

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Juan Rodriguez[1][2][3] (Dutch: Jan Rodrigues, Portuguese: João Rodrigues) was the first documented non-Native American to live on Manhattan Island.[4] As such, he is considered the first non-native resident of what would eventually become New York City, predating the Dutch settlers. As he was born in Santo Domingo (now in the Dominican Republic) to a Portuguese sailor and an African woman, he is also considered the first immigrant, the first person of African heritage, the first person of European heritage, the first merchant, the first Latino, and the first Dominican to settle in Manhattan.[5]

Raised in a culturally diverse environment in the Spanish settlement of the Captaincy General of Santo Domingo, Rodrigues was known for his linguistic talents and was hired by the Dutch captain Thijs Volckenz Mossel of the Jonge Tobias to serve as the translator on a trading voyage to the Native American island of Mannahatta. Arriving in 1613, Rodrigues soon came to learn the Algonquian language of the Lenape people and married into the local community. When Mossel's ship returned to the Netherlands, Rodrigues stayed behind with his native American family and set up his own trading post with goods given to him by Mossel, consisting of eighty hatchets, some knives, a musket and a sword.[6]

He spent the winter without the support of anchored ship, at a Dutch fur trading post on Lower Manhattan that had been set up by Christiaan Hendricksen in 1613. This small settlement, and others, along the North River were part of a private enterprise. It was not until 1621 that the Dutch Republic firmly established its claim to New Netherland and offered a patent for a trade monopoly in the region. In 1624, a group of settlers established a small colony on Governors Island. Together with a contingent of colonizers coming from the Netherlands that same year, the traders established in the tiny settlement of New Amsterdam, only 11 years old.

Report of Adriaen Block[edit]

In the early spring of 1613, fur trader Adriaen 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 Rodrigues 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, Rodrigues, born in Sto. Domingo, who had arrived there with the ship of said Mossel, stayed ashore at the same place. They had given Rodrigues eighty hatchets, some knives, a musket and a sword.

According to Block, Mossel denied that Rodrigues was working on his behalf. Rodrigues 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 [Rodrigues] 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 Rodrigues. And the natives, who preferred the goods and ironware sold by Rodrigues 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 Rodrigues. His log states that Rodrigues 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 Jan Rodrigues.

Today a plaque stands in Riverside Park in Manhattan in recognition of Jan Rodrigues, whom history records as the first merchant and non-Native American inhabitant of the island. In addition, a mural created by Creative Arts Workshops for Kids, in sponsorship with the Harlem River Park Task Force, Harlem Community Development Corporation and New York State Department of Transportation, depicts an image of Jan Rodrigues as he might have appeared in 1613.[7]

Juan Rodríguez Way[edit]

In November of 2012, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed legislation sponsored by City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez to co-name Broadway from 159th Street to 218th Street in Manhattan after Juan Rodríguez.[8] The first street sign was put up in a celebration with a small ceremony at 167th Street and Broadway on May 15th, 2013. Partners included Council Member Rodriguez, CUNY's Dominican Studies Institute, the Harlem and the Heights Historical Society, as well as several others. [9]

There is also legislation pending that would facilitate an official map change from 159th Street to 179th Street, similar to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in Harlem.

The neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood have a substantial Harlem RiverDominican community, making Juan Rodríguez Way a significant contribution to the area.

Fiction[edit]

Writer John Keene published a brief, fictional version of Juan Rodríguez's (Jan Rodrigues's) story, entitled "Mannahatta"[10] and focusing on the trader's decision to flee the Dutch, in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of the literary journal TriQuarterly.

References[edit]

See also[edit]