Knickerbocker's History of New York/Book VI/Chapter I

Chapter IEdit


Hitherto, most venerable and courteous reader, have I shown thee the administration of the valorous Stuyvesant, under the mild moonshine of peace, or rather the grim tranquillity of awful expectation; but now the war-drum rumbles from afar, the brazen trumpet brays its thrilling note, and the rude clash of hostile arms speaks fearful prophecies of coming troubles. The gallant warrior starts from soft repose--from golden visions and voluptuous ease; where, in the dulcet "piping time of peace," he sought sweet solace after all his toils. No more in Beauty's siren lap reclined he weaves fair garlands for his lady's brows; no more entwines with flowers his shining sword nor through the livelong lazy summer's day chants forth his love-sick soul in madrigals. To manhood roused, he spurns the amorous flute, doffs from his brawny back the robe of peace, and clothes his pampered limbs in panoply of steel. O'er his dark brow, where late the myrtle waved, where wanton roses breathed enervate love, he rears the beaming casque and nodding plume; grasps the bright shield, and shakes the ponderous lance; or mounts with eager pride his fiery steed, and burns for deeds of glorious chivalry.

But soft, worthy reader! I would not have you imagine that any preux chevalier, thus hideously begirt with iron, existed in the city of New Amsterdam. This is but a lofty and gigantic mode, in which we heroic writers always talk of war, thereby to give it a noble and imposing aspect; equipping our warriors with bucklers, helms, and lances, and such-like outlandish and obsolete weapons, the like of which perchance they had never seen or heard of; in the same manner that a cunning statuary arrays a modern general or an admiral in the accoutrements of a CÊsar or an Alexander. The simple truth, then, of all this oratorical flourish is this: that the valiant Peter Stuyvesant all of a sudden found it necessary to scour his rusty blade, which too long had rusted in its scabbard, and prepare himself to undergo those hardy toils of war, in which his mighty soul so much delighted.

Methinks I at this moment behold him in my imagination; or rather, I behold his goodly portrait, which still hangs in the family mansion of the Stuyvesants, arrayed in all the terrors of a true Dutch general. His regimental coat of German blue, gorgeously decorated with a goodly show of large brass buttons, reaching from his waistband to his chin; the voluminous skirts turned up at the corners, and separating gallantly behind, so as to display the seat of a sumptuous pair of brimstone-colored trunk-breeches, a graceful style still prevalent among the warriors of our day, and which is in conformity to the custom of ancient heroes, who scorned to defend themselves in rear. His face, rendered exceeding terrible and warlike by a pair of black mustachios; his hair strutting out on each side in stiffly pomatumed ear-locks, and descending in a rat-tail queue below his waist; a shining stock of black leather supporting his chin, and a little but fierce cocked hat, stuck with a gallant and fiery air over his left eye. Such was the chivalric port of Peter the Headstrong; and when he made a sudden halt, planted himself firmly on his solid supporter, with his wooden leg inlaid with silver a little in advance, in order to strengthen his position, his right hand grasping a gold-headed cane, his left resting upon the pummel of his sword, his head dressing spiritedly to the right, with a most appalling and hard-favored frown upon his brow, he presented altogether one of the most commanding, bitter-looking, and soldier-like figures that ever strutted upon canvas. Proceed we now to inquire the cause of this warlike preparation.

In the preceding chapter we have spoken of the founding of Fort Casimir, and of the merciless warfare waged by its commander upon cabbages, sunflowers, and pumpkins, for want of better occasion to flesh his sword. Now it came to pass that higher up the Delaware, at his stronghold of Tinnekonk, resided one Jan Printz, who styled himself Governor of New Sweden. If history belie not this redoubtable Swede, he was a rival worthy of the windy and inflated commander of Fort Casimir; for Master David Pieterzen de Vrie, in his excellent book of voyages, describes him as "weighing upwards of four hundred pounds," a huge feeder, and bouser in proportion, taking three potations, pottle-deep, at every meal. He had a garrison after his own heart at Tinnekonk, guzzling, deep-drinking swashbucklers, who made the wild woods ring with their carousals.

No sooner did this robustious commander hear of the erection of Fort Casimir, than he sent a message to Van Poffenburgh, warning him off the land, as being within the bounds of his jurisdiction.

To this General Van Poffenburgh replied that the land belonged to their High Mightinesses, having been regularly purchased of the natives as discoverers from the Manhattoes, as witness the breeches of their land measurer, Ten Broeck.

To this the governor rejoined that the land had previously been sold by the Indians to the Swedes, and consequently was under the petticoat government of her Swedish majesty, Christina; and woe be to any mortal that wore a breeches who should dare to meddle even with the hem of her sacred garment.

I forbear to dilate upon the war of words which was kept up for some time by these windy commanders; Van-Poffenburgh, however, had served under William the Testy, and was a veteran in this kind of warfare. Governor Printz, finding he was not to be dislodged by these long shots, now determined upon coming to closer quarters. Accordingly he descended the river in great force and fume, and erected a rival fortress just one Swedish mile below Fort Casimir, to which he gave the name of Helsenburg.

And now commenced a tremendous rivalry between these two doughty commanders, striving to outstrut and outswell each other, like a couple of belligerent turkey-cocks. There was a contest who should run up the tallest flag-staff and display the broadest flag; all day long there was a furious rolling of drums and twanging of trumpets in either fortress, and, whichever had the wind in its favor, would keep up a continual firing of cannon, to taunt its antagonist with the smell of gunpowder.

On all these points of windy warfare the antagonists were well matched; but so it happened that the Swedish fortress being lower down the river, all the Dutch vessels, bound to Fort Casimir with supplies, had to pass it. Governor Printz at once took advantage of this circumstance, and compelled them to lower their flags as they passed under the guns of his battery.

This was a deadly wound to the Dutch pride of General Van Poffenburgh, and sorely would he swell when from the ramparts of Fort Casimir he beheld the flag of their High Mightinesses struck to the rival fortress. To heighten his vexation, Governor Printz, who, as has been shown, was a huge trencherman, took the liberty of having the first rummage of every Dutch merchant-ship, and securing to himself and his guzzling garrison all the little round Dutch cheeses, all the Dutch herrings, the gingerbread, the sweetmeats, the curious stone jugs of gin, and all the other Dutch luxuries, on their way for the solace of Fort Casimir. It is possible he may have paid to the Dutch skippers the full value of their commodities, but what consolation was this to Jacobus Van Poffenburgh and his garrison, who thus found their favorite supplies cut off, and diverted into the larders of the hostile camps? For some time this war of the cupboard was carried on to the great festivity and jollification of the Swedes, while the warriors of Fort Casimir found their hearts, or rather their stomachs, daily failing them. At length the summer heats and summer showers set in, and now, lo and behold! a great miracle was wrought for the relief of the Nederlands, not a little resembling one of the plagues of Egypt; for it came to pass that a great cloud of mosquitos arose out of the marshy borders of the river, and settled upon the fortress of Helsenburg, being doubtless attracted by the scent of the fresh blood of the Swedish gormandisers. Nay, it is said that the body of Jan Printz alone, which was as big and as full of blood as that of a prize ox, was sufficient to attract the mosquito from every part of the country. For some time the garrison endeavored to hold out, but it was all in vain; the mosquitos penetrated into every chink and crevice, and gave them no rest day nor night; and as to Governor Jan Printz, he moved about as in a cloud, with mosquito music in his ears, and mosquito stings to the very end of his nose. Finally, the garrison was fairly driven out of the fortress, and obliged to retreat to Tinnekonk; nay, it is said that the mosquitos followed Jan Printz even thither, and absolutely drove him out of the country; certain it is, he embarked for Sweden shortly afterward, and Jan Claudius Risingh was sent to govern New Sweden in his stead.

Such was the famous mosquito war on the Delaware, of which General Van Poffenburgh would fain have been the hero; but the devout people of the Nieuw-Nederlands always ascribed the discomfiture of the Swedes to the miraculous intervention of St. Nicholas. As to the fortress of Helsenburg, it fell to ruin, but the story of its strange destruction was perpetuated by the Swedish name of Myggen-borg, that is to say, Mosquito Castle.[47]


   [47] Acrelius' History N. Sweden. For some notices of this
        miraculous discomfiture of the Swedes, see N.Y. Hist. Col., new
        series, vol. i., p. 412.