Knickerbocker's History of New York/Book VII/Chapter XII

Chapter XIIEdit

Thus then have I concluded this great historical enterprise; but before I lay aside my weary pen, there yet remains to be performed one pious duty. If, among the variety of readers who may peruse this book, there should haply be found any of those souls of true nobility, which glow with celestial fire at the history of the generous and the brave, they will doubtless be anxious to know the fate of the gallant Peter Stuyvesant. To gratify one such sterling heart of gold, I would go more lengths than to instruct the cold-blooded curiosity of a whole fraternity of philosophers.

No sooner had that high-mettled cavalier signed the articles of capitulation, than, determined not to witness the humiliation of his favorite city, he turned his back on its walls, and made a growling retreat to his bowery, or country seat, which was situated about two miles off; where he passed the remainder of his days in patriarchal retirement. There he enjoyed that tranquillity of mind which he had never known amid the distracting cares of government, and tasted the sweets of absolute and uncontrolled authority, which his factious subjects had so often dashed with the bitterness of opposition.

No persuasion should ever induce him to revisit the city; on the contrary, he would always have his great arm-chair placed with its back to the windows which looked in that direction, until a thick grove of trees, planted by his own hand, grew up and formed a screen that effectually excluded it from the prospect. He railed continually at the degenerate innovations and improvements introduced by the conquerors--forbade a word of their detested language to be spoken in his family, a prohibition readily obeyed, since none of the household could speak anything but Dutch, and even ordered a fine avenue to be cut down in front of his house because it consisted of English cherry trees.

The same incessant vigilance, which blazed forth when he had a vast province under his care, now showed itself with equal vigor, though in narrower limits. He patroled with unceasing watchfulness the boundaries of his little territory, repelled every encroachment with intrepid promptness: punished every vagrant depredation upon his orchard or his farmyard with inflexible severity, and conducted every stray hog or cow in triumph to the pound. But to the indigent neighbor, the friendless stranger, or the weary wanderer, his spacious doors were ever open, and his capacious fireplace, that emblem of his own warm and generous heart, had always a corner to receive and cherish them. There was an exception to this, I must confess, in case the ill-starred applicant were an Englishman or a Yankee; to whom, though he might extend the hand of assistance, he could never be brought to yield the rites of hospitality. Nay, if peradventure some straggling merchant of the East should stop at his door, with his cart-load of tinware or wooden bowls, the fiery Peter would issue forth like a giant from his castle, and make such a furious clattering among his pots and kettles, that the vender of "notions" was fain to betake himself to instant flight.

His suit of regimentals, worn threadbare by the brush, was carefully hung up in the state bedchamber, and regularly aired the first fair day of every month, and his cocked hat and trusty sword were suspended in grim repose over the parlor mantelpiece, forming supporters to a full-length portrait of the renowned admiral Van Tromp. In his domestic empire he maintained strict discipline, and a well organized despotic government; but though his own will was the supreme law, yet the good of his subjects was his constant object. He watched over not merely their immediate comforts, but their morals and their ultimate welfare; for he gave them abundance of excellent admonition; nor could any of them complain, that, when occasion required, he was by any means niggardly in bestowing wholesome correction.

The good old Dutch festivals, those periodical demonstrations of an overflowing heart and a thankful spirit, which are falling into sad disuse among my fellow citizens, were faithfully observed in the mansion of Governor Stuyvesant. New year was truly a day of open-handed liberality, of jocund revelry and warm-hearted congratulation, when the bosom swelled with genial good-fellowship, and the plenteous table was attended with an unceremonious freedom and honest broad-mouthed merriment unknown in these days of degeneracy and refinement. Paas and Pinxter were scrupulously observed throughout his dominions; nor was the day of St. Nicholas suffered to pass by without making presents, hanging the stocking in the chimney, and complying with all its other ceremonies.

Once a year, on the first day of April, he used to array himself in full regimentals, being the anniversary of his triumphal entry into New Amsterdam, after the conquest of New Sweden. This was always a kind of saturnalia among the domestics, when they considered themselves at liberty, in some measure, to say and do what they pleased, for on this day their master was always observed to unbend and become exceedingly pleasant and jocose, sending the old gray-headed negroes on April-fool's errands for pigeons' milk; not one of whom but allowed himself to be taken in, and humored his old master's jokes, as became a faithful and well disciplined dependent. Thus did he reign, happily and peacefully on his own land, injuring no man, envying no man, molested by no outward strifes, perplexed by no internal commotions; and the mighty monarchs of the earth, who were vainly seeking to maintain peace, and promote the welfare of mankind by war and desolation, would have done well to have made a voyage to the little island of Manna-hata, and learned a lesson in government from the domestic economy of Peter Stuyvesant.

In process of time, however, the old governor, like all other children of mortality, began to exhibit evident tokens of decay. Like an aged oak, which, though it long has braved the fury of the elements, and still retains its gigantic proportions, begins to shake and groan, with every blast--so was it with the gallant Peter; for though he still bore the port and semblance of what he was in the days of his hardihood and chivalry, yet did age and infirmity begin to sap the vigor of his frame--but his heart, that unconquerable citadel, still triumphed unsubdued. With matchless avidity would he listen to every article of intelligence concerning the battles between the English and Dutch; still would his pulse beat high, whenever he heard of the victories of De Ruyter--and his countenance lower, and his eyebrows knit, when fortune turned in favor of the English. At length, as on a certain day he had just smoke his fifth pipe, and was napping after dinner in his arm-chair, conquering the whole British nation in his dreams, he was suddenly aroused by a ringing of bells, rattling of drums, and roaring of cannon, that put all his blood in a ferment. But when he learnt that these rejoicings were in honor of a great victory obtained by the combined English and French fleets over the brave De Ruyter and the younger Van Tromp, it went so much to his heart that he took to his bed, and in less than three days was brought to death's door by a violent cholera morbus! Even in this extremity he still displayed the unconquerable sprit of Peter the Headstrong--holding out to the last gasp with inflexible obstinacy against a whole army of old women, who were bent upon driving the enemy out of his bowels, in the true Dutch mode of defense, by inundation.

While he thus lay, lingering on the verge of dissolution, news was brought him that the brave De Ruyter had made good his retreat with little loss, and meant once more to meet the enemy in battle. The closing eye of the old warrior kindled with martial fire at the words. He partly raised himself in bed, clinched his withered hand as if he felt within his gripe that sword which waved in triumph before the walls of Port Christina, and giving a grim smile of exultation, sank back upon his pillow, and expired. Thus died Peter Stuyvesant, a valiant soldier, a loyal subject, an upright governor, and an honest Dutchman, who wanted only a few empires to desolate to have been immortalized as a hero!

His funeral obsequies were celebrated with the utmost grandeur and solemnity. The town was perfectly emptied of its inhabitants, who crowded in throngs to pay the last sad honors to their good old governor. All his sterling qualities rushed in full tide upon their recollection, while the memory of his foibles and his faults had expired with him. The ancient burghers contended who should have the privilege of bearing the pall; the populace strove who should walk nearest to the bier, and the melancholy procession was closed by a number of gray-bearded negroes, who had wintered and summered in the household of their departed master for the greater part of a century.

With sad and gloomy countenances the multitude gathered round the grave. They dwelt with mournful hearts on the sturdy virtues, the signal services, and the gallant exploits of the brave old worthy. They recalled, with secret upbraiding, their own factious oppositions to his government; and many an ancient burgher, whose phlegmatic features had never been known to relax, nor his eyes to moisten, was now observed to puff a pensive pipe, and the big drop to steal down his cheek; while he muttered, with affectionate accent, and melancholy shake of the head, "Well, den!--Hardkoppig Peter ben gone at last!"

His remains were deposited in the family vault, under a chapel which he had piously erected on his estate, and dedicated to St. Nicholas, and which stood on the identical spot at present occupied by St. Mark's church, where his tombstone is still to be seen. His estate, or bowery, as it was called, has ever continued in the possession of his descendants, who, by the uniform integrity of their conduct, and their strict adherence to the customs and manners that prevailed in the "good old times," have proved themselves worthy of their illustrious ancestor. Many a time and oft has the farm been haunted at night by enterprising money-diggers, in quest of pots of gold, said to have been buried by the old governor, though I cannot learn that any of them have ever been enriched by their researches; and who is there, among my native-born fellow-citizens, that does not remember when, in the mischievous days of his boyhood, he conceived it a great exploit to rob "Stuyvesant's orchard" on a holiday afternoon?

At this stronghold of the family may still be seen certain memorials of the immortal Peter. His full-length portrait frowns in martial terrors from the parlor wall, his cocked hat and sword still hang up in the best bed-room; his brimstone-colored breeches were for a long while suspended in the hall, until some years since they occasioned a dispute between a new-married couple; and his silver-mounted wooden leg is still treasured up in the store-room as an invaluable relique.