Juan Rodriguez (early 1600s), also known as Jan Rodrigues, was the first non-Native person known to live in what is now metropolitan New York. His trading post of 1613 in Lower Manhattan grew into one of the biggest cities in the world. He counts as the first Black, Latino and Dominican New Yorker. He lived there before any White person did!
- 6 years before Blacks began arriving in Virginia,
- 7 years before the Mayflower,
- 13 years before the Dutch “bought Manhattan for $24”,
- 51 years before the English took over and renamed the city New York.
It was four years after Henry Hudson sailed past Manhattan, up the now-named Hudson River looking for a shortcut to China.
Rodriguez came from Santo Domingo, the oldest Spanish city in the Americas, then over a hundred years old, now the capital of the Dominican Republic. He was the free-born son of an African slave woman and a Portuguese sailor.
Captain Thijs Mossel of the Dutch trading ship Jonge Tobias hired Rodriguez as an interpreter. They sailed to the island of Mannahatta, the “land of many hills”, to trade for beaver skins. Rodriguez quickly learned Unami, the language of the Delaware (Lenape) Indians who lived there.
Then Rodriguez did a very New York thing: he decided to make his future there. Although he was free, as the son of a slave he probably had a better future in Manhattan than in the Netherlands or Santo Domingo. The captain paid him: 80 axes, some knives, a gun and a sword. Rodriguez stayed at the trading post the Dutch had built earlier that year, trading metal axes and knives for beaver skins. Some say he married a Delaware woman.
He lived in Manhattan at least in 1613 and 1614, maybe till the 1640s.
We know he lived there for at least a year because he became the centre of a court case between two Dutch traders. The Netherlands still has the court records.
Rodriguez’s trade had undercut that of Adriaen Block. Block blamed Mossel. Mossel said Rodriguez no longer worked for him – yet tried to have Rodriguez arrested for working with a third trader, Hendrick Christiaensen! That means Rodriguez was the first Black man arrested in New York by White men! The arrest did not work: Rodriguez was able to fight free and escape.
Note that while people in New York in 2014 might think of Rodriguez as Black, Latino or Dominican, the Dutch in 1614 called him a “Spaniard” and a “mulatto” – and several racial slurs, one of which court records would not repeat!
In 2013, on the 400th anniversary of his arrival, Broadway north of Harlem between 159th and 218th Street became also known as Juan Rodriguez Way. It goes through the Washington Heights and Inwood part of New York, which has more Dominicans than anywhere outside of the Dominican Republic itself.
There is even a play about Rodriguez : “I am New York. I am Juan Rodriguez” by Armando Batista and Maija Garcia.