Most humbly showeth Emmanuel Pietersen a free Negro, as husband and guardian of Reytory, otherwise Dorothe Angola, a free Negress, that his wife did in the year 1643 on the 30th of August, stand godmother or witness at the Christian baptism of a little son of Kleyn Anthony of Angola, begotten by his wife named Louize, which aforesaid Anthony and Louwize, being both free Negroes, died a short time afterwards, leaving the above-named little boy, named Anthony, which child your petitioner's wife, out of Christian affection, immediately on the death of his parents, hath adopted and reared as her own child, without asking assistance from anyone in the world, but maintained him at her own expense from that time unto this day, whereunto your petitioner in like manner is well disposed and willing to promote the interest of the said boy as far as in his power.
-- Register of the Notary Public of New Amsterdam, Petition from Emmaneul Pietersen, 21 March 1661
Although they lived their lives in bondage, New Netherland's enslaved Africans created some stability in their lives by trying to keep families together and establishing a tight-knit community. Their families appeared to resemble the nuclear family model, but they also formed close ties with other slaves in the community. For example, they stood witness at the baptisms of each other's children, and they took care of each other's children when needed. For example, when the parents of Anthonij passed away, Emmanuel Pietersen and his wife Dorothe Angola, who had been a witness at the boy's baptism, took care of the boy. This is described in the petition for Anthony's freedom quoted above.
The Dutch West India Company supported their marriages and acknowledged their parental responsibilities. When New Netherland's Council granted some Company slaves half-freedom in 1644, it partly did so to allow these enslaved men to better care for their wives and children. The Company granted them plots of land where they could cultivate food and raise cattle so that they could provide for these dependents.1 By giving these men the opportunity to take care of their families, the Council acknowledged the legality of these families and of the father and husband as the head of the household and main provider.
Both Dutch authorities and Dutch settlers generally honored the family relationships and responsibilities of enslaved and free Africans, and, at times, they tried to keep married couples together. In 1663, Dutch settler Govert Loockermans paid for the freedom of Christina, an eighteen-year old Company slave and wife of Swan van Loange, one of Loockerman's slaves. Loockermans likely funded her manumission so that she could join her husband. A year later, Peter Stuyvesant urged Jeremias van Rensselaer to purchase the wife of an enslaved man he bought, apparently so that this married couple would not be separated.2
Authorities also upheld the parent-child relations of New Netherland's enslaved and free black population. In March 1664, for example, Manuel Sandersen was charged with a fine of six guilders because his son had been caught shooting pigeons on a Sunday, which was against the law. When the 10-year old Lysbet Anthony admitted to theft, colonial authorities collected the fine from her father and requested that her mother discipline her.
In addition to developing strong family relations, New Amsterdam's African population established an important sense of community. Enslaved and free Africans took care of each other and stood together in times of need. This is evident in 1641 when a group of enslaved men supposedly joined together in attacking fellow Company slave Jan Premero. When Premero was found murdered, nine Company slaves claimed that they had killed Premero together. What motivated the men to make this statement is unclear. Maybe they had in fact jointly killed Premero, or perhaps they hoped that a joint confession would force the Company to refrain from using the death penalty, realizing that the Company would not likely execute so many of its laborers. What is clear, however, is that they acted together. In another instance with a similar sense of community, Africans joined in reporting to the Council that the slave Jan Creoly had assaulted an enslaved boy named Manuel Congo. For this crime Creoly received the death penalty and became the only slave in the colony who was successfully executed by Dutch authorities.
Soon after the first African families received half freedom in 1644 others followed. These families lived together as Manhattan's first free black community. They settled the area by the Heere Wegh or Broadway, outside of the city walls, north of the Fresh Water Pond, and close to Stuyvesant's bowery.3 Descendants of the former Company slaves lived in this area for generations, and even in the mid-eighteenth century, New York documents still referred to the area as "free negroes land." Today, this is the area by Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
Although enslaved and free Africans in New Amsterdam were able to forge a strong sense of community, those who lived in other parts of the colony did not always have this opportunity. Enslaved laborers who served individual masters often lived in isolated areas, or they were frequently re-sold or hired out to others. In the Upper Hudson region, enslaved people often lived in especially isolated circumstances because there were few slaves in this part of the colony. For these individuals, isolation and frequent relocation made it challenging to sustain some sort of a family or community life. Apparently, this social isolation brought Claesje, an enslaved woman in Rensselaerswijck, to great despair. In 1652, she admitted to stealing various goods from her master and selling them to Jan Michielsz. and Jacob Luyersz., explaining that she had done so in part because Luyersz. promised that he would take her to Manhattan where she could find a husband. As Claesje's case reveals, New Netherland's enslaved people were willing to take significant risks if these could help them establish a family life.