Peter’s Stuyvesant: Uncovering the History That Our School Is Built Upon
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Dexter, a European sailor, and Sinister, a Lenni Lenape Native American, stand beside each other, separated by a shield adorned with beaver engravings. Situated outside Stuyvesant’s first-floor entrance, this scene is carved into the wall adjacent to the main doors, encapsulating years of tumultuous history in stone. This familiar image—the New York City seal—recurs throughout the city, engraved into school buildings, libraries, police badges, and perhaps most notably, the New York City flag.
The seal was designed in 1915, intended to represent the friendship between the first European settlers and the native inhabitants of New York. The shield in the center, embossed with a windmill, flour barrels, and beavers, represents the foundations of the Dutch’s economic success in New York City. However, in recent years, this long-standing image has become a point of contention. The Lenni Lenape man is dressed in stereotypical Native American attire, wearing a feathered headpiece and baring an exposed torso. Joe Baker, a registered member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians and the director of the Lenape Center, described this depiction as “cartoonish” in an interview with The New York Times. “It has the little Dutchman and the little Indian, and everyone is standing there in a very erect posture with the eagle above,” Baker explained.
The style of the headpiece and breechcloth worn by Sinister is more reminiscent of the clothing of the Plains tribes in the Midwest, who are culturally distinct from the Lenape of the Eastern Woodland region. This false representation of the Lenape neglects the cultural diversity of Native American nations, a misconception that continues to be perpetuated today through the use of the New York City seal. Additionally, while the image alludes to mutual gain, interactions between the Native Americans and European colonizers were, in reality, far more complicated and often far less amicable.
The controversy surrounding this seal has arisen amid calls to remove monuments and street names throughout the city honoring problematic historical figures. In recent years, statues of Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson have been removed from the American Museum of Natural History and City Hall, respectively. Both institutions have been called out for commemorating figures who have expressed overt racism. Clearly, several modern-day establishments contain remnants of the dark underside of history, including Stuyvesant High School’s very own namesake.
Peter Stuyvesant was an influential Dutch governor of New Netherland in the mid-17th century, leading the city of New Amsterdam into economic prosperity. However, his success was accompanied by participation in the Atlantic slave trade and extreme anti-Semitism. Social studies teacher David Hanna, who teaches AP United States History, shared his perspective on Peter Stuyvesant’s misdeeds and how they fit into the broader narrative of American history. “As history teachers, we need to make sure that we teach that part of history. [Peter Stuyvesant was] important. He really was, but [there was] also has this part of his life story that’s not admirable,” Hanna said.
Though Peter Stuyvesant’s legacy does not reflect Stuyvesant High School’s values today, the name “Stuyvesant” has become a focal part of the school’s identity in the decades since its founding in 1904 and is now often associated with prestige and academia. “Stuyvesant as a school has come to mean something on its own. But what we can do is not put [Peter Stuyvesant] up on a pedestal,” Hanna said.
Hanna contends that reckoning with our school’s identity includes acknowledging the actions of Peter Stuyvesant. In order to do so, he encourages the teaching of Peter Stuyvesant’s history and connection to the school to incoming students at orientations such as Camp Stuy: “Make sure that it’s part of boot camp, who we are. Teach the nuances of it so that [students] know and understand. Be aware, know your history,” Hanna advocated.
Just as the lasting effects of Peter Stuyvesant’s legacy linger in our school to this day, the impacts of controversial historical figures remain prevalent throughout New York City as a whole. Social studies teacher Robert Sandler, who teaches an elective called New York City History, discussed how Dutch colonization and slavery played a major role in New York’s formative years. The colony of New Amsterdam was established in 1614 during the Dutch Golden Age—a time of rapid cultural and economic expansion. The fur trade between Indigenous Americans and the Dutch, as depicted in the New York City Seal, helped the city become a flourishing commercial hub. The Dutch’s capitalistic approach to colonial economies remains intrinsic to New York today. “It has a big influence. That’s where we get a lot of our economic-minded, New York culture—Wall Street. It’s not a coincidence,” Sandler explained.
Similar to Stuyvesant High School’s problematic namesake, much of New York City’s glory was built upon oppression and slavery. To name a few examples, much of the early commerce on Wall Street was facilitated through the slave market, and African American residents were displaced from Seneca Village during the construction of Central Park. “Everything we think of New York—whether it’s the Statue of Liberty or [the] Empire State Building, or Times Square or Central Park or the Freedom Tower—you gotta go back to the Dutch to see where it all started,” Sandler said. The foundations for what would become a globally recognized city came at the cost of oppressed minorities and forced labor.
But how does society determine which parts of our history to celebrate and which parts to condemn? Sandler argues that it is not our job as students of history to make that decision. “We’re not sitting having a jury on these historical figures from 400 years ago. I don’t think that’s the point of history class. [To] me, the point is just to kind of get a sense of the foundation. In my New York City History class, the foundation of New York is where it all started,” Sandler said.
On the other hand, many argue that modern students of history cannot be complacent about the atrocities committed in the past. Sophomore Amaryllis Sun asserted her opinion on the issue: “We do have the right to condemn the actions of those in the past. One of the main purposes of learning history is to make sure that individuals learn both sides of the story and to prevent acts against humanity from ever recurring. Excusing the actions of those in the past, no matter how long ago, restricts the growth of humanity and makes it easier for those actions to occur again,” Sun explained. While it’s important to view history through an objective lens, some feel that critiquing the actions of historical figures can be used to prevent the repetition of the darkest parts of history.
Furthermore, Sun contended that the enormous portrait of Peter Stuyvesant on Stuyvesant’s second floor holds little relevance to the school today. “I don’t think that the legacy of Peter Stuyvesant resonates with our school today, besides the fact that our school mascot is Pegleg [Pete]. He has not been brought up in any of my classes yet, and the only remembrance of him in the school is the second-floor portrait,” Sun said. Sun had initially heard about Peter Stuyvesant’s actions through a brief conversation with a classmate. “I first found out about Peter Stuyvesant’s history midway through freshman year when someone mentioned to me that he was one of the early settlers in the 13 colonies and had done horrific things. I then looked him up online and read through his Wikipedia description, learning for myself what he had done,” Sun said. Without taking the time to understand the intricacies of Peter Stuyvesant’s past, reconciling his connection to our school is impossible.
References to New York’s complicated and often dark history extend beyond names, seals, and statues. As students continue to walk through the halls of Stuyvesant High School, unaware of the weight the name bears, a part of Peter Stuyvesant’s troubling legacy is perpetuated. Erasure is not the answer; we, as students, with the guidance of our teachers, must come to terms with our school’s identity by acknowledging the despicable actions of our namesake. So, the next time you absentmindedly walk by Peter Stuyvesant’s portrait on the second floor, take a moment to reflect on the sinister history behind the man in the frame.