Jan Rodrigues: The 1st Black Man to Set Foot on the Island of Manhattan

Hidden History: The story of the first African descendant who was also the first Hispanic American and first Dominican settler in New York’s Manhattan.

The 2009 "Harlem River" mural, depicting Jan Rodrigues in Manhattan, New York City.
The 2009 "Harlem River" mural, depicting Jan Rodrigues in Manhattan, New York City. Photo Courtesy Creative Art Works

In 1613, seven years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, and six years before a Dutch vessel sold 20 Africans to the Virginia colonists at Jamestown, a black man named Jan Rodrigues was the first non-Native American to settle and trade on what is now Manhattan Island.

Rodrigues, described in Dutch records as “Spanish” and a “black rascal,” was born in Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic) to a European (possibly Portuguese) father and a mother of African descent, and where he was presumably known as Juan Rodriguez.

Other than a fairly small number of Spanish bureaucrats and colonists, the majority of people on Santo Domingo were black or mixed race—some enslaved, some free—and many shared a culture that was influenced by the indigenous Taino population.

From their earliest efforts to colonize the island, the Spanish had tried to contain the nonwhite majority. Santo Domingo was the site of the first major rebellion by African slaves in the Americas, in 1522, on a plantation owned by Gov. Diego Colón, as the son of Christopher Columbus was known in Spain. Ninety years later, Spain had come to view its Caribbean possessions as something of a backwater—Santo Domingo lacked the gold and silver that made Mexico and Peru more profitable for Spanish colonists.

And so Rodrigues, like much of the Santo Domingo population, began to make a living through smuggling, an occupation that became more lucrative after 1600, when Dutch, Portuguese, French and English vessels began arriving in the Caribbean in much greater numbers en route to their own planned colonies in North and South America.

Rodrigues was not the first African descendant to travel to what is now the United States.

Esteban, a Moroccan-born slave, arrived in Florida in 1528 as part of a group of 300 Spaniards seeking to colonize the territory. Esteban traveled across the American Southwest and Northern Mexico for eight years, acquiring knowledge of local languages, flora and fauna.

In 1603, some Frenchmen hired a free African, Mathieu da Costa, to serve as an interpreter and cultural go-between for their exploration of upstate New York and Canada. Da Costa’s linguistic talents were first employed by the Portuguese in their trade with various native groups, and he was fluent in the common pidgin language through which Europeans, Africans and indigenous groups traded and communicated across the Atlantic in the early 1600s, when Jan Rodrigues first appears in the historical record.

At some point before the summer of 1613, Rodrigues joined the crew of the Dutch merchant ship Jonge Tobias, captained by Thijs Mossel, on its voyage from the Caribbean to the East Coast of North America, including a journey up the Hudson River. The vessel anchored off Manhattan Island, where the crew traded furs with the native Lenape. Perhaps, like Mathieu da Costa, Rodrigues was an able linguist who could converse with them in pidgin. Several weeks later, Mossel commanded his crew to return to the Netherlands, but Rodrigues refused to leave, claiming that as a free man, he had a right to choose.

Mossel reluctantly agreed to leave him there and left him with 80 hatchets, some knives, a musket and a sword. Over several months, Rodrigues traded with various native bands and with other Dutch vessels in the region, including one captained by Adrian Block, who was mapping Long Island Sound. When Block returned to the Netherlands later that year, he discovered that Mossel was suing him in court. Mossel claimed that Rodrigues was his servant and that his presence on Manhattan was in service of protecting Mossel’s exclusive trading rights with the islanders. Block disagreed.