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.
Block stated that Rodrigues was a free man, not a servant, and was acting on his own authority, not on Mossel’s behalf. Another Dutch captain, Hendrick Christiaensen, testified in support of Block’s claim that Rodrigues was a free man, based on his several months living with native groups as a translator for Christiaensen's own negotiations with a band of Rockaway Indians.
Rodrigues did not testify in the case, but he made clear his views of his former ship captain when the Dutchman, Mossel, returned to Manhattan in April 1614 aboard a new vessel. Upon sighting Mossel, now captain of the Nachtegael, on the Hudson, Rodrigues fired his musket at the ship. The Dutch crew, armed with swords, guns and torches, responded by chasing him onto the island, where he was briefly wounded and captured. Rodrigues somehow managed to grab a sword from one of his pursuers and escaped to the safety of Christiaensen’s vessel. For Mossel, Rodrigues’ resistance proved his claim that he was a renegade “black rascal” and not free. The Dutch courts disagreed with him, however, and by not returning Rodrigues to Mossel, implicitly ruled that he was a free man.
With the conclusion of the court case, Rodrigues disappeared from the written historical record. Some accounts suggest that he remained in Manhattan and established a trading post, where he was supplied with axes, kettles and other metal tools to barter with the Lenape. As the first-known nonindigenous resident of the region, he had knowledge about local language, customs and values that was invaluable to the growing number of Dutch visitors and settlers. He may have married and had children with a local woman and was perhaps still in the region when the Dutch West India Company arrived in Manhattan in 1625.
After 1626, when the Dutch West India Company brought a cargo of 11 Africans to Manhattan, Rodrigues was joined by more people of color. It is possible that Rodrigues stayed on Manhattan as late as the 1640s, when 100 Africans were living on the island (most enslaved) and formed over one-third of the labor force. Some reports indicate that he may have become known as Jan de Fort Orange and lived near the present-day Bowery in a community of free blacks.
Race-based slavery would gradually entrench itself in New Amsterdam, which would later become New York, as well as in all of the mainland Colonies, and the history of Manhattan’s first free black resident was largely forgotten until the late 1950s, when Dutch historians discovered his case in the Colonial archives. But it was not until 2013 that the English and Spanish translation of his court case became widely available through the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of New York.
That same year, a section of Broadway north of 159th Street, in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, home to a large Dominican population, was co-named “Juan Rodriguez Way” in honor of the first nonindigenous, first African-descended, first Hispanic-American and first Dominican settler in Manhattan. A mural depicting him, created by nonprofit Creative Art Works in 2009, can be found in Harlem River Park.
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.
Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.