In America On His Own

By Lenina Mortimer

MEET JUAN RODRIGUEZ — New York City’s first immigrant.

He’s also a historical figure who went unrecognized for centuries.

But now researchers at City College have come together to set the record straight.

Judicial document from La Española with Juan Rodriguez’s name.

Judicial document from La Española with Juan Rodriguez’s name.

Rodriguez was born in Santo Domingo or Hispaniola (present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) — the first European colony established in the Americas. He was part of a crew that arrived in Hudson’s Harbor aboard a Dutch ship in 1613, probably sailing from the Spanish colony of Hispaniola. Rodriguez was also a free, dark-skinned man, according to Dutch notarial documents published by the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute.

“The story of Juan Rodriguez belongs to the history of all New Yorkers,” says Ramona Hernandez, director of the institute and professor of sociology at City College. “It shows that immigration and Dominicans are as old as apple pie. And it shows that New York has had inter-actions between different races and ethnicities since the very beginning.”

Rodriguez has been labeled the first because “he is simply the first individual for whom a historical record exists who is known to have lived in the Hudson Harbor area for several months (1613-1614), far from his society of origin, with only the local Native Americans as companions,” says Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, the assistant director of CUNY DSI.

It is likely that while living on the island of Santo Domingo, Rodriguez was hired to work as a sailor for the Dutch. The fact is that we find Rodriguez on a Dutch expedition destined for New Amsterdam and the Netherlands in 1613. But once Rodriguez arrived in Hudson’s Harbor he adamantly refused to leave, according to “Juan Rodriguez and the Beginnings of New York City,” a monograph published by the institute. Dutch notarial documents reveal that he lived and worked in New Amsterdam for at least eight months between 1613 and 1614.

Paraphrasing the few written statements that survive about Rodriguez, Hernandez says: “He was left here because he told whoever hired him, ‘I’m staying right here. And if you don’t leave me, I’ll jump overboard!’ We don’t know why he said that but I think this is a spirit of rebellion that you’ll find among many immigrants.” Hernandez adds that Rodriguez was paid for his services in goods — like hatchets — before the expedition sailed on to Holland without him.

“It’s particularly exciting to have a guy connected to the city exhibit that kind of self-assertion,” says Stevens-Acevedo, the lead author of the monograph. “It’s an important history lesson for children to learn that there was a free man of African descent who worked along side Europeans during slavery.”

The monograph describes Hispaniola as a colony that was wild and rebellious. “Early Dominicans constantly defied Spanish authority by trading with foreigners [like the Dutch] to avoid paying taxes, which in their eyes were unfair. And the attitude and behavior Rodriguez exhibits toward his employers appears to be typical of the culture in which he belonged,” says Hernandez.

Despite the historical significance Rodriguez’s story went untold until Dutch historian Simon Hart mentioned him in 1959. Rodriguez was virtually unheard of in American history until the 1990s when black scholars interested in the early history of African-Americans in New York began to discuss him. “They wanted to show that we didn’t only come in on ships, with our hands and our feet tied — we also came as business people,” says Hernandez. “We would like to think history books narrating the story of this country would now include this story so that children of all races will learn about Rodriguez. His story shows the complexity of the human family and that we’ve been a diverse society from day one,” says Hernandez.

After 400 years, New York’s first immigrant was recognized when a three-mile stretch of Broadway from 159th Street to 218th Street was named in his honor. “Broadway is in the imagination of almost everybody who’s heard of New York. I think it was the perfect street to be named after him,” says Hernandez.

Still, there is very little known about Rodriguez or what he did during his stay in New York City. “We’re not letting this rest because there are lots of questions. It’s simply a matter of time before more questions about his life are answered,” says Hernandez.

Ramona Hernandez, director, and Anthony Stevens- Acevedo, assistant director, of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute

Ramona Hernandez,
director, and Anthony Stevens- Acevedo, assistant director, of the
CUNY Dominican Studies Institute