Juan Rodriguez is not a household name — not yet, at least. In fact, the name has been so lost to history that people cannot agree even on how to spell it. Nonetheless, one version will soon grace street signs on three miles of Broadway in Upper Manhattan, and the honor may prompt a debate about when to start celebrating New York City’s 400th birthday.
Who was Juan Rodriguez? That’s not certain, either, but enough agreement has emerged that Rodriguez, a native of what is now the Dominican Republic, was the first non-Indian to settle in New York that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed legislation on Tuesday to co-name Broadway in Rodriguez’s honor from 159th Street in Washington Heights to 218th Street in Inwood. Both neighborhoods have heavily Dominican populations. Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (no relation, apparently, to Juan) sponsored the legislation.
In 1613, Juan (or Jan or Joao) Rodriguez (or Rodrigues) appears to have accompanied Thijs Mossel, a Dutch sea captain, on the vessel Jonge Tobias from San Domingo, now known as Santo Domingo. Mossel returned to the Netherlands, while Rodriguez was marooned in what became New York (on either Governors Island or Manhattan) or more likely decided on his own to remain.
Something of a linguist, he is believed to have mastered the local Indian language and manned a tiny trading post (the Dutch apparently gave him 80 hatchets and other tools and weapons as payment for his services).
Much of what is known about him comes from affidavits by another captain, Adriaen Block, who complained that Mossel, presumably through Rodriguez, was overpaying for beaver pelts and was ruining Block’s business. Mossel insisted that Rodriguez was not his agent, but rather that Rodriguez had abandoned ship and remained on the island voluntarily (at least into 1614, when Mossel returned) and might have eventually married an Indian woman.
Crew members said in affidavits that the “mulatto” or “Spaniard” had “run away from the ship and gone ashore against their intent” and that Block’s crew “ought to have killed him” when he refused to go with them to Holland.
A report by the Dominican Studies Institute at City College of the City University of New York concluded this year: “Juan Rodriguez happens to be the first historically recorded individual of non-Native American ancestry to have ever resided in what is today” metropolitan New York, before the Dutch named their settlement New Amsterdam.
Since there is no archival evidence that Rodriguez left, said Ramona Hernandez, director of the institute, Rodriguez is “the first immigrant, the first black person, the first merchant, the first Latino and, to us, the first Dominican to have ever lived in New York City.”
The city seal proclaims 1625 as the year New York was founded by the Dutch. But with Rodriguez now freshly remembered as having become a New Yorker a dozen years earlier, maybe New York City’s 400th birthday candle will be lighted in 2013.