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Life Story: Lisbeth Anthonijsen

A Vulnerable Free Black Orphan in New Netherland

This is the story of a free Black orphan who ran afoul of the courts in New Amsterdam and was ultimately enslaved.

Content Warning: This life story addresses violence and abuse.

Wampum

Barry Keegan, Wampum, 2014. Photo courtesy of Victor Reyes.

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Lisbeth Anthonijsen was born in the free Black community of New Amsterdam around the year 1650. Very little is known about her parents. Her last name, Anthonijsen, means “daughter of Anthony,” but her father does not appear in any known colonial documents. Her mother Mary is mentioned once in Lisbeth’s court records, but was otherwise not a person of prominence in the community.

The free Black community Lisbeth grew up in was formed by enslaved people from New Amsterdam who petitioned for their freedom. Colony directors granted those they freed small pieces of land so they could support themselves, and the newly freed Blacks who lived on those parcels of land banded together for support and survival. When Lisbeth was born, the community was only a few years old, and the status of the free Blacks of New Amsterdam was still very uncertain.

Lisbeth began to work as a servant in the households of New Amsterdam’s white colonists when she was very young. This work allowed her to make money to suport herself and her family. But as a young woman of color in a mostly white community, Lisbeth was vulnerable. In June 1661, Lisbeth’s employer accused her of stealing wampum. Wampum (pictured above), was a very valuable commodity in New Amsterdam because it could be used to trade with the local Native communities. Lisbeth was brought before the New Amsterdam court, where she confessed that she had committed the crime. She told the court she had been pressured into the crime by an older Black woman she knew. Because she was so young, the court punished her by making her mother beat her with a rod. The whole court watched the punishment to make sure that she was beaten severely, implying that the community did not think Lisbeth’s mother was doing a good job of raising her and keeping her in line. Lisbeth was the only child in New Amsterdam court records to be punished in this way.

As a young Black woman without family ties, Lisbeth had no protection against the accusations of her community and the whims of the court.

After this scandal, Lisbeth returned to her work in the homes of New Amsterdam’s white colonists. Her mother probably passed away around this time, because she is never mentioned in the records again. This left Lisbeth without any family to take an interest in her and protect her, which became a big problem in 1663.

Lisbeth’s next round of troubles began when her new mistress, the wife of Marten Crieger, beat her for stealing wampum. Since Lisbeth’s reputation as a thief was well known in the community, no one doubted Mistress Crieger’s accusation was true. Without any family to stand up for her, Lisbeth had to accept the beating.

Things got worse in November of 1663. The Crieger house burned down and Lisbeth ran away during the fire. The Crieger family thought Lisbeth’s running away was very suspicious. She was captured quickly by government officials and brought before the court in February 1664, this time charged with the very serious crime of arson.

At first, Lisbeth insisted that the fire began when she accidentally dropped a burning coal, but the court refused to believe her. Knowing that the court could torture her if she didn’t give them the answer they wanted, Lisbeth confessed. She claimed that she started the fire to punish her mistress for beating her unfairly. This version of events made perfect sense to the court, which believed that without a family to help and guide her, Lisbeth had taken vengeance into her own hands.

The court continued to question Lisbeth even after she confessed. Under pressure, she confessed to more thefts committed against her current and former employers, selling the goods she stole, and having sex outside of marriage. The court took all of this evidence together as proof that Lisbeth, as a young woman without parental authority, had become a public menace and a threat to community order.

The court sentenced Lisbeth to death by strangling at the stake, and ordered that her body be burned to ashes. But when she was led out of the room, the court changed the sentence. They wanted Lisbeth to believe she was going to be executed. She would be walked through the town to the stake, and a fire would be started nearby. At the last minute, the officials would announce that Lisbeth’s sentence was changed. Instead, she would be enslaved to the Crieger family to pay for the damages to their home. The Crieger’s could do whatever they wanted with her. They could keep her and force her to work for them, or they could sell her to make up the money they lost when their house burned down. The court believed sparing her life was an act of mercy. They probably also believed that by enslaving her they were putting Lisbeth back under the control of the community. Whether Lisbeth felt relieved or enraged by her new sentence goes unrecorded in the official documents.

Lisbeth’s entire ordeal, from her first beating before the courts to her mock execution and ultimate enslavement, is unique in the history of New Amsterdam. As a young Black woman without family ties, she had no protection against the accusations of her community and the whims of the court. Her story stands as evidence of just how wrong a single life in New Amsterdam could go.

Vocabulary

  • New Amsterdam: The capitol of the colony of New Netherland, where New York City is today.
  • petition: A written request submitted to a powerful person or the government.
  • wampum: Small beads made from quahog shells and whelk shells. The beads had important symbolic significance in many Native communities in the Northeast region of North America, and European traders used them to facilitate the fur trade with those communities.
  • arson: The crime of deliberately setting something on fire.

Pronunciation

  • Lisbeth Anthonijsen: Lisbeth An-TONE-yesen

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think Lisbeth was a particularly vulnerable person in colonial New Amsterdam?
  • Why did the court see Lisbeth as a menace to society? Why did the court punish Lisbeth so harshly?
  • How do you think Lisbeth’s status as a free Black person influenced the court in her sentencing?
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Suggested Activities

  • Ask students to write an account of Lisbeth’s life from her point of view. Have them consider the following questions: What pressures did Lisbeth face as a free Black girl in a majority white community? Why would she be tempted to steal wampum? How did it feel to face the court without anyone to stand up for her?
  • This life story can be combined with the following resources to create a vibrant lesson about the free Black and enslaved communities in New Amsterdam: Enslaved in New Amsterdam (see Resource 12 in New World—New Netherland—New York), The Land of the Blacks (see Resource 13 in New World—New Netherland—New York), Life Story: Pieter San Tomé (found on pg. 36 of New World—New Netherland—New York), Laws Affecting Blacks in Manhattan (found on pg. 43 of Slavery in New York), Life Story: Groot Manuel de Gerrit (found on pg. 71 of Slavery in New York), and Life Story: Dorothy Angola.
  • Children in the New World faced many challenges and dangers. Combine Lisbeth’s life story with any of the following resources for a lesson about childhood in the early colonial period: Life Story: Dennis and Hannah Holland, Life Story: Malitzen (La Malinche), Life Story: Kateri Tekakwitha, The Mourning Poetry of Anne Bradstreet, Life on the Encomienda, The Middle Passage, Children at Work, and Education in New France.
  • Ask students to compare and contrast the criminal trials of Lisbeth Anthonijsen and Marie-Josèphe Angélique and write about similarities and differences in the way Black women were viewed and treated in New Netherland and New France.
  • Lisbeth was not the only woman in the colonies to stand trial for crimes she denied. Compare and contrast her experiences with any of the women in the following resources: Life Story: Marie-Josèphe Angélique, Life Story: Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, and Witchcraft in Bermuda. Ask students to answer the following questions: Why were these women put on trial? What evidence existed of their guilt? What outside circumstances likely influenced the outcome of their trial?
  • Connect Lisbeth’s story with the modern issue of Black juvenile incarceration. How does the current view of Black youth in America echo the historical one? What has changed?

Themes

POWER AND POLITICS

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

Source Notes
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