First Governor of New York
Against the backdrop of the 17th century Anglo-Dutch wars (fought to gain supremacy in shipping and trade) Charles II of England in 1664 authorized his brother, James, Duke of York to send an armed force to New Netherland to enforce England’s land claim. James commissioned Richard Nicoll to lead the attack. A fleet of four warships and four hundred and fifty English soldiers arrived in Gravesend Bay, Long Island, an area that many English families had settled with the consent of the Dutch. Nicoll issued a proclamation declaring that Long Island was under English rule and promised English constitutional rights to the settlers in return for their assistance in the fight against the Dutch.
Realizing that they had little chance of repelling the English attack, the Dutch forces surrendered on August 27, 1664 and Richard Nicoll became the first Governor of New York. The Governor immediately called the Hempstead Convention where he promulgated the Duke’s Laws, a legal code drafted by Nicoll with the assistance of his secretary, Matthias Nicolls, that introduced trial by jury to the colony and set up a court system consisting of local courts, intermediary Courts of Sessions and the highest court, the Court of Assizes, with jurisdiction in both law and equity. Much to the distress of the English settlers, the Duke’s Laws did not provide for a representative assembly.
On June 12, 1665, Richard Nicoll extended the Duke’s Laws to the City of New York through a charter that placed the executive power of the City in the hands of a mayor, five aldermen and a sheriff, all of whom were appointed by the Governor. These officials, with the exception of the sheriff, also constituted the judges of the Mayor’s Court which, within the City of New York, exercised the jurisdiction of a Court of Sessions and convened for the first time on June 15, 1665. Although trial by jury was available, many of the Dutch procedures were retained in this court, and the records were kept in Dutch and English.
Governor Nicoll indicated to the Duke of York that he wished to return to England and the Duke of York agreed to his request. On August 25, 1668, the denizens of New York held a farewell dinner in Nicoll’s honor following which they formed a large procession and escorted him to his ship. In a letter written around this time from Boundary Commissioner Samuel Maverick to Lord Arlington, he noted that Richard Nicoll “hath done His Majesty and His Royal Highness very considerable service in these parts, having, by his prudent management of affairs, kept persons of different judgments and of diverse nations in peace and quietness, during a time when a great part of the world was in wars. And as to the several nations of the Indians, they were never brought into such a peaceable posture and faire correspondence as by his means they now are.”
Back in London, Nicoll again became part of the Duke of York’s retinue and served with him in the fleet under his command in the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Richard Nicoll was killed by a cannonball on May 28, 1672, in the North Sea naval battle of Southwold Bay.
J.R. Brodhead. History of the State of New York (1872).
Peter R. Eisenstadt and Laura-Eve Moss. The Encyclopedia of New York State (2005).
Martha Joanna Lamb and Mrs. Burton Harrison. A History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress.