Appendix C: First Schoolmaster of New York

Anicetas Simutis

Three hundred and fifty years ago, Henry Hudson entered New York Bay in the “Half Moon” in search of the “Northwest Passage.” Fifty years later — in 1659 — when New York was still a small trading post of the Netherlands with fewer than 200 houses and about 1,500 inhabitants, the first school of higher education was opened in New Amsterdam (now New York). Its first schoolmaster was Dr. Alexander Carolus Curtius, a Lithuanian nobleman and former professor in Lithuania. Why should a Lithuanian professor have left his country in order to go to an unknown and remote land to become a schoolmaster? Was he a political refugee, a man seeking freedom and a better future in the new land? Or was he, perhaps, simply an adventurer? A close scrutiny of contemporary history of Europe and New York gives some interesting insights into these possibilities.

In the middle of the seventeenth century the expanding Russian empire under Alexius Mikhailovich (1629-1676) became a grave threat to the weakened Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1654 the Russian army entered Lithualnia, sacking and plundering every town on its way. An eyewitness wrote on July 24, 1654: “Traveling to Kaluga we saw great multitudes of carts crowded with women and children from Lithuania being moved to the East. Men having been either killed on the spot by Moscovites or drowned in the rivers. Seven, eight boys or girls could be bought for one rouble…”[1]

The approaching Russian army brought in those days great panic to Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania similarly as the invasion of the Red Russian army, nearly three hundred years later, brought terror to Lithuania in 1940 and, particularly in 1944. Fleeing professors of the Jesuit Academy of Vilnius tried to save not only themselves, but the cultural treasures as well. The library of the Academy, one of the richest in Eastern Europe, was moved in 1655 to Koenigsberg, Lithuania Minor (East Prussia), and was not returned to Vilnius until the Rusians were driven out. Prussia and Western Europe were flooded with Lithuanian refugees, some going as far as Holland. It is very likely that Dr. Curtius was one of these refugees.

It must be noted that there was another school of higher education in Kražiai and still another in Koenigsberg, Lithuania Minor. The possibility of his being a professor in either of these schools cannot be excluded. Unfortunately, contemporary records which may have survived wars and foreign invasions are inaccessible due to Soviet Russian occupation of Lithuania.

The possibility of Curtius being an adventurer must be completely excluded. His disputes with burgomasters of New Amsterdam and complaints concerning his salary would tend to show that he was accustomed to a higher standard of living than his income in New Amsterdam could provide.

According to the early records of New York there were 270 inhabitants in 1628, about 700 in 1652, 120 houses and 1,000 souls in 1656, and 200 houses and 1,500 souls in 1659. With the increase in population the need to establish some kind of school became pressing. There is some evidence that as early as 1638 an elementary school existed in New York with Adam Roelantsen as its schoolmaster. Yet in 1647 a schoolhouse as such was still lacking, as is seen from the remark of the Director General of the New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant: “Whereas for want of a proper place no school has been kept for three months, by which the youth here run wild, it is asked where school can be kept, in order that the youth may be kept from the street and be accustomed to discipline under a pious and diligent schoolmaster.”[2]

Director Stuyvesant must be credited with concern for education since as early as 1652 he expressed interest in a school above the elementary grades. On September 19, 1658, a new request for a schoolmaster was dispatched to the West India Company Directors at Amsterdam. The burgomasters of New Amsterdam hoped that once established the school would eventually become an academy (university). But the obstacle to this plan was the seeming impossibility of finding a sufficiently trained and suitable teacher who would be willing to go to an unexplored and wild land, nor was any person with qualifications to be found in the colony. At long last, the Directors of the West India Company at Amsterdam advised Stuyvesant in a letter of April 25, 1659:

“How much trouble we have taken, to find a Latin schoolmaster is shown by the fact, that now one Alexander Carolus Cursius, late Professor in Lithuania, goes over, whom we have engaged as such at a yearly salary of 500 fl, board money included; we give him also a present of 100 fl in merchandise, to be used by him upon his arrival there, as you may learn by the enclosed extract from our resolutions or by the contract made with him, to which we refer for brevity’s sake. Your good friends. The Directors of the W.I. Company, Department of Amsterdam.”[3]

Before Curtius arrived, the burgomasters had a schoolhouse built for him on the site a few feet north of what is now the junction of Broad Street and Exchange Place. Dr. Curtius sailed in the “Bever” on April 25, 1659, and on July 4 appeared before the burgomasters of New Amsterdam. Shortly after arrival, Dr. Curtius opened a Latin school for boys, the highest form of education in New Netherland, in the new building.[4]

It was not long before Dr. Curtius began to feel the pinch of high prices in New Amsterdam. He complained to the burgomasters. On September 17, 1659, Stuyvesant wrote to the Directors of the West India Company at Amsterdam:

“The Latin schoolmaster or rector, lately sent over, complains of his salary, because, he says it is impossible to support himself decently with it, as you may see by his enclosed letter to us. Your repeated instructions do not allow us to raise anybody’s salary without your knowledge, we have therefore referred him to you, promising him our favorable recommendation: we now request your Honor’s advice, whether a reasonable sum may not be granted to him for board money. As to his services and his diligence, we must truly testify, that his industry is astonishing and the progress of the young people remarkable.”[5]

The Directors at Amsterdam appear to have been quite stingy, since in their letter of December 22, 1659, they wrote:

“We believe, that the complaints made by the Latin schoolmaster or rector about the insufficiency of his salary are almost answered by the payment of all salaries at Holland valuation, as now ordered, which, with what he receives from his pupils every year schould be sufficient to support him decently, as long as he remains a single man; with the increase of the young people in the school his income will increase daily, for the parents of his pupils will not hesitate to remunerate him fairly, if he does his duty.”[6]

From further correspondence between the West India Company and Peter Stuyvesant we learn that Dr. Curtius not only taught school, but also practiced medicine. In fact, he is considered to have been the first physician of any prominence in New York:

“While the population was creeping up to 1500, which it did not fully reach until 1664, and not long after the arrival of the first schoolmaster, the name of the first physician of any prominence, Alexander C. Curtius, appears. He taught school also…”[7]

The Directors of the Company at Amsterdam wrote to Stuyvesant on April 16, 1660:

“As we are told, that Rector Curtius practices medicine there and therefore asked to have a herbarium sent to him, we have been willing to provide him with one herewith, you will hand it to him with the understanding, that it shall not cease to be property of the Company; likewise the books sent with and for the above-mentioned clergymen.”[8]

Although initially Stuyvesant was delighted with Curtius and recommended to the Amsterdam West India Company that he be given a raise in salary, subsequent misunderstandings between Curtius and the burgomasters and with Stuyvesant led to a complete break and the return of Curtius to Europe in 1661.

On December 27, 1661, Carolus Alexander Curtius “nobilis Lithuanus,” was matriculated at the University of Leiden, Holland, as “medicinae candidatus.” He is listed on page 634 in the Album Inscriptionum, Vol X, which is in the Archives of the Senate of the University of Leiden. Unfortunately, there is no information about the family background of Dr. Curtius, as is revealed in the letter of the University Library of Leiden of January 6, 1959, wherein it is stated: “It appears that he took his medical degree at Leiden, but that he already was doctor utriusque uris. About his place and date of birth nothing more can be found in our archives.”

However, two things remain clear: Dr. Curtius was a professor in Lithuania before coming to New York and he was a Lithuanian nobleman. Lithuanians recognize his name as Latinization of the Lithuanian “Kuršius,” an inhabitant of Kuršas, or of “Kurčius,” meaning a deaf man. Both these names and their derivatives are still popular among Lithuanians: Kuršius, Kuršis, Kuršelis, Kuršaitis, Kuršauskas, Kurčius. It is noteworthy that in three of the four documents found in the Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York his name is spelled “Cursius” (pages 437, 436, and 443). This may be a simple typographical error, or perhaps Dr. Curtius in the beginning used the Lithuanian form “Cursius” and changed it later to Curtius. However, his doctoral thesis, “Disputatio Medica Inaguralis, de Calculo Renum ac Vesicae,” bears the name Alex Carolus Curtius, D.

From LITUANUS, March 1959.

ANICETAS SIMUTIS, Lithuanian vice consul in New York and occasional contributor to Lithuanian and American periodicals, studied economics at the University of Vytautas the Great, Kaunas, Lithuania, and at Columbia University, New York, N. Y., where in 1940 he obtained his MA degree. His thesis “The Economic Reconstruction of Lithuania After 1918” was published by the Columbia University Press in 1912. He is also author and editor of two books — “Pasaulio Lietuvių Žinynas” (1953) and “Lithuanian World Directory” (1958).

  1. Dr. Daugirdaitē-Sruogienē, Lietuvos Istorija (History of Lithuania), (Chicago, 1956), p . 574.
  2. W. H. Kilpatrick, The Dutch Schools (1912), p. 59.
  3. B. Fernow, Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, translated, compiled and edited from the original records by B. Fernow, XIV (O.S.) (Albany, N.Y., 1883), 436.
  4. Henry H. Kessler and Eugene Rachlis, Peter Stuyvesant and His New York (New York, 1959), p. 208
  5. Fernow, op. cit., p. 445.
  6. Ibid., p. 462.
  7. James Grant, The Memorial History of the City of New York (Chapter XIV: Two Hundred Years of Medicine), IV (1893), 387.
  8. Fernow, op. cit., p. 462.


Lithuanian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © 2020 by Anicetas Simutis. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book