Pietro Cesare Alberti (1608–1655) was a Venetian immigrant to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam and is regarded as the first Italian settler in what is now New York State. He was born on the island of Malamocco in 1608 at the height of Venice’s commercial power. The island was also the location of the original home of the Doge of Venice. Pietro was a member of the powerful Alberti family and the son of the secretary of the Ducal Treasury, Andrea Alberti and his wife, Lady Veronica Cremona. The family was itself, a branch of the well-known Florentine family who were allies of the Medici family. The Alberti’s were influential throughout the Italian peninsula and also had a branch in Genoa. Pietro’s paternal relatives included the famed Italian polymath and statesman Leon Battista Alberti.
Pietro may have never sailed to America, had it not been for the Thirty Years’ War. Fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648, it was one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in human history, resulting in eight million deaths from military engagements, famine and plague. Troops from the Netherlands were stationed in Malamocco. These troops carried with them a particularly virulent strain of bubonic plague, which spread rapidly, killing 46,000 of the city’s 140,000 residents. The immense decline in Venice’s population also led to a similar decline in its commercial power. Because the Alberti’s power was derived from the success of Venetian traders, Pietro decided at the age of 27 to seek a new life in the New World.
Pietro signed on as a merchant seaman aboard the Dutch ship De Coninck David (King David), which sailed from the Netherland’s port of Texel on July 10, 1634. The ship’s route to the country that would become the United States was by no means a direct one. It first sailed down the west coast of Africa past the mouth of the Congo River. The ship then sailed across the Atlantic to Brazil, then to Guiana, the West Indies, Virginia and finally to New Amsterdam, where Pietro arrived on June 2, 1635. Apparently the Italian seaman had a dispute with the Captain of the King David over his pay. The captain had threatened to leave Pietro in Cayenne, Guiana, but Pietro was able to remain with the ship until it reached its final port of New Amsterdam, where he promptly left the ship. Pietro then sued the Captain and was able to reclaim part of his unpaid wages.
In the New World, Alberti became known as Peter and he acclimated well in New Amsterdam’s cosmopolitan environment. By 1639, four years after his arrival, Pietro had contacted a large tobacco landowner named Pieter Montfoort and negotiated with him for a portion of his land. Four years later, Alberti secured the deed of ownership for the land from the Director General and Council of New Amsterdam.
In 1642, he married a woman named Judith Manje (also spelled Magnee). The couple had seven children from 1642 to 1655, including one who died in infancy. The family lived in a home on Broad Street (now the Financial District of New York) until 1646. In that year, the family moved to Alberti’s plantation property on Long Island. Today it is an area in the Fort-Green section of Brooklyn. They farmed the 100 acres until Pietro and Judith were killed in an Indian raid on November 9, 1655.
The Dutch authorities took charge of the six living children, appointed a guardian and made a favorable lease of the plantation on Long Island. The records show that all of the children married. In 1695, two of the sons, Jan and Willem, sold the business. Over the centuries, the family name Alberti had variations in spelling such as Albertis, Alburtus, Alburtis and Burtis. Nearly every American bearing the surnames Burtis and Alburtis can trace their ancestry back to Pietro Caesar Alberti.
Alberti was the first of millions of Italian Americans who would later form part of American culture. A small stone in New York City’s Battery Park, near the bronze statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano, commemorates Pietro Alberti’s arrival and declares June 2 to be “Alberti Day.”