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In the early summer of 1625, three Dutch vessels—the Paert (Horse), the Koe (Cow), and the Schaep (Sheep)—dropped anchor off the southern tip of the island that native inhabitants called Mannahatta (the island of many hills). It was a beautiful wilderness: hilly in parts, thickly wooded, and crisscrossed with streams. The ships, all property of the Dutch West India Company, carried about forty-five passengers. Most were French-speaking Huguenots—Walloons—from what is now Belgium. There were 103 head of livestock, each housed in its own stall. Cargo included plows, other farm equipment, and many sorts of seeds. All would be used to build a settlement on the island, which was populated only by Indians—they numbered perhaps 1,500 at the most—and a few hardy souls who had arrived on an expedition the previous year. Among them were Cryn Fredericks, an engineer, and Willem Verhulst, whom the Company had appointed director of the colony. There were also about a dozen enslaved Africans who had been seized from Spanish ships and immediately put to work on Nut Island, just a gunshot away from the shore: they cut down trees, fashioned a crude sawmill, and kept hacking out more logs with which to feed it.
The settlement was to be called New Amsterdam, and it would serve as headquarters of New Netherland, which stretched from New England to Virginia. The Dutch had claimed the vast territory—a claim the English refused to recognize—after Henry Hudson in 1609 sailed the Half Moon up the river that would bear his name.
Hudson and subsequent explorers described the newly discovered land as a Garden of Eden filled with all sorts of resources ready for the picking: fish and oysters; berries, grapes, and nuts; and forests dense with timber, supplies of which were by then dwindling in Europe. The Indians grew corn and squash. There was also an abundance of game for hunting as well as otters and beavers to supply fur, which Europeans especially coveted. On the Continent, fur, like trees, had been overharvested. It was the mention of fur that had most caught the attention of investors in Holland, leading to the incorporation of the Dutch West India Company. But so far there were only a handful of people—perhaps a hundred adventurous immigrants from the Netherlands—who were engaged in fur trading. They lived scattered in the wilderness along the Hudson near the Mohican tribes who sold the foreigners pelts, which were then shipped downriver, to be loaded onto ships that crossed the Atlantic to Holland. The intersection of the Hudson and the Atlantic, then, was a natural hub where business could be transacted, including privateering, the Company’s biggest source of income, against Spanish ships en route to the Caribbean.
Along with the cattle and farming equipment, the Dutch West India Board had sent detailed instructions addressed specifically to Verhulst and Fredericks. The engineer was to erect a fort at the tip of the island, lay out streets, and build houses: twelve of them with sufficient land for farming and grazing. This was a priority. Five of the farms—bouweries—were to be leased to colonists for a period of six years; they were to draw straws for the privilege. The goal, for the time being, was to make the colony self-sufficient. The rest of the lots would go to the Company directors. The instructions specified that besides the slaves, Fredericks was to use anybody who was willing to work for labor, including Indians. They, however, would be paid only half as much as white men and not in specie but trading goods.
Fredericks placed the footprint for the fort on the spot that is now the old Custom House, just behind Bowling Green. Around it, he put the houses. But there was no room there for all those farms. So he did some exploring in the sticky summer heat (for which Manhattan remains famous) and discovered footpaths that the Indians used at the shore, right behind where he was planning the fort. (This is now the foot of Pearl Street, so named because of all those lovely oysters that once proliferated in the waters around New York.) One of the paths veered east through the woods along what is now Park Row and up to Chatham Square. It then turned north, parallel to the other branch, and continued into the wilderness. To the west of the path and surrounded by hills (where now stand the state supreme court and parts of Chinatown) was a huge freshwater pond, its surface in places covered with lily pads. Between the hills stretched flat, marshy terrain teeming with aquatic life: red-winged blackbirds, coots, herons, bullfrogs, beavers. Several streams undulated through the flat areas, flowing in and then out with the tides, and then draining into each of the great rivers on either side of Manhattan. Indians in canoes traversed the island via the streams, which provided them with shortcuts to the rivers. The rivers were in fact tidal estuaries and therefore consisted of saltwater, so the streams, too, were salty at high tide when they were running toward the pond. But by the time they flowed into it, they were running fresh. Sometimes, in spring or high tide, the marshy, wet terrain around the pond was completely flooded.
Between the western shore of the pond and the area’s highest hill—it measured almost 110 feet high—Fredericks came across an Indian settlement called Werpoes. The word means “thicket”; thorn and berry bushes covered the surrounding hills. The inhabitants were the Manhates—one of the branches of the Lenape group—who lived in the southern part of the Hudson Valley. This was a wonderful spot, accessible to both rivers by canoe via streams that flowed to and from the pond (the one that emptied into the East River was later filled in and became the eponymous Canal Street). The pond provided the Manhates with drinking water and fish. In the flat area along its banks they grew the “three sisters”: corn, beans, and squash. The crops were beautifully arranged, with the squash and its abundant green leaves in between the corn, which was planted on mounds of earth, and the beans climbing up the corn stalks, feeding nitrogen to the other two crops through its roots. The Dutch were soon calling the pond Kalck Hoek—“calcium hook,” that is, hook as in “corner,” after the oyster shells piled up around it. The name mutated into “Collect Pond” or “Collect,” after English supplanted Dutch as New York’s lingua franca. (Oysters were a big part of the Lenape diet; they also used the shells to make the wampum they used for currency.)
Lower Manhattan, 1742–44.
Imagine Fredericks’s awe, walking along the path in the heat of summer and taking in this unspoiled land. Except for the sounds of nature—the bullfrogs croaking, the loons moaning to each other, the leaves rustling in the breeze—there was silence. He realized that he had found the perfect location for the farms—bouweries. He would place them along the footpath, six on each side.
The bouweries varied in area from about 50 to 200 acres. Fredericks designated the northernmost one—120 acres of forest in the middle of which St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery now stands on Second Avenue and Stuyvesant Street—for the company director. Fredericks considered the proximity of the Manhate settlement a real bonus: the native peoples, he thought, would help clear the forest and show the new farmers how to cultivate the land. Fredericks set to work. He had slaves and Indians widen the footpath to accommodate carts and animals. Trees were cut and the farms were carved out of the woods. The livestock that had been temporarily parked on Nut Island were then distributed among the farmers. As it was not the custom among the Dutch to fence their animals, cows, horses, sheep, and pigs—all animals the native people were seeing for the first time—were soon wandering into the nearby fields and eating up the crops that the Manhates had carefully planted. The white settlers were already upending the lives of the native people; and while the Manhates continued to use their old path to traverse the length of Manhattan, just as they had for thousands of years, it was no longer theirs. The Dutch used it as a public road, which they called the wagon road to Sapokanican, another Indian settlement along the Lenape path in what is now Greenwich Village. The section of the path they had widened with the Indians’ sweat was being trampled with wooden carts and filled with the scat of those strange animals that were now devouring the corn and squash.
As Fredericks was overseeing the clearing of woods and the laying out of farms alongside the Lenape trail, Peter Minuit, who had succeeded Verhulst as the colony’s director, bought Manhattan Island for sixty guilders’ worth of goods. The year was 1626. The Dutch sources do not name the Indians who were involved in the transaction. They could have been the Manhates at Werpoes given that they were living nearby. Dutch documentation of the sale exists, although no actual deed was ever found. We don’t know the Indians’ version of these events, because they left no written records of it or anything else. But certainly the concept of humans owning land was alien to them. Probably the Indians saw Minuit’s offering as the symbol of an agreement between the two peoples to share Manhattan, and doubtless they expected something in return.
But as far as the Dutch were concerned, the island now belonged to them. (They had also started a settlement in the northern wilds of Manhattan Island, which they called Nieuw Haarlem, after the city where its inhabitants came from.) They believed that they had conducted the purchase of Manhattan with the utmost integrity. The Company had sent specific instructions on how to acquire land in the new colony, and Minuit had followed them to the letter:
Commissary Verhulst, assisted by the surveyor, Cryn Fredericks, shall investigate the most suitable place, abandoned or unoccupied, on either river, and then settle there with all the cattle and build the necessary fortification. And finding none but those that are occupied by the Indians, they shall see whether they cannot, either in return for trading-goods or by means of some amicable agreement, induce them to give up ownership and possession to us, without however forcing them thereto in the least or taking possession by craft or fraud, lest we call down the wrath of God upon our unrighteous beginnings, the Company intending in no wise to make war or hostile attacks upon any one, except the Spanish and their allies, and others who are our declared enemies.
What an interesting bit of evidence this is about the Dutch character. In the context of seventeenth-century Europe, when it was the social norm to buy, sell, and work Africans as if they were cattle and to persecute and kill people based on their religion, the Dutch often showed themselves to be surprisingly liberal. But mixed in with their professions of respect for the Indians was pure pragmatism. The Dutch were essentially urban people, without any knowledge of the wilderness. They did not know how to hunt or trap animals. Without the Indians, they could not survive in New Netherland. The Indians supplied them with food and, most important, pelts.
The Dutch made that dependence mutual.
Before the Europeans arrived, Indians had mostly survived by hunting and fishing, but only as much as they could consume. The newcomers turned this world upside down by introducing the Indians to what was for them a novel idea: profit. This translated into the exploitation of resources. The white men cut down forests not just to clear fields but also to export the timber to Europe, where the supply was dwindling. At the same time, they were destroying the Indians’ habitats, along with the ecology that had sustained them for thousands of years. The European demand for furs meant that the Indians were now killing animals for trading rather than for mere survival. In the meantime, the Indians had come to desire—and soon need—the things that Europeans offered them in exchange for pelts: metal pots, which were more durable than pottery; woolen duffel cloth, which unlike animal skins protected them from the rain; guns, which killed much more efficiently than arrows; and alcohol, to which the Indians had no tolerance.
But the Europeans had brought with them something far more dangerous than alcohol: their diseases. Smallpox epidemics were annihilating entire communities, and those few indigenous people who survived unknowingly spread the virus farther by joining kin living elsewhere.
* * *
It took several years for the Dutch settlers to complete the fort at the tip of Manhattan. As material they used sod, and it began to crumble immediately, leaving the inhabitants of New Amsterdam vulnerable to attack. They were not worried about the Indians: from where they were sitting, matters between them and the native peoples were going just fine. But they feared invasion by whites from the rival English colonies to the north and south.
The Indians no doubt saw things differently. Their numbers were dwindling. The Manhates at Werpoes were soon gone. We don’t know the circumstances; perhaps they succumbed to disease or were driven off their land by settlers on the neighboring farms. (Possibly the Manhates migrated to Brooklyn and joined a Canarsee settlement there, also called Werpoes.)
In the meantime, New Amsterdam was attracting more immigrants. But very few of them came from the Netherlands, because the economy there was booming, thanks in large part to all its colonies—Angola, Brazil, and Curacao—and that meant opportunity. This was the era historians would later call the Dutch golden age. The merchant class was growing and having fun too. Therefore, it was hard to find people who wanted to leave the Netherlands either for economic reasons or religious, which is often the impetus for people to emigrate. The religious persecution then raging throughout Europe was nonexistent in the Netherlands; on the contrary, many minorities, such as the English Puritans, found refuge there. The Dutch were decidedly laid back when it came to religion, and the Dutch West India Company did not even mention it in the charter. All that mattered to them was that an immigrant would help increase their investment; his religion or nationality was irrelevant. Already, on Manhattan Island, money transcended everything.
In 1628, New Amsterdam’s population totaled several hundred people, including the slaves. Most lived in the area around the fort, where slaves had constructed thirty rude shacks out of hickory wood from trees on Nut Island. The settlement also had a stone warehouse for storing the beaver pelts coming in from upriver and three windmills. One of them was located on the Bowery, near the new farms. Apparently, the farms were producing grain, because the Reverend Jonas Michaelius wrote to the Company on August 11, 1628: “The harvest, God be praised, is in the barns, and is larger than ever before.” But the good pastor—he was New Amsterdam’s first, sent over by the Company—didn’t find much else to feel happy about. The common people, he wrote to his bosses back home, were “rather rough and unrestrained.” It was hard to find workers, because “many would have liked to make a living, and even to get rich, in idleness rather than by hard work, saying they had not come to work; that as far as working is concerned they might as well have stayed at home, and that it was all one whether they did much or little, if only in the service of the Company.” As for the Indians, he found them “entirely savage and wild, strangers to all decency, yea, uncivil and stupid as garden poles, who serve nobody but the Devil.”
The curmudgeonly Michaelius was right about one thing: the new inhabitants had no incentive to work hard. New Amsterdam was not a colony in the legal sense but rather a trading post that existed solely for the benefit of investors. Everybody there worked for the Company, which is where all profits went. The Dutch government had also granted a monopoly to the Company on all the fur trade and everything else they could get their hands on in New Netherland. The Company passed Michaelius’s complaints on to the government in a report dated October 23, 1629: “The people conveyed by us thither have found but scanty means of livelihood up to the present time; and have not been any profit, but a drawback, to this Company.” Still, the report stated, the fur trade was excellent. “But one year with another, we can at most bring home 50,000 guilders.” In fact the place was turning a profit—but not large enough to satisfy investors.
Still, too much capital had been invested in New Amsterdam for the Company to just walk away. So it hung on to its grimy new venture and tried to stimulate its economy. Huge land tracts were offered for sale, to be managed and exploited as the new owners—patroons—saw fit. The Company also ended its trade monopoly; now anybody could buy and sell furs or anything else for that matter in New Netherland. The new initiatives worked: immediately immigration increased. People were coming to New Amsterdam from all over; you could hear eighteen languages spoken in the streets. Dutch speakers were in the minority; the rest were French and Belgian Huguenots (the latter known as Walloons), Irish, Swedes, Germans, and English. Among the latter were members of dissident Protestant sects from Massachusetts who were escaping the persecution of the Puritans (who, ironically, had fled religious intolerance in England only to invent a more strident variety of their own in the New World).
The refugees from Puritan New England and its dour ways found New Amsterdam a real eye-opener. It was a wild place. Its population was overwhelmingly male, and when it came to policing morality, the Dutch took a decidedly relaxed approach. After fur, alcohol was the most lucrative business. The Company produced its own beer, and thus did Brouwer Street (now Stone Street) in Lower Manhattan derive its name. One out of four structures housed a tavern; they stayed open all the time, even on Sundays. Everybody drank all the time, everywhere, and openly. Drunkenness led to frequent violence, and prostitution thrived. Policing all this vice was complicated by the fact that New Amsterdam had no real government. The director ruled by fiat, and there was no right of appeal.
New Amsterdam was also falling apart physically by the 1630s, because there weren’t enough people—or slaves—willing to perform the necessary manual labor to keep it together. The fort, though rebuilt, remained flimsy. The sawmill on Nut Island that the Africans had built upon the settlers’ arrival and the windmills constructed soon after had fallen into ruins. Hardly any grain or other crops were being produced. The farms along the Bowery that Fredericks had laid out were now deserted: Those lucky men to whom the lands had been allotted in the mid-1620s soon realized there was more money to be made in fur trading. Consequently they’d decamped, taking all the livestock with them, which they sold.
In 1638, the Company brought in a new director general to clean up this lawless mess. Willem Kieft was a businessman with no experience in governing. His business ventures were questionable: it was rumored that he had been hired to ransom Christians who were being held captive in Constantinople, but he kept the money without freeing the prisoners. Despite this, he had family connections with Company members, which perhaps explains why they chose him.
Kieft’s predecessor, Wouter van Twiller, had improved the director’s farm with a “dwelling house,” a “very good barn,” a boat house, and a brewery covered with tiles. But Kieft declined to live there, instead choosing to move into quarters inside the fort. During his first few years as director he heard and decided dozens of complaints, some of them criminal matters involving theft, murder, and rape. At the same time, England was trying to horn in on New Netherland, which was severely underpopulated and therefore vulnerable to attack. Despite these urgent problems to deal with, Kieft made going after Indians his first priority, not just on Manhattan Island but throughout the colony. His impulse was completely irrational: Even though the Indian population was shrinking, they still vastly outnumbered the Dutch. So it was a war he could never win. Moreover, it violated the Company policy.
Kieft started his crusade by imposing a tax on the Lenape as the price of “protecting” them from the more aggressive Mohicans and Mohawks to the north. The Lenape, incredulous at Kieft’s demand, ignored it. “He must be a very mean fellow to come to live in this country without being invited, and now wish to compel us to give us our corn for nothing,” a group of Tappans complained to a sympathetic patroon named David Pieterszoon de Vries, who had a farm on Staten Island. So Kieft searched for a reason to pick another fight. He saw his chance when some Company-owned pigs on De Vries’s Staten Island farm were killed. It was not clear who the guilty party was, but Kieft insisted that it was a group of Raritans living nearby. He sent one hundred soldiers to the settlement to demand satisfaction from the Indians. The soldiers had orders not to attack, but things quickly spun out of control. Four European men were killed along with several Indians. One soldier tortured the brother of the chief “in his private parts, with a piece of split wood,” one horrified witness reported. “Such acts of tyranny perpetrated by the servants of the Company were far from making friends with the inhabitants.” To say the least: one year later, in 1641, Raritans descended on De Vries’s farm, burned his house, and killed his men.
De Vries, furious, tried to get Kieft to back off before the director inflicted more damage. Up until then, the patroon had had good relations with the Indians. This sophisticated merchant was born in La Rochelle, France—home to many Huguenots—to Dutch parents, who then returned with him to the Netherlands, where he grew up and learned how to conduct trade. Curiosity and possible business opportunities took him first to Newfoundland, around the Mediterranean, and back to the Netherlands. Then, attracted by a possibility of a patroonship, he crossed the Atlantic a second time in 1632. During the following decade, he’d been sailing along the coasts of New Jersey and Staten Island, acquiring tracts of land, and turning them into farms. Along the way, he kept a journal filled with accounts of his many dealings with various Indians, some of whom he befriended. He observed them carefully and mostly with respect.
When they dance they stand in two, three and four pairs. The first pair carry a tortoise in their hands, as this nation say that they have descended from a tortoise-father, at which I laughed. They then asked me where our first father came from. I said he was called Adam, and was made of earth. They said I was a fool to say that he was made of a thing that had no life. I replied that it was full of life, for it produced all the fruits upon which they lived. They answered that the sun, which they looked upon as a God, produced it, for in summer he drew the leaves from the trees, and all the fruits from the ground.
De Vries warned Kieft that Indians were vengeful people. “Like Italians,” he said. (Reading his words some 400 years later tells us just how far back this obnoxious cultural stereotype goes.) But Kieft refused to listen. “In this country,” he said, “I am sovereign, the same as the Prince in the Netherlands.” Tensions between the white men and the Indians increased: soon after the incident at the De Vries farm, a young Indian, carrying beaver pelts to trade, showed up at the house of an old Dutchman named Claes Smits in the wilderness along the East River. When the Indian saw an ax leaning against the wall, he grabbed it and cut off the old man’s head.
The Indian had not gone to Smits’s house with the intention to murder him. But when he saw the ax, something in him snapped. The sight of it brought him back to something terrible that had happened when he was a small boy: He had gone with his father and uncle down to the fort at the tip of the island to trade pelts with some Dutch settlers. One of the men had killed his uncle, and the others had stolen the pelts. Since then, the Indian had sought vengeance. Now, with Claes Smits’s ax, he had gotten it.
Claes Smits’s murder gave Kieft the ammunition he was looking for to escalate his gratuitous war. A few months later, in February 1643, a group of Mohawks or Mohicans from the area around Albany—then a fur station that the Dutch called Fort Orange—attacked and killed some Lenape near Manhattan. Five hundred survivors fled south through the snow to one of De Vries’s farms in New Jersey. They begged the patroon for protection. De Vries, feeling overwhelmed by the sudden influx of unexpected guests, left his house and rowed down the ice-choked river by canoe to Fort Amsterdam. There, he asked Kieft to lend him some soldiers, because, in his words, “I was not the master of my own house, because it was so full of savages, although I was not afraid that they would do me any harm; but it was proper that I should be master of my own house.” Kieft said that he had no soldiers, but he told De Vries to come back the following evening if he still needed help. But the next morning, the Indians left De Vries’s farm. Some travelled all the way into Manhattan to take shelter in Corelaer’s bouwerie (the Lower East Side). But most went to Pavonia (now Jersey City), a fortified Dutch settlement just across the river from Fort Amsterdam.
The following day, as De Vries was dining at Kieft’s house, the director general suddenly burst into a tirade. “I will put a bit into the mouths of these savages,” he yelled. He told De Vries that he had given his soldiers orders to cross the river to Pavonia that night to kill the Indians encamped there. De Vries was aghast. “You cannot kill all the Indians,” he told the director, adding that surely the survivors would retaliate. In effect Kieft would also be murdering all the settlers who were living, unprotected, in the open country. De Vries also reminded Kieft that because of the director’s unprovoked attack on the Raritans, two years earlier—in 1641—they had burned down the patroon’s farm on Staten Island. But Kieft blew him off and went to bed. De Vries spent that night in the director’s house, sitting by the kitchen fire. He was too worried to sleep. Around midnight, he heard screams from across the river. He ran to the ramparts of the fort and looked toward Pavonia, but it was too dark to see anything. The next morning, the soldiers returned and told him that they had killed eighty Indians the previous night as they lay sleeping. Kieft’s men hacked off limbs, slashed bellies, and pulled out entrails. Children were torn from their mothers’ arms and chopped to pieces or thrown, still alive, into the freezing river. When their parents jumped in to try to save their precious ones, the soldiers prevented them from coming on land.
De Vries was beside himself. Kieft, after congratulating his soldiers for a job well done, kept up the bloody momentum he had started. He committed one atrocity after another against Indians, regardless of whether they had been on friendly terms with the Dutch up to then. Then came a tipping point: the trauma being inflicted on all the tribes caused them to put aside their differences and unite against the Dutch—Sewannekens, they called them, which means “bitter” or “salty people.”
The Indians began attacking settlers everywhere. They set fire to everything in their path: “houses, farms, barns, grain, haystacks,” De Vries later wrote. “They also burned my farm, cattle, corn, barn, tobacco-house, and all the tobacco.” Unable to bear life under Kieft any longer, De Vries decided it was time to cut his losses. He left New Netherland in the fall of 1643, first for the English colony in Virginia, where he had purchased some tobacco plantations, and then on to Europe. He never returned. Other colonists were also leaving; most, like De Vries, returned to Europe. Those who remained abandoned their lands and fled to the fort at the tip of New Amsterdam. The area under attack, which stretched ten miles east and west and seven miles south and north of New Amsterdam, was now devoid of white people; there was nothing to stop the Indians from heading straight into the settlement at the tip of the island. It was only a matter of time.
Kieft knew that he had to do something to protect what remained of the colony. So he decided to create a buffer zone by offering anyone brave enough to live there title to any of the empty farms that flanked the Bowery. This was a tough sell to the traumatized survivors of the war he had brought on. So Kieft came up with a novel idea: he would offer the land to slaves. In fact, he would free some slaves himself expressly for this purpose. He reasoned that they would prove especially conscientious at keeping the Indians at bay.
By then, slaves made up nearly one-quarter of New Netherland’s population. The Dutch were no different from the rest of the Europeans in their assumptions about race: blacks, they believed, were inherently inferior. But slavery had no legal basis in New Amsterdam. There, in theory at least, slaves had the same rights as anybody else and sometimes fared rather well, considering the times. In New Amsterdam, slaves deemed to have served long and faithfully were often freed, and those who remained in bondage were permitted to moonlight for wages. As for the color line, it proved at times to be flexible. At the request of the colony’s minister, Everardus Bogardus—he had replaced Michaelius in 1633—the Dutch church in Amsterdam sent over a schoolmaster to “teach and train the youth of both Dutch and blacks, in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.” Rotund, beer-loving Bogardus, who had served as a minister in Ghana, invited slaves into the Dutch Reformed Church. He married them, baptized their children, and had them serve as witnesses to Dutch baptisms. Occasionally, blacks and whites married each other. Slaves drank alongside whites in Dutch taverns, testified against them in court, and even on occasion sued them—sometimes successfully.
In 1643, Kieft distributed the first land grants to slaves whom he had sent to do battle with the Indians. During the next several years, he distributed more land along the Bowery to freed slaves and the occasional white settler. The tract came to be called the Negros land, and it consisted of 130 acres of swampy land along the Bowery. There’s an irony here: Kieft’s attempt to address the mess he’d created in New Amsterdam with his unprovoked attacks on the Indians led him to create the first free black community in North America. In the meantime, New Amsterdam’s inhabitants had become so fed up with him that in 1644 they drafted a letter documenting his incompetence and sent it to the Dutch West India Company. The Company had already received plenty of complaints about him, but so far they’d been sitting on their hands. However, after receiving this latest missive, they realized the governor was bad for business and decided it was time to do something about him.
Copyright © 2018 by Alice Sparberg Alexiou