In mid-June 2020, a number of social media posts appeared featuring a close-up image of the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s insignia or badge, with emphasis on what appeared to be a “slave master” or “pilgrim with a whip”:
In the first post above, the poster stated there was “a Slave Master (Pilgrim w/a whip) on the Logo” for the NYPD, and the second just referenced a “man with a whip.”
Although the image was widely interpreted as specific to the New York Police Department, it wasn’t. The words “Police Department, City of New York” were department-specific, but the central image was the seal of the City of New York. A page on NYC.gov explained the elements of the seal individually:
Arms: Upon a shield, saltire wise, the sails of a windmill. Between the sails, in chief a beaver, in base a beaver, and on each flank a flour barrel.
Supporters: Dexter, a sailor, his right arm bent, and holding in his right hand a plummet; his left arm bent, his left hand resting on the top of the shield; above his right shoulder, a cross-staff. Sinister, an Indian of Manhattan, his right arm bent, his right hand resting on top of the shield, his left hand holding the upper end of a bow, the lower end of which rests on the ground. Shield and supporters rest upon a horizontal laurel branch.
Date: Beneath the horizontal laurel branch the date 1625, being the year of the establishment of New Amsterdam.
Crest: An American eagle with wings displayed, upon a hemisphere.
Legend: Upon a ribbon encircling the lower half of the design the words “Sigillum Civitatis Novi Eboraci,” meaning Seal of the City of New York.
The whole is encircled by a laurel wreath. The City Clerk is the custodian of the City Seal.
According to that (somewhat flowery) description, the figure to the left on the NYPD insignia was a “sailor”; on the right, a Native American. In a heraldry context, “dexter” refers to the bearer on the insignia’s right, whereas “sinister” involves the bearer’s left — people looking at the insignia would see the sailor to the right and the Native American to the left.
Facing out from the Seal itself, a sailor occupies the dexter, Latin for “right,” position. The sailor, because of the Latin name for his position, is named Dexter. He holds a lead-lined plummet, used for measuring water depths, in his right hand. Some mistakenly say he is holding a plumb, a carpenter’s tool. Including the sailor recognizes the importance that shipping played in the economic development of New York. From 1830 until the 1950s New York was the busiest port in the world.
The Native American, holding a bow in his left hand, is a Lenni Lenape man, a member of the Algonquin tribe, that first lived on the island of Mannahatta, meaning “land of many hills” later Anglicized to Manhattan; he represents the human origins of New York City. Standing in what is called the sinister position, “sinister” is Latin for “left,” the Native American should be holding up the shield, along with the sailor. One serves as the “dexter support,” the other as the “sinister support.” The figures should not be leaning on the shield. Both figures stand on a laurel branch, as a symbol of peace between the native population and the newly-arrived settlers.
The City of New York’s seal was adopted in 1915 and modified in 1977, but existed in some form dating back to 1654:
The Seal’s most prominent features are the figures of a sailor and a Native American; they first were used in 1686, one year after James, Duke of York, for whom the city was named, succeed to the throne as James II, King of the United Kingdom. To illustrate that the province of New York had been patented to him by his brother, Charles II, James’ ducal coronet was added in the crest position to the Seal by 1669. James was the proprietor of the province.
A number of dispersed posts on Facebook and Twitter emphasized an element the NYPD’s patch, which is itself the seal of New York City. Although the version seen on the NYPD patch lacked the detail of other versions of the seal, its figures have been well-documented throughout the city’s history. The figure to the bearer’s right (and viewer’s left) was a sailor with a plummet, not a slave master with a whip.