Thomas Willett was born in Norfolk, England in 1610. Because his parents were Puritans (dissenters), his early years were spent in Leyden, Holland and he spoke both English and Dutch fluently, a skill that would prove to be of great importance in his later life. Willett sailed on board the Mayflower to the Plymouth Colony in 1629 and although only 19 years old, he took an active part in the Colony's affairs and held many offices of trust. Around 1640, Willett began trading with the Dutch in New Amsterdam and acquired property both there and in Fort Orange. By 1650, he had a small fleet of ships and traded with Holland and the West Indies.
Willett was well known to Director-General Stuyvesant, who appointed him to negotiate the Treaty of Hartford on behalf of the Dutch, and the treaty document bears Willett's signature. In 1662, Stuyvesant appointed Willett to another diplomatic mission, this time at Fort Orange, to negotiate a peace treaty with the Mohawk and the Kennebec tribes.
Amazingly, during all this time, Willett remained part of the English colonial administration in Massachusetts. When Colonel Richard Nicoll's fleet arrived in Long Island, Willett and Governor Winthrop of Connecticut joined his expedition and both were part of the delegation that met with Director-General Stuyvesant to arrange the Articles of Surrender. Nicoll then sent Willett to accept the Dutch surrender of Esopus and Fort Orange and while in the latter settlement, Willett concluded a new treaty between the English and the Iroquois.
On June 22, 1665, Governor Nicoll appointed Willett as first Mayor of New York, identifying him as the most competent official to effect the transition from Dutch to English rule. As mayor, Willett was chief magistrate of the Mayor's Court and presided over the first jury trial in the New York colony. In 1677, Willett again served as Mayor and was a member of Governor Lovelace's Council, 1668-1673. When the Dutch resumed control of the colony in 1673, much of Willett's property was confiscated by the authorities and he returned to Massachusetts where he died at his home on Narraganset Bay on August 14, 1674.
A memorial tablet was installed on the main floor of City Hall on November 14, 1913. Surrounded by a grapevine border with the coat-of-arms of the City of New York at the time of Mayor Willett's service, it bears the following inscription:
MDCX Thomas Willett MDCLXXIV
The First Mayor of New York
Under a Patent granted by James, Duke of York, he
was appointed in 1665 for a one year term by
Governor Richard Nicolls and served a second term in 1667.
Elizur Yale Smith. Captain Thomas Willett, First Mayor of New York. New York History, Vol. 21, No. 4, October 1940
New York (State). Legislature. Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, Leg. Doc. No. 57 (1914)