I have a great love for urban exploring – digging up obscure places and events in the annals of New York. Places like the Staten Island Ship Graveyard, Dead Horse Bay, the Mansion of King Zog, the 1964 World’s Fair Grounds, et al…
In many ways, the following topic is the most obscured. Barely anything physical remains of the Dutch colonial era- it exists now only in resonant names, culture, and perhaps, in ghosts that ply the dense streets of this city.
Even though the Dutch Republic controlled New York for barely more than a generation, it left an indelible mark on the psyche of the city.
For centuries European nations sought control of the much coveted Northwest Passage, which was thought to allow a more direct sea route to Asia, allowing trade to bypass the arduous journey around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. When expeditions finally transited the route in the early 20th century, it had proven to be a pipe-dream – Arctic ice completely barred reasonable navigation until 2009, when the ice pack melted sufficiently to allow year-round passage.
The Dutch West India Company was founded as a conglomeration of merchants, explorers, and men of money to regulate and centralize colonial trade networks. As such, it became the de facto government of outposts throughout the world. It’s been said that the Company was akin to a modern global corporation – but with guns. Finding and controlling the Northwest Passage was at the top of the DWIC’s agenda. In 1609, they sent an English explorer, Henry Hudson, to scope out the North American continent and pursue any promising leads. After a long Atlantic voyage, Hudson came upon a very wide, protected bay, fed by a large river that penetrated deep into the interior – an obvious candidate for a Northwest Passage. Passing Manhattan island, Hudson made his way up his namesake river, as far as he could go. Disappointingly, it proved to be a dead-end. At least, however, he had found a source of a very valuable commodity at the time – beaver fur; a luxury item that could fetch high prices in Europe.
And so, over the following decades, Dutch settlers began arriving and trading. They covered a swath of remote outposts from what was known as the “South River” (The Delaware River) all the way past the “North River” (or the Hudson River, as it gradually became known). In the great harbor that Hudson had come upon, there were a handful of Europeans living on the very tip of Manhattan Island, and on “Noten Eylant” (now Governor’s Island). In 1624, the settlement, Nieuw-Amsterdam, was officially chartered as a colony of the Dutch Republic, and capital of the New Netherlands colonies. The Dutch, of course, were not alone in European designs of control of New World resources, and so very quickly, a fort was erected at what is now the Battery. Though plantations were scattered throughout the future five boroughs, and far beyond, the town was little more than Fort Amsterdam. One could walk from end to end in under 10 minutes, the distance between today’s Battery Park and Wall Street:
It was a reckless sort of person who would endure the dangers of the sea and then live on the very margins of civilization facing a highly uncertain future. It was a desperate sort of person that would go to such lengths to make a living or ensure a fortune in doing so. New Amsterdam became notoriously unruly. What’s more, it attracted settlers from all over the European world, including French Huguenots, Sephardic Jews, and of course, African slaves.
In addition, as was happening all along the Atlantic seaboard, the colonists made a poor first impression on the Indians. When one of the first directors of New Netherlands, Willem Kieft, demanded tribute from the local tribes, skirmishes broke out which led to a short, ugly war that still bears his name.
In response to Kieft’s lack of control, in 1647 the Dutch West India Company replaced him with Petrus (Peter) Stuyvesant, a veteran of conflicts in the Caribbean. With ambitious zeal, he razed houses at Fort Orange (Albany, NY) and drove out the Swedes from the banks of the Delaware River and founded the city of New Castle. It was Stuyvesant who dug the Heere Gracht, the canal that was later filled in and called Broad Street. And on the edge of town, he built the defenses that gave Wall Street its name.
He imposed a string of austere policies meant to whip the colony into shape. Crimes were more harshly punished, taverns were ordered closed on Sundays, and church attendance became mandatory. He certainly kept order, but was wholly unpopular. Some of his more extreme enforcements were met with strong retorts. When a ship of Sephardic Jews arrived from Brazil, he tried to turn them away until pressured by the Dutch West India Company to desist. When he tried to brutally suppress Quakerism in the village of Vlissingen (Flushing, Queens), he was met with the “Flushing Remonstrance”, a resistance that inspired the freedom of religion clause in the Bill of Rights.
With the English to the north and to the south, New Netherland was caught in the pincers, and England was eager to take over the entirety of the Atlantic coast. In late summer of 1664, their navy appeared in the harbor of New Amsterdam and demanded surrender. Stuyvesant made a call to arms, which fell on cold shoulders. The English offered free passage back to Europe for those who would not submit to their rule; but hardly anyone took them up on it. It has been said that the colonists didn’t care what nation ruled them, as long as they could make money.
And so, the colony went back to its business, now under the name of New York. Dutch custom, culture, and language persisted for generations before dwindling away. In fact, there were still native Dutch speakers at the time of the American Revolution more than a century later.
A few Dutch-era names rose to lasting prominence, and were counted among old patrician families that author Washington Irving called the “Knickerbockers”. Some of them are still very current – the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts, for instance.
Stuyvesant lived out the final eight years of his life at his Bouwerij (plantation) in the fields outside the city. He is interred at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, built in 1799 on the site of his family chapel. In 1867, one of his pear trees, now surrounded by the city at 13th Street and 3rd Avenue, succumbed to a horse cart accident. It was the final living remnant of New York’s Dutch origins.
And so today, apart from some tavern and town hall foundations recently excavated around Hanover Square (you can view them from a window in the sidewalk), the vestiges of the city’s Dutch era exist only in names and spirit. New York lived up to New Amsterdam’s mercantile ambitions, and then some. For better or worse, it is still a place where money talks, regardless of your origins or beliefs.
And the names – those who live in the region hear them every day – names like Haarlem, Breukelen, Conyne Eylandt (named for its rabbits), Tappan Zee, Hell Gate, New Utrecht, Flushing, Van Wyck Expressway, and the “Kills” (creeks) that appear in town and river names up and down the Hudson Valley…
Stuyvesant’s Bouwerij became the notoriously scruffy Bowery, and the raucous East Village now covers his plantation. The diagonal country lane passing in front of his church, now named Stuyvesant Street, is a solitary hold-out against the 1811 Manhattan grid plan. His name is still everywhere – high schools, housing developments, libraries, etc.
250 years after New Amsterdam, the coarsely planned colonial streets gave birth to the skyscraper and to the world’s financial capital. The narrow lanes, meant for small houses, now host some of the tallest buildings in the world, which have obscured the ground perpetually in shadow. On quiet blocks, or at night, squeezed between the concrete canyons, you can almost hear the clogged feet on packed earth, the cantor of a passing horse, or the whispers in Dutch. All historical facts aside, this is where one can feel closest to the distant outpost on the edge of the world that once was.
Appropriately, in the end, one of my most striking New York moments was not here, but in old Amsterdam, in the train station, when I heard a departure announcement for Breukelen. Full circle around the elusive story of Dutch New York.
Boston and Philadelphia are undoubtably, and rightfully, the two cities people most associate with the American Revolution. It was there that revolutionary fervor coalesced into the formation of a new republic. New York, however, hardly played a small role in the struggle for independence.
In 1765, near Wall Street, a protest against Britain’s oppressive Stamp Act took place at what would become Federal Hall, and not long after, New York saw the establishment of the first Sons of Liberty group.
During the summer of 1776, with the ink barely dry on the Declaration of Independence, New York became target number one of the British forces. Previously unable to keep control of Boston, Britain sent its forces southward.
In Bowling Green, the town commons at the tip of Lower Manhattan, there stood a statue of King George III. Upon learning of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, jubilant patriots tore down the statue and melted it into gun shot. The fence which surrounded the statue still stands at the same spot today.
During the same week, however, one of the largest fleets the mighty Royal Navy had ever assembled entered the Bay through the Narrows dividing Staten Island and Brooklyn (spanned by bridge only in 1964). Hundreds of masts covered the water from shore to shore, and many panicked New Yorkers, having never witnessed such an intimidating spectacle, packed up and fled the town in droves.
At the time, the city’s population was 25,000, cramped at the bottom of Manhattan, and barely extended above Chambers Street. North of the town were scattered a number of farms and estates- such as Peter Stuyvesant’s Bouwerie in today’s East Village, and the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Dyckman House far uptown (both of which still stand). Rural Brooklyn was scattered with villages like Bushwick, Gravesend, and Flatbush.
To control New York was to control the greatest port and wealthiest commercial hub in America – but just as importantly, control of New York meant easy access to the Hudson River, which could be used to cut off the New England colonies from Philadelphia and Virginia.
On August 27, 1776, the British landed troops near the mouth of the Gowanus Creek (now the horrifically polluted Gowanus Canal).
The ensuing battle took place along rugged and forested ridges in the area of what is now Park Slope, the hills of Prospect Park, Sunset Park, Cobble, and Greenwood Heights. A monument to the engagement stands atop Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn, in today’s Greenwood Cemetery.
The Continental Army, under George Washington, did not fare well and were pushed back to Brooklyn Heights overlooking Manhattan island. On the night of August 29, in complete silence and under the cover of a thick providential fog, Washington demonstrated for the first time his knack for narrow escapes across rivers (The more famous being the immortal Christmas crossing of the Delaware later in 1776) The British force awoke to find that nearly 10,000 men had slipped across to Manhattan. Over the next few weeks, however, Washington was forced uptown to Harlem and Fort Washington, a fortification that gives the modern neighborhood its name. The nearby outpost of Fort Tryon, atop a schist ridge where the Cloisters are located today saw Margaret Corbin become the first American woman ever to fight and suffer wounds for the future United States.
In the end Washington had to quit the city and withdraw over the Palisades, the steep cliffs lining the Hudson River near the upper end of Manhattan. It had been the largest military engagement in North America up until that point, and, despite the loss, proved that the Continental army had the ability and leadership to hold their own on the open battlefield.
New York became an occupied city for the rest of the War. As such, it drew a great deal of refugees still loyal to the Crown. The port city already had a reputation of frivolous wealth and sin; and now filled with soldiers, the undesirable elements, especially prostitution, were drawn out more than ever. Trinity Church, then as now a large landowner, held the area north of the church in what is now Tribeca. The church proved to be a terrible slumlord and the neighborhood went to seed, earning the sarcastic nickname “The Holy Ground”.
There were darker forces at work in revolutionary NY, however, including the Great Fire which ravaged the city not long after Washington’s departure, leveling 1/4 of the buildings in the worst destruction New York has ever seen. Paranoia must have gripped the city as both sides accused the other of sabotage, some even being executed for suspected involvement. Nathan Hale, who uttered “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country”, was one of those caught up in the reactionary anger.
Meanwhile, one of the most repulsive episodes of the war was taking shape in the East River, at Wallabout Bay, where the Brooklyn Navy Yard now stands. Here the British anchored hulls of decommisioned ships in order to hold prisoners of war. The conditions were appallingly cramped – with disease and starvation running rampant. More American soldiers died on these ships than in all of the war’s battles combined, and for years, human remains would wash up on the Brooklyn shore, where relatives would look for signs of their discarded loved ones.
Today, there is a Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Ft. Greene Park, which overlooks the Bay.
When the war ended, the last British troops in the fledgling United States departed from Manhattan. As the last ships disappeared from view, an American flag was hoisted in Battery Park, and General Washington processed triumphantly down Broadway, along the route that today’s skyscraper-canyon tickertape parades now take place.
At Fraunces Tavern (still standing), Washington held a farewell banquet for his officers, raising 13 toasts to the army’s valor and to the allies of the Revolution. (NY Morning-Post coverage) The day was November 25, 1783, commemorated yearly until World War I as Evacuation Day. For a while, it was one of the most important public holidays in New York. As they left, British troops greased the flagpole at the Battery in order to make it difficult to replace the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes. As part of future Evacuation Day festivities, boys would make a game of racing up a greased flag pole in order to be the first to tear down a mock British flag.
As the United States’ first capital from 1788 to 1790, Washington took the presidential oath of office not far from Fraunces, at the same spot where the Stamp Act was protested twenty years previous –
As always, physical history is hard to come by in New York- it’s difficult to walk among skyscrapers and fathom that two centuries ago, at the same spot you are standing, muskets were being fired in the woods. But the past in always there, just underfoot, and in the imagination, and in stories.
Incidentally, the British occupation of New York produced the finest topographical map of the early city. The amazingly accurate chart shows just how rugged Manhattan was before urban expansion:
Hidden away only 5 miles or so from the I-95 artery of the East Coast, the small town of New Castle, Delaware (pop. ~ 5000) has more colonial buildings packed into it than any other American town I know of. Not a single structure within the historic center seems to have been put up after the 19th century, and never have I seen so many pre-Revolution buildings so immaculately intact in one area. The only things in town that look of this century are the cars and the people. Most of the streets retain their original paving stones, and especially since it’s such a quiet place, it really is easy to forget Modernity..
What is best about New Castle, though, is that it’s an actual town and not a museum piece as many other colonial areas have become. Regular families inhabit the centuries-old houses, and people still frequent pubs that have remained largely unchanged since the 18th century. One can still visit the house where, in around 1680, William Penn supposedly spent his first night in America, the homes of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, a house where the Marquis de Lafayette attended a wedding, and the modest 1832 ticket booth for the New Castle-Frenchtown Railroad, which was the 2nd railroad built in the United States.
Founded by the Dutch West India Company’s Peter Stuyvesant (whose more famous post was that of governor of New Amsterdam), its strategic location on the Delaware River meant that it changed hands a number of times in its early days- the main players, of course, were the Dutch and the English, but surprisingly it was also controlled for some time by the Swedish, who once held a bit of sway in this region. In fact, the Old Courthouse, built in 1732 (and one of the oldest still standing in the country) still flies the Swedish flag. Its situation and initial influence had New Castle poised to become a city of some significance. However, despite having one of the first railroads, sometime around the mid 19th century, the main freight routes shifted to Wilmington and the town stopped completely in its tracks. It failed to keep up with industrialization and missed the train, so to speak-
And this is where the town just froze in time. A more upward moving town would have destroyed its old buildings as it marched into the modern age. A town with less initial influence and history would have receded into poverty. New Castle, however, just stayed right where it was, and largely remains there today, even as millions of travelers on the highways bypass it by with only miles to spare, completely unaware.
Since 2001, as the official WTC Memorial was debated, planned, and constructed, St. Paul’s Chapel served as a de facto house of commemoration and remembrance.
Built in 1764, it is the oldest active church in the city – Two and a half centuries is not a terribly impressive lifespan in most places. However, for it to have survived unfazed in New York, whose physical past is most often deleted, is something of a miracle.
It was built when New York was little more than a village at the very bottom of a wild and rocky island – an outpost on the very edge of the known European world.
– In 1776, a great fire (possibly set by patriots fleeing the town upon the retreat of Washington after the Battle of Brooklyn), destroyed as much as a quarter of the town’s structures- including the iconic Trinity Church. (rebuilt in the 1840’s)
Somehow the fire completely passed over the chapel. The area surrounding St. Paul’s remained charred for the duration of the American Revolution.
When Manhattan burned again in the 1800’s, the church was again spared.
In 2001, the Twin Towers collapsed across the street, but only an old sycamore tree in the churchyard took damage.
In the weeks following the 9/11 tragedy, St. Paul’s was a place of succor – giving recovery workers spiritual strength and beds to rest upon. Artifacts from that time fill the ancient building- firefighter helmets, prayer cards, and homemade banners of encouragement and remembrance sent from across the world.
St. Paul’s is something of a living ghost. Next to the pew where George Washington prayed before his inauguration sits an array of patches of fire departments whose men and women sacrificed safety and even life.
St. Paul’s and its Colonial-era graves have thoroughly watched the city grow around it. Somewhere in its spirit, it must recall the unpaved, muddy, filth-ridden streets, the wood-fronted houses, red-coated British soldiers, the rich, poor, the glorious, and the ragged.
It must remember the mighty skyscrapers that, in its neighborhood, began their thrilling rise a century ago.
Surrounded by the anonymous, frenetic masses of modernity, it must remember the close-knit village that hosted it- a New York when everyone was a small-town neighbor.
Today, St. Paul’s stands quietly, completely surrounded by massive towers, including those of the resurrecting World Trace Center. In its yard, the worn, decaying headstones of the first New Yorkers bear mute witness to the passing of generations they helped to define.
If only the graves could rise and see what has become of their village. If they walked the streets of Lower Manhattan, I’m sure their minds would be totally blown. – Absolutely nothing recognizable remains- except the street names, and their layout.
But I like to imagine that they’d be happy to know that at least one thing they built is still left behind- standing in modest pride.
Today, June 24, is La Fête nationale du Québec . This is for a place and culture I love very much:
Old Montréal is a glorious architectural melange. Ruins of the 17th century Ville-Marie colony mingle with the stone walls, baroque churches and houses of the 18th century mingle with the warehouses and pantheonic bankhouses of the early industrial era. Punctuated throughout, especially further from the river, are the Art Deco office blocks and modernist towers of the 20th century.
Much like in Lower Manhattan, Old San Juan, Boston, New Orleans, and other colonial centers, the streets here still adhere to their original narrow, meandering, and twisted natures.
Every colony of the new world was unique- isolated outposts on the fringes of the European world- each adapting in their own ways to these alien lands. Today, they remain unique.
If Boston and Baltimore are red brick and New Orleans and San Juan are bright pastel color, Montreal is grey stone. And if New England and Philadelphia could be said on basic levels to have been founded on Puritanism and its relatives, and New York and New Orleans on commerce and trade, Montreal might be said to have, at its very basic roots, a mixture of Catholicism and business.
Like any other city, it grew up and took on many different shades and forms in its course, while always feeling the echos of its origins.
History in Montréal is felt strongly and with pride – and I always love that in a place.