Posts Tagged ‘Colonial New York City’

Peek into a travel diary of colonial New York

December 27, 2016

sarahkembleknightNew York in 1704 was barely a city at all.

Under British rule for only 40 years, about 5,000 people called it home. Not much existed past Maiden Lane. Industry focused on the harbor. The original Trinity Church had just been built. Yellow fever was epidemic.

And in autumn of that year a boardinghouse keeper named Sarah Kemble Knight (at left) set out on horseback from her hometown of Boston to journey to Manhattan and back, helping a friend handle legal issues.

Traveling via horse through colonial New England’s primitive roads and bunking in public houses would be rough for anyone, let alone a 38-year-old woman (she did have the help of a guide).

sarahkembleknightnyc1695

But what makes the trip extraordinary is that Knight kept a journal, which was published as a book in 1825.

“The Cittie of New York is a pleasant well compacted place, situated on a Commodius River [which] is a fine harbor for shipping,” Knight wrote on her arrival in December 1704.

sarahkembleknighthouses1700She only stayed in the city for a “fortnight”—two weeks. Yet some of her impressions of New York as a place of fashion, stately houses, flowing alcohol, and high-speed fun might sound familiar.

“[New Yorkers] are not strict in keeping the Sabbath as in Boston and other places where I had bin,” she writes. “They are sociable to one another and courteous and civill to strangers and fare well in their houses.”

“The English go very fasheonable in their dress. [But] the Dutch, especially the middling sort, differ from our women, in their habitt go loose. . . .” Knight says, explaining that the Dutch women wear a caplike headband that leaves their ears sticking out “which are sett out with jewels [with] jewells of a large size and many in number.”

sarahnyin1700Dutch women also have fingers “hoop’t with rings.”

New Yorkers are great entertainers, she says, and taverns “treat with good liquor liberally, and the customers drink as liberally and generally pay for’t as well….”

The 18th century city knew how to have a good time. “Their diversions in the winter is riding sleys about three or four miles out of town,” Knight writes, “where they have houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery, and some go to friends houses who handsomely treat them.”

sarahfrauncestavernnyplWhile out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart.”

Sounds like modern city traffic and bad taxi drivers!

[Top image: National Women’s History Museum; second image: New York in 1695; NYC Tourist; third image: NYC in 1700, Wikipedia; fourth image: Fraunces Tavern, built by Samuel DeLancey in 1719 on Pearl and Broad Streets; NYPL]

A colonial tavern is unearthed on Broad Street

January 31, 2013

StadthuysIn 1979, financial giant Goldman Sachs had plans for new headquarters at 85 Broad Street.

Nothing unusual about that—except that 300 years earlier, this address was the location of New Amsterdam’s first city hall, or Stadt Huys (“city house”), built in 1641.

Considering the possibility of uncovering historical remnants, archeologists excavated the site before construction began.

They didn’t find anything related to the Stadt Huys. Instead, they uncovered something that harkens back to the city’s beer-drinking past: the remains of a tavern built next door in 1670.

This was the Lovelace Tavern, once on the water’s edge and named for English governor Francis Lovelace, who presided over the now British-controlled city from 1668 to 1673.

The Lovelace Tavern (probably the little annex on the left in this illustration) even assumed the role of New York’s City Hall from 1697 to 1706, after which it burned down and all traces of it disappeared.

LovelacetavernremainsArcheologists came across some fascinating remains. Besides the tavern’s foundation walls and floor, they discovered thousands of pieces of clay pipes, wine glasses, and wine bottles (empty, unfortunately).

I’m not sure where the pipes and bottles are, but the tavern’s foundation walls were preserved and are actually on view beneath a Plexiglass cover on the plaza of the building.

This Flickr photo gives the clearest view of what remains of the Lovelace. If only those tavern walls could talk. . . .

Where was Lower Manhattan’s Golden Hill?

December 17, 2012

JohnwilliamstreetsignThere’s an incline along William Street, in the Financial District, that peaks where it intersects with John Street. Could it be a remnant of the colonial-era enclave of Golden Hill?

This was once the highest point at the tip of Manhattan—a place of an “abundant crop of grain, which it said waved gracefully in response to the gentle breeze and looked, in truth, like a hill of gold,” states an 1898 New York Times article.

BattleofgoldenhillpaintingGolden Hill isn’t only remembered for its pretty view; it was also the site of a bloody rebellion that led to the Revolutionary War.

On January 19, 1770, tensions were high between many New York residents and British soldiers. Colonists had constructed several liberty poles, signs of defiance against the Redcoats.

After the British destroyed a liberty pole in City Hall park, a confrontation ensued between soldiers and citizens several days later at Golden Hill. There, the British charged citizens with bayonets, wounding several.

“This is the first blood spilled during the American Revolution, two month before the Boston Massacre,” reports Old World NYC. “The clash would roll back and forth finally leading to a standoff . . . but the war had begun.”

Check out these other pieces from New York’s Revolutionary War past.

[Right: Battle of Golden Hill by Charles MacKubin Lefferts]

Where was colonial Manhattan’s Richmond Hill?

November 3, 2011

If you live in the area bound by Varick, Charlton, MacDougal, and King Streets on the western edge of SoHo, then you’re a resident of a neighborhood once called Richmond Hill.

The name comes from the circa-1760 colonial mansion and bucolic estate that once stood nearby.

The Richmond Hill mansion (below right) was really something. “The big house, a massive wooden structure of colonial design, had a lofty portico supported by Ionic columns,” reports a Villager article from 1945.

“A long curving driveway led up to the house which was built on a wooden mound. Fretted iron gates guarded the entrance.”

It hosted a succession of famous names: George Washington, John Adams, and Aaron Burr.

Abigail Adams described the estate’s beauty: “On one side we see a view of the city and of Long Island. The river [is] in front, [New] Jersey and the adjacent country on the other side. You turn a little from the road and enter a gate. A winding road with trees in clumps leads to the house, and all around the house it looks wild and rural as uncultivated nature. . . .”

Burr sold it to John Astor around 1807. He subdivided lots for development, and the Richmond Hill neighborhood sprang up in early 19th century—small Federal-style homes, many of which are still on Charlton, King (above), and other blocks off lower Sixth Avenue.

The old mansion operated as a resort, roadhouse, and theater until it was razed in 1849. With the house gone, the neighborhood name died too.

Captain Kidd: Pirate and downtown New Yorker

March 21, 2011

Some regard him as a savage plunderer. Others maintain he was merely a privateer unjustly hanged by the British.

Whatever he did out there on the high seas doesn’t change the fact that William Kidd was a city resident—reportedly moving here from Scotland as a child, around 1650.

He was a prominent guy, marrying the colony’s wealthiest widow and living in a mansion on today’s Hanover Square, at 119 Pearl Street.

Kidd, fancifully illustrated here in New York Harbor, even donated materials to help build Trinity Church.

Of course, his days as a New Yorker were numbered. After learning he was wanted by the British for pillaging the Quedagh Merchant in the Indian Ocean, he tried to escape to Boston.

There he was imprisoned and later sent to England to stand trial for piracy and for the murder of one of his crew.

Found guilty in 1701, he was executed in London, his body left to hang as a warning to other pirates.

Above photo: lovely Hanover Square in the Financial District today. Kidd’s mansion stood at the far left.

Is this really Bowling Green in 1776?

November 29, 2010

This French print depicts an event that occurred on the eve of the Revolutionary War at Bowling Green, way downtown at the end of Broadway.

After George Washington had the Declaration of Independence read, citizens and soldiers defiantly tore apart a statue of King George that had been erected there by colonists seven years earlier.

That actually happened, true. But so much of this print seem totally off because—in absence of any visual description or knowledge of what New York looked like back then—the print maker invented so many of the details.

“The statue of King George was in fact an equestrian piece, not a standing figure; the oddly turbaned, half-naked ‘Indian’ rioters resembled no known American patriots,” explains the caption to the print in New York: An Illustrated History, by Ric Burns and James Sanders.

“And the surrounding buildings were those of a grand European capital rather than the modest brick dwellings of colonial New York.”

Where was the Rose Hill area of Manhattan?

September 19, 2010

There’s a long-established Rose Hill neighborhood in the Bronx; it’s the name of Fordham University’s campus.

But there was once a Rose Hill neighborhood in Manhattan too. The name came from Rose Hill, country estate purchased in 1747 by loyalist John Watts. It ran roughly from Park Avenue South to the East River between 23rd to 32nd Street.

[Railroad depot at 27th Street and Fourth Avenue, placing it squarely in Rose Hill in the 19th century]

Rose Hill lasted well into the 19th century: The New York Times archive contains articles referencing the Rose Hill Ladies Relief Union as well as the Rose Hill Methodist Episcopal Church on Third Avenue and 27th Street.

By the 20th century, the name seems to have been forgotten, the neighborhood absorbed by the Murray Hill-Gramercy-Flatiron region.

I couldn’t find a single drawing or painting depicting it, but there’s a building on 14th Street near Third Avenue that’s adopted the name.

Rose Hill might just be embarking on its second act. In the past decade, a crop of residents—and real estate agents—have begun reviving the name. There’s even a Rose Hill Neighborhood Association.

The Hooks of Upper Manhattan

August 8, 2010

Downtown has Corlears Hook. Brooklyn has Red Hook (and once had Yellow Hook). 

Upper Manhattan also had some Hooks—like Tubby Hook, sometimes called Tubby’s Hook. It was the 18th and 19th century name for a section of Inwood between Fort Tryon Park and Inwood Hill Park.

An 1894 New York Times article describes it like this:

[“View, Tubby Hook and Spuyten Duyvel Creek,” from the NYPL in the 1860s or 1870s]

“A little below Riverdale, at a point near Inwood, there is a projection known as Tubby’s Hook, where the water is deep enough to allow large steamers to pass quite close to it. Tubby’s Hook is also a resort for fishermen.”

It’s a funny name that’s probably a bastardization of the last name of Peter Ubrecht, a wealthy 18th century resident.

Jeffrey’s Hook is another precipice jutting into the Hudson. It’s under the George Washington Bridge and now known as the location of the Little Red Lighthouse, Manhattan’s only lighthouse.

But Jeffrey’s Hook played a big role in colonial history: It’s where Washington and his troops traveled back and forth to Fort Lee during the Revolutionary War.

Remnants of old Manhattan live on in city parks

July 29, 2010

Bloomingdale Playground, a spit of land on Amsterdam Avenue and 104th Street, is a reminder that much of the west side was once known by Dutch settlers as Bloemendaal, or “valley of flowers.”

Bloemendaal turned into Bloomingdale once the British moved in. 

In 1703, an early highway called Bloomingdale Road was built. It eventually ran through today’s Upper West Side.

By 1900, Bloomingdale Road had become Broadway, and the Bloomingdale name forgotten.

Collect Pond was never a neighborhood name. But after the pond was filled in by the city in 1811, it eventually became the site of the notorious 19th century slum called Five Points.

[Illustration depicting Collect Pond in the late 18th century. What was once the city’s water source soon became a filthy, polluted body of water.]

Collect Pond Park, on Leonard Street off Lafayette Street, is all that’s left.

The model prison in Greenwich Village

April 17, 2010

If you were convicted of murder or robbery in the City of New York in 1797, you would be ferried up the Hudson to brand-new Newgate Prison on West Street near Christopher Street in the village of Greenwich.

Yep, just a stone’s throw from those luxe Richard Meier glass towers and other tony addresses was once New York State’s first penitentiary.

It was a model prison with a radical concept: that convicts could be rehabilitated through hard work and education. Corporal punishment was banned; inmates who followed the rules were allowed occasional visits from family members.

On a more macabre note, Newgate’s proximity to the infamous hanging elm of Washington Square Park also meant that it was an easy to march prisoners to the park for their appointment with the hangman.

Newgate didn’t last long; by the early 19th century, it was already overcrowded, not just with adult male felons but also juveniles and the insane. In 1828 it closed, and prisoners were transferred to the new Sing Sing prison . . . up the river.

All traces of it are gone, of course, but Newgate is commemorated on the plaques at the Christopher Street/Sheridan Square subway station.