Posts Tagged ‘Colonial New York’

How Manhattan’s Turtle Bay got its name

May 13, 2013

Turtlebay1878mapTurtle Bay is a wonderful name for an urban neighborhood.

I always imagine hundreds of turtles sunning themselves on the rocks along the East River between 45th and 48th Streets.

That’s where the actual bay was once located in Colonial-era Manhattan, surrounded by meadows and hills, with a stream that emptied at the foot of today’s 47th Street.

Click on the map for a bigger view; it was drawn in 1878 to accompany a book about New York during the Revolutionary War.

Turtlebay1853But while turtles were plentiful in Manhattan (and made for a tasty meal), the name may come from a corrupted Dutch word.

“Some historians attribute the name to the turtle-filled creek, while others say it had nothing to do with turtles, that the name was more likely a corruption of the Dutch word “deutal” (a bent blade), which referred to the shape of the bay,” states the Turtle Bay Association.

“Regardless, the turtle feasts of the day prevailed and so did the name, Turtle Bay Farm.”

Not the Hudson, a site about the East River, has a more definitive answer.

Beekmanmansion“It was named after the Deutal (Dutch for “knife”) Bay farm, which originally covered 86 acres of land shaped like a knife blade. Also occupied by turtles, historians are unsure as to which one of these factors resulted in the name.”

If it was named for the shape of the bay, it no longer applies. The “rock-bound cove” that sheltered ships from storms was filled in and smoothed over in the 1860s.

The Beekman mansion—known as Mount Pleasant (left)—once stood at the northern end of Turtle Bay; it was demolished in the 1870s.

The United Nations occupies most of the site now.

The Bull’s Head: a rowdy 18th century tavern

August 27, 2012

Chalk it up to the young city’s festive, indulgent vibe—or the fact that the drinking water wasn’t always safe to consume.

But colonial-era New York supported lots of bars. One was the Bull’s Head Tavern, built around 1760 near Canal Street and the Bowery—at the time, the outskirts of the city.

It was a rough-and-tumble place that catered to the livestock industry nearby: butchers, cattle men, and drovers (the guys who marched animals down to this district of stockyards and slaughterhouses).

“Out-of-town drovers and city butchers congregated in the smoky, low-ceilinged rooms of the Bull’s Head Tavern, which stood just below modern Canal Street amid a jumble of stables, cattle pens, and slaughterhouses,” states Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Besides boozing, gambling, and carousing, Bull’s Head patrons enjoyed another attraction: bear-baiting, a not uncommon colonial pastime.

There was a celebrity patron too: George Washington. He and his staff met here on Evacuation Day in 1783, after British troops left the city.

The Bull’s Head thrived here as late as the 1820s, until the neighborhood became more genteel and residents drove the tavern and the slaughterhouse industry uptown—to about today’s Third Avenue and 24th Street.

[Bottom sketch: NYPL Digital Collection]

The tasty food of a colonial Dutch New Year’s Day

December 27, 2011

“New Year is the greatest day in New Amsterdam,” stated Charles Burr Todd in his 1888 book, The Story of the City of New York.

Why so great? It probably had to do with the incredible feast served by each household, as citizens went door to door visiting one another that day.

Here’s an example, according to Todd:

“[In] the centre of the table, spread in the middle of the room, a mighty punch-bowl well reinforced by haunches of cold venison and turkeys roasted whole, and ornamented with cakes, comfits, confectionery, silver tankards, and bekers filled with rare Medeira and foaming ale.”

One type of cake regularly served on New Year’s Day was the olykoek, kind of a doughnut. Try making that on January 1 and see if your New York guests appreciate your effort, as well as the colonial backstory:

“The Dutch olykoeks as described in books about old New York are evidently a mouth-watering concoction,” writes The New York Times in a 1937 article about lost New Years traditions.

“First the yeast of the olykoeks was set to lighten after a noonday dinner. Just before supper this was made into a rich dough [with] the addition of many eggs, much butter, and a flavoring of nutmeg.

At bedtime the dough was kneaded down. Next morning it was shaped into small balls, stuffed with a mixture of chopped apple, raisins, and [sic] peel. These were left to rise until after dinner, when the patient maker set about cooking them in hot fat. The finishing touch was to roll the round balls generously in sugar.”

By the 19th century, calling was a more refined, but no less popular New Year’s activity.

[Top image: “New Year’s Day Among the Ancient Knickerbockers,” from the NYPL Digital Collection; bottom, “Party for New Year’s Day in New Amsterdam” by George Henry Boughton]

The “kissing bridges” of Manhattan’s East Side

September 15, 2010

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, lots of little streams crisscrossed country-like Manhattan island.

This necessitated small pedestrian bridges—at least three of which earned the moniker “kissing bridge” because they were secluded, scenic, and an ideal place for a colonial couple to indulge in a little PDA.

One kissing bridge crossed over the Sawkill Stream near today’s 77th Street and Second Avenue.

A little to the south was another kissing bridge, at present-day 50th Street and Second Avenue. [Illustration at right, NYPL digital collection]

A third could be found near modern-day Park Row. A stream called Wreck Brook meandered close by.

Whenever a man and woman came upon it, “every gallant Knickerbocker was supposed to express his regard for the lady he met there in the manner indicated,” explains a city historian in a New York Times article from May 1900.

Double Dutch: a native New Amsterdam game

March 18, 2009

Double Dutch isn’t just a jump rope game played by city kids; as of this spring, it’s the newest official varsity sport in New York City public schools.

doubledutchstreet And it got its start in Manhattan in the 17th century, supposedly brought  by Dutch settlers. The story goes that British kids living here saw Dutch children playing, so they starting calling it Double Dutch.

The game thrived on playgrounds and sidewalks though World War II. Its popularity dipped until the early 1970s, when a city police detective looking for an activity girls could get involved in revived it as a competitive team sport.

Okay, this video for Double Dutch Bus is only nominally about the game, but it’s got some great shots of New York circa 1980.

The cherry grove of Delancey Street

January 26, 2009

The uptown side of the Delancey Street F train platform features lots of cherries—three cherry tree murals as well as several smaller cherry mosaics.


So what’s with the cherry motif? Before the Lower East Side became a jam-packed tenement district in the late 1800s, it was farmland owned by James DeLancey, acting colonial governor of New York in the 1750s who staunchly supported the British during the Revolutionary War.

The DeLancey farm supposedly had a cherry grove on what is now Orchard Street. After the war the farm was confiscated and divided up among smaller landowners. Somewhere along the way, the cherry grove met the ax as well.

Did New York have a cross-dressing governor?

June 13, 2008

Depends on who you ask. This portrait is supposedly of Edward Hyde—aka, Lord Cornbury, the man who was appointed “His High Mightiness the Governor of the Colony” in 1702. 

After arriving at the Battery from London to much fanfare, Lord Cornbury started exhibiting some erratic behavior. In All Around the Town, Herbert Asbury writes:

“Thereafter, two or three times a week, but always at night, His High Mightiness appeared on the streets of New York wearing Lady Cornbury’s clothing. He was invariably drunk and disorderly, but he was not molested, for the night watchman realized that to interfere with the Governor’s little outings would imperil his job, and probably his liberty as well.”

Some historians think that stories of Lord Cornbury dressing in his wife’s “best silks and satins” are just rumors spread by his enemies. He had many; he so appalled New Yorkers with his corrupt, loutish governing style that they demanding he be removed from office, which he was, in 1707. 

The Lord Cornbury Scandal, published in 2000, examines the facts. The portrait belongs to the New-York Historical Society.