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About The Authors

By Eric Homberger and Alice Hudson

Eric Homberger is the author of Mrs. Astor's New York and Scenes from the Life of a City. An American by birth, he is a professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia.

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The southern tip of Manhattan, with the settlements along the Hudson (left) and the East River, as seen from a ship in the harbor. The large buildings on the left were the Dutch West India Company’s storehouse. The Stadt Huys (City Hall) was at the outer edge of the community when this drawing was made in the 1650s.
“On this river there is great traffick in the skins of beavers, otters, foxes, bears, minks, wild cats, and the like. The land is excellent and agreeable, full of noble forest trees and grape vines, and nothing is wanting but the labor and industry of man to render it one of the finest and most fruitful lands in that part of the world …
Johan de Laet, Nieuwe Werldt ofte Beschrijvinghe van West-Indien (New World, or Description of West-India) Leyden, 1625.
Chapter 1 Hilly Island

The geography of New York City was the city’s supreme advantage. It surpassed Philadelphia as the nation’s principal port not because of the superiority of its people, but due to the superiority of its harbor, and its unimpeded access up the Hudson River to the rich agricultural lands to the west. The city’s natural setting was a blessing occasionally mentioned in a sermon or patriotic address but there was little knowledge of geology or of the processes which had led to the formation of the seemingly solid and immovable material upon which the city’s streets and buildings were built. Nor was there much inclination to explain how or why the coastal plain upon which New York was located had emerged from the sea. Until the work of Louis Agassiz in the 1840s, there was no notion that most of the city had been covered by the great Laurentide glacier only some 20,000 years ago. Traces of the past in New York are buried, hidden, and need deciphering.
Before the native tribes acquired European weapons, bows and arrows, and axes and knives were the staples of war materièl. Tactics – as represented by European writers and engravers-bore an uncanny resemblance to the conduct of sieges by European armies. More commonly, struggles between tribes were a tale of lightning raids, ambushes and high mobility. Europeans attributed these tactics to an innate disposition for deception and deceit among the natives.
Why did the Dutch come in the first place? In the 15th century, the European trading and mercantile powers extended their economic interests over much of the globe. The hope of finding gold, the great commercial value of the sugar produced on the Cape Verde islands, and the slave trade (which provided the labor force for the sugar plantations) were powerful motives for maritime activities, particularly after the conquistador Hernando Cortes encountered the Aztec empire in Mexico in 1519. The Spanish, with skills honed on the reconquest of Spain from the Moors (Granada, the last great Moorish territory in Spain, surrendered in 1492) led the way in plunder and conquest. Merchants in northern Europe were determined to muscle their way into this lucrative trade.
After the accession of Philip II of Spain as ruler of the 17 provinces of the Netherlands in 1555, the bitter and violent revolt against Spanish rule was extended outwards into direct attacks upon Spanish economic interests throughout the world. The Union of Utrecht in 1579 formed a Dutch Republic of seven provinces. When the Spanish reconquered Antwerp six years later, Protestant refugees, Flemish and Walloon, flooded north into the province of Holland, making it the leading commercial center of resistance. Although the combined fleets of Spain and Portugal were the largest in the world, Sir Francis Drake’s raid on the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine in 1586 showed that hungry, daring men might prosper at the expense of the Spaniards.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the successful military campaigns of Maurice, stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland, in 1590-94, sharpened the enthusiasm of the Protestant powers for the task of supplanting the Spanish in the New World and the Portuguese in the East. For this purpose the Dutch East India Company was formed in 1602 with a monopoly of the valuable spice trade. Four years later the English Crown gave to the Virginia Company a charter which included virtually the whole territory of North America.

“Our master and his mate determined to try some of the chief men of the country, whether they had any treachery in them. So they took them down into the cabin and gave them so much wine and aqua vita that they were all merry. In the end one of them was drunk … for they could not tell how to take it.” Robert Juet, a member of Hudson’s crew

At first it was only a handful of maritime districts on the west coast of England and in the Iberian peninsula which possessed the seafaring navigational skills, shipbuilding expertise, and capital resources needed to launch extended voyages of exploration and trade. But skilled mariners like Columbus, a Genoese by birth, who provided invaluable technical skills necessary for the extension of national power and commercial interest, could be hired by trading cartels or crowned heads. By the end of the 16th century, there was a flourishing army of explorers for hire. Henry Hudson was one such. An experienced navigator and trader, he was hired in 1607 by the Muscovy Company, an English trading cartel, to discover a northern route to the spice islands and to China, a voyage which was both dangerous and slow by the traditional route around the Cape of Good Hope. Hudson sailed north from Holland and reached the island of Spitzbergen, 80° north, in 1607. A year later he tried again, but found the route blocked by frozen seas. Still fervently believing in a route to the east beyond 83° north, he was hired in 1609 by the Dutch East India Company to try the northern route again. He reached as far north as Novaya Zembla in the Barents Sea, but failed once again to discover the Northeast Passage. Rather than abandon the voyage altogether, Hudson followed the advice of another English explorer-promoter, Captain John Smith, and turned the Halve Maen (Half Moon), a vessel of 80 tons, west to Newfoundland, and then followed the southerly route along the coast. At each estuary he paused, looking for an entrance to the fabled great northern route to the east. On September 2, 1609 Hudson entered the bay formed by the “Great River of the Mountains,” “as fine a river as can be found, wide and deep, with good anchoring on both sides.”
He was not the first European to visit the waters of New York. Giovanni da Verrazano, in the employment of the King of France, sailed from Dieppe in 1524 and briefly entered the Lower and Upper Bay of the Hudson. With their voyages, the European history of New York begins.
The seal of New Netherlands.
New Netherland was, in the eyes of Dutch merchants, a source of furs. From the first voyages, an active trade with the natives brought beaver pelts on to the Dutch market for resale throughout Europe. In the 16th century there was an immense demand for otter and beaver pelts. They were used to trim clothes, and make hats and cloaks. It was believed that beaver fur had medicinal properties.
“Friendly and polite people”
Unlike the rather more benign images commonly made in the 19th century of Hudson’s meeting with the natives, he found the native inhabitants of the lower part of the river to be warlike and threatening (two large canoes filled with armed natives greeted his ship, and in the ensuing confusion one member of his crew was killed by an arrow), but upriver there were “friendly and polite people” who were happy to trade valuable skins and pelts for what the Europeans regarded as trinkets. In truth, relations with the natives were from the first uneasy. An officer on the Halve Maen published a diary of Hudson’s third voyage recording the tense, violent passage of the ship:
“This after-noone [October 1, 1609], one Canoe kept hanging under our sterne with one man in it, which we could not keepe from thence, who got up by our Rudder to the Cabin window, and stole out my Pillow, and two shirts, and two Bandeleeres. Our Masters Mate shot at him, and strooke him on the breast, and killed him. Whereupon all the rest fled away, some in their Canoes, and so leapt out of them into the water. We manned our Boat, thinking to get our things againe. Then one of them that swamme got hold of our Boat, thinking to overthrow it. But our Cooke tooke a Sword, and cut off one of his hands, and he was drowned. By this time the ebbe was come, and we weighed and got down two leagues …”
The first settlement on Manhattan, 1626.
Detailed knowledge of an exceptionally good port on the North American coast, and the existence of a broad river enabling navigation far into the unknown interior, excited much interest in northern Europe. Hudson’s reports to the East India Company formed the basis of the Dutch claim to their colony on the Hudson. The Dutch East India Company took no immediate action on the news of Hudson’s voyage. In their eyes, the voyage was a failure. Hudson had not discovered a northern route to the east. But other commercial interests in the United Provinces, particularly the fur traders, were interested in news that the Hudson River promised to be a rich fur-trading region, and agitated for the creation of a West India Company. The Dutch came to New York, like so many after them, to make a buck.
Stone, Water, Ice
The stone upon which New York City sits is hard metamorphic rock, Manhattan schist, and Inwood dolomite, formed during the Archeozoic Era. That is, the dark stone which nudges above the surface of Central Park, and which was so forcefully striated during the Ice Age, dates virtually from the formation of the earth’s crust. The erosion of the late Mesozoic period (between 70 and 220 million years ago) produced most of the geological features which have remained until the present, especially the Hudson River and the drainage system which cut a deep and narrow gorge through the Hudson Highlands which lie south of the Catskills. (The Hudson is a tidal inlet which opened the land as far as Troy to the Atlantic tide.)
An era of subtropical temperatures began about 65 million years ago, and persisted until about one million years ago. This was the period of the emergence of modern mammals. New York disappeared below the sea approximately 25 million years ago, before the coastal plain rose in time for the Hipparion, the three-toed horse, and the mastodons which followed.
The climate then perceptibly cooled, and an era of glaciation followed. The earliest records of Palaeo-Indians in North America date from about 25,000 years ago, some 5,000 years before the period of maximum glaciation. The settlement of New York by homo sapiens was disrupted by the vast ice sheet of the Laurentide glacier as it slowly flowed south and west from Canada. The maximum territory covered by the Laurentide ice sheet some 20,000 years ago reached a line dipping south to the Missouri and Ohio Rivers, and running east to New York. It is this period of glaciation which accounts for the erratic boulders strewn across New York’s landscape, with its gravel ridges, striated rock, and deposits of surface drift.
For a billion years after the formation of the Earth’s crust, New York City lay beneath the shallow seas which covered most of the gradually subsiding land mass of North America. By 350 million years ago, the climate had warmed, and the land around New York was swampy. It was with the rise of the Appalachian range, which began 220 million years ago, that the state of New York – like most of the American continent – emerged significantly above sea level (maps left).
The map (above right) shows the maximum territory covered by the Laurentide glacier. The farthest terminal moraines, deposited when the glacier began to retreat about 17,000 years ago, are found from Cape Cod to Long Island, and on a line across Brooklyn and Staten Island (map right).
It was only in 1840 that the Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz offered an explanation for the presence of mysterious scattered boulders and deposits of surface drift across the landscape of New York. Agassiz, in Etudes sur les glaciers, argued the central role of glaciers in changing the landscape, and proposed the existence of an Ice Age. The geological cross-section (below) is taken along a line through midtown Manhattan.
When the Dutch came to New Netherland, they intruded upon a native culture of the “eastern division” of the Algonquian family, a linguistic stock of tribes occupying the Atlantic coast from Maine to the Chesapeake. The many tribes and sub-groups making up the Upper Delawaran or Munsee formed a confederacy which occupied the entire Delaware basin, including eastern Pennsylvania and southeastern New York.
The Delawares encountered on the lower Hudson called themselves Lenape, or “real men”. The inhabitants of Manhattan were the Manates, a Munsee tribe, who were regarded by the Dutch as troublesome and aggressive. After selling Manahatta (variously translated as “hilly island” or “the small island”), for trinkets in 1626, the tribe moved west of the Bronx River. The Canarsies in Brooklyn, Matinecooks in Flushing, Rockaways (who settled near Rockaway Beach in Queens) and the Wecquaesgeeks (a Mahican tribe in the vicinity of Yonkers) made their own accommodation with the settlers.
The Lenape were hunters and fishermen, with substantial woodland clearings where they cultivated Indian corn (to make maize or meal for bread cakes), beans, pumpkins, and tobacco. The long, narrow native canoe was carved out of a hollowed tree trunk, and was used for fishing, whether with hooks made of bone, spears with sharpened stone or bone heads, or nets woven of “Indian hemp”, a milkweed which grew in the swamps. Meat and fish were dried for consumption in the winter.
They introduced the Dutch to maple sugar, hominy and succotash, as well as tobacco. Natives on Manhattan ate oysters in great quantity, leaving piles of discarded shells near their settlments. The Dutch named Pearl Street after the piles of shells which lined the shore. Beans, meat, fish and roots were all cooked as a mash in large, clay pots.
They used wooden plates, made water buckets out of bark, and had mats and baskets made of rush, husks, grasses and bark. Every item of domestic use was decorated with woven designs or painted figures of animals.
Tanned animal skins were used for clothing, and feathers and embroidery for decoration. In summer, a simple leather breech-cloth sufficed for the men; in the winter, robes of bear, beaver or deerskin were worn. For ceremonial and warlike occasions the men decorated their faces with paint. The women wore decorated headbands, and a cloth around their bodies which was fastened by an ornamented girdle which extended to the knee.
The French explorer, Samuel Champlain, encountered Iroquois on the border between Canada and New York state (below) in 1609, the year Henry Hudson reached New York. He used his musket to shoot two chiefs – the Iroquois had never seen firearms before and this alienated the powerful Iroquois confederacy. The French made common cause with the Huron. The Dutch made alliances with local tribes and were occasionally drawn into traditional tribal conflicts. The wisest diplomacy could seldom prevent violent conflict between natives and Dutch settlers.
The Iroquois and Huron longhouses were customarily arranged around an open space in the center of the settlement. They could be as much as 50 yards long, and 12 or 15 yards wide, and were made of flexible saplings covered with sheets of bark. Smoke holes in the roof and several entrances made the longhouse suitable for a number of families.
A European engraving (above) shows Indian villagers planting maize, the most important element in the Lenape diet. Maize mash is being cooked while flails are being used in the nearby cleared land after harvest. Small numbers of Upper Delawaran natives remained in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx until the early 19th century.
The Dutch used native trails when they settled Manhattan. Lower Broadway was a natural north-south route because it followed the line of the highest elevation, avoiding marshland and stone outcroppings (map below).

“The men and women commonly have broad shoulders and slender waists. Their hair, before old age, is jet black, sleek and uncurled … The men and women all have fine brown eyes and snow-white teeth … their skin is not so white as ours; still we see some of them who have a fine skin, and they are mostly born with good complexions; otherwise they have a yellowish color like the Tartars, or heathen who are seen in Holland … Their yellowness is no fault of nature, but it is caused by the heat of the scorching sun, which is hotter and more powerful in that country than in Holland … Their women are well favored and fascinating. Several of our Netherlanders were connected with them before our women came over, and remain firm in their attachments.” Adriaen Van Der Donck

Explorers Arrive
The first explorers to reach New York were the descendants of the bands of hunters who first crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia into Alaska about 25,000 years ago. In time they settled in every region of this vast continent, shaping its landscape with the use of fire and agriculture. Explorers from the Old World encountered a landscape which was used, occupied, known, and named.
Between the 8th and 11th centuries, the native inhabitants along the Newfoundland coast encountered Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes who had created a first, distant settlement on Iceland in the 9th century. From Iceland the Norse made two settlements on Greenland, and from Greenland initial contact was made with the New World. These first, brief encounters left little beyond legend to document them.
When, in 1492, Columbus reached America, he was unaware of the existence of the large continent to the west, and failed to grasp that he had not landed on a remote Asian island, but on a new continent. In 1493, when Columbus sailed on his second voyage, there were six priests accompanying the crew. For the Spanish Crown, conversion of the natives was an important motive. The other declared motive was the creation of a trading colony. The mixture of motives – commerce, national aggrandizement, and hunger for riches – gave the early voyages of exploration their unique flavor of evangelism and greed.
In 1523, Francis I of France was persuaded by Verrazano to support a voyage to find a sea passage to Cathay. From a reconaissance of the eastern seabord, he brought back a description of the land and its aboriginal inhabitants which greatly stirred interest. In 1534, Jacques Cartier was commissioned to find a route to Asia. Contact with Indians after his 27-day journey to Newfoundland inaugurated the French fur trade. On a return voyage in 1535, Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence to explore, leaving a winter camp near the present site of Quebec. He traveled as far as Montreal, where he found a large native settlement.
In the 18th century, European understanding of western geography was rather sketchy. A 1752 map in Diderot’s Encyclopédie shows the mythical Mer de l’Ouest in the vicinity of Vancouver and mysteriously gives a Chinese name to what became British Columbia.
In 1539, Hernando De Soto recruited 700 men, all treasure-seekers, and sailed in ten ships to the southwest coast of Florida. De Soto led his men on a vast journey into the interior of the continent, from North Carolina to Texas. Although he died during the journey and was buried in the Mississippi River, 300 Spaniards survived the ordeal, reaching Mexico in 1543. Sir Walter Raleigh made his first expedition to Roanoke Island in 1584. His first plantation of 110 settlers was made in 1587, but by the time a relief expedition could return in 1590 there was no trace of the settlers.
When the first Dutch traders arrived in the Hudson Bay, the disappearance of Cabot in 1498, the killing of Verrazano in Central America in 1527, the brutal hardships experienced by the party Cartier left at Quebec in the winter of 1535-6, and the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke settlers in 1587-90, had made it abundantly clear that the exploration and settlement of this new land was extremely dangerous. Harsh weather, threats from rival European powers, disease, dangers of mutiny, and the likelihood of attack by natives, made the New World a nightmare of violence and danger, leavened by the hope of gold.
The landing of Henry Hudson in 1609 (above) from an original by R.W. Weir. Hudson, still searching for a northwest passage, made a final voyage to Hudson Bay where he spent the winter of 1610-11. The hardships of the winter enraged the crew, who set Hudson, his son and seven crew members adrift in a small boat with no supplies. They were never beard from again.
Copyright © 1994 and 2005 by Swanston Publishing Limited

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