When Harlem was a Village Part I


All the world, or at least that goodly portion of it familiar with old New York, knows, that in the eleventh year of Peter Stuyvesant's directorship of the affairs of New Amsterdam that testy worthy gave permission for the founding of a village in the upper part of the Island of Manhattan which he decreed should be called New Harlem ; whereby hangs an interesting tale of the day of first things. Then north of a line extending from the present Eighth Avenue and One Hundred and Twelfth Street to the East River at One Hundredth Street broad meadows stretched northward and eastward to the river now called the Harlem. Save for a single hill, known to us as Mount Morris Park, it was a level and treeless region, sure to warm the hearts of wanderers who had lately
taken leave of the flats and dunes of their motherland. The Indian called it Muscoota, but the white man when he came gave it the name of the Flats, and as early as 1636 a little band of colonists had claimed it for their own.

These pioneers built their homes on the site of an Indian village, at the foot of the hill which they named Slang Berge, or Snake Hill, and which is now Mount Morris Park, and, growing in numbers from year to year, were in 1658 granted permission by Stuyvesant to form a village, to which, as we have seen, he gave the name of New Harlem. After that they determined to erect a tavern and to build a dam and gristmill. A site for the mill was found on the banks of the creek, twenty feet deep and a hundred wide, which ran along the southern edge of The Flats, and emptied into Hell Gate Bay, near the foot of One Hundred and Sixth Street. This creek had two branches, one of which rose in the rocks east of Bloomingdale, and ran north and east through McGowan's Pass to the present crossing of Fifth Avenue and One Hundred and Ninth Street. The other and larger branch had its source in a number of springs at the base of the hills which flanked The Hollow Way at the foot of One Hundred and Twenty-fourth Street and flowed eastward to Fifth Avenue and One Hundred and Seventeenth Street, where it swung towards the south to join the southern branch, and then took its way east along the line of One Hundred and Sixth Street.

The men of New Harlem built a dam across this stream in 1667, a little west of the present Third Avenue, and at its northern end a gristmill. Two bridges were thrown over the stream, one just below the dam and the other, across which the Boston Road ran in after years, west of the present Fifth Avenue. One Derick Benson bought pond and mill in 1730, and both were thenceforth called by his name. The mill was burned during the Revolution, but was rebuilt by Benjamin Benson after the war, and remained in operation until in 1827 work was begun on the Harlem Canal. This canal extended from the East River nearly to Fifth Avenue, following in part the line of Harlem Creek, and was part of an ambitious scheme for a water highway sixty feet wide to be extended through the Hollow Way to the Hudson. Such part of it as came into being was solidly built of stone, but failure overtook the enterprise, and at a later time both canal and creek were filled in to furnish sites for rows of houses.

When this abortive canal was yet a part of the remote future, and the village of New Harlem still nestled about Snake Hill, it received a visit in 1679 from those keen-eyed travellers, the Labadist missionaries Bankers and Sluyter. They tell us in their journal that after leaving the Bowery they proceeded " through the woods to New Harlem, a rather large village directly opposite the place where the northeast creek (Harlem River) and the East River come together, situated about three hours' journey from New Amsterdam, like as the old Harlem in Europe is  situated about three hours' distance from the old Amsterdam. As our guide, Gerrit, had some
business here, and found many acquaintances, we remained over night at the house of the schout of the village, who had formerly lived in Brazil, and whose heart was still full of it. His house  was all the time filled with people, mostly drinking execrable rum.' He had also the best cider we have tasted."

The morning after this lively night at the house of Resolved Waldron, constable of New Harlem, the Labadists set out for the northern end of the island. " When we were not far from the point of Spuyten Duyvil," they write, " we could see on our left the rocky cliffs of the main-land on the other side of the North River standing straight up and down with the grain, just as if they were antimony. We crossed over the Spuyten Duyvil in a canoe, and . . .followed the opposite side of the land until we came to the house of one Valentyn. He had gone to the city, but his wife, though she did not know Gerrit or us, was so much rejoiced to see Hollanders that she hardly knew what to do for us. She set before us what she had. We left after breakfasting. Her son showed us the way, and we came to a road entirely covered with peaches. We asked the boy why they left them to lie there, and why the hogs did not eat them. He answered, ' We do not know what to do with them, there are so many ; the hogs are satiated with them and will not eat any more.' . . . We pursued our way now a small distance through the woods and over the hills, then back again along the shore to a point where lived an Englishman named Webblingh, who was standing ready to cross over. He carried us over with him, and refused to take any pay for our passage, offering us at the same time some of his rum, a liquor which is everywhere. We were now again at New Harlem, and dined with Resolved, at whose house we had slept the night before, and who made us welcome."

Save for the Indian wars of Kieft's time, for the better part of two hundred years the ways of New Harlem were slow-going and peaceful ones. An early task of the settlers was to build a church, and as soon as they were able they replaced the original structure with one of stone, which boasted an arched door, a steeple, and a weather-cock. The church which stood until
1825 at One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, midway between Second and Third Avenues, faced an  old Indian trail leading to the Harlem River, and this trail became Harlem Road or Church Lane, the main thoroughfare of the village. * A line drawn from the northeastern corner of One Hundred  and Nineteenth Street and Lexington Avenue to the same corner of One Hundred and Twenty-third  Street and Second Avenue, and thence to the river, would pass through the centre of Church Lane. The tavern on Church Lane became in 1673 the first halting-place of the monthly mail established between New York and Boston by way of Harlem, but it was not until a century later that the eastern post-road was opened, and mail-coaches went through once a week, pausing for refreshment at Harlem.

Nor at first did the Boston Road follow its present course across and beyond the Harlem River. Instead it joined the Kingsbridge Road near One Hundred and Thirty-first Street, and following it northwest to Spuyten Duyvil so passed off the Island of Manhattan. At a later time, however, a  ferry was established at the foot of Church Lane, where One Hundred and Twenty-sixth Street
touches the Harlem River, and by this new and shorter route the Boston Road thereafter took its  way to the north. The ferry-house at the foot of Church Lane remained standing for many years, and when demolished in 1867 it was, with one exception, the last relic of the ancient village of New Harlem.

Beyond the Harlem River in the old days lay the wide-spreading lands of the Morris family, near its mouth the home of Gouverneur Morris, and close at hand the country-seat of his brother Lewis Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Richard Morris, first of his line in America, was an officer in Cromwell's army, who fled from England after the Restoration, and
purchased north of the Harlem a manor ten miles square, to which he gave the name of Morrisania. Richard's son Lewis became chief justice of the province, and from him in the third generation descended Gouverneur Morris, who was one of the ablest of the builders of the republic, and something more, wit, philosopher, and successful manager of large affairs. A graduate of King's
College and early admitted to the bar, Gouverneur Morris served during the Revolution in the Provincial Congress of New York and in the Continental Congress, taking a leading part in the deliberations of both bodies. Afterwards he was a delegate to the constitutional convention, and no man did better work in the great task of forming the Constitution, the first draft of which
came from his hand.

Private business took Morris to France in 1789, and the next nine years of his life were spent in Europe. He was in Paris during the Revolution, part of the time serving as American minister, and his diary furnishes one of the most vivid and sufficing accounts of those dark times that have come down to us. He returned to America in 1799, and was chosen almost at once to fill an
unexpired term in the Federal Senate.His brief period of service in that body ended in 1803, but he continued to the end to play a prominent part in public affairs, and was a leader in starting the project of the Erie Canal. He spent his last years at Morrisania, tilling his farm, receiving visits from his friends, and carrying on a wide correspondence on business and politics. He married in 1809 most happily, and a letter sent not long afterwards to an old friend in France gives us a delightful glimpse of himself and his home life. " My health," he writes, " is excellent, saving a little of the gout which at this moment annoys me. I can walk three leagues, if the weather be pleasant and the road not rough. My employment is to labor for myself a little, for others more; to receive much company and forget half those who come. I think of  public affairs a little, play a little, read a little, and sleep a good deal. With good air, a good cook, fine water and wine, a good constitution, and a clear conscience I descend towards the grave full of gratitude to the Giver of all good."

Morris died after a brief illness in 1816, and was buried beneath the church his family had erected on their lands, St. Ann's Church, Morrisania. His estate descended to his only son, and from the latter a large part of it passed into the hands of strangers to spring into vigorous life as the village of Morrisania. The elder Jordan L. Mott purchased some hundreds of acres of the Morris lands, and established thereon an iron-foundry and a town, to which he gave the name of Mott Haven, and which, like Morrisania, has now become an integral part of the city. The growing town going still farther afield has also claimed the village of West Farms, where of old the De Lanceys had their country-seat, and strove with the Morrises for supremacy in local affairs. It was at West Farms in the opening days of the Revolution that Aaron Burr led an assault on a block-house built by Oliver De Lancey, the boldness and rapidity of the maneuver causing the Tory garrison to surrender without a shot in its defense.

Harlem also contributed more than one stirring incident to the history of the struggle for independence. Among the early settlers in the village were the McGowns (written in history as McGowan), who built their home and gave a name to the rocky pass still traceable in the upper part of Central Park. When, after the repulse of the British at the battle of Harlem Heights, Howe moved up his entire army from the city to retrieve the disaster, his advance guard, a Hessian brigade, halted at the McGown homestead, and found that the only male person at home was a lad of twelve, Andrew McGown, whose father was in Washington's army. The boy was pressed into service to guide the column against the American camp. He obeyed with apparent willingness, but led the Hessians by a roundabout course to the shores of the Hudson while the patriot forces were taking themselves out of the way and camping behind their entrenchments at Fort Washington. Mines, in relating the incident, has well said that a boy that day was the salvation of his country.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: When Harlem was a Village Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: New York: Old & New, Its Story, Streets, and Landmarks by Rufus Rockwell Wilson J.B. Lippincott
Company-Philadelphia 1902
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