The Infant Metropolis: New York In the First Century of its Existence


It is well known that New York in its infancy was a sturdy Dutch brat, with a heritage of pluck and enterprise derived from the hardy spirits of Holland in the days when the commerce of the world centered on its well-dyked shores, which gave promise of a glorious future, although the premise is perhaps only discovered in its ample fulfillment. We still have traces, in our Knickerbockers families and their princely estates of which we may well be proud, of the honest Dutch origin of our young and vigorous Metropolis.

A Touch of Early History

Brave old Hendrick Hudson and the Half-Moon, while groping along these shores in the service of the high and mighty States-General of Holland, seeking unaccountably enough in this latitude for the North-west Passage and a short cut to the Indies, ran into the Lower Bay, which was then free from vexatious quarantine regulations and the quarrels of jealous officials. He found the shores covered with noble forests, and his eye was mightily taken with the picturesque islands and the placid waters. Anchoring in the Lower Bay, he sent men ashore at Coney island, while o theirs ventured up the Narrows and first beheld the wooded slopes and quiet shores of Manhattan. Hendricks went up the river which still bears his name, and left a part of his crew to establish the ghostly bowling-alley in the Catskills; but it was left to more fortunate hands to plant the first settlement on this island. He carried back the news of his discovery, however, which, strange to say, did not satisfy his employers for the abandonment of the North-west Passage project. Men then came out in trading vessels to exchange glass beads and gay ribbons for valuable furs, which they called trading with the Indians. In 1623 thirty families of settlers came over, and the village of Nieuw Amsterdam was timidly deposited upon the extreme lower end of the island.

The Topography of the Island and the Beginning of the City.

Good Peter Minuit, the first Governor of the infant colony, was an honest Dutchman, and could not bear to take the Indians land from them without a fair compensation, and so he purchased the title to the entire island for the princely sum of sixty guilders, or about twenty-four dollars. It was a goodly acquisition, lying on so noble a bay, with high shores along its two majestic rivers. Its surface was varied with hill and dale, meadow and stream, and was covered with a fine growth of oak, poplar, and sycamore trees. There were Indian settlements in the valleys, and the smoke of camp-fires arose on the heights of Murray Hill and Central Park. The settlers built a block-house, and gathered closely around it in rude huts, fearful of the red men, for their loneliness was relieved scarcely once a year by news and supplies from Holland, and additions to their number came but slowly in. Gradually, however, they cast off their timidity and went boldly to work to build up a New Netherlands in the western world.

The Dutch Village

The first block-house was soon replaced by a fort, which stood to the east of the Battery, on land now occupied by buildings, near the beginning of Pearl street. It was a modest structure, and its ramparts consisted of low embankments of earth, within which was the Government House and the church, two buildings most essential to the peace of their pious Calvinist hearts. With a view to future increase and multiplication, the burgomasters boldly placed the limits of their new Carthage as far up as Wall street, and along that line erected a stout stockade of upright cedar timbers, with a ponderous wooden gate at each end, one at Broadway, which was then near the brink o the Hudson, and the other at Pearl-street, which ran along the East River. This they dignified with the name of the City Wall. Within these ample limits the sturdy village grew and thrived. Quiet it was, indeed, even at fifty years of age, for these Dutchmen smoked their pipes in peace, and loved not bustle and confusion. They had no communication with the outer world, except when one of the India Companies vessels came with building maternal and manufactured goods, and took the bales of furs which their agents had collected.

The Dutch were permitted to hold the little city, of which they were so proud, less than fifty years in all, and then it fell into the hands of the English, and had its name changed in honor of that unconscionable Papist James II., then Duke of York. Then, at that time, it was as thoroughly Dutch as any village in Holland. The few streets which radiated from the fort had Dutch names, and the houses were built of blue yellow bricks which were brought from the mother country. The gildings were placed with the gable ends to the street and on the roofs were balconies on which the household often sat to contemplate the glories of the surrounding scenery, and grow proud at the evidences of thrift about them. The houses were furnished with simplicity, and nothing betokened luxury or wealth. A few merchants, indeed, built stone-mansions and had in their gloomy rooms tall posted beds, with dainty curtains and a ponderous array of silver plate. There were then no newspapers, and the only reading was the Bible and the Prayer-book. Everybody went to church in the Dutch sanctuary, which stood in a little grove of trees on Cordon street, now Exchange-place.

The church was an unpretending structure, within which nearly the entire population gathered to hear the good Dominic Bogardus. The ladies appeared in short colored petticoats and waist jackets, with little coat-tails behind, wore colored hose, high-heeled shoes, and no hats or bonnets. The men appeared in their broad doublets and trunk hose, and took their places in the galleries, while the women sat below. After the ringing of the bell, the sexton and his deputies formed a procession, and marched in with the cushions of the burgomasters, who pews set apart for their especial use. The dominie was perched in a high circular pulpit, with an immense sounding-board impending above his head. He wore a gown of black silk, with flowing sleeves, and was altogether imposing in his personal appearance. The clerk stood below, and read a chapter from Scripture, or chanted the Apostolic Creed. It was his duty, too, when any public notice was to be given, to hand it up to the dominie on a long pole, and also to watch the hour-glass during the sermon, and as soon as its sands were run out to give three raps with his cane to intimate that the time was up. This cut short the parson's discourse, and the deacons went around carrying poles with little black bags at the end to collect alms. No liquor was sold on Sunday until after 2 o'clock, and the Schout marched about the streets with his staff of office to see that there was no disorder or unseemly conduct on the sacred day.

Daily Life

In their daily walks and conversation our Dutch ancestors preserved the same stolid equanimity with which they listened for an hour to Dominic Bogardus' edifying discourse in the little church, which looked out from its covert of trees on the placid waters of the bay. They had little commerce except with their patrons of the India Company; their public affairs were managed for them by agents sent from Holland for the purpose, and there was no excitement, unless produced by an occasional difficulty with the Indians. Their Governors resided in the great Whitehall, not very great either, on State street, and had little else to do but to look after the interests of the village. These, however, were more especially attended by the burgomasters, who were very jealous of any encroachment upon their prerogatives. The City Hall was a little stone building at Coenties-slip, which had been the first tavern the colony built, by order of Gov. Van Twiller, for the entertainment of man and beast. When it rose to the dignity of a public edifice it was crowned with a wooden cupola, in which was a bell that sounded any alarm or summons ordered by the ruling powers. Of course, the old stone tavern had to be replaced, as it was the only place of public refreshment in the City, and Martin Crigier, one of the original settlers and a substantial citizen, erected a new tavern opposite the Bowling-green, about fifty feet from the corner of Broadway and Battery-place. Here the choice spirits of the day were wont to congregate and discuss their little public affairs, while the young and playful disported themselves on the green in front. There were then no established lines of travel, and when the Governor desired to send a warning to the encroaching Yankees of Connecticut or the insolent Swedes of New Jersey, a special messenger was dispatched, and was not expected to return for some weeks. No letters were received except by the Dutch vessels, and a Post-office was unnecessary. If a foreign ship appeared in the bay it was looked upon with consternation, and the Governor at once preceeded to inquire into the occasion of its presumption. On one occasion an English vessel came up the Narrows, and started boldly up the Hudson River.

The renowned Woutter Van Twiller, whose person and achievements are forever embalmed in the pages of Diedrich Knickerbocker's veracious history, at once entered into a parley with the commander, and in the name of the States-General forbade him to proceed. The audacious Briton, however, scouted the authority of the States General and their representative, and proceeded on his way, whereupon the irate Governor ordered out a score of barrels of beer and commanded every loyal citizen to drink confusion to the Prince of Orange. Thus was the dignity of the colony vindicated and the citizens pacified. The peaceful pursuits of the people consisted chiefly in raising cabbages and cattle. Their gardens surrounded their houses, and outside the city wall were farms extending up the banks of each river as far as the canal. Beyond that, all was a wilderness. The intermediate space between these two ranges of farms was common ground, where the cows of the village were pastured, and every morning a man went around from house to house blowing a horn and collecting the cattle to drive them to the commons through the western gate and up a crooked path near the line of Nassau street. There was a market every Saturday, around the house of Ilans Riersted, near the foot of Broad street, and a cattle fair in November, in the Bowling green. A little settlement of Walloons had been formed at Breuckelen, but as yet there was only a casual communication by boat across the river. There was but one wharf, and that a small one. It extended from Pearl street, along the line of Moore street, into the bay. All vessels anchored in the East River and sent their cargoes ashore in barges. The first pretense at laying out streets was made in 1650, and in 1658 the first pavement was laid. One street was covered with cobblestones, and received its present name of Stone street from that circumstance. When the people died, as died they did, not withstanding their piety and their thrift, they were buried in a little graveyard on the banks of the Hudson, near the present Morris street.

Two Hundred Years Ago

When the English took possession of the City and christened it by its present name, a little less than two centuries ago, it was the little Dutch village above described; but they soon set about making improvement, and sadly disturbed the quiet natives. Precautions against fire were among the first of modern institutions which was introduced. The destruction of wooden chimneys, which was decreed by the Mayor and Aldermen, struck at one of the most cherished prejudices of the people, and nearly caused a rebellion. Four fire wardens were appointed, whose business it was to enter houses and see that they were not in a dangerous condition, and ladders and fire-buckets were procured at the public expense. Whenever a fire occurred the entire populace turned out with pails and buckets, and brought water from the wells or the bay. If the fire occurred through the carelessness of the owner of the premises a fine was imposed upon him for so negligently losing his own property and endangering that of his neighbors.

In 1676 it was decreed that henceforth a watch be set at 8 o'clock, and the watchmen were forbidden to "sweare, drinke, or game" while on duty. The gates were locked at 9 o'clock, and opened "presently after day light." At about the same date proposals were made to the Governor by the Mayor and Aldermen that six houses he "appointed to sell all sortes of wine, brandy and rum and lodging," and "eight beere-houses to selle beere, syder, rum and rum, and to provide for strangers as the law directs." The price of liquor and lodging was to be fixed as follows: French wine, 1s. 3d. per quart: Fayal and St. George's. 1s. 6d.; Maderia. 1s. 10d.: brandy. 6d. per gill; rum, 3d. per gill; "syder," 4d. per quart; double beere, 3d. per quart; meals, 1s. each at wine-houses, and 8d. at the beere-houses; lodging, 4d. at wine-houses and 3d. at "beere-houses." No provision was made for lighting the streets until the Fall of 1697, when it was ordered that "during the darke time of the moone until the 25th of March next every seventh householder shall cause a lanterne and candle to be hung out on a pole every nighte," the expense of each of these luminaries to be shared equally among the seven house-holders. The City now began to extend somewhat beyond the old stockade, and houses were built on the farms outside the wall. A regular ferry to Breuckelen was established in 1699, and the ferryman was required to keep two scows for cattle and two small boats for passengers, one on each side of the river, "for the better accommodation of the publick." The fare was fixed at "4 stiers of wampun or a penny in silver." The ferryman had a lonely house at the head of Peck-slip, where his boat was moored.

There was then but three roads running northward from the City; one was to the ferry through what are now Nassau and Ferry streets, one went up the present line of Chatham street, the Bowery and Third avenue to Harlem and Kingsbridge, and was known as the "Post road to Boston." and the third went up the west side to Greenwich. Harlem was a little settlement of Dutch farmers, founded as early as 1640, and Greenwich had formerly been an Indian village rejoicing in the name of Sapokanican. The corner of Tenth and Hudson streets may be regarded as about the middle of the old village of Greenwich. The only mails received half a century later than the time of which we have been speaking came from Boston and Philadelphia about twice a week, and were assorted at the house of the Post-master, who was then a City official. In the course of the eighteenth century travel was established with various parts of the world, and vessels came into the harbor two or three times a week. In 1730 there were 211 vessels entered the port: Thirty from Jamaica, twenty-eight from Boston, fourteen from Barbados, thirteen from Bermudas, twelve from Curacoa, eleven from Antiqua, seven from London, seven from Rhode Island, six from North Carolina, five from Bristol, England, five from Dover, England, five from South Carolina, three from Philadelphia, three from Suriman and three from Madeira. The time required to make the trip from Jamaica was seven weeks, and in the Weekly Post Boy, in 1754, we find this announcement: "May 14.__This morning, at 1 o'clock, arrived here, the ship Dover, five weeks and three days from Land's End and eight weeks from London. The Weekly Post Boy was the only paper in the City for many years. At this time (1754) the population was not far from 10,000, or about that of Stamford, Conn., at the present time. With the exception of the City Hall, then on Wall-street, there were no public buildings. The greater part of the island was still a wilderness, though farm-houses and country seats were scattered over it as far up as Fourteenth street.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Infant Metropolis: New York In the First Century of its Existence
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times August 28, 1870.
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