The Settlement and Early History of the Bronx


This account includes very generally the territory formerly a part of Westchester County which forms part of Greater New York between the Hudson River and Long island Sound, but owing to limited space only particular statements are given of the territory in which are situated our great suburban parks, the 23rd and 24th Wards, and the adjoining Township of Westchester, and now (1897) forming the Borough of the Bronx. For more detailed information the reader is referred to Bolton's and Scharf's histories of Westchester County, Riker's History of Harlem, Colonial and other records and documents easily obtained in any of our public libraries.

Indian Occupancy

The most prominent tribe of Indians which inhabited the territory prior to European settlement, we are informed by Broad head and Schoolcraft, was the Weekquaesgeeks. Their hunting grounds generally described were south of an irregular line drawn east and west from the Hudson to the Sound, passing through the headwaters of the Pocantico, Nepperhan, and Bronx; their settlements are attested by mounds, shell-beds, stone hatchets, spear and arrow-heads found on the shores, hummocks, and uplands, which extend from the mouth of the Pocantico at Tarrytown to the rocks bearing Indian inscriptions on Hunter's Island, in Pelham Bay Park. Their actions in the region in which our Board is interested are recorded in history by mention of the first treaty made between them and the Dutch in 1642 at the house of Jonas Bronck or Bronx, which stood near the outlet of Mill Brook, near the present terminus of Brook Avenue at Harlem Kills; their massacres and destruction of farms, in violation of that treaty, about 1655, of Vanderdonck's colonie in what is now Van Cortlandt Park; the celebrated Anne Hutchinson's murder near the split rock in Pelham Bay Park, and the driving away of Throckmorton and his associates from Throgg's Neck: while our land titles begin with deeds from members of that tribe, preceding or supplementing Dutch ground briefs and patents and grants, borough and manorial charters granted by the English.

European Settlement

Hendrix Hudson anchored off Spuyten Duyvil in his cruise up the Hudson in 1609 and Adriaen Blok, in the first vessel built by Europeans in America, saw from the deck of the Onrest or Restless the shores of North New York after passing through Die Helle Gatt on his voyage of discovery up Long island Sound in 1613; but to Jonas Bronck or Bronx belongs the honor of being the first actual settler, in 1639-40, on Harlem Kills. After him the river Bronx and all the southerly part of our region was called Bronxland. Adriaen Vanderdonck, the first lawyer who came to this part of America a patriot and author, entitled to the credit of having obtained the concession of popular rights to the early inhabitants of New Netherland, followed Bronck, in 1653, by settling near where the Van Cortlandt mansion in the park of that name now stands. His purchase from the Indians may have been earlier. That portion of our region, and as far north as well up the valley of the Nepperhan, was therefore originally called Van Donks or Vanderdonks Land. Between Vanderdonk and Bronx came in the Archer Patent, or manor of Fordham, purchased principally from the Indians by one Jan Arcer, or John Archer, between 1655 and 1671. Daniel Turneur, an Alderman of Harlem, owned the neck of land between Cromwell's Creek and Harlem River, now known as Highbridgeville in 1671, also an Indian purchase; while Jessop and Richardson acquired title to part of West Farms, Barretto's Point, and Leggett's Neck as early as 1663, known subsequently as the West Farms patent. Crossing the Bronx we find that about 1663-65, on the Westchester Creek, where the ancient village of Westchester now stands, was a settlement of trespassing New Englanders, whom the Dutch governor tried to bring under the jurisdiction of the West India Company, but who, though outwardly loyal to the Dutch, were hoping and scheming for an English conquest, rewarded for their efforts and erected into a separate borough. This borough comprised all the territory south of the present Eastchester boundary, west of Hutchinson's River, Eastchester, and Pelham Bay, and east of the Bronx with a front to the Sound and East River. The tedious litigations about proprietary rights in that section between the Pells, Cornells, and the Borough, are too detailed to set forth in an article so restricted as this; but suffice it to say that the Borough and Cornells were firmly seated in their holdings, and that East of Hutchinson's River and the bay called Eastchester or Pelham, one Thomas Pell, of Fairfield, Connecticut, had prior to 1666 purchased from the Indians all the lands now in Pelham Bay Park and as far east as New Rochelle; and in 1666 the English governor Nicolls erected it into a proprietary holding, with Thomas Pell as Lord of the Manor.

Colonial Times

The colonial history of our region abounds with tales of Indian warfare; the famous John Underhill of Pequod fame came over from New England to help the Dutch. The crops were tobacco, wheat, and Indian corn. Controversies arose as to lands and jurisdictions, the establishment of ferries over the Harlem and Spuyten Duyvil so as to meet the two main thoroughfares of the Province, leading respectively to Albany and Connecticut, the portion now Westchester being for a short time under the jurisdiction of Long island while the most westerly and southerly had in it the three manors of Phillipsburgh (the most northerly part), Fordham, and Morrisania with their Courts leet and appellate tribunals at Harlem or before the Mayor of New York.

In 1691 Westchester County was erected, which brought all our region under the one jurisdiction but with separate representatives for the Borough. Cooper, in his Chainbearer and Oak Openings, portrays perhaps the most vivid picture of the manners and customs of the "well-to-do" people of those days, while Mrs. Knight in her Journal of a Journey to New York from Boston, and Finlay in his Report on the Mails tell the less pleasing, but perhaps most reliable, tales of the hardships and inconveniences of "those good old colony times when we were under the King."

The Revolutionary War

At the outbreak of the Revolution we find Vanderdonck's land vested in Van Cortlandts by the female line descendants of the Phillipses, and a Phillipse collecting toll at Kingsbridge, then the only bridge except the Farmer's, which spanned either Spuyten Duyvil or the Harlem estuary; at bridge at West Farms near Lydig's, or, as it was then known, De Lancey's Mills; and Williams Bridge at the site where one now spans the Bronx near the Depot. The ferry at Harlem which had its landing at a place on the north side of 125th Street near 1st Avenue, and on the Morris Estate this side of the river led to a road on this side corresponding somewhat to 3d Avenue and Boston Road, as we now know it, and thence to De Lancey's Mills at West Farms and the Kingsbridge Road as it now runs from West Farms to the Farmer's Bridge. The Fordham Road ran from the Kingsbridge Road to Harlem River, just as it runs now to Fordham Heights, then called Fordham or Berrian's Landing, and the road we now call the Macomb's Dam Road ran then, as now, to where it joins Jerome Avenue and thence to a point in Highbridgeville near the Anderson property on the western slope of Cromwell's Creek. Such was the "lay out" of the North Side at the opening of hostilities with Great Britain.

The personnel of its inhabitants had changed somewhat from the beginning of the English Colonial period. The Vancortlandts held most of what had been "Vandonksland," some of them Royalists, others brave soldiers in the continental regiments; parts of the Fordham and West Farms Patents and parts of the Turneur High Bridge holding had been purchased as "additional" lands by the Morris Family, lords of the adjoining Manor of Morrisania, which had also taken in Bronxland. The men of this family took up the American side of the controversy. Lewis the elder, Lord of the manor was a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Great Declaration; Gouverneur, his brother, represented the County in the Provincial Congress of new York; and Richard of Fordham, a royal Commissioner of the Court of Admiralty, resigned his lucrative post, and as a reward had his house and farm at Fordham destroyed by the British, took refuge in the American lines, and with his brother Gouverneur helped make our first State Constitution and served as Senator from our region. The other parts of the Fordham and West Farms Turnjeur and Westchester patents had, by sales and inheritances, passed into the hands of the Devoes, Hadleys, Vermilyeas, Valentines, Corsas, Van Alsts, Hunts, Archers, Jessups,, Ryers, Cornells, Leggetts, Berrians, Briggs, Bussings, Buckhouts, Pooles, and others, many of which names are on our roll of members, or occur as names of our streets and avenues and to the credit of their sturdy fathers are also to be found on the muster rolls of the Westchester, West Farms, and Fordham Companies which fought for the American side. Our region was the theatre of many bloody skirmishes and important military movements during the Revolutionary contest. The gorge of the Harlem and Spuyten Duyvil, the low, marshy lands and creeks on the Kills and East river, and the high lands immediately in their rear, disclosed to the strategic eyes of Washington a natural line of defense, behind which he could successfully lead his ill-equipped, and only half-defeated troops from Manhattan island, and rally them on the mountain slopes of the interior. There he could maintain an unbroken line of communication between the New England, the Middle and Southern colonies. Howe's victory at Brooklyn and new York had merely placed him in possession of some islands; the continent was still held by the rebellious Americans. The British had no base of supplies but the ocean, and as the Americans retreated the crops were burned, the cattle purchased from the farmers, and the roads and bridges leading either across or up into the country were rendered useless for artillery and baggage-trains by felling the trees across them. The immediate command of the rear guard was assigned to General heath. He p laced it with posts and pickets along the east banks of Spuyten Duyvil, the Harlem River and Kills, the indentations of Leggett's Creek, Bronx River, and Westchester Creek, and left no available route for landward advance open to Howe except over broken bridges, highways slashed with timber and up to lines of stone walls with minute-men behind them. A second line of advance open to Howe was up the Hudson in ships of war still obstructed by the American forts Washington and Lee; as a third method of attack the Sound in ships, a landing on the continent and an advance in the front and not on the flank of the retreating Americans. Heath with his men held the Harlem River gorge so well that no available landing occurred to the Howe brothers until the fleet and transports had reached Hammonds anchorage just west of the promontory whereon Fort Schuyler now stands.

After landing his troops and trains, and marching up the Throgg's Neck road, Howe found the old Westchester bridge across the creek impassable, and American riflemen behind cord-wood breast-works barring his advance: farther up the creek he crossed, or tried to cross, so as to get on to the Eastchester Road near where the Pelham Parkway now crosses it, but there the regiments of Westchester in which were our companies from Fordham, West Farms, and Westchester village, successfully resisted his advance and the British veterans returned to Throgg's Neck and were forced to be ferried across Pelham Bay to Pell's Point and then in what is now Pelham Bay park, found Glover's regiment of Marblehead fishermen disputing his advance behind thick stone walls. This delay by a handful of undisciplined troops enabled Washington with his main army to retreat to White Plains on the roads west of the Bronx, unharrassed in his rear and flanks, and to form his lines at that place, which Howe finally attacked but did not carry.

Hardly was our region cleared of the troops of both armies when our gorge of the Harlem again echoed the sounds of war. Fort Washington on the Hudson was carried by attacks from the Westchester shore. British cannon planted on Morris Heights rendered the outlying work on Laurel Hill at the terminus of 10th Avenue useless, and Cornwallis in his flat boats came down Harlem River, landed at Cromwell's creek, scaled that height, and the brave McGaw from Maryland lost his life at Ft. George where now an enterprising brewer has dubbed his house of refreshment, "Fort Wendell." The outlying lines near the Jumel Mansion were carried by Lord Percy's regiment, and a regiment which scaled the heights just south of High Bridge. Von Knyphausen swept down the valley of Broadway and attacked the fort on its northern flank and Fort Washington fell. During the rest of the war Manhattan island and all the Heights on the eastern and northern shores of the Spuyten Duyvil and Harlem remained to the British as their conquest with our region as sites for chains of redoubts, block-houses, and videttes. Lack of space forbids the recital of where those works stood, but they are known and should be marked in some appropriate manner before public improvements entirely obliterate them. The impartial annalist must here record the brave but mistaken efforts of another son of our soil, Captain James De Lancey, scion of the De Lanceys of De Lancey's Mills, who, as captain of the royal light horse, was the most successful and useful officer the British possessed to carry out the forays and raids which were constantly occurring in the Debatable land which lay between the American lines and outposts along the Harlem and Spuyten Duyvil. He, Emmerich, a soldier of fortune, and Simcoe of the Rangers made for themselves a reputation as daring cavalry officers equal in acts of bravery "hair-breadth ' scrapes by flood and field" to any of the dashing ventures of Prince Rupert, Lord Cardigan, Fitzpatrick, Forrest, or Gilmour. But De Lancey's reward was a sad one; his estates were confiscated, and he died an exile in a foreign land, yet at this late day we can honor an adversary by respecting his fidelity to principle.

The attack on the British lines by way of Van Cortlandt and Williamsbridge, unsuccessful, but yet notable; Aaron Burr's destruction of a British block-house at West Farms; Washington's and De Rochambeau's reconnaissance in force through our region, as far, as near where St. Ann's Church now stands; the defeat of the Stockbridge Indians in a part of Vancortlandt Park, near Woodlawn; a brisk cavalry encounter at the bridge crossing Tibbett's Brook near the old Mill, also in Van Cortlandt Park, are all events worthy of record and enter into our Revolutionary history; and the last scene is the most pleasing of all, when the Father of our Country, escorted by the Westchester horse, crossed Kingsbridge to take possession of New York city when evacuated by the British. No better works descriptive of the manners, customs, and condition of the country at that period can be consulted than Cooper's Spy and Dwight's Travels.

From the Revolution To the Harlem Railroad

Our region was wasted by fire and sword, but an era of peace and plenty again began; nature restored the forests which American and British soldiers had cut down; the farmer laid his flint-locked musket aside or blazed away with it at harmless squirrels and woodchucks, and wealthy men of New York recognizing the beauties of the hilly, river and bay girt region, sought rest from their labors by purchasing some of the worn-out farms, and erecting costly mansions, laying out well kept pasture lands, tasteful plantations, and sloping lawns. Blooded stock replaced "neat cattle," slab-sided Rozinantes lank sheep and razor-back hogs; our pastures and waters nourished the bones and muscles of "Eclipse" and "Trustee" and gave new life and strength to imported Short Horns, Alderneys and Ayreshires, black-faced Southdowns and sleek hogs from foreign lands; but the old native stock of men still remained, and "showed against each other" at the County and Town agricultural fairs; the Town Clerk only enlarged the Poll List and carried the names of the owners of abolished manors and grantees of the Archers, Pells, and Cornells and the Rosters of the Militia of war times alongside those of Fox, Dater, Faile, Dennison, White, Anderson, Haight, Hoe, Simpson, Butler, Cammann, Lydig, Coster, Spofford, Ludlow, Hall, Walker, Bailey, Van Schaick, Lorillard, Richardson, Coddington, and Watson, and many other names known in the mercantile, professional, journalistic and literary life of the great metropolis. Pelham and the Third Avenue Bridges were built and "new roads to Connecticut" laid out the Harlem River was crossed by a dam and fixed highway at 7th Avenue, about 1826, which was torn down and a draw put into it about 1836; the High Bridge was begun at about that time with its arches eighty feet in the span and the crown of the arch "not less than one hundred feet above high tide;" and in 1842 the waters of the Croton crossed the Harlem on that viaduct. The Lydigs had succeeded the DeLanceys with their "flouring" mill; Bolton from England had set up the Bleach, and the Lorillards their snuff-mill in the beautiful gorge of the Bronx, now happily devoted to Park purposes. Robert Macomb had his grist-mill at Kingsbridge built across Spuyten Duyvil creek, so that the tide would turn the wheel; the Van Tassels continued to grind the farmers' grist at the old mill at Van Cortlandt's, over Tibbit's brook; the Westchester Creek still turned the wheel of the tide mill at the old bridge where the Americans had piled up the cord-wood and resisted Howe's advance; the mills of the Morrises on Mill Brook and Cromwell on Cromwell's Creek, had been discontinued and the dams destroyed; other industries, especially a carpet factory had been started at West Farms, but as yet Christopher Walton at Fordham Corners, Daniel Mapes at West Farms and Sydney Bowne at Westchester were the only merchants or "country-store keepers" with any considerable business, and West Farms was the Post Office and centre of trade. The Red Bird stage received and delivered the mail for the region at the latter place, and then rattled on over the Eastchester turnpike on its weary way to the shire town of White Plains.

Such was the region from the Revolution to the time of the building of the Harlem Railroad through our territory. Some other pen must record the future temporal development. History ends here; from that time onward, urban improvement begins.

Website: The History
Article Name:  The Settlement and Early History of the Bronx
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Great north side, or, borough of the Bronx, New York
New York: Anonymous Knickerbocker Press, 1891, 303 pgs.
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