The History of New York State
Book II, Chapter I
Part I

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam




It is hard to believe, when we think of New York, that fewer than ten generations separate the site of the city from the silent Island of Manhattan, a giant rock of gneiss slightly elevated above the tide, rough and marshy, but out of the superficial drift and alluvium of which, the pine, the spruce, the balsam and the sycamore rose, and over which the puma, the lynx, the moose, the elk and the beaver still roamed. The island might be parcelled off into a variety of formations. One the lower east is recognized an area of drift, with a second area of drift running from Hell Gate to Manhattanville in a line parallel with the Harlem. A limestone area is seen on that strait from its mouth to the sharp turn in its course. A second and smaller limestone area occurs on the Spuyten Duyvil to the northwest of the island; and outside of these are areas of gneiss, in particular two great gneissoid islands with a southern tilt--the familiar Washington and Morningside Heights. In all these areas the underlying rock is a peculiar kind of schist, and the waterfront of the island does not correspond indirection with the limestone belts, probably due to lines of fracture. The Bronx is a series of prominent ridges, sloping east to the lower shores of the sound; and the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens formed part of the great terminal moraine. Staten Island is composed of low serpentine hills with a northeast and a southwest trend, and west of these is a Jura-Trias formation, crossed in its center by a narrow strip of igneous dike rock. The east and the west part of the island is Cretaceous; the yellow gravel being one of the many evidences of glacial drift, with the southeast part of the island, nevertheless, unencroached upon by the moraine.

The climate is one of extremes, hot in summer, and cold in winter, and yet healthful, stimulating, and free from fog. Due to the absence of extensive alluvial plains and marshes there is little malaria. The temperature in the course of the year seldom rises above 90 degrees and falls equally rarely below zero. The mean winter temperature is about 32 degrees, the mean summer temperature 72, and the mean temperature for the year 52. The average rainfall ranges from 3.2 inches in May to 4.5 inches in July and August, and the mean annual precipitation is about 44 inches. More snow is likely to fall in February than in the other winter months. The winds in the main come from the northwest, except in June, when they are likely to come from the southwest. A mingling of marine and continental influences is calculated to produce a humid climate subject to sudden changes in temperature.

Turning to flora and fauna, there had been a profusion in the region of cowslips, violets, anemones, buttercups, and blood-roots in spring, the white pond lily and yellow pond lily in summer, and the asters and golden rod in autumn. There is a great variety of trees, shrubs and plants, the sumas, the hazel, the pine, the sassafras and elder, with characteristic maritime specimens. Rabbits and squirrels are common, as well as muskrat and woodchucks and otters, with some larger fur and game animals. The cooper-colored savages who formerly dwelt in this terrain knew that among birds of prey a bald eagle and a golden eagle were occasionally seen in secluded places, and that the game birds included ducks, geese, plovers, snipe, loons, with herons, the brown pelican and bittern in the marshes, and the robin, the chickadee, the thrush, the oriole, wren and phoebe conspicuous among the song birds. The adjacent seas were so full of fish that the red man had only to sink a basket in the waters to bring up his daily need.

Capital of a Continent--the miracle of New York is, of course, the wonder work of human hand and brain, renewed and intensified through three centuries of construction, for there was nothing about the irregular island that lay as the eastern lip of the great river to mark it as the destined site of the world's most shining city. New York is not a creation, but a growth. The assemblage of influences that brought it out of the geest and loess of Manhattan are as hidden from us as the elements that went into making of the giant Sequoia groves of the Sierra Nevada. We are able to pick out a few of them and by means of them essay to explain the whole. As a result of these influences New York in effect became the gateway between the Old and the New World. It has stood as the narrow neck or aperture in the sand-glass--the passage way between two globes and hemispheres. It has been the capital not merely of a country, but of a continent. It has been a mecca to which the continental American has looked continuously back, and to which the population of Europe have looked eagerly forward. It has been continuously cosmopolitan, always half American, half European. It has been a magnet which has drawn irresistibly on the talent and ambition of the country. It has been the storehouse of its art, the great object lesson of what is possible in human ingenuity. It has been something of a realization of the great dream that rises mistily in the background of roseate human hope, the promise of wonder yet to come, the convincing witness to man's creative power, a suggestion of the spiritual omnipotence inherent in the tiny human animalculae that swarm at the base of its solidity, that has spied out the machinery running the earth and the stellar suns and with insatiable curiosity, seeks an omniscience that will untie the myriad laws of nature into one potent instrument which man might wield as Jove wielded the thunder and the lightning, and bring about the millennium when there will be life without death, and grief and tribulation will be no more.

Verrazzano in the Great River--It is a far cry back, therefore, not perhaps in time, but assuredly in progress and the intervening mass of things achieved, from the Manhattan of today to the Manhattan of the time of Verrazzano, when the island and its waters first took its allotted place in the historic consciousness of Europe. This was in the year, 1524, when Verrazzano, who was a native of Florence, Italy, sailed from the vicinity of Madeira Island in a small caravel provisioned for an eight months' cruise in search of the mythical western passage to India, which was the great pre-occupation of that age. The intrepid Tuscan's voyage was undertaken in the interest of Francis I, King of France, to whom he reported the details of his voyage in a letter written at Dieppe, on July 8 of the year in which he had left the European shore. On March 7, 1524, Verrazzano had sighted land in the vicinity of Cape Fear. After coasting to the south for some distance, probably to the latitude of Charleston, South Carolina, without discovering any indication of a western passage, Verrazzano headed north. "At the end of a hundred leagues" the Florentine discovered "a very agreeable situation located within two small prominent hills, in the midst of which flowed to the sea a very great river." Beyond these hills Verrazzano found "within the land about half a league a very beautiful lake with a circuit of about three leagues: (a bay). It is thus apparent that Verrazzano explored with considerable care the great part of what New Yorkers now call the Port Authority District. The impression he carried back to Europe of the region is found on a map of the world drawn by Vesconte di Maggiolo dated 1527. It appeared with greater clearness on a sea-chart prepared by the brother of Verrazzano, Girolamo, in 1529. The navigator had been considerably impressed b the aborigines and recorded with considerable detail his contact with them. The red men seen by him were depicted as good proportion, and of middle stature, broad across the breast, strong in the arms and well formed. The chiefs who came aboard his vessel, he writes "were . . . .more beautiful inform and stature then can possibly be described." He continues: "In size they exceed us, their complexion is tawny, inclining to white, their faces sharp, heir hair long, and black, their eyes black and sharp, their expression mild, and pleasant. . . . . greatly resembling the antique." Of the women he wrote that they were ' . . . . of the same form and beauty, very graceful, of fine countenance and pleasing in manners and modesty."

In his letter to Francis I, Verrazzano gives an account of his explorations of the North American coast. The cosmographic description of the coasts and counties visited by him, preserved in the Strozzi Library in Florence, reveals the line of the Florentine's navigation. Verrazzano was about ten years old when Columbus discovered America./ Verrazzano was the first European to explore this part of the American coast. "A newe land," he exclaims, "never before seen by any man, either ancient or moderne," to give the old orthography of the translation. Among the places which he describes, apart from New York Harbor, Block Island, named by him Louisa in honor of the King's mother, Newport and other place have been identified. The Florentine continued along the Maine coast and as far as what are not called Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, which fisherman from Brittany had found 20 years before. The letter sent by him from Dieppe on his return is the earliest description known to exist of the shores of what was to become the United States.

Verrazzano's Letter--there are two copies of Verrazzano's letter, both of them, however, Italian translations, the original letter not having been found. One was printed by Ramusio in 1556 and this was translated into English by Hakluyt for his "Diver's Voyages," which appeared in 1582. The other was found later in the Strozzi library. Verrazzano begins: "Since the tempests which we encountered on the Northern coasts I have not written to your most Serene and Christian Majesty concerning the four ships sent y your orders on the ocean to discover new lands, because I thought you must have been apprized of all that had happened to us--that we had been compelled by the impetuous violence of the winds to put into Brittany in distress with only the two ships, "Normandy" and "Dolphin"; and that after having repaired those ships, we made a cruise in them, well-armed, along the coast of Spain, as your Majesty must have heard, and also of our new plan of continuing our begun voyage with the "Dolphin' alone; from which voyage being now return I proceed to give your Majesty an account of out discoveries."

Verrazzano at Manhattan--Of Manhattan and its waters, Verrazzano wrote thus: After remaining here three days, riding at anchor on the coast, as we could find no harbor, we determined to depart, and coast along the shore to the northeast, keeping sail in the vessel only by day, and coming to anchor by night. After proceeding one hundred leagues we found a very pleasant situation among some steep hills, through which a very large river, deep at its mouth, forced its way to the sea; from the sea to the estuary of the river, any ship heavily laden might pass, with the help of the tide, which rises eight feet. But as we were riding at anchor in a good berth, we would not venture up in our vessel, without a knowledge of the mouth; therefore, we took the boat, and entering the river, we found the country on its banks well-people, the inhabitants not differing much from the others, being dressed out with feathers of birds of various colors. They came towards us with evident delight, raising loud shouts of admiration, and showing us where we could most securely land with our boat. We passed up this river about a half a league, when we found it formed a most beautiful lake three leagues in circuit, upon which they were rowing thirty or more of their small boats, from one shore to the other, filled with multitudes who came to see us. All of a sudden, as is wont to happen to navigators, a violent contrary wind blew in from the sea, and forced us to return to our ship, greatly regretting to leave this region which seemed to commodious and delightful, and which we supposed must also contain great riches, as the hills showed many indications of minerals. Weighing anchor we sailed fifty leagues towards the east, as the coat stretched in that direction, and always in sight of it; at length we discovered an island of triangular form, about ten leagues from the mainland in size about equal to the Island of Rhodes, having many hills covered with trees, and well peopled, judging by the great numbers of fires, which we saw all around its shores. We gave it the name of your Majesty's illustrious mother.

The Discoveries of Hudson--Such are the main features of the century of exploration and discovery in and around New York that was the prelude to its final permanent settlement. Verrazzano led the way, but almost a hundred years were to pass before Manhattan and its waters were to pass from the mere realm of cognition to become the scene of practical action and continuous growth. The men of the Dutch East India Company who sent Hudson to search for a passage to the Pacific via the north side of Nova Zembla were hard headed men who meant business. Hudson did not find for them what they wanted, but they made use of what he dud find. The high-pooped 80-ton yacht was out-fitted for the trip, with Hudson in charge and a Dutch mate, or onderschipper, as second in command. The crew consisted of 18 or 20 men, some of them Dutch, some of them English . Robert Juet, of Lime House, the chronicler of the voyage, was probably second mate and chief gunner or constable. The "Half Moon" sighted the American shore. On July 16 five islands were passed, and on July 17, on account of the fog, Judson anchored at the entrance of a harbor now known to have been Penobscot Bay on the coast of Maine. At 10:00 a.m. the fog lifted and two boats manned by six natives approached Hudson's ship. The savages appeared glad to see the strangers, apparently mistaking them for French traders. One of the savages spoke a few words of French and the ship's company presented them with a few trifles and entertained them on board with food and drink. On July 18 the "Half Moon" sailed into the harbor. Here the sailors repaired the damaged masts, including a catch of 31 lobsters. On July 24, after five days of steady work, the new mast was completed and put in place.

A week or so later Hudson landed on what he supposed to be an island, but which was in reality the peninsula discovered by Gosnold in 1602, and then named Cape Cod. Sailing southward he reached, on August 8, the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. He then retraced his course, sailing northward for 10 days, and is the first to give an account of the wide estuary later known as Delaware Bay. Finding navigation there rather difficult because of the many shoals, Hudson continued his northerly course in the hope of discovering an inlet to the Western Sea mentioned in letters and charts sent to him by his old friend, Captain John Smith, of Virginia. About 5:00 'clock in the afternoon of September 2, 1609, Hudson sighted the range of hills since known as the Navesink Highlands, and at 10:00 o'clock on September 3, after the fog had lifted, passed Sandy Hook. The fourth and fifth days of September were employed in exploring the bay. On September 6 Hudson and five men in one of the boats passed through the Narrows into the Upper Bay, discovered the narrow river separating Staten island from Bergen Point, now known as the Kill Van Kull, and also explored Newark Bay. On the way back the boat was attacked by two canoes, one containing two and the other 14 Indian warriors. During their fight John Coleman, an English member of the crew, was killed by an arrow which pierced his throat, and two other men were wounded. In the darkness the sailors lost their bearings and were not able to locate the "Half Moon" until the following morning, when Coleman's body was buried, probably in the neighborhood of New Dorp, on Staten Island. During the morning of September 8, Indians visited the ship to barter for European goods. On September 9, the "Half Moon" anchored overnight off the northern shore of Staten Island, where "there was a very good harbor for all winds,' and on September 12, again anchored six miles farther up near the west shore of Manhattan Island. While here 28 canoes filled with men, women, and children , came toward the ship, but Hudson would not permit any of them to come aboard. Some of his crew, however, purchased oysters and beans, of which the Indians had large quantities. On the whole their relations were friendly, and bartering went on unchecked.

Hudson soon found that he was off the mouth of an important river, not a strait, and he spend three weeks in exploring it, sailing up until the shoaling water warned him that he was at the head of navigation, near the present site of Albany. He found ample proof of the wonderful fertility of the soil and especially noted the great stores of rich furs prized by the merchants of Europe as much as silks, spices, ivory and precious metals. The navigator found the aborigines to be friendly on the whole and anxious to trade their grapes, pumpkins and other food for trifles. Many of them brought beaver and otter skins which were purchased with the company's merchandise such as beads, knives, and hatchets. On September 20, further investigation of the channel was made to the northward and the ship's carpenters and his mate entertained the natives and made most of them thoroughly drunk. Hudson and his men were in turn entertained by the Indians, who did what they could to describe the country to the strangers. It dawned on Hudson, in course of time, that he had reached the limit of navigation for vessels as large as the "Half Moon" and that there was no hope of attaining an outlet to the Western Ocean. So at noon on September 23, 1609, the return voyage began. During the progress of the trip down the Hudson the sailors had a great variety of experiences. They made many landings and obtained a great store of fruits, vegetables, chestnuts, and other food supplies. They had many conflicts with the Indians, but without serious injury to the ship's crew. Hudson, however, deemed it best to get out of harm's way and continued downstream, finally coming to anchor in a bay clear from all danger. While in the vicinity of Manhattan the crew explored part of the island an, besides seeing a "good piece of ground," discovered a cliff which, "judging from its color and also from the poor condition of trees growing on its slope," they thought might contain either copper of silver. On the morning of October 4, Hudson hoisted anchor and , with wind and other conditions favorable, commenced the homeward voyage.

Coming of the Dutch--the information brought to the Netherland by the mates and crew of the "Half Moon" appeared extremely unsatisfying to the Dutch East India Company. Their charter, granted at as early a date as 1602, carefully delimited the regions in which they were commissioned to operate; and this confined them to the East Indies, the southern and eastern coasts of Asia, and the east coast of Africa. The west coast of Africa and the western waters of the Atlantic were without the allotted area of their operations. But the information fell on good ground elsewhere. The Ditch people of that time had earned for themselves the reputation of being a very wide-awake people. They had won for themselves a free republic, the independence of which was virtually acknowledged by the King of Spain when he was forced to conclude a truce with those whom he claimed as his subjects in 1609, five days after the :Half Moon" sailed from Amsterdam. In 1579 the people of the Low Countries had formed a confederation of seven provinces or states, which they called the United Netherlands, or the United States of the Netherlands. Two years later they had declared their independence. A quarter of a century later they had become so prosperous and powerful, and the contest had an effect on Spain so wearing, that the Spanish government called for a cessation of hostilities and negotiated with the Netherlands on equal terms as one independent nation with another. Yet the year 1648 was reached before the war for independence was finished, and the struggle, therefore, endured over a period of something like 80 years. However, commerce flourished in the midst of war. The Dutch showed themselves remarkably fecund in the production of inventions of different kinds. Among the instruments developed by them were the telescope and microscope, and they also produced a great number of agricultural devices for securing winter food supplies. Foreigners began to take note of this aptitude among the Dutch. Thus an Italian author of the seventeenth century wrote concerning them: "They have a special and happy talent for the ready invention of all sorts of mediums, ingenious and suitable for facilitating, shortening, and dispatching everything they do." It is apparent, therefore, that among a people of that kind, strong in the commercial instinct, full of energy as a result of their new freedom, and skillful in carrying things into action, the stories relating to the new world across the Atlantic, reaching them at that time for over a century, rescued from the realm of fable and placed in that of fact, and at that time explored by vessels owned by individuals among their own countrymen and their own cities, thus giving them title to their discoveries according to the laws of that day, would not fail to have some practical response. Hudson on his return voyage had put in at Dartmouth, England, and the nationality of the "Half Moon's" captain had been made a pretext for the detention of the ship and her entire company. But in the spring of 1610 the "Half Moon" was released and allowed to return to her owners, Hudson finding it expedient to remain the England, and sending to the Dutch East India Company only his reports and charts of the new countries. However, even before the "half Moon" had returned to Holland, on the strength of the rumors preceding her release by the English, a small company of merchants had already been formed and began to make arrangements for despatching other vessels to the large river and valley that had so deeply impressed the men on the exploring vessels. The "Half Moon" continued in the service of the East India Company and is recorded upon the company's ship-book of 1615 as lost or not heard from at the same time that a companion ship was wrecked upon the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. But part of the crew was enlisted for further service in the Atlantic and Hudson's Dutch master was made captain of the next vessel sent in the direction of Manhattan.

During the years that immediately followed ships were regularly cleared in Dutch ports for voyages to the new regions opened up by earlier navigators. There was, for example, an expedition sent out in 1611, but this got stranded somewhere on the coast of Norway. Then in 1612 we hear of two navigators whose work represents much of the beginning of Manhattan history. These men were Henry Christiaensen and Adriaen Block. They first went to the great river discovered by Verrazzano and explored by Hudson in a vessel of their own, but nor commanded by themselves. On this first voyage they procured a cargo of peltries and carried back to Holland two sons of Indian chiefs. In the year that followed each of the two friends took command of a separate vessel, Christiaensen of the "Fortune," and Block of the "Tiger," and cleared again for the Hudson. This expedition of 1613 had enduring results. In the first place Christiaensen determined on a departure from the earlier plan. In place of returning to Holland when his particular business was completed, he resolved to spend the winter on Manhattan. He erected as a beginning a number of rude huts, using as material the bark and the branches of trees. These were, of course, the first European habitations of any kind built on the site of what was, in course of time, to become the greatest city in the world. But this was not the only example of constructive skill that was to mark the beginning of a great industry on Manhattan. The second work arose our of the necessity created by an untoward happening. The vessel brought by Block to the great river which the Ditch had begun to call the Mauritius was entirely destroyed one night by fire. The calamity on the face of it could hardly be more serious. It appalled the pioneers and brought home to them with renewed force the perilous character of the undertaking on which they had engaged. If as well as the "Tiger," the vessel under the command of Christiaensen were destroyed, too, their position would be hopeless indeed. Block got his men together and, despite the deficiency of tools, they felled the likely trees and planed them. Within a comparatively short time they had contrived to build a shallop of something like 16 tons burden, to which they gave the name of the "Onrust," or the "Restless." It appears to have been in the spring of 1614 that this vessel was completed. Block at once put his new ship to use exploring waters they had not before ventured on with their larger ships. He sailed up the East river, closely making notes of the coasts of Manhattan and Long island, passing through beyond the headlands of Throgg's Neck and Whitestone, and finally with a new sense of discovery found himself in the broadening waters of Long Island Sound. To the cartographers of Europe the existence of Long Island has been merged upon the maps of that date with the mainland of New England. It seems improbably, however, that among the innumerable vessels from France and other countries that had skirted the eastern American coast during the preceding century, some of them did not sail through the Sound. It has to be recorded, nevertheless, that whether they sailed through it or not, no information that was capable of being reduced to any features of a map or planisphere bearing upon that important sheet of water had been carried to Europe. If it is a feather, therefore, in the cap of Adriaen Block, that he was the first to provide an available description of the Sound and its coasts. On that same voyage he also discovered the Connecticut River and made permanent notes of certain islands, and waters, one of the island, Block Island, retaining in its name, a memory of the intrepid navigator.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

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