New York City History for Kids
From New Amsterdam to the Big Apple with 21 Activities
By Richard Panchyk
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Richard Panchyk
All rights reserved.
The first visitors to what is now New York City were glaciers. During the last ice age, a 1,000-foot-thick sheet of ice crept down from Canada and covered half of the future city. The Wisconsin Ice Sheet reached New York about 20,000 years ago and then stopped, creating a ridge running through Brooklyn and Queens called the terminal moraine.
The ice made a big impact on the terrain of New York, depositing boulders, polished pebbles, and sand that had been carried along by the ice as it advanced from the north. After a couple thousand years, a warm-up began, and the ice started to retreat (melt), completely vanishing between about 12,000 and 13,000 years ago.
After the area thawed, Manhattan Island was a hilly, forested land rich with wildlife, including bears, beavers, deer, panthers, wolves, and over 200 species of birds. There were forests that were home to dozens of different kinds of trees and countless varieties of plants. There were fish-filled ponds and creeks and streams. Manhattan was a lush paradise, a greatly diverse land, from its rocky northern reaches to the swamps of the southern portion.
Over 10,000 years ago, the first Native Americans began to settle on the 13-mile-long island they came to call Mannahatta (which means "island of many hills") and the surrounding area. These natives belonged to the Lenape (or Delawaran) tribe, part of the Algonquin nation.
There were three different groups living in small settlements concentrated in different parts of the island: in lower Manhattan, the Manahate; in upper-middle Manhattan, the Rechgawawank; and at the very northern reaches of the island, the Wickquasgeck. There were also the Canarsies in Brooklyn and the Matinecocks in Queens, among others. Relatively few details are known about the history of these natives before European contact.
The Lenape used body paint to make colorful markings on their faces, arms, legs, and chests. They wore embroidered, tanned animal skins for clothing and used feathers for decoration. They lived in single-family wigwams and multifamily longhouses. They planted corn, beans, and squash, and cultivated chestnuts and hazelnuts. The Lenape also hunted animals such as deer using bows and arrows. They caught plenty of fish (especially striped bass) using large nets and dined regularly on oysters; their discarded piles of shells lined the waterfront in lower Manhattan. They used tools made of wood, bone, and stone. For money they used wampum — small beads made of clam and periwinkle shells.
The natives of Manhattan used one main north/south trail to get from one end of the island to the other, what we call the Wickquasgeck Road today. This trail ran along present-day Broadway at the southern tip of Manhattan and remained east of what is now Fifth Avenue until about 86th Street, then went north-northwest, passing through Central Park and then passing the eastern edge of what is now Fort Tryon Park.
After millennia of living in the area, everything would change fairly quickly for these first New Yorkers. The world as they knew it would soon vanish once strangely dressed, pale-faced explorers began to arrive in their huge ships.
Sailing on behalf of France in 1524, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano (1485-1528) was the first European to arrive in New York harbor. He found natives dressed in colorful feathers who "came towards us with evident delight, raising shouts of admiration, and showing us where we could most securely land our boat." In 1525, Esteban Gomez, a Portuguese explorer sailing for Spain, visited the area and brought back furs and Native American slaves.
Henry Hudson (c. 1570 — 1611), an Englishman, was hired by the newly formed Dutch East India Company to locate the elusive "Northwest Passage" to China, which would allow ships to avoid the long and difficult trip around the southern tip of Africa. Hudson set sail in 1607 and again in 1608, but both times he had to turn back before getting too far. In 1609, Hudson and a crew of 18 tried again, but they failed to discover such a passage in the icy waters to the north. The crew forced him to abandon his northern track and steer southwest, and thus they reached New York harbor.
The Manhattan Indians were friendly at first, and they paddled their canoes out to the Half Moon to trade their furs for some trinkets. Robert Juet, Hudson's first mate, recorded the events of September 13:
We turned into the river two leagues and anchored. This morning ... there came eight and twentie canoes full of men, women and children to betray us; but we saw their intent, and suffered none of them to come aboord of us. At twelve of the clocke they departed. They brought with them oysters and beanes, whereof wee bought some.
Hudson himself wrote of Manhattan, "It is as beautiful a land as one can tread upon ... and abounds in all kinds of excellent timber for building ships and for making large casks."
The next day, however, one of Hudson's crewmen, John Coleman, was killed by an arrow after a small party of men had gone ashore to explore. Hudson decided to sail on and saw great promise in the river that now bears his name. It was wide and deep, and he thought it could possibly lead to the Pacific Ocean. The Half Moon sailed upriver, and things still looked promising. He had reached the area of Haverstraw, where the river is more than three miles wide, and was encouraged. But soon after, the river narrowed. By the time he reached what is now Albany on September 19, Hudson saw that the river was no longer navigable. Still, he sent a crew in a small boat further upriver, but they found the water was only seven feet deep there. He began his return trip down the river on September 23.
Native Americans boarded the Half Moon at its stops along the way, but one native was killed sneaking about the cabin, and another was killed in the chaos that ensued. At Manhattan Island, two canoes of natives approached the vessel and began to fire arrows. The crew raised their muskets and aimed at the attackers, killing several of them. By October 4, Hudson's crew forced Hudson to set course for European soil. The hostilities during Hudson's voyage left 1 of the crew and 11 Native Americans dead.
After a disappointed Hudson filed his report on the voyage with the Dutch East India Company, another ship returned to the New York Bay the following year, 1610, carrying goods to trade with the Native Americans and a crew that consisted of some of Hudson's men.
The next to make the trip was Dutch explorer and trader Adriaen Block (c. 1567 — 1627). On his second voyage to the New World in 1614, Block's ship De Tijger ("the Tiger") was anchored off the southern tip of Manhattan when a fire broke out. As the story goes, Block and his crew swam to shore and the ship burned to the waterline; there was nothing they could do to save her. They were stranded; with winter approaching, they had no choice but to wait out the cold weather. With the aid of the Native Americans, Block and his men constructed four makeshift log houses and became the first Europeans to live in what is now New York City.
The crew built a 42-foot-long, 16-ton replacement boat named the Onrust ("the Wanderer"). Though it was a worthy craft, Block deemed this boat too small for the ocean crossing. Nonetheless, he did use it to further explore the area. It was Block who bestowed the name "Hell Gate" upon a treacherously rocky stretch of water in the upper East River (the future scene of numerous shipwrecks). He ventured 60 miles up the Connecticut River and also discovered and named Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island. While sailing near Cape Cod, he made contact with another Dutch ship, left the Onrust behind, and returned to Holland. Though he was granted exclusive three-year trading rights in the New York area, he never returned to the New World.
By this time, Spanish posts had already been established in the South and Southwest, French posts in the St. Lawrence River Valley, and an English settlement at Jamestown. Sending ships to the New World was no longer about finding a shortcut to China and the Spice Islands. Now it was simply a race to claim the remaining land along the East Coast. The Dutch recognized that if they were to have a piece of North America, they had to act fast. In fact, the Pilgrims had originally intended to land at the mouth of the Hudson River in 1620 but decided to remain at Plymouth instead.
In 1621, a new fur-trading company was formed, aimed at establishing a permanent settlement in the New World. The Dutch West India Company advertised for colonists, and the first ship of settlers arrived in May 1624 just in the nick of time; a French ship was about to claim the land for France based on Giovanni da Verrazano's voyage. The Dutch ship New Netherland, armed with two cannons, scared away the French ship.
Though 30 families had sailed from Holland on Captain Cornelius May's New Netherland on March 31, 1624, only eight families were to remain in the New York area, on Nut Island (now Governor's Island). Others would disembark at Fort Orange (now Albany), Fort Nassau (now Gloucester, New Jersey), and along the Connecticut River near present-day Hartford. In 1625 the company sent three more ships, loaded with horses, cattle, farming implements, and seed; several additional families; a governor, William Verhulst; and a surveyor and engineer, Cryn Fredericks. The southern tip of Manhattan Island was selected for the settlement. With that, the original eight families moved to Manhattan and the village of New Amsterdam was begun. The company also began clearing land to the north for use as bouweries (farms). The Dutch traders found the region to be rich with raw materials, especially furs, that could be exported to Holland for profit.
The Best Real Estate Deal Ever?
In December 1625, Peter Minuit (1580 — 1638) was selected to be governor of New Netherland, and he arrived at New Amsterdam the following spring. In May 1626, he set up a meeting with some of the local Native American leaders and purchased Manhattan Island for 60 guilders worth of trinkets, including beads, knives, and cloth. A 19th-century writer calculated this to be the equivalent of 24 dollars, but the natives probably did not think they were selling the land, only allowing the Dutch to share it with them.
As word spread of the profitable fur trade, the small settlement grew. The colonists planted crops such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, buckwheat, beans, and flax. By the end of 1626, colonists had already exported more than 7,000 beaver skins to Europe, along with nearly 1,000 otter, mink, and wildcat skins. Minuit oversaw the construction of about 30 small homes and Fort Amsterdam at the southern tip of the island.
The settlers were muddling along. Jonas Michaelius, New Amsterdam's first minister, wrote in 1628 that the settlement "lack[s] about 10 or 12 farmers with horses, cows, and sufficient laborers to supply us with bread, milk, and other necessities." Machinery for building sawmills was brought from Holland, and one was constructed on Governor's Island.
By 1628, there were about 270 people in New Amsterdam. Though New Netherland was doing okay, its profit was nothing compared to other ventures. Most of the Dutch West India Company's income was expected to come from war. The capture of Pernambuco (Brazil) in 1630 was a great victory for the Dutch. Admiral Peter Heyn sailed back to Holland with 17 ships loaded with Spanish treasure worth 12 — 14 million guilders. The trade in the whole of New Netherland was only 50,000 guilders per year. The Dutch West India Company wanted New Netherland to thrive, so in 1629, it issued a proclamation announcing the start of the patroonship system, whereby anyone desiring land in New Netherland (except Manhattan) would be given it providing he brought 50 colonists to settle the land shortly thereafter.
By the time Minuit was dismissed in 1632 over an investigation into possible misuse of company funds, New Amsterdam had a population of more than 300 and had sent more than 50,000 animal furs back to Europe. Though at first the company tightly controlled all land, it eventually eased the restrictions to attract more colonists.
New Amsterdam was a melting pot from the beginning. The first settlers were actually not "Dutch" but French-speaking Walloons from Holland and Huguenots from France seeking a better life. There were also some English settlers in the colony. Between 1648 and 1658, public documents in New Amsterdam were issued in French in addition to Dutch and English. There were also Africans (slaves), Jews, and representatives from many other cultures in the young city.
In 1646, a missionary named Isaac Jogues wrote, "On the Island of Manhatte, and in its environs, there may well be four or five hundred men of different sects and nations; the Director-General told me that there were men of eighteen different languages."
A 1639 law forbade the sale of guns, powder, and lead to the Native Americans "on pain of being punished by Death," but the settlers did it anyway. Twenty beaver skins for one gun was quite profitable. Meanwhile, Governor Willem Kieft was looking for a reason to start trouble. He sent 100 men to Staten Island to take revenge on the Raritan Indians for allegedly stealing some pigs. The Dutch killed several natives. In reply, the Raritans burned down a Dutch farmhouse and killed four people.
Then, in 1641, a Wickquasgeck Indian showed up at the door of a wheelwright named Claes Smit who lived a few miles north of New Amsterdam. The native claimed to be interested in buying some cloth but then killed Smit when his back was turned, in revenge for the murder of his uncle 15 years before. Kieft demanded that the man's tribe produce the killer and hand him over at once. The Native Americans refused to comply.
In August 1641, Kieft called all heads of families to a meeting, and 12 men were chosen to serve on a special council to deal with the native situation. The council, led by David De Vries (who lived across the Hudson in what is now New Jersey), was to decide whether the Dutch should take revenge on Smit's murderer if the Native Americans did not surrender him. Should their whole village be destroyed? How, when, and by whom should the deed be done?
Though Kieft was eager for war, the citizens of New Amsterdam were not. The council said that force should be used only if necessary. Kieft was not pleased with their report. He thanked them for their service but forbade the 12 from meeting again, under threat of punishment.
Early in 1643, a Native American killed a Dutchman who was roofing a house in Pavonia (New Jersey). Shortly after, two groups of Wickquasgeck Indians came to the New Amsterdam area seeking refuge from the hostile Mohawk Indians. One group settled at Corlear's Hook in Manhattan, just south of where the Williamsburg Bridge stands today. The other, larger group was across the Hudson River at Pavonia.
This was just the opportunity Kieft sought. He wished to use these natives as an example. On February 25, 1643, Kieft ordered an attack on the two groups, despite the pleas of the former council leader, David De Vries, who sat with the governor at his kitchen table.
At about midnight, piercing screams shattered the still of night. De Vries ran out to the ramparts of the fort and looked over to Pavonia. He saw flashes of gunfire and heard more screams. He returned to the house and sat uneasily by the fire, unable to sleep. Then there appeared a certain Native American and his wife at the door. He knew them well; they lived about an hour's walk north of his house in New Jersey. The two had jumped into a small boat and rowed across the river to New Amsterdam to escape a surprise attack by natives from Fort Orange. They sought shelter in the safety of the fort. De Vries told them that it wasn't natives who had attacked but the Dutch. The fort, rather than being a safe haven, would be the worst possible place to stay. He begged them to hurry and leave the area before it was too late; he led them out of the fort and they ran off into the woods.
De Vries later wrote that many Native Americans were "massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone." All told, more than 100 natives were massacred while they slept. Though Kieft had asked that women and children be spared, all were killed with severe cruelty. Those who had escaped into the bushes that night emerged the next morning only to be killed.
The colonists were unhappy that Kieft had defied them. War with the Native Americans would cripple their fur trade and endanger their lives. Colonists all across New Netherland were killed and their homes, crops, and livestock destroyed. Safety could only be assured within and around the walls of Fort Amsterdam; the isolated farms to the north were targets for nighttime strikes by natives. (Continues...)
Excerpted from New York City History for Kids by Richard Panchyk. Copyright © 2012 Richard Panchyk. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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