Thousands of years ago, glaciers carved out the area that would eventually be known as New York, leaving behind the characteristics of Manhattan with heaving boulders and stark rock foundations of gneiss and schist. Here the Lenape people foraged, hunted and fished in a cluster of small, seasonal settlements. Although very little is left of the early inhabitants except some shell mounds, spear points and arrow heads, some of those early pathways still lie beneath the streets of Broadway.
New York’s early history as a European settlement is one of power struggles and violent battles for dominance. When Giovanni da Verrazano of the French vessel, La Dauphine first explored the region in 1524, he attempted to kidnap some of the Lenape at present day Staten Island. This began immediate poor relations with the Native American tribe that continued to be raided by early explorers over the next few decades.
Despite the hostilities, the coastal island continued to be a topic of interest. Henry Hudson, an employee for the Dutch West India Company, saw the area as an opportunity to build a trading post for a thriving fur industry, particularly in beaver, which had become a popular fashion statement among the European upper class society. Beaver were so abundant in New York at the time; it became the most important export. Today, the beaver is used as a symbol for the city’s official seat.
The Dutch West India Company sent 110 settlers to begin a trading post in 1624. They settled in Lower Manhattan, and named their newly carved town New Amsterdam. They were not welcome. The Lenape continued to wage war against the European inhabitants, causing public opinion to run from “delightful primitives”, to “brutal savages”, depending on whether they were enjoying a peaceful period or a time of conflict. In 1624, New Amsterdam’s first governor, Peter Minuit, decided to settle the issue. He offered to buy Manhattan’s 14,000 acres for sixty guilders, an amount that came to about £20. The Lenape had no concept of land ownership, and thought the money was a gift, but as far as the Dutch settlement was concerned, the contract was binding. On paper, they now officially owned the strip of land that would come to be known as New York City.
The early years of New Amsterdam were tumultuous ones. The early governor was more interested in capitalizing on the area’s various resources than they were on managing town affairs. The settlement became over-run with free-roaming pigs, cattle and sheep. The townspeople grumbled about their stringent provisions, their wood and mud homes and did little to maintain law and order.
The transformation of New Amsterdam is accredited to one man, appointed Governor, Peter Stuyvesant. Fresh from a directorship in the Dutch West India’s colony of Curacao, with experience in managing the booming sugar plantations of the south, Stuyvesant set about to restore order to the trading post and find peaceful settlement with the Lenape.
Much of the building and restoration was due to slaves. Slaves had driven the profits within the Caribbean trade, and slaves were transported from Africa to help build the colony post. By the late 17th century, 40% of the settlers were slaves.
Stuyvesant’s governorship stabilized the unruly colony, but not without some costs. Nick-named the man with the iron fist and a peg leg - he had lost one leg during the battle of Saint Martin - his reign was marked by strict work codes and dictations of good social behaviour. His religious intolerance caused a great deal of unhappiness among those who had come to the colonies to escape religious persecution. Much of his time was spent in battling with other villages over British and Dutch boundaries. In 1655, he sailed up the Delaware River with a fleet of seven vessels and around seven hundred men to take possession of the colony, “New Sweden”, which was consequently renamed, “New Amstel”. In his absence, New Amsterdam was attacked by a coalition of Native American tribes.
Stuyvesant was exhausted. His campaign to restrict religious freedom had failed. The supremacy of the Dutch Reformed Church had ordered him to allow tolerance for the handful of Lutherans, Quakers and Jews who were beginning to build their own homes in the villages. His military strategies consistently left one area open to Native American attacks while defending another. When British battleships appeared on the Hudson in 1664, he surrendered without a shot being fired.
When King Charles of England took control of the colony, he promptly named it after his brother, the Duke of York. The settlement was already losing its mud and thatch look, with warehouses, gabled houses and workshops dotting the river front along Pearl Street. It didn’t take long before New York had been turned into a lively centre of commerce. Stately homes dotted the landscape and the port expanded in a flurry of activity. By the mid 1700's the population had grown to 11,000 inhabitants.
The new scholars of the British colonies were highly influenced by the Enlightenment. Not only did they advocate religious tolerance, they insisted on the right to speak and write freely. The press released hostile coverage of British rule, particularly over the Stamp Act, which they maintained was taxation without representation. Calls to revolution rumbled up and down the colonial coastline, with New York a leading influence.
As a major seaport, New York became a stage for war. Many crucial battles were fought along the New York frontier, with loyalists flooding into the port to defend their Mother country. In 1776, a fire roared through the town, destroying thousands of homes, and driving colonial fighters to conduct their conflicts elsewhere until the end of the war. As the smoke settled, New York became the national capital under the Articles of Federation from 1785 - 1789, and continued to be the capital for a brief time under the United States Constitution. The inaugural ceremony of George Washington was held in New York City.
New York City’s bustling start continued throughout the turn of the nineteenth century. With the completion of the Erie Canal, then the rail system, it developed a transportation facility that serviced every part of the growing United States. It outstripped all other colonial ports as a main thoroughfare for International commerce and trade.
New York City had acquired a population of 120,000 inhabitants by the 1820's, but it was to go through yet another metamorphosis. Immigrants from Europe began flooding in, driven by poverty and desperation. Among the most prominent of the immigration groups were the Irish. By 1850, close to two million Irish had abandoned their country in search of work in the America’s. Driven by the potato famine, many arrived penniless and settled wherever the ship landed. New York City, along with Philadelphia, Buffalo and Boston, the bulk of these new immigrants, boosting their populations by twenty five percent. Today, New York City has the largest Irish population in the United States.
New York was going through times of great transformation, but it was also struck by great calamities and civil riots. Disease in the crowded city was prevalent, including massive cholera epidemics, and tension grew between old and new immigrants. Slums appeared in the area between what is now China town and the City Hall, with bitterness directed at the more affluent citizens and suspicions of unequal treatment between the social classes. Crime ran rampant. The Civil War, with its inscription of the city’s poor into the Union Army, brought the conflict to the forefront, which burst out in a clash between rivalling gangs during the Draft Riots of 1863.
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