Manhattan History – New York Becomes A City

IN 1672, on the eve of the Dutch recapture of the city, New York is described as having from 400 to 500 houses, and these, according to an account ten years later, were of Dutch brick “alla moderna.” Tile roofs came into common use after the English occupation. The typical substantial house of the period had castellated gable ends, with one end fronting the street and the chief entrance at the side, where was usually a porch or “stoop” containing comfortable benches where the family and friends gossiped in summer evenings. The double doors were flanked by bull’s-eye lanterns and carried large fancifully de-signed iron knockers. A weathervane adorned the dwelling’s highest elevation. Queen (later Pearl) was for long the most fashionable residence street.

Governor Colve, who conducted affairs for the Dutch during the short second occupation, reported for tax purposes that 65 residents were worth 520,900 guilders. The richest men were:

Frederick Philipse, or Flypsen, the founder of the family whose name lives in Philipse Manor, who was worth 80,000 guilders, Holland currency.

Cornelis Steenwyck, the merchant, whose combination store and residence, a double stone house at the southeast corner of present Bridge and Whitehall streets, was rated one of the best houses in town and worth $2,000; his total worth, 50,000 guilders.

Oloff Stevenson van Cortlandt, representing another manorial family, worth 45,000 guilders.

John Lawrence, 40,000 guilders.

Jacob Leisler and Johannes de Peyster, each 15,000 guilders.

Leisler’s presence in the list is worth noting, as he is soon to reappear at the head of a military movement which cost him his head.

The city began to develop both commercially and residentially once the uncertainties of war ceased. In 1676, nineteen years after it had been improved, the Heere Gracht, or canal, was ordered filled in. Houses had already been built on either side of the canal fronting a narrow lane; it now became a broad street, still exceptional in downtown New York, and so was christened Broad Street. Both the increase in trade and .the decline of austerity can be read in the increase of public taverns to fourteen in 1677.

The population in 1682 was 2,000 whites, in addition to Indians and Negro slaves, who may have numbered 1,000 more. Almost from the beginning of the colony slavery of a mild sort had been a feature of the local scene, the slaves being brought from Africa and the Dutch West Indies. The Reverend Mr, Michaelius deplored, as was his wont, that black women, at that time mostly from Angola, were almost the only females in the colony. This dearth had long since passed, but still the percentage of blacks ran high. Mostly they were household servants who appear to have lived easily and comfortably under their Dutch masters, by whom they were frequently set free, either for services in kind or by last will and testament. In 1644, eleven Negroes and their wives had been set free by the company on consideration that they would pay the government yearly a certain amount of farm produce. Jan Francisco, perhaps the first Negro landowner on Manhattan, was emancipated in 1646 for “his long and faithful service.” Patents to land near Fresh Water Pond were given to free Negroes and the area became known as “Negroes’ Land.” Throughout the entire Dutch occupation, and indeed until 1712, whites and blacks on Manhattan never came into serious conflict.

Governor Andros, with an eye to taxable values, submitted a report to the Crown in 1678 which establishes the fact that New York, for all its importance on. the map, was still only a village in wealth and population. The Province, he said, contained twenty-four towns and villages. In these a merchant worth £1,000 or £1,500 was accounted “a good substantial merchant.” In New York, by far the largest settlement, 300 per-sons held taxable property worth nearly £100,000. No very large private fortunes had been accumulated during the first half-century of the colony’s life, but clearly a start was being made in that direction.

In population New York took second place to Boston, and would lag behind both Boston and the newly founded Philadelphia for many years to come; but in commerce it held first place at this time, Andros re-porting the arrival of ten to fifteen ships each year with imports of about £50,000 annually; 66,000 bushels of wheat and large exports of furs, meats, pease and horses. Pitch and tar, lumber and dried fish passed through the port to Europe and the West Indies.

The rich man of the community, Frederick Philipse, paid 2,250 guilders in real Holland money in 1679 for a house and lot on Stone Street, a notable transaction for three reasons: it was a cash transaction in a day when credit appeared in most land sales; it was con-summated with hard “old country” money; and it represented the highest price yet paid for a house and lot. An even higher price, almost $1,200, was registered the next year for “a respectable residence in the best location,” on the southeast corner of Stone and Whitehall streets. On the east side of Broadway, below Exchange Place, a house and lot were sold for £60 (New York) or $150, illustrating the long continued eclipse of Broadway. But, all in all, despite bar-gains here and there—for instance an acre on Franklin Square for $75—the trend was upward. The entire island was in private hands, except for areas deemed worthless because of their rocky or marshy condition, population was increasing slightly and speculation could discount the future now that no restraint except taxes could be placed upon landlords.

A period of turmoil and inefficient government followed the return of Governor Andros to England, but this came to an end in 1683, with the arrival of Colonel Thomas Dongan, an Irishman in the favor of the Duke of York, bearing instructions to constitute a council of the most eminent inhabitants and call a “General Assembly” composed of not more than ten representatives chosen by the freeholders, the assembly to have “free liberty to consult and debate,” and ad-vise the Governor and Council on what laws were “Fitt and necessary to be made and established for the good weale” of the province. Full power of veto rested with the Governor, and, after he had consented to measures, they were to be submitted to the Duke for affirmation. The laws drawn by this new body were of such a liberal and reforming character that they were not approved in England, where they arrived after the Duke’s accession to the throne; but on petition of the inhabitants the local liberties were soon enlarged. The province of New York had now assumed the character it would wear down to the American Revolution. It was a royal province with ten counties, eight of which are still in existence in the present Empire State —Kings, Queens, Richmond, Westchester, Orange, Ulster, Dutchess and Albany, the last taking in a vast area to the west and north, as far as the King’s writs (and claims) ran. Added to these were two other counties—Duke’s, now part of Massachusetts; and Cornwall, covering the coast of Maine, another of the Duke’s possessions. The Province was governed by a Royal appointee, with the advice, which by degrees would change from advice to almost equal control, of an appointed Council and elected Assembly, the latter of which would gradually, after long and bitter struggle with Governor and Council, acquire power of the purse and control of taxation.

The City of New York, then, of course, confined only to Manhattan Island, with which we are more closely concerned, came to enduring legal stature in this same period on April 27, 1686, when Governor Dongan granted a charter of incorporation, embodying concessions to local self-government which had been set up two years earlier, but not formally chartered until the later date. In the petition the citizens referred to the privileges, customs and immunities enjoyed under the Dutch from 1665 onward, some of which had been lost in the transition period. The new charter provided for division of the corporation into six wards, each to elect alder-men, common councillors, constables, overseers of the poor, assessors, scavengers, questmen and other necessary officials.

The corporation should consist of a mayor, recorder, or judge, and chamberlain or fiscal administrator, one alderman and one common councillor from each ward, with power to pass ordinances. All waste, vacant and unimproved lands, not under title, were reserved to the city.

Though twice modified under later governors, and perhaps never quite as democratic as it appeared, this plan of government, in effect that of an English municipality, remained substantially the same down to the Revolution. Of especial meaning to landlords was the setting up, in 1686, of a special “Court of Judicature” to try cases between the King and inhabitants arising out of “Lands, Rents, Profits, and Revenues.” The quitrent system, so dear to feudal England, had appeared in New York to complicate the social scene, though it never caused as bitter feeling here as in Pennsylvania, perhaps because almost from its introduction prompt adjudication of disputes was available.

Governor Dongan, after these and other notably good works, one of especial import being his treaty with the Iroquois upon which high British policy rested like a rock for a hundred years, lost office because of James II’s desire to merge the New England colonies and New York under one administration. Dongan retired to a Long Island estate, but remained for some years a Manhattan landlord by virtue of certain acts which would now be considered unethical, but which were then no more than a governor’s prerogative. Before vesting in the city title to all unappropriated lands, these being at that time not great in value, he most timely appropriated to himself about two acres in the area at present bounded by Park Row, Beekman, Nassau, and Ann streets. This tract he improved by planting, so that it became known as “the Governor’s Garden,” later “the Vineyard.” This remained in the Dongan family until 1762, when it was sold by a kinsman, also Thomas Dongan, to Thomas White, a wealthy English immigrant.

Another shrewd deal of Governor Dongan’s was his speculation in the Sheep Walk, by which, partly through appropriation and partly through purchase, he acquired the entire north side of Wall Street. The reader will recall that when the Wall was constructed as a defensive work, one hundred feet to the south of it was left clear as a maneuvering ground for the de-fending troops. Then came a path along which the defenders were to proceed to their stations, and by which they were to be supplied with food and ammunition. In the intervening years the Wall had fallen, but the ditch which had been part of the system of defence remained, and a considerable area being used for pasture came to be known as the Sheep Walk. The city by Dongan’s time had grown to the point of promising profits in the Sheep Walk area. When the proposal to improve Wall Street came before him, the Governor’s sharp eye perceived that the public property between the ditch and path far exceeded the thoroughfare requirements of the moment. Also on the other side of the ditch lay the Damen farm, whose owners might be unaware of the projected improvement. Accordingly Dongan had one of his officers buy an eighty-foot strip of Damen land. Then by reducing the roadway of the new street, appropriating what was left of the public frontage and filling in the ditch to join his front and back areas, the Governor came into possession of land from 122 to 125 feet in depth. Thus, in its very birth, Wall Street became synonymous in the eyes of New Yorkers with speculation, government favor and sharp dealing. Governor Dongan returned in time to Ireland, where he became the Earl of Limerick, leaving his American properties in due course to kinsmen who later collected on them. The Wall Street tract alone would be worth today a goodly slice of Limerick, yet Colonel Dongan stands forth as one of the ablest and best of New York’s colonial governors, which measures somewhat tellingly the morality of his time and the personalities of the others.

When Dongan opened Wall Street, that thorough-fare represented the “farthest north” of urban settlement for the more prosperous burghers. Broadway, to be sure, held some houses of an inferior sort as far north as the Commons, where the City Hall now stands, but East side lots were still favored above the westerly locations. In quality of architecture, Broadway was far behind Smith’s Valley, present Pearl Street between Wall and Beekman, where many handsome brick houses two and three stories in height had been erected, a fact which brought Wall Street forward as a next development.

The Broadway end of Wall Street, now of course more valuable, remained for almost a century less valuable than the eastern end. Broadway took about the same length of time for good development between Fulton Street and present City Hall Park. Curiously enough, the west side of Broadway commanded better prices than the east side, a fact noticed under both Dutch and English rule.

The dosing decade of the seventeenth century was embittered in New York by the Leisler rebellion, an American reflex of the fall of James II in England. At this distance it appears too confused an affair to warrant detailing, but it seems to have begun as a political rebellion, shown evidences of becoming a social revolution and simmered down into a long-standing church feud which continued for years after Captain Leisler’s execution. The Leislerians were the popular and Calvinist party. Many of the propertied sons of the Dutch, grown to aristocratic pretensions in two generations from the humblest beginnings, adhered to the Church of England, which gained so greatly that it became a numerous and in time wealthy congregation. The church feud thus originated developed into a building competition, in which each tried to outdo the other. Old Trinity (Episcopal) arose in Broadway in 1696 and the new Dutch church in Garden Street (Exchange Place) near by. These architectural efforts are cited by an olden chronicler as so exhausting the springs of conflict and inspiring all concerned with ideals of further beautification, that the solid citizens in both camps joined in unanimously supporting the resolution that a new City Hall should be erected, on a site more central than the old one, which stood at the corner of Pearl Street and Coenties Alley, facing the East River at the head of Coenties Slip. The site chosen for the new City Hall was the corner of present Wall and Nassau, now occupied by the Sub-treasury Building. To this dignity had the Sheep Walk under the palisaded rampart grown in a few years after it became private property.

Even amid the factional disputes real estate was being made, literally, by filling in the East River. In 1691 the Corporation sold forty-foot “water lots” ex-tending from present Coenties Slip to Fulton Street, the buyers agreeing to make the “fills” and erect dwellings as wide as their lots, with brick gable ends toward the street, leaving a thirty-foot wharf on the water side which was to constitute a free street for wharfage purposes. The lots, so restricted, sold at £20 each, going principally to merchants, some of whom did not complete their improvements until 1700. This was the origin of Water Street, at present two blocks from the river, later “fills” having re-claimed the intervening area. The development stands out, however, as a rather neat bit of realty development, in which wealth was created by private enterprise under conditions which, for a time at least, conserved the public interest. Such instances are so rare in Manhattan’s early land history that they deserve notice.

Paving came in for some attention, also, an order being issued in 1693 that inhabitants should straight-way pave their fronts with “pebble stones” along specified areas on eight streets. The citizens took their time about it and then paved only to some ten feet in depth, leaving the center of the streets unpaved, so that the condition of the streets was not much improved over their previous frightful condition. While the inhabitants, with a true Dutch love of gar-dens, kept their own lands neatly trimmed and cultivated, they let the streets get overrun with brambles, which led the city fathers to decree that “the poisonous and stinking weeds before everyone’s door be forthwith plucked up.” The inhabitants, however, were not easily intimidated, and the weeds remained a feature of New York’s thoroughfares for many years. In general the streets remained disgraceful down to the American Revolution.

A first step in lighting these public ways, as a means of keeping strangers out of mudholes, was taken in November, 1697, when it was ordained:

. . . taking into consideration that the great inconveniency that attends this city, being a trading place, for want of having lights in the dark time of the moon in the winter season, it is therefore ordered that all and every of the housekeepers within this city shall put out lights in windows fronting the respective streets of the city, between this and the 25th of March next, in the following manner: Every seventh house in all the streets, shall in the dark time of the moon, cause a lantern and candle to be hung out on a pole—the charge to be defrayed equally by the inhabitants of said seven houses.

A thrifty community, saving its candles for the dark of the moon and then spacing them widely. Even so, tremendous conflicts arose over the lighting costs and their collection, with Leislerian haling anti-Leislerian into court. But laugh not, ye moderns; these were but the stumbling beginnings of a progress which would presently sweep all before it.

Once the inhabitants of a place begin worrying about its streets, it will scarcely know thereafter the sweets of self-satisfied economy. No sooner had New York taken up the cudgels, even so lightly, against mud and darkness, than it entered the lists against crime. Hitherto it had managed with bailiffs and constables who slept peacefully o’ nights, certain that the public peace would be as unbroken as their slumbers. But malefactors, working by stealth, undeterred by the dark of the moon, roused the authorities to determined op-position. They set up, also against the opposition of citizens who had not been robbed, a “nightwatch” composed of four good and honest inhabitants of the city, whose duty it shall be to watch in the night time, from the hour of nine in the evening till break of day until the 25th of March next; and to go round the city, each hour of the night, with a bell and there to proclaim the season of the weather and the hour of the night.

Note that the “watch” functioned only through the winter; in summer they were not considered necessary, perhaps because the nights were too short then to accommodate the evil element, perhaps because the citizenry were deemed better able to defend themselves on warm nights. At any rate, we behold in the four “good and honest” watchmen the origin of the New York police force now numbering almost 20,000 equally good and honest men who, however, are denied the pleasure of shouting forth the time o’ night and thereby advertising their presence to evildoers.

These innovations, costly as they may have been to taxpayers, did not altogether discourage building. We have noted the rise of two new churches; to this decade belongs also the erection of several notable residences, the most famous being the de Peyster house built in 1695 in Queen Street, now Pearl, nearly opposite Cedar. It withstood the assaults of time until 1856, housing George Clinton, first Governor of the State, and General George Washington, who used it as head-quarters after assuming command of the army in New York. In its declining days it became the Redmond Hotel. Spacious and comfortable, as befitted its time of birth, it was rated by Valentine as superior to many residences then called palatial. Lest this be taken too literally, let it be said on the other side that this best of all New York’s colonial mansions would be a century old before the city acquired its first bathroom.

At this point, with the century of discovery and colonization closed, the English dominion over New York firmly settled, popular government established in legal forms and growing in real power, the City of New York a chartered corporation of 5,000 souls, the wounds of disunion healed, all worth-while Manhattan land in private ownership and a police force established, we shall take our leave of the chronological story of development and take up the story of Manhattan’s golden earth by urban sections and thoroughfares, a method rendered necessary by the increasing wealth of material and the later expansion of the city.