Manhattan History – The British Fall To Rise Again

THE English, it has been observed, take things coolly, but they take them. For years they had been protesting against the Dutch occupation of New Netherland, basing their claims on Cabot’s voyages. Diplomatic representation had been made at various times since 1621. Friction had developed over the Connecticut occupation, the Dutch expansion to the Delaware, port dues and smuggling; but all of these were minor matters compared with the rising ambitions of the Stuarts, particularly the desire of James, Duke of York, to prove to a seafaring people that he was a strong naval leader.

The seizure of New Netherland occurred almost at the beginning of the drive of the English toward world empire. As yet their sea power had not demonstrated invincibility against all possible conditions; indeed, they were soon to be again hard-pressed by the Dutch in home waters. The eighteenth century was destined to be Britain’s great century of stride and conquest, but at least the English in the seventeenth century made a fair start in the western world by taking Jamaica and New Netherland. The first gave them a firm base in the West Indies from which other insular seizures followed in due course; the second gave them an unbroken seacoast on the North American continent from Maine to the Carolinas. Their title might be tainted because the conquest preceded declaration of war, but their grip held. Henceforth, with the exception of a single brief interlude, no substantial threat would appear to British dominion on the American shore until the Americans should decide upon independence a full century later. Holland was eliminated from the North American question, whose ultimate arbitrament by force of arms held such tremendous possibilities for the planet: after an early and favorable start the Dutch were counted out almost without a struggle, and there remained only France to contest with Britain for the possession of the west and fertile regions beyond the Alleghenies and the Mohawk.

Although neither Colonel Nicolls nor his royal master was aware of it, the maps of America being sketchy and the royal mind obtuse in matters of American geography, the hard fact remains that they put the British finger squarely on the geographical button which would eventually control the flow of American commerce and wealth. This was, of course, sheer luck. Even the Dutch never knew what a jewel they possessed in Manhattan; so little were the home authorities impressed with their distant realm on Hudson’s River that, at the peace of Breda, when England was jolly well sick of the Dutch war, and probably would have returned New Netherland to its founders, they traded off their American province for small cessions in the East Indies. The treaty reveals the commercial emphasis in Dutch politics; while the Dutch West India Company had never prospered too well, the Dutch East India Company had compassed large profits from the spice trade. Since trade and politics are ever intertwined, Dutch statesmen did not look far beyond ledgers, and Dutch settlers in the New World could hardly be expected to look farther, especially when they were favored from the start by a rule which mingled a stern formality on paper with practical freedom in fact. A judicious spirit of accommodation marked Nicolls’ administration of the Duke’s fiat laws. Quickly the province settled down under its new master, as George Park Fisher describes:

. . . The Royal Province, and New Amsterdam as well, which then contained 1500 inhabitants, now received the name of New York. Fort Orange was named after the Duke’s second title, Albany. The municipal officers of New Amsterdam continued in power. The property, the civil rights and the religion of the citizens were guaranteed in the capitulation. The neglect with which they had been treated by the home government made it easier to break the tie of loyalty to Holland. Nicolls, as the Deputy of the Duke of York, acted as governor. To him and his Council public authority was entrusted. There was to be no election of magistrates by the people. The courts were constituted after the English models. The significant features of the code of laws, called the Duke’s Laws, were “trial by jury, equal taxation, tenure of lands from the Duke of York, no religious establishment but requirement of some church form, freedom of religion to all professing Christianity, obligatory service in each parish on Sunday, a recognition of Negro slavery under certain restrictions, and general liability to military duty.” By a friendly arrangement, divine service according to a form of the English Church was held in the Dutch house of worship at New Amsterdam, when the service of the Reformed Church was over. The city government was altered to con-form to the customs of England.

In the essentials of trade, at least, the Dutch colonists were freer than they ever had been. The conquest brought to an abrupt end the overlordship of the Dutch West India Company, which had incurred the enmity of the aggressive by various restraints on trade without raising up compensating support among the common people. The pursuit of wealth, which seemed to be the primary object of all the inhabitants, could now go on almost unhindered except for the restraints of the Duke’s law, which proved, in practice, flexible enough for business purposes. We shall hear little more, for a time, of paternalism, beneficent or otherwise, in land matters, such as the recent threat to condemn and dispose of city lots not improved by their proprietors. The Duke, following the traditional English view of the rights of landed proprietors, confirmed existing titles in real estate. Later on, as the officials perceived the importance of land policy in preserving good relations with the Indians, especially the Iroquois, they tried to protect the tribes against the more outrageous exploitations of land-grabbers, but these efforts affected Manhattan only indirectly through trade. In the colony at large the transition period was a heyday of land speculation and general prosperity for the city which was the outlet for the commerce of the hinterland.

In the moot point of religion, the sore spot of the period, the English showed extreme moderation, and as the Dutch were traditional tolerants both at home and abroad, what might have been a ticklish situation passed without serious friction. At home in England the royal brothers might permit the persecution of Calvinists; in New York their agents tactfully held Church of England services in the sole house of worship in the town, then located inside the fort, after the Dutch had completed their services. Governor Nicolls used his good offices in straightening a legal tangle affecting the title to “the mean barn” in which the pious Dutch had first assembled.

The rise in realty values which occurred during the quarter of a century following the English occupation can be traced in the history of “that mean barn” which was located at present 39 Pearl Street. Used for about seven years for religious purposes, it then declined into a Company warehouse. It was sold at auction in 1656, being then known as the Old Church on the Strand. By 1682 the value had risen to 10,200 guilders.

Governing with an advisory council which included Dutch residents, Nicolls was careful not to offend local sentiment in cases where the honor of his royal master was not involved. While adamant with regard to the courts, which he insisted on setting up on the English pattern, he guaranteed full citizenship and property rights. Land titles were confirmed upon the owners’ taking the oath of allegiance to Charles II. Paltsits says that the quitrent, common in other English colonies, “as an institution was only gradually introduced into New York.” 2 The patroon system of the Dutch be-came the basis of the manor system of the English, under which were set up at various times the manors of Fordham, Pelham, Philipsburgh, Livingston, Van Cortlandt, Fox Hall, etc.

Communications with Harlem and the north were improved by a new road to the village and the establishment of a ferry at Spuyten Duyvil. This fixed the point for the later erection of King’s Bridge. The new road, a crying necessity, was put through at the expense of the villagers of Harlem and the Bowery village, pressure being put on by the new governor, Richard Lovelace, as part of his plan to establish regular posts with the New England colonies. This was the beginning of the Boston Post Road, which on the modern map ran from the fort up Broadway, Park Row, the Bowery and Fourth Avenue to Union Square, again along Broadway to Madison Avenue and then irregularly to the Harlem River at Third Avenue and 130th Street. It touched the Bowery village and Harlem, and ran most of the way through cultivated farms, orchards and tobacco plantations, with occasional wooded stretches; but the solid forest noted on this route by earlier travelers had been cleared away in the interval. Beyond Harlem, in the hills of Bronx and Westchester, the post riders would pass through an almost unbroken wilderness.

The transition period, from 1664 to 1673, produced no great rise in land values, though population increased one-third. Uncertainty prevailed in spite of English efforts to allay unrest, and there were difficulties due to confusion in currencies. At any rate, there occurred a revival of transactions in wampum and beaver, perhaps because guilders went into hiding while pounds and shillings had not as yet become current. A house and lot on the Heere straat, north of the garden of the West India Company, which today is just north of Trinity Churchyard, 48 by 85 feet; was sold by Vanderdiff to Duvall in 1667 for 27 beaver skins, something less than $100. This was a cheap lot, well out from the settlement, and on the “wrong side” of town, the West side being then less desirable than the East side. In 1672 the southeast corner of Broad Street and Exchange Place (present) was sold by De Sille to de la Valle, as previously noted, for 3,000 guilders sewant, about $1,200.

Another specimen sale of the transition period was that of a 75-by-60-foot lot on Marketfield Street, near the present Customhouse, for about $300, a fairly high price. Cherry Garden, containing seven acres, situated at the corner of present Pearl and Cherry streets, sold at auction for 161 guilders in beavers in 1672, the equivalent of $64.40. This was outlying property; but even so, the price was low and perhaps reflects fear of the hazards of war between the Dutch and English which was again threatening New Nether-land.

Nine years had elapsed since the English seized New Netherland, and while life on Manhattan had proceeded with less bickering than under the Dutch regime, the fact remained that the rape of the colony in 1664 had been in ruthless disregard of international law and settlement rights. From the outset of the second Dutch war of the Restoration period, which began in 1672, fear beset the English administration, while the more ardent natives among the settlers prepared to assist a Dutch recovery if one should be attempted. In August, 1673, the Dutch West Indies fleet appeared off Sandy Hook. On August 9th the fleet commander, Evertsen, demanded surrender, and on its refusal, bombarded the fort for four hours. The final blow to English resistance was the welcome ac-corded by 400 armed burghers to the landing of 600 sailors behind the site of present Trinity Church. At this sign that the Dutch population would fight, the royal standard was lowered. The surrender is held to have established absolute title to the province, since it occurred under dedaration of war.

Under this second Dutch occupation, which lasted only nine months, New York became New Orange, Albany became Willemstadt and Kingston became Swanenburg. The Dutch political and legal system was restored, but with more tolerance to religious establishments.

But what England lost on Manhattan she recovered in the peace of Westminster; indeed she improved her technical position, as the former tainted title was cleared and Dutch caims were forever extinguished. His Majesty’s government had now made good, in law as in fact, its sovereignty over the Atlantic seaboard between New France and Florida and was technically in position to contest claims to the interior.