New York: Patricia Cleveland-Peck Visits the Big Apple in Search of Its Blossoming

By Cleveland-Peck, Patricia | History Today, December 2007 | Go to article overview

New York: Patricia Cleveland-Peck Visits the Big Apple in Search of Its Blossoming


Cleveland-Peck, Patricia, History Today


HAD THE FRENCH KING FRANCIS I had taken more notice of Giovanni da Verrazano, the Italian explorer he sent to the New World in search of the Northwest Passage, New Yorkers might have been speaking French today.

The area known now covered by New York was, until the arrival of the Europeans, who effectively destroyed their existence, home to various indigenous tribes including the Algonquin. It was the Dutch who, having arrived and in 1642, established the first trading post up the Hudson and sent the first thirty families out as potential settlers. Most went up to Fort Nassau but eight families settled on Nut Island, now Governor's Island, situated just off the tip of Manhattan and thus became the first immigrant New Yorkers. Governor's Island has played a very important strategic role right up to the Second World War when it was home to 10,000 military personnel and it is somewhere no lover of history should miss. Now it is a ghost town with hundreds of uninhabited historic houses and buildings in the course of restoration as a new National Park.

The original Dutch Nut Island community grew as more settlers arrived and so they gradually moved across the water and began to settle in the mainland area known as Manna-Hatta, This consisted of 14,000 acres which, in 1626, the first Dutch governor Peter Minuit purchased from the local Native tribes (who had no concept of land ownership) for trinkets said to be worth in today's currency, around $500.

Between 1647 and 1664 the very effective Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant established the first school, hospital and police force (of nine men) and saw the colony, now named New Amsterdam, double in size. He built himself a farmhouse or bouwerij in the district now known as the Bowery. Much of the colony in fact then resembled Holland with its canals, windmills and gabled farmhouses, a number of which can still be found today.

The oldest is the Wyckoff Farmhouse in Brooklyn. Now this tiny gem of a property survives in the shadow of a car-breaker's yard and is reached by a long drive through grim suburbia, but when Pieter Claessen purchased it in 1652 it was a tangible symbol of the upwards social mobility characteristic, then as now, of America.

Pieter Claessen, an illiterate teenager who arrived in the New World as an indentured labourer, rose to become one of the wealthiest and most prominent citizens of Brooklyn. He made the voyage from his home in Norden in the Holy Roman Empire in 1636 aboard a ship belonging to Kiliean van Rensselaer, a wealthy merchant with interests in the New World. On arrival, to repay the cost of his passage, the young Pieter laboured for six years 'conquering the wilderness'. At the termination of his contract he leased a small parcel of land. Later he married, wisely selecting as a wife, Grietje, the daughter of a 'free' Dutch farmer--after which it was upwards all the way. The area, even when the English had been in charge for a hundred years remained 'Dutch'. Pieter, still illiterate (as were the majority of the leading citizens at this time), became a magistrate, amassed land and money and in 1687 adopted the name Wyckoff. He and Grietje had 11 children, they eventually accumulated some 50,000 descendants--who in 1937 formed the Wyckoff Association which initiated the preservation of this house.

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During Pieter Claessen's time the British were building up their presence in the area but the Dutch settlers, angered by the high taxation, demanded by Stuyvesant, did little to defend the colony. As a result New Amsterdam became New York under the British for most of the next hundred years. The British, however also began to alienate the colonists with tax increases and other punitive measures. Gradually ill-feeling mounted and it was in fact in Brooklyn in 1776 that one of the first battles of the War of Independence took place. Lord Howe, leading the British, with a huge army which included Hessian mercenaries, engaged with the much smaller American force under George Washington in what today is Prospect Park, Brooklyn. …

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