Before the Big Apple - Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
Before the Big Apple September 28, 2006
by Sarah Pickman

A Walking Tour of Lower Manhattan's Colonial Beginnings

[image] Egbert Viele's 1874 map of Manhattan shows the island's original shoreline, subsequent landfill, and natural waterways, now paved over or filled in. The map is still indispensable for the city's structural engineers today. Left, a detail of Lower Manhattan (Library of Congress)

New Yorkers are proud of their city, and rightly so. So proud, in fact, that sometimes they can be downright boastful about it. John Updike, who lived in the city for two years, was famously quoted as saying that "The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding." With all of its economic and cultural importance--and more than eight million residents--it's easy to forget today that New York City was once just a tiny, thinly populated trading outpost on the tip of an uncharted island.

The island of Manhattan, now one of New York City's five boroughs, was inhabited by Lenape Algonquin Indians when the explorer Henry Hudson sailed Halve Maene (Half Moon) into New York Harbor in 1609. Hudson's rough maps of the island's coast and the surrounding water piqued the interest of the States General of the Dutch Republic, which commissioned private surveys of the area and decided to take possession of it in 1614, as the province of New Netherland. In 1624, Governor's Island in New York Harbor became the first site of Dutch colonial habitation. The following year, New Netherland's second director, Willem Verhulst, selected the tip of Manhattan as the optimal place for a permanent settlement--the town of New Amsterdam. New Amsterdam was strategically located for defending other valuable Dutch holdings on the Delaware, Connecticut, and Hudson rivers, and the beaver-trapping lands they accessed. Its population grew slowly, as it became an important trading center for imported European goods, pelts, and food products from surrounding farming communities in northern Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island.

In 1674, the city passed into English hands under the Treaty of Westminster, which ended the Third Anglo-Dutch War and gave the Dutch control of Suriname in exchange for New Netherland. New Amsterdam was renamed New York and continued to thrive as one of the most important English colonial port cities. From this time until 1898, when Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island were incorporated into the city, New York and Manhattan were effectively synonymous.

This walking tour will take you through 13 sites in Lower Manhattan that represent both the remnants of the city's early days and the efforts of archaeologists and preservationists who have uncovered and conserved it. You'll get a glimpse of how the first settlers adapted to life in New York, and how they left their mark on the city that stands today. Put on your most comfortable walking shoes, grab your camera, and hop on the 4 or 5 subway to Bowling Green station to begin your trip.

[image]

The front doors of New York Unearthed, now closed to general public (Sarah Pickman)

1. New York Unearthed

Exit the train at the Bowling Green station, and walk toward the State Street exit. After you exit the subway station, you'll see a curved steel office building, 17 State Street, across the street from you to your left. Cross the street and follow the line of the building, which will lead you into a small plaza, the home of New York Unearthed. Established as a temporary exhibition and conservation facility for artifacts excavated in the city, New York Unearthed was open for 15 years. It closed to the general public in 2004, though it remains accessible to groups by appointment. Its ultimate fate is uncertain.

[image]

As can be seen from its sign, Fraunces Tavern attracts crowds through its association with George Washington. (Sarah Pickman)

2. Fraunces Tavern

Continue through the plaza, away from the museum entrance, to Pearl Street, and walk west on Pearl, crossing Broad Street. On the corner of Pearl and Broad is the unmistakable brick Fraunces Tavern. It was built as a residence in 1719 by Stephen Delancey, a prominent merchant and city assemblyman, for his son Oliver. The Delanceys were one of early New York's wealthiest and most politically active families; Oliver and his brother Peter were successful merchants, and a third brother, James, was a chief provincial judge and lieutenant governor of New York.

Oliver sold the building to Samuel Fraunces in 1762. The new proprietor turned it into one of the most popular meeting places in the city. The tavern played host to the patriot group Sons of Liberty prior to the Revolutionary War, and in 1783, George Washington gave his legendary farewell address to his troops here. Miraculously, Fraunces Tavern survived the fire of 1835 that devastated New York City, but fell into extreme disrepair by the early twentieth century. The Sons of the American Revolution purchased the dilapidated building, and between 1904 and 1907 reconstructed it into its current form, using the remains of the walls and images of typical eighteenth-century brick buildings. Step inside to look at the upstairs museum, or grab something cold to drink--it still serves food and beverages, as it did 200 years ago.

[image] Left, the cream sidewalk stones on the historic Stadt Huys block denote the limits of New York's first city hall. Right, remains from the Lovelace Tavern can be seen inside the brass railing. (Sarah Pickman) [image]

3. Stadt Huys/Lovelace Tavern

Continue west on Pearl Street toward Coenties Alley until you see, on your left, a series of brass railings, marking off areas of the sidewalk. As the bronze plaque near the curb indicates, this is the historic Stadt Huys block.

This area is notable for being the site of the first large-scale archaeological excavation in New York City, conducted between 1979 and 1980. This project paved the way for future excavations in Lower Manhattan, by showing that the shallow basements of the city's older buildings had not necessarily destroyed archaeological sites, and important finds might still be made far beneath the modern urban maze.

Colonial governor William Kieft built the Stadt Huys, or City Hall, in 1641 because he was tired of entertaining visitors at his home and wanted an inn to send them to. Twelve years later, it became the first city hall of New York. Unfortunately, it is believed that later construction in the area destroyed the building's foundations. The excavators did not actually find any remains from the Stadt Huys, but they did recover evidence of a building that once stood next to it, the Lovelace Tavern. This tavern served as New York's second city hall, from 1670 to 1706, when in burned down. Inside the preserved foundation walls, excavators found thousands of pieces of clay pipes, wine bottles, and wine glasses.

The rectangular area of the sidewalk sectioned off by the railings will give you a glimpse of the Lovelace Tavern foundation walls that were unearthed. Under a nearby circular railing is a cistern, also unearthed through the digging, from a home of the Philipses, a family of wealthy merchants who had a residence built at 66 Pearl Street in 1689. The gray stone blocks in the sidewalk mark the limits of the Lovelace Tavern, while the lighter blocks mark the walls of the Stadt Huys, determined from seventeenth-century maps. The cream-colored blocks are supposed to represent yellow Dutch bricks, as can be seen on Fraunces Tavern. Now is a good time to take a look back at the street that you have been following, Pearl Street. Dutch maps indicate that this was the original boundary of the East River; the land that stretches beyond it to the water's edge today is landfill.

[image]

A view down the former artificial waterway, toward the original First Precinct police building (Sarah Pickman)

4. 100 Old Slip and the Lower Manhattan Street Plan

Continue down Pearl Street until you reach Hanover Square on your left, then make a right. You will cross Water Street, and then see a wide street divided in the middle by a small park. You are standing on Old Slip.

The coastline of New Amsterdam was lined with slips: small inlets cut into the land, a sort of reverse pier for docking boats. The characteristic Dutch slips, which remained a part of the city landscape even after the English officially took control of the colony in 1674, were eventually filled in and made into streets. However, two details offer clues to their former state. Like Old Slip, many of these former waterways have retained "slip" in their street names. Take a look down Old Slip toward 100 Old Slip, the nineteenth-century neo-Renaissance building to the east, and you will see that like other former slips, it is much wider than the other streets on which you have walked so far. This makes perfect sense, as no ship could pass through an inlet the size of most of Lower Manhattan's streets! Old Slip, which was constructed in 1691, was the site of a momentous event in American history. In 1792, the 90-ton merchant brig Betsy, captained by Edmund Fanning, sailed out of Old Slip, to become the first ship to carry the American flag around the world.

This former slip is just one of the dozens of streets that comprise the Colonial New York Street Plan--an official city landmark. While none of the original buildings from New Amsterdam have survived to this day--those still standing by the beginning of the nineteenth century were destroyed in the terrible fire of 1835--the original layout of densely packed streets has survived, and continues to define the view of Lower Manhattan. In order to save this last remnant of early New York City from being destroyed by block-merging developments, it was designated a landmark in 1983.

While you're here, sit for a moment in the small park, or take a walk around the building at 100 Old Slip--once the city's First Precinct Police Station, it served as the office of the Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1993 to 2001, and is now the New York City Police Museum.

Taking Care of Business: The Landmarks Preservation Commission and Archaeology in New York City
New York City Mayor Robert Wagner signed the Landmarks Law in 1965, establishing the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
Read more...

Lower Manhattan--What's In a Name?
The stories behind the names of streets in Lower Manhattan are just as fascinating as the structures that line them.
Read more...

[image]

175 Water Street: Four hundred years ago, the land where this building now stands was...water. (Sarah Pickman)

5. 175 Water Street Landfill

Walk back to Water Street, make a right, and continue until you reach the red granite office building at 175 Water Street, where it meets Fletcher Street. Not long after the city's first full-scale excavation on the Stadt Huys block, a team of archaeologists made an exciting find where this building now stands. In 1981, the remains of an early eighteenth-century merchant ship were uncovered in the landfill. Nautical archaeologists were able to determine that sometime between 1749 and 1755, the ship was hauled to this spot and sunk in place, to be used as a wooden support, or cribbing, to hold in new landfill. Nearly a third of Lower Manhattan is "made land," and landfilling has been used to extend the city's edge from the 1650s through the nineteenth century. Typically, cribbing consisted of logs joined together, much like a log cabin, although it seems that in a pinch, a derelict ship would have sufficed!

Unfortunately, the team was close to end of their excavation permit, and it was too costly to recover, conserve, and store the entire vessel. Instead, the archaeologists recorded the ship in drawings and photographs, then removed the bow, which is now on display at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. The rest of the wreck was, oddly enough, turned into landfill, at the Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island. Analysis of the wood revealed that it had been infested by teredo ship worms, which are native to the Caribbean. This showed that before being a part of the city's landfill extension, the vessel was active in Caribbean trade, an important part of the colonial New York economy.

[image]

The early nineteenth-century Schermerhorn Row of South Street Seaport, which now houses the South Street Seaport Museum and shops (Sarah Pickman)

6. South Street Seaport District and Museum

Continue down Water Street until you reach the intersection with Fulton Street, named for steamship pioneer Robert Fulton. This is the entrance to the South Street Seaport. To your right, you'll see a line of brick buildings bustling with activity, Schermerhorn Row, built by merchant Peter Schermerhorn in 1812. A collection of restored eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings from New York's early heyday as a shipping center, the Seaport houses a variety of shops and restaurants, as well as the South Street Seaport Museum, which interprets the history of the city and its waterfront. It is also the owner of New York Unearthed (Stop 1), and formerly housed the largest collection of the city's archaeological artifacts, which are now under the care of the State Museum in Albany.

The Seaport Museum has exhibitions in its main building on Schermerhorn Row, and also manages four nineteenth- and twentieth-century ships. All are docked at Pier 16, at the end of Schermerhorn Row, and three are currently open for tours.

[image] Left, three undisturbed burials were unearthed in this corner of City Hall Park. Right, history comes to life in a different way, at the New York Heritage Tourism Center, where the author gets some directions from a friendly staff member. The booth, just outside the park on the corner of Broadway and Park Row, was developed in cooperation with the History Channel. (Mark Rose) [image]

7. City Hall Park

Returning to Water Street, cross Water Street to Pearl Street and make a right onto Pearl. Follow Pearl until it intersects with Frankfort Street. Make a left onto Frankfort, and continue for two more blocks, until you reach Park Row. Across Park Row is City Hall Park and New York City's only archaeological historic district.

The City Hall Park area encompasses two nineteenth-century municipal buildings, surrounded by shady patches of green. Facing south is City Hall. Facing north is the recently renovated New York County Courthouse, better known as the Tweed Courthouse, from its association with William "Boss" Tweed of the infamous Tammany Hall political machine. He used the building's construction in the 1860s to embezzle millions of city dollars.

Before it was the gleaming seat of city government, this area included barracks, jails, and the city gallows. It was also the home of the first city almshouse, which was built in 1736 and served as a workhouse, jail, and homeless shelter. In 1757, a cemetery was installed next to the almshouse, and in 1791, the city's first dispensary was opened close by to distribute medications to the poor (the former outline of the dispensary building is noted on the sidewalk next to the south side of the park, with a plaque and lighter paving blocks). In 1803, the almshouse was demolished to clear a space for the new City Hall, and its existence was almost completely forgotten, until nearly 200 years later.

In 1999, archaeologists working as part of the renovation of the park and its buildings excavated more than 300,000 artifacts and animal bones, architectural remains, and trash pits and other features from the park's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century past. They also found human remains, some in formal burials and others in pits of mixed bones. Most were in the area opposite the subway kiosk on Centre Street, but a few were also found in the park's northwest corner.

Following city protocol, the primary burials were protected in place and the project was redesigned to avoid disturbing them. Fragmentary remains were available for analysis, however, and were studied at the Smithsonian Institution. According to the analysis, the burial population is most consistent with that of the almshouse.

[image]

One of the skeletons uncovered in the African Burial Ground, during construction for a new GSA building. (Chester Higgins)

8. African Burial Ground

Walk north through the park until you reach Chambers Street (the front of the Tweed Courthouse faces Chambers Street). Standing on Chambers Street, you will see Broadway to your left and Elk Street to your right. Walk up Elk Street to Reade Street. There, on your left, is an empty lot, in the midst of construction, surrounded by a fence. Signs on the fence display information about our next stop.

While black slavery in colonial America is typically associated with the southern colonies, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Manhattan in 1626. Soon, the Dutch West India Company was importing slaves to New York at a rapid rate, to make up for the chronic labor shortages that plagued the colony. By the time of the Revolutionary War, New York City had the largest population of enslaved Africans of any British colonial settlement, except for Charleston, South Carolina. Yet the story of this community was almost forgotten for centuries, until construction for a new federal office building in 1991 made it impossible to ignore.

In December 1990, the land between Duane and Reade Streets, then a parking lot, was sold to the federal General Services Administration (GSA) as the site for their new office building and accompanying pavilion. While conducting a pre-construction excavation at the site of the future pavilion, GSA's contract archaeologists uncovered more than 400 human skeletons. They were the remains of some of the thousands buried beginning by 1712 and ending in 1794 in what was then known as the "Negros Burial Ground," then an isolated patch of land outside of the city limits. According to federal law, GSA had the responsibility to appropriately identify threatened resources, consult with interested parties, and arrange mitigation. The lack of local African-American input in the project fueled public outrage, which culminated in a hearing in front of a congressional subcommittee. The excavation and construction at the pavilion site were halted, and a research team headed by Michael Blakey of Howard University was appointed to examine the unearthed remains.

Blakey's analysis found that the skeletons attested the hardships of slavery, in the form of bones and teeth that showed evidence, some visible even to the naked eye, of malnourishment, extreme stress, and wrenching physical labor. In front of thousands of New Yorkers, the skeletons of these 419 men, women, and children were returned to the ground as part of a memorial ceremony in 2003.

Inside the lobby of 290 Broadway (entrance at the next corner, Elk and Broadway), the building that was eventually constructed on the site, is a reading room and temporary exhibit that interprets the burial ground and the early history of Africans and African-Americans in New York City. A grand outdoor memorial, designed by architect Rodney Léon, is under construction and is scheduled to be completed in late 2006; a permanent exhibition inside 290 Broadway is slated to open in 2008. There is also a display of artwork commemorating these early New Yorkers, whose story has finally come to light.

[image] Left, a plaque designates 55 St. James Place as New York's "first" Jewish cemetery. Right, a grave's eye view of the land (Sarah Pickman) [image]

9. Shearith Israel Cemetery

From the entrance to 290 Broadway, at the corner of Broadway and Elk, walk east to Worth Street. Make a right on Worth, and follow Worth until it intersects with St. James Place--you will be on the outskirts of the Chinatown neighborhood. Following St. James Place, on your left will be a small gated area-the Shearith Israel Cemetery. In 1654, when the Dutch colony at Récife in northwestern Brazil was captured by the Portuguese, the approximately 600 Jews of the city fled, fearing the wrath of the Inquisition. Many scattered to other Dutch colonies, including New Amsterdam, where 23 arrived that year and founded the congregation of Shearith Israel ("remnants of Israel," in Hebrew). In 1656, the colonial government granted them "a little hook of land situated outside of this city for a burial place." The location of this cemetery is unknown today, but by 1682, the Jews of New York City were using the plot of land in front of you to bury their dead. The graveyard, in use until 1828, is commonly known as the "First Cemetery", as it is the oldest surviving Jewish graveyard in New York City. The congregation is still active today, and contains numerous descendants of those buried within the cemetery's gates.

[image] The serene St. Paul's churchyard. (Mark Rose) Right, a view from the cemetery across Church Street to the west, to the former site of the Twin Towers (Sarah Pickman) [image]

10. St. Paul's Church and Cemetery

Retracing your steps, follow Worth back to Elk and Broadway, and then to Elk and Reade. From the corner of Elk and Reade, walk west to Broadway. Make a left on Broadway and walk for seven blocks, where you will see St. Paul's Church on Broadway between Vesey and Fulton Streets.

Completed in 1766, St. Paul's originally served as a "chapel of ease" for parishioners who lived too far away from the city's primary church, Trinity Church, to worship there regularly. Today, St. Paul's is still a part of Trinity's parish, and holds the distinction of being the only Colonial-era church in Manhattan, and its oldest public building in continuous use. George Washington worshiped at the church on his inauguration day in 1789, and British Revolutionary War generals Sir William Howe and Marquess Charles Cornwallis attended services here as well.

In 1776, St. Paul's survived the terrible fire that destroyed a quarter of New York City after it was taken by the British. More than two centuries later, St. Paul's again bore witness to tragedy, on September 11, 2001, when the twin towers of the World Trade Center, whose east side faced the church, were destroyed. For months afterward, the church served as a place of rest for rescue and recovery workers, and as the primary site where visitors placed impromptu memorials to the event.

[image]

A view of Trinity Church's cemetery. The central obelisk is covered with sculptures of biblical figures. (Sarah Pickman)

11. Trinity Church and Cemetery

Continue south on Broadway for another six bocks, until you see Trinity Church, between Thames and Rector Streets.

The current Trinity Church dates to 1846, and it is the third building in this location to house the Anglican congregation. The original, built in 1697, was chartered by King William III, and was required to pay the unusual rent of one peppercorn per year. Legend has it that pirate Captain William Kidd, who was at the time a wealthy New York privateer, lent the runner and tackle from his ship to the construction workers to hoist stones.

The church's cemetery, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, contains the oldest carved gravestone in the city, belonging to Richard Churcher (1676-1681), and is the only cemetery in Manhattan sill in use. It is also the resting place of many prominent colonial New Yorkers, including Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary War general Horatio Gates, newspaper printer John Peter Zenger--whose libel trial helped establish the right to a free press--and numerous delegates to the Continental Congress.

[image]

One of Battery Park's numerous monuments, to the early Walloon settlers. (Sarah Pickman)

[image]

The current construction at Battery Park unearthed this section of the colonial battery wall late last year. (Sarah Pickman)

12. Battery Park and Governor's Island

Continue walking in the same direction down Broadway. When you reach a patch of green, dotted with construction barricades, you can go no further--you've reached Battery Park.

Battery Park, at the very tip of Manhattan, is always lively, with food and art vendors, musicians, and plenty of tourists. It is also home to many monuments, including one to the Walloons, a group of seventeenth-century Protestant Belgian settlers who came to New Amsterdam to escape religious persecution (Peter Minuit, director of the colony from 1626 to 1633, was a Walloon). Castle Clinton, the round sandstone building at the end of the park, was constructed between 1808 and 1811 as a fortification against sea attacks. It was intended to complement Castle Williams, a fortification constructed at the same time on nearby Governor's Island, but never saw action. In another example of the prevalence of made land in early New York, Castle Clinton originally sat on an island in the harbor, but landfill eventually joined it to the mainland. Today, Castle Clinton is the site of ticket offices for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Walk inside and take a look at the roped-off stone structure at the far end--it's a piece of the walls discovered and excavated in late 2005 during work on the new subway station for Battery Park. Project archaeologists believe that the wall, believed to be a part of the original English gun battery, was constructed in the early eighteenth century, by the 1740s. Wall 1, found in the northern part of Battery Park, measured the entire width of the subway tunnel (43 feet), and was 8-feet wide, and 2-feet high. Wall 2, identified just north of the World Trade Center Globe Memorial, measured about 8 by 7 by 7 feet. Wall 3, found in the south of the park, is 90 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 4 feet high. It appears to have been constructed through cribbing. Wall 4 was about 120-feet long, 8-feet wide, and 4-feet high. All of the walls were documented by archaeologists and by architectural conservators and then removed.

All of Wall 1 and portions of Walls 3 and 4 were retained for later reconstruction. The wall now on display in Castle Clinton is a portion of Wall 1. Going forward, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has promised to display a portion of Wall 3 in the new South Ferry Station and one fragment will be put back into Battery Park where it was found.

If you have time, take the ferry to Liberty and Ellis Islands. As it makes a loop around the harbor, it will take you past Governor's Island, where the Dutch West India Company established a trading post--and constructed a windmill--in the 1620s. In the 1690s, the island was set aside for use by the colonial governor, and in the 1750s it was handed to the military for use as a fortification. Governor's Island, which has remained under military control since then, has been the site of many exciting finds. Since the 1980s, archaeologists have uncovered a powder magazine that pre-dates the War of 1812, seven male skeletons (probably British or American soldiers from the Revolutionary War), a bead used in Dutch-Native American trade, and the remains of a Dutch West India Company sawmill, constructed around 1625--the oldest Dutch remains ever found in New York City. Three Woodland period Native American sites have also been identified and protected on the island, and a recovered Native American spearhead has been dated to the late Archaic period--it is believed to be approximately 4,000 years old!

[image]

Behind this fence, Bowling Green is a rare quiet spot in Lower Manhattan. However, it wasn't always this serene. (Sarah Pickman)

13. Bowling Green

To finish your trip, exit the park towards the Bowling Green subway station where you began your tour, but continue past the station for about half a block, until you see Bowling Green.

This little patch of green space, nestled between bustling Broadway and Whitehall Street, was the site of a storied event in New York City history. It was here, in 1626, that Dutch settler Peter Minuit offered local Lenape Indians trade goods in exchange for possession of the island of Manhattan. This transaction is commonly referred to as Minuit's purchase of Manhattan, though most modern scholars assert that the Native Americans did not share the European cultural concept of land ownership, so what they believed they had relinquished through the transaction remains ambiguous.

By 1733, the current Bowling Green had become a cow pasture. That year, three colonists leased it from the city to use for playing bowls, a popular English game similar to bocce. In return, they paid the same rent as the congregation of Trinity Church--one peppercorn per year!

Almost all of the tourists who visit Bowling Green today flock to "Charging Bull," Arturo DiModica's 1989 bronze sculpture that stands just outside of the Green. More mundane looking, but more interesting than this 7,000-pound stock market-inspired bovine, is Bowling Green's eighteenth-century fence. Sitting on a bench in front of the babbling fountain, it might be hard to imagine this park as anything but serene. However, in 1776, a riotous crowd of patriots gathered here to pull down the statue of King George III that had been erected several years before. The iron fence erected around Bowling Green in 1771 to protect the statue failed to do just that--but it did manage to survive to the present day.

Sarah Pickman, an intern at ARCHAEOLOGY, is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago pursuing a major in anthropology and a minor in art history.

Bibliography

-----
© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
archive.archaeology.org/online/features/nycolonial/
Share