History of New York City: Part I

I’d like to start at the beginning, with the indigenous Lenape people, and their first contact with European seafarers. Please be sure to look at the illustrations below and their captions.

The native Lenape people inhabited Manhattan, western Long Island, the lower Hudson Valley, all of New Jersey, and the Delaware River Valley in PA. Their two languages were part of the Algonquian Family of languages.

The Lenape hunted small game, fished, farmed, and harvested shellfish from the many bays and estuaries in the region. They lived in matrilineal, matrilocal groups (men went to another clan to find a wife and stayed with them). They developed extensive trade networks over land and water.

After two-hundred years of contact with Europeans, characterized by disease and warfare, the surviving Lenape were forced to migrate westwards in the early 19th century to Ohio and to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). They left only their place names: Raritan, Tappan, and Manhattan (“hilly island”).

The first European to arrive in New York Harbor was Giovanni Verrazzano in 1523 (there are variant spellings of his surname), an Italian sailing for the French king. Why an Italian? Well, this was the heyday of Italian seafaring, when Italians performed the carrying trade between Europe and the Middle East; Venice was the “Queen of the Seas”, & Italian\Venetian naval power culminated in the defeat of the Turkish navy at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 (but I digress, as students will attest).

Verrazzano immediately realized that he had entered one of the finest natural harbors in the world: Lower New York Bay, located south of the (Verrazzano) Narrows, and Upper New York Bay, to the north of the Narrows. The 315-mile Hudson river discharges into Upper N.Y. Bay; it is actually a tidal estuary as far north as Troy (the Mahican natives called it “the river that flows both ways”). The Hudson discharges 160, 083 gallons of water PER SECOND into the Atlantic Ocean from Lower N.Y. Bay.

Next time: Hendrick Hudson and the arrival of the Dutch.

The pristine wilderness of Manhattan Island (from “Mannahatta: A Natural History of NYC, by Eric Sanderson)
The southern tip of the island, where the Dutch first settled. The Hudson River is on the left, the “East River” (a tidal channel) is on the right. Taken from Upeer New York Bay by Richard M. Romero
The new shoreline, comprised of landfill (mostly from deep excavations to support the skyscrapers) superimposed over the original waterfront line. (from “Mannahatta: A Natural History of NYC, by Eric Sanderson)
The Narrows, looking south from Upper New York Bay (towards Lower NY Bay and the Atlantic Ocean). Verazanno was the first European to sail into the habor. The Staten Island Ferry is seen in the center of the span of the suspension bridge which bears his name. Photo by the author, Richard M. Romero
A closer look at the Narrows and the bridge. Note the commercial traffic — merchant ships still enter the harbor bound for the busiest port on the East Coast, but no longer dock along the shores of Manhattan or Brooklyn. The container ships enter the channels surrounding Staten Island and head for Newark Bay (to Port Elizabeth and Port Newark), unloading their containers into a vast yard which can be seen from the NJ Turnpike. Photo by the author.
Port Elizabeth
Port Newark
One final shot of the Narrows (looking south) with a sailing ship in the center. Brooklyn is on the left (east), Staten Island is on the right (west). The harbor is one of the finest natural harbors in the world.
The street grid of the Upper East Side (starting at about 103rd St.) and Central Park superimposed over the original topography of Manhattan — note the streams and marshes. As the grid stretched northwards, the hills were leveled. (from “Mannahatta” by Eric Sanderson).