In search of historic New York

By | Category: Travel destinations
the Governor's House

the Governor’s House

In order to begin at the beginning, we set off for Governor’s Island just off the tip of Manhattan because it is here that the first 8 European settlers established themselves.    Before the coming of the Europeans, the whole New York area was inhabited by several tribes including the Algonquin.  It was the Dutch who in the 1620s, first came to this island which was then known as Nut Island on account of the abundance of hickory, walnut and chestnut trees. Most of the Dutch settled at Fort Nassau up the Hudson but these 8 individuals remained here, effectively becoming the first New Yorkers.

The island’s strategic position resulted in its being used over the years as a military facility – during WWII it was home to 10,000 military personnel. It has thus played a role in many important events of American History. There is a prison in which Confederate soldiers were incarcerated, also barracks, forts and a splendid Governor’s House as well as numerous historic buildings in a range of architectural  styles,  some of which are now to be let to tenants.

Now 30 of the 172 acres have been developed as a public park and recreational area which runs arts and leisure programmes and a project, The Hill,  is being constructed which will offer a 360̊ view of the Statute of Liberty and  the Lower Manhattan skyline. Ferries ( $2.00 and free on some days) run from Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge Park.

the Morris Jumel mansion

the Morris-Jumel mansion

In the seventeenth century as more settlers arrived they gradually began to colonise the mainland area known as Manna-Hatta which then consisted of 14, 000 acres which the first Dutch governor Peter Minuit  had purchased from the local Native tribes (who  had no concept of land ownership)  for trinkets said to be worth  around $500.00 in today’s currency.

A later, very effective Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant, established the first school, hospital and police force ( of 9 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.

farmhouse owned by the Wyckoff family

the Wyckoff farmhouse

In an endeavour to seek out the oldest of these still on its original site, we set off through the mean streets and grim suburbs of Lower Brooklyn and discovered  Wyckhoff  Farmhouse, a tiny gem of a property  now surviving in the shadow of a car breaker’s yard.  Peter Claessen, an illiterate teenager who had arrived as an indentured labourer but who amassed land and rose to become one of the wealthiest citizens, purchased it in 1652. He remained illiterate all his life thus showing, then as now, the possibilities of upward mobility in the New World.

Eliza Jumel

From the Moris-Jumel Museum – Eliza and her daughter

We had arrived at a busy time in the city and the only accommodation we had been able to find was in fact just over the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn Heights. This turned out to be a bonus because the atmosphere of the peaceful and elegant Historical District perfectly suited our quest for New York’s heritage. Having picked up leaflets and looked at paintings in the fascinating Brooklyn Historical Society, we enjoyed strolling amongst the charming wooden Federal and Queen Anne houses. At one point we came upon the church where the pastor father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, preached.

It was 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.

early Brooklyn painting

a painting of what early Brooklyn was like

You can still visit a number of sites connected with George Washington in New York. Following the Brooklyn battle he seized the Morris-Jumel Mansion overlooking Washington Heights at the top of Manhattan and used it as headquarters during the Battle of Harlem. The city’s only example of a pre-revolutionary mansion, this elegant house was built in 1765. Its pillared portico, octagonal drawing room and 138-acre estate must have formed an elegant background to fashionable parties – until that is, the hostilities forced the incumbents to return to England.

Later the house was purchased by a wealthy French wine merchant, Stephen Jumel and his wife Eliza. Her reputation as his one-time mistress and possibly even a prostitute, prevented their integration into New York society but they travelled to France where, Eliza is said to have offered Napoleon hospitality after the battle of Waterloo. She also claimed to have bought from him some furniture, including a fine bed on display in the house. The acres have been eroded and the view spoiled but some of the lovely furniture remains together with a striking portrait of the redoubtable Eliza.

the Morris Jumel bedroom

the Morris-Jumel bedroom

For a glimpse into domestic life of the nineteenth century we visited  Merchant’s House Museum  built in 1832. It is New York’s only  family home preserved with the original contents. It is a fine Federalist brownstone with a Greek Revival style interior, situated not far from Washington Square – indeed the interior lends itself perfectly as an imagined background for the Henry James novel. The family who lived there from 1835, however was that of Seabury Tredwell, a prosperous hardware merchant, his wife and their eight children – their last daughter Gertrude, continued to live in the house until her death in 1933, making very few changes over the years. In fact bundles of clothing, including 42 dresses were saved just as they were about to be thrown in a skip – they now form a unique costume collection.

As the nineteenth century progressed only a tiny proportion of New Yorkers were able to live in the style of the Tredwells. Immigrants began to pour in; Irish in the wake of the famine, Germans escaping unsettled political situation, Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans all seeking their fortunes in “great melting pot.” Having negotiated the procedure at Ellis Island (which between 1892 and 1954 processed 12 million steerage passengers – first and second class entered freely via Fort Clinton) many moved into overcrowded tenements.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum tells some of their real-lives stories very eloquently. Each set of rooms is furnished as it would have been at the time and an hour-long guided tour takes the visitor right into the lives of the inhabitants. We learned how the young German, Natalie Gumpertz survived when one day in 1874 her husband disappeared never to be seen again. Assisted by her daughters she took in sewing in these rooms, her sewing machine and patterns are on display.

and the Baldizzi kitchen

and the Baldizzi kitchen

The Baldizzis, Catholics from Sicily, were amongst the tenement’s last residents and their 1930s apartment brings the experience of living in these cramped and airless conditions almost within our touch. As well as seeing, feeling  and smelling, in this tiny apartment we could hear  a fragment of history as a tape recording of one of the daughters who lived there  reveals that life did have fun as well as hardship.

Later we were able to incorporate the fifth sense – taste  into the historical framework of New York’s heritage  by visiting  Delmonico’s , which is not only the city’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1837 but the first  American restaurant to offer clients fine dining.  Patrons included Mark Twain, Dickens, Jenny Lind, Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales.

We entered the dining room via a portico supported by pillars from Pompeii, to find ourselves in an atmosphere redolent with turn of the century opulence. We sampled two of the many classic dishes invented by chef Charles Ranhofer; Lobster Neuburg, “ tender Maine Lobster in Brandy Cream sauce” and Baked Alaska, “ a cake of frozen cream in a blanket of hot golden meringue,” which was created in honour of newly purchased Alaska in 1867.

A delectable taste of history with which to end our visit.

Story and images © Patricia and Denis Cleveland-Peck.





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