New Amsterdam to now: Images of New York in the Colonial days

Old New Amsterdam - New York 1739

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.

New Amsterdam and old New York: Looking back from 1898

The story of New York’s growth from a frontier settlement known as New Amsterdam to the metropolis of the western world — Pictures of the city and its life in Colonial times, and in the early days of independence.

Old New York - New Amsterdam

It was, historically speaking, only the other day that New York was the settlement of New Amsterdam, and the placid Dutch burghers in their wide breeches walked about the grassy streets, and counted the geese and calves that flocked about them. They had a town of fifteen hundred inhabitants when the fortunes of war made them turn over their prosperous village to the English, to be renamed after the Duke of York, who was afterwards the last Stuart monarch of Britain.

They had a stockade where Wall Street now runs; they had a weekly market “near Mr Hans Kiersted’s house,” as the town advertised, and they had a herder who went about the streets every morning with a loud tin horn, collecting the cattle. The cows were pastured in the meadows beyond Maiden Lane — the latter being then De Maagde Paatje, the path by which the Dutch lassies went down to the water’s edge to wash their clothes.

Fort Amsterdam, as finished by Governor Wouter Van Twiller in 1635

Above: Fort Amsterdam, as finished by Governor Wouter Van Twiller in 1635

Governor Stuyvesant, who lost his post when the Dutch flag was hauled down before the British guns, had a farm, or “bowerie,” on the road that led northward; and his neighborhood was so much sought that a small village of five houses sprang up there, and a halfway tavern was erected by Wolfert Webber for the accommodation of the sedate Dutch in their long journey from town. It stood at Chatham Square.

The embryo metropolis had its prominent businessmen even then. One of these was Cornelius Clopper, a blacksmith, who established a shop at what is now the corner of Maiden Lane and Pearl Street. All the country people who came that way stopped to have their horses shod and to smoke and gossip. It was one of New York’s early landmarks, and the road which led to it was known as “De Smit’s Vly,” or “The Smith’s Valley.” When Cornelius died, he was one of the wealthiest men on the island. His fortune of ten thousand dollars caused his widow, Hielke Pieters, to be much sought.

De Smit's Vly, at the foot of Maiden Lane

Above: De Smit’s Valley, at the foot of Maiden Lane

Under the English many changes came in. HeereStraat, which lay to the westward of the town’s principal line of development, became Broadway, and a fashionable residence street. At the close of the seventeenth century, when New York had about four thousand inhabitants. Madam Knight, an English lady who came over on a visit, wrote back that the place had “an agreeable character.”

Old New Amsterdam - New York 1739

“The buildings,” she said, “are of brick generally, in some houses of diverse colors and laid in checks. Being glazed, they look very well. On the inside, they are neat to admiration.” The sidewalks were paved with cobblestones, but as there was no sewerage the streets were left unpaved in the center that they might absorb water. Here and there were public wells to supply the citizens with water.

New Amsterdam, now called New York (from a print dated 1667)

Above: New Amsterdam, now called New York (from a print dated 1667)

There are many romantic traditions of these late days of the seventeenth century. Queer ships came into the harbor, and men who were believed to be pirates and slave dealers walked about the town. There is a pathetic tale of the first slave girl sold in New York, who died of grief as she was being led home by her purchaser, Nicholas Boot. The friends of the man who made so unlucky a bargain stood about and looked at her, and shook her, and said it was all nonsense for her to be dead, for “she was sound. ”

The junction of Pearl and Chatham Streets, in Colonial days

Above: The junction of Pearl and Chatham Streets, in Colonial days

There was one scandal that shook not only New York, but the world. Piracy had become so common on the high seas that Colonel Robert Livingstone went to England and introduced his intimate personal friend. Captain William Kidd, to the English government and recommended that he be sent out on an expedition to put down pirates. The king, Lord Somers, the Earls of Romney and Orford, and some New York gentlemen made up a purse for the expenses of the expedition, and with the great seal of England on his papers, Captain Kidd set sail from Plymouth in 1696 in the Adventure.

By and by, when it was learned that Kidd was himself a pirate, it almost upset the government, and the noblemen concerned were indelibly disgraced. Poor Kidd, as everybody knows, after burying his treasure where it has never been found, sailed peacefully into Boston harbor, supposing that he was protected, or that nobody knew; was arrested, taken back to England, and hanged in chains. Somebody had to suffer.

Tammany Hall, 1830

Above: Tammany Hall, 1830

For most of two centuries, New York was merely an adjunct to the fort at the Battery, and had all the characteristics of a garrison town. This fort had eight names previous to its final christening of Fort George. It was laid out by an engineer named Kryn Frederick, and his ideas of fort building were decidedly primitive. When Stuyvesant was induced to surrender it without a shot, he called attention to the fact that it was so low that on two sides, within pistol shot, was ground so much higher, that it made the position defenseless.

Broadway, between Howard and Grand, in 1840

Above: Broadway, between Howard and Grand, in 1840

Almost every time a new sovereign sat on the throne of England, or a new ruler came to New York, the old fort was renamed. It seems to have been as useless as some of our coast fortifications today. In 1738 the governor wrote of it: “It is a fort of little defense. We have guns, but no carriages; ball, but no powder.” He had an indignant reply from England. ” Where, ” the government asked, “is the powder we sent you in 1711?”

New Amsterdam - Old New York -The Collect Pond

Above: The Collect Pond

But if the governors had no powder in the magazines, they had plenty for their footmen’s heads. They lived in state in the mansion in the fort, and made the provincial court a center of gaiety. The aristocracy of the English administration kept up a great deal more ceremony than New York knows today, and 1898 cannot show many more liveried servants. In the governor’s stables were state coaches; and in his boathouse, state barges.

New Amsterdam in 1664 when it became New York

The City Hall and Park, in 1822

Above: The City Hall and Park, in 1822

The fort was demolished in 1788, with the intention of building upon its site a house for the President of the United States. Before it was completed, the capital was transferred to Philadelphia, and the house subsequently became the custom house.

The Bull's Head Tavern on the Bowery, 1783

Above: The Bull’s Head Tavern on the Bowery, 1783

The old tavern of Mrs Kocks, on the site of No. 1 Broadway, now occupied by the Washington Building, had stood there for a century when it was taken down to make way for the residence of Archibald Kennedy. Mr Kennedy was at that time collector of the port, but he afterward went home to Scotland to become Earl of Cassilis. In Colonial times, this house was the scene of the greatest festivities in town. Sir Henry Clinton had his official residence there. After the Revolution, it became the home of several prominent citizens in turn.

The junction of Broadway and Eighth Avenue in 1861

Above: The junction of Broadway and Eighth Avenue in 1861

Broadway, as it stretched further northward, was a fashionable street for shopping and residences. During Dutch times, the site of the present City Hall Park was known as the “Vlacte, “‘ or Flat; a little later it became the Commons or Fields, and lastly, the Park. Here bonfires were made on the king’s birthday, Coronation Day, and other holidays.

The first public building erected there was a poorhouse, built in 1736, but this did not deter the gatherings. The records tell of the burning of a press gang’s boat there in 1764; of a meeting to oppose the Stamp Act, and the burning of Governor Cadwallader Colden in effigy. When the Stamp Act was repealed, the people met in the Fields to roast an ox and drink twenty-five barrels of ale — a quantity of beef and ale that tells of a not very’ numerous crowd. The Fields, too, were the scene of many head breaking battles between the soldiers and the people over the Liberty Pole, an emblem which was several times demolished and as often restored.

The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam

Above: The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam

On the 9th of July, 1776, the Continental troops were drawn up here in a hollow square about General Washington on horseback, and the Declaration of Independence was read to them. Then came the disastrous battle of Long Island, and the city was in possession of the king’s forces. In September, the young country schoolmaster, Nathan Hale, was hanged as a spy, not far from the spot where his statue stands today.

Number 1 Broadway, in 1850

Above: Number 1 Broadway, in 1850

The first improvement of the Park — it was then far uptown, in the country, in fact — was made in 1785, when it was enclosed by a post and rail fence. A jail and bridewell had been erected before this. The old log barracks built in Colonial days had long been deserted, and had become the homes of bands of roving Indians, who sold beads and baskets up and down Broadway. Beyond the Park lay a piece of ground which was given over to the Negroes for a burying ground. It was a desolate spot, descending toward the Collect.

John Jacob Astor's country place, near the East River at 88th St

Above: John Jacob Astor’s country place, near the East River at 88th St.

Of all the old topographical features of Manhattan Island that have been obliterated by the city ‘s growth, this Kalchhook or Collect Pond was the most notable.

It was a freshwater lake, as much as sixty feet deep, in a swampy depression that cut entirely across the island. It was connected with the East River by a creek that ran through marshy fields, while between it and the Hudson were Lispenard’s Meadows, afterwards drained by a deep ditch that gave its name to Canal Street. It was on the Collect that the first screw-propelled steamboat was tried, in 1796. There was a plan to make a park of the land about it, but it was regarded as too distant from the city. Finally, it was filled in, and the old Tombs prison was built in the center of its site.

New York and the East River, from the northeast, in 1792

Above: New York and the East River, from the northeast, in 1792

The first account of a bridge over the canal between the Collect and the North River occurs in a map made during the Revolution. It was evidently a military work built of solid stone, and designed to connect the fortifications on the Collect with those further north. It was on the line of Broadway at Canal Street, and stood there for many years. Here, too, was a famous tavern with a garden.

From this stone bridge, Broadway was called “The Middle Road,” and in 1802 a survey was ordered from the bridge “to Dr Livingstone’s house, ” at the corner of Prince Street. Near Dr Livingstone’s were the homes of the Beekmans and the Motts, and a “very superior residence” erected by Walter Langdon, son in law of John Jacob Astor, the prosperous fur merchant.

New York in about 1790

Above: New York in about 1790

One of the notable improvements on Broadway was on the east side of the street, between Howard and Grand. This was a building designed for a circus, which was afterwards called the Olympic Theater. In 1825, it was a circus, owned by Mr Pierre Lorillard. New York cannot support a permanent circus now, but she could then.

The site of the old Niblo’s Garden and the Metropolitan Hotel, landmarks which have disappeared in the past five years, was once a circus owned by Mr Van Rensselaer, and called the Stadium. The old building was left in Niblo’s Garden, and used for light performances, which were so successful that Mr Niblo, who was a coffee house proprietor and never dreamed of becoming a dramatic manager, was encouraged to build his famous theater. James Fenimore Cooper lived next door.

The Stone Bridge Tavern and Garden - 1812
Year by year, New York grew northward, and each year the inhabitants believed that the limit had almost been reached, just as people think nowadays that Yonkers, nearly twenty miles from the Battery, is far out of town and can never become a second Greenwich Village, lost in the expansion of the American metropolis.

Buckhorn Tavern on Broadway - Old New York City

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. I just wanted to thank you for mentioning Nicholas Boot: I’m a double descendant of Anna Varlet and her first husband George Hack and know almost nothing about her second husband Nicholas Boot, but suspect he died in Virginia. Anna was in business with one of her brothers-in-law, Augustine Hermann (who was a very interesting man, as it so happens) and as far as I know, split her time between New Amsterdam and Virginia. Given your evident interest in early American history, the Varlet family is well worth looking into, with ties (by marriage) to the Stuyvesants; Anna’s sister Judith was accused of witchcraft in Hartford, Peter Stuyvesant wrote a letter and got her out of trouble.

  2. It’s always remarkable to try to imagine Manhattan as a quaint farming village, or with stately mansions built on lush, rolling estates.

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.