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

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Old New Amsterdam - New York 1739
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.

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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.

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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.

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