New York History

Historic Facts & Overview of New York History

Take a peek at New York history. Discover an overview of New York's rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

 The Dutch West India Company established the first settlement at Fort Orange near present day Albany in 1624 and another in New Amsterdam on the site of present day Manhanttan a year later. After the English took over in the 1660s, the colony was renamed New York, after the Duke of York. One of the original 13 states to join the Union (it entered in 1788), New York is known as the "Empire State." The state includes everything from skyscrapers in Manhattan to rivers, mountains, and lakes in upstate New York. Today, New York has the third largest population (after California and Texas), and remains the financial center of the country. The state flower is the rose, and the capital is Albany.

Overview of Nerw York History and Heritage

Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian-born navigator sailing for France, discovered New York Bay in 1524. Henry Hudson, an Englishman employed by the Dutch, reached the bay and sailed up the river now bearing his name in 1609, the same year that northern New York was explored and claimed for France by Samuel de Champlain.

In 1624 the first permanent Dutch settlement was established at Fort Orange (now Albany); one year later Peter Minuit is said to have purchased Manhattan Island from the Indians for trinkets worth about $24 and founded the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now New York City), which was surrendered to the English in 1664.

For a short time, New York City was the US capital and George Washington was inaugurated there as the first president on April 30, 1789.

New York's extremely rapid commercial growth may be partly attributed to Governor De Witt Clinton, who pushed through the construction of the Erie Canal (Buffalo to Albany), which was opened in 1825.

For more than three centuries England and Holland had been the closest of friends; but now, at the close of the long and bloody Thirty Years' War, which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the power of Spain was crushed, and the Dutch, no longer having anything to fear from his Catholic Majesty, rose to dispute with the English the dominion of the seas. This brought about an unfriendly rivalry between the two nations, and the unfriendliness was increased by the fact that the Dutch of new Netherland traded freely with the English colonies. They carried great quantities of Virginia tobacco to Holland, and thus at least 10,000 a year was lost in customs duties to the British government.

The first Navigation Law, 1651, was aimed largely at the Dutch trader, but the wily Dutchman ignored the law and continued as before. This was one cause that determined the English on the conquest of New Amsterdam. Another, and probably the chief one, was that the Dutch colony on the Hudson separated New England from the other English colonies and threatened British dominion in North America.

The English claimed New Netherland on the ground of the Cabot discoveries; and Charles II now, 1664, coolly gave the entire country, from the Connecticut to the Delaware, to his brother James, Duke of York, ignoring the claims of the Dutch colony, and even disregarding his own charter of two years before the younger Winthrop. Richard Nicolls of the royal navy set out with a small fleet and about five hundred of the king's veterans. Reaching New England, he was joined by several hundred of the militia of Connecticut and Long Island, and he sailed for the mouth of the Hudson.

Stuyvesant had heard of the fleet's arrival at Boston, but he was made to believe that its object was to enforce the Episcopal service upon the Puritans of New England, and so unsuspecting was he that he went far up the river, to Fort Orange, to quell an Indian disturbance. Here he was when informed that Nicolls was moving toward New Amsterdam. Stuyvesant hastened down the river with all speed, arriving at New Amsterdam but one day before the English fleet hove into view. Nicolls demanded the surrender of the fort. Stuyvesant refused; he fumed and fretted and swore and stamped his wooden leg. He tore to bits a conciliatory letter sent him by Nicolls. He mustered his forces for defense. But the people were not with him; they were weary of his tyrannical government in which they had no part, weary of enriching a company at their own expense, and the choleric old governor had to yield. The fort was surrendered (1664) without bloodshed; New Amsterdam became New York, after the Duke of York; the upper Hudson also yielded, and Fort Orange became Albany, after another of the duke's titles, and all New Netherland, including the Delaware Valley, passed under English control.

By what right Charles II seized New Netherland is probably known to kings and rulers, but not to the humble historian. Queen Elizabeth had laid down the postulate that mere discovery, without occupation, did not constitute a right to new lands. This was a good rule when applied to Spain to refute her claims to North America; it was another story when applied to the English concerning the Hudson Valley. But the English deftly evaded the difficulty, to their own satisfaction, by claiming that the Hudson Valley was part of Virginia as given by James I, in 1606, to two companies. This tract had been settled at both ends, - on the James River and the New England coast, - and why should a foreign power claim the central portion because not yet occupied? Thus argued the English, and their argument won because sustained by force of arms. And yet, the providential hand may easily be seen. The conquest of New Netherland was scarcely less important than was the conquest of New France, a century later, on the Plains of Abraham. It all belonged to the preparation - not for British dominion in North America, but for the dominion of future generations that were to occupy the land. Before their power England was yet to go down, as New Netherland and New France first went down before hers. Thus England, all unwittingly, became the instrument in preparing the way and fighting the battles for a nation that was yet to be born.

It is interesting to note the later career of Peter Stuyvesant. After a journey to the fatherland to vindicate his course, he returned to New York and made it the home of his old age. Here on his farm, or "bowery," now bounded by Fourth Avenue and the East River, by Sixth and Seventeenth streets, New York City, amid the scenes of his former strife and turmoil, he spent a few quiet, happy years. A venerable figure was the aged Dutchman, and many who had hated him before now learned to love him.

He and Governor Nicolls became warm friends, and many a time they met and drank wine and told stories at each other's tables. In 1672 this last of the Dutch governors died at the ripe age of eighty years, and his body was laid to rest at the little country church near his home - at a spot now in the heart of the vast metropolis, whose population is ten times greater than that of all the North American colonies of that day.

A short war between England and Holland followed the conquest of Nicolls, and the Dutch sailed up the Thames River and visited fearful punishment on the English, though they did not win back New York. But nine years after the Nicolls victory, we may say by anticipation, the two nations were again at war, and a Dutch fleet reconquered New York and took possession of the Hudson Valley; but by the treaty of peace the next year the country was ceded back to the English, and Dutch rule ceased forever in North America.

At the time of the Nichols conquest the little city at the southern point of Manhattan contained some fifteen hundred people, and the whole province about ten thousand, one third of whom were English. The colony now became a proprietary colony, but as the proprietor afterward became king of England, it was transferred to the list of royal colonies. Nicolls became the first governor. He was able and conscientious. The rights of property, of citizenship, and of religious liberty had been guaranteed in the terms of capitulation. To these were added at a later date equal taxation and trial by jury. In one year the tact and energy of Nicolls had transformed the province practically into an English colony. After four years of successful rule Nicolls returned to England - and a few years later, as he stood by the side of his mater, the Duke of York, at the battle of Solebay, his body was torn to pieces by a cannon ball.

The English inhabitants of New York had gladly welcomed the change of government, and even the Dutch had made little resistance, as they were tired of the tyrannical rule of the company. If there was any bitterness against English rule remaining, it was wholly removed in 1677 by an event of great importance to both hemispheres - the marriage of the leading Hollander of his times, the Prince of Orange, to the daughter of the Duke of York, the two afterward to become joint sovereigns of England as William and Mary.

It is interesting to note here the transition in this colony from Dutch to English rule. It has been claimed by a few writers that our institutions are derived from Dutch more than from English sources; but a little study into this subject will easily prove the contrary. The people over whom Nicolls became governor in 1664 were composed of three separate communities, each different from the others in its government; the Dutch settlers on the Hudson, the settlements on the Delaware, and the English towns that had grown up under Dutch rule on Long Island. Now these English towns during the period of the Dutch supremacy enjoyed far more liberal local government than did the Dutch towns on the Hudson. And in this one respect Kieft, who encouraged popular government among the English towns, was wiser than Stuyvesant, who opposed it.1 These English towns held their popular meetings, chose their officials, and transacted other business after the manner of the New England towns; while in the Dutch towns there were no town meetings, no popular elections, the ruling officials forming a kind of close corporation with power to fill all vacancies and choose their own successors. As to which of these types came nearer being the model for our local government of to-day, no reader need be informed.

When Nicolls became governor he made little immediate change in the general or local government except to adopt English titles for the public officers. To understand this two things must be remembered. First, the charter for New York, true to the Stuart instinct, made the Duke of York absolute master, and it made no provision for the people to take any part in their own government; second, it was practically such a government that Nicolls already found in New Amsterdam. With a ready-made machine at hand, why should he take the trouble to make a new one? He proceeded, however, to frame a code of laws known as "The Duke's Laws." These were intended at first for the English settlers only, but where later extended to all. This code was borrowed largely from the laws of New England, with the two important omissions that there was no provision for the people to take any part in the government, and that there was no religious test for citizenship. It retained many Dutch features, and introduced a few new features. To the Court of Assizes, consisting of governor and council, sheriff and justice, was assigned the legislative and judicial power; but as the sheriff and justices were appointees of the governor, there was no popular government in the plan.

But this plan did not prove permanent. The English portion of the colony clamored for representative government. The agitation continued until 1681, Edmund Andros being then governor, when the English population was ready to break into open rebellion, unless their demand for an assembly be granted. Accordingly the next year the duke promised the people an assembly, and the first one was elected in 1683, while Thomas Dongan was governor. This assembly composed of eighteen men elected by the people, now proceeded to adopt a declaration of rights known as the "Charter of Liberties," by which it declared the representatives of the people coordinate with the governor and council, and that no taxes could be laid without their consent. It also provided that all laws be subject to the duke's approval.

What might have been the fate of this charter under normal conditions we know not, as the conditions were suddenly changed. The duke's royal brother was suddenly carried off by a stroke of apoplexy, and the duke became king of England as James II. New York now became a royal colony, and the new king, who at heart despised popular government, refused to sign the Charter of Liberties, abolished the New York assembly, and sent Andros to govern the colony as consolidated with New England and New Jersey. Andros, with a council of seven men, was to govern nine colonies as a conquered province. We have noticed his career in Boston and need not repeat it here. The fall of his master from the British throne occasioned the immediate fall of Andros; but this did not bring immediate peace to New York. The colony was now about to pass through another exciting experience.

But first, a further word is here in place concerning the sources of our present governmental system. Mr. Douglas Campbell, in two large volumes entitled "The Puritan in England, Holland, and America," has taken great pains to show that we are indebted far more to Dutch than to English sources for our system, and his attempt to prove too much leads the critical reader to believe too little.

It is true that the English race is more nearly related to the Dutch than to any other, and the English language resembles the Dutch language more than any other. It is also true that the Netherlands preceded England in securing religious liberty and in establishing free public schools; that the manufacturing of textile fabrics developed in Flanders earlier than in the island kingdom across the channel, where it grew up later largely through the migration of skilled workmen from the Netherlands; that many thousands of Dutchmen and Flemings, driven from their country by religious wars, made their permanent home in England. From these facts it will be seen that the influence of Netherlands institutions on English civilization must have been great; and it was probably still great on American civilization, because the Dutch immigrants to England nearly all became Puritans, and there is no doubt that Dutch blood coursed in the veins of a large per cent of the New England Puritans.2 No doubt also the Pilgrim Fathers absorbed something from the Dutch during their sojourn in Leyden.

But when all is said on this side it must be added, on the other, that in the seventeenth century English popular self-government was ages in advance of the same in the Netherlands. No better proof of this is needed than a glance at the colony of New York. It was the English towns, even under Dutch jurisdiction, that demanded and received a large measure of self-government; it was the first English governor that extended that great bulwark of Anglo-Saxon liberty, the jury system, to the Dutch settlers, who at first shunned it as a thing to be feared; it was the English population of the colony that clamored for their birthright - an assembly and the power of taxation. During all this period the Dutch settlers in the main were passive in matters of popular government, and but for the coming of the English and the overthrow of Stuyvesant and his nation, New Netherland might have remained as despotic a government as was New France. Moreover, the New England free school system grew, not from Dutch models, but from the inherent character of the Puritan religion. In the face of these facts, how can Mr. Campbell or any one contend that our institutions of to-day are derived from Dutch rather than from English sources?

News of the accession of William and Mary and of the imprisonment of Andros at Boston created a great excitement in New York; and the militia, led by Jacob Leisler, a German merchant, took possession of the government. For two years Leisler, with the aid of his son-in-law, Milborne, governed the colony with vigor and energy. But he offended the aristocracy and the magistrates, who pronounced him a usurper. Meantime he took measures to defend the colony against the French and Indians, who had fallen on the frontier town of Schenectady, had massacred the people, and had burned the town.

The Leisler movement was in part the outgrowth of the anti-Catholic wave that swept over England and her colonies during the reign of James II, and Leisler's vivid imagination greatly magnified the danger of a general religious war. He called for the election of an assembly to vote taxes for the pending war with Canada, but many of the people denied his authority and refused to respond.

Leisler's next step was one that marked the beginning of great things. He called for a meeting in New York of delegates from all the colonies to make preparations for the war, and the seven delegates that met, chiefly from New England, constituted the first colonial congress in America.3 They took counsel concerning the war, which will be noticed in our chapter on Colonial Wars. The clouds were now darkening around the head of Leisler, and his career was almost over.

In 1691 Henry Sloughter was appointed governor, and he sent his lieutenant before him to demand the surrender of the fort. But the lieutenant could not prove his authority, and Leisler refused to surrender. At length, when Sloughter arrived, Leisler yielded to his authority and quiet was soon restored. But Leisler's enemies were determined on his destruction. He and his son-in-law had been cast into prison, and Governor Sloughter, a weak and worthless man, was induced to sign their death warrants while drunk, tradition informs us. Before the governor had fully recovered his senses, Leisler and Milborne were taken from the prison and hanged. Leisler had doubtless been legally in the wrong in seizing the government; but his intentions were undoubtedly good, and his execution, after all danger was past, was little else than political murder, and it created two hostile factions in New York that continued for many years.

With the passing of Leisler the royal government was restored, and the people for the first time secured the permanent right to take part in their government, as in the other colonies, and, as in the others, the assembly steadily gained power at the expense of the governor, The royal governors sent to New York were, for the most part, men without principle or interest in the welfare of the people. A rare exception we find in the Earl of Bellamont, who brief three years at the close of the century as governor of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire were all too brief for the people, who had learned to love him as few royal governors were loved. His successor, Lord Cornbury, was probably the most dissolute rascal ever sent to govern an American colony, not even excepting the infamous Sothel of the Carolinas.

An event of great interest occurred in New York in 1735, known as the Zenger case. Governor Cosby had entered suit before the Supreme Court of New York to obtain a sum of money and had lost. He then removed the judge and thus offended the popular party. Peter Zenger, the publisher of a newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, attacked the governor through its columns and severely criticised his action. The governor was enraged at these attacks, and he ordered the paper burned and the editor arrested for libel.

At the trial, Zenger was defended by Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, the greatest lawyer in America. The justice of the cause and the eloquence of Hamilton won the jury, and resulted in a complete victory for the accused editor. This was the first important victory for the liberty of the press in America, and with little variation this liberty has been held inviolate from that time to the present.

A few years after Zenger's case had been disposed of, New York society was greatly convulsed by the so-called Negro Plot. This was a craze similar to the witchcraft delusion which had swept over Massachusetts half a century before. It had it origin in a general belief that the Spanish Catholic priests, in league with the slave population, were planning to burn the city. The craze spread like an epidemic; the whole community went made, and before the storm abated, twenty-two persons, four of whom were whites, had been hanged, thirteen negroes burnt at the stake, and a large number transported. The craze soon passed away and the people recovered their normal senses. The account of this affair constitutes the most deplorable chapter in the history of New York. It is now believed that no plot to burn the city existed, and that every one who suffered on account of the delusion was innocent.

The province of New York grew steadily to the time of the Revolution. Every decade witnessed the coming of home seekers in large numbers to the valley of the Hudson. French Protestants, Scotch, Irish, Scotch-Irish, refugees from the Rhenish palatinate, and others spread over the beautiful river valleys; but the great majority of the people were English and Dutch. By 1750 the population was probably eighty thousand and this number was more than doubled by the opening years of the Revolution.

New York City was a busy mart indeed, containing some twelve thousand people in 1750, and more than five hundred vessels, great and small, plowed the waters that half surrounded it. The city was the political, social, and business center of the province. Among its leading figures in winter were great landholders of the Hudson Valley and Long Island, who spent their summers on their estates. But the great middle class, composed chiefly of tradesmen of every grade, made up the majority of the population.

US History Overview
US History Guide
America's history is not static. It's fluid. It changes, grows, becomes richer, and more complex when any individual interacts with it.