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Chapter 14

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Dutch and Quaker Colonies
in America

by
John Fiske

published by
Houghton, Mifflin and Company
Boston and New York, 1903

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 16
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. II
p250
Chapter XV
Knickerbocker Society

At the time of the Zenger trial the population of the province of New York had reached 50,000, about one fifth of which was in the city on Manhattan Island. On the east side of the city the growth in half a century was noticeable, though very slow if rated by modern standards. Houses had arisen pretty closely as far up as John Street, and more sparsely as far as Beekman Street. Especially noteworthy was the increase in wharves and docks, quays and shipyards, which came close upon one another all the way From Whitehall to near the site of the Catharine Street ferry. Pearl Street was no longer the river bank, for Water Street had been raised above the waves. Looking across to the Brooklyn shore, you would have seen there a dozen or more wooden farmhouses.

On the west side of the island the aspect of things was still more rural. There was no northerly and southerly thoroughfare west of Broadway, but cross streets were opened as far up as Cortlandt Street, and on the North River were two docks. Up near the present foot of Chambers Street was a garden for popular resort, with a new bowling green or skittles ground. Most of the open country between Cortlandt Street and the village of Sappokanican or Greenwich, an area of more than sixty acres, was then known as the King's Farm. It was the land which the blooming widow Anneke Jans had brought to Dominie Bogardus, and it was long known as the Dominie's Bowery. In 1664 it was confirmed by the Governor Nicolls to Anneke Jans and her heirs. In 1671 five of the p251heirs sold the farm to Governor Lovelace, and in 1674 the Duke of York confiscated it, so that it was the Duke's Farm until 1685, when with James's accession to the throne it became the King's Farm. In Governor Fletcher's time Trinity Church was founded, and in 1705 Queen Anne granted this farm to the church. It happened that one of the sons of Anneke Jans had not joined in the sale to Lovelace, and the heirs of this son claimed that his failure to join invalidated the sale. At first the property was not of great value, but with the growth of the city its value increased enormously, and suits in ejectment were brought against Trinity Church by the heirs who coveted the property. Between 1750 and 1847 not less than sixteen or seventeen such suits were brought, with a persistency which seemed to learn no lessons from defeat. In 1847 Vice-chancellor Sanford decided that, after waiving all other points, the church had acquired a valid title by prescription, and all the adverse claims were vitiated by lapse of time.

Above the Freshwater Pond in 1740 there had been little change since 1680, except that there were a few more country houses along the bowery Lane. While we note the slow rate of growth in the city, we must also bear in mind the limited extent of the province. Its 50,000 inhabitants lived on Long Island and the banks of the Hudson, all save some 2000 Germans who had come in Governor Hunter's time, and had pushed up the Mohawk Valley beyond Schenectady, making settlements at German Flats, Palatine Bridge, and Stone Arabia. Far beyond these p252and quite alone in the wilderness stood the fortified trading-post of Oswego. The territory of the Six Nations, stretching northerly toward the Adirondacks, southerly into the Susquehanna valley, and westward to Lake Erie, was of course claimed by Corlear as protector and overlord; but for the present he had as little control over it as the Grand Turk had over Tripoli. It is important to remember, if we would do justice to the pivotal part played by New York in early American history, that so late as 1776, with a population of 170,000, she ranked only seventh among the thirteen states, while her geographical limits had scarcely changed since 1720. The supreme greatness of New York dates from a period subsequent to the Revolution, and in its origin was closely connected with the westward migration from New England, the settlement of the northwestern states, and the opening of the Erie Canal. In the colonial period the agriculture of New York was considerable, and a great deal of wheat was exported; but the fur trade was always the controlling interest, and was often the source of immense wealth. Nevertheless, inasmuch as New York was preëminently the frontier colony against the French, and as it was made the scene of military operations to a much greater extent than any other colony, it was always necessary to keep up an army. Besides the British regular forces, which were stationed on Manhattan Island, there was a colonial regular army of 2500, and there were more than 15,000 trained militia. These circumstances, as well as the actual frequency of wars between 1690 and 1760, entailed ruinous expense and oppressive taxation, and interfered seriously with the normal growth of the colony. Such a state of things had been to some extent foreseen and dreaded by Andros and Dongan, as it was deplored by the later governors who had to contend with it. One of the worst ills was the chronic affliction of a depreciated paper currency. By the end of the French wars New York had a public debt of £300,000, and the taxation, including direct levies upon real and personal property as well as duties on imports, was an acute annoyance.

p253 It was probably due to the prevalence of warfare that the power of the assembly was somewhat less and the arbitrariness of the governor somewhat greater than in the other colonies. After seventy years of arbitrary rule, representative assemblies and incessant warfare began at just the same time in the citadel of America, with Governor Fletcher. The most important part of the constitutional progress achieved by the assemblies came within the interval of peace between the Treaty of Utrecht and the War of the Austrian Succession. Usually the headquarters of the commanding general were in the city of New York, and various courtly visitors were attracted by the army. More than elsewhere the royal governor had somewhat the air of a sovereign holding court, and the political atmosphere about him was thick and heavy with Toryism. The officials generally were demonstrative in their loyalty, keeping the king's birthday with festivities and speeches. Under such auspices a powerful Tory party was developed in New York, and in the War of Independence it was made to seem all the more powerful in that the Tory Johnsons controlled the military policy of the Long House. Nevertheless the Whig party in New York was also very strong and vigorous, nor was it by any means confined to the lower grades of society. Among the leaders of the Revolutionary party were the Schuylers and Livingstons, Van Rensselaers, Van Cortlandts, Morrises, Alexanders, Clintons, and Jays. It is a common mistake to overrate the strength of New York Toryism. The truth is that both parties were very powerful in their leaders, while beneath there was a surging mass of people with uncertain proclivities, some strongly Whig, some strongly Tory, some independent, some stolidly indifferent to everything outside of private business. The result was seen in excitement and disorder at elections, and occasional violent vicissitudes in party supremacy. In Massachusetts or Virginia you could usually foretell the action of the assembly upon an important question, there was so much homogeneity of thought among the members p254of those purely English communities. But in New York the effects of the few independent thinkers and of the stolid mass were things with which it was difficult to reckon quantitatively. Similar characteristics have distinguished the state of New York down to the present day. The politics of some communities are so swayed by the inert mass of engrained prejudice that independent thinking finds it nearly impossible to reverse the customary verdict. You know beforehand that in these days the vote of Vermont will be Republican and that of Alabama will be Democratic, no matter what are the principles and issues at stake; but in New York an immense majority on one side may be followed the next year by an equally overwhelming majority on the other side. This uncertainty, combined with the great magnitude of its vote, almost enough of itself to determine a national election, has made New York a factor of inestimable value in American history. It has made that state one of the chief safeguards of the republic, and for it we have largely to thank the spirit of cosmopolitanism which has characterized it ever since the days of Peter Minuit. That cosmopolitan spirit, weakening the grasp of local prejudices, leaves the public mind responsive to the needs and exigencies of the time. One of the worst calamities that could happen in our time would be the conversion of New York into a "sure" state; one of the greatest benefits would be the change of Pennsylvania into a perennially "doubtful" state.

Returning to our old Knickerbocker community, we may note that the old antagonism between the Leislerians and the Aristocrats was not parallel to the opposition between Whigs and Tories. Some features of Leislerism were reproduced in the democratic views of Jefferson's extremest followers in the days of the French Revolution. Among our Revolutionary leaders there was aristocracy enough in temper and views, as exemplified in Washington, Schuyler, Jay, Trumbull, and Hancock. Especially in New York we may note the conspicuousness of well-born and p255accomplished leaders as hardly less notable than in Virginia. This fact was an outcome of the social conditions established early in the colonial period.

The tone of colonial New York was always aristocratic. Neither Maryland nor Virginia furnished a much stronger contrast to that peculiar type of New England democracy which was exemplified perhaps most completely in Connecticut. In the latter colony, with its lowest stratum of society far above the peasant type, there were few if any great landed estates or accumulations of wealth in any form. Yet nowhere else in America were so large a proportion of the people in easy circumstances; nowhere was there more comfort and refinement "to the square mile." The relation of landlord and tenant was seldom met with in Connecticut. Education was universal, and the country squire was a much more cultivated person than his contemporary in England, as the country minister was more learned. Self-government by town meeting was ubiquitous, public debts were very unusual, taxation was light, governors as well as assemblies were chosen by the people, and the commonwealth was for all practical purposes as independent of Great Britain as it is to‑day. Connecticut in the eighteenth century was preëminently the home of unpretentious and refined democracy, a "land of steady habits," but with perhaps a little more monotony and provinciality than its neighbours on either side.

In New York, on the other hand, there was a considerable stratum of peasantry, among the Germans and Dutch at least, and in the city there was something of a "populace" of rough water-side characters, discontented artisans, and idlers in tap-rooms. In New York, as in Boston, it was this sort of populace that now and then relieved the tedium of existence by mobs and riots. Yet neither New York nor Boston could be called an unruly town. Between the peasantry and the patroons, as between the populace and the merchant princes, the social interval was very wide. Of the lowest and poorest classes it must p256be said that there were extremely few paupers or beggars. But at the other extreme of society immense fortunes were accumulated; and there was a distinct consciousness of a gulf between high and low which gave to Leislerism certain features that in Connecticut would have been impossible. The relation of landlord and tenant was extremely common. The great manors of the Cortlandts and Van Rensselaers and Livingstons extended over many square miles and were cultivated by a vast number of tenants. Each of these manors had a representative in the assembly; their lords held court-baron and court-leet, very much as in Maryland,1 and could even in some instances inflict capital punishment. On rent-days, twice a year, the tenants came flocking to the manor-house and, after paying their rent in coin or produce, were entertained by the landlord with a barbecue and plentiful draughts of 'Sopus ale.2 These vast estates were held together by primogeniture, usually somewhat qualified by small legacies to the younger sons and the daughters. The prevalence of this manorial system was often cited, and no doubt correctly, as one reason for the slow increase of population in New York; a small farmer would prefer to be a landowner in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, rather than the tenant of a manor on the Hudson. Most of the manorial privileges were swept away during the War of Independence, and the patroons lost their position of political superiority.

As an example of a rural mansion may be cited that of the Schuylers at the Flats, near Albany, as described by Mrs. Grant of Laggan, in her charming "Memoirs of an American Lady." The estate ran along two miles of the western bank of the Hudson, bordered with drooping elm-trees of enormous girth. "On the right you saw the river in all its beauty, there above a mile broad. On the opposite side the view was bounded by steep hills, covered with lofty pines, p257from which a waterfall descended. . . . Opposite to the grounds lay an island, above a mile in length, and above a quarter in breadth, which also belonged to the colonel; exquisitely beautiful it was, and though the haunt I most delighted in, it is not in my power to describe it. . . . Southward, on the confines of an interminable wild, rose two gently sloping eminences, about half a mile from the shore. From each of these a large brook descended, bending through the plain, and having their course marked by the shades of primeval trees and shrubs left there to shelter the cattle when the ground was cleared. On these eminences, in the near neighbourhood and full view of the mansion at the Flats, were two large and well-built dwellings, inhabited by Colonel Schuyler's two younger sons, Peter and Jeremiah. To the eldest was allotted the place inhabited by his father, which, from its lower situation and level surface was called the Flats. . . . They had also a large house in Albany, which they occupied occasionally."

The mansion at the Flats "was a large brick house of two or rather three stories (for there were excellent attics), besides a sunk story, finished with the exactest neatness. p258The lower floor had two spacious rooms, with large light closets; on the first there were three rooms, and in the upper one four. Through the middle of the house was a very wide passage, with opposite front and back doors, which in summer admitted a stream of air peculiarly grateful to the languid senses. It was furnished with chairs and pictures like a summer parlour. Here the family usually sat in hot weather, when there were no ceremonious strangers. . . . The mirrors, the paintings, the china, but above all the state bed, were considered as the family Teraphim, secretly worshipped and only exhibited on very rare occasions. . . . The rooms were shut up to keep the flies, which in that country are an absolute nuisance, from spoiling the furniture. Another motive was that they might be pleasantly cool when opened for company. This house had also two appendages common to all those belonging to persons in easy circumstances there. One was a large portico at the door, with a few steps leading up to it, and floored like a room; it was open at the sides, and had seats all around. Above was either a slight wooden roof, painted like an awning, or a covering of lattice-work, over which a transplanted wild vine spread its luxuriant leaves and numerous clusters. These, through small and rather too acid till sweetened by the frost, had a beautiful appearance. What gave an air of liberty and safety to these rustic porticoes, which always produced in my mind a sensation of pleasure that I know not how to define, was the number of little birds domesticated there. For their accommodation there was a small shelf built round, where they nestled, safe from the touch of slaves and children, who were taught to regard them as the good genii of the place, not to be disturbed with impunity."

The protection which these little birds bestowed "was of more importance than any inhabitant of Britain can imagine. . . . The insect population is numerous beyond belief. . . . These minute aerial foes are more harassing than the terrible inhabitants of the forest and p259more difficult to expel.3 It is only by protecting these little winged allies, who attack them in their own element, that the conqueror of the lion and tamer of the elephant can hope to sleep in peace, or eat his meals unpolluted. . . .

"At the back of the large house was a smaller and lower one, so joined to it as to make the form of a cross. There one or two lower and smaller rooms below, and the same number above, afforded a refuge to the family during the rigours of winter, when the spacious summer rooms would have been intolerably cold, and the smoke of prodigious wood fires would have sullied the elegantly clean furniture. Here too was a sunk story, where the kitchen was immediately below the eating parlour, and increased the general warmth of the house. In summer the negroes resided in slight outer kitchens, where food was drest for the family. Those who wrought in the fields often had their simple dinner cooked without, and ate it under the shade of a great tree.

"One room in the greater house was open for the reception of company; the rest were bed-chambers for their accommodation, while the domestic friends of the family occupied neat little bedrooms in the attics, or in the winter house. This house contained no drawing-room; that was an unheard‑of luxury. The winter rooms had carpets: the lobby had oil-cloth painted in lozenges, to imitate blue and white marble. The best bedroom was hung with family portraits, some of which were admirably executed; and in the eating-room were some fine scripture paintings. . . .

"The house fronted the river, on the brink of which, p260under shades of elm and sycamore, ran the great road towards Saratoga, Stillwater, and the northern lakes. A little simple avenue of morella cherry trees, enclosed with a white rail, led to the road and river, not three hundred yards distant. Adjoining to this, on the south side, was an enclosure subdivided into three parts, of which the first was a small hayfield, opposite the south end of the house; the next, not so long, a garden; and the third, by far the largest, an orchard. These were surrounded by simple deal fences.

"Adjoining to the orchard was the most spacious barn I ever beheld, . . . at least a hundred feet long and sixty wide. The roof rose to a great height in the midst, and sloped down till it came within ten feet of the ground, when the walls commenced; which, like the whole of this vast fabric, were formed of wood. It was raised three feet from the ground by beams resting on stone; and on p261these beams was laid a massive oak floor. Before the door was a large sill, sloping downwards, of the same materials. About twelve feet in breadth, on each side of this capacious building were divided off for cattle; on one side ran a manger, at the above-mentioned distance from the wall, the whole length of the building, with a rack above it; on the others were stalls for the other cattle. . . . The cattle and horses stood with their hinder parts to the wall, and their heads projecting towards the threshing floor. There was a prodigious large box or open chest in one side built up, for holding the corn after it was thrashed; and the roof, which was very lofty and spacious, was supported by large cross-beams; from one to the other of these was stretched a great number of long poles, so as to form a sort of open loft, on which the whole rich crop was laid up. The floor of those parts of the barn, which answered the purposes of a stable and cow-house, was made of thick slab deals, laid loosely over the supporting beams. And the mode of cleaning those places was by turning the boards and permitting the dung and litter to fall into the receptacles left open below for the purpose. . . . In the front of this vast edifice there were prodigious folding doors, and two others that opened behind."4

Mrs. Grant's description of Albany is too much to our present purpose to be omitted: "One very wide and long street lay parallel to the river, the intermediate space between it and the shore being occupied by gardens. A small, steep hill rose above the centre of the town, on which stood a fort, intended (but very ill-adapted) for the defence of the place and of the neighbouring country. From the foot of this hill another street was built, sloping pretty rapidly down till it joined the one before mentioned. . . . This street was still wider than the other; it was only paved on each side, the middle being occupied by public edifices. These consisted of a market-place, a guard-house, a town hall, and the English and Dutch churches. The English church, belonging to the Episcopal persuasion and in the diocese of the Bishop of London, stood at the foot of the hill, at the upper end of the street. The Dutch church was situated at the bottom of the descent where the street terminated. Two irregular streets, not so broad but equally long, ran parallel to those, and a few even ones opened between them. . . . This city was a kind of semi-rural establishment; every house had its garden, well, and a little green behind; before every door a tree was planted, rendered interesting by being coeval with some beloved member of the family; many of their trees were of a prodigious size and extraordinary beauty, but without regularity, every one planting the kind that best pleased him, or which he thought would afford the most agreeable shade to the open portico at his door, which was surrounded by seats, and ascended by a few steps. It was in these that each domestic group was seated in summer evenings to enjoy the balmy twilight or serenely clear moonlight. Each family had a cow, fed in a common pasture at the end of the town. In the evening they returned all together, of their own accord, with their tinkling bells hung at their necks, along the wide and grassy street, to their wonted sheltering trees, to be milked. . . . At one door were young matrons, at another the elders of the people, at a third the youths and maidens, gaily chatting or singing together, while the children played around the trees, or waited by the cows for the chief ingredient of their frugal supper, which they generally ate sitting on the steps in the open air. . . .

At the further end of the town was a fertile plain along the river, three miles in length and near a mile broad. This was all divided into lots, where every inhabitant raised Indian corn sufficient for the food of two or three slaves (the greatest number that each family ever possessed), and for his horses, pigs, and poultry; their flour and other grain they purchased from farmers in the vicinity. Above the town, a long stretch to the westward was occupied first by sandy hills, on which grew bilberries of uncommon size and flavour in prodigious quantities; beyond rise heights of a poor p263hungry soil, thinly covered with stunted pines, or dwarf oak. Yet in this comparatively barren tract there were several wild and picturesque spots, where small brooks, running in deep and rich bottoms, nourished on their banks every vegetable beauty. There some of the . . . settlers had cleared the luxuriant wood from these charming little glens, and built neat cottages for their slaves, surrounded with little gardens and orchards, sheltered from every blast, wildly picturesque and richly productive. . . . One of their sequestered vales was in my time inhabited by a hermit. He was a Frenchman, and did not seem to inspire much veneration among the Albanians. They imagined, or had heard, that he retired to that solitude in remorse for some fatal duel in which he had been engaged; and considered him an idolator because he had an image of the Virgin in his hut. I think he retired to Canada at last; but I remember being ready to worship him for the p264sanctity with which my imagination invested him, and being cruelly disappointed because I was not permitted to visit him."5

In the middle of the eighteenth century Albany was much more distinctively Dutch than the city of New York, which was so cosmopolitan. In general Dutch habits held their own with much more conservatism in towns like Esopus, or Schenectady, or Flatbush, than in the centre of travel and traffic. With some Flatbush details we may complete our sketch of the Dutch country house. Ordinarily it had not three stories, like the Schuyler mansion, but was a low and rambling affair, covering much territory but needing few stairs. It was usually built of brick. In the earlier times the front roof swept down without break from ridgepole to eaves and beyond, so as to cover a veranda, while the much longer back roof sometimes came within eight feet of the ground. Sometimes in the front were dormer windows. About the middle of the eighteenth century the hipped roof with dormer windows came into vogue. From tin spouts at the end of the gutters the clear rain water fell into tubs or casks. It was not unusual to have a projecting beam from the gable end of the spacious garret, so that heavy articles might be hoisted into it with tackle, as is often seen in Holland to this day.6 The shutters were usually of solid wood, with a crescent-shaped aperture near the top, and held back when open by a piece of iron shaped like a letter S. Instead of the huge central chimney of New England houses, there were usually two broad and stately chimneys, one on each gable end. The Dutch front door was almost always divided into an upper and a lower half, so that when the lower half was shut the upper half served the purposes of an open window. The upper half when shut was usually lighted with a large pair of glass bulls'-eyes. Quaint p265knockers and spoon-shaped latches of iron or polished brass were the outfit of the door. The spacious "stoop" outside, with its long seats cosily facing each other, was a very important adjunct to the house. In summer time it fulfilled the functions of family sitting-room and reception-room; neighbours gathered there and talked politics and gossip amid the fragrance of tobacco smoke.

In the interiors of these Dutch houses the heavy oak beams which supported the upper floor often projected below the ceiling of the room underneath, a pleasing architectural feature. In the humbler houses a plain projecting board, known as a "chair rail," ran round the plaster walls about three feet above the floor; but panelled wainscots were not very uncommon, and sometimes a wainscoting of tiles might be seen. The jamb of the enormous fireplace was usually faced with blue or pink tiles, upon which were often represented scenes from the Bible. In winter time the fireside played a part similar to that of the stoop in warm weather. The one in the dining-room was likely to be the place of chief resort. Its dancing flames lighted up the china and silver in the cupboard opposite, and the moon's p266face on the tall clock in the corner, and afforded enough illumination for a game of backgammon or dominoes on the cherry dining-table, though many worthy Dutch families esteemed such diversions, even to the noble chess, as fit only for alehouse parlours. The same flickering light, eked out perhaps by a couple of dip candles, sufficed for grandma with her knitting, beside the chintz-curtained window in her low rush-seated chair with bright red cushion. Other chairs in the room were of mahogany, high-backed, with claw feet, their broad seats covered with brocade. Often, however, the chairs were of painted wood and rush-work, and the table of deal, and the family living-room the ample kitchen. In the latter case there was usually a separate back kitchen for the servants, who were likely to be negro slaves.

The deep dark cellar, with its coolish and even temperature, was for much more than half the year a storage-place for provisions. The farmers of New York raised upon their own farms the greater part of the food which they consumed, and even in the city, where orchards, kitchen-gardens, and hen-coops were not yet uncommon, there was no such complete dependence upon markets as in our time. A large part of the autumn work was the preparation of the stores that were to be put away in the spacious cellar. The packing of butter in firkins and pickled pork in barrels, the smoking of hams and bacon, the corning of beef rounds and briskets, the chopping of sausage-meat and head-cheese, the trying of lard, the careful and dainty salting of mackerel and other fish, — made it a busy time for all the household. In the cellar might be found all these good things, with kegs of soused pigs' feet, stone jars of pickles, barrels of red and green apples, bins heaped high with potatoes, parsnips, and turnips; along with barrels of vinegar, cider, and ale, and canty brown jugs of rum. In the houses of the wealthier sort there was also plenty of wine, either of the claret family or some kind of sack, which was a generic name covering sherries, Canaries, and Madeiras. For your new-fangled hothouse notions of p267"teetotalism" would have been quite unintelligible to the farmer or burgher of those healthy days of abundant and breezy activity out‑of-doors. In the Dutch cupboard or on the sideboard always stood the gleaming decanter of cut glass or the square high-shouldered magnum with its aromatic schnapps.7

In the bedrooms, or sometimes in an entry way, you would come here and there upon a long deep chest of cherry or oak, filled with rolls of homespun linen, or with blankets and coverlets. A different kind of foresight was then needed from that of the present days, when all manner of shops are so accessible. Large quantities of linen were spun and woven into pieces, from which table-cloths, sheets, and garments could be cut when wanted. A bride's trousseau was not ordered all at once from fashionable modistes and milliners, but was taken from family stores of silks and cambrics and laces that years had accumulated. p268Chests were therefore indispensable, and tall cases of drawers were very common. A very beautiful piece of furniture was the secretary or covered writing-desk, with drawers below; it was usually made of mahogany adorned with polished brass, and it was apt to contain secret drawers or pigeon-holes, where gold, coins, or jewels, or valuable papers could be hidden.

The bedstead was almost always the kingly "four-poster," with its feather-beds resting upon a straw mattress supported by tight cords. It was draped with white dimity curtains and coverlet, or, perhaps, instead of dimity a kind of chintz was used, with vines and birds and flowers in bright colours. The legs of the bedstead were so long that there was plenty of room beneath for the low children's bed which was kept there during the day and trundled out at bedtime. In the days before Satan had invented hot air furnaces and steam radiators, it was apt to be cold in the bedroom on winter nights. Sometimes water froze in the ewer; and at such times, in spite of Sergeant Buzfuz,a there were those who did trouble themselves about the brass warming-pan, filled with glowing embers, which was thrust p269here and there between the linen sheets to take off the chill.8

p270 In general, so far as concerned the homestead with its equipments, the style of living in colonial New York was one of much comfort with little display. But when we come to the subject of dress, the case was somewhat different. In all parts of the world, and in all ages down to the present, display has been the primary motive in dress, and considerations of comfort have been distinctly secondary. Of late years marked improvement has been shown, and possibly in the endeavour to subordinate display, too little heed has been given to aesthetic requirements. Early in the eighteenth century the streets of New York were gorgeous with costumes. One eminent citizen is described as clad in a long-skirted coat and knee-breeches of cinnamon cloth trimmed with silver lace; the coat is lined with sky-blue silk, the hose are of dove-coloured silk, and the shoes have large silver buckles. Over his enormous wig, elaborately curled and scented with ambergris, he wears a wide-brimmed hat of black felt with a band of gold lace; through the opening of his red satin waistcoat finely bestrewn with threads of gold peep the dainty ruffles of the white Holland shirt; and at his left side, fastened with a bright scarlet sword-knot, hangs a diamond-hilted sword. And as for the ladies, with blue-and‑gold atlas gowns "laced over very tight stays," showing glimpses of black velvet petticoat trimmed with silver, and not falling so low as to hide the crimson stockings and fine Morocco shoes,9 we should soon lose ourselves if we were to try to describe more closely the dress-stuffs of the time, with their weird names, — "chilloes, betelees, deribands, tapsiels, surbettees, sannoes, gilongs, mulmuls, and cushlashes" that were familiar enough over the shop counters p271in the days when New York was so near to the Indian Ocean.

Our fancies that something of the same undefinable but potent charm for which New York is to‑day so eminent among the world's great bustling cities must already have characterized it when its roof-trees sheltered but ten thousand souls. Whether it be in the journals of visitors, or in private correspondence, we always get the impression of a lively and cheerful town, where people like to come, and from which they are sorry to go away. In the old days, indeed, there was a restful sense of leisure which the rapid pace of modern life has ruthlessly destroyed. For architecture, for other fine arts in their various forms, for learning, for intellectual stimulus of whatever sort, the New York of Burnet's time could not be compared with its mother-city, Amsterdam, to say nothing of such centres of civilization as Venice, or Florence, or Paris; but there was about the little city an air of dignity and refinement which scholars and men of the world found attractive. In 1668 Governor Lovelace wrote, in a letter to Charles II, "I find some of these people the breeding of courts, and I cannot conceive how such is acquired." The explanation was simple enough; the manners of an old and refined civilization had been brought from Europe and retained under the new conditions. Among the settlers who came from the Netherlands there were so many of excellent character, with advantages of education and social position, as to set the standard for the community. The English and French immigrations brought many persons of similar character. Nearly all, outside of the official class and the learned professions, were merchants or tradesmen, among whom there was an abounding appreciation of the amenities of life; while the continual meeting of different nationalities and different mental habits preserved the cosmopolitan spirit and prevented the growth of such self-centred provincialism as has always been a besetting weakness of Boston.

In the olden times society in New York, as elsewhere, got p272up with the dawn, took its dinner at noon, and devoted its evenings to recreation. Sleighing parties in winter and fishing picnics in summer were common amusements; and there were private theatricals, as well as balls and concerts. The first theatre in America was established in Beekman Street, about the middle of the eighteenth century, without serious opposition. There were more holidays than in other parts of America, and for this we have doubtless to thank the Dutch. While in New England we had little beside the annual Thanksgiving and Fast days, and frowned upon Maypoles and Christmas puddings, the Dutch kept the church festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, as well as the heathen St. Valentine's and New Year's, and Pinkster, which was a day of June picnics. As for the urchins, they made life hideous with gunpowder and fish-horns on Guy Fawkes's day until the events of 1776 provided them with the Fourth of July instead.

New York has always been preëminent for the excellence of its clubs, and this feature in its social life had become marked as early as Bellomont's time. Pleasant decorum and cordiality ruled in these clubs then as now. At first they were usually domiciled in some tavern or coffee-house, and of these there were many and good ones. At the time of the Zenger trial the most fashionable inn was the Black Horse, kept by Robert Todd, vintner, in William Street, and thither society was wont to repair, not only for a good dinner and a convivial glass, but for concerts, balls, and public receptions. Several of the taverns and coffee-houses took in the newspapers from the different colonies and from London.

Of reading more profitable and solid than the newspaper there was not a great deal in colonial New York. The first public library, with about 1600 volumes, was established in 1729, in a room in the City Hall on Wall Street. It was known as the Corporation p273Library until 1754, when it was merged in the New York Society Library, founded in that year. In the Dutch period there were some good schools, but these declined under English rule. In 1757 the historian William Smith exclaimed: "What a contrast in everything respecting the cultivation of science between this and the colonies first settled by the English. . . . Our schools are of the lowest order; the instructors want instruction; . . . and the evidences of bad taste, both as to thought and language, are visible in all our proceeding, public and private."10 This William Smith, son of the accomplished lawyer in the Zenger case, was himself one of the few literary men of the province, the author of a "History of New York to the Year 1732," which is sturdy and racy, but so full of partisan bitterness that Smith him self admits it "deserves not the name of a history." As literature, however, it has decided merits. The only other literary name which needs to be mentioned before the Stamp Act period is that of Cadwallader Colden, son of a Scottish parson in Berwickshire. He was born in 1687 and educated at the University of Edinburgh, after which he studied medicine and began the practice of it in Philadelphia. In 1718 Governor Hunter made him surveyor-general of the province of New York. The next year Colden bought a fine estate in Orange County, some 3000 acres, and built a house on it. There he lived for many years in rural quiet, devoting him self to the physical sciences and to history, and keeping up a correspondence with the most eminent scholars and philosophers of Europe. At the time of the Stamp Act he was lieutenant-governor of New York, acting as governor. The work by which he is best known is his "History of the Five Nations."

No outline of the Knickerbocker social life can pass without mention the lower strata of society, the servile classes. These were the same in kind as in Virginia, indented white servants and negro slaves. I have discussed them so elaborately p274in that connection that I need not here repeat myself.11 In New York, as in Virginia, the indented white servants were either, 1, convicts shipped from Great Britain, to get rid of them; 2, poor men and women kidnapped and sold into servitude; or, 3, redemptioners, who paid their passage by servile labour after arriving in this country. As the great landed estates of New York were mostly worked by free tenant farmers, the demand for servile labour was very much smaller than in any of the southern colonies, and the indented white servants were much less numerous.

As for negro slavery in New York, it never seemed to be an economic necessity, as in the southern colonies. The interests of no great staple industry seemed inseparably bound up with it, as was the case in Virginia with tobacco, in South Carolina with rice and indigo. The abolition of slavery was therefore easily accomplished by the act of 1785, which declared that from that time forth all children born of slave parents should be born free.12

Negro slaves were brought to New Amsterdam as early as 1625; they were bought and sold during the entire colonial period at an average price, whether for men or for women, of from $150 to $250. They were employed in all kinds of service, agricultural and domestic, as ploughmen and gardeners, or as cooks and porters and valets, but children were seldom consigned to their care, as with southern "mammies." Ladies might be seen carried about town in sedan chairs borne by coloured men, or in coaches with negro drivers and footmen. They served in almost every menial capacity. In the city they never, perhaps, formed so large a portion of the population as in 1746, when a census showed 2444 slaves in a total of 11,723. It appears that the slaves were generally not overworked or ill-treated. Mrs. Grant p276tells us that among the people of Albany "even the dark aspect of slavery was softened into a smile."13 Manumission was not infrequent; the slave was often allowed to choose his home among the heirs of his deceased master; and it is said that "if a slave was dissatisfied with his master, it was very common for the master to give him a paper on which his age, his price, etc., were written, and allow him to go and look for some one with whom he would prefer to live, and who would be willing to pay the price stated."14 When the purchaser was found, the master would hand over the slave and take the money, and we may hope that Cuffee found no reason to regret the change.

Even in these kindly circumstances, however, slaves now and then ran away. The statute-book, moreover, shows that they were regarded with some fear by their masters. They were prohibited from gathering in groups of more than four, and they were forbidden to carry guns, swords, or clubs, under penalty of ten lashes at the whipping-post. One curious act provided that no slave could go about the streets after nightfall anywhere south of the Collect without a lighted lantern, "so as the light thereof may be plainly seen."15

In 1712, during Governor Hunter's administration, there was an attempt at a slave insurrection. A party of negroes, armed with guns, knives, and hatchets, assembled one evening, in an orchard near Maiden Lane, and set fire to an outhouse. At sight of the flames people came running to the spot, and as fast as they came were shot or slashed. Nine had been killed and six wounded when a squad of soldiers came upon the scene and captured the murderers. Many negroes were arrested, and twenty-one were executed in ways intended to strike terror. One was broken on the wheel, and several were burned alive at the stake, while the rest were hanged.16

p277 The recollection of this affair may have had something to do with the virulence of the panic that was brought in 1741 by what has been called the "Great Negro Plot." This was a melancholy instance of panic and delusion, not wholly unmingled with fraud, and has often been likened to the witchcraft delusion at Salem Village in 1692. It might also be compared with Titus Oates's miserable "Popish Plot," inasmuch as it was a symptom of a wave of fierce anti-Catholic sentiment. To the generally mild and tolerant policy of New York we have now and then had occasion to note some exceptions. At the close of the seventeenth century, when the Counter-reformation was still showing such formidable strength in the giant war between Louis XIV and William III, the dread of Catholics showed itself again and again in the legislative acts of Protestant countries. For example, in 1700 it was enacted in New York that any Popish priest discovered within the province after the first day of November of that year should be seized and imprisoned for life; and every such person who should escape and be found at large, the penalty should be the gallows. Any person convicted of aiding or concealing such priest should be set in the pillory for three days and give bonds at the discretion of the court.17 This act was really and avowedly called forth by the persistent intrigues of Jesuit missionaries with the Long House. Under such circumstances it was not strange that a Catholic priest should be deemed an "incendiary and disturber of the public peace." Considerations of a religious character had very little to do with the matter.

In the year 1741 this act had not yet been repealed, and the feelings that prompted it were once more stimulated into activity by the war with Spain that had been going on for p278two years. In 1740 the fleet of Admiral Vernon had returned from Cartagena, discomfited by yellow fever rather than the prowess of the enemy. Preparations were now going on in the colonies for an attack upon Havana. A letter from Governor Oglethorpe in Georgia mentioned a rumour that Catholic priests were to be furtively introduced into all the English colonies in the guise of dancing-masters, and at some concerted signal were to set fire to the principal towns, by way of forestalling and crippling the proposed expedition against Cuba.

Shortly before this time a large number of negroes, including many savages lately kidnapped from Africa, had been brought to New York from Spanish America; and they seem to have aroused a feeling of dread, both for their own uncouthness and on account of the region from which they came. On the last day of February, 1741, a house in Broad Street was robbed of some silverware, coins, and pieces of linen. Suspicion fell upon a negro in the owner's employ; the negro was proved to be in the habit of meeting other negroes at Hughson's Tavern on the North River; a search was made, and some of the stolen articles were found in a pig-pen behind the house.

This Hughson's was a low place; among its inmates was an indentured white servant, Mary Burton, an abandoned girl, only sixteen years of age, who had been brought over from some English bridewell. Arrested on suspicion of complicity with the thieves, this creature sought to screen herself by charges and insinuations implicating her master and his family as well as sundry negroes. She found herself suddenly invested with an importance which she was cunning enough to seek to increase by appearing to know much more than she had yet told.

On the 18th of March, owing it is thought to the carelessness of a plumber, a fire broke out in Fort George18 and the governor's house was consumed, with some other buildings. p280Within another week Sir Peter Warren's chimney took fire, but no harm was done. Then a fire broke out in a storehouse, which was traced to the careless dropping of ashes from a tobacco pipe. Three days afterward the hay in a cow-stable was found burning; there was an alarm and the fire was put out, but people had scarcely left the scene, when flames were descried shooting up in a loft over a kitchen where negroes were known to lodge. "The next morning coals were found under a haystack near a coach-house on Broadway. The following day a fire broke forth from the house of Sergeant Burns opposite the fort; and a few hours later, the roof of Mr. Hilton's house near the Fly Market was discovered on fire, and, on the same afternoon, Colonel Frederick Philipse's storehouse was all ablaze."19

From such alarming incidents there was nothing at all strange in the rapid genesis of a fierce and bloody panic. On April 11 the common council offered £100 reward, with a full pardon, to any conspirator who should tell what he knew about plot for burning the city. This offer elicited a "confession" from Mary Burton, who swore that, in meetings at Hughson's Tavern, certain negroes had matured such an incendiary plot, as the first step in a revolution which was to make Hughson king and a darky named Caesar governor. She further averred that Colonel Philipse's Cuffy used to say that "some people had too much and others too little, but the time was coming when master Philipse would have less and Cuff more." The only white people present at these meetings besides herself were Hughson and his wife and a loose woman named Carey. After a while, however, she "confessed" that a poor schoolteacher, John Ury, who was known to be a Catholic, had taken part in the affair. The result of these disclosures was a reign of terror which lasted until September. In the course of it, Hughson and his wife, the teacher Ury, and the woman Carey were hanged, and twenty other p281white persons were imprisoned. One hundred and fifty-four negroes were arrested, of whom fourteen were burned alive at the stake, and eighteen were hanged. Throughout the affair Mary Burton seems to have played the part which at Salem was shared among the "afflicted children," and just as at Salem, when the panic was clearly waning, the end was hastened by her aiming the accusations too high and striking at persons of consequence. The wretched girl received £100, the wages of her perjury. But after the terror was over, it began to be doubted, and has ever since been doubted, whether the "Great Negro Plot" was anything more than a figment of the imagination.20

It is only a shallow criticism, however, and utterly devoid of historic appreciation, that would cite this melancholy affair in disparagement of the good people of colonial New York. The panic, as we have seen, arose very naturally from the circumstances, and it was not strange that some of the strongest and clearest heads in the community were turned by it. He would be a rash man who should venture to predict that even in the most enlightened communities in the world a recurrence of such horrors has forever ceased to be possible. It is pleasant to add that by a wholesome revulsion of popular feeling, soon after the panic of 1741, a sentiment was aroused in favour of the negroes; within ten years they were admitted to the franchise, and New York soon became honourably distinguished among the states that actively endeavoured to loosen their chains and insure their welfare.


The Author's Notes:

1 See Old Virginia and Her Neighbours, Illustrated Edition, 131‑134.

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2 At Esopus and elsewhere the water of the Hudson has always made a light ale of fine body and extremely delicate flavour.

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3 A London newspaper of 1710 thus speaks of the mosquito: "The New York people are greatly troubled with a little insect which follows the hay that is made in the salt meadows, or comes home with the cows in the evening. This little animalcule can disfigure most terribly a person's face in a single night. The skin is sometimes so covered over with small blisters from their stings, that people are ashamed to appear in public." Mrs. Lamb's History of the City of New York, II.490. Among the agreeable features of life in England are the absence of mosquitoes and scarcity of flies.

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4 Memoirs of an American Lady, I.142, 143, 147, 164‑168, 171‑173, 176‑178.

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5 Memoirs of an American Lady, I.44‑49.

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6 I am indebted for many details to Mrs. Vanderbilt's Social History of Flatbush, New York, 1881, an excellent and scholarly work; but the absence of an index to such a book is an unpardonable sin.

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7 In connection with the subject of eating and drinking it may be interesting to cite the caterer's bill for the banquet given by the corporation of New York to Lord Cornbury, upon his arrival as governor, in 1704.

1704. The Mayor, Aldermen, etc., Dr.

£ s. d.
Dec. 19 To a piece of beef and cabbage 0 7 6
To a dish of tripe and cowheel 0 6 0
To a leg of pork and turnips 0 8 3
To 2 puddings 0 14 6
To a surloyn of beef 0 13 6
To a turkey and onions 0 9 0
To a leg mutton and pickles 0 6 0
To a dish chickens 0 10 6
To minced pyes 1 4 0
To fruit, cheese, bread, etc. 0 7 6
To butter for sauce 0 7 9
To hire of 2 negroes to assist 0 6 0
To dressing dinner, etc. 1 4 0
To 31 bottles wine 3 2 0
To beer and syder 0 12 0
10 18 6

This is cited from Todd's City of New York, p224.

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8 For further information concerning the contents of the house, I cite from an appraisement in 1792 the following list, in which the pound sterling has approximately its present value:—

£ s. d.
25 pewter plates, 1s. each 1 5 0
37 earthen plates 0 10 0
9 pewter dishes, 4s. each 1 16 0
8 earthen dishes, 2s. 6d. each 1 0 0
2 waffle-irons, 6s. each 0 12 0
1 musket 0 16 0
1 saddle and bridle 3 0 0
10 keelers (wooden milk-tubs) 1 0 0
6 spinning wheels, 12s. each 3 12 0
1 pair kitchen andirons 0 8 0
2 bookcases, 1s. 6d. each 0 3 0
1 bed, bedstead, and curtains 10 0 0
1 dining-table 16 0 0
1 looking-glass 1 10 0
15 Windsor chairs, 6s. each 4 10 0
12 rush-bottom chairs, 2s. each 1 4 0
4 mahogany chairs, 8s. each 1 12 0
8 old chairs, 6d. each 0 4 4
1 mahogany dining-table 4 0 0
1 writing-desk 0 10 0
1 cupboard 0 16 0
1 large chest 0 16 0
1 looking-glass 1 0 0
1 large Dutch cupboard 4 0 0
1 bed, bedstead, and curtains 15 0 0
1 wild-cherry dining-table 1 0 0
1 looking-glass 1 5 0
1 eight-day clock 14 0 0
1 looking-glass 5 0 0
1 desk and bookcase 20 0 0
1 mahogany tea-table 2 0 0
1 bed, bedstead, and curtains 10 0 0
1 Dutch Bible 2 0 0
1 English dictionary 1 0 0
1 parcel of books 7 0 0
6 sets of china cups and saucers 3 0 0
27 Delft plates 0 13 6
1 silver tankard 15 0 0
1 silver sugar-cup 14 0 0
1 silver milk-pot 4 0 0
13 silver table-spoons 13 0 0

This is cited from Mrs. Vanderbilt's Social History of Flatbush, pp81, 82.

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9 Todd, The City of New York, pp207, 208, 230.

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10 Smith's History of New York, I.328, II.379.

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11 See Old Virginia and Her Neighbours, Illustrated Edition, II.159‑185.

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12 See my Critical Period of American History, Illustrated Edition, p76. The census of 1820 showed 10,088 slaves in a total population of 1,372,111; that of 1830 showed only 75 slaves; that of 1840 only 4.

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13 Memoirs of an American Lady, I.51.

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14 Social History of Flatbush, p249.

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15 Morgan, Slavery in New York, p13.

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16 Colonial Documents, V.341, 346, 356, 367, 371, 525.

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17 Colonial Laws of New York, I.428. About the same time the law was passed in Rhode Island, debarring Catholics from the franchise; see Arnold's History of Rhode Island, II.490‑494. In Massachusetts a Romish priest was liable to imprisonment for life.

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18 So the old Fort Amsterdam was called after the accession of George I.

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19 Mrs. Lamb's History of the City of New York, II.582.

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20 Dunlap's History of New York, chapter XXI; Smith's History of New York, II.70, 71; Colonial Documents, VI.186, 196, 199, 201‑203; Horsmanden's Negro Plot, New York, 1744.


Thayer's Note:

a A character in Dickens' Pickwick Papers, such as only Dickens could invent; for his speech with the aside about warming-pans, see Chapter 34 of that book at Classic Reader.


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