Devil's Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery
by Alice Sparberg Alexiou
St. Martin's Press, July 2018
By Alice Sparberg Alexiou
The settlement was to be called New Amsterdam, and it would serve as headquarters of New Netherland, which stretched from New England to Virginia. The Dutch had claimed the vast territory — a claim the English refused to recognize — after Henry Hudson in 1609 sailed the Half Moon up the river that would bear his name.
Hudson and subsequent explorers described the newly discovered land as a Garden of Eden filled with all sorts of resources ready for the picking: fish and oysters; berries, grapes, and nuts; and forests dense with timber, supplies of which were by then dwindling in Europe. The Indians grew corn and squash. There was also an abundance of game for hunting as well as otters and beavers to supply fur, which Europeans especially coveted. On the Continent, fur, like trees, had been overharvested. It was the mention of fur that had most caught the attention of investors in Holland, leading to the incorporation of the Dutch West India Company. But so far there were only a handful of people — perhaps a hundred adventurous immigrants from the Netherlands — who were engaged in fur trading. They lived scattered in the wilderness along the Hudson near the Mohican tribes who sold the foreigners pelts, which were then shipped downriver, to be loaded onto ships that crossed the Atlantic to Holland. The intersection of the Hudson and the Atlantic, then, was a natural hub where business could be transacted, including privateering, the Company’s biggest source of income, against Spanish ships en route to the Caribbean.
copyright 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
Fredericks placed the footprint for the fort on the spot that is now the old Custom House, just behind Bowling Green. Around it, he put the houses. But there was no room there for all those farms. So he did some exploring in the sticky summer heat (for which Manhattan remains famous) and discovered footpaths that the Indians used at the shore, right behind where he was planning the fort. (This is now the foot of Pearl Street, so named because of all those lovely oysters that once proliferated in the waters around New York.) One of the paths veered east through the woods along what is now Park Row and up to Chatham Square. It then turned north, parallel to the other branch, and continued into the wilderness. To the west of the path and surrounded by hills (where now stand the state supreme court and parts of Chinatown) was a huge freshwater pond, its surface in places covered with lily pads. Between the hills stretched flat, marshy terrain teeming with aquatic life: red-winged blackbirds, coots, herons, bullfrogs, beavers. Several streams undulated through the flat areas, flowing into and then out of the pond with the tides, and then draining into each of the great rivers on either side of Manhattan. Indians in canoes traversed the island via the streams, which provided them with shortcuts to the rivers. The rivers were in fact tidal estuaries and therefore consisted of saltwater, so the streams, too, were salty at high tide when they were running toward the pond. But by the time they flowed into it, they were running fresh. Sometimes, in spring or high tide, the marshy, wet terrain around the pond was completely flooded.
Imagine Fredericks’s awe, walking along the path in the heat of summer and taking in this unspoiled land. Except for the sounds of nature — the bullfrogs croaking, the loons moaning to each other, the leaves rustling in the breeze — there was silence. He realized that he had found the perfect location for the farms — bouweries. He would place them along the footpath, six on each side.
The bouweries varied in area from about 50 to 200 acres. Fredericks designated the northernmost one — 120 acres of forest in the middle of which St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery now stands on Second Avenue and Stuyvesant Street — for the company director. Fredericks considered the proximity of the Manhate settlement a real bonus: the native peoples, he thought, would help clear the forest and show the new farmers how to cultivate the land. Fredericks set to work. He had slaves and Indians widen the footpath to accommodate carts and animals. Trees were cut and the farms were carved out of the woods. The livestock that had been temporarily parked on Nut Island were then distributed among the farmers. As it was not the custom among the Dutch to fence their animals, cows, horses, sheep, and pigs — all animals the native people were seeing for the first time — were soon wandering into the nearby fields and eating up the crops that the Manhates had carefully planted. The white settlers were already upending the lives of the native people; and while the Manhates continued to use their old path to traverse the length of Manhattan, just as they had for thousands of years, it was no longer theirs. The Dutch used it as a public road, which they called the wagon road to Sapokanican, another Indian settlement along the Lenape path in what is now Greenwich Village. The section of the path they had widened with the Indians’ sweat was now being trampled with wooden carts and filled with the scat of those strange animals that were now devouring the corn and squash the white men had brought with them from Europe.
As Fredericks was overseeing the clearing of woods and the laying out of farms alongside the Lenape trail, Peter Minuit, who had succeeded Verhulst as the colony’s director, bought Manhattan Island for sixty guilders’ worth of goods. The year was 1626. The Dutch sources do not name the Indians who were involved in the transaction. They could have been the Manhates at Werpoes given that they were living nearby. Dutch documentation of the sale exists, although no actual deed was ever found. We don’t know the Indians’ version of these events, because they left no written records of it or anything else. But certainly the concept of humans owning land was alien to them. Probably the Indians saw Minuit’s offering as the symbol of an agreement between the two peoples to share Manhattan, and doubtless they expected something in return.
But as far as the Dutch were concerned, the island now belonged to them. (They had also started a settlement in the northern wilds of Manhattan Island, which they called Nieuw Haarlem, after the city where its inhabitants came from.) They believed that they had conducted the purchase of Manhattan with the utmost integrity. The Company had sent specific instructions on how to acquire land in the new colony, and Minuit had followed them to the letter:
Commissary Verhulst, assisted by the surveyor, Cryn Fredericks, shall investigate the most suitable place, abandoned or unoccupied, on either river, and then settle there with all the cattle and build the necessary fortification. And finding none but those that are occupied by the Indians, they shall see whether they cannot, either in return for trading-goods or by means of some amicable agreement, induce them to give up ownership and possession to us, without however forcing them thereto in the least or taking possession by craft or fraud, lest we call down the wrath of God upon our unrighteous beginnings, the Company intending in no wise to make war or hostile attacks upon any one, except the Spanish and their allies, and others who are our declared enemies.
The Dutch made that dependence mutual.
Before the Europeans arrived, Indians had mostly survived by hunting and fishing but only as much as they could consume. The newcomers turned this world upside down by introducing the Indians to what was for them a novel idea: profit. This translated into the exploitation of resources. The white men cut down forests not just to clear fields but also to export the timber to Europe, where the supply was dwindling. At the same time, they were destroying the Indians’ habitats, along with the ecology that had sustained them for thousands of years. The European demand for furs meant that the Indians were now killing animals for trading rather than for mere survival. In the meantime, the Indians had come to desire — and soon need — the things that Europeans offered them in exchange for pelts: metal pots, which were more durable than pottery; cloth, woolen duffel cloth, which unlike animal skins protected them from the rain; guns, which killed much more efficiently than arrows; and alcohol, to which the Indians had no tolerance.
But the Europeans had brought with them something far more dangerous than alcohol: their diseases. Smallpox epidemics were annihilating entire communities, and those few indigenous people who survived unknowingly spread the virus farther by joining kin living elsewhere.
Alice Sparberg Alexiou is a contributing editor at Lilith magazine and a frequent writer for Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City History. She is the author of three books, including Devil's Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery and The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City That Arose with It.