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The History of New York
From early Native American cultures through WWII
© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini
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Historical Review 1.8   
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Native Americans

       New York's very extensive Native American history began with the early settlement of the Iroquois and the Algonquians over 3,000 years ago. The Iroquois started to colonize the Saint Lawrence Valley area in 1000 A.D. During the six centuries that followed, the Iroquois grew in number and sophistication to become the strongest Indian confederacy in the east. By 1300, the Iroquois lived in developed villages of 1,500 people.(1) Gathering food and tending the crops was traditionally the woman's job, while hunting was left for the men. In addition to maize, they gradually learned to cultivate beans, squash, and pumpkins. The Iroquois regularly gathered wild grapes, berries, and nuts. The tribes moved frequently to allow natural resources to replenish. The Iroquois religion was very natural and animistic. They conceived of the land as a living entity and respected it accordingly. Harvest was celebrated in a ritualistic way to honor the changing of the seasons and hunters respected the religious significance and connection they had to their game.

By the 14th century, the Iroquois became increasingly involved in wars concerning land and resources. The frequency of wars gave them a reputation of an aggressive tribe with a strong warlike culture. The Iroquois formed a large repertoire of weapons including bows and arrows, stone hatchets, tomahawks, war clubs, and wooden shields. After the establishment of the Dutch New Netherland, Iroquois tribesmen gained access to firearms. By the end of the 16th century, the Iroquois had organized a confederacy with other major tribes to lessen the incidence of conflict. This confederacy, known as the Five Nations or the League of the Iroquois, included the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk tribes, which were all part of the greater Iroquois cultural group. The Tuscaroras joined later, changing the name of the confederacy to the Six Nations. The league consisted of fifty life appointed sachems who were selected by the head woman of each tribe. They were responsible for representing their tribes, keeping peace between the tribes, and coordinating united attacks. This organization was very useful when dealing with Europeans. Using their strength and organization, the Iroquois were able to remain in control of the fur trade and keep their distance from the Dutch and English colonizers. This allowed them to remain a cohesive group for longer than the neighboring Algonquians to the south, who were forced to move or assimilate long before the Iroquois.

      The Lenni-Lenape, also known as the Delaware Indians, were the Algonquin tribe that lived to the south. They inhabited southern New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Unlike the Iroquois, the Lenni-Lenape were known for their easygoing nature. The tribes were nomadic and traveled with the seasons in order to make better use of the available natural resources, but they had permanent settlements where they returned in the winter. During the spring, they planted gardens of corn, beans, and squash. They foraged for fruits and nuts, and hunted game and fowl. In the summer they migrated to the coast to collect oysters and clams. In autumn, the Lenni-Lenape migrated back to their settlements to harvest their gardens and prepare for winter.

     The Lenni-Lenape had a strong culture that included tool-making, religion, and specific family dynamics. They used wood to build canoes and utilized stone to build tools. Jasper, slate, and flint were used to make spear points, arrowheads, knives, hatchets, hammers, and jewelry. Their villages were made up of families related through female lineage, demonstrating the Lenni-Lenape's respect for the female gender. Male sachems were chosen by the village ancestress to regulate laws. The ancestress was also in charge of the domestic economy of the tribe. Marriage was decided by the mothers of each person after the exchange of gifts. The marriage ceremony did not bind the couple for life, but couples usually remained together if they had children. The Lenni-Lenape practiced a very natural religion and believed that nature was a series of miracles provided by the Great Spirit. They also believed in lesser spirits who controlled fire, water, thunder, and other events. Their burial ceremonies consisted of the deceased buried in a coffin together with gifts. The people showed their grief by painting their bodies black for periods lasting up to a year.

     When the Dutch arrived in the New York/New Jersey area and created New Netherland, the fate of the Lenni-Lenape began its slow decline. Through many land transactions, the English acquired land from the Natives, forcing them to move. The Lenni-Lenape who chose to stay faced the horrors of alcoholism and the devastation from European disease. By 1700, the Lenni-Lenape population had dwindled from about 2,000 to 500(2). The remaining Lenni-Lenape sided with the French during the French and Indian War, but did not find much success. In 1758, the New Jersey Assembly created the first Indian Reservation, called Brotherton. Unfortunately, the reservation did not last; it was sold in 1801. The profits of the sale were given to the remaining members. The Oneida Tribe of New York invited the remaining Lenni-Lenape to live with them. Some joined the Oneida and some stayed and assimilated into New Jersey. The Lenni-Lenape of Brotherton stayed with the Oneida until 1832, when the combined tribe moved to Wisconsin. Unfortunately the Lenni-Lenape were unable to remain a cohesive group because of the displacement caused by the European settlers.

Early European Explorers

     A number of explorers passed through New York waters before colonization began in the 17th century. The first European to sail into and report on New York Bay was the Italian sailor Giovanni da Verranzano. While sailing for the King of France in 1524, Verranzano entered the Lower New York Bay and anchored off of Staten Island. He did not explore the bay for long and nothing immediately came of his discovery, but it marked the beginning of European history in New York. Others passed by New York without much consequence, such as the Portuguese explorer, Estevar Gomes in 1525. The first significant exploration came 84 years after Gomes landed in New York. In 1609, Henry Hudson landed in the New York Bay and sailed up the Hudson River to present-day Albany. Hudson reported in his journal the beauty of the area. "The land (Albany) is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon, and it also abounds in trees of every description." He claimed the land for the Dutch and published the first complete descriptions of New York Bay, Staten Island, and the Hudson River as well as the coastline reaching up to Cape Cod. Hudson later returned to the area in search of a passage to Asia. He made more observations and established contact with the local Native Americans. He made another voyage in 1610-1611, which turned out to be his last. A mutiny broke out on board and Hudson was never seen again. Henry Hudson's journeys were very significant, marking the Dutch claim to the region and leading to the establishment of New Netherland. Hudson's legacy lives on through namesakes, such as the Hudson River and Hudson Bay.

The Formation and Politics of New Netherland

          The Dutch interest in an American colony focused entirely on the fur trade. Dutch merchants financed several voyages to the Hudson River area between 1611 and 1614 to trade for furs with the Indians. The market for furs in Europe was so strong that competition forced the creation of a council that gave charters to traders that allowed them four voyages to the Hudson. A trading post was constructed by the New Netherland Company near Albany shortly after. This company was the first to refer to the area as New Netherland. The Dutch West India Company was formed in 1621, and created a trading colony in 1624. Their main forts were in Albany and New Amsterdam (present-day Manhattan). The first colonists arrived in the spring of 1624. The colony grew slowly because the majority of money and effort was invested in trade, not development. Farmers struggled as they saw the funding for the colony go to trading, instead of agriculture. Also, wars at Fort Orange (Albany) forced colonists to congregate near New Amsterdam, which lessened their influence on the frontier. To help stimulate colonization in New Netherland, the patroon system was introduced. The patroons were private agricultural fiefdoms managed by the owners and farmed by tenants. The patroons helped build a landholding aristocracy and increased colonization of non-fur traders.

     The colony continued to grow and prosper under the leadership of Peter Stuyvesant, who was governor between 1647 and 1664. During his reign, Stuyvesant was able to establish more peaceful relations with the Native Americans and create boundaries with New England that both parties agreed upon. An immigration surge in the 1650s doubled the population of the colony. New Netherland drew non-Dutch immigrants during this time as well, including Swedes, Finns, Germans, and Jewish refugees from the failed Dutch colony in Brazil. The relative peace and prosperity of the colony allowed Stuyvesant to deal with the neighboring colony of New Sweden. New Sweden was a trading colony, similar to New Netherland, which was set up in 1637. Like the Dutch, the Swedes also wanted to increase their economic presence in America by becoming involved in the fur trade. Stuyvesant wanted to take over the Swedish colony, so when the Swedes took over the Dutch Fort Casimir, he had an excuse to invade. He retaliated by sending and army of 300, giving New Sweden no choice other than a peaceful surrender.

     During the 1650s, rivalries and boundary disputes with Great Britain foreshadowed the colony's eminent demise. England claimed the land that New Netherland occupied and urged the citizens of New England to encroach. The Hartford Treaty of 1650 set provisional boundaries between the Dutch and British colonies, but tension continued. In 1652, during the Anglo-Dutch war in Europe, residents of New Hampshire took over the Dutch Fort Good Hope, weakening the Dutch influence in that area. Tensions rose even higher when the British sent ships to New England to invade New Netherland in 1654, but a compromise was met and peace was held. The Dutch managed to keep peace with England until 1664, when the British finally conquered New Netherland.

Dutch Culture and Legacy

           The Dutch of New Netherland created a culture that mixed their Dutch roots with frontier living. Although intended as a trading colony, New Netherland turned into a fully functioning community with traders, farmers, schools, and churches. Most Dutch colonists attended the Reformed Church on Sundays. Religion played an important role in the settlers' lives. Frontier life was challenging and there was a high infant mortality rate. The church was a place the people could go for hope and reassurance. Baptism and communion were the only two sacraments observed in the Dutch Reformed Church, but marriage and the last rites were also church affairs. The church did not only serve people's spiritual needs, it also provided certain social services, such as schooling and relief for the poor. By the time of the English conquest, there were eleven Reformed Churches in New Netherland.(4)

     Dutch culture remained intact after the English takeover. Many colonists decided to stay in the colony and live under English rule. Dutch-speaking enclaves existed, especially in and around Albany. Albany became increasingly Anglicized during the French and Indian war when the city was used as New York's staging grounds, but enclaves persevered in other places. A form of Dutch, called Low Dutch, was spoken in settlements in northern New Jersey and near Schenectady well into the 19th century. The Reformed Church played a major role in keeping Dutch language and culture alive holding services in Dutch. Although the Dutch eventually became assimilated into American culture, their legacy remains in place-names and throughout the English language. The words boss, coleslaw, cookie, dumb, sleigh, cruller, and yacht, all come from the Dutch language. The Bronx, Coney Island, and Catskill all derive their names from Dutch. The Bronx takes its name from the New Netherland settler, Jonas Bronck, who had a farm there. Coney Island was originally called Conyne Eylandt by the Dutch, which translates to "Rabbit Island" in English. Catskill was originally called Kats Kill, which means "cat's stream."(5) Kill is the Dutch word for stream, and can be found in many New York and New Jersey place names.

     Slavery was another legacy, however unfortunate, that also outlived Dutch rule in New York. The first African-American slaves in New York were used by the Dutch West India Company, and by the 1630s, slaves were common in Manhattan. Direct shipments of slaves from Africa to New Netherland were unusual; most slaves came from other locations in the Caribbean first. There was one occurrence of direct shipment from Africa when a ship from the Guinea coast brought 300 Africans to New Amsterdam on September 15, 1655. Slaves helped fill the labor shortage caused by the agricultural boom in the 1650s. African slaves also worked as longshoremen and domestic servants. The introduction of slaves in New Netherland unfortunately started a slaveholding legacy in New York that lasted into the 19th century.

The Transformation from New Netherland to New York

          In 1644, King Charles II issued to his brother, James (the Duke of York), a grant of American land that encompassed the colony of New Netherland. Soon after, the plan for the English invasion was prepared. The plan called for three ships and several hundred soldiers from England to be joined by volunteers from New England. The fleet arrived in New Amsterdam Harbor in August 18, 1664, taking the Dutch by surprise. Stuyvesant made an unsuccessful attempt at diplomacy, but knew he had to surrender. The Dutch army only consisted of 150 soldiers, which was not enough to defend the colony. Stuyvesant surrendered New Netherland to the English peacefully and returned to Amsterdam, ashamed.

     The new British colony of New York faced much political turmoil in its early years. The colony gradually turned English and business grew slowly. In 1685, the Duke of York became King James II. James used his newly acquired power to place New York, New Jersey and other northern colonies into one dominion called New England. He placed Governor Andros in charge of the new territory. This political move upset the citizens who wanted the colonies to remain individual. Also, because King James II was Catholic, the citizens were afraid that he would attempt to catholicize the colonies. Governor Andros' unpopularity prompted the citizens to revolt against him. They captured Andros and put him in jail. To the happiness of many in the colony, the Protestant William III of Holland, also known as William of Orange, overthrew James II. William and James' Protestant daughter, Mary, became king and queen of England; New York became a royal colony and the threat of forced Catholicism was gone.

      As the 18th century progressed, the rivalry between the British and French fur traders intensified. The French continued to press south from Canada and north from Louisiana in order to enhance and strengthen their presence in America. In 1724, New York Governor William Burnet decided to make an attempt to weaken the French fur trade. He knew that the Iroquois held the balance of power in the trade because they supplied the furs, so if he could somehow make Albany the center of trade instead of Montreal, he could faze the French out of the trade. To do this, Burnet built a trading post at Oswego on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. This fort was easily accessible to the Six Nations. Burnet also instituted a ban on Albany's trade with Montreal, intending to strip the French of goods to trade with the Indians for fur, causing the Indians to trade with the British instead. The plan eventually worked and Albany became the fur-trading center of the colonies. Tensions between the French and the British over land and trading rights in America escalated to the French and Indian War (1755-1763). This war was the final war in a series of battles between the French, Indians, and the English that had been happening since the 1680s. The war was fought throughout the colonies, but New York, especially Albany, was a major staging ground for British troops. New York was home to many battles, including the destruction of Oswego by the French and the takeover of Fort William Henry where 200 British soldiers were massacred. The British army did not fare well in the beginning of the war, but they emerged victorious with the takeover of the Great Lakes region in 1758, Quebec in 1759, and Montreal in 1760. The British victory against the French and the Indians had many benefits for New York. The northern frontier was opened to settlers, the economy received a boost from the war demand, and New York City profited from numerous privateering expeditions. The end of the French and Indian War marked a turning point in colonial history because it allowed New York and the other colonies to focus on internal matters. The colonists began to form their own identity, separate from Great Britain. This independent identity fueled the patriot buildup in the state during the years preceding the American Revolution.

Culture in British New York

     New York had developed quite a cosmopolitan culture under British rule. By the time of the Revolution, the population of the colony had increased from 40,000 to 175,000. Only half of the population was British. The Dutch made up one-eighth of the population and still dominated Albany. There were also significant populations of French, German, Scots, Irish, and Swedes. A group of French Huguenots settled in New Paltz. German immigrants settled near Albany and founded the town of Newburgh. There were also nearly 20,000 African Americans in New York by the late 18th century. New York's economy during the 18th century consisted of a mixture of different industries. The fur trade was dwindling in the northeast as hunting grounds moved to the west. Farming became the principal industry; wheat and corn were the major crops. New York lacked a staple export such as Virginia's tobacco. Instead New York exported an assortment of goods including beeswax, candles, flax, hemp, and chocolate. Other industries, such as tar, pitch, turpentine and lumber, developed as well. Sugar refineries, distilleries, and breweries were built in New York. Shipbuilding and ironworks also began during this time. Many New Yorkers, such as the famous Captain William Kidd, took part in piracy, which was very lucrative during times of war. It was technically legal under British law to engage in piracy (privateering) during wartime. Looted goods were often taken to New York and laundered into the general market. Increased settlement and industrial growth put New York on the path to become a major city by the time of the American Revolution.


     The French and Indian War was a major precursor to the American Revolution because it allowed the citizens to concentrate on domestic affairs. Also, the cost of war in the colonies prompted England to tax the colonists to cover the costs, which united many colonists in opposition to the crown. This unification and opposition to the Navigation Acts and the Stamp Acts, created a patriot foundation in New York and throughout the colonies. New York was home to much of the early agitation before the Revolution. It was the first colony to petition the king and Parliament to end the Stamp Act, which was an excise tax placed on goods to directly raise money for the crown. Colonists were outraged over the tax, especially because there were no American representatives in Parliament. "No taxation without representation" became the demand of the colonists. In October of 1765, New York merchants banned English imports until the Stamp Act was repealed. The Stamp Act Congress met in New York City to discuss and protest the tax, and mobs of protestors swarmed the streets of the city. New York even had their own version of the Boston Tea Party when the Sons of Liberty organized a group of patriots to throw British tea into the East River. Although New York was home to many patriots, there were also significant numbers of Tories, especially on Staten Island.

     New York was devastated by the war. During the summer of 1776, the British Army forced General George Washington and his troops to retreat from New York City, leaving it open for British occupation. New York City was taken by the British and remained their headquarters until 1783. Churches and public buildings were used as barracks and prisons, and the patriots were driven out and replaced by fugitive Tories. Skirmishes and riots were common throughout the countryside, which devastated many towns. The Iroquois alliance with the British brought Indian attacks in the frontier regions of the colony, leading to the Massacre at Cherry Hill in 1778. New York was home to the Sarasota Campaign in late 1777, which is seen as the decisive victory for America because of the French alliance. New York played such an important role in the Revolution. From the patriotic protests over the Stamp Act to the many battles on her soil, New York was an integral part of the war effort for both the Americans and the British. New York continued to serve the country when New York City briefly functioned as the nation's capital from 1789 to 1790.

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(1) Milton M. Klein, The Empire State; A History of New York, (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 4.
(2) Susan Ditmire, "New Jersey History," <www.usgennet.org/usa/nj/state/NJ-History.htm>
(3) Donald S. Johnson, Charting the Sea of Darkness; The Four Voyages of Henry Hudson, (New York: Kodansha America, Inc., 1995), 122.

(4) Klein, 77.

(5) "Dutch Place Names," The Library of Congress Website, <http://international.loc.gov/intldl/awkbhtml/kb-1/kb-1-2-5.html>

(6) Klein, 30.

By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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