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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Manners and Customs of Colonial New York

By William Smith (1728–1793)

[From The History of the Province of New-York. 1757. Completed from the Author’s MS., and republished by the N. Y. Hist. Soc., 1826–29.]

MANY have been the discouragements to the settlement of this colony. The French and Indian irruptions, to which we have always been exposed, have driven many families into New Jersey. At home, the British acts for the transportation of felons have brought all the American colonies into discredit with the industrious and honest poor, both in the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland….

The bigotry and tyranny of some of our governors, together with the great extent of their grants, may also be considered among the discouragements against the full settlement of the province. Most of these gentlemen, coming over with no other view than to raise their own fortunes, issued extravagant patents, charged with small quit-rents, to such as were able to serve them in the assembly; and these patentees, being generally men of estates, have rated their lands so exorbitantly high that very few poor persons could either purchase or lease them. Add to all these, that the New England planters have always been disaffected to the Dutch; nor was there, after the surrender, any foreign accession from the Netherlands. The province being thus poorly inhabited, the price of labor became so enormously enhanced, that we have been constrained to import negroes from Africa, who are employed in all kinds of servitude and trades.

English is the most prevailing language among us, but not a little corrupted by the Dutch dialect, which is still so much used in some counties, that the sheriffs find it difficult to obtain persons sufficiently acquainted with the English tongue, to serve as jurors in the courts of law.

The manners of the people differ as well as their language. In Suffolk and Queens county, the first settlers of which were either natives of England, or the immediate descendants of such as begun the plantations in the eastern colonies, their customs are similar to those prevailing in the English counties from whence they originally sprang.

In the city of New York, through our intercourse with the Europeans, we follow the London fashions; though, by the time we adopt them, they become disused in England. Our affluence, during the late war, introduced a degree of luxury in tables, dress, and furniture, with which we were before unacquainted. But still we are not so gay a people as our neighbors in Boston and several of the Southern colonies. The Dutch counties, in some measure, follow the example of New York, but still retain many modes peculiar to the Hollanders.

The city of New York consists principally of merchants, shopkeepers, and tradesmen, who sustain the reputation of honest, punctual, and fair dealers.

With respect to riches, there is not so great an inequality among us as is common in Boston and some other places. Every man of industry and integrity has it in his power to live well, and many are the instances of persons who came here distressed by their poverty, who now enjoy easy and plentiful fortunes.

New York is one of the most social places on the continent. The men collect themselves into weekly evening clubs. The ladies, in winter, are frequently entertained either at concerts of music or assemblies, and make a very good appearance. They are comely and dress well, and scarce any of them have distorted shapes.

Tinctured with a Dutch education, they manage their families with becoming parsimony, good providence, and singular neatness. The practice of extravagant gaming, common to the fashionable part of the fair sex in some places, is a vice with which my countrywomen cannot justly be charged. There is nothing they so generally neglect as reading, and indeed all the arts for the improvement of the mind,—in which, I confess, we have set them the example. They are modest, temperate, and charitable; naturally sprightly, sensible, and good-humored; and, by the helps of a more elevated education, would possess all the accomplishments desirable in the sex. Our schools are in the lowest order—the instructors want instruction; and, through a long, shameful neglect of all the arts and sciences, our common speech is extremely corrupt, and the evidences of a bad taste, both as to thought and language, are visible in all our proceedings, public and private.

The people, both in town and country, are sober, industrious, and hospitable, though intent upon gain. The richer sort keep very plentiful tables, abounding with great varieties of flesh, fish, fowl, and all kinds of vegetables. The common drinks are beer, cider, weak punch, and Madeira wine. For dessert, we have fruits in vast plenty, of different kinds and various species.

Gentlemen of estates rarely reside in the country, and hence few or no experiments have yet been made in agriculture. The farms being large, our husbandmen, for that reason, have little recourse to art for manuring and improving their lands; but it is said that nature has furnished us with sufficient helps, whenever necessity calls us to use them. It is much owing to the disproportion between the number of our inhabitants, and the vast tracts remaining still to be settled, that we have not, as yet, entered upon scarce any other manufactures than such as are indispensably necessary for our home convenience. Felt-making, which is perhaps the most natural of any we could fall upon, was begun some years ago, and hats were exported to the West Indies with great success, till lately prohibited by an act of parliament.

The inhabitants of this colony are in general healthy and robust, taller, but shorter lived, than Europeans, and, both with respect to their minds and bodies, arrive sooner to an age of maturity.

Breathing a serene, dry air, they are more sprightly in their natural tempers than the people of England, and hence instances of suicide are here very uncommon. The history of our diseases belongs to a profession with which I am very little acquainted. Few physicians among us are eminent for their skill. Quacks abound like locusts in Egypt, and too many have recommended themselves to a full practice and profitable subsistence. This is the less to be wondered at, as the profession is under no kind of regulation. Loud as the call is, to our shame be it remembered, we have no law to protect the lives of the King’s subjects from the malpractice of pretenders. Any man at his pleasure sets up for physician, apothecary, and chirurgeon. No candidates are either examined or licensed, or even sworn to fair practice. The natural history of this province would of itself furnish a small volume; and, therefore, I leave this also to such as have capacity and leisure to make useful observations in that curious and entertaining branch of natural philosophy.