Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  New York in the Seventeenth Century

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

New York in the Seventeenth Century

By Daniel Denton (fl. 1656–1696)

[One of the original Settlers of Jamaica, L. I., 1656, and there resident for many years. A Brief Description of New York. 1670. The first printed account in the English language, of the City and State.]

NEW YORK is settled upon the west end of the aforesaid Island, having that small arm of the sea which divides it from Long Island on the south side of it, which runs away eastward to New England, and is navigable, though dangerous. For about ten miles from New York is a place called Hell Gate, which being a narrow passage, there runneth a violent stream both upon flood and ebb, and in the middle lieth some Islands of Rocks, which the current sets so violently upon that it threatens present shipwreck; and upon the flood is a large Whirlpool, which continually sends forth a hideous roaring, enough to affright any stranger from passing any further, and to wait for some Charon to conduct him through; yet to those that are well acquainted little or no danger; yet a place of great defence against any enemy coming in that way, which a small Fortification would absolutely prevent, and necessitate them to come in at the west end of Long Island, by Sandy Hook, where Nutten Island doth force them within command of the Fort at New York, which is one of the best Pieces of Defence in the north parts of America.

New York is built most of brick and stone, and covered with red and black tile, and the land being high, it gives at a distance a pleasing Aspect to the spectators. The inhabitants consist most of English and Dutch, and have a considerable trade with the Indians, for beavers, otter, raccoon skins, with other furs; as also for bear, deer, and elk skins; and are supplied with venison and fowl in the winter and fish in the summer by the Indians, which they buy at an easy rate; and having the Country round about them, they are continually furnished with all such provisions as is needful for the life of man, not only by the English and Dutch within their own, but likewise by the adjacent Colonies.

The commodities vented from thence is furs and skins before-mentioned; as likewise tobacco made within the Colony, as good as is usually made in Mary-land; also horses, beef, pork, oil, pease, wheat, and the like.

Long Island, the west end of which lies southward of New York, runs eastward above one hundred miles, and is in some places eight, in some twelve, in some fourteen miles broad. It is inhabited from one end to the other. On the west end is four or five Dutch Towns, the rest being all English, to the number of twelve, besides Villages and Farm-houses. The Island is most of it of a very good soil, and very natural for all sorts of English grain, which they sow and have very good increase of, besides all other fruits and herbs common in England; as also tobacco, hemp, flax, pumpkins, melons, etc.

The Fruits natural to the Island are mulberries, persimmons, grapes great and small, huckleberries, cranberries, plums of several sorts, rosberries and strawberries, of which last is such abundance in June that the fields and woods are dyed red; which the country people perceiving, instantly arm themselves with bottles of wine, cream, and sugar; and instead of a coat of Male, every one takes a Female upon his Horse behind him, and so rushing violently into the fields, never leave till they have disrobed them of their red colors and turned them into the old habit.

The greatest part of the Island is very full of timber, as oaks white and red, walnut trees, chestnut trees (which yield store of mast for swine, and are often therewith sufficiently fatted with oat-corn), as also maples, cedars, saxifrage, beech, birch, holly, hazel, with many sorts more.

The herbs which the country naturally afford are purslane, white orage, agrimony, violets, pennyroyal, elecampane, besides sarsaparilla very common, with many more. Yea, in May you shall see the Woods and Fields so curiously bedecked with Roses and innumerable multitude of delightful Flowers, not only pleasing the eye, but smell, that you may behold nature contending with art, and striving to equal, if not excel, many gardens in England. Nay, did we know the virtue of all those plants and herbs growing there (which time may more discover), many are of opinion, and the natives do affirm, that there is no disease common to the Country, but may be cured without materials from other nations.

There is several navigable rivers and bays which puts into the north side of Long Island, but upon the south side, which joins to the Sea, it is so fortified with bars of sands, and shoals, that it is a sufficient defence against any enemy. Yet the south side is not without brooks and riverets, which empty themselves into the Sea; yea, you shall scarce travel a mile but you shall meet with one of them, whose Christal streams run so swift that they purge themselves of such stinking mud and filth which the standing or low-paced streams of most brooks and rivers westward of this Colony leave lying, and are by the sun’s exhalation dissipated, the air corrupted, and many fevers and others distempers occasioned not incident to this Colony. Neither do the brooks and riverets premised give way to the frost in winter or drought in summer, but keep their course throughout the year.

These rivers are very well furnished with fish, as bass, sheep’s-heads, plaice, perch, trouts, eels, turtles, and divers others.

The Island is plentifully stored with all sorts of English cattle, horses, hogs, sheep, goats, etc. (no place in the north of America better), which they can both raise and maintain by reason of the large and spacious meadows or marshes wherewith it is furnished; the Island likewise producing excellent English grass, the seed of which was brought out of England, which they sometimes mow twice a year.

For wild beasts, there is deer, bear, wolves, foxes, raccoons, otters, musquashes and skunks. Wild fowl there is great store of, as turkeys, heath-hens, quails, partridges, pigeons, cranes, geese of several sorts, brants, ducks, widgeon, teal, and divers others. There is also the redbird, with divers sorts of singing-birds, whose chirping notes salute the ears of Travellers with an harmonious discord; and in every pond and brook green silken Frogs, who, warbling forth their untuned tunes, strive to bear a part in this music.

Towards the middle of Long Island lieth a plain sixteen miles long and four broad, upon which plain grows very fine grass, that makes exceeding good hay, and is very good pasture for sheep or other cattle; where you shall find neither stick nor stone to hinder the horse heels, or endanger them in their races; and once a year the best horses in the Island are brought hither to try their swiftness, and the swiftest rewarded with a silver Cup, two being Annually procured for that purpose. There are two or three other small plains of about a mile square, which are no small benefit to those towns which enjoy them.

Upon the south side of Long Island in the winter lie store of Whales and Grampasses, which the inhabitants begin with small boats to make a trade, catching to their no small benefit. Also an innumerable multitude of seals, which make an excellent oil. They lie all the winter upon some broken marshes and beaches, or bars of sand before-mentioned, and might be easily got were there some skilful men would undertake it.

To say something of the Indians: There is now but few upon the Island, and those few noways hurtful, but rather serviceable to the English. And it is to be admired how strangely they have decreased by the hand of God since the English first settling of those parts; for since my time, where there were six towns, they are reduced to two small villages; and it hath been generally observed that where the English come to settle, a Divine hand makes way for them by removing or cutting off the Indians, either by wars one with the other or by some raging mortal disease….

Within two leagues of New York lieth Staten Island. It bears from New York west something southerly. It is about twenty miles long, and four or five broad. It is most of it very good land, full of timber, and produceth all such commodities as Long Island doth, besides tin and store of iron ore; and the Calamine stone is said likewise to be found there. There is but one town upon it, consisting of English and French, but is capable of entertaining more inhabitants; betwixt this and Long Island is a large bay, and is the coming in for all ships and vessels out of the sea. On the north side of this Island After-skull River puts into the main-land on the west side, whereof is two or three towns, but on the east side but one. There is very great marshes or meadows on both sides of it, excellent good land, and good convenience for the settling of several towns; there grows black walnut and locust, as there doth in Virginia, with mighty tall, straight timber, as good as any in the North of America. It produceth any Commoditie Long Island doth.

Hudson’s River runs by New York northward into the Country, toward the head of which is seated New Albany (a place of great trade with the Indians), betwixt which and New York, being above one hundred miles, is as good corn-land as the world affords, enough to entertain hundreds of families, which in the time of the Dutch government of those parts could not be settled, for the Indians, excepting one place, called the Sopers, which was kept by a garrison; but since the reducement of those parts under His Majesty’s obedience and a patent granted to His Royal Highness the Duke of York, which is about six years; since by the care and diligence of the Honorable Col. Nicholls, sent thither deputy to His Highness, such a league of peace was made and friendship concluded betwixt that Colony and the Indians that they have not resisted or disturbed any Christians there in the settling or peaceable possession of any lands with that government, but every man hath sate under his own vine, and hath peaceably reaped and enjoyed the fruits of their own labors, which God continue.

Westward of After-skull River before-mentioned, about eighteen or twenty miles, runs in Raritan River northward into the Country some score of miles, both sides of which river is adorned with spacious meadows, enough to maintain thousands of cattle; the woodland is likewise very good for corn, and stored with wild beasts, as deer and elks, and an innumerable multitude of fowl, as in other parts of the Country. This river is thought very capable for the erecting of several towns and villages on each side of it, no place in the North of America having better convenience for the maintaining of all sorts of cattle for winter and summer food: upon this river is no town settled, but one at the mouth of it. Next this river westward is a place called Newasons, where is two or three towns and villages settled upon the sea-side, but none betwixt that and Delewer Bay, which is about sixty miles, all which is a rich champaign Country, free from stones, and indifferent level; store of excellent good timber, and very well watered, having brooks or rivers ordinarily, one or more in every mile’s travel. The Country is full of deer, elks, bear, and other creatures, as in other parts of the Country; where you shall meet with no inhabitant in this journey but a few Indians; where there is stately oaks, whose broad-branched tops serve for no other use but to keep off the sun’s heat from the wild beasts of the wilderness; where is grass as high as a man’s middle, that serves for no other end except to maintain the elks and deer, who never devour a hundredth part of it,—than to be burnt every spring, to make way for new. How many poor people in the world would think themselves happy had they an acre or two of land! whilst here is hundreds—nay, thousands—of acres that would invite inhabitants.

Delewer Bay, the mouth of the river, lieth about the midway betwixt New York and the capes of Virginia. It is a very pleasant river and Country, but very few inhabitants, and them being mostly Swedes, Dutch and Finns. About sixty miles up the river is the principal town, called New Castle, which is about forty miles from Mary-land, and very good way to travel, either with horse or foot. The people are settled all along the west side sixty miles above New Castle. The land is good for all sorts of English grain, and wanteth nothing but a good people to populate it, it being capable of entertaining many hundred families.

Some may admire that these great and rich tracts of land, lying so adjoining to New England and Virginia, should be no better inhabited, and that the richness of the soil, the healthfulness of the climate, and the like, should be no better a motive to induce people from both places to populate it.

To which I answer, that whilst it was under the Dutch government, which hath been till within these six years, there was little encouragement for any English, both in respect of their safety from the Indians, the Dutch being almost always in danger of them; and their beaver trade not admitting of a war, which would have been destructive to their trade, which was the main thing prosecuted by the Dutch. And secondly, the Dutch gave such bad titles to lands, together with their exacting of the tenths of all which men produced off their land, that did much hinder the populating of it; together with that general dislike the English have of living under another government; but since the reducement of it, there is several towns of a considerable greatness begun and settled by people out of New England, and every day more and more come to view and settle.

To give some satisfaction to people that shall be desirous to transport themselves thither (the Country being capable of entertaining many thousands), how and after what manner people live, and how land may be procured, etc.,—I shall answer, that the usual way is for a company of people to join together, either enough to make a town, or a lesser number; these go with the consent of the governor, and view a tract of land, there being choice enough, and finding a place convenient for a town, they return to the governor, who upon their desire admits them into the Colony, and gives them a grant or patent for the said land, for themselves and associates. These persons being thus qualified, settle the place, and take in what inhabitants to themselves they shall see cause to admit of, till their town be full; these associates thus taken in have equal privileges with themselves, and they make a division of the land suitable to every man’s occasions, no man being debarred of such quantities as he hath occasion for; the rest they let lie in common till they have occasion for a new division, never dividing their pasture-land at all, which lies in common to the whole town. The best Commodities for any to carry with them is clothing, the Country being full of all sorts of cattle, which they may furnish themselves withal at an easy rate, for any sorts of English goods, as likewise instruments for husbandry and building, with nails, hinges, glass, and the like. For the manner how they get a livelihood, it is principally by corn and cattle, which will there fetch them any Commodities; likewise they sow store of flax, which they make every one cloth of for their own wearing, as also woolen cloth and linsey-woolsey, and had they more tradesmen amongst them, they would in a little time live without the help of any other Country for their clothing. For tradesmen, there is none but live happily there, as carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, tailors, weavers, shoemakers, tanners, brickmakers, and so any other trade; them that have no trade betake themselves to Husbandry, get land of their own, and live exceeding well.

Thus have I briefly given you a relation of New York, with the places thereunto adjoyning; in which, if I have erred, it is principally in not giving it its due commendation; for besides those earthly blessings where it is stored, Heaven hath not been wanting to open his treasure, in sending down seasonable showers upon the earth, blessing it with a sweet and pleasant air, and a continuation of such influences as tend to the health both of man and beast: and the climate hath such an affinity with that of England that it breeds ordinarily no alteration to those which remove thither; that the name of seasoning, which is common to some other Countries, hath never there been known; that I may say, and say truly, that if there be any terrestrial happiness to be had by people of all ranks, especially of an inferior rank, it must certainly be here. Here any one may furnish himself with land, and live rent-free—yea, with such a quantity of land that he may weary himself with walking over his fields of corn and all sorts of grain. And let his stock of cattle amount to some hundreds, he needs not fear their want of pasture in the summer or fodder in the winter, the woods affording sufficient supply. For the summer season, where you have grass as high as a man’s knees,—nay, as high as his waist,—interlaced with pea-vines and other weeds that cattle much delight in, as much as a man can press through; and these woods also every mile or half mile are furnished with fresh ponds, brooks or rivers, where all sorts of cattle, during the heat of the day, do quench their thirst and cool themselves; these brooks and rivers being environed of each side with several sorts of trees and grape-vines, the vines, arbor-like, interchanging places and crossing these rivers, does shade and shelter them from the scorching beams of Sol’s fiery influence.

Here those which Fortune hath frowned upon in England, to deny them an inheritance amongst their brethren, or such as by their utmost labors can scarcely procure a living—I say such may procure here inheritances of lands and possessions, stock themselves with all sorts of cattle, enjoy the benefit of them whilst they live, and leave them to the benefit of their children when they die. Here you need not trouble the shambles for meat, nor bakers and brewers for beer and bread, nor run to a linen-draper for a supply, every one making their own linen and a great part of their woolen cloth for their ordinary wearing. And how prodigal, if I may so say, hath Nature been to furnish the Country with all sorts of wild beasts and fowl! which every one hath an interest in, and may hunt at his pleasure; where, besides the pleasure in hunting, he may furnish his house with excellent fat venison, turkeys, geese, heath-hens, cranes, swans, ducks, pigeons, and the like,—and wearied with that, he may go a-fishing; where the rivers are so furnished, that he may supply himself with fish before he can leave off the recreation;—where you may travel by land upon the same continent hundreds of miles, and pass through towns and villages, and never hear the least complaint for want, nor hear any ask you for a farthing; where you may lodge in the fields and woods, travel from one end of the Country to another, with as much security as if you were locked within your own chamber; and if you chance to meet with an Indian town, they shall give you the best entertainment they have, and, upon your desire, direct you on your way. But that which adds happiness to all the rest, is the healthfulness of the place; where many people in twenty years’ time never know what sickness is; where they look upon it as a great mortality if two or three die out of a town in a year’s time; where, besides the sweetness of the air, the Country itself sends forth such a fragrant smell that it may be perceived at sea before they can make the land; where no evil fog or vapor doth no sooner appear but a north-west or westerly wind doth immediately dissolve it and drive it away. What shall I say more? You shall scarce see a house but the south side is begirt with hives of bees, which increase after an incredible manner:—That I must needs say, that if there be any terrestrial Canaan, ’t is surely here, where the land floweth with milk and honey. The inhabitants are blest with peace and plenty, blessed in their Country, blessed in their fields, blessed in the fruit of their bodies, in the fruit of their grounds, in the increase of their cattle, horses and sheep, blessed in their basket, and in their store. In a word, blessed in whatsoever they take in hand or go about, the earth yielding plentiful increase to all their painful labors.

Were it not to avoid prolixity I could say a great deal more, and yet say too little: how free are those parts of the world from that pride and oppression, with their miserable effects, which many, nay, almost all parts of the world are troubled, with being ignorant of that pomp and bravery which aspiring Humors are servants to and striving after almost everywhere; where a Wagon or Cart gives as good content as a Coach, and a piece of their home-made Cloth better than the finest Lawns or richest Silks: and though their low-roofed houses may seem to shut their doors against pride and luxury, yet how do they stand wide open to let charity in and out, either to assist each other, or relieve a stranger; and the distance of place from other Nations, doth secure them from the envious frowns of ill-affected Neighbors, and the troubles which usually arise thence.