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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. II. The Beginnings of Americanism: 1650–1710

Daniel Denton

OF Daniel Denton, the author of A Brief Description of New York, published in 1670, the first account in English of the city and colony that were to become the metropolis of a hemisphere, little is known save that he settled in Jamaica, Long Island, in 1656, being one of the founders of that town, and a resident there for many years. He was obviously a close and shrewd observer, but with little grace of style, and somewhat devoid of a sense either of humor or of irony as is shown by his remark about the Divine Hand making a way for the English by removing the Indians wherever they came to settle. Yet his very matter of tact statements are hardly less interesting for their inartistic uncouthness.

A Terrestrial Canaan.
[From “A Brief Description of New York.” 1670.]

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, otters, 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.

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 red-bird, 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 crampasses, 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….

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 Afterskull 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 commodity Long Island doth….

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.