The City During 1677-1700: Part II

A view of the City

From an examination of a map of the city of New-York, dated in 1695, it appears that all within the city wall was then pretty closely occupied with buildings. Broadway was reckoned the west side of the city, as there was no street between it and the river, except a path along the stockade. Outside of the wall two streets were laid out to the west of Broadway, but they were not yet occupied. On the east side of the town Great Queen (Pearl) street skirted the East River, leaving outside of it the space between high and low-water marks. On the south were the " Wet Docks," enclosed by a mole reaching from the point of rocks below the fort, in a curve, to a point near the State-house, within which the shipping were sheltered from winds and currents. Beyond the wall, along Great Queen-street and the Smith's Vley, were several houses erected, and a number of buildings were scattered over the open space toward Broadway, up as far as the Green-lane. The population of the city had increased at this time to over four thousand, and at
the ratio of nearly one hundred per cent. in twenty-five years.

The aspect of the city of New York, as it was a hundred and fifty years ago, would now be esteemed strangely rude and grotesque. The whole number of houses was less than a thousand, and these were very different things from their successors of the present time. They were constructed principally of wood, and were of the rudest workmanship—one or two stories high, with sharp roofs, and with their gable-ends to the streets. A few were of brick covered with tiles—materials brought from Europe. The streets were narrow, crooked, and irregular; they were thronged with swine and dogs; in summer they were overgrown with weeds, and in winter obstructed with ice or mud.

Character of the Inhabitants

In the report of Governor Dongan, already referred to, there is also a statement as to the composition of society in the province. " For the last seven years," he writes, (that is, from 1680,) " there have not come over to this province twenty English, Scotch, or Irish families. On Long Island, the people increase so fast that they complain for want of land, and many remove thence to the neighboring provinces. Several French families have lately come from the West Indies, and from England, and a great many more are expected, and also several Dutch families from Holland, so that the number of foreigners greatly exceeds the king's natural-born subjects."

The French immigrants here spoken of were chiefly exiled Huguenots, who had fled from their own country to escape the persecution that followed the repeal of the edict of Nantes, by which religious liberty had been secured to the Protestants. Many of these immigrants remained permanently in the city, and constituted a valuable portion of its early population. Others located themselves at New Rochelle, at Haverstraw, and on Staten Island, where they constituted orderly and valuable communities, out of which have arisen some of the best families and most eminent citizens of the province and State of New-York.

Morals and Religion.

Governor Dongan's statement of the religious condition of the city is not very nattering, though probably as much so as the state of the case would justify. Of ministers, there was a chaplain belonging to the fort of the Church of England, a Dutch Calvinist, a French Calvinist, and a Lutheran, in the city. Of the ecclesiastical distribution of the inhabitants, he remarks, " There are not many of the Church of England, few Catholics, abundance of Quaker preachers, men and women, especially singing Quakers, ranting Quakers, Sabbatarians, Anti-Sabbatarians, some Anabaptists, some Independents, some Jews; in short, of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part of none at all. The most prevailing opinion is that of the Dutch Calvinists. It is the endeavor of all persons here to bring up their children and servants in that opinion which themselves profess, but I observe they take no care for the conversion of their slaves."

Another Account

A further account of the ecclesiastical and moral condition of New-York is given in a letter addressed to the Bishop of London, by the Rev. John Miller, who was for three years a resident of the province as chaplain to the king's forces. The reverend gentleman's statements give even a darker coloring to matters than the governor's. Viewing everything with the eyes of an exclusive Churchman, he could find very little to approve in all the various sects with which the province abounded. Especially was he scandalized by the irregular method of conducting ecclesiastical matters in the towns on Long Island, where, though nearly every parish had its minister, yet, as these had no Episcopal ordination, they were styled " only pretended ministers." Nor is the account given of the ministers of the English Church more flattering. " There are here, and also in other provinces," writes the reverend chaplain, "many of them, such as, being of a vicious life and conversation, have played so many vile pranks, and show such an ill light, as have been very prejudicial to religion in general, and to the Church of England in particular." He also complains " of the great negligence of divine things that is generally found in the people, of what sect or sort soever they pretend to be."

"In a soil so rank as this," continues the writer, " no marvel if the Evil One finds a ready entertainment for the seed he is ready to cast in; and from a people so inconstant and regardless of heaven and holy things, no wonder if God withdraw his grace, and give them up a prey to those temptations which they so industriously seek to embrace." " It is, in this country, a common thing for the meanest persons, so soon as the bounty of God has furnished them with a plentiful crop, to turn what they earn, as soon as may be, into money, and that money into drink, while their families at home have nothing but rags to protect them from the winter's cold. And if the fruits of their plantations are such as are readily converted into liquor, they* can scarcely wait till it is fit for drinking, but, inviting their pot-companions, they all of them, neglecting whatever work they are about, set to it together, and give not over till they have drunk it off. And to these sottish engagements they will make nothing to ride ten or twenty miles; and at the conclusion of one debauch another is generally appointed, except their stock of liquor fail them. Nor are the mean or country people only guilty of this vice, but they are equaled, nay, surpassed, by many in the city of New-York, whose daily practice is to frequent taverns; and to carouse and game, their night employment. This course is the ruin of many merchants, especially those of the younger sort, who, carrying out with them a stock, whether as factors or on their own account, spend even to prodigality, till they find themselves bankrupt ere they are aware."

"In a town where this course of life is led by many, it is no wonder if there be other vices in vogue, because they are the natural product of it such as cursing and swearing, to both of which people are here much accustomed some doing it in that frequent, horrid, and dreadful manner, as if they prided themselves both as to the number and invention of them. This, joined to their profane, atheistically, and scoffing method of discourse, makes their company extremely uneasy to sober and religious men."

The Remedy

As a remedy for these crying evils, and many others that he enumerates, the reverend chaplain proposed a plan worthy of the times and the men with whom he was associated as a Christian minister. It was, " to send over a bishop to the province of New York, duly qualified, commissioned, and empowered, as suffragan to ' my lord of London,' to take with him five or six sober young ministers, with Bibles and prayer books the bishop to be appointed governor, on a salary of £1,500; his majesty also to give him the farm in New-York, commonly called the King's Farm, as a seat for himself and his successors."

Governor Fletcher's Efforts Toward Improvement

It will be recollected that at about the time this letter was written Governor Fletcher was endeavoring to effect something toward improving the moral and religious condition of the province. The building of churches at the public expense was a part of his plan; he also designed to introduce ministers and schoolmasters of the Church of England; but by his partiality toward his own religious predilections he became involved in disputes with the people of the province, who had little favor for that form of Church order and worship. At his instance laws were enacted prohibiting the profanation of the Lord's day, by traveling, labor, fishing, hunting, horse-racing, or frequenting tippling houses, and also against drunkenness.

Other vices notoriously prevalent in the province, though prohibited by law in other provinces, were left unnoticed, probably because they were thought to be too deeply seated to be effaced by legal remedies. The events would seem to prove, that however necessary such reformatory measures might have been, the governor carried the use of legal restraints as far as the people would bear them.

Summary View of Society

The social aspect of the city of New York at the advent of the eighteenth century was very far from being flattering. The population was composed of the rudest and most heterogeneous materials. The largest class was the native Dutch, children of the original colonists, who had grown up among the corrupting influences of a rude state of society, without education, and untamed by even the simplest social refinements. Their manners and morals appear to have corresponded to their characters. Their lives were spent in low pleasures and gross sensual indulgences, varied by seasons of toil, and sufferings from diseases and poverty. A large portion of the English population was little better. Between the Dutch and the English but little good-fellowship subsisted. The former considered themselves the proper heads of the social body, and looked upon all others as intruders and low adventurers, seeking wealth or pleasure in indolence and reckless amusements. The latter esteemed the Dutch as a conquered race, too stupid to share in the direction of public affairs, and unworthy to be admitted to social equality with themselves. The foreigners were a mixed class, in which the national customs, languages, and religious creeds of each were maintained, but all of them degenerated and depraved. Few of the natives were able to read and write, and for those who could there was scarcely any reading matter to be obtained. In such a state of things, moral and social degradation could not fail to characterize the community.

Website: The History
Article Name: The City During 1677-1700: Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  New York: A Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress Of the Metropolitan City of America by a New Yorker, Published by Carlton & Phillips-New York: 1853
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