Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

gothamGotham: A History of New York City to 1898
by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace
1998 / 1384 pages –

8/10 – I’ve wanted to read this Pulitzer Prize winner since it came out – it just appealed to me and got such great reviews.   So I found it on sale and well,  I had to get it – (15 years after the fact).    So far I’m finding it to be a very well written, easy to read, comprehensive discussion – exactly what the reviews said – and it’s fascinating.  That said, it may take me awhile to finish as this isn’t a group read – it’s totally self-select.

One thing for sure,  I want to go to New York now (again) and it will get worse as I make my way through the book.

Chapter 1 pretty well covers the native history (Lenape groups) and the earliest contact with Europeans –   as far as it is known – more than what I knew before!  It’s more specific than histories of old which didn’t mention specific Indians –  The Iroquois were also a danger to the Lenape and they were influenced by a Huron prophet and philosopher named Deganawidah, the Great Peacemaker and his associate,  Ha-yo-went’-ha (Hiawatha).

Chapter 2 concerns Henry Hudson and other early explorers, traders, finally settlers who worked at gathering,  hunting, purchasing, etc. pelts and other natural products to be sold in Europe.   By the end of  the chapter there is a small settlement of about 270 people.

Chapters 3-5  deal with the growing pains of  the West India Company and its company-town of New Amsterdam,  how that settlement was run,  its governors,  it’s difficulties with Amsterdam, the Company,  the Indians,  the neighboring English in Boston. It was  run for the profit of its investors,  but that included helping the settlers become profitable, too.   By 1647 the community was in total “confusion and ruin,”   disrepair,  unprofitable and settlers were leaving.    * The term Bowery comes from the New Amsterdam Dutch word “Bouwerie” meaning a farm complete with animals.  There were many “bouweries”  in the area.  Hard to fathom the Bowery of NYC today as once being this agricultural.

Peter Stuyvesant comes in to save the day.  The remaining settlers were a “motley” and multi-ethnic crew including some from the Netherlands,  Blacks,  both free and enslaved,  a few women,  married and single, Indians and others in a general hierarchy of the usual order.  Over the years the English established settlements nearby.   Stuyvesant instigated many new ideas for the stability, profitability and civilization of the community.

The historical  maps and drawings are excellent

Part 2 concerns the English general conversion of  New Amsterdam under the Duke of  York – English-style liberties and rights were started (no taxation without representation, religious freedoms for Christians).    John Leister, a wealthy Calvinist objected to the Anglification  fearing  and his large and diverse group took over from new English order of land-owners loyal to King James in England.   Eventually the English re-established their control and hanged Leister but his followers continued to stir trouble.

Then starts the commercialization of New York with shipping and piracy playing a huge part in the growth.  1261602963224036

Sugar,  slaves, cocoa and all manner of supplies were traded.  The British Navigation and Molasses Acts tried to tax all this trade but the shippers worked around that.

“New York now lived by feeding the slaves who made the sugar that fed the workers who made the clothes and other finished wares that New Yorkers didn’t make for themselves.” (p. 122)

New York grew up around all the trades,  occupations and services that any huge port town would have from ship-building to luxury imports,  from barrooms and coffee houses to doctors,  lawyers and many, many immigrants (often “indentured”) of all sorts of groups in addition to  slaves for sale and use.

And the Dutch settler presence as well as their cultural foundations declined – (bad news for women).

And then New York incorporated with a Common Council – good news/bad news.  More laws and regulations often supporting the merchants and land-owners,  but with certain expectations of them as well,  especially in relation to indentured servants.  But the ranks of the really poor grew and who was to keep order amongst them?  There were too many for the churches – the city saw them as a discipline problem and tried to simply ban them.  Some slaves rebelled,  creating terror in the whites who passed stricter measures.


NY Times Review 

Publishers Weekly 


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