Gotham – Resources
Document #1: “The First New Yorkers”
Being a New Yorker means living with an almost existential sense of impermanence and change – also known, of course, as “progress.” And it often is. But nonetheless, progress comes at a price, and the first New Yorkers to pay it were the Leni Lenape, or Delaware, Indians, also called Munsee by the first Europeans who encountered them exactly four hundred years ago this past September. The Lenape were the eastern branch of the Algonquin nation, which shared a common root language and a rich culture passed down orally and through custom, myth, ritual and the arts of daily life and symbolic expression. Lenape means “the original people” and the place they inhabited – the place we inhabit – was thus “Lenapehoking,” the land of the people.
Lenapehoking was vast, extending north from the Virginia Powhatans of John Smith and Pocahontas fame, to New England tribes like the Narragansett and Wampanoag (you can visit Wampanoag villages on Martha’s Vineyard today) and many others extending north up through the forests of Maine. Lenape lived throughout the Connecticut River valley, west through New York City and its northern suburbs, throughout the Hudson River region up to Albany, and to the west through the suburbs of present-day New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Lenape Settlements dotted the landscape out toward the Delaware Water Gap, where an important archaeological site exists in Vernon Township. There, students can search alongside archaeologists and historians for spearheads, skeletal remains, tools made of stone and bone, pottery sherd. They can look for ornaments and jewelry and as well as the materials used to make it – mica, crystal, beads and copper from as far west as Michigan.
The New York City tribes have familiar names – the Manhasset and Canarsie on Long Island, the Manhattes right here (it was Manhattes who allegedly “sold” the island to Peter Minuit in 1626), and the Hackensack, Tappan and Nyack across the river. Manhattan was dotted with settlements including Sapocanikan, the center of which existed where West 14th Street meets the Hudson River. Sapocanikan deserves, therefore, to be considered the most ancient place name for what we now call Greenwich Village.
A picture of the Lenape life has emerged as aesthetically and spiritually rich and politically and economically complex – not the simple, “primitive,” society that we once had been taught to see. Anthropologists, archaeologists, folklorists and countless other professional specialists and amateur practitioners have pieced together accounts of Lenape and Europeans during the contact period. They have uncovered evidence of artistic expression, burial customs and material culture using traditional and high tech techniques. The latter include radiocarbon dating and chemical analysis of the protein and calcium in skeletal remains. Lenape medicine, architecture, craftsmanship, horticulture and technology were all were part of an impressive, knowledge-based culture. Politically, Lenapehoking was a matrilineal society. Leadership and spiritual authority ultimately resided in, and were passed down through, the clan leaders who were women. On the other hand, social roles and economic functions were strictly divided between the genders: farming, food preparation and child-rearing were a women’s lot in life, while protection and provision – hunting, fighting and most tool making – were left to the men. We’ve learned much about how the Lenape hunted, fished, farmed, cooked, worshiped, made clothing and plied the local waterways. From this information, integrated with knowledge gained from geology and comparative ethnographic studies we have been able to find out much about what the Lenape ate and, in turn, have deduced much about their way of life. We know that along with hunting for wild game – turkey, geese and deer – the Lenape practiced large-scale cultivation of crops like maize, or corn, which along with squash and beans formed the vegetable staples of many diets. Interestingly, however, in what is now New York City, with its 700 miles of shoreline, it was marine life – oysters, eels, shellfish and sturgeon – that seems to have been the dominant staple, with signs of maize cultivation less in evidence. In northern New Jersey, on the other hand, the diet contained more vegetable protein.
And one other interesting theory that rings true has emerged. As we have observed, agricultural settlements dotted the landscape throughout Manhattan Island. In addition to Sapocanikan, at least four settlements existed at the southern end. Weerpos, near City Hall, Kapsee near the Battery, Rechtanck out by Corlears Point and to the east, Shepmos, near Tompkins Square. However, like today, even then Manhattanites were a commercial people. Indeed, scholars now surmise that Manhattan was relatively fast paced and commercially oriented even then. It was surrounded by water and ribboned with trails, hundreds of streams and inlets, even lakes (a ten acre lake sat just north of our City Hall) that served as trade routes throughout Lenapehoking. The island was a staging ground for a lively commerce in native crafts – tools, textiles, jewelry, pipes – and regional products: tobacco from the north, copper implements and jewelry from Michigan, and, from Connecticut and the Long Island Sound. Wampum, belts made of ceremonial beads used for ceremonies, would, after European contact, serve as a medium of exchange throughout the Atlantic world. and to the north, around the neighborhood now known as the Meat Market. Gansevoort Street then jutted out into the river and provided a natural port and marketplace for the natives. The village was called Sapocanican, which we rightly regard as the most ancient place name of today’s Greenwich Village. The population wasn’t quite what it is today, of course, and certainly not as diverse! If a thousand people – students, assorted parents, staff and visitors – walk through the doors of LREI on an average day, imagine the world we have been describing in which about that many people lived in all of Greenwich Village – indeed, only 15,000 or so lived on the entire island of Manhattan.
It was into this idyllic world that the Dutch intruded in September 1609, and began their contact with the first New Yorkers, which quickly led to the Lenape’s demise. A century later they were gone, done in by violence and superior force, numbers and disease, and, truthbe told, by an ideology for which their holistic vision of the meaning of life was simply no match. Today, the descendants of these people reside mainly in places like Oklahoma and other communities throughout the Great Plains and upper Midwest. But they also live on in communities nearer to home, in the Ramapo Hills of Northern New Jersey, and towns near the ancient site in Vernon Township. Each fall they gather there for ceremonies of remembrance, purification and reconciliation. By participating in them we can begin to understand the richness of their wisdom and spiritual life, their stewardship and reverence for all living things and their sense of connectedness – between the present and the past, the natural and the spiritual, the everyday and the miraculous. We do the Lenape a disservice by patronizing or sentimentalizing their remarkable culture. That would be a continuation in cultural terms of the gentrification process that displaced them centuries ago. They were not a primitive people. In many ways their culture was as complex as ours. But they were very different from us, and in their differences, they are avatars of human qualities that we desperately need. It is important to learn about them and claim them as our guides.
January 5, 2009
Summaries of Chapters from Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World
The Lawman Chapter 5
Born in 1618, Adriaen Van der Donck enters the University of Leiden in 1638. Here, in this city of 45,000, he encounters the Dutch Golden Age in full bloom, an age of extraordinary accomplishment in every field: art, science, philosophy, technology, politics and law, commerce and finance and more. The key to this Dutch renaissance is the principle of toleration, established as a founding principle of the Dutch republic in 1579 during the War for Independence against Spain. Everyone is welcome here, to speak, worship, publish, and experiment all without fear of censorship or persecution. Refugees from the wars of religion raging throughout the continent flock here. So to do philosophers, jurist, scientists and political dissidents. The Netherlands thus becomes one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth, one of the most progressive, and one of the most liberal. This can be seen in the roles of women – who kept their last names and could divorce – and children, who could be seen not just heard, and whom did the sentimental Dutch family indulge. It was amply attested to in the republican form of the Dutch government, the life of the mind, the growth of experimental science, in the rise of financial institutions that changed the world and basically established capitalism, as we know it. Finally this age manifested itself in the spread of Dutch culture and power throughout the world.
The modern education system was established here – pushing the boundaries of established knowledge instead of merely citing previous authorities. The philosopher who presided over this was Rene Descartes, whose ideas of rationalism and natural law (“I think, therefore I am”) revolutionized western thought. Of Similar influence was Hugo Grotius who, in jurisprudence and especially international law, elevated natural law over, accessible to rational men, over the notion of obeying ancient authorities whose decisions had nothing to do with the contemporary circumstances to which they were applied. Science was only one extension this humanistic attitude. The work of Harvey, Leeuwenhoek, and revolutionized how we understand the way the human body works through experimentation – even autopsies, which, unlike elsewhere, were legal in the Netherlands.
Upon graduating from the University, Van de Donck decides to cast his lot in the new world. He is hired to be the Sheriff – basically the man in charge – of the upstate New York patroonship called Rensselaerswyck owned by Kiliaen Van Rensselaer. Van de Donck arrives in New Amsterdam in 1641 and proceeds to Rensselaerswyk.
Summary of The Cause – Chapter 7
Adriaen Van der Donck arrives in New Netherland in 1641 and is immediately struck by the beauty and abundance of the natural environment. Shorto says Van der Donck breaks the stereotype of the European who comes to the New World to exploit it; rather he falls in love with it, becomes its passionate advocate. He is one of the first genuine Americans, says Shorto. p. 131. He studies its natural life, studies and befriends its native inhabitants and learns their languages and imagines laws, customs and governing institutions suitable to a new world, rather than the old, feudal world that his employer Van Renssalaer seeks to recreate. He begins writing what will become a masterpiece of early American literature, “A Description of New Netherland.”
Van der Donck is a person who naturally challenges authority. He defies his boss’s instructions and ultimately leaves, traveling to New Amsterdam, where he will reenact this defiance and rebellion on a larger stage and in a much more significant stage of its history. He walks into the now four year-old conflicts with the native Americans. The war is a disaster for the Dutch. Villages are destroyed and refugees flock to the tip of Manhattan. He becomes a leader of those who feel resentment and anger at Director Kieft, including Melyn and Kuyter As a trained lawyer and gifted writer he is supremely attracted to political activity and begins to transform himself in a new a kind of prototype of a democratic political leader. the petition he writes, he lays out the history of the conflict, how Kieft ignored the advice (which he himself solicited in 1641) and instead launched the disastrous conflict, then raised taxes on the beleaguered inhabitants to pay for it. He takes the bold step of calling for Kieft’s resignation, and then, even more boldly, calls for elections of representatives to serve as the colonies governing body. Shorto argues that New Netherland is a different kind of company town within the Dutch colonial scheme of things, a place that aspires to something more, to establish in the New World the rights and government of the Netherlands itself. The Company agrees that Kieft has to go and they began to search for a new leader, soon finding their man – a one legged, but stouthearted one at that. His name was Peter Stuyvesant. The neglect of his accomplishments and his writing by later historians provides evidence of the general neglect of the significance of the Dutch period in American history. (see pages 135-138.)
Summary of Chapter 11 “An American in Europe”
It is the year 1650. Adriaen van der Donck returns to his homeland for the first time in nearly nine years. He is now an “ American” – although the term – even the concept is not used or understood. He finds that his native country is a very different place from the one he left. Peace (through a Grotius-inspired international conference in 1648 to settle disputes through negotiation) prevails and independence has brought within unrivaled prosperity and growth as well as national pride. There is a new spirit of liberalism in the air - that side of the Dutch temperament that is progressive and proto-democratic. Van der Donck senses an opportunity. He finds a ready audience among the progressive and liberal elements within the population. But he has powerful forces with which to contend. The government of the United Provinces at the time was “liberal” by contemporary standards – it was a republic, after all and there were rights guaranteed in a “bill of rights” unknown anywhere else in Europe. But it was still a creaky, antique patchwork of institutions within which conservative elements -the Dutch Reformed Church, the Military, and most of all the Dutch West India Company - still held enormous power. (218-219) And they were right to be suspicious of Van der Donck’s ideas. In a way, his vision for New Netherland reflected the desires for reform of the “old” Netherlands as well. And, his ideas took the nation by storm.
Now Adriaen Van der Donck was to speak before the Dutch government – The States General. There he presents his Remonstrance of New Netherland. Think what he was up against: The Trading Companies, the East and West India Companies, along with the Church and the Military, were the two most powerful institutions in the young nation. They essentially are the government in many ways, (members of the States General are often Directors or shareholders in the Company, and have many powers of the government. Remember – they and not the States General in The Hague – actually rule in the UP’s worldwide empire. Nevertheless, Van der Donck, in an act of extraordinary audacity, explains the company’s mismanagement of the colony and calls for a municipal charter for New Amsterdam. He warns that the English in North America will soon turn their attention to the fabulous colony that separates Virginia and the South from New England. He was, of course, right about that. Therefore, in order to ensure that New Netherland remains in Dutch hands, he declares, the government needs to move quickly. And this was his bold proposal: He argued that the Netherlands needed to establish its direct rule over the colony, removing the Dutch West India Company from control. Then it needed to defend it against the English offensive that Van der Donck was certain was around the corner. (pp. 216-217 and quote on bottom of 218) Van der Donck’s “remonstrance” was front-page news. Read widely it built support among the population and within the States General itself for a new policy.
Then, in April 1650, the States General reaches a decision. Everyone gathers in the government chambers. You could cut the tension with a knife. Van der Donck and his delegation are there, along with representatives of the Dutch West India Company. The incredible happens: Van der Donck’s brilliance, persuasiveness and passion works. The States General rules in his favor. (pp. 229-230) It declares that it can no longer abide the “perverse administration” of the colony by the Dutch West India Company. It issues a charter for New Amsterdam as a self-governing municipality. And most galling of all to Peter Stuyvesant, when he read of it weeks later, must have been the demand that he return immediately p. 230.
Characteristically, however, Van der Donck was not satisfied. He insisted that bygones should not just be bygones. He wanted the people who helped Kieft pursue his war against the Lenape (including Cornelius van Tienhoven, Stuyvesant’s trusted ally who was sitting there in the chamber with AVD), be prosecuted, in effect, for war crimes. The author, Russell Shorto speculates that Van der Donck foresaw a time when New Netherland might find itself an equal part – an eighth province - of the Dutch Republic, and this, of course, was not unlike the dream of the generation of English colonials 100 years later in what will then be called New York.
Summary of Chapter 12 – “A Dangerous Man”
The chapter opens back in America, with Stuyvesant. Shorto discusses his life, his estate in what is now Greenwich Village (today, actually, what we call the East Village), and his strategizing witht he Company’s directors during what were indeed dark days for both. He is busy with the tasks of running the colony. Stuyvesant doesn’t give up; rather he only fights harder. He achieves things, for example, shrewdly establishing the eastern boundary of the colony with Connecticut at Hartford, following the Connecticut (then called The Fresh) River. In 1655, he secured the southern flank of the colony by invading and conquering the fledgling Swedish colony on the Delaware River.
In the aftermath of the government’s recognizing New Amsterdam as a self-governing city and their leaning toward doing even more, many important institutions in The Netherlands are outraged. The government now faces the opposition from two hugely important institutions – the military and the Dutch West India Company. The military, an aristocratic, even feudal institution, is fuming over the government’s liberal policies. The Prince of Orange even mounts a coup d’ etat. (pp. 238-39). It fails. Meanwhile the Dutch West India Company is understandably enraged at the government’s anti-big business spirit in general and the loss of their authority over the colony in particular. They plot revenge.
Meanwhile, AVD remains in The Netherlands, where he feels that the world is gradually changing, but he doesn’t back down. The States General has given a charter of self rule to New Amsterdam, but has not complied with Van der Donck’s proposal to expropriate (take over legally) the colony from the DWIC. In February 1852, Van der Donck argues again that the entire colony should be reorganized. He declares in the government chamber that the leaders of the States General should abandon the old ways that allowed the company to treat New Netherland as a feudal possession, and instead give its citizens the same rights as Dutch citizens. Time is of the essence, he claims. He tells them that since the government’s original decision, Peter Stuyvesant has become more dictatorial. Van der Donck’s persuasiveness prevails again. The government now begins a final reorganization of the colony along the lines he has proposed. It sends PS a letter (pp. 243-44) and AVD is given the task of delivering the letter! AVD is on the verge of complete victory.
Then the roof falls in. A drastic shift in the tides of international geo-politics intervenes and snatches AVD’s victory from him. (pp. 245-46)
These changes were a direct result of the end of the English Civil War and the beginning of the 11-year rule of the victorious Puritans beginning in 1649. The accession of the Puritan general, Oliver Cromwell, to unrivaled authority spells the end of the atmosphere of celebration and liberalism throughout Europe. Now militarism would be in the ascendancy. Having consolidated his power, Cromwell now directs his attention to the long ignored expansion of the British Empire. And he focuses on the Netherlands. This new imperialism would continue after the return of the monarchy in 1660 under Charles the II, the son of the man Cromwell had ordered beheaded in 1649! He is ably assisted by his brother James, the Duke of Y0rk (hint, hint), who was even more of an expansionist and soldier than his older brother.
The Dutch gradually realize that the English mean business and that they had better prepare for war. In this atmosphere, the DWIC is suddenly back in favor. Their wealth and their fleets, their experience with fighting wars of conquest – these were all now desperately needed. In July 1652 The Netherlands declares war on England, but the Dutch were at a disadvantage. The English had been on a war footing for a decade, while the Dutch, celebrating their independence and the dream of a peaceful, lawful Europe had been lulled to sleep.
An immediate consequence was that Van der Donck’s cause, so recently in the ascendancy, was now forgotten.
In his disappointment, he produces a final work, A Description of New Netherland. In it, he makes one last impassioned plea for an independent New Netherland that will achieve unimaginable wealth all accruing to the mother country. pp. 251-52. To no avail. In late 1653, he is given permission to return home. The officials of the DWIC, now triumphant, enjoy the spectacle of AVD, his tail between his legs, agreeing to never engage in politics again if the government allows him to return home. (p. 253)
Summary of Chapter 13 - ”Booming”
Although AVD has lost his battle against Stuyvesant and the Company, he nevertheless did win a huge victory. As a result of his boldness New Amsterdam was now an incorporated, self-governing city – its residents now citizens. In Van der Donck’s absence the magistrates of the newly chartered city transact their first piece of official business. A “City Hall” is established in the City Tavern on Pearl Street, just north of Broad, the same hotbed of political activity where Van der Donck had mobilized the movement to oust Kieft years before. For decades there had existed a tension between two conceptions of what this place was, or should become: Was it a “trading post,” an outpost of an international company, where everyone was an employee of the company; or was it a civil community, with citizens who had rights including the right to participate in their own government.
Deciding this issue in favor of the latter is Van der Donck’s great historic achievement.
The people of New Amsterdam were now involved in their own government. The company was still the owner and ultimate authority in the colony itself, but the City of New Amsterdam was self-governing. It had an elected counsels and two co-mayors, and it had a judiciary, a panel of judges. In acceding to Van der Donck’s proposal the States General, in effect, superseded the Dutch West India Company’s authority. Reflecting the short-lived spirit of the age it granted a charter to the City that directed the government to organize the City according to the “laudable customs of the City of Amsterdam. (pp. 258-259)
Immediately, however, the new magistrates had to deal with the war clouds that now transformed everything that was to follow – and that dictated Van der Donck’s fate. The war between the Dutch and the English would surely rain upon the colonies each nation possessed in North America. Indeed, the Company geared up to protect its colonies with Manhattan as center of North American operations. Meanwhile, the government of the Netherlands itself feared an invasion and turned to its erstwhile foe the Prince of Orange, now suddenly in favor again. So was Stuyvesant. He now assumed control. He tried to calm war hysteria between Connecticut and New Netherland. But the momentum was clear, the New England colonial governor’s wrote Cromwell telling him how advantageous it would be for England to seize the Dutch colony.
It was in the midst of this that Van der Donck returned to America.
No doubt, he was not a welcome sight to Peter Stuyvesant. He, after all, had spent the previous four years lobbying the government to remove Stuyvesant. Indeed they agreed to, only to reverse themselves. Now AVD was putting himself at Stuyvesant’s mercy. But he began working behind the scenes anyway. He supported the move for representation in the towns previously established by the company in what are now Brooklyn and Queens. These included the modern neighborhoods (using their contemporary English spellings) of Brooklyn, Gravesend, Flushing, Hempstead and Flatbush. There were many English residents in these towns, so they had no deep loyalty to the Dutch West India Company or to the mother country.
According to many historians working in the tradition of America as an exclusively English story, this call for liberties and self-government was a reflection of English ideas. Shorto disagrees. The example of self-government and individual rights that inspired them, indeed the very legal structure in which their demands were framed, were Dutch. What they wanted was the vision of the Dutch political philosopher (and Van der Donck’s history), Grotius – the English philosopher, John Locke, wouldn’t write his treatises on enlightened government and toleration for another thirty years. New Amsterdam had those things, even if many powerful people like Stuyvesant were not particularly disposed to accept them. The Flushing Remonstrance called for toleration of dissidents – Quakers and Presbyterians for example- and Stuyvesant accepted it grudgingly. And, of course, this was exactly the same year that Stuyvesant rejected, only to be overruled by the company, the application by Jewish refugees from Brazil, to settle in New York. In the final analysis, then, these Englishmen in New Netherland had seen the example of the charter given to New Amsterdam and they wanted one for themselves. The wanted the toleration, the business friendly policies of the Dutch City. These Englishmen – New Englanders - had after all fled New England to escape the English rule and the Puritan regimes in the English colonies.
And what was Van der Donck’s role in all this? Supposedly stifled by a ban on political activity, he forged ahead. He had close ties to the English dissenters. His wife’s English father was the minister of the Flushing Church. In 1657, Stuyvesant received a petition fro the citizens of Flushing, The Flushing Remonstrance, which called for religious toleration for religious dissenters. Stuyvesant, representing the conservative side of Dutch culture, had banned the open practice of any religion other than Dutch Reformed Protestantism. For example, he prohibited open preaching by Baptists, Lutherans and, in this case before him, Quakers. (This was par for the course in the English colonies as well, of course.) Van der Donck and his followers represented the other, liberal more tolerant side of Dutch culture- more religious toleration, more self-government. Indeed, Shorto speculates that The Flushing Remonstrance was written by none other than Adriaen Van der Donck himself. And as added evidence, we have Stuyvesant on record complaining that AVD was behind it all. At any rate, there is little doubt that the movement that Van der Donck had launched was still going strong. His dream of a Dutch empire in the New World, however, was not to be.
The question is why? Was Adriaen van der Donck, a prophet before his time? If the government had acted on his most radical recommendation – that it dislodge the Dutch West India Company from control of New Netherland – would it have proceeded to replicate the Dutch experiment in modern government on a much larger scale in the New World? We have seen why that was not to be, but still it leaves you wondering!
Chapter 14, “New York”
So we come back to the questions with which we started our study of the Dutch era: “Why don’t we speak Dutch?” “Why did the Dutch colony fail?” Shorto argues that it wasn’t inevitable, even though the history books have always tended to indicate it was. Nevertheless, in truth the torch of empire was slowly passing from the Dutch to the English, who would reign supreme for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, despite their own loss of their colonies in North America.
How did the end come? We pick up the story in New Netherland in the late 1650s. Stuyvesant is comfortably in control, but he faces enormous challenges. England and The Netherlands are at war. However, the primary threat came from the enemy within, English immigrants from New England who made up at least half of the ten thousand people who lived in New Netherland. The Governor of Connecticut, John Winthrop, Jr., was Stuyvesant’s erstwhile friend. They had recently negotiated the boundary treaty. But now Winthrop schemed against him. On a “visit” to New Netherland and he makes notes about all their fortifications.
The English, now awakening after years of internal conflict looked greedily and enviously on the international power and possessions, the commercial supremacy and prosperity of The Netherlands. They wanted it for themselves. The plan took shape in 1661 under the new King, Charles II. Winthrop, Jr. travels to London and with the English Ambassador to The Hague, George Downing (incidentally, a Harvard Graduate from Massachusetts Bay), convinces Charles to grant him a charter. And what a grant it was! Connecticut, in theory would have all of North America between Massachusetts and Jamestown all the way to the Pacific Ocean. All England had to do, of course, was conquer the Dutch colony in the way.
And of course that’s exactly what they did 3 years later. In they process, they reneged on their gift to Connecticut as Charles decided to take New Netherland himself and give it his brother James, The Duke of York. He actually installed a new English Governor of the new colony, to be named New York, before the invasion took place. He was named Richards Nicholls and he sailed at the head of a fleet that sailed into the harbor and demanded that the Dutch surrender - or else they would invite destruction. Stuyvesant reacted characteristically, storming about the parapets, saber in hand, calling for resistance. But cooler heads prevailed. It was hopeless. Nicholls had twice as many men, while armed militias of New Englanders were forming in the Brooklyn towns ready to join in. Plus he had all the firepower assembled on his ships in the Bay. The businessmen of New Amsterdam wanted to protect their investments. Resistance to the British fleet was futile. Stuyvesant’s own son signed the petition urging his father to surrender. This was not the end of the Dutch empire by any means. Indeed the Dutch won the next round, seizing back many of their African outposts, and even recapturing New York itself for a brief while (renaming it New Orange) but the handwriting was on the wall. The future was English.
Back in New York, things returned to normal. Stuyvesant was treated with respect and a gracious retirement in Greenwich Village and most Dutch laws and customs were continued. New Netherland swiftly became history and the future destiny of New York would be in English hands. And that, of course, is why we don’t speak Dutch!
Postscript: Adriaen Van der Donck was not around to witness the end of Dutch rule, which he had predicted and devoted his life to prevent. In 1655, Stuyvesant led an expedition to root out the fledgling Swedish colony in Delaware – New Sweden- led by none other than, the third Director General of New Netherland, Peter Minuit, still smarting from his ouster almost thirty years earlier. In attacking Fort Christiana (named for the Swedish monarch) Stuyvesant unwittingly set in motion a train if events that spelled the end of his rival hundreds of miles to the North. Van der Donck, historians believe on the basis of very slender evidence – more like hints, mainly archeological evidence and scatted references in people letters – settled before he left for he Netherlands in 1650 near what is now Yonkers, New York. He was called the Jonker, or the squire, by the locals. He was of course fluent in the language of the local Indians and had devoted, as we have seen, his life to establishing good relations with the local Indians. But in the aftermath of the war on the Swedes, suddenly hundreds of armed and angry Indians from the North swept into southern Manhattan, spreading mayhem and panic, reminiscent of the old days of War under Kieft. Other partied spread throughout the mid-Hudson valley. A raiding party attacked an estate near Yonkers. Inside were Adrian Van der Donck and his family. They were all killed. Thus he died in the prime of life. We know Stuyvesant found out. He mentions it in a diary entry that has survived. We don’t know if he suppressed a moment of triumph and revenge
Timeline: The Chinese in the Americas
1983 Empress of China
1840s Opium Wars between England and China
1882 – Chinese Exclusion Act – prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years, renewed; prohibited naturalization (citizenship) for resident aliens
1884 88 – various restrictions on Chinese already here: ban on contract labor (1885); anti miscegenation laws; ban on reentry and entry of wives of Chinese here; Scott Act prohibited virtually all Chinese immigration including those seeking re-entry.
1889 Supreme Court in Chae Chan Ping vs. US – upholds principle that entire race nay be barred if deemed unassimilable1898 – Supreme Court upholds voting rights for those born here
1892 – Geary Act strips legal rights of mist Chinese immigrants
1894 China agrees to prohibiit all emigration to the United States in return for return of readmission rights (does away with Scott Act)
1898 – In United States vs. Wong Supreme Court rules person born in the US of immigrant Chinese parents is of American nationality by birth
1900 US declares Open Door policy – claims equal treatment in China to other nations; Supreme Court rules wives and children of treaty merchants may come to US
1904 – All Chinese excluded from US and its territories
1906 Asian Indians denied US citizenship
1908 Gentleman’s Agreement bars further Japanese immigration to US
1911 Sun Yat-sen republican revolution
1911 Dillingham Commission report assumes two categories of immigrants: ”old immigrants’ – Anglo Saxons and “New Immigrants” southern Europe. Describes categories clearly marking # 2 inferior.
1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act – immigration from South or Southeast Asia barred; creates literacy test. Excludes Japanese from Philippines
1919-20 Professor John Dewey lectures ion China
1921 Immigration Act of 1921 – National Origin System established, based on number immigrants and their descendents from each country.
1922 Cable Act revokes American citizenship from and women marrying an alien ineligible for citizenship.
1923 Chinese student immigration ended; Supreme Court upholds state alien land Acts – US vs. Bhagat Singh
1925 – Supreme Court upholds law that wives of Chinese not entitled to enter country during the six-week period following the Japanese capture of the city of Nanking, the former capital of the Republic on December 13, 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War . During this period, hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers were murdered and 20,000–80,000 women were rapedby soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army.
1942 Exclusion lifted WW II
1945 War Brides Act – wives and children of Chinese-American citizens who fought in War allowed to enter country
1949 Communist revolution in China
1951 re-admittance to US banned after Chine invades Korea during Korean Way
1950 involved in rise of the Civil rights movement
1952Immigration and Nationality Act – removes ban on Chinese immigration but keeps quota system in place
1961 Affirmative Action for federal workers – JFK Civil Rights Law – no segregation in federal housing, discrimination in public accommodations
1965 Voting rights Act Immigration and Naturalization Act Abolishes quotas (from 1924); allows 20,000 from each country with priorities to skills, presence of family in country
Discrimination lifted in Housing, in schools (1971) Foster integration through “bussing.”
1972 President Richard Nixon travels to China
1974 Supreme Court Lau vs. Nichols validated law to guarantee education to non-English speakers
1980 Refugee act – established new criteria for immigration – humanitarian and economic reasons
196 Immigration reform and Control Act – prohibits hiring illegal immigrants
1988 reparations to Japanese Americans put in internment camps during WW II
1990 Immigration Act; creates hate crimes law; guarantees inter-racial adoption; apologizes to Hawaii
Document # 4
Commissioners’ Plan of 1811
Are Manhattan’s Right Angles Wrong?
TO many, the inflexible grid of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which made Manhattan’s streets an iron fist of right angles, was the worst planning mistake ever made in the city. It has been condemned almost since it was laid down. But these days, some opinions are changing. Critics are providing a reassessment, and several find sunshine in the borough’s straight lines.
In 1807, the City Council got state approval to establish a comprehensive street plan for Manhattan. Three influential New Yorkers – John Rutherfurd, Gouverneur Morris and Simeon De Witt – were given power to establish a permanent system. De Witt, a surveyor, had drafted military maps in the Revolutionary War and was working with Morris on the Erie Canal project.
The grid idea was already popular in other cities – even the baroque diagonals of Washington were overlaid on a right-angled crisscross of streets. In 1811, the New York commissioners published their eight-foot-long map, showing 12 main north-south avenues and a dense network of east-west streets for much of Manhattan, with the old angled road of Broadway meandering through.
Their stated goals were “a free and abundant circulation of air” to combat disease, and an overpowering rectangularity, since “straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build.”
Their report anticipated criticism by disdaining the “circles, ovals and stars, which certainly embellish a plan” – perhaps a reference to Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 layout for Washington. But otherwise they remained silent on most features of the New York version, making no remarks on their ideas for traffic – why a tight network of east-west roads but only occasional north-south ones? How did they fix the spacing of the occasional wider east-west streets – starting at 14th and going up in erratic separations to 155th?
And what determined the irregular spacing of the numbered avenues? The distance between First and Second Avenues was 650 feet; Second and Third, 610 feet; Third through Sixth, 920 feet from block to block; Sixth to 12th, 800 feet per block. (Lexington and Madison Avenues are later insertions.)
Finally, why did the long axis of the blocks run perpendicular to the waterfront? Several pre-1811 mini-grids had the long axis run parallel to the water.
This kind of progress was not for everyone. “These are men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome,” said Clement Clarke Moore in his 1818 “A Plain Statement, Addressed to the Proprietors of Real Estate, in the City and County of New-York.”
Likewise, Thomas Janvier’s 1894 book “In Old New York” criticized the commissioners as “excellently dull gentlemen” whose plan was only “a grind of money-making.” This remains the traditional account of the 1811 plan – which Janvierconsidered an arid, thoughtless solution that ignored existing topography, did not allow for vistas and neglected to include rear service alleys.
In 200 years of criticism, there has been serious reflection on the details of the plan in only the last decade or two. One such investigator is Reuben Skye Rose-Redwood, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of geography at Pennsylvania State University. His 2002 master’s thesis – “Rationalizing the Landscape: Superimposing the Grid Upon the Island of Manhattan.
Document IV: Chords of Caste
“Chords of Caste: The Slave Galleries and the Meaning of Freedom”
By Nicholas O’Han
St. Augustine’s Church, a quaint fieldstone edifice located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was called All Saints Free Church when it was founded in 1824. A modest place in every way, St Augustine’s is one of the most important sites in the history of African Americans in New York. It offers a window into the pervasive racism that existed in northern society, even as New York and other northern states were abolishing chattel slavery during the period between The American Revolution and the Civil War.
A visitor to the church might not even notice it, but up in the balcony, on either side of the organ loft are located two small rooms. These rooms were once referred to as “slave galleries” by members of the congregation. Contemporary New Yorkers think of slavery as a southern problem and few understand the history of slavery in New York. New York had African American inhabitants since the earliest days of the Dutch colony in 1625, and the City’s social life resembled the “Jim Crow” segregation in the post-Civil War South. Indeed the term “Jim Crow” was coined in New York. Because of its size and complexity, the color line in New York City was much more permeable than in other parts of the North. These conditions were grounded in theories and popular attitudes we call racism, a belief in the innate inferiority of people of African descent. Not all northerners accepted these beliefs or treated black fellow citizens with contempt and prejudice. Many protested and fought against them. However, the burdens of being black increased during the period, and socially, white supremacy and African American subordination became the order of the day.
This was as true in church as it was in other social situations and public places. Besides segregated seating areas, other practices included separate Sunday School classes, the precedence of white members in approaching the Communion rail, and the exclusions of African Americans from seminaries and the licensing of black ministers. It was segregated seating, however, that African Americans particularly galling and degrading, segregated seating, and Black peoples’ resentment of it, that triggered the first all-Black churches that began to emerge after the American Revolution. The phrase “Negro Pew” was employed to refer to a number of ways that separate seating was negotiated in the Protestant churches of the era. In many churches Black people were literally confined to particular benches, or pews, marked NP, for Negro pew or BM, for black members. In others, Blacks were sent upstairs to sit in the gallery, or “negro heaven” in the idiom of the day. But St. Augustine’s design represented a third variant about which there is less commentary and very little surviving physical evidence. These were the separate rooms or spaces, often referred to simply as “a remote nook” of the balcony; or sometimes the separate room seems to have been in an adjacent structure, perhaps an attached belfry, where those sitting in it could hear and sometimes see the service, but could neither be heard nor seen by members of the congregation down below. St. Augustine’s Church represents a classic example of this third variant, and is one of the only restorations of such spaces in the country.
People of African descent had been an integral part of New York’s history from the earliest days of the Dutch colony. Black indentured servants and slaves dug canals, built Trinity Church, constructed the fence across Manhattan for which Wall Street is named, and worked the Dutch West India Company’s plantations or “boweries.” Renamed New York by the British in 1664, the colony became one of the major slave ports in the western hemisphere. After the War for Independence, slaves were critical to digging out and rebuilding a city poised for unprecedented growth. Slavery was indispensable to the creation of wealth and the system of social status that evolved in the growing city. Virtually every prominent New Yorker owned slaves, even those who had begun to have doubts about the institution, and who in many cases openly advocated for its eventual abolition. As a port city and budding capitalist marketplace, slavery in New York had evolved differently from slavery in the plantation South, but the two systems developed a symbiotic relationship. Slaveholding was much more widespread in New York. While the wealthiest 30% of the City’s residents owned most of the wealth of the City including its slave population, the bottom three quarters of the free inhabitants of New York owned fully 25% of the slaves living here. Indeed, slavery was entrenched throughout the agricultural hinterland of Long Island and the Hudson Valley, where farmers, often of Dutch descent, were busy producing food and supplies for the growing metropolis. Four of every ten white households within a twelve-mile radius of Manhattan owned slaves, a much higher percentage of slave-owning households than existed in any southern state. New York City contained more Black inhabitants than any city in North America except for Charleston, South Carolina. Attitudes toward enslaved persons were no different in the North than in the South, as a typical bill of sale of the period attests: “For sale: Oct. 12, 1782. The pleasant and healthy situated farm of Joseph French, one quarter mile east of Jamaica…Also to be sold, the horses and the cows, hogs, wagons, cart and all the farming utensils and household furniture, a negro man, a girl and a woman who is an excellent cook.”
Opposition to slavery and proposals for its gradual abolition gained ground in New York and other northern states after the American Revolution. In 1785 the New York Manumission Society was founded by some of New York’s most prominent citizens, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr among them. The Manumission Society -harnessed considerable economic and social intimidation to their cause, hectoring newspaper editors against advertising slave sales, pressuring auction houses and ship-owners, and providing free legal help to slaves suing their masters in pursuit of its goals. In 1788, the state legislature abolished the slave trade in New York. Finally, in 1799 it passed, and Governor Jay, who was also President of the Manumission Society, signed an Emancipation Act. The law involved gradual and compensated emancipation, initiating a process that from the point of African Americans and their white allies dragged on interminably. Indeed, provisions of the 1799 act protected slaveholders’ investments by excluding those slaves born before 1799 and, for those born after, stretching out the period of slavery itself for nearly three decades. Many slaveholders illegally sold their slaves south before emancipation went into effect. In addition, children of slaves could be indentured for a term of many years to a master craftsmen or a factory owner prior to their own maturity and complete legal independence. A contract of indenture conferred a status in the early nineteenth that that differed greatly from what, from a modern perspective, would be considered freedom. A second law passed in 1817 established 1827 as the year in which the abolition of chattel slave status for African Americans of any would go into effect. But even when Emancipation Day, July 4, 1827, arrived, circumstances ensured that the “freedom” of newly emancipated Black people would be very different from that experienced by the white citizens of New York.
Many African Americans continued to work in a state of de facto servitude or legal indenture for the white artisans in whose households they lived, occupying, in the words of historian Lois Horton, “a middle ground of labor, neither slave nor free.” Among single black women, domestic service, often in the households of their former owners, was especially prevalent. It is reasonable to imagine such people attending the churches their employers attended. This “middle ground” accelerated for many African Americans after the legal prohibition of chattel slavery, reinforced by a number of factors formal and informal, political, economic, cultural and social. First of all, slaves continued to be present in large numbers in antebellum New York. Fugitive slaves, Frederick Douglass in 1838, for example, flocked to the big city. Many escaped from illegal slave traders at port awaiting transshipment to the South. Slaves from as near as New Jersey or as far away as Mississippi, were routinely present in the city, brought here by masters on business trips and vacations and remaining for up to nine months, an entirely legal practice until an 1841 law prohibited it. And even then slaves were in and out of the city for shorter stays. It is conceivable that such slaves, owned by business associates of All Saints church members, sat in the slave galleries every Sunday. In turn, African American New Yorkers were subjected to the constant threat of kidnapping right off the streets around their homes, or more likely at the workplace, particularly on the waterfront by gangs of thugs called Blackbirders, who roamed through the black ghettoes, kidnapping people and selling them into slavery, while professional slave catchers advertised their services in the daily papers. It is not hard to difficult to believe that New Yorkers, white and newly emancipated blacks, were totally confused with respect to the rules governing enslavement and the status of former slaves. When Caesar Nichols, a slave owned by descendants of the Van Rensselaer family, died in 1852 at the age of 115 years, he was widely described at the time as the last living slave in New York State.
Thus, Black emancipation not only did not bring freedom as we understand the term, but in many cases even worsening conditions. Historians have cited many reasons for this. World historical forces were transforming New York City from the large late-colonial and revolutionary era town to the metastatic metropolis of the Age of Jackson. Around the time All Saints Church was founded, a tidal backlash against African American’s quest for uplift, social equality, economic opportunity and political influence was reaching flood tide. This institutionalized racism has been characterized by historian David Brion Davis as the “culmination of racial polarities and prejudices,” that had been developing since the beginning of the nineteenth century.” These prejudices manifested themselves across a range of domestic, social and economic practices in everyday life. What parks you could stroll in, what restaurants you could eat in, what schools you could learn in, what jobs you could work on, what areas of the city you could live in, what trains or streetcars you could ride in, even what seat in church you could sit in – all these constitute but a few examples of the innumerable instances that created in effect a system of dual citizenship in the northern states. Jails, hospitals, hotels, even cemeteries were all regulated on an exclusionary basis according to impregnable custom. In many Northern states, Blacks were by law forbidden to enter the state, and in some places, Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, they were literally expelled.
Poverty, unemployment, economic dependency, even among those who had jobs, and political disenfranchisement all reinforced the rapid development of second class citizenship for New York’s African American people. The rise of the factory system, increasingly eliminated the small shop, artisanal economy of earlier days, and European immigration swelled the ranks of skilled and the supply of unskilled workers thus shrinking employment opportunities for African American workers. Skilled crafts learned and customarily performed by indentured Black slaves were now thrown on the open market and taken over by white workers who did not have to be maintained during periods of unemployment and were willing to work for low wages. The result was increasing poverty in the African American community. Historian Raymond Mohl’s painstaking taking study of poverty, crime and relief in New York during the antebellum period makes clear that misery was widespread regardless of race, but that African Americans were hardest hit.
Blacks’ vulnerable position in society was reinforced by the era’s politics. When more free Blacks gained the right to vote in the early 1800s, they had voted for the Federalist Party, which supported emancipation. After it was decided in 1817 that all Blacks would be free in ten years, the opposing Republican Party regained control of the state legislature. At the constitutional convention that they convened in 1821, the “Age of the Common Man” was rolled out in New York – the age of the common white man, that is. Qualifications for the franchise were based on taxable wealth and property ownership. They were lowered for the white voters, but the same convention raised them for Blacks, essentially disfranchising Black voters for decades. Meanwhile, on the national political scene, the reemergence of the slavery issue with the Missouri crisis of in 1819 ushered in forty years of sectional tension, which put a premium on conservative constitutionalism in both major political parties that supported slavery in the South and a new racial order in the North. Northern commercial ties with the slave south were, of course. At stake, and nowhere were these commercial ties more important than in New York City.
Economic ties dovetailed with heightened social fears of racial “amalgamation” brought about by Black freedom. Stoked by the daily newspapers and supposedly scientific journals, alike, a “new racism,” emphasizing African’s natural inferiority emerged during the 1830’s. Pervasive stereotyping, contempt and ridicule of Black people manifested itself in everyday language, visual imagery and the rise of a new theatrical venue called minstrelsy. When all else failed, the watchdogs of Black second class citizenship used mob violence, fanned by political clubs and the partisan press, to stamp it out social fraternization and “seditious” talk of equal rights by radicals like radical abolitionists.
It is easy to imagine the fear, anxiety, vulnerability and hardship this generated within the black community. But African Americans fought back. They created institutions that mobilized mutual aid and relief, they started their own newspapers such as Samuel Cornish’s Freedom’s Journal and The Colored American, and Frederick Douglass’s North Star, and they created the Black Church, one of the great cultural contributions of American history. The Declaration of Independence that had raised the hopes, and expectations, of African Americans in the years immediately following the American Revolution. Black intellectuals in New York City, Philadelphia, and New England, outspoken church leaders, journalists, abolitionists and educators modeled for their white allies more militant and uncompromising responses to the rising tide of racism. David Walker spoke out in 1829 against the Colonization Movement, saying it represented a betrayal of African people by those who claimed to sympathize with them and influenced William Lloyd garrison’s evolving views leading to the founding of the American Abolition Society and a new phase of the anti-slavery movement calling for immediate, uncompensated emancipation of the slaves and advocating more militant methods to spread their message. But Black intellectuals pointed out first that “the line between slavery and freedom was never what some abolitionists made it out to be” They knew, in other words, that “once free, blacks generally remained at the bottom of the social order, despised by whites, burdened with increasingly oppressive racial proscriptions, and subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Free Negroes stood outside the direct governance of a master, but in the eyes of many whites their place in society had not been significantly altered.”
There is no better artifact of the racism of the ante-bellum era than All Saint’s Church. It was built as part of the system of chapels established by Trinity Church as the City expanded. This neighborhood, located above Catherine Street and running between Division Street and the shoreline of the East River north to Grand Street, had been occupied since colonial days by the homesteads of powerful landed gentry with iconic names like Rutgers, Delancey and Stuyvesant. Until a decade or so earlier it was still rural, the so-called “Out Ward,” not part of the City proper. Now it was New York’s swiftly industrializing 7th Ward, with a population that numbered 13,000 people in 1820, and it was developing rapidly. Driven mainly by the rise of the maritime engineering and the shipbuilding industry along both sides of the East River, the 7th Ward was a major venue of the industrial and transportation revolutions that were transforming New York City after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. By the end of the 1830s, with the shoreline extended out from Cherry Street to include newly created Water Street, it contained a rousing port life clustered around slips and wharves, shipbuilding establishments and marine engineering factories, which extended up through what we call the East Village.
A visit to St. Augustine’s provides a window into the era, but raises many questions about the racism in the northern states before the Civil War. The riddle at the center of the story of the slave galleries at All Saints Church is this: if the church opened the year after the emancipation of all chattel slaves in New York City, who sat there? We don’t know for sure. There are very few references to the galleries and to slavery in the historical documents and the news papers of the era. We have much more to learn in order to construct a truly American history that places African American people in the center of this narrative. We need to know more about individual northern churches’ racial policies and customs. This will require painstaking examination of municipal and church records, and the unearthing of the testimony of contemporaries. Church records are notoriously reticent on the subject of complicity with racism. But we do know a little bit about slaveholding at All Saints and several other churches in the neighborhood. First of all, we know that Slaveholders were among the founders of All Saints Parish. Census, vestry and sacramental records document that at least two of All Saints’ founding 1824 vestrymen, William P. Rathbone and John Rooke owned slaves. We also know two free African American families joined the church. Henry Nichols, a saddle maker and head of a household of ten, was baptized at All Saints Church on July 5, 1829 along with his wife Phoebe and their three children, William, Caesar, and Susan. Later that year, on October 11, 1829, a mason named Samuel Barber and his wife Catherine baptized their daughter at the church.
What we don’t know is what happened to them, and to Rathbone and Rooke, who were slaveholders and who had approved the plans for a racially segregated seating area. They were fully aware of the approach of emancipation. Did their relationships with their former slaves, now free men, continue much as it had been? Did their slaves, now free men, continue to attend All Saints and sit in the church’s slave galleries? Did the Nichols family? Henry Nichols and his family were baptized on July 5th 1829, the second anniversary of Black emancipation, and the occasion of a huge celebration among New York’s African-American population. It’s difficult to believe that William Nichols would have chosen to join the church and baptize his family there on such a symbolic occasion, only to return to the church and sit in the slave galleries? Would Barber have subjected himself and his family to the indignity of sitting there? One New York City historian, John Kuo Wei Tchen, speculates, that the Nichols and Barber families, probably “voted with their feet and left All Saints.”
But we can’t be sure. What if, with Emancipation, the congregation reassessed their relationship with Black families. What if families such as the Nichols and Barbers, who were householders, artisans and taxpayers, met the congregation’s criteria for determining who sat in the main sanctuary regardless of race? Perhaps after 1827, the slave galleries were places where servants and slaves belonging to visiting southern businessmen sat. We need to know much more in order to obtain a clearer picture of the evolution of All Saints Church in the crosscurrents of the politics of race and class during the antebellum period. We also need to learn who lived in the neighborhood and attended the Church over the next few decades. Who sat in the slave galleries, as the region, and the nation became more racially polarized and the composition of the neighborhood changed racially, ethnically and religiously? Research has revealed that a Mr. Henry Cotheal, a merchant at 49 Water Street, purchased two pews in 1845, 27 years after New York State manumission. In his household of 13, was a “free colored male.”It is reasonable to suspect that this young man was a house servant. Did he attend All Saints Church? Did he sit in the slave galleries?
Only more research into the presence of black congregants at All Saints and other churches will permit a detailed picture of whether families like the Nichols and Barbers, chose to remain at All Saints and at other mixed-race congregations, and under what evolving conditions. Did the Nichols and Barber families even continue to live there? The race riots of 1834 and ’35 left the downtown African American community devastated. Hundreds of families left the Five Points neighborhood for points north and west on the island of Manhattan along with the Black Churches that had been founded downtown, St. Phillips, St. Stephens and the Abyssinian Baptist Church, for example. Other circumstances disrupted life in the neighborhood. Particularly virulent epidemics of dysentery, yellow fever and cholera at the beginning of the 1830s sent many neighborhood residents, who could afford it, permanently away. Then, there was the economy. The 1830s and 40s were doubly hard for men such as Henry Nichols and Samuel Barber. They were unusual, African American small businessmen trying to survive in a perilous economic environment, punctuated by the severe depression which hit the country at the end of the decade. And finally there was the impact of massive immigration. During the decade of the 1840s, thousands of Irish immigrants moved into the neighborhood, compelling many native-born Americans and African Americans to leave. These and other events of the tumultuous era would have affected the fate of the two African American families we know to have attended All Saints Church more than most.
What happened to All Saints Church as the nation, and the City, careened toward its tragic destiny in the 1860s? Did African Americans continue to attend services at the church and worship separately in the slave galleries? Did they continue to wait until the white members were finished taking communion before they filed down to approach the communion table? Or did differences in class, and the ability to afford the pew rents for seats on the main sanctuary floor, decide who sat upstairs and down regardless of race? The answer to these questions will unlock the secrets of the slave galleries at All Saints Church. But even more important, they will provide the missing link to between the origins of racism in American history and our contemporary efforts to perfect American democracy.
Document V – The Underground Railroad and the Coming of War
by Matthew Pinsker
The Underground Railroad was a metaphor. Yet many textbooks treat it as an official name for a secret network that once helped escaping slaves. The more literal-minded students end up questioning whether these fixed escape routes were actually under the ground. But the phrase “Underground Railroad” is better understood as a rhetorical device that compared unlike things for the purpose of illustration. In this case, the metaphor described an array of people connected mainly by their intense desire to help other people escape from slavery. Understanding the history of the phrase changes its meaning in profound ways.
Even to begin a lesson by examining the two words “underground” and “railroad” helps provide a tighter chronological framework than usual with this topic. There could be no “underground railroad” until actual railroads became familiar to the American public–in other words, during the 1830s and 1840s. There had certainly been slave escapes before that period, but they were not described by any kind of railroad moniker. The phrase also highlights a specific geographic orientation. Antebellum railroads existed primarily in the North–home to about 70 percent of the nation’s 30,000 miles of track by 1860. Slaves fled in every direction of the compass, but the metaphor packed its greatest wallop in those communities closest to the nation’s whistle-stops.
Looking into the phrase “Underground Railroad” also suggests two essential questions: who coined the metaphor? And why would they want to compare and inextricably link a wide-ranging effort to support runaway slaves with an organized network of secret railroads?
The answers can be found in the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists, or those who agitated for the immediate destruction of slavery, wanted to publicize, and perhaps even exaggerate, the number of slave escapes and the extent of the network that existed to support those fugitives. According to the pioneering work of historian Larry Gara, abolitionist newspapers and orators were the ones who first used the term “Underground Railroad” during the early 1840s, and they did so to taunt slaveholders (1). To some participants this seemed a dangerous game. Frederick Douglass, for instance, claimed to be appalled. “I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad,” he wrote in his Narrative in 1845, warning that “by their open declarations” these mostly Ohio-based (“western”) abolitionists were creating an “upperground railroad” (2).
Publicity about escapes and open defiance of federal law only spread in the years that followed, especially after the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Anxious fugitives and their allies now fought back with greater ferocity. Douglass himself became more militant. In September 1851, he helped a former slave named William Parker escape to Canada after Parker had spearheaded a resistance in Christiana, Pennsylvania that left a Maryland slaveholder dead and federal authorities in disarray. The next year in a fiery speech at Pittsburgh, the famous orator stepped up the rhetorical attack, vowing, “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers” (3). This level of defiance was not uncommon in the antislavery North and soon imperiled both federal statute and national union. Between 1850 and 1861, there were only about 350 fugitive slave cases prosecuted under the notoriously tough law, and none in the abolitionist-friendly New England states after 1854 (4). White Southerners complained bitterly while abolitionists grew more emboldened.
Yet students often seem to imagine runaway slaves cowering in the shadows while ingenious “conductors” and “stationmasters” devised elaborate secret hiding places and coded messages to help spirit fugitives to freedom. They make few distinctions between North and South, often imagining that slave patrollers and their barking dogs chased terrified runaways from Mississippi to Maine. Instead, the Underground Railroad deserves to be explained in terms of sectional differences and the coming of the Civil War.
One way to grasp the Underground Railroad in its full political complexity is to look closely at the rise of abolitionism and the spread of free black vigilance committees during the 1830s. Nineteenth-century American communities employed extra-legal “vigilance” groups whenever they felt threatened. During the mid-1830s, free black residents first in New York and then across other Northern cities began organizing vigilant associations to help them guard against kidnappers. Almost immediately, however, these groups extended their protective services to runaway slaves. They also soon allied themselves with the new abolitionist organizations, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society. The most active vigilance committees were in Boston, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia led by now largely forgotten figures such as Lewis Hayden, George DeBaptiste, David Ruggles, and William Still (5). Black men typically dominated these groups, but membership also included whites, such as some surprisingly feisty Quakers, and at least a few women. These vigilance groups constituted the organized core of what soon became known as the Underground Railroad. Smaller communities organized too, but did not necessarily invoke the “vigilance” label, nor integrate as easily across racial, religious and gender lines. Nonetheless, during the 1840s when William Parker formed a “mutual protection” society in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, or when John Brown created his League of Gileadites in Springfield, Massachusetts, they emulated this vigilance model.
These committees functioned more or less like committees anywhere—electing officers, holding meetings, keeping records, and raising funds. They guarded their secrets, but these were not covert operatives in the manner of the French Resistance. In New York, the vigilance committee published an annual report. Detroit vigilance agents filled newspaper columns with reports about their monthly traffic. Several committees released the addresses of their officers. One enterprising figure circulated a business card that read, “Underground Railroad Agent” (6). Even sensitive material often got recorded somewhere. A surprising amount of this secret evidence is also available for classroom use. One can explore letters detailing Harriet Tubman’s comings and goings, and even a reimbursement request for her worn-out shoes by using William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1872), available online in a dozen different places, and which presents the fascinating materials he collected as head of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. Anyone curious about how much it cost to help runaways can access the site where social studies teacher Dean Eastman and his students at Beverly High School have transcribed and posted the account books of the Boston vigilance committee. And the list of accessible Underground Railroad material grows steadily (7).
But how did these Northern vigilance groups get away with such impudence? How could they publicize their existence and risk imprisonment by keeping records that detailed illegal activities? The answer helps move the story into the 1840s and 1850s and offers a fresh way to for teachers to explore the legal and political history of the sectional crisis with students. Those aiding fugitives often benefited from the protection of state personal liberty laws and from a general reluctance across the North to encourage federal intervention or reward Southern power. In other words, it was all about states’ rights—Northern states’ rights. As early as the 1820s, Northern states led by Pennsylvania had been experimenting with personal liberty or anti-kidnapping statutes designed to protect free black residents from kidnapping, but which also had the effect of frustrating enforcement of federal fugitive slave laws (1793 and 1850). In two landmark cases –Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) andAbleman v. Booth (1859)—the Supreme Court threw out these Northern personal liberty protections as unconstitutional.
Students accustomed to equating states’ rights with South Carolina may be stunned to learn that it was the Wisconsin Supreme Court asserting the nullification doctrine in the mid-1850s. They may also be shocked to discover that a federal jury in Philadelphia had acquitted the lead defendant in the Christiana treason trial within about fifteen minutes. These Northern legislatures and juries were, for the most part, indifferent to black civil rights, but they were quite adamant about asserting their own states’ rights during the years before the Civil War. This was the popular sentiment exploited by Northern vigilance committees that helped sustain their controversial work on behalf of fugitives.
That is also why practically none of the Underground Railroad agents in the North experienced arrest, conviction, or physical violence. No prominent Underground Railroad operative ever got killed or spent significant time in jail for helping fugitives once they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line or the Ohio River. Instead, it was agents operating across the South who endured the notorious late-night arrests, long jail sentences, torture, and sometimes even lynching that made the underground work so dangerous. In 1844, for example, a federal marshal in Florida ordered the branding of Jonathan Walker, a sea captain who had been convicted of smuggling runaways, with the mark “S.S.” (“slave-stealer”) on his hand. That kind of barbaric punishment simply did not happen in the North.
What did happen, however, was growing rhetorical violence. The war of words spread. Threats escalated. Metaphors hardened. The results then shaped the responses the led to war. By reading and analyzing the various Southern secession documents from the winter of 1860-61, one will find that nearly all invoke the crisis over fugitives (8). The battle over fugitives and those who aided them was a primary instigator for the national conflict over slavery. Years afterward, Frederick Douglass dismissed the impact of the Underground Railroad in terms of the larger fight against slavery, comparing it to “an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon” (9). But Douglass had always been cool to the public value of the metaphor. Measured in words, however —through the antebellum newspaper articles, sermons, speeches, and resolutions generated by the crisis over fugitives—the “Underground Railroad” proved to be quite literally a metaphor that helped launch the Civil War.
Matthew Pinsker is Associate Professor of History and Pohanka Chair in American Civil War History at Dickinson College. He has written two books about Abraham Lincoln and currently is working on a book about the Underground Railroad.