In 1956, the United States Congress officially named the outcrop of land surrounded by New York Bay, and home of the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island. For almost 300 years prior to this, it was called Bedloe’s Island for Isaac Bedloe, a Dutch colonist, merchant, and shipowner born in New Amsterdam. By the time he purchased it, the Dutch had already forced out the Lenape Indians who had used the island for seasonal hunting and fishing for hundreds of years. Because of its vast oyster beds, the Lenape called it Oyster Island.
That makes for a neat, linear history of a small holding of the Borough of Manhattan situated in the middle of New Jersey waters. There is so much more to tell.
For a brief period, the very humble governor of New York, Colonel Francis Lovelace, insisted that if Bedloe wanted to retain ownership of the island, he had to rename it Love Island. We know the name held for a while because in 1753, an advertisement appeared in the paper to rent the property on Bedloe’s Island, “alias Love Island.” But that’s jumping ahead.
When Bedloe died, he left his wife to face bankruptcy. In 1732, she sold the island to Adolphe Philipse & Henry Lane for £5. It is unclear what the two merchants intended for the island because not long after they bought it, New York commandeered it as a smallpox quarantine station.
Ships coming in from South Carolina, Barbados, Antigua, and other places with high smallpox mortality rates, were inspected and the sailors had to wait out a period at the station.
In 1746, Captain Archibald Kennedy of the Royal Navy bought it for £100 for use as a summer residence. He had a lighthouse installed, as one does, to warn of approaching enemies. (Quite the idyllic retreat.)
By 1756, it became a quarantine station again.
The Corporation of the City of New York bought the island for £1000 in 1758 and built a pest house. Though that sounds like a roach motel, it is actually a hospital for infectious diseases.
Leading up to the American Revolution, the hospital and extant buildings became housing for Loyalists civilians and British troops until April 2, 1776, when rebels set the whole island on fire.
A Widow’s Guide to Scandal
In my historical romance, A Widow’s Guide to Scandal (July 2020), the story begins in April 1776 with the rebels controlling New York, and the British hanging on to whatever claim to authority they could. I turned the hospital into a prison on Bedloe’s Island, run by the British to incarcerate ‘traitors‘. King George III didn’t classify rebels as prisoners of war because that would mean recognizing America as its own country. I chose not to have the island burn in the story because it didn’t fit the narrative. That’s not to say the next book won’t revisit the scene of the…
“Gather as much hay as you can from the barn,” Marcus said. “And don’t get caught.”
Apollo heaved his oar through the water. “I never get caught.”
“See that you don’t. This is the second prison break involving me on Bedloe’s. I wish to not do it a third time.”
“Sounds like you ain’t good at it.” Apollo wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. He was strong for being no bigger than a pottle.
Liberty Enlightening the World
By the War of 1812, America acknowledged the strategic importance of the island and built an eleven-point star fort to protect New York from invaders. I suppose they realized that a lighthouse could only do so much protecting. The remains of Fort Wood became the base for the Statue of Liberty, who arrived in 1885 as a gift of friendship from France to honor our countries’ alliance.
More information on Bedloe’s Island:
- A Brief History of Liberty Island
- Historic Buildings as Described by Famous Writers
- NPS: Colonial and Early American New York
- NPS: Statue of Liberty
- Wikipedia: Liberty Island
Images in order of appearance:
- The Great Bartholdi Statue, Liberty Enlightening the World, published by Currier & Ives.; Rawpixel
- To let: Hallie Alexander, 2020
- Love Island Australia: Giphy
- Sailing ship; Giphy
- Smallpox hospital, 1872: NYPL Digital Collections
- Statue of Liberty: Giphy