Had I been born a hatter, people would have come into the world without heads. —Christopher Colles, inventor with good intentions
This is a three-part series on the waterworks project of New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is part one. Here are part two and part three.
The story of Manhattan can’t be told without talking about water. Which I do a lot on this blog… but for good reason. It’s not just because Manhattan is an island and therefore surrounded by all that wet stuff, but the sheer magnitude of population growth once it was colonized, and the fact that humans can’t live without drinking water.
You’d think the colonizers would have made drinking water a priority. You’d also think Europeans would have been as intelligent as the indigenous people already there to know you can’t trash an environment and expect it to remain pristine. After all, it’s not like the colonizers came from another planet. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened. The trashing, not the intergalactic colonizing.
Nature’s Natural Reservoir
If we go back to the beginning, to both the Lenape and and the start of this blog, I waxed poetically about Collect Pond for being a freshwater source on an island surrounded by briny rivers, a beautiful place for colonizers to picnic and boat in the summer, skate in the winter, and then dump industrial waste all year long.
For a while, the pond held itself in check. Tea Water Pumpsall over the city delivered fresh water in wells dug to the same groundwater springs that fed the pond. Though, the farther one got from the Collect, the brinier and filthier the water. If folks wanted and could afford the freshest water, they paid Tea-Water Men to deliver it in casks.
All of this worked until it didn’t. Profound, I know. When it became obvious that there was a problem, a potentially huge problem, the New York Provincial Assembly passed a bill in 1742 aimed specifically at ensuring there was sufficient water in the city for fighting fires.
[This was after the fires from the Conspiracy of 1741, which was blamed on the Black population, though it was really white people acting out of fear of their enslaved population rising up against them. Racist is as racist does.]
Oops. They forgot about fresh, clean drinking water, not just the delivery of water.
Love That Dirty Water
That filthy water I mentioned? In short, it was caused by runoff. Have a dead pig? Leave it in the street to decompose and join the stream of refuse and human waste slowly making its way down to…
Who knows? The entire city was a stinking cesspool. Something needed to be done to save the residents of Manhattan from themselves.
Steam Engines in America
In 1774, New York City found a solution in Irish-born inventor, engineer and perennial schlimazel*, Christopher Colles.
After arriving in Philadelphia and lecturing at the American Philosophical Society — a think tank started by Benjamin Franklin — the APS turned him down when he asked for a stipend to build a steam engine. Eventually, a local distillery hired him to build one for pumping water into cooling tanks. A noble purpose, especially by colonial American standards. Those folks loved their ale.
Colles’ steam engine is considered the first steam engine built in America. [Koeppel] By the way, Colles didn’t invent the steam engine. He endeavored to improve on Jonathan Hornblower’s English model.
On April 22, 1774, coincidentally the same day as the New York Tea Party (like Boston, but in New York), Colles presented his plan to the Common Council — the alderman of the city with legislative power — to save Manhattan from its drinking water problem:
In short, Colles wanted to use a steam engine to pump water into a reservoir capable of holding 1,200,000 gallons of water for both drinking and fire fighting. In doing so, he intended to lay a network of pipes made of pitch pine logs bored out six inches and connected with iron rings. They were to be buried four feet under the street, and by gravity, convey a supply of fresh water throughout the fourteen miles of road that made up Manhattan.
After three months of deliberation, the Common Council approved Colles’ proposal. However, it didn’t quite happen as planned.
Manhattan, We Have A Problem
One stipulation from the Common Council was that Colles had to dig a well and prove good water came from it before he could go ahead building his steam engine and laying pipes. Not the problem.
Colles built his reservoir to hold 2,000,000 gallons of water. His steam engine worked ten strokes a minute — not as good as Hornblower’s, but not terrible. And they’d cast the cylinders in February 1775. Getting close to the problem.
The City of New York signed a contract with both Isaac Mann Sr. and Jr. from Albany, New York to purchase 60,000 feet of logs, fourteen to twenty feet long, without shakes or large knots. They were to be shipped down the Hudson later that year. Getting a lot closer to the problem.
April 1775 came, and so did the Battles of Lexington and Concord. There’s the problem.
For all his determination, Colles didn’t quit even as Manhattan emptied of businesses and families in preparation of what… or who… was to come.
General Washington arrived in New York in April 1776 and fortified the city against the British. This was the breaking point of Colles’ project. He and his family fled the city for safety.
By the time the war was over in 1783, there was nothing left of Colles’ project. It would take over sixty years, many preventable deaths, and city-destroying fires before Manhattan had enough clean water to provide for her residents.
Burr Makes It to the Room Where It Happened
In the intervening years — after the war but before killing Alexander Hamilton — Aaron Burr conned the leaders of Manhattan and made a fortune before losing it all. And yes, this has everything to do with delivering fresh water to Manhattan. Next week: Part Two!
Schlimazel: Yiddish, meaning an unlucky person; if a schlemiel trips, he lands on a schlimazel.
Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. New York ; Oxford: Oxford university press, 1999.
Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
During the early days of New Amsterdam, when a ship arrived, it anchored off the East River. Small boats which could handle the shallow river’s muddy edge conveyed the cargo and passengers to shore.
They needed a better option.
The Dutch did not build wharves on the East River because of its shallow depth, which was impossible for merchant vessels. It also had the tendency to flood area marshes at high tide, making it less than ideal for warehouses and other businesses that relied on shipping. The government offered citizens an incentive by the government to buy up waterfront lots on the East River on the condition that they fill in the shallow water with landfill to make a “‘wharf or street’ of a specified width at the outer edge, but the remainder of the filled land would become theirs to build on.”1 None of the slips were dug out from the riverbed.
Land-making accomplished two goals. First, it extended the shoreline beyond the shallow water near the natural shore so that ships could dock at landside wharves instead of anchoring far out in the East River. Second, the waterfront’s close proximity to the trade ships led to the construction of markets, storefronts, warehouses, and other commercial structures which were conveniently close to landings where farmers could moor their boats and unload livestock and produce for sale. In this way, land-making had a crucial impact on the development of New York’s burgeoning economy.
Diggers leveled some of Manhattan’s hills, and carters brought the fill to the river’s edge. Log cribbing was used to hold back the fill. Developers brought in Pine and Hemlock from the Hudson Valley.
The timbers were stacked horizontally, one on top of another, and notched together in a manner similar to how the walls of a log house are built. This technique was a typical way of building wharves in North America from the early 18th through the late 19th centuries.
The inlets created by the landfill were long arms reaching from the land, creating “alleyways of water.” [NYT] These slips were about two blocks long and about as wide. In this way, larger ships could easily tie up close to the warehouses constructed for this very purpose.
Some of the cargo brought in during the 18th century was coffee, spices, foods like green bananas, and both necessary and luxury items enjoyed by the colonists.
The Twelve Slips
Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the inhabitants of Manhattan built out twelve slips. Some names for the slips reflected those who owned the land, but others reflected the trade that took place in the markets set up on or near the slips.
Whitehall Slip next to Battery at the base of Whitehall St.
When the American Revolution ended, George Washington boarded a barge at Whitehall Slip that carried him across to New Jersey. This was the first leg of his farewell procession, taking him home to Mount Vernon in 1783. Along the way, he formally resigned his commission as commander-in-chief.
Exchange Slip at the bottom of Broad Street.
Coenties Slip, at Coenties Alley near Broad Street.
Conraet Ten Eyck, a tanner and shoemaker, was an early Dutch landowner. He was nicknamed Coentje, or “Coonchy” to the British. The nickname and spelling stuck.
Old Slip, at the bottom of William Street.
Old Slip goes back at least as far as its first appearance on a map in 1691. Its most famous moment in American history came a hundred years later when, in 1792, the 90-ton merchant brig Betsy sailed out of Old Slip to become the first ship to carry the American flag around the world.2
Coffee House Slip, at the bottom of Wall Street.
In 1774, Manhattan held a Tea Party which did not rival Boston’s. The Nancy, loaded with tea, was refused to dock. The captain rowed to shore and stayed at a tavern for two days, then took his ship back to England. And that is why you rarely hear about this event.
Burling Slip, at the bottom of John Street. (Once known as Rodman’s Slip)
Peck Slip, at the base of Ferry Street.
Market boats full of produce and livestock sailed from Long Island, where they were farmed, to Peck Slip. These items were sold at a public market built nearby. There were also warehouses and brick residences for market-men and ship owners.
James Slip, at the end of James Street.
Market Slip at the bottom of Market Street.
Pike Slip at the bottom of Pike St.
Rutgers Slip, at the end of Rutgers Street.
This slip was named for Henry Rutgers (1745-1830), whose father owned most of the Lower East Side in the early colonial era. He was an organizer for the Sons of Liberty and fought in the American Revolution.
The End of the Slips
Why wasn’t the Hudson River used as a port in colonial New York?
It wasn’t an ideal choice for sailing ships. Not only was the shore rocky, but it was also too windy and the currents too strong in places. A few wharves existed on the Hudson in the 18th century [Montrésor’s map, 1775], but it wasn’t until the 19th century, with the advent of the steamship, that the Hudson became a busy landing.
At the same time, Manhattan needed more buildable land as its needs expanded. The city began to fill in the slips on the East River. The last slip ended its run in 1900.
Today, the only part of the slips to still exist are their names on street signs.
* Note on spelling: These buildings for the performing arts in colonial America are spelled “theatre” because they were built before the Revolution and therefore spelled in the British way.
Theatre has been important to English society since… well, at least Shakespeare… I assume. I didn’t go that far back in my research. But I can tell you that once the English set down roots in the American colonies, actors began performing.
The First Theatres
In the early years, actors performed plays and operas in taverns, barns, and warehouses. By 1716, professional actors from England had arrived, and Williamsburg, Virginia built the first theatre solely committed to performing. It was called the “Play House.” Actors put on English plays, frequently Shakespeare, until 1745 when the theatre was demolished and its frame was used to construct a town hall.1
New York’s first theatre, a small, two-story wooden structure, came a little later in 1732 on Nassau Street. It found its largest competition in the Royal Oak Tavern on Broadway, near Bowling Green.
Interior of an American Theatre
A typical colonial theatre was shaped like a large rectangular room. The stage, a platform about five feet off the ground, took up one third of the room. Benches, known as the pit, filled the rest of the floor.
It cost four shillings for the middling class to sit on the hard benches of the pit. They were allowed to bring their own cushions and foot warmers to make their experience more comfortable. The pit never permitted women.
Along the sides of the theatre, wealthy patrons paid five shillings to sit in boxes, much like the second Theatre Royal in Covent Garden (1674-1791).
And the last seating area, the gallery, students, sailors, and slaves watched the performances from above for two shillings each.
The Playhouse Experience
Eighteenth century theatres were surprisingly loud and bright. Chandeliers and oil lamps illuminated them, offering the same level of brightness to both the performers and the audience. This made the space less dramatic and intimate, which lent to exuberant chatting.
A typical evening at a theatre lasted five hours. There was continuous entertainment, from Shakespeare plays, ballad operas, to musical performances.
The John Street Theatre
The John Street Theatre is commonly referred to as the city’s first permanent playhouse. It’s also considered the birthplace of American theatre because the first American-born playwright staged his play there.
The theatre was active from 1767-1798. It had two tiers of box seats, a pit, and a gallery. The dressing rooms were located in a shed at the back of the building. It sat 750 guests, which was far larger than the Theatre on Nassau Street.
This is the theatre the British took over during their occupancy of New York in 1777. They renamed it “Theatre Royal” for the Covent Garden theatre. The British wanted to keep morale high for their soldiers living far from home. Major John Andre, hanged for spying and his dealings with Benedict Arnold, directed extravagant performances there. Not only did he act, he also painted his own scenery.
Six years after the British evacuated New York at the end of the war, in 1789, President George Washington enjoyed performances at the John Street Theatre. A few years later, Eliza Arnold took the stage as a cast member. She was Edgar Allan Poe’s mother.
Many consider New York City water as some of the best tap water in the country. It’s certainly responsible for their amazing bagels and pizza. So when Pehr Kalm, all known as Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, traveled through New York City in 1748, and declared, “There is no good water to be met within the town itself,” what was he talking about?
In the 18th century, the only potable water New York City residents could drink came from the only freshwater source on the island, Collect Pond. If you recall, the East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries, making the water too salty to drink. Luckily, for early New Yorkers, they established tea-water pumps in various locations throughout the inhabited wards of the city. Unfortunately, the further away the pump was from Collect Pond’s underground springs, the more brackish the water tasted.
Why was it called “tea-water?” Because it wasn’t good enough to drink plain, but was passable as water used for tea. Of course, you can always make beer with it.
Comfort’s Notorious Tea-Water Pump
The best place for procuring water was Comfort’s Tea-Water pump (near today’s Greenwich and Liberty Streets). Comfort’s well was deep enough to reach a clean freshwater spring. Enslaved people were sent there to fill kegs every morning and evening. While Comfort’s well was superior to other public wells, it was also notorious for the disorderly house next door. Hughson’s tavern scandalously offered entertainment and liquor to a mixed crowd of enslaved people, and other men and women of different races.
Comfort’s Tea-Water Pump came to an abrupt end in 1741 in the aftermath of the Conspiracy of 1741, also called the Great Negro Plot. Mysterious fires were set across the city, and white slave owners feared a coming massacre. The evidence was dubious and witnesses had their own agenda. In the end, nearly 100 likely innocent people, mostly Black, were hanged, exiled, or burned at the stake.
After, the Common Council passed a law requiring Black people (enslaved, servant, or free) to get their water from their local well. This reduced the ability for enslaved people to congregate and plan an uprising. It also meant poorer quality water.
Public Water Pumps
The fires during the alleged Great Negro Plot encouraged the Provincial Assembly to pass a law in 1742 for the upkeep of the city’s wells and pumps, aimed specifically at ensuring a sufficient supply of water to fight fires.1 These laws specified that the alderman and his assistant managed the wells in their ward. They appointed an overseer for repair and maintenance, and based on property values, residents paid an assessment tax. The law also put in place fines for vandalism to the wells, such as cutting ropes or breaking pump handles.
The taxes and fines collected by the city allowed for “the sinking of new wells, installation of pumps, and continued maintenance.”2
Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish born physician traveling through New York in 1744, noted in his journal that wealthy residents received large casks of water from hired “Tea-Water Men.” For forty-five shillings a year, they carted water from the Tea Water Pump (near today’s Baxter and Mulberry streets), near to where Comfort’s had been.
*The* Tea-Water Pump
The Hardenbrooks, who installed in a well and pump on their land, must have seen an opportunity when Comfort’s pump closed. The Tea-Water Pump became New York’s single source of good water for the rest of the colonial period.3 Right before the Revolution, the Tea-Water Pump Garden, like other nearby pleasuregardens, opened as a resort.
All refer to Koeppel, G. T.
Bock, Vera, Artist. History of civic services in the city of New York Water supply No. 2: The tea water pump garden. New York City New York, 1936. [New York: Federal Art Project , Pt. 4, 1936] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/98518656/.
The Catskill Aqueduct and Earlier Water Supplies of the City of New York: With Elementary Chapters on the Source and Uses of Water and the Building of Aqueducts, and an Outline for an Allegorical Pageant. (1917). United States: (n.p.).
Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York. (1918). (n.p.): (n.p.).
Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Coming up with this blog post was the ultimate dive down a rabbit hole. While searching for information on tunnels below Manhattan, hoping to find some that predated the legendary and possibly mythical cow tunnels, I came across an article about fishing in a basement below Second Avenue in the 1950s. How could I not investigate this matter for you, dear reader? And by you, I mean me. Us. The hopelessly curious.
While some of what I found touches on 18th century Manhattan, much of it references the 19th century to present times.
Let’s begin at the beginning. When the Lenape inhabited the island of Manhattan, it was lush with forests, “streams, kills, rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, burns, brakes, and springs.”1 Then the Dutch arrived in 1625 and began systematically rearranging nature to suit their purposes of creating a sustainable town — sustainable to European-style living. They dug canals reminiscent of their beloved Amsterdam. Just like Amsterdam’s canals, eventually they became polluted by residents dumping refuse into them.
When the British took over in 1664, they had no interest in rehabilitating the canals. They filled them in and built over them, as well as other waterways. This started out as a good idea to expand and make the land more habitable. However, that wasn’t always the outcome.
To the west of the famous Tea Water Pump, where drinking water was delivered by the barrel to residents in Lower Manhattan, lay the Collect Pond. Over the course of the 18th century, the pond became polluted by run-off from nearby industries (tanneries, cattle farms, etc.). It was time to bury the pond as it no longer served its purpose and was taking up valuable real estate. In 1819, developers built an elegant neighborhood called Paradise Square atop the filled in pond. It’s elegance didn’t last.
The fancy homes began to sink into the land within ten years, and as it did, methane from the rotting wildlife beneath the fill escaped. No longer a place where the wealthy wished to live, the area fell to slums and tenements, becoming the notorious Five Points. In fact, The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention, better known as the Tombs, built over the original deepest part of the pond, sank shortly after its opening. The cells were compared to dungeons of the worst conditions due in part by the pond’s haunting remnants.
Minetta Brook, under today’s Greenwich Village, flowed from the western section of Washington Square Park where its course took it to the Hudson River. Marshland around the brook eventually became tobacco farms. By the time the Yellow Fever epidemic swept the country in 1797, these farms were converted to cemeteries.
Eventually, the city moved the cemetery’s lots to another location, building a neighborhood called Little Africa, the city’s first free black community, in its place. Like the Collect Pond, the area where the Minetta Brook had freely flowed turned into slums and became an uptown version of Five Points.
Some believed that there was a connection between fever outbreaks and the communities built over buried waterways. I would argue that this might be a case of causality vs. correlation. Slums, overcrowded by those who couldn’t afford medical care or better sanitation, may have hastened the prevalence of fast-spreading diseases. It didn’t help that they lived on land with rotting material beneath.
Egbert Ludovicus Viele
Colonel Viele served in the US Army in the Civil War. Before the war, he’d seen how poor sanitation caused illness and was a proponent of the theory that building over buried waterways was the cause. As a civil engineer and surveyor, he set out to map the island’s streams and ponds. It illuminated “what the island looked like before it was filled in.”2
[Egbert Ludovicus Viele. Source: Library of Congress]
Viele’s map shows all the known, original waterways as well as the city’s grid system. Since it is impossible to know how these waterways might affect construction today, structural engineers still use the 1865 map before beginning any job in Manhattan.
Fishing in the Basement
Finally, we go fishing. In the 1950s, New York experienced another regrowth. New, heavier buildings with deeper foundations replaced smaller buildings. This caused underground waterways to reroute again.
Then, in 1955, two hurricanes swept through New York within ten days of each other: Hurricane Connie and Hurricane Diane. As you might guess, these caused unprecedented flooding and destruction.
Between the rerouted waterways and the flooding from the hurricanes came a story that took place on Second Avenue and 53rd Street under Gasnick Supply Company, a hardware store. Mr. Gasnick described his experience in an article in the New York Times on August 22, 1971.
Let’s allow Mr. Gasnick to tell his story:
"...We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and up-on its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.
"With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed up-wards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.
"One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.
"Feeling a tug, I hauled up in excitement and there was a carp skipping before me, an almost three pounder. I was brave enough to have it pan-broiled and buttered in our upstairs kitchen and shared it with my brother..."
Today, both Gasnick Supply Company and the building are gone. There have been no other reports of fishing in basements in New York City, though in 2007, Giles the author of Urbablurb, a short-lived New York blog, claimed he saw a 19th century clapboard house in Brooklyn with a sealed up well in the basement floor.
Fish Tale or Not?
Maybe. Possibly? I’d like to think Gasnick caught his fish.
Could Carp live their whole lives in New York City’s underground waterways? Not likely. What would they eat? Their diet consists mainly of algae and plant matter, which would have a hard time growing without sunlight. Carp migrating from a backyard pond after the flooding from the hurricanes is a more likely theory.
A conservation ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society argued that it was “unclear whether water still flowed in many of the underground streambeds, because most of the water that once drained into them now flows into storm drains instead.”3 And yet, after heavy rainfall, these underground streams still cause basement flooding, sinking foundations, and backyard sinkholes.
The Last Tribute
Two Fifth Avenue is a high-rise apartment building completed in 1952. I checked. It’s still there. The building is located across from the Washington Square Triumphal Arch, and until 2011, the high-rise’s lobby displayed a glass pipe revealing silted water bubbling up from the buried Minetta Brook. As a triubte to the underground waterways, it was the last of its kind. Sadly, after a renovation, it was never replaced.
Before we look at Jewish rights under British rule in the colony of New York, we must look at Jewish rights in England to get a feel for the coming changes.
This was a precarious time during the Interregnum with Oliver Cromwell installed as the Lord Protector*. Between Cromwell and the leaders that followed him, they never put forth a statute authorizing the settlement of Jews in England. Nor were they prohibited either. Because of this, Jewish rights under British rule remained uncertain and insecure.
As we’ll see, ambivalence is not the same as religious tolerance.
English Law & Antisemitism
Lord Edward Coke, as Chief Justice, was considered one of the greatest jurists of his time. In his legal commentaries, he mixed theology with law**, and considered Jews (and any other group who did not identify as Christians) infidels and perpetual enemies of Christians, and therefore had no rights whatsoever which a court of justice could enforce. (Kohler)
In 1673 this principle was invoked to prevent a Jewish plaintiff from recovering a debt admitted to be due to him, the defendant claiming that a perpetual enemy had no standing in a court of justice. (Kohler)
While many judges used Coke’s principles when arguing a case, some dismissed it.
This is where laws and rights regarding Jews (and other foreigners) diverge between England and the colony of New York. As we discovered in Part 1, when New Netherland passed into British hands, there was ambiguity on England’s part in how to categorize the takeover. If the Crown considered New York a conquered land, the leaders in New York could write their own laws. However, if it was an “acquisition by discovery,” the laws of England prevailed. All this is to say, some of England’s laws carried over to New York, and some laws were created by the General Assembly of New York, a colonial governing body who answered to the Crown.
Naturalization and Denization
Over the next sixty years, the Crown and General Assembly passed a variety of laws regarding naturalization and denization.
In 1683, the colonial Assembly passed a general naturalization act limited to those professing Christianity. Coke’s jurisprudence remained a powerful influence; the Crown did not include Jews with the right of naturalized citizenship. Despite this, Jewish residents did not give up on their quest to build a synagogue, and they petitioned Governor Dongan two years later “for liberty to exercise their religion.” In a time when they were denied naturalization, they had the chutzpah (or the Ladino equivalent) to ask for what they wanted, anyway.
Petitioning for a Synagogue
Governor Dongan handed off the request to the Mayor and Common Council of New York who decided:
In the intervening years, Jews continued to gather and worship in their homes. However, somehow, a synagogue must have existed by 1692 because it was mentioned in a court proceeding. Next, it appeared on Chaplain Miller’s map in 1695 as the Jews’ Synagogue — the correct name of the synagogue is Congregation Shearith Israel, and it is still an active synagogue today. The first legal document reflecting its existence appeared among the New York City public records in 1700 where a property is described as bounded on one side “by the house and ground of John Harpending, now commonly known by the name of the Jews’ Synagogue.” Some scholars consider Miller’s map “questionable” due to Miller losing his notes before drawing up the map. (Hershkowitz)
It is important to mention that Shearith Israel considers their founding in 1654 when the first group of Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. Whether or not they had a building, if they gathered to worship, they existed.
Some Jewish residents gained naturalization in 1715 when the colonial Assembly passed another naturalization act. This time, it included Protestants and “all persons alive who inhabited the colony before November 1, 1683.” Obviously, this did not include all Jews.
Amending the Oath of Abjuration
There were other considerations beyond naturalization that were important to Jews. If a person wished to take public office, they had to take an Oath of Abjuration swearing they would not take arms against the king. The phrasing included “on the true faith of a Christian,” which denied Jews’ political rights.
In 1723, Parliament recognized Jews as his Majesty’s subjects and omitted the phrase. This allowed Jews to lawfully swear in English courts. However, it wasn’t until 1727 that the colonial Assembly passed a general act omitting the phrase in New York.
A major setback occurred in 1737 that reminds me of the voter suppression wave sweeping America right now. Adolph Philipse ran against Cornelius Van Horne for a seat in the General Assembly. He lost to Philipse 399 to 413, causing a controversy over who had the right to vote in that election. The lawyers handling the situation referred to New York law and decided that “all freeholders of competent estate, without excepting the descendants of Abraham” could vote. The lawyer representing Van Horne successfully appealed to the laws of England and to anti-semetic prejudice. (Varga)
In the end, Philipse was still declared the winner, and Jews lost the right to vote and to be admitted as witnesses again. (Kohler) [Prior to this case, the requirement to vote in New York was a freehold worth at least £40.]
1740 brought a little hope for Jewish residents. The Naturalization Act of 1740 passed by Parliament gave special provisions for Jewish citizens. If a Jew resided in a colony for at least seven years, they could be naturalized by swearing an oath of allegiance before a local magistrate. This gave them full civil rights while it still withheld various political rights.
Finally, the first Constitution of the State of New York adopted in 1777 gave Jews and other disenfranchised minorities “absolute equality with all other subjects.” (Kohler) The State of New York was a leader in religious liberty by rejecting Lord Coke’s antisemitism!
So, it’s time for white antisemitic supremacists to remember the principles America was founded on: absolute equality (still working on this one) and a rejection of Lord Coke’s principles based on combining church and state. Keep the Bible away from my rights!
Thank you for reading to the end. I know this has been a lot to digest. I welcome your comments, not your hate.
* Lord Protector is a title used in British constitutional law for the head of state. It is also a particular title for the British heads of state in respect to the established church. (Source: Wikipedia)
** Separating church and state is a pillar of American constitutional law for a reason. And Lord Coke is that reason. He was also the inspiration behind our third, fourth, and sixteenth amendments.
Most of my blogs center on 18th century New York because that is the period and location in which the books I’m writing take place. This post will take us to back to just before 1654, when the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. By going back that far, it will give us context for the Jewish experience in the 18th century. More than land changed hands from the Lenape to the Dutch to the British. Religious tolerance and rights also shifted.
The first Dutch settlement in New Netherland was claimed in 1614 under the direction of the Dutch West India Company. Ten years later, the directors of the Company founded New Amsterdam and sent merchants and stockholders to settle there. By 1654, the first Jewish merchants arrived, and some of them may have even been directors themselves.1
Sephardic Jews Under Dutch Rule
In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal expelled Jews during the Inquisition. Many went to Holland, where they enjoyed religious toleration and full political rights. These Jews were known as Sephardic (Hebrew for Spanish) because they came from the Iberian Peninsula. However, they had to abide by certain restrictions placed on them. The Dutch forbid them to write or speak disparagingly of the Christian religion, convert Christians to Judaism, nor were they allowed to intermarry among Christians.
Jews were also forbidden to engage in retail trade. In many European countries, retail was the domain of the Christian burghers. However, this exclusion did not extend to imports and exports. As such, Jews played an influential role in the Company with their merchant businesses. Many left Holland with the Company and settled in Brazil until the Portuguese took control in 1654, expelling the Dutch.
Does that date sound familiar? It should. The first Jews on record to arrive in New Amsterdam were refugees from Brazil.
Lastly, under Dutch rule, Jews could only legally pray in private. It would be many years before the founding of the first synagogue in the New World. In fact, it wasn’t until 1671 when the first Sephardic synagogue in Holland was allowed to be built.
While there were individuals who wished the Company would enact intolerance rules toward the Jews, Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony of New Netherland, instructed otherwise:
Jews settling in New Amsterdam remained under Dutch protection and enjoyed the same rights and privileges as those in Holland. Considering the treatment of Jews in other parts of Europe, it could have been worse — a frequent refrain in Jewish history. Jews in Holland and her colonies were a separate class, but with the same political rights.
Shortly after settling, Jews gained the right to purchase land for themselves. Then they were permitted to purchase land for a Jewish cemetery, a first step in laying down roots.
Then the English took New Amsterdam in 1664, renaming it for the Duke of York.
The articles of capitulation provided that:
The Treaty of Breda in 1667 confirmed that the legal status of the Jewish residents would continue under the new British rule.
Was it so simple? Yes, and no.
English Colonial Rule
Under English colonial law, conquered territories did not have to follow English law; they could create their own set of laws for the new British subjects. Some argued, however, that New York was an “acquisition by discovery,” and therefore subject to the laws of England. After all, the Duke of York acquired New Amsterdam — not conquered it — because the Dutch chose not to fight when the British showed up. Therefore, the land passed into English hands.
What did this mean for the Jews? It’s complicated.
If you had asked me which street in Manhattan is the oldest, I would have answered, “The Broad Way.” And I would have been wrong. Before Chinatown and Five Points, before the street became known as “The Bowery,” it was Bowry Lane, a prior footpath shaped by the Lenape.
The Lenape used the path to travel to and from trading and gathering places, and Collect Pond, the only source of freshwater in Manhattan. (The East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries—or brackish, not fresh.) The Lenape term for the path was Wickquasgeck, which either means “Path to the trading place” or “Birch-bark country.”
As the Dutch stripped land for the colonists to become self-sufficient in their new environment, they named the path for the farms, or bouwerijs, on it.
In 1625, the Dutch West India Company sent Crijn Fredericksz, an engineer, to Manhattan to survey the land for a fort, roads, farms, and property lines. In doing so, the Broad Way—broad enough for carriages passing in both directions—extended from the southernmost tip of the island where the Dutch built their fort, straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerij.”
In 1626, the first enslaved Africans arrived in New Amsterdam. Within two decades, many were granted freedom and parcels of land along Bowry Lane.
Now older and manumitted, free Africans were, for the most part, no longer considered “useful” to colonists. But the colonists still found a way to use them: by living on the farthest land from the fort, the free Africans served as the first line of defense against attacks by Native Americans and the British coming from the north.
Manhattan Changes Hands
When the British took over in 1664, Bowry Lane was already the major road out of Manhattan. It connected to the Boston Post Road, which still exists today, and was literally a posting road that led from New York to Boston.
In the early part of the 18th century, Bowry Lane was paved, and sidewalks installed. A map from 1766 labels the entire length of road as “the Bowry Lane.” However, after the American Revolution, the northern section was renamed for William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, for his pro-American stance during the war.
The Oldest Home in Manhattan
While New York City became more populated with people and buildings, Bowry Lane remained farms and large estates. To accommodate a greater need for meat, the city established the first public slaughterhouse on the land around Collect Pond, which sits very close to Bowry Lane. Prior to this, slaughterhouses weren’t allowed in the city due to their noise, smells, and effluent matter. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end to Collect Pond as a source of non-polluted freshwater.
The slaughterhouses were important to Edward Mooney, who was not only important in the “meat business,” but also represented the city’s butchers in the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Wanting to leave near his place of business, he purchased a parcel of land from the Delancey estate at the auction from the Commissioners of Forfeiture in 1785.
During and after the war, Americans confiscated land from loyalists to pay for the war effort. The inhabitants were allowed to take their clothes, some furniture, and provisions for three months. As such, James Delancey, who remained loyal to the British Crown, forfeited his estate. On this land, Mooney built a house at 18 Bowery, and it still stands today.
The 19th century brought tremendous change to Manhattan and the Bowery, in particular with the influx of immigrants. Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the Bowery would continue to thrive and fail many times over.
The first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam (what would become New York in 1664) came to escape the continuation of the Inquisition when Portugal wrested control of Brazil from the Dutch in 1654. There were six women among the twenty-three refugees, and only two of their names survived in the record because they were widowed heads of households — Ricke Nunes and Judith Mercado.
For the most part, “at a time when Jews elsewhere were so often locked away behind ghetto walls, colonial Jews found a remarkable degree of toleration and diversity.”1
The lives of colonial Jewish women, like their Christian neighbors, centered on the household as well as religious life, allowing the rhythms and cycles of sacred times to govern their days. They also dressed the same in their bonnets and gowns, practiced needlework, and wealthier wives employed servants and owned slaves to help with chores and childrearing.
Jewish law does not require women to pray in synagogue. Before coming to America, they rarely attended. However, once in America, they chose to attend like Christian housewives. The first synagogue in colonial America, Shearith Israel, was founded in 1654 (it would take 2 years before a cemetery became necessary) and still serves the community in Manhattan to this day.
At home, Jewish housewives made sure kashrut — dietary laws — were followed, including separate dishes for meat and dairy. They were also responsible for teaching their children Jewish culture and traditions. But it must be mentioned that Jewish households, then as now, ran the gamut of observing every Jewish law to disregarding what didn’t serve them.
The average age for a Jewish woman to marry for the first time in the 18th century was twenty-three. Men, needing a means to support a future family, took time to establish themselves. They were therefore about ten years older when they married.
Because the Jewish community in America was relatively small (by 1776, there were about 2500 Jews in colonial America, hailing from all over the world), spouses were chosen locally or as far away as the Caribbean or in England. When marriages straddled the Atlantic, they offered a commercial advantage to merchant families, creating profitable networks.
Unfortunately, as happens too often in history, Jews in British Jamaica were blamed for being “too successful,” causing anti-Jewish sentiment. In 1695, the Jamaican assembly passed an additional tax on Jews.
Education & Business
Many Jewish women were literate, having been educated by private tutors or having attended a school maintained by the Jewish community. In fact, Shearith Israel opened their first school in 1731. Even poor children attended by financial contributions left in wills.
We find further evidence of literate Jewish women in family documents, letters, and wills. Abigail Franks, born in colonial America in 1688, left a substantial quantity of letters written to her son while he lived in London.
Many Jewish widows acted as the executors of these wills, suggesting they had some business experience by assisting their husbands. They regularly received property and money that the law of coverture denied their Christian neighbors.
Though it was rare for a woman to own a business in her own right, it wasn’t impossible. Grace Levy Hays (1690-1740) kept a retail store. Esther Pinheiro on Nevis, a British colony and the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, owned several ships in her own right and partnered with merchants in Boston between the years 1710 and 1728.
Jewish women in colonial America also built cottage industries selling jams and pickles, taking in washing, and running kosher boarding houses.
If it weren’t for colonial American Jewish women who held business in their own right, wrote letters deemed worthy enough to be saved, or became heads of households after the death of their husbands, more of their names and accomplishments would be erased from the historical record.
Nadell, P. (2019). America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today. United States: W. W. Norton.