Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America

by Jonathan Gill

“[A] panoramic history . . . Gill blends high-density research, political and cultural sophistication, and narrative drive to produce an epic worthy of its fabled subject.” —Edward Kosner, The Wall Street Journal

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 528
  • Publication Date February 14, 2012
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4574-1
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $22.00

About The Book

Harlem is perhaps the most famous, iconic neighborhood in the United States. A bastion of freedom and the capital of Black America, Harlem’s twentieth-century renaissance changed our arts, culture, and politics forever. But this is only one of the many chapters in a wonderfully rich and varied history. Jonathan Gill’s Harlem is a groundbreaking history, the first to present the complete chronicle of this remarkable place.

From Henry Hudson’s first contact with native Harlemites on the island they called Mannahatta, through Harlem’s years as a colonial outpost at the edge of the known world, Gill traces the neighborhood’s story, marshaling a tremendous wealth of detail and a host of fascinating figures. Harlem was an agricultural center under British rule, the site of a key early Revolutionary War battle, and later a bucolic site for the great estates of wealthy elites like Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and John James Audubon, who all sought respite from the epidemics raging downtown. In the nineteenth century, improved transportation brought urbanization as well as waves of immigrants:

Harlem is central to the American experience of Germans, Jews, Italians, Irish, West Indians, Puerto Ricans, and, later, Dominicans and West Africans. Harlem’s mix of cultures, races, religions, extraordinary wealth and refinement, and extreme poverty and violent crime has been both electrifying and explosive. Jazz, the musical, the American songbook, hip-hop, and some of the bravest voices in American literature found their home in Harlem. So, too, did street-corner preachers, racial demagogues, and civil rights pioneers.

Like Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World and Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s Gotham, Jonathan Gill’s history will delight readers interested in early New York and will be read for years to come, but its unique focus on the incomparable Harlem sets it apart.


“Kudos to Jonathan Gill for this savvy reconstruction of Harlem’s long, complicated, and often vexing history. A terrific read, with plenty of surprises along the way, it’s bound to become a classic or I’ll eat my hat.” —Edwin G. Burrows, Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

“[A] panoramic history. An academic and magazine writer, Mr. Gill blends high-density research, political and cultural sophistication, and narrative drive to produce an epic worthy of its fabled subject.” —Edward Kosner, The Wall Street Journal

“Authoritative and exhaustive, in addition to being well-written and perceptive . . . We are in Gill’s debt for digging so deeply into Harlem’s past, for describing it with no agenda beyond thoroughness and fairness, and for reminding us that there is so much in Harlem to honor and celebrate as well as to deplore and lament. It is one of the most significant neighborhoods in the country, and its contributions—in social leadership, in literature and the arts—have been huge and invaluable.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“The ancient bones of Harlem are bared, and its old Dutch farmhouses are uncovered, and the forgotten cattle in the pastures shake away a long-settled dust. In this retrospection, something remarkable happens. Page after page of Gill’s book removes brick after brick of the hulking substance of Harlem, paring it back through the jazz and the riots and the poetry to its ancient hours, until a quiet nothingness is left, and the place at last makes sense.” —David Kennedy Jones, The New York Times

“Gill pieces together Harlem’s past mainly via snappy minibiographies of well-known historical figures whose lives were inextricably linked with the neighborhood: Alexander Hamilton, Duke Ellington, Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X and more. . . . Breezy prose and slick segues.” —Michael Sandlin, Time Out New York

“An exquisitely detailed account of the 400-year history of Harlem. . . . Gill details major figures from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X as well as the vibrancy of music, art, literature, religion, politics, and urban sensibility that has come to signify Harlem. Richly researched . . . a vibrant, well-paced, engaging history of an iconic neighborhood.” —Vanessa Bush, Booklist (starred review)

“Readers looking for a . . . straightforward, comprehensive history of the neighborhood might pick up Jonathan Gill’s new book, Harlem.” —Kaiama L. Glover, The New York Times Book Review

“Jonathan Gill writes with a novelist’s bold feel for character, landscape and the struggle of powerful interests. He is the perhaps first historian to grasp the full significance of ‘uptown’ New York City, and shows how the pious, conservative and deeply rural Harlem resisted the corruption and conflicts of ‘downtown,’ and then was transformed by industry, the railroad, the subway and by successive waves of immigrants. Harlem was re-made by African-Americans in the twentieth century, who created a new culture within the swirling, complexity of New York City. Gill’s Harlem, told in vivid detail, began as a rural village and became the site of the greatest avant-garde in American culture.” —Eric Homberger,
author of The Historical Atlas of New York City

“Comprehensive and compassionate—an essential text of American history and culture.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Gill’s narrative history, Harlem , is a strong primer on the neighborhood’s long, exquisite life.” —Walton Muyumba, Dallas Morning News

“Jonathan Gill’s rich history of Harlem is like holding four centuries in your palm.” —Ray Rickman, The Providence Journal

“Jonathan Gill’s history of Harlem is so briskly paced and invitingly written that readers may not even notice how deeply and impeccably researched it is.” —John Matteson, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Eden’s Outcasts

“Jonathan Gill has given us the most appealing trip to Harlem since Duke Ellington told Billy Strayhorn to Take The A Train. Gill’s gallantly researched, lovingly detailed cakewalk through the history of one of the world’s great neighborhoods brings all the streets, pols, gangsters, hoopsters and hipsters vividly to life.” —Nicholas Dawidoff

“Over the years there have been a number of books addressing the Harlem Renaissance. But very few examined the years before or after that remarkable phase. Jonathan Gill has made a decisive and successful step in that direction. And if it isn’t a definitive account, it is certainly an engrossing, well-written, and comprehensive look at this storied community. A must read.” —Herb Boyd, author of Baldwin’s Harlem


1 — Unrighteous Beginnings
From Muscoota to Nieuw Haarlem, 1609-1664

The first Harlemites didn’t quite know what to make of the strange object that sailed up the river in the late summer of 1609. Was it some sort of gigantic flying fish, or a huge swimming bird? And what of the strange, bearded creatures on board? Where did they come from? What did they want? As the earliest residents of the hilly island they called Manahatta would soon learn, the strange object was the Half Moon, a boat belonging to the Dutch East India Company and piloted by the English explorer Henry Hudson. For his part, Hudson seems to have been just as perplexed by the native creatures he saw lining the banks of the waterway they called Mahicanituk, or the River that Flows Both Ways.

Hudson had little time to get to know these people. He was already supposed to be in Asia, and he suspected that the silks and spices of China might lie just upstream.

The Half Moon, an eighty-five-foot-long, shallow-bottomed boat suitable for ocean travel as well as for exploration of the uncharted North American rivers that might offer a shortcut to the riches of the Orient, had survived the terrors of the Atlantic crossing, but by the time Hudson first glimpsed what would become the city of New York on September 3, 1609, the vessel had wandered far off course. He anchored for several days at what is now Sandy Hook, in the lower New York bay, and sent a party ashore. There Hudson found the same fertile wilderness that he had seen all along the Atlantic coast that summer, with plenty of food and water for the taking. He also found copper-skinned people with black hair and black eyes—the men beardless, the women tall, all ready to trade and quick with laughter and anger. The encounter turned threatening and one member of the landing party was killed by an arrow while racing back to the Half Moon. Hudson and his crew of twenty pressed on to China.

By September 11, 1609, when the Half Moon entered the mile-wide river, the “great streame” that would eventually bear its captain’s name, news of the strange vessel had already reached the indigenous inhabitants of the richly wooded lands just off starboard. Crowds of the natives, including women and children, filled canoes and fearlessly paddled alongside the ship, sensing an opportunity to trade with the crew, offering beans and oysters in return for beads and mirrors. Hudson ordered his men to keep their distance, but the next day he regained his confidence and, as the Half Moon reached the shores of the upper part of the island, he decided to anchor. The next morning, just off an inlet at what is now West 125th Street, a crowd of Indians again approached. At the invitation of Hudson, two climbed on board, staying long enough for Hudson to dress them in red jackets and then try to kidnap them. The two visitors broke free and jumped overboard, mocking Hudson and his crew from shore. The first Harlemites learned early on that white men were not to be trusted.

Hudson continued north, encountering numerous native people over the next eleven days, many of them far less suspicious than those downriver. As the mountains lining either side of the waterway grew higher the natives, who quickly fell under the influence of Hudson’s wine, seemed ever more willing to swap their corn and pumpkins for trinkets, tools, or textiles. After a hundred miles it became clear that the narrowing river would not lead to Asia, so the captain turned the Half Moon around and headed downstream, away from the safety of the upper Hudson Valley and back down the river to more unpredictable territory.

On October 2, as the Half Moon passed what is now West 140th Street, the two natives that Hudson had tried to kidnap several weeks earlier led an attack on the ship which, like all East India Company vessels bore a brass tablet fixed to the forecastle reading “do not fight without cause.” Hudson now had cause. One of his crewmen wrote: “two Canoes full of men, with their Bows and Arrowes shot at us after our sterne: in recompense whereof we discharged six Muskets, and killed two or three of them.” The natives were not deterred, and they sent another canoe full of men armed with bows and arrows. Hudson’s men continued to fire their muskets, aiming their cannons at the Indians on the banks as well. By the time it was all over the blood of nine more native Harlemites stained the river’s shores.

The encounters between Henry Hudson and the residents of northern Manhattan in 1609 were but a foretaste of Harlem’s future. The clash of words and worlds, the allure of blood and money, the primacy of violence and fashion, the cohabitation of racial hatred and racial curiosity—they have always been part of what uptown means. But from its days as a frontier outpost, to the time when it seemed like the navel of the black universe, to the era when it became the official symbol of poverty in America, Harlem has always been more than a tragedy in the making. Uptown’s reputation as the soul of the American century is indisputable. Yet even before the 1920s, when the distinctive beat of Harlem’s drummers made the whole world march to a new, syncopated rhythm, Harlem featured one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, counting George Gershwin and Harry Houdini as residents. In the nineteenth century, Harlem represented Manhattan’s future, as city planners built trolley, elevated train, and subway lines uptown in hopes of attracting a middle class that could provide the labor for New York’s industrial revolution. Before that, John James Audubon, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton all looked to Harlem for respite from the relentless noise, filth, and danger of downtown Manhattan. In the eighteenth century, George Washington capitalized on his intimate knowledge of the area’s topography—he had unsuccessfully wooed Martha’s predecessor there years before—to defeat the British in the battle of Harlem Heights, one of the key early conflicts of the Revolutionary War. Peter Minuit’s legendary purchase of Manhattan Island in 1626 took place uptown, not far from the fateful first contacts between Henry Hudson and local Indians in 1609. Through it all, Harlem’s contending forces of power and protest, intention and improvisation, greed and generosity, and sanctity and suspicion decisively shaped the American character. In that history lies the map of Harlem’s even more complex future, though the precise contours of the delicate and yet brutal imperatives of the uptown—downtown relationship, of the changing meanings of race and ethnicity, of the swinging dance of social crisis and economic opportunity have yet to be fixed.

It took millions of years to make Harlem—longer than money, religion, nationality, or race. By the time of Hudson’s arrival, Harlem consisted of a broad, arable plain with thickly forested hills along its western boundary, but for countless eons the region had been buried under an enormous inland sea, until about 220 million years ago, when the Appalachian Mountains burst skyward, lifting most of what would become New York City above sea level. Dinosaurs, other reptiles, and mammals roamed northern Manhattan until cycles of warming and cooling entombed the island under a thousand-foot-high glacier moving south along the eastern seaboard. When the ice began receding about twenty thousand years ago, the runoff wore away both the mile-wide estuary that came to be called the Hudson River and the sluggish waterway now known as the Harlem River. As it retreated, the glacial ice also scraped away topsoil and exposed raw bedrock, leaving the soaring cliffs, majestic ridges, and gigantic boulders that still captivate Harlemites. Forests of birch and pine sprung up, followed by fir, spruce, chestnut, oak, maple, and hickory trees. Mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, bison, bear, and beavers attracted humans from across the Hudson River. These original Harlemites, who had been following their prey across the continent since crossing the Bering Strait about thirty-five thousand years ago, tilled the largest, flattest, most fertile spot on the island, a plain that stretched across the upper part of Manhattan. They also took to fishing on both sides of the island as well as in the hundred-foot-wide creek that cut diagonally across that plain and emptied into a marsh on the island’s eastern shore.

In the seventeenth century, uptown’s native people considered themselves members of the Wappinger band of the Lenni Lenape or Munsee Delaware group, all of whom were technically Algonquins, which is less an ethnic category than a linguistic classification that applies to all Native Americans of the eastern seaboard. Beyond this broad grouping it is hard to say which specific subgroup could be found in Harlem, nor is much known about their daily lives. Most of the information gathered directly from Harlem’s Indians in the early seventeenth century was tainted by ignorance or prejudice, and few native informants survived the measles, smallpox, influenza, whooping cough, mumps, typhoid, and bubonic plague brought by the new arrivals. Many also died by the sword. In general the Dutch exhibited almost no interest in Indians beyond ways to make money from them. Where the Spanish and French explorers and settlers who claimed lands to the south and north saw souls waiting to be saved, and languages and customs worth understanding, the Dutch saw gullible rubes with no idea of the value of the beaver, otter, mink, and lynx pelts they plucked effortlessly from the wilderness. The first minister sent by the Dutch found the natives both “uncivil and stupid as garden poles” and “as thievish and treacherous as they are tall.” Dutch settlers considered the Delaware language akin to the barking of dogs or the babbling of children. “Even those who can best of all speak with the Indians and get along well in trade,” that minister wrote in 1628, “are nevertheless wholly in the dark and bewildered when they hear the Indians speaking with each other by themselves.” That may have been deception on the part of the Indians, who in turn found the Dutch as stupid as they were ugly, hairy, smelly, and weak, and who taught the newcomers only enough of their language to gain an advantage in trade. In this respect the Dutch, handicapped by a crippling combination of colonial destiny, tragic incuriosity, and raw greed, had met their match.

It didn’t seem that way at first. Harlem’s natives had no knowledge of metallurgy, writing, or textiles. The men wore animal-skin breechcloths in the warm weather and the women had knee-length dresses. In the winter everyone wore moccasins with deerskin leggings and robes made from elk, deer, bear, beaver, or fox pelts. They adorned themselves with turkey feathers, painted abstract or animal designs, scarification, tattoos made from the juice of berries, and shell pendants or copper beads. Women greased their long hair with animal fat, while the men shaved with the edges of shells or burned the hair off their heads, except for a braid in back or a strip of hair that came to be known as a “mohawk.” They led seminomadic lives, which meant there were few social conflicts based on material possessions. When hostilities did break out, Harlem’s Indians put on war paint and adapted stone hunting tools for human adversaries, using bows and arrows, clubs, axes, spears, and knives; there were also special blades for scalping. In battle they proved proud, quick-witted, swift to rise to the defense of their loved ones, and virtually impervious to suffering. Tied to the stake to meet death by fire, Indians would sing boastfully about their bravery even as the flames engulfed them. Unlike the Dutch, these Indians practiced no slavery, although they did take women and children as prisoners of war. Such hostages were treated with respect—the Dutch observed no such graces—but male captives were routinely tortured, usually by the women. The important public roles given Indian women were evidence of their savagery, according to the Dutch, who understood the rationale behind women taking responsibility for agricultural activities, and who had no trouble recognizing the matrilineal descent of political leadership, but who were shocked at the prospect of negotiating military matters with females.

Dutch propaganda seeking to lure settlers to the territory called New Netherland emphasized the economic opportunities of supposedly unoccupied fertile farmlands uptown. In fact, as many as several hundred Indians farmed northern Manhattan. There were three main plots: Schorrakin in what is now central Harlem, Konykast in lower East Harlem, and Muscoota in what is now lower central Harlem, which included a warm-weather village—actually just a group of temporary huts—called Konaande Kongh, or “Place of the Waterfall at the Hill,” referring to the waterway that still feeds Central Park’s Harlem Meer. Winter camps were more substantial groups of circular or longhouses built with hickory frames and covered with bark. Several families lived in each house, sleeping on leaf and straw mats with fur blankets. Linking everything was a network of footpaths. The main trail from downtown, later transformed into the New England Post Road and then Broadway, came up the east side of the island, veered west into what is now Central Park, and forked at Konaande Kongh, with one branch heading to the East River, where another warm-weather village was set up at what is now East 125th Street. The other path led to the northernmost tip of the island.

The Dutch may have doubted the humanity of the Indians but they admired their mastery of Harlem’s natural bounty. After an agricultural festival coinciding with the first full moon in February, Harlem’s Indians reinhabited the huts that had been abandoned the year before and burned their fields in order to prepare them for the new season—the Dutch made a tradition out of watching the conflagrations from canoes in the Hudson. In March and April the women sowed corn, followed in May by beans that would grow up symbiotically along the corn stalks. Pumpkins, sunflowers, squash, tobacco, and melons were also in the ground before the arrival of summer. Spring was fishing season, with men using spears, milkweed nets, or lines with bone or stone hooks cast from the eastern and western shores of the island or from dugout canoes made from tulip trees. Harvest took place in September and October, with the corn and beans being combined in enormous ceramic pots to make succotash. They also ground corn into meal for a porridge called sappaen. Each autumn apple and plum trees bore fruit, and berries of all sorts were abundant. From December through February, most of the group moved north, to the winter hunting grounds of what is now Westchester County. The men who remained on the island were occupied with trade, repairing or building tools or homes, and also hunting birds and waterfowl with hickory bows and arrows. Deer were herded into the water and killed with stone knives, or forced one by one into narrow, palisaded passages and clubbed to death. Bears and wildcats were stalked in the forest and brought down with spears. Industrious as Harlem’s natives were—they rotated plantings or raised certain crops side by side in order to maintain the soil’s chemical balance—early-seventeenth-century observers still described upper Manhattan as an untouched paradise of natural fertility. One of Harlem’s earliest European settlers described killing 170 blackbirds with a single blast of his shotgun. Nonetheless, on such a small island, game and firewood were easily exhausted, and by the time Europeans arrived most large animals seem to have been hunted to local extinction. The arrival of white men was both timely and tragic.

Because the Dutch were interested primarily in making money, they were baffled by the spirituality that dominated the lives of the first Manhattanites. Far from being a people “proficient in all wickedness and godlessness,” serving “nobody but the Devil,” as the Dutch believed, Harlem’s Indians were committed monotheists, worshipping the god Manitou, who was responsible for animating all material things. This great spirit was generous, according to ancient beliefs, and could be supplicated with offerings that might bring victory in battle, a successful harvest, or a healing experience in a sweat bath. Manitou was also responsible for defeat and death, and funerals were among the most conspicuous of Indian rituals. Dutch accounts noted that while the men grieved in silence, the women wailed, tearing their hair and ripping at their skin. If it was a child being mourned, or a great warrior killed in battle, the women would shave off their hair and burn it, sometimes wearing black makeup to display their sorrow. Corpses were dressed splendidly in a sitting position, surrounded by food and tools for the journey in the hereafter, and placed in leafy graves that were buried under a large hill of dirt and stones. After the burial, there was a festival, and the names of the dead were never spoken again. There would be much silence to come.

Stories of bearded men who came from far away, carrying sticks that could spit thunder and lighting, had long been common among Harlem’s inhabitants when Henry Hudson’s Half Moon arrived. At least three explorers had left their marks in the region, but it wasn’t until the dawn of the seventeenth century, with the English founding Jamestown in 1607 and the French settling Quebec in 1608, that Europe committed to the commercial potential of the New World. The English twice sent Hudson on missions to find a Northwest Passage before losing interest, but the Dutch still saw an opening. Hudson’s employer on his third try was the Netherlands East India Company, a business founded in 1602 for the purpose of conducting the spice trade with Asia. The company’s twenty-one-year charter covered the area from the Strait of Magellan to the Cape of Good Hope, a monopoly that carried with it the right to conquer and settle a quarter of the known world. The venture was enormously profitable almost from the start—by 1607 investors were receiving an annual 75 percent rate of return—so it could afford to take a chance on Hudson, a well-connected adventurer who counted among his friends John Smith, the hero of the Virginia colony. Politics also inspired the Dutch. When the Half Moon left Amsterdam, Hudson was representing not only the investors of the East India Company but the pride and anxiety of the Dutch Republic, whose citizens hoped that their presence in the Americas would allow the Netherlands to strike an indirect blow against the Spanish, who had so brutally occupied their country for four decades before recognizing Dutch independence in 1609.

Hudson was mostly good at getting lost. The 1609 voyage, with its bloody encounter at Harlem, was as unsuccessful as his two earlier attempts, at least in terms of finding the Northwest Passage. But his reports of fertile lands occupied by docile and gullible natives spurred the East India Company to invest more heavily in the region. The relative proximity of Hudson’s discovery promised even greater opportunities than the Asia trade, leading to a clamor among investors for more vessels to explore the region and set up trading posts and settlements. North America may not have been a shortcut to the spices, dyes, and silks of Asia, but Hudson’s reports of dense populations of beaver, otter, marten, muskrat, mink, and fox confirmed that there was plenty of money to be made in meeting the ever-growing demand in Europe for fur hats and cloaks.

Dutch merchants with ties to the East India Company outfitted a ship and sent it to Manhattan within weeks of the return of the Half Moon in late 1609, but there was no immediate attempt to capitalize on Hudson’s discovery on a larger scale. It wasn’t until two years later that a Dutch lawyer turned explorer named Adriaen Block explored Manhattan, buying furs from the Indians and kidnapping two of them for exhibition back in Europe. Two other Dutch adventurers also explored Manhattan before 1613, when Block returned and glimpsed the village at East 125th Street before heading home to Amsterdam—he produced the first map to identify an island between the Hudson and East rivers and called it Manhattes. Block’s map helped inspire the establishment of settlements on the southern tip of the island, though speculation persists that the first groups of fragile huts were actually located uptown.

While the English were putting down roots in Massachusetts and Virginia, the Dutch still considered Manhattan nothing more than a cash machine. That was supposed to change in 1618, when the Dutch instituted a policy of free trade along the northeastern seaboard, which meant that anyone who could afford to outfit a boat, fill it with men, and send it across the ocean was at liberty to do business in the region now called New Netherland. Not many took up the venture, but when hostilities with Spain revived in 1621 the Dutch decided to fight back economically, founding a new business enterprise modeled after the spectacularly successful East India Company. While previous Dutch efforts targeted the region from the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Cod, as well as up the Hudson, Delaware, and Connecticut rivers, the West India Company had a broader mandate: the entire western hemisphere of the known world. Moreover, the West India Company had almost unlimited powers, meaning not just economic activities like the trade in fur, tobacco, sugar, land, and slaves but politics, the military, and religion as well. It was essentially a for-profit nation.

It wasn’t until a year later that the first five ships of the West India Company sailed for New Netherland. Agents scouted out business opportunities along the rivers, where they found Indians eager to barter fur and tobacco for tools and textiles. By 1623 there were enough investors to start planning a proper settlement at the mouth of the Hudson River, which was prey to neither the frigid winters of Massachusetts nor the sweltering, malarial summers of Virginia. Moreover, the raw materials that could be exported from New Netherland required no great investment of time and money. Unlike tobacco or rice, fur required little more than the cultivation of relations with expert hunters who were happy to do business.

By 1625 a handful of traders and a few dozen families, mostly French-speaking refugees from Flanders known as Walloons, had made the two-month journey across the ocean, settled at the southern tip of Manhattan, and named it New Amsterdam. They set up log and sod cabins, sided with chestnut bark, covered with thatched roofs, and topped off by the orange, white, and blue flag of the West India Company. The experience of the English in Massachusetts and Virginia made the West India Company aware of the dangers of sending settlers into the wilderness without proper preparation, so the tiny outpost was provided with everything needed to make it through the first harvest: saws, shovels, axes, panes of glass, wheels, plows, and millstones, as well as barley, wheat, and rye that could be cultivated on plots farmed by Indians on the island’s northern plains. The company recruited enterprising, motivated workers, including a mason, a carpenter, and a blacksmith, assuring them that the dozens of company boats cruising the coasts of Africa, South America, and the West Indies would now be at the service of New Netherland, for both business and battle.

Money if possible and war if necessary were on the mind of the mustachioed gentleman who, on a summer day in 1626, stepped off a skiff moored in the salt marsh that lined the uptown banks of the Hudson River and sank in the mud. It covered the silver buckles of his boots, soaked his white silk stockings, and reached all the way to the bottom of his velvet breeches; he made sure the pistol and sword strapped to his lace and fur-trimmed waistcoat remained dry. By the time he clambered up the banks, Peter Minuit no longer quite looked the part of the director general of the flagship settlement of the West India Company. But it was the contents of the trunk he brought, not his uniform, that impressed the Indians waiting in a clearing in what is now Inwood Hill Park. As Minuit had previously arranged with Penhowitz, leader of the group of Indians, the Dutch offered sixty guilders’ worth of knives, needles, scissors, axes, hoes, pots, blankets, beads, and buttons. In exchange, the West India Company would become the legal owner of the hilly sliver of island conveniently situated between the fur-rich lands of the Lenape Indians to the north and the mouth of New York Harbor, the gateway to Europe. It was an oral agreement, and the exchange lasted only a few minutes, but it remains the founding event of the city of New York and a central fact of American identity. It was the first New York real estate deal and it was a steal.

There is no event more enshrined in the mythology of New York, but little is known about it. The only verifiable account of the transaction occurs in a letter written by Isaak de Rasi’res, the settlement’s first commissary: “They have bought the island of Manhattes from the wild men.” Later, more expansive sources reveal that Minuit, a failed diamond cutter and church deacon who only weeks before had taken over the post of director general of New Netherland, was at the time congratulated for his business instincts—this was, after all, a man described by his own preacher as “a slippery fellow, who under the painted mask of honesty” was “a compound of all iniquity and wickedness.” A trunk filled with sixty guilders’ worth—the equivalent of $2,000 today, not $24—of iron tools and cloth would have been extraordinarily valuable to a people who had no knowledge of the forge or the loom, but in trade for those twenty-two thousand acres it is still the ultimate real estate transaction. Four centuries of hindsight offer a different perspective. It may have been Minuit, not the Indians, who was duped, since he actually bought Manhattan from the Canarsie Indians of Brooklyn. Then again, since Manhattan hosted a variety of native communities, none of them permanent, there was no single owner, and, even if there were, Indians had no concept of property ownership as understood by the Europeans. Rather, their territorial claims sprang from evidence of use as farmland or hunting ground; no wonder the Indians accepted such a low bid. The officials of the West India Company were ordered to pursue fair and mutual land transactions, not “by craft or fraud, lest we call down the wrath of God upon our unrighteous beginnings.” The Indians labored under no such burden, and when the Weckquaesgeeks of Harlem heard about the deal between Minuit and the Canarsies, they, too, demanded a piece of the action and got it. In this way Indians repeatedly sold Manhattan to the Dutch, as a whole and in pieces, never really giving up title—a title that they never recognized in the first place—until well into the eighteenth century. The Indians may have considered the concept of land ownership laughable but they were astute enough to master it.

Efforts by the West India Company to attract new immigrants to New Amsterdam made shrewd use of propaganda that contrasted the depleted soil of the Old World with an edenic New World whose stunning fecundity was matched only by the willingness of its native inhabitants to trade it all away for almost nothing. Still, the island that Minuit bought was no paradise, even to Europeans fleeing poverty, plague, political violence, and religious intolerance. Because Manhattan was apparently hunted out, depending on game bought from Indians was untenable and the crops the settlers planted failed to take. Better land was too far away and too vulnerable to Indian attack. But Minuit didn’t worry too much about agriculture. Instead, he was determined to make a city out of a trading post that yet lacked a church or a brewery, which meant that it wasn’t a place fit for living as far as most Dutch were concerned. The number of pelts sent back to Amsterdam soon doubled, but the ships arriving from Holland bearing necessities such as knives, axes, guns, hoes, wool, kettles, and fishhooks as well as luxuries like rum and gin came more and more infrequently. In 1628 there were no arrivals at all. Almost two decades after the Dutch had staked their claim, there were only 270 people living in New Amsterdam, with perhaps a few dozen traders roughing it up the river at Fort Orange, at what is today Albany. Efforts starting in 1630 to establish agricultural communities outside the safety of downtown failed, and Minuit was recalled to the Netherlands. The string of exceptionally poor leaders that followed didn’t do much better. A star-shaped fort began to take shape at the southern tip of the island, but it was a fragile structure made of compacted earth, and the windmill inside for grinding corn and wheat was often in disrepair. The fur trade remained lucrative, but New Amsterdam was still a rough-and-tumble frontier outpost suited mostly to those who had little to lose.

Even as conditions in New Amsterdam stagnated, the West India Company continued to recruit potential investors and settlers. One of the people back in the Netherlands who had from the start followed the reports of the company’s ventures in the New World, with its unlimited economic opportunity and religious freedom, was a man named Jesse de Forest, a Walloon wool dyer who had fled religious violence in France and ended up in the Dutch city of Leiden. In 1623, only a few weeks after the formation of the West India Company, de Forest had joined ten other explorers aboard a vessel bound for South America, where he would select a site for a city where he might make his fortune six days a week and spend the seventh giving thanks in a Protestant church. But after an extensive exploration of the Amazon River and the coast of what is now Guyana, a year filled with privation and illness, the group split up without having found a place to settle. Still, half of the men sailed back to Holland to gather their families and return with them. De Forest stayed behind, intent on farther exploring the region. By all accounts he was an extraordinary leader, making peace with and among warring tribes of native people, mapping the region, and scouting out the natural resources—primarily plants for coloring fabrics, a natural occupation for a dyer. But in October of 1624 he fell ill from sunstroke while canoeing and died.

We know about the New World adventures of Jesse de Forest only because of a diary—the manuscript moldered away unread in the British Museum for almost four centuries—kept by his twenty-five-year-old assistant on the voyage, Jean de la Montagne, a French-born Protestant who had studied to become a surgeon in Leiden before signing on with de Forest’s expedition. After de la Montagne had seen to the Christian burial of his captain in Guyana he returned to Leiden, where he took up a position at the university’s medical school. But Jesse de Forest’s dream of founding a homeland in the New World was never far from his mind. De la Montagne rented a room from de Forest’s widow and married his daughter, Rachel. In Jesse’s sons, Hendrick and Isaack, he found ready partners for another enterprise in a more promising corner of the Dutch empire. A decade after Jesse de Forest’s death, Hendrick de Forest applied to the West India Company for about two hundred acres of land uptown and signed on with his brother Isaack and Jean de la Montagne aboard the Rennselaerwyck, a ship loaded with settlers, livestock, and all the goods and tools necessary for a new life in the New World. Hendrick de Forest was confident enough to have taken a bride, Gertrude Bornstra, earlier that summer, and it was no doubt with a family of his own in mind that this practical man signed on as a salaried employee who would be able to claim ownership after working the land.

Bad weather and bad behavior—a ship-board brawl resulted in the deaths of a passenger and a drunken steward—meant that it took six months for the Rennselaerwyck to make it to the narrows that separate current-day Brooklyn from Staten Island. The captain hoisted the flags of the West India Company and the Netherlands and watched in wonder as more than a dozen whales escorted the ship as it drew close to Manhattan. On March 5, 1637, the Rennselaerwyck received the more traditional welcome of a deafening round of fire from cannons mounted at Fort Amsterdam. De la Montagne and his wife settled downtown, but the de Forest brothers didn’t remain long in the relative comfort of the fort. The future was uptown, and Hendrick and Isaack took two servants who had also made the journey—a middle-aged wool washer named Willem Fredericks Bout and a sixteen-year-old orphan named Tobias Teunissen—loaded up barges with materials to build a house and barn, tools to farm the land, and guns to protect themselves from Indians, and sailed up the East River.

The two hundred acres that had been granted to Hendrick de Forest lay “between the hills and the kill,” or between the cliffs of Morningside Heights and the Harlem Creek. Hendrick had done his homework in selecting the land that the Indians called Muscoota, or “flat place.” The fields had long been farmed by Harlem’s natives and required only sturdy fences to protect crops from scavenging animals. Hendrick’s plot also had ready access to the Indian trails that led uptown and downtown and to the creek that served as a source of fresh water for the corn and tobacco that he planned to raise. There were also salt meadows near the Harlem River that produced the type of hay that the Dutch used to feed their cattle. But before he could accomplish much in the way of building a farmhouse and fencing in the fields, Hendrick was called back to the Rennselaerwyck, which had finished its business up the Hudson River and was continuing south to Virginia. Hendrick was still technically mate of the vessel, and so he was obliged to join the voyage. By the end of June the ship had reached Virginia, where the crew did some trading before making ready to return to New Amsterdam. But the southern Atlantic coast was a dangerous place in the summer, with malaria and other diseases claiming the lives of up to half of all European visitors. Hendrick fell ill on the way home and died on July 26, 1637, at the age of thirty-one. Like his father, he had survived perilous journeys across forbidding seas and among hostile natives only to die in bed. Harlem’s first European settler—the first to commit to the island’s uptown future—was dead and in the ground before the first harvest.

The future of Hendrick’s investment was now up for grabs. His twenty-one-year-old brother, Isaack, was too young and inexperienced to take over the building and running of a plantation in the New World. The logical choice was none other than Jean de la Montagne, who was now going by the name Jan, a declaration of his Netherlandish sympathies. Since his arrival in New Amsterdam, he had been struggling to make ends meet, working as a candle maker before practicing medicine. Now de la Montagne moved uptown and began carrying out the dream of his old friend Jesse de Forest. He raised 159 guilders—about the value of two horses, or two pounds of sugar—by selling off Hendrick’s personal effects. Then, with the assistance of the de Forest servants and African slaves, as well as several West India Company employees, de la Montagne oversaw the completion of an eighteen- by forty-two-foot farmhouse and barn. While most downtown houses during this period were crude structures made of earth and bark, this first uptown dwelling, with its log and clapboard walls and thatched roof, was intended to make a statement. Inside were three rooms grouped around an elaborate brick chimney that took a downtown mason ten days to install. De la Montagne hired an English carpenter to build a shed for curing tobacco and he completed another barn, located in back of the house and including stables for cows, horses, and sheep as well as a wide threshing floor, a sign that Hendrick de Forest had planted grain in addition to tobacco. The entire compound was surrounded by a stout palisade to protect against attack by wild animals, Indians, and maybe even the British, who had taken the place of the Spanish in the Dutch military imagination. De la Montagne also brought in the 1637 harvest: two hundred pounds of tobacco, which he sold for 135 guilders. That enabled him to stock the plantation for the coming winter with tools, a gun and ammunition, candles, clothing, and rope. He also bought food: meat, salted fish and eels, butter, oil, vinegar, corn, wheat, buckwheat, meal, pepper, and pumpkins. There was even enough money for a sailboat for trips downtown and a flat-bottomed scow for navigating the salt marshes of uptown’s eastern shore.

One thing de la Montagne hadn’t arranged was the matter of Hendrick de Forest’s wife, who was still back in the Netherlands. Dutch widows in the seventeenth century often remarried hastily, especially if the deaths of their husbands left them in economic necessity. Gertrude de Forest now had a potentially valuable plantation—she was one of the few women who owned property on Manhattan—but only if she could find someone to run it. Her transatlantic engagement to a downtown settler named Andries Hudde may have been mutually venial. Since his arrival in New Netherland in 1629, Hudde had worked in a number of positions in the settlement, from money lender to town councillor to surveyor for the West India Company, which gave him an unparalleled knowledge of the topography of Manhattan. Hudde became perhaps the shrewdest, most active player in New Amsterdam’s frenzied real estate market during this time, though not the most successful, given the numerous debt proceedings he lost before the town council. Even in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century Hudde spelled trouble, but Gertrude de Forest read opportunity. By the early summer of 1638 they had reached a long-distance agreement to marry. In order to protect his new claim to the de Forest lands while en route to the wedding back in the Netherlands, Hudde applied for legal title to the two hundred acres in return for 10 percent of its annual proceeds and “a brace of fat capons” to be delivered to the director general each December. Hudde felt so confident about the results of his petition that even before hearing the outcome of his request he had arranged for a Norwegian shipbuilder to begin working the farm. The contract, recorded in the records of the provincial secretary, would go into effect as soon as Hudde sent tools and laborers back from the Netherlands. Hudde then sailed to Amsterdam to claim his bride.

With Hudde away in the Netherlands, Jan de la Montagne saw an opportunity to recoup some of the money he had spent finishing his brother-in-law’s buildings, fencing in his fields, and bringing in his harvest, work that made him, in his own interpretation, the de facto owner of the property. Only days after Hudde’s departure, de la Montagne convinced the town council, which helped the director general run the settlement, to order Hudde to reimburse him 680 guilders for finishing the farm. When no word had returned from Hudde in the Netherlands by mid-September, de la Montagne demanded that the Muscoota farm be sold in order to satisfy the debt. Without waiting for Hudde’s return, the director general and the council ordered the farm sold, and on October 7 the Muscoota bowery was auctioned off for 1,700 guilders, a fraction of its value, to none other than de la Montagne, who was already living there. De la Montagne named it Vredendael, or Valley of Peace. Hudde and Gertrude de Forest didn’t learn the news until they arrived in New Amsterdam in July of 1639. By then it was too late to object.


Faced with economic problems like high rents, Harlemites turned to cultural solutions, inventing a new genre of music at all-night rent parties, where tenants charged as many as one hundred revelers ten cents to come in. Those who were serious about making money even printed up announcements on cards that they would leave in apartment lobbies or elevators. These invitations, which had a pride of place in Langston Hughes’s collection of Harlemiana, offer priceless insights into life uptown in the 1920s:

Shake it and break it. Hang it on the Wall,
sling it out the window, and
Catch it before it falls at
Given by
Jane Doe
2 E. 133rd St. Apt. I
Saturday Evening
March 16, 1929
Music by Texas Slim Refreshments
These gatherings, also known as struts, shouts, jumps, or parlor socials, featured fried chicken, pig’s feet, chitlins, and greens—food so delicious, the saying went, “it could make you slap your mama.”