The Old Fort in New York
Fort Amsterdam about 1650
from De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weireld
Arnoldus Montanus, Amsterdam, 1671
Few of the New-Yorkers who daily pass along Whitehall Street or through Battery Place are aware of the historical importance of the square south of the Bowling Green To the eye of the vulgar it is but a block of very ordinary buildings - of shops and warehouses, of steamship-offices and immigrant boarding houses - but, to the antiquary, there is no other spot on Manhattan Island that conjures up so many interesting memories. The history of this little square is, up to the time of the Revolution, the history of the metropolis of the New World. This was the cradle of New York. Here stood Fort Amsterdam, where Walter the Doubter smoked and dreamed; where William the Testy challenged the world, through his mighty trumpeter, Anthony Van Corlear, and demolished the hated Yankees by proclamation; whence Peter the Headstrong marched forth triumphantly to the conquest of New Sweden, and afterward, with aching heart, to ship his doughty veterans home to Holland on that sorrowful day when the flag of the Prince of Orange was humiliated before the red banner of St. George. Within this square was the residence of the Dutch directors-general; and here the English colonial governors held their court in the Government House. Here, for many years, stood the old Dutch Church, the only place of worship in the city; and here was built the first English chapel in New York. Here was the prison whence Jacob Leisler was taken up Broadway to meet a traitor's death on the Common, now the City-Hall Park. And here, in times within the memory of men now living, stood the official residence of the governors of the State of New York - a house originally intended for Washington, first President of the United States.
The point of land at the junction of the Hudson and the East Rivers (called by the Dutch the Mauritius and the South Rivers) was recognized, from the date of its discovery, as the proper site for a fortification; and some of out historians aver that a small fort was erected here as early as the year 1615. But the evidence seems to be insufficient to support this claim. The probability is that the fort begun by Peter Minuit, in 1626, and finished two years afterward, was the first erected on Manhattan Island. This, which was a substantial earthwork,1 covered very nearly the square bounded by Battery Place, Whitehall, Bridge, and State Streets. It was laid out under the supervision of the engineer Kryn Frederycke, and was called Fort Amsterdam, after the city of the same name.
The elevation of this site was originally much higher than at present. De Rasieres speaks of it as "the height of a hillock above the surrounding land." This hill was cut down in 1789, on the demolition of the fort, and graded nearly to its present level.
In plan, the fort was a square of about one hundred and fifty feet in diameter,2 with a pointed bastion at each angle. It had but one gate, opening on what is now Battery Place. The Bowling Green was then an open field used for garrison-drills.
In 1633 Director-General van Twiller arrived, and immediately set about making repairs and improvements. The buildings erected in the fort by Minuit were rough plank structures thatched with reeds. Van Twiller built a governor's house of brick, a guard-house, and substantial barracks for the soldiers,, and set up a Windmill on the southwest bastion, to grind corn for the garrison. The work was done chiefly be negro slaves, and cost about four thousand guilders. Besides facing the northwest bastion with stone, he probably did little to the walls, as Director-General Kieft complains, on his arrival in 1638, that the fort was "open on every side, so that nothing could obstruct going in or coming out except at the stone point."
Kieft built a large stone church in the fort in 1642, but it does not appear that he strengthened the walls of the fortification materially. In 1643 the people sent a memorial to the States-General representing their deplorable condition, in daily fear of the savages, who had burned their houses and grain-barracks, and murdered many defenceless women and children. "We, wretched people, must skulk, with wives and little ones that still survive, in poverty together, in and around the fort at Manhatas, where we are not safe even for an hour; while the Indians daily threaten to overwhelm us with it....The garrison consists of but fifty or sixty soldiers, unprovided with ammunition. Fort Amsterdam, utterly defenceless, stands open to the enemy night and day."
Another memorial, of the same date, asserts that the savages were fifteen hundred strong; while the freemen of the town, exclusive of the English, were only about two hundred in number, who "must protect by force their families now skulking in straw huts outside the fort," which is said to resemble "a mole-hill rather than a fort against an enemy."
It was proposed at this time to reconstruct the fort of stone. Kieft estimated the cost at about twenty-five thousand guilders, but the West-India Company were unwilling to incur such an expense, and it remained in a semi-ruinous condition until the arrival of Director-General Stuyvesant, in 1647, when the subject of repairs was again agitated; but it resulted only in patching up the walls with earth and sods. In 1649 still another remonstrance was sent by the people of New Amsterdam to the States-General, in which the fort is described as a ruin. "It does not contain a single gun-carriage, and there is not a piece of cannon on a suitable frame or on a sound platform." The reply was, that want of means had caused the delay in the repairs, and that the citizens, for whose protection it was built, had refused to help in the work.
In 1656 Stuyvesant communicated with the home government on the pressing necessity of rebuilding the fort. A favorable response was received, and a "few good masons and carpenters" were promised to be sent out in the spring. Stuyvesant wrote to his deputy in the West Indies, in 1659, that he was enclosing Fort Amsterdam with a stone wall, but it was probably only a base-wall at the foot of the incline.
In August 1664, New Amsterdam passed into the hands of the English, under Colonel Richard Nicholls,3 who changed the name of the city to New York, after the Duke of York, and that of the fort to James, in honor of his royal master. The condition of the fortification at this time is described by Stuyvesant, in his report to the West-India Company, of the causes which led to his surrender. The company blamed him, and averred that a capital fortress, garrisoned by one hundred and eighty brave soldiers, ought not to have surrendered without some defence. Stuyvesant replied that the fort was situated in an untenable place, being commanded by higher ground on the north and northeast side; that it was encompassed by only a slight wall, two and three feet thick, and not above eight, nine, and ten feet high in some places; that it was crowded all around with buildings, in many instances higher than the walls and bastions, and some of which had cellars within two or three rods of the wall, so that whoever was master of the city could easily approach with scaling-ladders; that it had neither a wet nor a dry ditch, and was without well or cistern. There were twenty-four guns in the fort at this time, but only about two thousand pounds of powder, and two thirds of this is said to have been unserviceable.
The English, under Nicholls and Lovelace, appear to have done as little as their Dutch predecessors to strengthen the work. It is described as still an earthwork in 1671. Governor Lovelace, however, made many repairs on the buildings. He tore down the governor's house built by Van Twiller, and erected a new one on the same site. A writer of the time says of the interior of the fort: "The church rises with a double roof, between which a tower looms aloft. On one side is the prison, and on the other side of the church is the governor's house." This was the church built by Kieft in 1642. These buildings stood on the east side of the fort, parallel with Whitehall Street, and fronted toward the west. In 1673 the fortress again fell under Dutch domination, Captain Manning, its commander, having surrendered it almost without a shot in the absence of Governor Lovelace, who was in Connecticut on a visit to Governor John Winthrop. The town was rechristened New Orange, and the fort "Willem Hendrick," in honor of the Prince of Orange. In one of the proclamations issued by Evertsen and Benckes, the Dutch commanders, it is called Fort William Frederick. Anthony Colve, the new governor, set to work vigorously to put it into a state of defence. He ordered the removal at once of all the houses under the walls. To meet the expenses, and to indemnify the residents, he laid an extraordinary duty on exported beavers and peltries of two and a half per cent, on imported blankets and duffels of two per cent, and on imported wines, brandies, distilled liquors, rum, powder, lead, and guns, of five percent. By October of the same year, the repairs had progressed so favorably that Colve was enabled to announce in one of his public orders that the works were "brought to perfection."
But the Dutch did not long enjoy the fruits of their labor. The treaty of 1674 restored the province to the English, and the fort, then in a better condition than ever before, again took the name of James.
Under Sir Edmund Andros, who took command of the province on the evacuation of the Dutch, extensive improvements were made. He built an armory between the governor's house and the church, on the site of the old kitchen, which he pulled down, and repaired the governor's house, which "was so leaky, though lately built, and never finished, by Governor Lovelace, and the stairs and some of the rooms were quite rotten." The tiles on the roof were replaced by shingles, "to prevent Leakage by reason the Tyles were usually broken when Gunns were fired." He also planked the gun-platforms, and built a new stockade. In 1678 Andros, in an official document, describes Fort James as "a square with stone-walls, four bastions almost regular, and in it forty-six guns mounted, and stores in service accordingly." The armory contained six hundred stands of small-arms at the time, in good condition. Andros was accused of expending too much money on the fort, and a commissioner, who investigated the facts, reported, in 1680, that, although the work had been done by the soldiers, his own servants, and negroes, he had made exorbitant charges - "two shillings per diem to the meanest workmen, and six shillings to the carpenters, though paid in rum and goods."
Governor Dongan, his successor, in his report on the state of the province, calls the fort a work of "dry stone and earth with sods as a breastwork." He says: "It has thirty-nine Gunns, two Mortarpieces, thirty Barils of Powder, five hundred Ball, some Bombshells and Granados, small arms for three hundred men, one Flanker, the face to the North Bastion, and three points of Bastions, and a Courtin, has been done and are rebuilt by mee with Lime and Mortar, and all the rest of the Fort pinnd and rough Cast with Lime since my coming here."
In 1689, on the capture of the fort by Jacob Leisler, he dubbed it Fort William, in honor of the Prince of Orange, who had just superseded James on the throne of England. It caught fire on the day that William and Mary were proclaimed, but the flames were subdued without damage. At this period it was generally out of repair. There were few platforms for cannon, and most of the guns were unfit for service. The magazine contained but fifty barrels of powder, of which but one was good, and "the rest would not sling a bullet halfe over the river." Leisler worked hard to put in into a state of defence, and strengthened it with a half-moon battery, to mount seven guns, which he built on the west of the fort, at the edge of the water. The park called the Battery probably derives its name from this work. He also dug a well within the walls.
In 1691, on the arrival of Governor Sloughter, Fort William, as Leisler had christened it, became William Henry, by the addition of another of the new king's names. M. Lamothe Cadillac, who visited New York in 1692, described the fort as "faced with stone and terraced on three sides -the north, the south, and the east....The ditch is but a miserable affair, and is almost filled up on the east and north." It had, at this time, a garrison of sixty men, twenty-seven pieces of iron cannon, and four small brass pieces at the gate. The buildings removed by Colve, because of their nearness to the walls, had, doubtless, been rebuilt, as Cadillac says it was surrounded by houses on all sides but the south. "The roadstead cannot be cannonaded without throwing down one whole street."
Governor Fletcher found the fort and buildings very much out of repair, and made extensive improvements. He tore down the old Dutch Church, which for many years had been the only place of worship in the city, Dutch and English using it alternately, and built a chapel of the Established Church on the site. This was the first Episcopal Church in New York, Trinity not having been built until two years after.
In 1698, Earl Bellamont, who succeeded Fletcher, wrote to the Lords of Trade, accusing the latter of mismanagement. He says the addition to the governor's house, "which is very little," the chapter and the barracks, cost, up to the time that Fletcher was superseded, 3,701 pounds 17 shillings 5 pence; and that he had charged bricks at "thirty shillings per thousand when the current price is twenty-five shillings....I dare undertake to build, in London, the same quantity of building for less than 600 pounds at the most." Fletcher, in his reply, said: "I made up all the sod-work anew, the two bastions toward the sea I built up new from the ground, the well new made, and a very large cistern for water, half the barracks rebuilt, new carriages for the thirty-six guns, the chapel new built, and all furnished to pews."
It does not appear that the Earl of Bellamont made any noteworthy alterations in the fort. He was an energetic man, and reformed many abuses. It was he who flitted out the expedition against the pirates which effected the capture of the famous Captain Kidd. During his brief rule he kept up a state of generous hospitality in the governor's house. He died in 1701, and was buried in the vault under the chapel. When the fort was demolished after the Revolution, his remains and those of several others of his family were removed and buried in St. Paul's church-yard. 4
On May 3, 1702, Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, arrived with a commission as governor, proclaimed Queen Anne, and named the fort George, in honor of the prince-consort, George of Denmark. Cornbury was a libertine, and, if contemporary records are to be trusted, a knave. He was accused of embezzling the public moneys, and he contracted such heavy debts that he was thrown into prison by his creditors in 1708, where he lay until the following year, when he was liberated by his accession to the peerage as third Earl of Clarendon on the death of his father. The government house, during his rule, was the scene of debauchery and licentiousness. A letter of the time says that he frequently appeared in the public streets dressed in women's clothes. His wife Catherine, daughter of Lord O'Brian, son of the Earl of Thomond, died in the fort, August 11, 1706, and was buried in Trinity Church.
Lord Lovelace, his successor, was the grandson of Colonel Francis Lovelace, who was governor of New York from 1668 to 1673, and was the fourth Baron Lovelace of Hurley, County of Berks. He was of an excellent temper and goodness, says a contemporary, and if he had lived would have "revived the country from its former calamity." He was taken ill on board the man-of-war off the coast, and died soon after his arrival, May 6, 1709. Two of his sons died about the same time, one before him, and the eldest, the fifth Baron Lovelace, two weeks after his decease.
Governor Robert Hunter, who arrived in 1710, wrote two years afterward to the Bishop of London that he had repaired at great expense "the ancient chapel in the Fort, for many years past a Bear Garden," and "it is now one of the most decent and most constantly frequented Houses of Prayer in all America." He mentions that the plates, books, and furniture, were presented by Queen Anne for use of the chapel.
Of the succeeding governors, John Montgomery and Colonel William Cosby died in the fort. On the death of the latter, in 1736, Lieutenant-Governor George Clarke took command and administered the government until 1743, when he was succeeded by George Clinton. During Clarke's residence in the fort occurred the great fire, March 18, 1741, when the governor's house, the chapel, and all the other buildings, were totally consumed. Clarke, in a letter to the Duke of Newcastle, says that the house was past saving before an engine could be brought, "for, it being covered with cedar shingles, and all the floors and wainscots old, they took in an instant and burned with that fury that no human power could extinguish it." The records were saved, but every thing else, public and private, was lost. Governor Clarke's own loss was over two thousand pounds. This fire and the rapid recurrence of others, sometimes, says Clarke, as many as four in a day, aroused suspicions of incendiarism, which resulted in the alleged discovery of the negro plot.
The council at once sent a petition to the king, George II., praying for aid to rebuild the governor's house, chapel, and other buildings. Clarke refused to sign it. "I declined," he says, in a letter to Newcastle, "knowing the motive they went on, viz., their poverty to be false in fact, and they and every man in the Province knows it was never in so flourishing a condition as it is now; but what won't a selfish, niggardly people say to save their money." In another communication to the Lords of Trade, August 24, 1742, Clark says that the Assemble voted for repairs in Fort George 617 pounds 13 shillings 4 1/2 pence, "not half of what is necessary to put it in a defensible condition."
In 1756 Governor Hardy wrote to the Lords of Trade that the fort had undergone extensive repairs, and was then completed. He complains, however, of the insufficiency of the armament, all of the guns but one being twelve-and none-pounders. The following year, December 15th, the range of barracks on the west side of the fort, with all the stores, was burned. The wind being from the northeast, the other buildings were saved. The Earl of London, commander-in-chief of her majesty's forces in America, was a resident of the government house at the time. The fire was "occasioned by a number of Tailors employed by Colonel Prevost in one of the Rooms, who had been careless of their fire."
Another disastrous fire occurred in the fort on the night of December 29, 1773, when the governor's house was again burned to the ground. Governor Tryon and family were occupying it at the time. In a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth, written two days after the fire, he says: "With the utmost Difficulty my Family, an unhappy Maid excepted, were through Divine Providence graciousle preserved." The governor's daughter jumped from a second-story window into the snow, which was deep, and escaped unharmed. Nothing was saved but a little furniture from the parlor. Every paper, whether of a public or a private nature, including the governor's commission, was burned. The great seal of the province was found among the ruins, it having suffered no injury, notwithstanding the intense heat to which it had been subjected. The deep snow upon the roof and the timely aid of the fire-engines prevented the spreading of the flames.
The history of Fort George during the Revolution is comparatively unimportant. On the conclusion of the siege of Boston in 1776, Washington sent Putnam to New York, with orders to fortify the city and to secure the "passes of the East and North Rivers." Under his superintendence batteries were erected at different points along both rivers, and the walls of Fort George looking seaward were strengthened. On the 6th of April Governor Tryon wrote to Lord Germain, from on board the ship Duchess of Gordon, that "the whole north front of Fort George is dismantled, and Merlons erected on the Faces of the Fort that look to the North and the East Rivers. Also Merlons are constructed on the lower Battery."
The lower battery, which stood south of Fort George, near where the flag-staff now is, was the most important work. When Washington entered the city on the 14th of April, Fort George was armed with only four thirty-two and two twelve-pounders, although it was capable of mounting sixty guns, while the lower battery had over forty guns. When the British took possession, after the battle of Long Island, they enlarges the latter to a capacity of ninety-four guns, but it does no appear that much was done to the older work.
After the war, the fortifications on Manhattan Island were dismantled and leveled one after the other, and at last the time of the old fort came. It had passed its days of usefulness, and the growing requirements of the city rendered the ground it occupied too valuable to be spared. In 1788 it was resolved to remove it entirely, and to build on its site a residence for the President of the United States, it being generally supposed that New York would be the permanent seat of government.
Its appearance at this time is described as follows: "First, a green bank, which was sloping and about fourteen feet high, on which were erected the walls of about twenty feet additional height. In front, toward the Bowling Green, were two apple-trees and an old linden, which were about the same height as the walls."
Messrs. Pintard, Janeway and Van Zandt, were appointed a committee to superintend the demolition. In the course of the work the marble slab which once decorated the front of the stone church built by the Director-General Kieft was found. It bore the following inscription: "Anno 1642. Willem Kieft, Directeur Generael, heeft de gemeente desen temple doen bouwen." That is: "In the year 1642, William Kieft Director-General, hath the commonality caused this temple to be built." This relic was placed in the belfry of the Garden-Street Dutch Reformed Church, and was lost in the great fire of 1835.
The foundations of the Government House, as the new building was called, were built of the stone from the walls of the fort. The superstructure was of brick. It was a slightly edifice of two stories, with a Grecian portico, and stood fronting the Bowling Green. It was finished in 1791. During its construction the seat of government was removed to Philadelphia, and it was decided to devote it to the use of the governors of the State. Governor George Clinton occupied it during the latter part of his official term, and after him his successor, John Jay, resided in it until 1799, when it became the Custom-House. It was finally torn down in 1818, and its site leveled and made into building-lots.
The grounds of the Government House extended to Pearl Street, Bridge Street not having been extended from Whitehall to State Street until after its demolition. What is now Battery Place was, until a comparatively late date, known as Marketfield Street, deriving its name from the fact that the Bowling Green, before its enclosure, was used as a market square. In still earlier times it was called Petticoat Lane. Bridge Street was at one time known as Hull Street, as will be seen on the plan of 1695.
Source: John D. Champlin, Jr., "The Old Fort in New York" (with illustrations), in Appleton's Journal, 8:183, pp. 352-356.
1. O'Callaghan, History of the New Netherlands, says "it was a block-house, surrounded with red cedar palisades;" and Lossing, Field-Book of the Revolution, that it was built of "Holland brick," but on what authority does not appear.
2. O'Callaghan says three hundred feet long by two hundred and fifty feet broad, founding his calculation on a statement that the church erected by Kieft occupied nearly one-fourth of the fort. The church was seventy-two by fifty-two feet, which, multiplied by four, he says, makes the dimensions as above stated. A singular blunder.
3. Nicholls fully appreciated the advantages of the site of New York. In a communication to the Duke of York, he described it as "the best of all his majesty's towns in America," and prophesied that "within five years the staple of America will be drawn hither, of which the brethren of Boston are very sensible."
4. The bodies were in leaden coffins, on which were silver plates containing inscriptions and the family escutcheons. An enterprising person, whose bump of veneration must have been very small, wrenched off the plates, and had a set of spoons made of them!