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We live in the midst of New York stories, and create new ones every day. They are all around us. The sum of these stories, some familiar, some virtually forgotten, make up the history of our state. As a center of innovation, enterprise, diversity, interconnections, conflicts and leadership, New York State both reflects the entire history of the United States and provides its own special flavor to the American narrative.

New Yorkers have been accused of neglecting their past to focus on the New York [map]future. Yet the college students who study Empire State history with me are not only excited to learn about the state in which they live, but frustrated when they realize how much they were never before taught. So, as I wrap up my research and begin writing a new college textbook on the history of New York State, I set out in this blog to share with a wider audience some of the discoveries I have made along the way as I’ve researched New York’s stories. It will feature snippets of history that I find intriguing — vignettes from the Big Apple and the boroughs, Long Island, the Hudson Valley, Capital District, North Country, Southern Tier, Finger Lakes, the Niagara Frontier – and anywhere in between. Although these stories may not be news to all of you, they will be surprising to some, and will jog the memories of others.

Read and enjoy. And, if you have any comments or corrections, please share them with me.

Susan Lewis, Associate Professor of History, SUNY New Paltz

 

“Juan: Singular Sensation”, New York’s First Immigrant

“Juan: Singular Sensation”, New York’s First Immigrant
Jamie Lewis

Jamie H. Lewis is a graduate of the SUNY New Paltz Social Studies Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program

“Juan Rodriguez, first merchant and non-Native American resident of Manhattan Island in 1613."  Watercolor by Charles Lilly, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

“Juan Rodriguez, first merchant and non-Native American resident of Manhattan Island in 1613.” Watercolor by Charles Lilly, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

In 1609 the English explorer Henry Hudson discovered the river that now carries his name. Today we make a major hullaballoo around this alleged “first European contact”, but back then there was little interest – even from those who’d sent him. However, the rough map of the lower river Hudson provided his Dutch masters was passed along to other traders.

One company, the van Tweehuysen syndicate, was keen to get a foothold in the burgeoning fur trade; it sent out skipper Hendrick Christiaensen to investigate in 1611. Upon arrival, the wary captain anchored away from the unfamiliar coast, and made sorties ashore. During one of these he kidnapped two boys from a local Lenape village. Christiansen felt the two boys – he renamed them Orson and Valentine – would generate public interest upon his return to Amsterdam. This was the same sort of calculated publicity stunt that echoed Columbus and pre-dated John Rolfe’s promotional promenade of Pocahontas by five years.

Unfortunately for Christiaensen, the publicity meant his new highly profitable source of furs was now an open secret.

First map of New Netherland by Adriaen Block, 1614

First map of New Netherland by Adriaen Block, 1614

The next spring, a Dutch merchant working for the same company, Adriane Block, returned to map the area in order to establish a permanent trading post. Block and the van Tweehuysen company enjoyed two months of uninterrupted trade. Then when he was preparing for the return journey to Amsterdam in the late summer another Dutch ship, captained by Thijs Mossel, arrived in the Hudson Bay via Santo Domingo, the biggest port in Spanish Hispaniola – the island we now know as the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Captain Mossel had a secret weapon aboard: Juan (or sometimes Joao or Jan) Rodriguez, a gifted linguist hired in Hispaniola to act as interpreter. Born in Santo Domingo to an African mother and a Portuguese sailor, Rodriguez neither looked, sounded nor thought like his employers. Whilst the merchants argued about prices and market shares, Rodriguez apparently decided that a return trip to the West Indies was not in his best interests (As the mulatto child of a slave, his future prospects in the West Indies or the Netherlands were equally poor). He obtained the balance of his salary from Mossel and promptly departed for the wooded shoreline of Mannahatta (from the Lenape word meaning “land of many hills”).[i]

Taking up residence on shore is what cements Rodriguez’ place in the history books. Previously, the Dutch had stuck to the security and relative comfort of their anchored vessels. Rodriguez decided to set up shop and trade the goods he’d received from Mossel to the local tribes. His plan obviously worked, because when Block, Mossel and Christiaensen returned, not only had Rodriguez survived the winter – he’d established a business relationship with the Lenape.

We have an incredibly detailed account of what happened next thanks to the work of Dr. Simon Hart, an archivist for the Lutheran church in Amsterdam. Hart translated mountains of notorial records containing dozens of first-hand testimonies from the crews and the merchants themselves, records that were later turned over to the New York Public Library. (Hart published his own history of the colony in 1959.)

Juan Rodrigues Mural (2009), Harlem River Park, Burger International Photography

Juan Rodrigues Mural (2009), Harlem River Park, Burger International Photography

Rodriguez approached Christiaensen and proposed a collaboration, to which the latter agreed. When Mossel did return, he was publicly furious that Rodriguez had double-crossed him. Towards the end of April 1613, when a canoe of Lenape paddled out to meet Christiaensen’s ship to trade, Mossel’s crew fired on the canoe and then rammed it with their boat, forcing the natives to seek refuge on Christiaensen’s sloop.

Mossel’s crew then turned their attention to Juan Rodriguez. Seeing them approachwith possibly murderous intent, Rodriguez fired a shot from his musket but was overwhelmed by four crew members, who took his musket and attempted to arrest him. Rodriguez grabbed a sword from one and fought his way back to the sloop and the protection of Christiaensen’s crew. Mossel’s crew withdrew in frustration whilst hurling a series of racist epithets, the more offensive of which the court records of 1614 refused to repeat.

That was the last record of Rodriguez that we have. He seems to have avoided the Dutch for the rest of his life. But regardless of his fate, in those few months Rodriguez not only became the first immigrant to move to New York, but also the first African, the first Latino, the first resident of European descent, the first Dominican, the first business owner and the first black man to be arrested in New York by white men. He anticipated, in a single persona, the diversity of New York.

Rodriguez’ legacy is remembered with a plaque and mural in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. In 2012 on the 400th anniversary of his move to Manhattan, the city co-named a 59-block-long stretch of Broadway starting in Washington Heights as Juan Rodriguez Way, an important tribute to the historic status and recognition of the substantial local Dominican community.

What of the rival merchants; the fledgling Dutch trade and the two kidnapped Lenape boys?

Christiaensen headed further up the Hudson and built a fort for protection during the winter, which he named Fort Nassau. Block returned to the area a couple of weeks later and threatened to sink Mossel. The two remaining factions were so busy arguing that they failed to notice a fire had mysteriously broken out on Block’s heavily-armed ship, which promptly sank. (This had more than a whiff of suspicion about it, but Block never accused Mossel directly.) Amazingly, the soggy remains of Block’s ship were discovered centuries later by workers excavating the foundations for the World Trade Center.

Several of Block’s crew mutinied and captured Mossel’s ship. Just as Mossel had claimed to have nothing to do with the fire that destroyed Block’s ship, Block expressed surprise and protested his innocence in the capture of Mossel’s ship. The mutineers set off for the West Indies in Mossel’s ship, leaving the Dutch merchants to face a winter in New York. The fact that they left him behind with Mossel seems to confirm Block’s version of events.

Mossel and Block were eventually picked up and returned to the Netherlands, where they promptly started mutual litigation. Block came off the worst, eventually being forced to pay for the loss of the 6 valuable cannon that sank with his ship. Whilst they were in court arguing, the Dutch government granted the exclusive trading rights to group of merchants who referred to themselves as The New Netherland Company. For the next 60 years, many Dutch colonists would follow in Rodriguez’ footsteps.

The harshest fate befell Christiaensen: he continued to travel and trade with the two kidnapped Lenape boys, Orson and Valentine, using them either as translators or a warning to others. In 1616, on a return trip to Fort Nassau, Orson finally got his revenge and murdered his publicity-hungry Dutch captor.


[1] Mossel paid him “eighty hatchets, some knives, a musket, and a sword” which seems unusually generous. As Hart notes, “Later it appeared that this payment also included an advance on services still to be rendered” which begs the question: Was Rodriguez still working for Mossel? Mossel’s behaviour upon his return (outrage and the arrest attempt when he discovered Rodriguez was working for Christiaensen) would seem to confirm this.


Jamie H. Lewis was raised in a museum. He teaches, writes for various historic publications including the Museums Journal and The 28th. He knows he needs to get out more.
Sources:

Hart, Simon. “The Prehistory of the New Netherland Company.” Amsterdam, City of Amsterdam Press, 1959.

Phelps-Stokes, I. N. “The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909″ New York, 1928, Vol. VI, 4.6

John Jacob Astor: the original self-made New Yorker?

John Jacob Astor: the original self-made New Yorker?

Susan Ingalls Lewis

Portrait of Astor by Gilbert Stuart (1794)

Portrait of Astor by Gilbert Stuart (1794)

Before Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and J.D. Rockefeller, before Horatio Alger created his fictional rags-to-riches formula for success, there was John Jacob Astor. Arriving in New York City with very little cash but unlimited aspirations, Astor became the first American multi-millionaire and the richest man in the United States by the time of his death in 1848. Business Insider recently identified him as the fifth richest American of all time, just behind Bill Gates. Adjusted for inflation, his fortune from the China trade and real estate investment has been estimated at $121 billion.[1]

All this is known. What is less recognized is that Astor began his business as a dealer in musical instruments, that he started fur trading not in the Pacific Northwest, but in New York State, and that his wife Sarah Todd was a vital partner in his business enterprises.

Johann Jakob Astor, the youngest son of a successful butcher, was born in Walldorf, Germany in 1763. As a teenager, he followed his older brother, George, to London. From George, Johann learned the business of making and selling musical instruments. Meanwhile, another brother – Henry – had joined the Hessian mercenary force as a cook, and accompanied the British army on its way to attack New York at the beginning of the Revolution. Henry liked what he saw of America and deserted immediately after the Battle of Long Island in 1776, setting himself up as a butcher in New York City. Letters to his brothers in London stressed the opportunity and economic mobility possible in New York.

The peace treaty that granted U.S. independence in 1783 allowed John Jacob (his name now anglicized) Astor to undertake the journey to America. The young man landed in Baltimore with nothing but a few flutes in his baggage, and made his way to New York. Though Henry expected his youngest sibling would join him in business, John Jacob had learned on his voyage across the Atlantic that large profits could be made in the fur trade. Starting with no knowledge or skills, he went to work for a New York fur dealer and scoured the port for individuals (Indians or traders) willing to sell their furs. With very little cash John Jacob was able to purchase enough furs to return to London, sell at a substantial profit, and invest in more musical instruments. By 1786, only two years after his arrival in the city, Astor was advertising “an elegant assortment of musical instruments” including “piano fortes, spinnets, piano-forte guitars, the best of violins, Herman flutes, clarinets, hautboys, fifes” to tempt upper-class New Yorkers.[2] The same year, he married Sarah Todd, the daughter of his landlady, who gave the young couple a showroom for the instruments and living space in her house. With Sarah’s dowry of three hundred dollars and John Jacob’s savings, he set off to buy more furs.

From Albany, Astor ranged west into territory that still officially belonged to the Iroquois, though their confederacy had been shaken and their numbers greatly diminished as a result of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign (a military operation to subdue and punish the Confederacy) during the Revolution. He went as far west as Buffalo, and as far north as the Adirondacks. Though we usually think of furs only as the basis of New York’s early colonial economy, it seems that there were still enough pelts available for Astor to find them in the “backwoods of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey” and to make it worthwhile for him to establish “trading depots at Albany, Schenectady, Fort Schuyler (Utica), and in the Catskills.”[3] In addition to beaver, Astor was able to buy luxury furs like marten, mink, ermine, and otter. According to a recent biographer, “he did it all himself, hauling the furs back to Albany, baling and loading them on barges down to New York for reshipment to London.”[4]

A portrait of Sarah Todd Astor.

A portrait of Sarah Todd Astor.

Yet the story of John Jacob Astor’s rise must also include the contributions of native New Yorker Sarah Todd Astor, whose mother was descended from a prominent Dutch family, the Brevoorts. Sarah remained in New York City and supervised their music store while giving birth to a growing family of eight children (only five of whom survived to adulthood). After Jay’s Treaty opened trade with British Canada in 1794, Astor established a base in Montreal, from where he shipped furs down to New York City, then to London, and eventually to China where his cargoes sold for huge amounts. John later insisted that his wife was the best judge of the quality and value of his furs. Eventually, he paid her $500 an hour (adjusted for inflation, that would be far more than $5000 an hour), which she used for charitable contributions.[5]

Although John Jacob Astor is a model of the self-reliant, ambitious, and entrepreneurial New Yorker, his story illustrates that even this quintessential self-made man depended on family networks and especially his spouse.[6] Sarah’s knowledge of New York City and her family connections also encouraged John’s decision to invest in city real estate (beginning in 1799), which eventually became the major source of their family wealth.[7] In 1836, Astor built New York’s first mammoth luxury hotel, located on an entire city block along Broadway. Although originally called the Park Hotel for its location across from City Hall Park, the landmark soon became known simply as the “Astor House.” Once the most famous building in the city, it fell out of fashion and was demolished in the early 20th century.

A print of the Astor House hotel.

A print of the Astor House hotel.

Existing locations in New York named for Astor include Astor Place in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan (site of a famous riot, but that’s another story), Astor Row in Harlem, the Astoria neighborhood in Queens,and Astoria Park (also in Queens). As noted by his biographer, Alexander Emmerich, today the name of Astor has become more associated with the wealth and refinement of his descendants – his grandson’s wife became the “Mrs. Astor” who dictated social status during New York’s Gilded Age, while two of his great-grandsons established the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel — than the struggles of the original self-made immigrant.[8]


 

[1] Gus Lubin, “The Thirteen Richest Americans of All Time,” Business Insider (April 17, 2011): http://www.businessinsider.com/richest-americans-ever-2011-4?op=1#ixzz35a2TFbrn

[2] Axel Madsen, John Jacob Astor: America’s First Multi-Millionaire (John Wiley & Sons), p. 19.

[3] Eric Jay Dolan, Fur, Fortune, and Empire, The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), pp. 192-93.

[4] Maxden, p. 24.

[5] Caroline Bird, Enterprising Women (New York: New American Library, 1976), p. 26.

[6], Bird, pp. 25-27.

[7] Victoria Sherrow, “Astor, Sarah Todd.” A to Z of American Women Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs, A to Z of Women. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2002. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp? ItemID=WE52&iPin=WBL007&SingleRecord=True (accessed July 12, 2014)

[8] Andrew Emmerich, John Jacob Astor and the First Great American Fortune (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2013), p. 166.

LINKS:
Kenneth H. Williams, “John Jacob Astor,” American National Biography Online: http://www.anb.org/articles/10/10-00054.html

Alexander Emmerich, “John Jacob Astor (1763-1848),” Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=6

Sherry Cortes, “John Jacob Astor: New York’s Landlord,” (July 31, 2013) From the Stacks: the N-YHS Library Blog, New York Historical Society: http://blog.nyhistory.org/john-jacob-astor-new-yorks-landlord/

 

 

 

 

 

New York in the Civil War

CIVIL WAR STORIES and review of Irrepressible Conflict at New York State Museum

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

Civil War Museum

Courtesy of the New York State Museum

In my last blog, I argued for an integrated narrative of New York State history, one that incorporates rather than isolates both the peoples of New York and the regions from which they hail. The Civil War, though not fought on New York’s soil, was a cataclysmic event that united the state and its diverse population in a conflict that was both external and internal. From all corners of New York, volunteers and draftees formed into companies, battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps, and finally armies. At the same time, civilians, men and women, turned their energies to supporting the war effort and the troops through both industry and voluntary efforts. Finally, politicians and citizens within the state disagreed about the necessity for the war itself, the conduct of the campaigns, the appropriate war aims, and who should serve.

William H. Seward, Secretary of State, 1861-69

William H. Seward, Secretary of State, 1861-69

The recent exhibit at the New York State Museum, An Irrepressible Conflict, began with a quote from William H. Seward of Rochester (graduate of Union College, NYS Governor 1839-1842, Senator 1849-1861, Secretary of State 1861-1869):

“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.” October 5, 1858

Seward was a major figure in United States history, but I suspect that for most New Yorkers he is better-known as a member of Lincoln’s cabinet and later promoter of the acquisition of Alaska than as a New Yorker. Although his words clearly echo Lincoln’s points in the far more famous “House Divided” speech of June 1858, using Seward’s quote to open the exhibit and name it put New York – quite properly – at the center of the national debate over slavery.

Displays featuring Gerritt Smith, John Brown and Frederick Douglass connected New York to the national debate and sectional crisis. Most interesting was the discussion of Smith’s economic, social and political experiment, Timbuctoo (1846-53), in which he offered 120,000 acres of his own land far upstate, in Franklin and Essex counties, to 3,000 men of African descent, divided into 40-acre parcels. Smith hoped that turning these individuals into land-owning farmers would increase the African American vote in New York; the state constitution of the time required that black men own at least $250 worth of property, although there was no such requirement for white voters. Smith’s experiment brought the fervent abolitionist John Brown to North Elba, where he purchased a 200-acre farm from Smith with the goal of assisting the black families – and is the reason why Brown was later buried at North Elba. The exhibit also pictured less-noted New York abolitionists, among them Abigail Mott, a Quaker businesswoman from Albany, active in the underground railroad.

Once war was declared in 1861, New York State provided the most soldiers and raised the most money of any state in the union. New York banks made loans to both the states and federal government; citizens across the state paid an income tax and added millions in private donations. The exhibit highlighted contributions of New York industry, such as Erastus Corning’s ironworks and railroads, and the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring.

Who knew that the first martyr of the Civil War was New Yorker Elmer Ellsworth, who was shot on May 23, 1861 while cutting down a Confederate flag on an inn in Arlington, Virginia, or that the first hero was Francis Brownell of Troy, who then avenged Ellsworth’s death by killing his killer (the innkeeper)? Born in Malta, New York, Ellsworth had moved to Illinois, but returned to New York State to raise a regiment for the war.

 69th New York, Library of Congress

69th New York, Library of Congress

Although original enlistments were for 90 days only (!) many volunteers re-enlisted for three years. Materials illustrating the diversity of troops included the papers of one William Kenney, identified as Iroquois member of the “Tuscarora Company,” who was captured in North Carolina, and later died in Andersonville prison in 1864, as well as a photograph of a Roman Catholic mass held for the largely Irish 69th New York in 1861. Other volunteers associated with particular locations or ethnic groups included Max Weber’s German Turner Rifle Regiment, and the 14th Brooklyn called “red-legged devils” by Stonewall Jackson after four charges at First Bull Run. That the war created unlikely allies can be illustrated by contrasting the Irish and German volunteers to the 71st Infantry “American Guard,” whose Know-Nothing roots dated to its founding as part of the National Guard in 1850.

Drummer boy David Lyons of Ogdensburg, Courtesy of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association

Drummer boy David Lyons of Ogdensburg, Courtesy of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association

The efforts of men, women, and children were featured within a chronological narrative that followed the war year by year. In the Civil War children under the age of 16 served as drummer boys and marched with the troops. While men from New York fought in major battles and minor skirmishes across the South, New York’s women sewed, nursed, and raised millions through mammoth “Sanitary Fairs.”

 New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

The most notable New York woman highlighted by the exhibit was Mary Edwards Walker of Syracuse, the first female surgeon to serve in the U.S. army and only woman ever to win the Medal of Honor. (Interestingly, the army revoked her medal – among others — in 1917, but Dr. Walker refused to stop wearing it. Her right to the medal was reinstated in 1977.)

 

 

New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections

Coverage of ordinary soldiers was balanced by portraits and short biographies of the state’s most noteworthy leaders. One of the last portraits was that of Ely S. Parker, the Seneca chief, lawyer, and engineer who became Grant’s aide and was not only present at Appomattax, but was responsible for writing out the terms of the Confederate surrender.

The exhibit also featured displays on less celebrated aspects of New York and the Civil War, including the New York City Draft Riots and the Elmira Prison Camp. In the case of the prisoner of war camp, however, the accompanying objects and images did not quite convey the grisly details of that chapter of New York history. Lacking adequate food, shelter, clothing, sanitation, and medical care, almost 25% of the Elmira inmates died in the single year of its operation — uncomfortably close to the 29% who died at the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia.[1]

Jewelery Made by Confederate Prisoners at Elmira

Jewelery Made by Confederate Prisoners at Elmira

The exhibit text reported these statistics next to a photograph of camp buildings. Offsetting this grim picture, a nearby case featured intricate jewelry made by the prisoners – blandly describing them as having “idle time on their hands.” However, scholars have found that such items were made not simply to pass the time, but instead to trade with the guards, who then resold the trinkets those outside the camp. This prison “industry” assisted Confederates in making extra money for needed supplies not provided by the U.S. government.

My disappointment in the exhibit’s coverage of the Elmira Prison Camp is a minor point. Overall, this was an outstanding and effective effort and, I hope, a model for the way major historical events can be used to tell the story of the whole state and its peoples. Although the exhibit itself closed in late March, it lives on in digital form on the New York State Museum’s website (see link below).

LINKS:

An Irrepressible Conflict, The Empire State in the Civil War, New York State Museum:

https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/civilwar/

On the Irrepressible Conflict, William Henry Seward, delivered at Rochester, NY, October 25, 1858,

New York History Net: http://www.nyhistory.com/central/conflict.htm

[1] Michael Horrigan, Elmira, Death Camp of the North (Stackpole Books, 2002), p. 180.

Return of the New York Rediscovered blog: Has Women’s History Month outlived its usefulness?

Return of the New York Rediscovered blog:  Has Women’s History Month outlived its usefulness?

Susan Ingalls Lewis

2014womenshistmonth.nwsnoaaAfter a longer-than-expected hiatus, the New York Rediscovered blog is coming back to life.  I returned from my wonderful fall leave in Florence, Italy to full-time teaching and deputy-chairing at SUNY New Paltz this term; the adjustment wrecked havoc on my best intentions.  Finally, work pressures have lessened and I’m eager to get back to blogging, though on a somewhat less frequent schedule.  This spring, my blogs may be shorter and will appear every other week, but I am committed to continue sharing stories from New York State’s intriguing past.

Since it is the end of March, I open with a question: has Women’s History Month (established in 1987) outlived its usefulness?  I’d be glad to hear readers’ thoughts on this.  I personally find the segregation of “Black History Month” and “Women’s History Month” somewhat offensive.  There is a token-ish quality in the yearly discovery that African Americans and women need to be injected into the curriculum, or public programming.  Of course, it remains true that we can use more Black History and Women’s History as part of New York State History.  Yet it is equally true that we need more Latino History, more Asian History, more history of indigenous peoples, more LBGTQ history . . . should there be a month for each?  What happens when we run out of months?  And isn’t it time that the history of all New York’s people be integrated into a single complex narrative?  One of the goals for my upcoming textbook is to tell the story of New York without subtitles and asides (versus the common textbook approach of using sub-sections like “Women in the Revolution” or “African Americans in World War II”).

womenshist.posterI’m actually afraid that highlighting women’s history in a specified month allows us to neglect it for the rest of the year.  This approach also hints at a kind of compensatory history, one that searches for examples of women (or Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Italians, etc.) simply to provide stories for the purpose of fostering gender or ethnic pride.  My viewpoint is that we do not need to inject women into history, we simply need to recognize them and restore them.  That is, all these peoples were there to begin with.  It is history itself that somehow ignored or erased them.  New York State was built by women as well as men, and what they did was important –too important to be segregated into one month a year.

Professor Kenneth Jackson has argued that New York’s history is American history, and it all happened here.  It is certainly true that the most important and influential women in United States history were either from or made their careers (or both) in New York State.  From Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, to Carrie Chapman Catt and Lillian Wald, to Eleanor Roosevelt, to Jackie Kennedy, to Hillary Clinton – most (though of course not all) of the towering figures in U.S. Women’s History have been associated with New York State.

In my previous blogs, I’ve highlighted several notable New York women, starting with Matilda Joslyn Gage (October 3, 2013).  Yet I prefer to integrate women into non-segregated narratives, as I did in New York:  Aviation Pioneer (October 10, 2013).  Next week, for my first full blog of the season, I’ll be posting a review of the recent exhibit at the New York State Museum: An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War.  I believe that this excellent exhibit (just closed after more than a year on display) should serve as a model for an updated New York State History that integrates all participants and all areas of the state into a single narrative of many voices.   More to follow next week . . .

LINKS:

It’s Women’s History Month! Cathy Pickles, National Women’s History Museumhttp://www.nwhm.org/blog/its-womens-history-month/

History of National Women’s History Month, Molly Murphy MacGregor, Executive Director and Cofounder, National Women’s History Projecthttp://www.nwhp.org/whm/history.php

The Mystery of Emma Waite

LAST BLOG OF THE YEAR:  The Mystery of Emma Waite

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

 The leather-bound Emma Waite Diary

The leather-bound Emma Waite Diary

My final blog of the year is based on my own research into the 1870 diary of Emma Waite, housed in the Manuscripts and Special Collections unit of the New York State Library. In 2005, I was the fortunate recipient of an Anna K. and Mary E. Cunningham Research Residency in New York State History and Culture at the Library, searching for any material related to nineteenth-century businesswomen in New York State.   I did find a few trade cards (which were eventually reproduced on the cover of my book Unexceptional Women: Female Proprietors in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Albany, New York, 1830-1885 , SUNY Press, 2009) – but otherwise, nothing.  As I continued my fruitless search, Librarian Paul Mercer encouraged me to look at the Emma Waite diary.  Since this was the record of a worker rather than a businesswoman, I resisted his advice.  One day, because my own efforts continued to prove futile, I decided that I might as well examine the diary.  From the first moment I opened it, I have been convinced that Waite’s story deserves a wide audience.

A page from the diary

A page from the diary

The “Emma Waite Diary” is an intriguing document, written by an African-American domestic servant and hotel cook who worked in Saratoga and New York City.[1]  Recorded on the pages of a small, leather-bound, printed daybook that Waite received as a gift early in 1870, it chronicles a single year in the life of this otherwise unknown individual.  Waite’s opening entry: “Quite mild and pleasant for the first I did not spend a very pleasant new years day, was home sick all day,” foreshadows the challenges faced by a single black woman trying to make her way in New York State.  Illness, injuries, bitter cold, exhausting work, headaches, unemployment, deadening heat, and racial discrimination plague Waite’s months in Saratoga.

 

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Giving New York Munsees their Proper Names

Giving New York Munsees their Proper Names: Tantaque and Tackapousha

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

unearthing gothamRecently, I was preparing for my History of New York City course by reading Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana DiZerega Wall’s Unearthing Gotham, a book on New York’s archeology recommended by my colleague Joe Diamond, Chair of Anthropology at New Paltz.  The book includes a story about Tantaque, a Munsee Indian, and his meeting with two Labadists in Manhattan on October 16, 1679.  The Labadists, Jaspar Danckaerts and Peter Sluyter, were scouting New Amsterdam as a possible location for their small religious sect to relocate in North America.  Like the Quakers, the Labadists believed in a radical interpretation of the gospels and split from established churches to form their own community, moving from place to place in search of a welcoming environment.

longislandtribesInteresting as the Labadists were, I was more intrigued by the fact that the authors of Unearthing Gotham named an individual Munsee—Tantaque—and were able to fill in some of his biography.  They described him as “an eighty-year-old man originally from Long Island” and “a well-known figure in early New York, for he was a generous man and, in his younger days, had often given fish to starving Europeans.”[1] This anecdote immediately reminded me of Squanto (also called Tisquantum), the famous Pawtuxet Indian who assisted the Pilgrims in their early days and is associated with the first Thanksgiving.  Yet I realized that I had never heard a Munsee Indian from this period named or personalized in any way.  In most of my readings, the Munsee people were characterized as a group.  Often defined in contrast to the Iroquois Confederacy, the Munsees (also called Delawares) were Algonquian peoples who lived in the Hudson River Valley, on Long Island, and along the Delaware River.  Within the Munsee were smaller communities, such as the Esopus (in what is now Ulster County), the Wappinger (across the river),  the Minsink (along the Delaware), the Tappans (along the Palisades), the Raritans (in present-day New Jersey), the Massapequas, Rockaways, Merricks, Matiecocks, and Secatogues (all on Long Island), and others.   The Munsees were the Native Americans whom we remember as selling Manhattan to the Dutch in a bad land deal, a group that was greatly reduced by disease, then quickly removed in a series of wars—Kieft’s War (1640-45), the Peach War (1655-56), and the Esopus Wars (1659-63).  None of them, in my memory, had individual names or lives that one could trace.

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The Eye of Theodosia Burr

THE EYE OF THEODOSIA BURR:  Aaron Burr, his daughter Theodosia, and Kingston painter John Vanderlyn

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

The Eye of Theodosia Burr

The Eye of Theodosia Burr

One of the most interesting objects on display at the Senate House State Historic Site Museum in Kingston, New York, is a miniature painting of a single female eye: The Eye of Theodosia Burr.  This delicate image symbolizes the intersecting stories of three New Yorkers:  the painter John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), his patron, Aaron Burr, Jr. (1756-1836), and his subject, Burr’s beloved daughter Theodosia (1783-1813).  All three stories represent different degrees of unfulfilled promise and unhappy endings.

The most familiar name of these three is that of Aaron Burr.  Like Benedict Arnold, about whom I wrote  in a previous blog, Burr is considered one of the great villains of New York history—most famous for killing his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.  Burr was a clever, cultured, and well-educated man who grew up in New Jersey (his father was the second president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, and his maternal grandfather was the famous minister Jonathan Edwards).  Orphaned as a toddler and raised by relatives, Burr was admitted to college at the age of 13, and studied theology and law after his graduation.  He joined the Continental Army in the early days of the Revolution, traveling with Benedict Arnold through the Maine wilderness for the attack on Quebec (see blog from October 17th, Benedict Arnold’s Boot, Part 1).

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Women Win the Right to Vote in New York State

November 6th 1917:  Women win the right to vote in New York State

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

How did women get the right to vote in New York State?  Most of my students assume that all women in the United States were granted suffrage at the same time, as the result of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1920.  To the contrary, women won the vote across the country in an irregular, piecemeal fashion.  The territory of Wyoming allowed women to vote in 1869, and joined the union in 1890 as the first state where women could vote in all elections.  By the time the women’s suffrage amendment was passed, 15 states across the country (including New York) already had full suffrage, and more had partial suffrage – that is, women could vote in some but not all elections.  For example, in some states or localities women could vote in presidential elections, primaries, municipal elections, or school board elections.

Button from 1917

Button from 1917

Often my students assume that New Yorkers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were responsible for winning the suffrage campaign.  Unfortunately, neither lived to see women gain the vote either nationally or state-wide. Essentially, they failed—not for lack of energy, organization, or compelling arguments, but because they were unable to convince the male voters of their period that women needed or deserved the vote.  Even the majority of women in the United States were probably not persuaded that enfranchising women was a good idea at the time that Stanton and Anthony died (1902 and 1906, respectively).  Surprisingly to us today, there was actually a strong anti-suffrage movement led by women, including a chapter in New York.

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Washington Irving’s Iconic New York Stories

Washington Irving’s Iconic New York Stories:  Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

John_Quidor: Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (Smithsonian)

John Quidor: Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (Smithsonian)

Despite the fact that he spent many of his productive years abroad, Washington Irving (1783-1859) was a quintessential New Yorker.  The man who coined the nicknames Gotham for New York City, and Knickerbocker for New Yorker also enshrined the Hudson River village of  Sleepy Hollow (formerly North Tarrytown) and the Catskill Mountains in the collective American memory.  His fictional characters Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane are recognizable to most of us today through various adaptations of their stories (some having very little relationship to the originals, as with the current Fox series Sleepy Hollow, a surprise hit just renewed for a second season).  What witches are to Massachusetts, the Headless Horseman is to New York State; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is New York’s ultimate Halloween story.  In fact, after the village of North Tarrytown lost its General Motors assembly plant in 1996, it actually changed its name to Sleepy Hollow to increase tourism, and the new TV series has furthered that goal.

Sunnyside_Tarrytown_Currier_and_Ives_crop_closeupIrving’s most famous stories are not just part of New York State history because he was from New York – born in New York City, died in his cottage Sunnyside (now a National Historic Landmark) in Tarrytown—but because they also reflect the history of the period in which he lived and wrote.  Rip Van Winkle highlights the difference between New York as a pre-Revolutionary provincial backwater and a growing state; after his twenty-year sleep, Rip awakes to find that the “very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility . . .”   Though Irving is exaggerating colonial New York’s lethargy for literary effect, the period following the Revolution—the Early Republican period—was precisely the time when New York began to surpass other states in population, commerce, and industrial development.  The changes Rip notices are the very changes that had happened in Irving’s own lifetime (he was in his mid-thirties when these stories were written).  Similarly, Irving’s nostalgia for the “old” New York is evident in this paragraph from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:

. . . it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New-York, that population, manners, and customs, remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.

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Benedict Arnold’s Boot (Part 2)

BENEDICT ARNOLD’S BOOT:  The rise and fall of a New York hero (continued, part 2)

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

Last week, we took Arnold through the fall of 1776, and the Battle at Valcour Island.  In the winter of 1776/77, despite support from George Washington and General Horatio Gates, Arnold was passed over for promotion to major general and threatened to resign.  Enemies—he seems to have made many—had turned Congress against him.  However, on his way to Philadelphia to discuss the matter that April, Arnold learned that the British were about to attack Ridgefield, Connecticut, and he joined the defense, led the militia, and was wounded again in the left leg—the very leg represented in the boot monument on  the field at Saratoga.

An artist's view of Arnold in the thick of the battle at Saratoga

An artist’s view of Arnold in the thick of the battle at Saratoga

In 1777, Arnold’s military career reached its zenith. He was finally promoted after his action and wounding in Connecticut, although he continued to resent that his seniority was less than others who had been promoted in the interim between when he felt the promotion was deserved and when it actually took place.  In addition, he had to defend himself against charges of corruption brought by an enemy officer.  Although Arnold threatened to retire, Washington insisted that he was needed for the defense against the British invasion of New York from the north and west.  Coming down from Canada, General Burgoyne’s army recaptured Ticonderoga in July, and Barry St. Leger’s smaller band of British soldiers, Hessians, Canadians, loyalists, and Native Americans (including New York’s Mohawk leader Joseph Brant) had set out from Niagara in the west.  If these forces could meet with an expected expedition up the Hudson from New York City, it was hoped by the British, and feared by the Americans, that New England would be cut off from the rest of the states.

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