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Our History: City’s melting pot started back in Dutch colonial times

Our city history is difficult to chronicle. Historian Allan Nevins found its essence too elusive to capture: “Over its skyscrapers hangs some demon forever waving a wand and exclaiming, ‘Presto, change!’ At his command, the change comes — comes through growth, the successive waves of immigration from abroad and migration from within, the passion for rebuilding engendered by high land values, the want of reverence for the past.”

One of the elements of the city that has persisted for more than three centuries has been the rich diversity of its population. It is a heritage that has come down to us since this area was under the jurisdiction of the Dutch governors of New Amsterdam.

Though many of the patentees of the settlement of Vlissingen, as Flushing was once known, came here by way of New England, others took the hazardous journey across the sea from Europe, like the Huguenots.

Under the aegis of the Dutch, at that time the early colonists learned to adjust to each others’ differences, though it was difficult at first. The Dutch brought to our city a concern for matters of morality and faith and a tradition of political liberty. Because of the heterogeneity of their early colony, they helped to establish the beginnings of toleration, however imperfect.

Through the years, adjustments continued in the Dutch colony, moderated by the influx of European immigrants. Force of circumstance made acceptance a necessary learning process with a settlement peopled by English, Dutch, Presbyterian, Anglican, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Huguenots, merchants, landlords, the free, the indentured and the enslaved.

As the colony grew, social necessity continued in what was once a small rural trading post: New Amsterdam.

Much has been written about the plight of immigrants in the 19th century, but it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like to undertake passage across the ocean two centuries before. Hardship and tragedy were not uncommon on a “normal” Atlantic crossing in those days. It took at least six to eight weeks under the best circumstances.

Food stocked for the journey often turned bad and conditions were crowded. The passengers were plagued by lice and vermin. Typhus and dysentery spread rapidly and decimated the crew and passengers and children. Added to this was the danger of scurvy from lack of a proper diet and starvation.

One such journey is documented for the vessel called the Charles on its way from the Netherlands to New York. The Charles was owned by Margaret Philipse, wife of New York’s wealthiest citizen, Frederick Philipse. On this particular voyage, Margaret and her daughter, Annetje, were aboard.

When the vessel left New Amsterdam, it headed for England, where it remained in port for several weeks. When it finally raised anchor, winds forced it back to shore, as did rumors of pirates off-shore.

The trip was filled with delays and danger. The course had to be changed constantly to catch the wind and estimating latitude became difficult with overcast skies. Storms were a hazard. Their worst encounter took place in a severe storm off the Bermudas, where giant waves drenched all onboard.

As one chronicler noted: “Human frailty added to the problem. Life at sea was attractive only to the daring, the desperate and the profit-minded.” In a diary kept by one of the Dutch passengers, Margaret is painted as too avaricious to repair the ship’s pump and nearly causing a disaster by insisting a crew member retrieve a mop that had fallen overboard.

When the ship approached New York Bay, memories of the voyage’s difficulties were replaced by the wonders of nature they saw. The report of the wildlife they saw from the Charles is corroborated by many similar descriptions. Whales and porpoises were seen offshore, and birds of all kinds, including eagles, crossed the sky. There was lush vegetation and primeval forests covered the land.

As the vessel approached shore, native Indians came out in canoes and boarded, departing with gifts of brandy and biscuits. As the ship passed the fort at the tip of Manhattan, soldiers hoisted the colors in greeting. Passing into the East River, the Charles approached the municipal dock at the lower end of the eastern shore of Manhattan. Boats came out to welcome friends and family, while others did so to do business.

New York was a melting pot from its earliest beginnings.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

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