AdmissionsAcademicsStudent AffairsAlumniDiscover FordhamResourcesAthleticsLibraries



You might find it surprising that we begin our discussion of South Street Seaport in 1640, since the Port did not exist at this time. And it wasn't just that the port hadn't been built, but that much of the area that later became part of South Street Seaport was water. It was not until around 1815 that landfill created South Street, laying the physical foundation for the development of South Street Seaport.

But what exactly is South Street Seaport, you might ask. During the Restoration period (1960-present), the eleven block area, from the East River in the East to Pearl Street in the West and from Dover Street in the North to Burling Slip and John Street in the South, was proposed as the historic district of South Street Seaport. However, this definition of the Seaport is only a construct of present day historians. "The designated 'Seaport' District," archeologist Joel Grossman notes, "represents a preserved or reconstructed remnant of the entire shoreline of lower Manhattan in the late 18th and 19th centuries -ringed with piers and docks. As a port area it was not unique as a shipping and warehouse zone, but rather, was symbolic of it" (Grossman, personal communication Nov, 2007). Thus, perhaps a better working definition of Manhattan's seaport is the "street of ships" which stretched from Corlaers Hook in the North to Schreyers Hook in the South.

Although the port as we now understand it did not exist until 1815, there was plenty of activity in Lower Manhattan that provided the foundation for what would eventually become South Street Seaport.

The Dutch

[Watch Jack Putnam speak about the origins of Dutch Settlement.]

In 1640, Manhattan was not yet New York; it was the settlement of New Amsterdam. In 1609, the Dutch East India Company hired Henry Hudson to find a North-East route to Asia. Instead, Hudson went in search of a North-West route and, although he failed miserably in his quest, he discovered Manhattan.

The Dutch realized that Hudson's new discovery could become the trading outpost that could bring the Dutch into the global fur trade. For this reason, the newly formed Dutch West India Company founded the colony of New Amsterdam in 1624.

When the Dutch came to Manhattan in 1624, they settled at the southern tip of the island, around what is now the Battery. Legend says that after arriving they bought Manhattan from the Native Americans for $24. This "purchase" provided the Dutch with a great abundance of resources, including a great number of oysters that the Native Americans introduced to the Dutch.

The Dutch had not expanded much farther north than their protective wall (present day Wall Street), when the English took over in 1664. The Dutch had, however, started another settlement in Brooklyn. Soon after, in 1640, the Brooklyn ferry began to transport people and cargo between the two settlements. Yet, by 1664, the Manhattan settlement was still small enough to be considered a "walking city"- people could walk from place to place and easily cross the city from one end to the other. What later became South Street Seaport was wilderness over a half a mile north of the original Dutch settlement. Therefore, for porting ships, the Dutch relied on a wharf built in the late 1640s that was

"along lower Dock street, between Whitehall Street to Coenties Slip, not far north of the Staten Island ferry dock at the Battery today. Here began the gradual East River waterfront expansion. The new structure was called the Great Dock, but it was obviously something less than that. Despite occasional flurries of enlargement and repair it never managed to keep pace with the need, and until the mid-1700s it was the only big pier projecting out into deep water. Smaller, special-purpose docks and quays paralleling the shore were in time built all the way up to Ferry Street (at Peck's Slip, a block south of the Brooklyn Bridge). Landfill projects changed the waterline and added Water and Front streets. But none of this fully answered shipping's need."(Seaport City 29-30)
With no great port or deep water docks, no large ships could dock. Instead, large ships anchored offshore, and smaller boats had to transport goods back to the shore.

The Dutch Legacy

Although the English took over Manhattan in 1664 and severed direct ties with the Netherlands, they did not eradicate everything Dutch about the colony. The Dutch left a legacy to the area that later became South Street Seaport. The fact that the Dutch had colonized Manhattan to make a profit gave New York a different character than the rest of the English colonies. While many of the other colonies were started for religious and political reasons; New Amsterdam was established by the Dutch West India Company solely to facilitate trade on the North American continent as well as with Europe. Thus, Manhattan was always a place focused on trade.

In addition to a focus on trade, the Dutch gave Manhattan a spirit of tolerance. The Netherlands had been the only place in Europe during the seventeenth century where one's religion was not integral to being Dutch. Although many Dutch were Calvinists, they were not concerned with religious uniformity, or any uniformity for that matter. The Dutch spirit of tolerance allowed New Amsterdam to develop quite differently from the other North American settlements. They were so tolerant that they allowed their trading partners to live on the settlement, if it facilitated trade. And the Dutch traded with whoever brought in the most profit. They could do so legally, because they were not restricted to trade with their mother country like all the other New World colonies. This freedom of trade was best exemplified by Company director Peter Stuyvesant's official declaration that the East River was opened to anyone for trade and navigation. Soon, New Amsterdam became a cosmopolitan settlement, where at one point, over eighteen languages were spoken and a variety of religions were practiced. This was marked by the presence of the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church, The Church of England, Presbyterians, French Huguenots, Jews from Spain and Germany, and a few Catholics (so few that they had no Church and were instead supervised by a Jesuit priest). This spirit of tolerance stayed in Manhattan long after the Dutch, providing the intellectual mindset for trade, which allowed New York's port to flourish.

[Watch Jack Putnam speak about Ethnicity at South Street.]

The Company's preoccupation with trade, unlike the heavy-handed practice in the British colonies, minimized the Company's involvement in the daily lives of Manhattan settlers. By 1648, nearly a fourth of all of New Amsterdam's buildings was comprised of brandy shops, tobacco shops, and beer houses. Stuyvesant saw these businesses as corrupting the people of New Amsterdam. But, even as Company director, he could do little about it. He could not even manage to convince the settlers to stop building wood chimneys to prevent fires or to fence in their hogs and goats. This lack of government oversight allowed for the development of impropriety along the waterfront. The tradition of waterfront impropriety would continue in the area of South Street Seaport.

Another aspect of the Dutch legacy was the introduction of slaves into New Amsterdam. Slaves came into New Amsterdam by way of the port, and many of them spent their day around the waterfront creating landfill and exchanged the furs and timber they had acquired from the forest. Under English rule, these slaves were essential to international trade along the waterfront, because they retained many of the languages that had been spoken in the cosmopolitan Dutch colony.

Finally, the Dutch started the tradition of landfill that began changing the physical nature of lower Manhattan. This tradition added Water, Front, and South Streets to lower Manhattan's original eastern shore at Pearl Street by 1815.

The English Takeover

The English had been at war with the Dutch from 1652 to 1654. Before the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, King Charles of England granted the land from Maine to Delaware, which included all of New Netherlands, to his brother the Duke of York. In 1664, the English arrived to claim their land for the Duke.

In April 1664, four ships and 450 men sailed to New Amsterdam to take it for the English. Although Company director Peter Stuyvesant originally refused the generous terms of surrender, which he destroyed, the rest of New Amsterdam's leadership reconstructed the English terms of surrender and accepted them. They petitioned Stuyvesant to accept them as well. After he finally surrendered, the English took over the settlement and renamed it New York after the Duke of York.

Since the Dutch had surrendered peacefully, the colony was able to maintain many of its privileges. The "Articles of Capitulation" that the Dutch and English signed in 1664 spelled out these privileges. New York would have unrestricted trade rights, the right to comment on public affairs, and the right to not quarter British soldiers. Because of this, New York remained important and unique able to trade with both the Netherlands and England. Thus, the English takeover was in no way detrimental to trade. The new English governor Nicolls' policy of promoting Dutch merchants to prominent positions in the city was actually helpful in promoting trade. With merchants in high places, trade remained a main concern for the new English government. Since the Dutch settlers had been mainly concerned with trade and making a profit, and the English were not affecting their trade, they did not mind being under English rule. During the next two decades, as Manhattan switched back into Dutch hands and then back into English hands, the settlers formed their identity as New Yorkers, rather than Dutch or British loyalists, because neither the Dutch nor the English had any effect on trade.

The English Period (1664-1776)

During the English period, there was a significant increase in development north of the wall (what we now call Wall Street). However, even by 1720, the settlement extended only as far north as today's City Hall Park (present day Chambers street). By 1770, the colony had only reached the southern end of what is now SOHO. This new development, however, did bring New York as far north as what we now call South Street Seaport, but not as far east, since the landfill projects on the East River waterfront were not yet completed.

Although the English takeover initially did not have much effect on Manhattan's trade, it did later affect the character of the New York port. During times of war, the British commissioned privateers to intercept enemy trade vessels and take their goods. The privateers were paid a percentage of whatever they captured. This could be quite a lucrative business. Many seamen, (commonly called Jack Tar) therefore, left their jobs on trading vessels to become privateers. However, being a privateer could be risky. If he came back empty handed, he would not be paid. When privateers got desperate, because they hadn't been paid, they took to looting any vessel, regardless of whether the vessel was an enemy's or not. These privateers who crossed over became the pirates of New York, one of whom was William Kidd. By the 17th century, New York City was one of the largest havens for piracy in the world. Clearly, piracy affected trade in New York's port. Merchants now had to worry about whether their goods would be intercepted by pirates. But at the same time, merchants willing to consort with pirates could make a large profit bringing in illicit luxury goods and reselling them in England. Thus piracy impacted the ports economy in a number of ways.

Yet, the port played more than just an economic role during the English period. The anti-British sentiment which would eventually give rise to the American Revolution was born in the port with the practice of impressments the act of forcibly taking sailors off of their vessels to work on British ships. Starting in 1697, the British began impressing their colonies' seamen to obtain an adequate number of men for their navy vessels. This practice increased during times of war. Because seamen were integral to trade (they manned the ships that transported goods), impressment had a significant economic effect on New York's port. First, it took seamen away from trading vessels, and secondly, it deterred other seamen from working on trading vessels for fear of being impressed into the British Navy. Since New York was so focused on trade, and impressment was detrimental to trade, New Yorkers were not fond of impressment. This was a constant source of friction between the British and the New Yorkers that would play out in the Revolution.

Following the French and Indian War in 1765, the British instituted the Stamp Act to pay for the British military presence in the colonies. This new tax, added to the Molasses Act of 1733 and the shipping regulations of 1763, severely hampered the shipping industry in New York. In addition, the colonists' response to the Stamp Act was to turn inward and boycott all non-domestic trade. With no demand for overseas trade, the maritime economy of New York crashed.

From 1765 until the end of the Revolutionary War, trade in and out of the seaport was mostly at a standstill. However, the unemployed and discontented seamen were not inactive. They had begun to see the British as the source of all of their problems. Following the Stamp Act, they started a riot. It was clear that by the time the Revolutionary War came, New York's seamen would be ardent Patriots.

The American Revolution and Its Legacy

Despite, and in fact, because of New York's prominence in pre-Revolutionary activism, New York was incapacitated throughout the American Revolution; the British made New York their primary target at the beginning of the war. The British took Manhattan during the Battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776. During that battle, the British General William Howe along with approximately 8,000 British and German troops captured the fort, taking the 2,818 American soldiers prisoner to secure New York for the majority of the war.

Yet, even if New York's port had little to do with the Revolution, a good number of its seamen did participate by joining the American Navy. This same group of seamen was unwilling to be recruited by the British Navy stationed in New York. When impressed, they were hardly loyal fighting against their fellow patriots.

New York remained in British hands until November 25, 1783, when George Washington retook the city. After the Revolution, New York was named as one of the five capitals under the Articles of Confederation and served as the American Capital under the Constitution between March 4, 1789 and August 12, 1790.

One visible result of the Revolutionary War was the change of many lower Manhattan street names. Unlike the English takeover, during which many of the old street names remained Dutch and the new streets became English, the change in street names after the American Revolution showed how much New Yorkers truly considered themselves American. Over a hundred years ago, they hadn't much cared if they were English or Dutch. However, the British practice of impressment had been bad for trade; the American merchants were losing their seamen, who were necessary for transporting goods, to the British navy. This gave New Yorkers a good reason to want to become Americans; they could rid themselves of the British who were hindering trade. In contrast, the settlers of 1664 did not care if they were ruled by the English or by the Dutch West India Company, because neither rule affected their trade. In the same way New Yorkers created an American identity, because the British were bad for trade, the settlers' of 1664 developed an identity free from any Dutch or British loyalties, because the English takeover and subsequent Dutch recapturing of Manhattan had caused no change in the settlers' ability to trade. In Manhattan, trade reigns supreme.

The China Trade

Following the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the new American merchants wanted to establish themselves as independent from Britain in the international trade market. Since Americans had already acquired a taste for tea and porcelain, which formerly had been brought indirectly through Britain, American merchants realized that trade with China could bring in a large profit. The history of western trade with the Far East assured New Yorkers that this was a venture worth pursuing.

In 1784, the first American ship Empress of China left the New York port, sailing for China. The ship had been built in Baltimore, financed in Philadelphia, and managed and publicized in the area that later became South Street Seaport. The ship returned successfully in 1785, carrying crates full of Chinese imports. Its success encouraged a second voyage on The Experiment. This voyage, returning in 1787, was another success and set the China Trade into full motion.

The China Trade did help the United States gain recognition as a country, even though the China Trade was never worth more than 15% of the total of America's world commerce. The China Trade made the British realize that the Americans were holding their own in international trade without help from their old mother country. The British and Americans even became allies when they bickered with the Chinese.

However, the China Trade did not help all Americans equally. Some did quite well, including John Jacob Astor, while others lost everything. Yet, the biggest winner was the New York port itself. Although certain ship captains and financial backers were based in Boston, Philadelphia, and other ports, the practice of passing all trade with China through New York in addition to the Protective Tariff of 1789, allowed New York's port to become the most important American port after the War of 1812. Moreover, two failed voyages based in Boston in 1787 further strengthened the practice of sending all exports through New York. Soon, New York's port was seen as America's main gateway for trade.

South Street Seaport and the War of 1812

While no battles were fought off the eastern coast of Manhattan, the War of 1812 greatly impacted New York's ability to conduct trade, because of the British blockade along the East Coast from Georgia all the way to Maine. Since New York had centered on commerce from its inception, the blockade motivated New Yorkers to help end the war.

The war itself was the result of underlying tension with Britain (and France to an extent). The French Continental System, designed to hurt the British, declared ships that traded with Britain enemy vessels. The British response to the Continental System was the Orders in Council, which similarly declared ships that traded with France enemy vessels. Since American ships leaving from the New York port traded with both the British and the French, the Continental System and Orders in Council impeded New York merchants' ability to conduct business, even though America was neutral. As the British searched, seized, and harassed American vessels and impressed its men into service, the American merchants continued to lose goods, money, and business. Fed up with being violated by the British, American merchants successfully lobbied for a senatorial declaration of war on the British.

While most of the War of 1812 was fought on the Great Lakes, around Washington D.C., and in New Orleans, the shipbuilders of South Street Seaport did participate. Two men in particular, Henry Eckford and Noah Brown, some of New York's "most notable builders...built the vessels that won the battles of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain" (McKay 67) and Lake Ontario. To do so, these men had to travel by land to the Great Lakes, because the Erie Canal was not yet built.

In addition to these two men's contribution to the war, the area between Catherine Street and Stanton Street that housed New York's shipbuilders produced the brigs and schooners of the privateers that "inspired the British with terror" (69). "It is estimated that during two years of war more than 1,300 British merchant vessels were taken by [American] privateers, and it is believed that 250 privateers had commissions from the government of the United States.

In Europe, the privateers' ability to damage British vessels was aided by France offering American privateers safe harbor effectively allowing American privateers to terrorize the English Channel and then slip away into French ports. This helped win the war, because it hindered Britain's ability to trade and cost Britain dearly as the British had to continually repair their vessels.

The war had an important impact on New York's port. During the war, goods became very expensive in New York. When the war ended in 1815, prices plummeted and "commercial and manufacturing enterprises bounded forward with an elasticity that bewildered the conservative merchant of old New York" (McKay 84). At the same time, a great construction of wharfs and docks began. This development of infrastructure, South Street's unrestrained enthusiasm for trade, as well as the construction of the Erie Canal and Robert Fulton's steamboat, allowed South Street Seaport to become America's most important port until the time of the Civil War.

[Watch Jack Putnam address the significance of South Street.]

© 2005 Fordham University
Rose Hill Campus Bronx, NY 10458 (718) 817-1000
Lincoln Center Campus New York, NY 10023 (212) 636-6000
Marymount Campus Tarrytown, NY 10591 (914) 631-3200