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Conquering Nature

by Colleen Slentz

Most people don't realize the profound effect nature has had on the island of Manhattan. For example, Manhattan Schist, one of the three layers of bedrock, is found close to the surface in the business districts in midtown and downtown, which explains the height of skyscrapers there and the gap in the skyline between them.1

However, the effects of nature on the development of New York City go back much further than skyscrapers. The very reason Manhattan was settled was because it was a land of plenty and ideally situated for trade. In the early days, trade was influenced heavily by nature. The story of Manhattan and the South Street area is an echo of a larger story about Americans' conquest of nature, from its untouched, powerful form, to the marked lack of its presence in most Americans' lives today.

The Land of Many Hills

When the Dutch first settled Manhattan, the area currently known as the South Street Seaport was nothing but marshland. Manhattan was a forested island of many hills and a diverse array of wildlife. Adrian van der Donck, one of the New Amsterdam settlers, described the settlement in A Description of the New Netherlands: "the land rewards the labor of the husbandman; the flowers smile on his countenance; the fishes sport in their element, and the herds play in the fields. [] The autumns in the New-Netherlands are very fine, lovely and agreeable; more delightful cannot be found on the earth."2 Although this is probably exaggerated, there was indeed a rich abundance of wildlife in the area3, and we can only imagine its natural, mostly untouched beauty. The area's natural plenty made it attractive to settlers, but even more importantly, Manhattan was ideally situated for trade and defense. Its island formations sheltered it from the open ocean, and its location on the Hudson provided unparalleled access to the interior of the continent.

Limitations of Vessels

Dutch vessels were dependent on the kindness of nature in a way we can hardly comprehend. Not only were Dutch sloops susceptible to the hazards of the open ocean, they were vulnerable to the tides, winds, and currents of the Hudson River. The Native Americans called the Hudson "the river that flows both ways" because its flow, in the New York City area, changes depending on the tide. About every six hours, the flow of the Hudson changes from out to sea, to upriver. As a result, the Dutch sloops often had to wait for the river to flow in the direction they wanted to go.4 In addition, they were strongly affected by favorable and unfavorable winds, and once they got far enough upriver they had to pull the ships against the current. The combination of these factors meant river travel was unpredictable and fluctuating.5

All this meant that trade could not proceed quickly or regularly. The unpredictable dangers of the open ocean meant that trade arrivals were unpredictable; thus, ships had no regular schedules. Although Manhattan was so well situated for trade, this atmosphere of uncertainty dampened the volume of trading. Trade was, in effect, held captive by the shackles of nature.

Shifting Ideas About Nature

By the 19th century, Americans had begun to question whether they should be so affected by nature. A sense of nationalism was growing in the young country. This manifested itself in both the celebration and the exploitation of nature. Writing in 1823, James Fenimore Cooper described Otsego Lake as being "like a mirror of glass. The water was covered by myriads of the wild fowl that migrate with the changes of the seasons."6 His writing heralded a new appreciation of natural beauty related to the rise in Romanticism in America.

However, Americans were also using that natural beauty to justify their right to exploit it. The doctrine of manifest destiny stated that the very abundance of natural resources in America was proof of God's endorsement of the nation. Those natural resources were there, many Americans believed, to be exploited. This marked a shift in the idea of viewing nature as an obstacle, a powerful force which one could only work around, to something which could be exploited, and ultimately conquered.

In New York City, this was further emphasized by the influence of Yankees arriving at the end of the 18th century. Descended from the Puritans, they saw nature as an obstacle in the progress of Christianity. Impervious to the splendor of the land in its natural state, they wanted to domesticate and civilize the Hudson River Valley.7

In 1811, New York City implemented a grid plan on the un-urbanized portion of Manhattan. The grid plan was beneficial to real estate developers and careless of natural geography.8 This action is representative of a mindset in which nature was meant to be subdued, not heeded. The conquest of nature had begun.

The Steamboat

One of the first major innovations that enabled the conquest of nature was the steamboat. In the first quarter of the 19th century, Robert Fulton successfully tested and marketed the steamboat on the Hudson and East Rivers. The steamboat was remarkable primarily because of its reliability. Unlike the Dutch sloops of the previous two centuries, the steamboat could travel upriver at a steady pace, regardless of tides or winds. As early as September of 1807, schedules for steamboat travel appeared in the New York City area, well before they appeared anywhere else in the country. The schedule was a dedication to the regularity of trade, and provided a dependability that helped pave the way for a capitalist society.9 Not only was the steamboat unaffected by tides and winds, it tamed time as well.

Steamboats were notorious for racing each other up and down the river. Sometimes their boilers would even burst into flames, because they were being overexerted. Although these races illustrate the remaining limitations of the steamboat, they also show how concerned steamboat companies were with conquering time and making the duration of their trip shorter and shorter.10

This had a profound effect on the trading, and consequently the character of the South Street area. Fulton's steamboat operations on the East River were actually located at the present-day South Street area. Domestic trading increased, since the steamboat could more effectively access the inland of the country through the Hudson River.

Other Innovations

The construction of the Erie Canal in 1825 further increased domestic trading, while increasing barge traffic between Albany and New York.11 At the time, it was stated that the Canal would make New York City. "the greatest commercial emporium in the world."12 While this may be an exaggeration, the overall effect on the port of New York City was an increase in the volume of ships, and the type: steamboats and a remarkable numbers of barges now joined the sailboats in the waterscape of the harbor.

Meanwhile, advances in sailing, such as the clipper ship, increased and sped up international trading. In the first half of the 19th century, New York City traded with China more than any city in America. New York City trade was on the upswing. Finally, its naturally advantageous location could be realized to its full potential as a result of innovations which conquered winds, tides, time and the open ocean.


Today, although the attention of Manhattan's economy has turned to real estate, certain relics of its maritime history remain. The South Street Seaport historic district is one such relic. The only reason it exists is because of the explosion of New York City maritime trade in the 19th century, which occurred as a result of the conquest of nature. Thus, nature not only gifted the area with natural plenty and an ideal location, its subjugation helped propel Manhattan to its current status as a financial capital of the world.


1. McCully, Betsy. City at the Water's Edge: a natural history of New York. Rivergates Books, an imprint of Rutgers University Press, 2007. p. 2-3

2. Donck, Adriaen van der. A Description of the New Netherlands. Tr. from the original Dutch by Hon. Jeremiah Johnson. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Library.;idno=nys161 p. 183

3. McCully, p. 16

4. Stanne, Stephen P., and Roger G. Panetta, and Brian E. Forist. The Hudson: an illustrated guide to the living river. New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2007. p. 6

5. Ibid, p. 120

6. Huth, Hans. Nature and the American: three centuries of changing attitudes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

7. Stanne, Panetta, Forist. p.103

8. Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream. Free Press, 2001. p. 123

9. Stanne, Panetta, Forist. p. 123-4

10. Panetta, Roger G. Lecture at Fordham University, 2007.

11. Stanne, Panetta, Forist. p 122

12. Sale, p. 152

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