I’m taking my blog on an imaginary vacation this week away from Pleistocene Georgia to New York City…but not to the metropolis of today. Instead, I’m going to visit the area in 1626 when it was known as New Amsterdam. An open woodland of giant oak, tulip, maple, hickory, and elm trees grew on most of Manhattan Island. The centuries old trees were so widely spaced apart that grass predominated in the understory. Indians maintained this open parkland landscape by burning the woods frequently. This practice improved habitat for wildlife. Eric Sanderson theoretically reconstructed the original environment of Manhattan Island based on information from a Revolutionary War era map. He concluded there were 55 different natural communities on Manhattan Island–more than most, if not all, of our modern National Parks. Manhattan consisted of 77% forest and shrub, 10% grassland, 8% salt marsh, 2% freshwater marsh, 1% old Indian fields, and 1% beach. The balance was pond and tidal creek.
Times Square circa 2013. What a godawful terrorist attack trap.
Beaver Pond surrounded by meadow with red maple, black cherry, and spruce. Photo by Jess Riddle. This is what Times Square looked like circa 1626. Which do you prefer?
Dr. Sanderson thinks oak-chestnut woodlands dominated the upper drier hills of Manhattan, while oak-tulip-maple woodlands grew in the lower richer soils. A red maple-hemlock-beech community grew adjacent to the creeks and springs. Pitch pine-scrub oak covered sandy soils. Beach plum thickets were found near the shore. There was some white pine, spruce, and cedar on the island as well. There were at least 61 creeks and springs, today located underneath skyscrapers, and 21 ponds. Collect pond, a 70 foot deep kettlehole formed by glacial meltwater, was New York City’s source of freshwater for 200 years, until 1830 when a tannery factory poisoned the pond. This once beautiful wonder of nature has since been filled, and the New York City municipal building stands over it today.
In spring and summer the sweet smell of wildflowers permeated the air. In June wild strawberries were so abundant they dyed everything red. There was a beaver pond surrounded by red maple trees where Times Square stands today. A wooded swamp stood between what today is 5th and 8th avenues. The land below 4th street was described as a “forested glade.” North of Manhattan, there was an 150 acre treeless meadow. This grassy plain and salt marsh would later become Harlem. On the edge of this meadow, cherry and peach trees grew. Florida Indians obtained peaches from the Spanish a century earlier, and the various tribes traded amongst themselves for the seeds, until the tree had spread all the way to Manhattan. The neighborhoods to become Greenwich Village and Wall Street were Indian hunting grounds.
Coney Island was a brush-covered barrier island separated from Brooklyn by a tidal creek. The tidal creek was eventually used as a garbage dump and landfill, so now Coney Island is connected to south Brooklyn with dirt-covered garbage. The island abounded in rabbits, hence the name coney which is an old Dutch and English word for rabbit. (Bunny is a derivative of coney.) Rabbit hunting continued to be the main attraction of the island til after the Civil War when it became renowned as an amusement park. Instead of rabbits, 60,000 people now live on this island despite it being just 4 square miles. I’d prefer the rabbits.
Long Island’s natural environment resembled that of Manhattan and mostly consisted of open woodland, but part of the island included a 64 square mile prairie that hosted many grassland species. Staten Island was more thickly wooded than the other islands and may have been subject to less burning. Unlike the other islands, the forest here was closed canopy. Governor’s Island was known as nut island because it was covered with groves of hickory trees.
Earliest known drawing of New York City circa 1626.
Reconstructed aerial vew of Manhattan Island circa 1609. Note the beautiful kettle pond that served as New York City’s source of drinking water for 200 years. It was filled in and today the city municipal building is located on top of it. What an ugly transformation. The lines represent where the island has been expanded by landfill consisting of garbage plus dirt from hills that were leveled.
By 1626, 200 Europeans had settled on Manhattan, and they lived there with 15,000 Indians. The combined settlements took up less than .1% of the island. The rest was wilderness. The first European settlers were shepherds, but wolves ate every last sheep within the first year, and the Europeans were forced to rely on venison and turkey instead of mutton as their main source of protein. This was not a problem on Manhattan: deer traveled in herds of 25-30 and turkeys in flocks as large as 500, and the Indians were willing to sell game meats door-to-door. Occasionally, even elk and moose wandered on to the island. Nearby Staten Island, where the woods grew more dense, was renowned for its bear hunting. Fur traders made a fortune. In 1626 the pelts of 7,520 beaver, 853 otter, 81 mink, 36 Canadian lynx, and 34 muskrat were shipped from New Amsterdam. That doesn’t even count pelts used locally. Millions of passenger pigeons roosted on the island during summers. In 1609 when Henry Hudson became the first European to discover New York Harbor, the Indians gave him a feast of pigeons. One English hunter bagged 100 prairie chickens in 1 day just south of where Times Square stands today. This species of prairie chicken, known as the Heath Hen, is now extinct. (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/pleistocene-prairie-chicken-tympanuchus-cupido-fossils-found-in-southern-states/)
By 1656, a population of 1000 Europeans lived in New Amsterdam. The new immigrants complained they couldn’t sleep at night because of the constant quacking and calling of the thousands of ducks and geese. They also complained that a wall of swans blocked their view of the Hudson River. (By contrast, I’ve never seen a wild swan in my life.) Hundreds of osprey, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and vultures nested on The Narrows Cliffs.
The eel grass beds located offshore offered a rich base of the food chain for marine life. Early settlers ate 12 inch long oysters and could trap as many lobsters as they could eat. New York Harbor, scoured to an abyss by glaciers, was habitat for deep sea species of fish and even whales in the days before whalers decimated their populations. Enormous sturgeon spawned on the Hudson River near where Albany, New York is now located. Flounder, mullet, salmon, striped bass, and eel swam in the tidal rivers and creeks. Schools of menhaden often used to wash ashore in the thousands, and dozens of bald eagles would gorge themselves on the rotting fish. One would be hard pressed to find 1 eagle in the entire state of New York today.
The New Amsterdam of 1626 puts all of our modern National Parks to shame. Let’s face it: all of our National Parks and Wildlife Refuges are garbage lands that were discarded because they had little economic value. The lands were of such poor quality we left it to the animals. The Everglades and the Okefenokee Swamp are examples of wetlands that were too expensive to drain. Developers were willing to give them up…after they removed the best cypress trees. The area destroyed by Disney World was far richer in wildlife than these wildly overrated wilderness destinations. The forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were utterly destroyed. Lumber companies let the government have the land only after they were finished raping it. All the best quality wildlife habitat in North America has been converted to urban, suburban, and agricultural uses. All remaining wilderness areas are marginal lands nearly devoid of wildlife compared to New Amsterdam of 1626.
1869 sketch of what today is the intersection of E. 75th Street and FDR Drive. This beautiful area was soon to be ruined.
America as seen by its First Explorers
Dover Publications 1961
After the Hunt
John Folse Publishing 2008
Sanderson, Eric; and Marianne Brown
“Manahatta: An Ecological First Look at the Manhattan Landscape Prior to Henry Hudson”
Northeastern Naturalist 14 (4) 2007