Knickerbocker's History of New York/Book II/Chapter IX

Chapter IXEdit

There is something exceedingly delusive in thus looking back, through the long vista of departed years, and catching a glimpse of the fairy realms of antiquity. Like a landscape melting into distance, they receive a thousand charms from their very obscurity, and the fancy delights to fill up their outlines with graces and excellences of its own creation. Thus loom on my imagination those happier days of our city, when as yet New Amsterdam was a mere pastoral town, shrouded in groves of sycamores and willows, and surrounded by trackless forests and wide-spreading waters, that seemed to shut out all the cares and vanities of a wicked world.

In those days did this embryo city present the rare and noble spectacle of a community governed without laws; and thus being left to its own course, and the fostering care of Providence, increased as rapidly as though it had been burdened with a dozen panniers full of those sage laws usually heaped on the backs of young cities--in order to make them grow. And in this particular I greatly admire the wisdom and sound knowledge of human nature displayed by the sage Oloffe the Dreamer and his fellow legislators. For my part, I have not so bad an opinion of mankind as many of my brother philosophers. I do not think poor human nature so sorry a piece of workmanship as they would make it out to be; and as far as I have observed, I am fully satisfied that man, if left to himself, would about as readily go right as wrong. It is only this eternally sounding in his ears that it is his duty to go right which makes him go the very reverse. The noble independence of his nature revolts at this intolerable tyranny of law, and the perpetual interference of officious morality, which are ever besetting his path with finger-posts and directions to "keep to the right, as the law directs;" and like a spirited urchin, he turns directly contrary, and gallops through mud and mire, over hedges and ditches, merely to show that he is a lad of spirit, and out of his leading-strings. And these opinions are amply substantiated by what I have above said of our worthy ancestors; who never being be-preached and be-lectured, and guided and governed by statutes and laws and by-laws, as are their more enlightened descendants, did one and all demean themselves honestly and peaceably, out of pure ignorance, or, in other words--because they knew no better.

Nor must I omit to record one of the earliest measures of this infant settlement, inasmuch as it shows the piety of our forefathers, and that, like good Christians, they were always ready to serve God, after they had first served themselves. Thus, having quietly settled themselves down, and provided for their own comfort, they bethought themselves of testifying their gratitude to the great and good St. Nicholas, for his protecting care in guiding them to this delectable abode. To this end they built a fair and goodly chapel within the fort, which they consecrated to his name; whereupon he immediately took the town of New Amsterdam under his peculiar patronage, and he has even since been, and I devoutly hope will ever be, the tutelar saint of this excellent city.

At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas Eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.

I am moreover told that there is a little legendary book somewhere extant, written in Low Dutch, which says that the image of this renowned saint, which whilom graced the bow-sprit of the Goede Vrouw, was elevated in front of this chapel, in the center of what in modern days is called the Bowling Green--on the very spot, in fact, where he appeared in vision to Oloffe the Dreamer. And the legend further treats of divers miracles wrought by the mighty pipe which the saint held in his mouth; a whiff of which was a sovereign cure for an indigestion--an invaluable relic in this colony of brave trenchermen. As however, in spite of the most diligent search, I cannot lay my hands upon this little book, I must confess that I entertain considerable doubt on the subject.

Thus benignly fostered by the good St. Nicholas, the infant city thrived apace. Hordes of painted savages, it is true, still lurked about the unsettled parts of the island. The hunter still pitched his bower of skins and bark beside the rills that ran through the cool and shady glens, while here and there might be seen, on some sunny knoll, a group of Indian wigwams whose smoke arose above the neighboring trees, and floated in the transparent atmosphere. A mutual good-will, however, existed between these wandering beings and the burghers of New Amsterdam. Our benevolent forefathers endeavored as much as possible to ameliorate their situation, by giving them gin, rum, and glass beads, in exchange for their peltries; for it seems the kind-hearted Dutchmen had conceived a great friendship for their savage neighbors, on account of their being pleasant men to trade with, and little skilled in the art of making a bargain.

Now and then a crew of these half human sons of the forest would make their appearance in the streets of New Amsterdam, fantastically painted and decorated with beads and flaunting feathers, sauntering about with an air of listless indifference--sometimes in the marketplace, instructing the little Dutch boys in the use of the bow and arrow--at other times, inflamed with liquor, swaggering, and whooping, and yelling about the town like so many fiends, to the great dismay of all the good wives, who would hurry their children into the house, fasten the doors, and throw water upon the enemy from the garret windows. It is worthy of mention here that our forefathers were very particular in holding up these wild men as excellent domestic examples--and for reasons that may be gathered from the history of Master Ogilby, who tells us that "for the least offence the bridegroom soundly beats his wife and turns her out of doors, and marries another, insomuch that some of them have every year a new wife." Whether this awful example had any influence or not history does not mention; but it is certain that our grandmothers were miracles of fidelity and obedience.

True it is that the good understanding between our ancestors and their savage neighbors was liable to occasional interruptions, and I have heard my grandmother, who was a very wise old woman, and well versed in the history of these parts, tell a long story of a winter's evening, about a battle between the New-Amsterdammers and the Indians, which was known by the name of the Peach War, and which took place near a peach orchard, in a dark glen, which for a long while went by the name of Murderer's Valley.

The legend of this sylvan war was long current among the nurses, old wives, and other ancient chroniclers of the place; but time and improvement have almost obliterated both the tradition and the scene of battle; for what was once the blood-stained valley is now in the center of this populous city, and known by the name of Dey Street.

I know not whether it was to this "Peach War," and the acquisitions of Indian land which may have grown out of it, that we may ascribe the first seeds of the spirit of "annexation" which now began to manifest themselves. Hitherto the ambition of the worthy burghers had been confined to the lovely island of Manna-hata; and Spiten Devil on the Hudson, and Hell-gate on the Sound, were to them the pillars of Hercules, the ne plus ultra of human enterprise. Shortly after the Peach War however, a restless spirit was observed among the New Amsterdammers, who began to cast wistful looks upon the wild lands of their Indian neighbors; for somehow or other wild Indian land always looks greener in the eyes of settlers than the land they occupy. It is hinted that Oloffe the Dreamer encouraged these notions; having, as has been shown, the inherent spirit of a land speculator, which had been wonderfully quickened and expanded since he had become a landholder. Many of the common people, who had never before owned a foot of land, now began to be discontented with the town lots which had fallen to their shares; others who had snug farms and tobacco plantations found they had not sufficient elbow-room, and began to question the rights of the Indians to the vast regions they pretended to hold--while the good Oloffe indulged in magnificent dreams of foreign conquest and great patroonships in the wilderness.

The result of these dreams were certain exploring expeditions sent forth in various directions to "sow the seeds of empire," as it was said. The earliest of these were conducted by Hans Reinier Oothout, an old navigator famous for the sharpness of his vision, who could see land when it was quite out of sight to ordinary mortals, and who had a spy-glass covered with a bit of tarpaulin, with which he could spy up the crookedest river, quite to its head waters. He was accompanied by Mynheer Ten Breeches, as land measurer, in case of any dispute with the Indians.

What was the consequence of these exploring expeditions? In a little while we find a frontier post or trading-house called Fort Nassau, established far to the south on Delaware River; another called Fort Goed Hoop (or Good Hope), on the Varsche or Fresh, or Connecticut River; and another called Fort Aurania (now Albany) away up the Hudson River; while the boundaries of the province kept extending on every side, nobody knew whither, far into the regions of Terra Incognita.

Of the boundary feuds and troubles which the ambitious little province brought upon itself by these indefinite expansions of its territory we shall treat at large in the after pages of this eventful history; sufficient for the present is it to say, that the swelling importance of the Nieuw Nederlandts awakened the attention of the mother country, who, finding it likely to yield much revenue and no trouble, began to take that interest in its welfare which knowing people evince for rich relations.

But as this opens a new era in the fortunes of New Amsterdam I will here put an end to this second book of my history, and will treat of the maternal policy of the mother country in my next.