New York Colonial History



Boston, which has crowned Beacon Hill, pressed over the Neck, and even covered with a magnificent quarter a large surface that was once the bed of the Charles River, was in 1774 a town of fifteen thousand or eighteen thousand inhabitants, closely confined to the neighborhood of the bay. . The Boston of 1774, which proclaimed freedom and defied the power of England, would scarcely rank to-day among the more important country towns. New York was more populous, but it was still confined to the narrow point of land below the Park. The thickly-built part of the town lay in the neighborhood of Whitehall. Some fine houses lined Broadway and Broad Street, but to the west of Broadway green lawns stretched down from Trinity and St. Paul's to the water. Trees were planted thickly before the houses; on the roofs railings or balconies were placed, and in the summer evenings the people gathered on the house tops to catch the cool air. Lamps had already been placed on the streets. Fair villas covered the environs, and even the Baroness Riedesel, who had visited in the royal palaces of Europe, was charmed with the scenery and homes of the citizens. Extravagance had already corrupted the plainer habits of the earlier period. The examples of London and Paris had already affected the American cities. The people of New York drank fiery Madeira, and were noted for their luxury. Broadway was thought the most splendid of avenues, although it ended at Chambers Street. And twenty years later, when the City Hall was built, it was called by Dwight (a good scholar) the finest building in America.

The streets of New York and Boston were usually crooked and narrow, but the foresight of Penn had made Philadelphia a model of regularity. Market and Broad Streets were ample and stately. The city was as populous as New York, and perhaps the possessor of more wealth. It was the first city on the continent, and the fame of Franklin had already given it a European renown. Yet Philadelphia when it rebelled against George III. was only an insignificant town, clinging to the banks of the river; and New York invited the attack of the chief naval power of the world with its harbor undefended and its whole population exposed to the guns of the enemy's ships. The Southern cities were yet of little importance. Baltimore was a small town. Virginia had no large city. Charleston had a few thousand inhabitants. Along that immense line of sea-coast now covered with populous cities the smallest of which would have made the New York and Boston of our ancestors seem insignificant, only these few and isolated centres of commerce had sprung up. The wilderness still covered the shores of Long Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Carolinas almost as in the days of Raleigh.

To pass from one city to another along this desolate shore was, in 1775, a long and difficult journey. Roads had been early built in most of the colonies. In Massachusetts they were good, except where they passed over the hills. In New York a good road ran through Orange and Ulster counties to Albany. That between New York and Philadelphia was probably tolerable. In the Southern colonies but little attention was paid to road-building, and even those in the neighborhood of Philadelphia were often almost impassable. A stage-coach ran in two days from New York to Philadelphia, but the passengers were requested to cross over the evening before to Powle's Hook, that they might set out early in the morning. Sloops sailed to Albany in seven or eight days. From Boston to New York was a tedious journey. In fair weather the roads of the time were tolerable; but in winter and spring they became little better than quagmires. There was therefore but little intercourse between the people of the distant colonies, and in winter all communication by land and water must have been nearly cut off.

The Northern cities were usually built of brick or of stone, and many of the farm-houses were of the latter material. The former had been imported from Holland for the first New York buildings; and even Schenectady, a frontier town, was so purely Dutch as to have been early decorated with Holland brick. In the country stone was easily gathered from the abundant quarries on the Hudson or along the New England hills. Many large, low stone houses, with lofty roofs and massive windows, may still be seen in the rich valleys opening upon the Hudson, almost in the same condition in which they were left by their Huguenot or Dutch builders, and apparently capable of enduring the storms of another century. Brick-making was soon introduced into the colonies, and the abundant forests supplied all the materials for the mechanic.. A general equality in condition was nearly reached. Not five men, we are told, in New York and Philadelphia expended ten thousand dollars a year upon their families. The manners of the people were simple; their expenses moderate. Yet nowhere was labor so well rewarded or poverty so rare.. Wines and liquors were freely consumed by our ancestors, and even. New England had as yet no high repute for temperance. Rum was taken as a common restorative. The liquor-shops of New York had long been a public annoyance. In the far-southern colonies, we are told, the planter began his day with a strong glass of spirits, and closed it by carousing, gambling, or talking politics in the village tavern. Our ancestors were extraordinarily fond of money, if we may trust the judgment of Washington, who seems to have found too many of them willing to improve their fortunes from the resources of the impoverished community. But in general it must be inferred that the standard of public morals was not low as compared with the Europe of that day.





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