A couple of years ago, armed with an 1866 guidebook titled Lloyd’s Pocket Companion and Guide Through New York City, for 1866-67, I set out to recreate a 150-year-old walking tour of Lower Manhattan.
It was a frustrating experience. While buildings such as Federal Hall and Trinity Church are still standing, the Manhattan described in the pages of Lloyd’s and other 1860s guidebooks is more or less gone. Whether the authors were dodging horse-drawn carriages on Broadway, marveling at the curiosities of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, or bracing themselves for a journey into the Five Points, they were seeing a city I could no longer access.
The Historical Guide to the City of New York is different. Written between 1898 and 1908 as a series of standalone pamphlets and published in 1909, this book had a couple of advantages over its predecessors. The city sketched out in its guided walks is four decades more recent—and perhaps more visible to a modern reader. Because the book was published by the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, I knew it would focus more on New York’s architectural past, and less on trendy shops and restaurants. Most importantly, this was the first book I’d seen with turn-by-turn directions for its readers—essentially the birth of the modern-day New York City walking-tour guidebook.
If I started with the Historical Guide’s first downtown walk—inexplicably named “Excursion No. VII”—could I use it to get around the Financial District? Or, like its predecessors, would it simply be a guide to places that used to exist and are now long gone?
New York’s history is so tied to its geography that even today, flipping through contemporary guidebooks, it is rare to find one that does not take visitors directly to the Financial District, the oldest part of the city. As someone who’s led countless walks in the neighborhood, I can attest to its allure: Since Manhattan narrows at its southern tip, you can walk coast-to-coast with little difficulty; for the same reason, all the major subway lines converge there. It’s also the only place where you can readily explore every chapter in the city’s post-contact history, from the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 to the ongoing construction at the World Trade Center.
The neighborhood’s appeal was similar in 1909, when the Historical Guide came out. The brand-new IRT subway extension of what we now call the Lexington Avenue line could bring uptown commuters all the way to South Ferry, and the city’s multiple elevated lines and trolleys also converged in a tangle of tracks at Bowling Green, making the Financial District the most easily reached neighborhood in Manhattan.
The Historical Guide begins at the foot of Broadway:
Tablet on the Washington Building, 1 Broadway, erected by the Sons of the Revolution to mark the site of the Kennedy House, built about 1760 by Captain Archibald Kennedy, RN, a member of the Governor’s Council and Collector of the Port, later eleventh Earl of Cassilis. It was occupied during the Revolution by Putnam, “King” Sears, Generals Clinton and Carleton, but not by Washington, whose headquarters before September 14, 1776, were at Richmond Hill.... Later it was owned by Nathaniel Prime and became the Washington Hotel. The Washington Building was erected by Cyrus W. Field and from its tower and roof can be gained fine views of the harbor.
Reclad and renovated in 1921 to be the home of J.P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine, the Washington Building still stands on this corner, though I’m sure no tourist has viewed the harbor from its roof in years.
The original tablet erected by the Sons of the Revolution is gone, but at the corner of Broadway and Battery Place, a new tablet—in sync with most contemporary historians—says that Washington at least spent some time at One Broadway, even if it wasn’t his official headquarters. It was here that the general rebuffed a British emissary who brought a message from Admiral Richard Howe addressed merely to “George Washington Esq., etc., etc.” and not to “General Washington,” an insult which set in motion the British takeover of Manhattan.
After pointing out a pair of houses—now gone—the Historical Guide leads me to Bowling Green, still one of the most historically significant places in Lower Manhattan. It was here that the gilded equestrian statue of King George III was torn down by patriots on July 9, 1776, and, as the book points out, where “the Federal Procession of 1787 was reviewed by Washington, and the Federal Ship of State, made and presented by the ship carpenters of New York, remained on the Bowling Green until 1789.”
Pointing out Bowling Green’s role in the Revolution isn’t unusual—any modern guidebook would be remiss to leave it out—but making note of the Ship of State, a frigate model on a horse-drawn float labeled “HAMILTON,” strikes me as a little odd. By 1909, the Constitutional parade was important only to a select few—and had been completely forgotten by everyone else.
Looking through the Historical Guide, I see a pattern emerge: Much of what the book will be taking me to are plaques, tablets, and markers—most of which had been only recently installed by groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution—recalling moments of the War of Independence. In Lloyd’s and other Civil War-era guides, I don’t recall a single historical marker, Revolutionary or otherwise.
The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century saw growing interest in the city’s history. In 1909, a few months after the Historical Guide was published, the city embarked on a two-week Hudson-Fulton Festival, a commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s 1609 arrival in New York Harbor and the centennial of Robert Fulton’s successful North River steamboat. The festivities included a flotilla of ships (including a replica of Hudson’s Half Moon), a parade on Broadway where each float depicted a scene from New York history, and even Wilbur Wright flying up and down the Hudson River and buzzing the Statue of Liberty. (The Historical Guide itself was dedicated to the Hudson-Fulton Festival president.)
New York’s elite had recognized the need to preserve the city’s history as early as 1804, when the New-York Historical Society was founded (only the Massachusetts Historical Society, from 1791, is older). Though billed as New York’s oldest museum, the society originally mostly served as library, archive, repository of ephemera, and sponsor of talks and papers on a variety of subjects. (A June 1845 article in the New York Evening Post describes a one-hour talk by Mr. Schoolcraft on the siege of Fort Stanwix, which, while “quite fit for patriotic ears,” was “too long for the occasion.”)
When the general public wanted to visit an exhibition, they instead opted for places like Barnum’s American Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street. The museum opened in 1842, but its history dated back to the late 18th century and an earlier American Museum established by John Pintard (who was one of the founders of both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New-York Historical Society). Pintard’s museum, established under the auspices of Tammany Hall and open one day a week inside a room in City Hall, was designed “for the sole purpose of collecting and preserving whatever may relate to the history of our country, and serve to perpetuate the same, as also all American curiosities of nature or art.”
While Barnum’s museum did contain some items of true historical interest—such as the American flag that had been hoisted over the city on November 25, 1783, as British troops evacuated the city—it was never really intended to be anything more than lowbrow entertainment. Indeed, Barnum’s most edifying public outreach came in the form of theatrical presentations, which included the temperance drama The Drunkard and a stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
It would have been difficult to have a more academic New York history museum in the early 19th century because there just wasn’t that much history to show. In 1804, when the New-York Historical Society was founded, the War of Independence had been over for just two decades; George Washington had only been out of office for eight years. Most Americans still tended to view the Revolutionary War as a firm dividing line between when they were British (an era they naturally downplayed) and the new American epoch.
But by the time Barnum’s museum burned down, in July 1865, the Civil War had rekindled—on both sides—a deep sense of patriotism and a desire to hold up the Founding Fathers as archetypical Americans. At the same time, New York’s population had also shifted, with hundreds of thousands of Germans, Irish, and others from across Europe filling up the city’s immigrant districts. The country was keen to recover its Revolutionary spirit, while at the same time having to confront the fact that its demographics were rapidly changing.
Throughout the 19th century, the city was also being reshaped by development and disaster; while New York had escaped most of the scourges of war, it suffered significant fires in 1835 and 1845 that destroyed much of the remaining Dutch- and English-colonial architecture in Lower Manhattan. In 1894, New Yorkers thwarted a plan to raze the early 19th-century City Hall—which still serves as the city’s seat of government today—and in the wake of that battle, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society was founded to fight further crimes against the city’s architectural heritage.
New Yorkers knew their history was rapidly disappearing. They also knew that in an era of increased interest in the Revolutionary War, putting up markers would give them the opportunity to memorialize their patriotism. At the same time, the markers would be educational, teaching new immigrants two things: New York has always been an important place, and that immigrants should look to these important people—the Dutch and English founders of the city—to act as guides in their path toward assimilation.
Every tablet was saying, in effect, “We were here first; this is our mark.” The organizations behind these commemorations—including the Sons/Daughters of the American Revolution, the Society of Colonial Dames, the Holland Society of New York, and so many more—held, like many white Americans in 1909, deep-seated anti-immigrant views.
As I continue on my journey from Bowling Green, the Historical Guide first takes me in search of plaques along State Street and Pearl Street. I search in vain on Whitehall Street for a marker “erected in 1904 by the Mary Washington Colonial Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution” commemorating “the site of Whitehall Ferry, where Washington made his departure from New York in 1783,” but I do find a plaque at what was once 39 Pearl Street noting the location of New Amsterdam’s first church.
Most of the placards are gone because the buildings that once hosted them have been demolished. Some objects, like the Revolutionary War cannon that once formed part of the railing of 55 Broadway, have been moved for safekeeping, in this case to Battery Park. However, most of the markers I’m searching for—like the one on the building next door marking the spot where Adriaen Block’s ship, the Tyger, sank in 1613—seem to have vanished.
The plaques I do find vary greatly in style and visibility. A marble marker on the original site of the Bank of the Manhattan Company at 48 Wall Street—founded by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr—stands out prominently, while the plaque at 81 Pearl Street commemorating the home of William Bradford’s first printing press is so nondescript that I’ve walked past it dozens of times without noticing it was there.
Were these markers more conspicuous when they were new? They were certainly more plentiful—I’m averaging one marker found for every five I search for—and I imagine them acting like beacons on the streetscape, leading people onward. Even without the guidebook (which, in truth, I’m not finding that helpful), one could have easily constructed a walking tour of the Financial District’s historic points just going from plaque to plaque.
I try to imagine one of the city’s newly arrived Sicilian immigrants walking down Pearl Street in 1909—the tail end of a decade that saw 2 million Italians arrive in the United States—and what these signs would mean:
Marble tablet, 90 Pearl Street, commemorates the great fire of 1835, which destroyed $20,000,000 worth of property, between Wall Street (the old Merchants’ Exchange) and Coenties Slip, and led to the more rapid completion of the Croton Aqueduct.
Tablet, 81 Pearl Street, erected by the New York Historical Society, marks the site of Bradford’s first printing press (1693).
Tablet, 73 Pearl Street, erected by the Holland Society, to mark the site of Kieft’s Stadt Herbergh or Tavern (1641-2), which became the Stadt Huys, or first City Hall of New York (1653-4).
In Taormina, Sicily, the stunning Greek amphitheater dates back to the Third century BCE. Would my imaginary immigrant be at all impressed by a plaque on a 19th-century commercial building marking the spot of a long-vanished 17th-century tavern?
In the fall 2017 issue of De Halve Maen, the magazine of the Holland Society of New York, Glen Umberger tackled the importance of these markers in “Preserving a Sense of Place: The Story of Manhattan’s Dutch Past Told in Bronze.”
Umberger’s interest was piqued by the discovery in a Holland Society archive room of the plaque that was once affixed to 45 Broadway to mark the sinking of the Tyger. As Umberger writes, one of the missions of the society, founded in 1885, “was ‘to collect and preserve information respecting the history and settlement of New Netherland by the Dutch, [and] to perpetuate the memory and foster the principles and virtues of the Dutch ancestors of its members, etc.’” The perpetuation of Dutch memory soon fell to a committee on “Tablets,” and by 1889, numerous spots had been identified that had been “consecrated by the incidents of [Dutch] early history.”
The last two decades of the 19th century saw the rapid rise of numerous patriotic, genealogical, and historical organizations. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), founded in 1890 and given a national charter by Congress in 1896, was created to “perpetuate the memory and the spirit of the men and women who achieved American independence, by the acquisition and protection of historical spots and the erection of monuments… by the preservation of documents and relics… and by the promotion of celebrations of all patriotic anniversaries.” In doing so, the DAR was to “cherish, maintain, and extend the institutions of American freedom, to foster true patriotism and love of country, and to aid in securing for mankind all the blessings of liberty.”
Patriotic societies were taking on for themselves not just preservation of the past, but consecration—the colonial past was holy.
And it was not enough to merely foster “true patriotism.” Though not usually associated with New York, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants was actually founded in Manhattan in the late 19th century; its members wanted to celebrate how their Pilgrim ancestors had spread American civil liberties even to those immigrants who’d brought with them “the education and prejudices of divers[e], even antagonistic, races.”
As Carol Medlicott points out in her essay “One Social Milieu, Paradoxical Responses” in the book Spaces of Hate: Geographies of Discrimination and Intolerance in the U.S.A., the rise of the DAR as a “superpatriotic” group mirrors that of another organization gaining ground at the same time: the Ku Klux Klan. Medlicott notes that the:
DAR’s geopolitical vision was that “New World” American conservative political and social values should be promoted to the “Old World” through immigrant education as well as the outward-aimed processes of commercial and quasi-imperial expansion. The goal was to bring full circle the earlier importing into North America of the raw ingredients of Old World political and social thought that produced those values in the first place.
That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a bronze plaque.
I had hoped that the Historical Guide would be a better companion to my explorations than earlier guidebooks because of its more recent vintage, but as I skim its pages, I realize that many of the items I was hoping to read about in its pages were either too new or not significant enough to the book’s authors to merit more than a one-line entry. Central Park, for example, is essentially reduced to one paragraph:
Central Park was planned in 1851 and laid out by “the Commissioners of Central Park” in 1859, Frederick Law Olmstead [sic] and Calvert Vaux executing the plans. The Park contains many statues of famous men.
One of those famous men is Christopher Columbus, who—as the Historical Guide notes elsewhere—appeared three times in the park.
The first statue, standing atop a column in what is now Columbus Circle, was paid for by subscription by Italian readers of Il Progresso Italo-Americano and sculpted by Gaetano Russo. The second, given pride of place on Central Park’s Mall, is by Spanish artist Jeronimo Suñol. Though ostensibly the “Spanish” Columbus, the second statue is more properly the “American” Columbus: It was paid for by members of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYGB), and the list of dignitaries at its unveiling on May 12, 1892, included Vice President Adlai Stevenson and such prominent New Yorkers (and NYGB members) as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Philip Rhinelander.
(The third statue, by Emma Stebbins, which was then located at McGown’s Pass Tavern, now stands in front of the courthouse in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn.)
Outwardly, neither of these remaining Columbus statues says much of anything—other than the fact that on the 400th anniversary of the navigator’s voyage, New York was a little obsessed. And that makes sense—a city that was struggling to preserve traces of its history jumped at the chance to remind the world that America’s story didn’t actually start in 1776 but stretched all the way back to the 15th century.
However, the tension between the two Columbus statues, and the subtext of placing the Italian statue outside the park and the American one inside, would not have been lost on anyone. Amid ongoing debate over the role of Confederate statuary, it shouldn’t be forgotten that New York’s statues—and even its bronze placards—bear the weight of racial and cultural tensions.
Next time you see an innocuous DAR plaque attached to a building in New York, there’s a good chance it was paid for and approved by people who attended the same congress where their president-general said: “Especially do I dread the clouding of the purity of the cup with color and character acquired under tropical suns, in the jungle, or in the paradisiacal islands of the seas….”
I’m not arguing that we remove the plaques; the few that are left are some of the only reminders we have of our Revolutionary history. But they are also reminders that if history is a tool, it can also be fashioned into a weapon.
In January, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers recommended that New York not remove any of its more controversial monuments—including these Columbus statues, which many now see as symbols of the beginning of colonial genocide in the Americas. Darren Walker, the commission’s co-chair, noted, “So much about our narratives of who we are as a people is a reflection of who has power, who has privilege, and I think our history has been written in a way that privileges the experience of some Americans while not giving, I think, a respectful reflection of everyone who’s contributed to this nation.”
This gets to the crux of the problem, which isn’t the words on the plaques as much as the fact that there are countless other stories that remain absent. Where is the marker for the market at the foot of Wall Street where Africans were sold into slavery? Where is the commemoration of the Algonquin-speaking peoples who occupied Manhattan, and gave it its name, for thousands of years before Henry Hudson’s arrival?
After the Holland Society unearthed the plaque marking the spot where the ship Tyger burned on its moorings in 1613, the society had it restored and placed inside the atrium of 45 Broadway. Adrian Block, the ship’s captain, and his crew wintered on Manhattan as they built a new ship (the Onrust, or “Restless”) with timber salvaged from Tyger. It is a compelling story, but it leaves out any mention of the earlier European who set up camp on Manhattan: Juan Rodriguez. As Jamie H. Lewis points out in “Juan: Singular Sensation,” Rodriguez “not only became the first immigrant to move to New York, but also the first African, the first Latino, the first resident of European descent, the first Dominican, the first business owner and the first black man to be arrested in New York by white men. He anticipated, in a single persona, the diversity of New York.”
While Rodriquez has a stretch of Upper Broadway named in his honor, he has no plaque, marker, or public statue—and certainly had none when the Historical Guide was published. Groups like the DAR and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society had a story they wanted to tell, a particular set of heroic and virtuous principles to which they wanted all Americans—past and future—to conform. The virtues didn’t include someone like Juan Rodriguez. Today, we need to do a better job of unearthing the other narratives, many of them ignoble—like New York’s long complicity in the slave trade—and memorialize them, too.
James Nevius is an urban historian and author of a number of books about New York, including Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City and Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers. He is currently researching a book about American utopianism. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
Editor: Sara Polsky