Great Explorers, Revolutionary Generals, and -- My Forefathers?
Is there anything as timeless as the sea? Go out on the open Atlantic, and you’re looking at essentially the same scene that, say, Henry Hudson saw when he sailed across in 1609. Now turn around and follow his track as he searched for the fabled North- west Passage to the Far East. No matter what we’ve done ashore during the intervening centuries—and, oh my, we’ve done a lot— the waters still have essentially the same shape, the same surface, the same tides. That’s why a cruising boat is a wonderful vantage point for contemplating history.
Behold the south end of Manhattan Island, circa 2005, as seen by my daughter Jesse and me from the flying bridge of the Luhrs 41 convertible Office Ours. We’d taken along a copy of a famous drawing that depicts the same spot as it looked in about 1650, when it was the tiny Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. The green of Battery Park now sits where a little plank dock and, er, a gallows once welcomed immigrants in rowboats. Successive generations have turned a few wooden homes, a fort, and a church into a fantastical mash-up of skyscrapers.
To the left, about where a windmill once stood, the World Trade Center once reached upward.
We were awed. For one thing, we’d both read Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World, a brilliantly written history of New Amsterdam that made the etching come alive. We knew the gallows was mainly meant to signify an orderly colony and that a newcomer would have found a hubbub of settlers speaking half a dozen languages and the freedom to start a new life. In fact, we knew the drawing purposely exaggerated the town’s tidiness to make it more attractive to settlers. It was an ad, and wow, did it work!
We were also pumped up on family history. During the past couple of years, I’d learned enough about our genealogy to design this cruise around further research. I knew, for instance, that our ancestor John Ellison arrived at this very shore in about 1688, not long after his English brethren had taken over the island (sorry about that, Netherlands). And he’d done quite well; our first project was to locate a property he’d developed that ran from just outside the town’s “North Gate” to the Hudson.
The gate, mind you, was in the wall that became Wall Street. As my dad had noted on the old family documents where I rediscovered this information, “I wish we still had some of that!”
OUR FIRST FIND
North Cove Marina was an excellent base for our explorations, though docking was slightly anxious, what with thousands of eyes possibly upon us in the World Financial Center. The Luhrs’ big twin props did me proud, and we hustled off with my notes and the pile of old maps I’d purloined off the World Wide Web. There are more historic spots in lower Manhattan than you might realize, and they seem extra special for all the changes they’ve witnessed. Heck, the island itself is almost twice as wide here as it once was, because developers filled in the rivers, often using what they dug out of skyscraper cellars.
We walked down Broadway, which somehow feels different when you know it started as a Native American trail. At its southern end, once dominated by the old Dutch fort, now stands the “old” U.S. Custom House, which today appropriately hosts the National Museum of the American Indian. Nearby is the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the pleasantly unusual Fraunces Tavern Museum, good for both lunch and another old map that resolved the last street name mystery to locating the old family property.
So it was that on our way back to North Cove we found the somewhat rundown street corner where our forefathers once docked their trading sloops. It was funny, really, as the river is now several long blocks away, but bittersweet, too, as just to the north is Ground Zero, the ultimate reminder that most everything is subject to change.
We’d noticed along the way, particularly among all the workers taking a break in the old Trinity Church graveyard at the end of Wall Street, that we weren’t the only ones finding comfort in the midst of all this history.
While there’s no trace whatsoever of 18th-century Ellisons on Manhattan, we knew we’d find them 50 miles upriver, which made the already intriguing cruise all the more so.
The passing reality of modern fast ferries, sightseeing boats, tugs, and yachts melded with imagined Native American canoes, Revolutionary-era warships, and stately paddle wheelers. Henry Hudson may have been disappointed in failing to find a way to India, but he did enthuse about the “North River” as a magnificent highway into the rich interior of the continent. You don’t need much imagination to see how right he was, and still is. There was a moment on the grand stretch, where the Hudson Highlands climb almost straight up on both sides, when there were loaded barges both ahead of and behind us and long trains running along both banks.
This same steep geography made West Point an essential defensive fort during the Revolution, and the flatter, more habitable Newburgh area above the Highlands—accessible by river, but protected by a fort—was the perfect place for Generals Washington and Knox to billet their armies for long periods of the war.
John Ellison’s sons had come upriver earlier, built docks, homes, and a flour mill, and had a nice trade going with their dad in the city and the West Indies beyond. In the tradition of the day, the generals moved in with the fancier local homeowners, and that’s why Jesse and I got to visit a 1754 stone house called General Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site, advertised as a place to “see how the Ellisons lived 200 years ago.”
Which, of course, was a tremendous thrill for us two Ellisons, even as we took in the reality that the family had “owned” 13 slaves, the most in town, at the time of the 1790 census. But we also knew that a paternal name is very much a genealogical fluke. My DNA is a mere 1/512th that of the John Ellison who stepped ashore at the Battery in 1688, and Jesse’s just 1/1,024th. It was neat to learn from the Knox Site curator that John came ashore as an impoverished carpenter, but the truth is that there are probably hundreds of people as related to him as I am—some, I’m sure, that would surprise us.
And that’s the real history to be seen along the Hudson. Shorto’s main contention about New Amsterdam is that the Dutch established a live-and- let-live, melting-pot spirit that has energized New York City and beyond ever since. We saw evidence of that dynamism all along the river from the Battery to Newburgh—especially in Newburgh, which blossomed after the Revolution into a booming hub of manufacturing at a nexus of waterway and railways. Then, like many a Hudson town, it declined sharply as economic conditions changed and aggressive genes sought better opportunities elsewhere. Today it’s begun to bloom again.
Jesse and I stumbled on the perfect spot for such ruminations. It was New- burgh’s little Cafe Macchiato, just across the street from Washington’s Headquarters, another interesting State Historic Site, and just around the corner from the city’s blight. Not only was the food and feel the most memorable of the whole trip, but it turned out that the proprietors—he a Haitian, she an Italian—had each immigrated to New York City in their early 20s, met in that melting pot of young professionals, and moved upriver to raise their lovely daughter.
They are the new settlers, their restaurant a bright flower for a new Newburgh, and having some perspective on all that is what makes cruising with some history in hand so rewarding.
Side Note About Historic Maps
Old charts and maps are wonderful accessories to historical cruising, and these days you can find all sorts of them online, usually in high-resolution formats—and usually free. Before our cruise, I found the famous 1650 Dutch map of the Northeast at the Library of Congress digital map room (www.loc.gov/rr/geog map). I also downloaded several generations of Manhattan street maps including the exquisitely detailed 1767 survey below, and the exuberant circa-1900 panoramic view of Newburgh at right. The latter actually helped us to get around Newburgh, not to mention identify old buildings and get a vivid sense of how bustling the city was back then. What’s more, I found old charts of the Hudson in the historical section of NOAA’s cartographic site (www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov) and elegant, turn-of-the-century topographic maps at a site generously hosted by Maptech (www.historical.maptech.com).
It’s fairly easy to find these images on the Web, but downloading them is problematical. The files are large, sometimes huge, so a fast Internet connection is mandatory. What’s worse is that they are often in obscure but highly compressible formats that your normal image-viewing software won’t understand. The Library of Congress site suggests several free programs able to translate these formats; of the bunch, I recommend IrfanView (www.irfanview.com).
Yes, this is all a bit of a hassle, but once properly outfitted you can collect maps to take along on a cruise or even print out for framing. After all, these maps are often cartographically beautiful and intriguing. For instance, how the heck did they draw those all those panoramics—the Library of Congress collection numbers 1,500, which may include your favorite port in full 1900 bustle—without the benefit of GPS or air- planes?