Item of the Day: Isaac Weld’s Account of New York City in 1796

[In 1796 New York City’s harbors were among the busiest in the world. Between 1795 and 1800, due in part to the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, exports to Great Britain trebled and imports, especially Caribbean sugar, doubled. During the trade boom of the late 18th century, the municipal government expanded Manhattan’s southern tip through land fill and a plethora of wharves creating the cluttered landscape Weld describes. Along with the soaring increase in trade, banking, and commerce, came a commeasurate increase in population and disease. Damp, marshy areas were believed to be unhealthy, but the Aedes aegyti mosquito was not identified as the contaminating culprit until the mid-19th century. When the first signs of yellow fever appeared in New York in 1796, city officials publicly minimized the threat fearing a catastrophic decline in trade if they should quarantine the city. Wealthy New Yorkers simply moved their families to outlying Greenwich Village or Harlem, but poorer emigrants had no such advantage. The 1796 yellow fever epidemic claimed over 700 lives, most of them destitute workers living near the wharves.]

New York is built on an island of its own name, formed by the North and the East rivers, and a creek or inlet connecting both of these together. The island is fourteen miles long, and , on an average, about one mile in breadth; at its southern extremity stands the city, which extends from one river to the other. The North or Hudson river, is nearly two miles wide; the East or the North-east one, as it should rather be called, is not quite so broad. The depth of water in each, close to the city, is sufficient for the largest merchant vessels. The principal seat of trade, however, is on the East River, and most of the vessels lie there, as during winter the navigation of that river is not so soon impeded by the ice. At this side of the town the houses and stores are built as closely as possible. The streets are narrow and inconvenient, and, as but too commonly is the case in seaport towns, very dirty, and consequently, during the summer season, dreadfully unhealthy. It was in this part of the town that the yellow fever raged with such violence in 1795; and during 1796, many persons that remained very constantly there, also fell victims to a fever, which if not the yellow fever, was very like it. The streets near the North River are much more airy; but the most agreeable part of the town is in the neighbourhood of the battery, on the southern point of the island, at the confluence of the two rivers. When New York was in possession of the English, this battery consisted of two or more tiers of guns, one above the other; but it is now cut down, and affords a most charming walk, and, on a summer’s evening, is crowded with people, as it is open to the breezes from the sea, which render it particularly agreeable at that season. There is a fine view from it of the roads, Long and Staten Islands, and Jersey shore. At the time of high water, the scene is always interesting on account of the number of vessels sailing in and out of port; such as go into the East River pass within a few yards of the walls of the battery.

From the battery a handsome street, about seventy feet wide, called Broadway, runs due north through the town; between it and the North river run several streets at right angles, as you pass which you catch a view of the water, and boats plying up and down; the distant shore of the river also is seen to great advantage. Had the streets on the opposite side of Broadway been also carried down to the East River, the effect would have been beautiful, for Broadway runs along a ridge of high ground between the two rivers; it would have contributed also very much to the health of the place; if , added to this, a spacious quay had been formed the entire length of the city, on either side, instead of having the borders of the rivers crowded with confused heaps of wooded store houses, built upon wharfs projecting one beyond another in every direction, New York would have been one of the most beautiful seaports in the world. All the sea-ports in America appear to great disadvantage from the water, when you approach near to them, from the shores being crowded in this manner with irregular masses of wooden houses, standing as it were in the water. The federal city, where they have already begun to erect the same kind of wooden wharfs and store-houses without any regularity, will be just the same. It is astonishing, that in laying out that city, a grand quay was not thought of in the plan; it would certainly have afforded equal, if not greater accommodation for the shipping, and it would have added wonderfully to the embellishment of the city.

Many of the private houses in New York are very good, particularly those in Broadway. Of the public buildings, there are none which are very striking. The churches and houses for public worship, amount to no less than twenty-two; four of them are for Presbyterians, three for Episcopalians of the church of England, three for Dutch Reformists, two for German Lutherans and Calvinists, two for Quakers, two for Baptists, two for Methodists, one for French Protestants, one for Moravians, one for Roman Catholics, and one for Jews.

According to the census of 1790, the number of inhabitants of New York was found to be thirty thousand one hundred and forty-eight free persons, and two thousand one hundred and eight slaves; but at present the number is supposed to amount at least to forty thousand. The inhabitants have long been distinguished above those of all the other towns in the United States, except it be the people of Charleston, for their politeness, gaiety, and hospitality; and indeed, in these points they are more strikingly superior to the inhabitants of the other large towns. Their public amusements consist in dancing and card assemblies, and theatrical exhibitions; for the former, a spacious suite of rooms has lately been erected. The theatre is of wood, and a most miserable edifice it is; but a new one is now building on a grand scale, which, it is thought, will be much too large for the town as the other is too small.

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Filed under 1790's, New York, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Travel

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