Where did New York come from?
Of course, the land and the lakes and the rivers have always been here, longer than people have been on the Earth.
And you may already know that, before New York was called “New York,” it was called “New Amsterdam.”
But before it was called “New Amsterdam” and before it was called “New York,” it didn’t really exist.
New York began as an idea, and it took nearly 300 years for that idea to turn into the place that we think of when we think of New York.
In this series, we’ll look at New York when the idea was still brand new and nobody was sure what it should look like or how it ought to work.
It’s a story about four great nations trying to figure out what belonged to whom, and who belonged where, and who should be in charge and how they should all try to get along.
Some of it is about people who didn’t like each other, and some of it is about people who simply didn’t understand each other.
Mostly, it’s about a century during which people from one world met people from another, very different world. Those are the sorts of unusual moments that make history so interesting.
First, let’s talk about the map:
When you think of New York, you may think of a state that’s shaped like a high-top basketball shoe facing west, its toes at Buffalo and its laces running along Lake Ontario up to Watertown. Long Island is its shadow, near the heel, which is firmly planted right at center court of Madison Square Garden.
Some of our borders make perfect sense: At the instep of the sneaker we have Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes but still a very big body of water.
One side of that lake is New York and the other side is Ontario.
And Lake Champlain may not quite be a Great Lake, but it’s still huge, and it makes sense that the western shore is New York and the eastern shore is Vermont.
Over by Buffalo and Fredonia is the Niagara River and Lake Erie, where one side is New York and one side is Ontario, and then we have the Delaware River, over by Port Jervis, making a neat border between New York and Pennsylvania.
But, if Lake Champlain divides New York and Vermont, why is it that Lake George and the Hudson River aren’t borders as well?
And what about the parts that are just lines on a map. Who decided where they belonged, and how did they make those choices?
It didn’t all happen at once, and very little of it happened in the first 100 years, the part we’re going to be looking at.
For now, then, let’s stop thinking about Basketball Shoe New York and think about an area of rivers, and lakes, and forests, and of the people who lived there at first, and of those who came in the first 100 years.
We’re going to be meeting four great nations and their people: The Iroquois, the Dutch, the French and the English, starting when only one of those nations and its people were here.
Let’s start by taking a look around the region in the year 1600, just before New York began to be an idea.
We’ll put a boat in the water where the Hudson River flows into the sea, and travel upriver to where the Mohawk River joins it.
On our right as we go, the banks of the river is where the Mahican and other Algonquin people live, though many of their communities are in what today is New England: Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Some other people also live on the western bank, and most of them are also members of larger communities that are farther inland. As we go farther north, we find that not a lot of people live in the Catskills, but people travel through them, going other places.
As we get close to where the Mohawk River meets the Hudson, we reach a quarreling spot: The Mohawk, the easternmost nation of the Iroquois, are on the west bank. They would prefer that the Mahicans stay on the east bank.
The two peoples have had battles over it for several years and it changes from time to time, but most of the land on the west is Iroquois and most of the Mahicans live on the east.
If we keep going north from the Mohawk River, the Hudson starts to go off into the Adirondacks, where very few people live, so we’ll start up through Lake George and Lake Champlain, where we’ll begin to meet Abenaki and other Algonquin people.
And at the top of Lake Champlain is the Richelieu River, in what is now Quebec. When the first Europeans visited there in 1553, they found a town called Hochelaga.
By 1600, Hochelaga was gone but the area was still a popular hunting and fishing area for native people from a number of tribes and nations, and, even though it never became part of New York, this area is very important in how New York was formed.
But let’s go back to where the Mohawk and Hudson rivers meet, and travel west through the Mohawk Valley towards Niagara.
In 1600, that’s where the Iroquois lived, and so they will be the first of the four nations we meet.