Monday, February 15, 2010

Harlem in the Old Times (1)

Those of us who prefer the shady streets and lanes of Harlem to the brown-stone walls of the lower part of the City have no hesitation, provided we have the necessary cash, in going up there and renting a house and taking our families there, nor even in leaving our wives and children there through the day while we come downtown to business. It is such a quiet and peaceful place that we can hardly realize what we may learn authentically from the early records of the City that at one time a man's scalp was in great danger if he ventured beyond the further end of the Bowery, and that his house was pretty sure to be burned by hostile Indians not his brown-stone-front, with gas, and water, and range, and plate-glass: nor even his cozy little cottage, with its neat front yard and its Mansard roof, and perhaps, its mortgage but his isolated farm-house, with bare earth for its floors, and dried reeds for its roof. We stand upon a platform of the elevated railroad, and grumble if we have to wait a minute and a half for a train, and then when, half an hour later, we are in Harlem, we grumble at something else the time was too long, or the car was too cold, or the brakeman would insist upon slamming the doors at every station. We can hardly find room in the nervous but highly-civilized Metropolitan head for the fact that, not such a terrible time ago, the residents of Harlem were complaining that there was no decent wagon-road, between that village and the City, nor even a road that a man could ride over on horseback without danger to his life.

The story of the settlement of Harlem forms an interesting part of the early history of this City. Like most new places, it was not born without sacrificing some lives and much property; but, when once the breath of life reached it, it flourished and grew, even in the early Dutch times, and it kept on flourishing and growing, until it reached so far down the island that at last it was swallowed up by the great City.

Jochem Pietersen Kuyter, a gentleman of education, who had been a commander in the East India Company, under the King of Denmark, was the first settler in Harlem, and his experiences on the upper end of Manhattan Island were not reassuring. He came to "New Netherland" in 1639, and soon afterward bought the flats on which Harlem now stands. He was a man of means, and, having a taste for rural life, he built a house on his lands and took his family there, calling the place Zegendaal, or Happy Valley. It did not prove a happy valley to Herr Kuyter, however. In 1643 an Indian war broke out, and he was exposed to the depredations of the enemy. An old record says that__

"March 9, 1644.__Appeared the following persons, who, jointly and severally, at the request of Mr. Jochem Pietersen Kuyter, declared as follows: Cornelisen Cornelisen, about 22 years old, declares that he, being a sentinel at night before the house of said Jochem Pietersen, being about 2 o'clock, near the corn-rick, about 50 paces from the barn, did see approaching a burning pile, the flame as blue as the flame of brimstone, about 20 paces from the house, between the dunghill and cherry-door, which pile or arrow fell on the thatched reeds with which the house was roofed, and the house was soon in full flame through the force of the wind. A little after he heard the firing of a gun from the same spot whence the arrow came. He saw the house burned to the ground. He says, further, that the English soldiers, while the fire lasted, would not leave the cellar in which they slept, and remained there till the house was destroyed. In consequence, they obtained no assistance whatever from the English.

"Jacob Lambertsen, about 20 years old, declares, in addition to what was stated by Cornelisen, that when the house was in full flame he heard the report of a gun, which they suspected was fired by the Indians, whom they still heard the next morning hallooing and firing."

To be continued: Harlem in the Old Times (2)

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