Monday, June 28, 2010

New York and Brooklyn's first ferry -- for a handful of wampum and the toot of a horn


ABOVE: A detail from an illustration of the northern points of the New Amsterdam colony, 1640.

The year 1642 saw the very first regular ferry service in New York Harbor, between the two small villages of Breuckelen and New Amsterdam. The populations of both areas numbered less than 1,000 at most, combined, and most were employed by the Dutch West India Company. New Amsterdam, under Peter Kieft, had a modicum of defenses (notably Fort Amsterdam) but that famous wall demarcating its northern border would only come many years later, as would Peter Stuyvesant.

Across the water, Breuckelen was nothing more than a cluster of basic structures along the shore, near the area where the anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge sits today. Its long stretch of flat shore in full view of the harbor and a high bluff (later Brooklyn Heights) made it a choice spot for adventurous Dutch settlers who made it their home in 1636. In contrast, other areas of Long Island were settled by other nationalities under Dutch authority, e.g. the English settlements of Gravesend (modern Gravesend and Coney Island).

Just north of New Amsterdam resided a man who would be the first to link the two tiny settlements. Cornelius Dircksen was a farmer and inn owner with prime real estate, even in 1640, along the eastern stretch of Mannahatta at Peck Slip, just north of the city.

In the early 1630s, Dircksen's ferry was an irregular service, a way to earn extra income. Perhaps he considered it a special accomodation for guests of his inn. And who was staying at his inn, at this time? Mostly newcomers to New Amsterdam, or Dutch West India fur traders passing through.

As legend has it, if one of his guests or a passerby wanted conveyance across the river, they needed only to take a horn hanging from a tree and blow it. Cornelius would drop what he was doing to arrange the voyage, even if he was tending to his own fields. (I imagine the money must have been good.) His small boat would take passengers from the foot of his farm to a small landing on the other side -- not surprising in the area that would later develop the Fulton Ferry in the 19th century.

In 1642, Cornelius decided to jump into the ferry occupation full time. Dircksen was, according to old histories, "the earliest ferryman of whom records speak and was, probably, the first person who regularly followed that calling."

In a modest skiff, Cornelius (or his assistants) would take passengers across the harbor for shells: "the small price of three stuivers in wampum, meaning nine purple beads or eighteen white beads." Wampum would be the colony's most versatile form of currency, usable in both the Dutch settlements and with the Lenape themselves. The ride, often choppy and unpredictable, would sometimes take a full hour.

Cornelius owned the land on both sides but later sold the Breuckelen landing in 1643 to Willem Jansen -- who then opened a competing tavern there himself.

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