Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
All five parts are available as a single pdf for download below
Created by Gilbert Tauber, member of the planning committee of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
BLOOMINGDALE BEFORE THE ROAD
The Bloomingdale district of colonial New York was a rough triangle of land, about 3.5 square miles in area, stretching along the Hudson River from about 42nd Street to 129th Street. Its southern boundary was a broad creek, bordered by marshes, known as the Great Kill. It was bounded on the east by the Town of Harlem, a peculiar municipal entity that had been established by Peter Stuyvesant and continued by his English successors despite being entirely within the City of New York.
Accounts of the history of Bloomingdale rightly note the importance of the Bloomingdale Road. First laid out about 1708 as part of the provincial highway system in the Province of New York, the road is credited with changing Bloomingdale from a rural backwater to a district of fashionable country estates. In the 19th Century, its prestige was such that property near the road, even far to the south, was described as being in Bloomingdale.
However, there was a Bloomingdale well before the road, and the creation of the road was itself a step in a more gradual process. This paper examines the history of Bloomingdale up to the period when the road was laid out.
THE CREATION OF NEW HARLEM
The early history of Bloomingdale is closely tied to that of Harlem. Soon after the establishment of the Dutch colony, its leaders recognized the agricultural potential of the flat, fertile lands that later became Harlem. In the 1630s the Dutch West India Company offered generous terms to people willing to farm there. Several large tracts were taken up. However, in the course of bloody conflicts with the Indians in the 1640s, initially provoked by the incompetent Director of the colony, Willem Kieft, many settlers were killed and the outlying farms had to be abandoned.
By 1656, conflict with the Indians had subsided to the point where Kieft’s successor, Peter Stuyvesant, could plan to reestablish a settlement on the abandoned lands in upper Manhattan and elsewhere. Stuyvesant recognized that large individual farms would not be defensible. He therefore required, in an ordinance dated January 18, 1656, that settlers live in a compact villages. This policy was reflected in the grant or ordinance of March 4, 1658, establishing a new settlement “at the end of Manhattan Island. It refers to the settlement only as a “New Village,” but by the fall of that year it was referred to in official documents as the new Village of Harlem or New Harlem. As built, the village of New Harlem was located around the present 125th Street and First Avenue.
The Stuyvesant grant gave New Harlem certain characteristics of a municipality, notably the right to have its own local court and magistrates, and control over the unallotted land within its boundaries. However, it did not clearly define those boundaries. It also promised to protect New Harlem from the establishment of any new village that would compete with it, and further promised that a “wagon road” would be built between the new village and New Amsterdam.
The First Nicolls Charter for New Harlem
Eight years later, in May 1666, New Harlem’s municipal rights were confirmed and expanded in a grant by the English governor Richard Nicolls. This document gave New Harlem the peculiar status of having “the privileges of a Towne, but immediately depending on this City [New York] as being within the Libertyes thereof.”
The Nicolls charter also defined the western boundary of the town as a line extending due south from the Hudson River, at what is now the foot of West 129thth St., to the East River at what is now East 74th St. The Town of New Harlem was given jurisdiction over everything east of that line to the end of the island at Spuyten Duyvil.
In addition to its municipal rights within its boundaries. New Harlem was given some very important additional rights over the adjoining land. Nicolls wrote: “the Inhabitants of the said Towne, shall have Liberty for the conveniency of more Range for their Horses & Cattle, to go farther west into the woods beyond the aforesaid Bounds, as they shall have occasion. And no Person shall bee permitted to Build in any manner of House or Houses within two Miles of the aforesaid Limitts or Bounds of the said Towne without the Consent of the Inhabitants thereof.” This provision was intended to make explicit Stuyvesant’s promise of protection from competing settlements.
Thus, the freeholders of Harlem were, at least on paper, given veto power over the future development of a large swath of Manhattan Island outside their boundaries. This amounted to about four square miles, including most of what later became Bloomingdale.
The Revised Nicolls Charter for New Harlem
Seventeen months later, on October 11, 1667 Nicolls issued a revised charter that must have involved some horse-trading. First, it enlarged the town’s jurisdiction by adding the islands in the vicinity of Hell Gate, i.e., Randalls, Wards, and another nearby island that is now part of the Bronx mainland. Second, Nicolls agreed that the town “shall continue & retain the name of New Harlem.” The provision about grazing animals beyond the Town limit was changed to refer to “freedom of commonage for range & feed of Cattle & Horses,” which would appear to limit this right to the Common Lands, i.e. lands not yet in private ownership. The new charter retained the right to block new construction within two miles of the town line, but now specified that permission for such construction required consent of a majority of the inhabitants.
We do not know whether the inhabitants of New Harlem ever tried to exercise their right to block construction west of the Harlem line. Nevertheless, the provisions of their successive patents from Gov. Nicolls suggest that they had a keen interest in the land west of the Harlem Line beyond being a place to graze their livestock. Settlement west of the line could give rise to a competing community. On the other hand, additional population would benefit New Harlem’s economy and institutions.
Footnotes for Part 1 can be read by clicking the "Read More" to the right.
Footnotes for Part 1
 Mott, Hopper Striker. The New York of Yesterday: A Descriptive Narrative of Old Bloomingdale. New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908, pp. 2-5.
Since water access was essential to get produce to market, these early farms were located on the East and Harlem Rivers or on a navigable creek, later known as Harlem Creek, that extended inland in the vicinity of 107th St. A part of this creek remains as Central Park’s Harlem Meer. The hilly and rocky terrain nearer the Hudson, the future Bloomingdale, was far less desirable for agriculture.
Kieft, contrary to the instructions of his superiors in Amsterdam, sought to tax local Indians, who resisted. Shortly thereafter, the local Indians found themselves in conflict with the more powerful Mohawks to the north and had taken refuge near Dutch settlements. Kieft decided, against the advice of his own councilors, to take advantage of the situation. He ordered his soldiers to attack the Indian encampments, which were populated mainly by women and children. Hundreds of them were slaughtered, leading to years of retaliatory raids. In 1647, in response to citizen complaints to his employers in Amsterdam, Kieft was recalled and replaced by Peter Stuyvesant. Kieft died in a shipwreck on the voyage home. (Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York, Oxford University Press, 1899; Wikipedia “Willem Kieft.” Accessed February 12, 2033)
 Riker, James. Revised History of Harlem, Its Origins and Early Annals. New York, New Harlem Publishing Co., 1904. p 164
 Seymann, Jerrold. Colonial Charters Patents and Grants to the Communities Comprising the City of New York, pp. 338-340. New York, The Board of Statutory Consolidation of the City of New York, 1939.
.Variously spelled Haarlem, Haerlem and Harlaem. It is said that Stuyvesant chose the name to avoid rivalries because none of the settlers came from old Harlem. But Harlem was also a city honored in the Netherlands for its heroism while besieged by Spanish forces in 1672-73. (Riker, op. cit., p. 173)
 Its site is now covered by the Manhattan approaches to the Triborough Bridge. (Riker, op. cit. Map.on p. 832)
Nicolls initially decreed that the new town be known as Lancaster, but the inhabitant ignored this directive and Nicolls did not include the renaming in his revised charter.
 Seymann, ibid. pp 340-41. Although styled a “town,” New Harlem was not a town as that term was later understood in New York, i.e. as the principal political subdivision of a county. A county may also include an incorporated city, which is not within any town; or an incorporated village, which is within and subordinate to a town. New Harlem was entirely within and subordinate to the City of New York. It’s status in modern terms was somewhere between an incorporated village and a very powerful homeowners’ association.
 Seymann, ibid. pp. 341-343. Litigation over the distribution of this land lasted into the 1880s.
 The original document is dated October 11, 1666, but related records indicate that this was an erroneous later insertion (Seymann, op. cit., p. 347n).
 Seymann, op. cit., pp 343-347.
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