Revolution in Manhattan

When you think of Manhattan, you might think of the bright lights of Times Square or the solemnity of the 9/11 Memorial, the crush and bustle of the Metro subway or the glorious promise of Lady Liberty. You probably don’t think about hiking and soaking in Revolutionary War history. But New York City even has that sort of attraction!

Recently, when Elise and I got a hankering to do some roaming and we wanted a good excuse to take a trip to New York City, so I looked around on the internet and discovered that the Greater New York Lodge of the Order of the Arrow had put together a couple of urban historical hikes centered on the involvement of New York in the Revolutionary War.

That immediately cinched it – around here, the oldest history that we get to see and touch is either War of 1812 era or Mississippian culture Indian. Neither of us had actually ever seen any American Revolutionary War sites or artifacts.

I suppose I learned in grade school that New York was one of the colonies that was involved in the Revolution, but as with a lot of things, until I can step on it, walk across it, or hold it in my hands I don’t connect with it. Things that happened in New York City in 1776 might as well have happened on Neptune a thousand years ago for all I knew of them.

So, we knew we were in for an education and a lot of fun!

In 1775, the Colonials’ agitation came to a head with the “shot heard round the world” – the Battles of Lexington and Concord. After these first British casualties, the Redcoats abandoned Boston and regrouped at Nova Scotia.

The next summer we published our Declaration of Independence and within a couple of months, there was a “Peace Conference” at Staten Island in which Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge met with Admiral Lord Richard Howe. This so-called Peace conference was basically a set of British demands in exchange for pardons but the Americans’ position was that they’d done nothing wrong and didn’t need pardoning. That was pretty much the extent of the “conferencing” that went on.

Admiral Howe’s secretary wrote of the meeting, “They met, they talked, they parted. And now nothing remains but to fight it out.” And fight they did! When the negotiations soured, The British launched a series of invasions at Long Island and Manhattan Island (known as York Island at that time)..

Our hike began on a chilly Friday morning at the northernmost point on Manhattan in the neighborhood of Inwood, From this point you can see the New Jersey Palisades to the west past the Henry Hudson Bridge and across the Hudson River. To the north lies Yonkers with its Big-C Rock across the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, and turning to the east, you see the Bronx across the Harlem River.

This northwestern corner of Manhattan is a series of parks, not as large as Central Park but significant in size and history. These parks were largely designed, planted, and donated to the City by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the years between WWI and WWII.

These wooded hills are full of beautiful, mature beeches and sycamores. I bet this area would be really beautiful either a month earlier (when the beeches still have their pale yellow winter leaves or a month later, when they turn green again.

The beeches and sycamores are old, but not American Indian old. We saw a monstrously large beech while hiking the Trail of Tears a few years ago and these Inwood hill trees were nowhere near that old. I would guess that they were planted during the construction of the parks about 100 years ago.

Near that northernmost point, just on the other side of a small salt marsh, lies the Shorakkopoch rock – a huge stone placed there to commemorate Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan Island from the Manhattan Indians in 1626. The story goes that he met with them under a huge Tulip tree and traded them about $20 worth of trinkets for the island. This tree was said to be 20 feet in diameter and 156 feet tall when it died in 1938.

To put that in perspective, look at the circular walkway around the stone in the above photo. The outside diameter of that walkway is roughly 20 feet. Now THAT was a big tree! I would have really liked to have seen a Tulip tree more than half the size of the Statue of Liberty, especially when it was in bloom! It would have rained tulip pedals upon Minuit and the Indians like a scene out of a fairy tale!

This area, now known as Inwood Hill, is dotted with “Indian caves,” though, to call them caves would be to elevate them greatly. They are mostly just tiny spaces under tumbled slabs of rock. If people actually lived in those caves, it must have been a cold, wet, miserable existence because a human-sized creature would be hard pressed to wedge himself into one of these crevasses.

That makes me wonder who cheated whom in the famous meeting between Minuit and the Manhattan Indians. Did Minuit win that deal when he purchased all of Manhattan for $20 worth of beads? Or did the Indians make off with some cool beads, steel knives, and booze in exchange for a cold, leaky hunting camp on a swampy island?

Stay tuned, Dear Reader, for more coming upon our walking tour of the Revolution in Manhattan!

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