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The City of Light Before the Advent of Electricity: New York City Travel Writing, 1600s


New York from Metropolitan Tower at Night., Digital ID 95164, New York Public LibraryGotham. The Big Apple. The City of Light. Crossroads of the World. And my personal favorite: the City of Superlatives. These are all sobriquets that have been applied to New York City at one time or another.

The city that has insinuated its way into the hearts of so many travelers has inspired an incredible outpouring of travel guides and literature.

Travel writing at its best is half reporting and half myth-creating by the adventurer fortunate to visit an unknown, perhaps exotic destination. These treatises offer a snapshot of a particular place and period of time, capturing the local culture, quirks, cuisines and curiosities. Travel essays are excellent guides for an audience unfamiliar with the locale--offering tips as to where to eat, what to see, and what to avoid. They sometimes tell as much about the author as about the place visited. Travel narratives offer material for daydreamers in love with the unknown, or for those nostalgic for a place they themselves once visited. And sometimes, travel writing is an excellent source for historians seeking to understand a location in the past.

New York City, known as one of the pre-eminent travel destinations in the United States, has been thus documented from its very dawn as a settlement. Can you imagine the city of skyscrapers as forest and stream, teeming with fish and wild animals? My favorite early documentation of the metropolis as such is the 1650 treatise by Adriaen van der Donck, A Description of New Netherland.

Van der Donck, a Dutch colonist who had fallen afoul of notably cranky colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant--whom he accused of mismanagement of the colony--had been exiled back to the Netherlands as punishment for his rabble-rousing activities. To convince the Dutch States General to remove Stuyvesant, and to entice new emigrants to the colony, van der Donck published what one might label one of the first New York real estate advertisements.

Nieuw Nederlandt., Digital ID 800041, New York Public LibraryA Description of New Netherland outlines the nature and benefits of the large colony, a region including parts of modern-day New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, including what would become New York City. 

Van der Donck dedicated chapters to describing the land forms and the waterways, the flora and the fauna--from bald eagles, mountain lions and whales to medicinal herbs. He described the soils for farming, the seasons, the possibilities for military defense of Long Island. He described a curious creature that can only be the hummingbird, and he even dedicated an entire chapter to the animal perhaps most important to the economy of the early settlement, the mammal featured on our city seal. Yes, the Beaver.

Castor Fiber -- Europ. Beaver ; Fiber Zibethicus -- Muskrat.,Castor fiber -- European beaver ; Fiber zibethicus -- muskrat., Digital ID 822121, New York Public LibraryAnd like all good tourists, van der Donck also dedicated his efforts to describing the locals--the  Native Americans, primarily the Mohawk ("Maquas") who lived in the region. Like many visitors he brought his own preconceptions, however he also took the time to learn regional dialects and adopt those practices he saw as useful. The chapters on Native Americans display a fascination with their society, addressing the Mohawk manner of dress, diet, housing, agriculture, social customs at birth, death and marriage, religion and government.

Most significantly, Adriaen van der Donck's work reminds us of the unexplored potential of the continent, from a European perspective,

"therefore we may safely say that the full extent of the country is not known, though there are indications, such as the prevailing wind from landward, the severe cold, the multitude of beavers and other game being caught, and the passage and return of great flocks of waterfowl, that the land stretches for hundreds of miles into the interior, so that the size of this province is yet unknown."

In the end, van der Donck was allowed to return, establishing his own farm in the area now named Yonkers. More importantly, perhaps influenced by his treatise, newcomers of all stripes continued to emigrate to the colony. He was less successful in his goal of unseating Stuyvesant, however, who stayed on to eventually sign New York over to the English.

To learn more about the history of Adriaen van der Donck and New Netherland, I would highly recommend the book The Island at the Center of the World.

To locate additional works on the topic, search the following subject headings in our catalog:

New York (State) -- History -- Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775.
New Netherland -- History.
Dutch -- New York (State) -- History -- 17th century.



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Was there a section or other additional overview on the island that now houses the prison?

Rikers Island

An interesting question! I did not see mention of Rikers Island in the Van der Donck book, however "A Brief History of the Riker Family: from their first emigration to this country in the year 1638, to the present time” ( notes that Abraham Rycken obtained the island in 1664. You will find several mentions of Abraham, or Abram, Rycken in the “Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674” ( Finally, "The Other Islands of New York City" ( has a longer chapter on the history of the island, differing somewhat on the details from the first title above. This source asserts that the land was purchased from unnamed Native Americans by Sheriff William Hallett in 1664. The purchase was not officially sanctioned and therefore overturned by Peter Stuyvesant, who then gave the island over to Abraham Rycken at a later date. "Other Islands" also states that the Riker family sold their island to the city in 1884, for the sum of $180,000.

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