The Early Bronx
By DENNIS WEPMAN
Special to The News
ew York City's only foothold on the U.S. mainland, the Bronx started out strictly as a real-estate speculation, bought in 1639 from the Indians by the Dutch West India Co. in case the population of New Amsterdam should ever overflow Manhattan.
But the Dutch never dominated the area. Its first settler was a Scandinavian sea captain named Jonas Bronck, who bought 500 acres in 1641 and set up as a tobacco grower. The area was associated with wealth and style from the beginning: Bronck owned the largest library in the Dutch colony, and one impressed visitor to his mansion wrote of him that he "used silver on his table and had tablecloths . . . and possessed as many as six linen shirts."
It wasn't to last. Though Bronck's river (now, of course, the Bronx River) gave its name to the whole borough, Jonas died in 1643 and his books, tablecloths and linen shirts disappeared along with his servants. By then the region was swept with Indian troubles, and the Dutch did little to solve things. Two English settlers who also had set up housekeeping on the mainland came to grief: Anne Hutchinson and her family, who had come to Long Island Sound in flight from religious persecution in Massachusetts, were slaughtered in an Indian raid, and John Throckmorton, who had settled 35 families on the southern peninsula now known as Throgs Neck, was driven away to New Jersey. In 1646, Adriaen van den Donck, New Netherland's first lawyer, moved 50 families into his huge estate extending from Spuyten Duyvil Creek through Riverdale to Yonkers, but that settlement was wiped out by Indians as well. It wasn't a promising beginning for the Bronx.
But new settlements nevertheless kept cropping up, and the Bronx was prospering by 1664, when the English took New Amsterdam and made it New York. In 1693, New York merchant Frederick Philipse thought it worth building a toll bridge across Spuyten Duyvil Creek (pictured) to link Manhattan to the mainland, and thence to Boston by the old Post Road. By 1700 there were two bustling towns ó Eastchester and Westchester ó and the four great manors of Pelham, Fordham, Philipseburgh and Morrisania.
The region saw considerable action during the Revolutionary War, none of it very effective for the Americans. British troops landed at Throg's Neck in October 1776 and, despite tireless rebel raids, occupied the Bronx until 1783. In January 1777 a small party of patriots dragged a cannon to the top of a hill near the Bronx River and fired on the Redcoats, but without much success.
Following the war, the Bronx experienced rapid growth and its ties with New York City tightened. Philipse's bridge had closed in 1759, but new ones were built to serve the growing community of New Yorkers there. Many immigrants arrived in the 1840s, from famine-ravaged Ireland and politically unsettled Germany. The great landed families ó the Pells of Pelham, the Morrises of Morrisania, the Philipses of Philipseburgh ó were broken up, but new ones emerged, and new fortunes were made. Pierre Lorillard, founder of the tobacco fortune Jonas Bronck didn't live to make, was the first man ever called a millionaire ó a term coined for his obituary when he died in the Bronx in 1843. Jordan Mott, inventor of an improved coal stove, built a foundry on the Harlem River and founded his own town, Mott Haven, in 1848.
Rich New Yorkers built elegant summer homes in the Bronx, just as the Dutch had predicted. The fashionable track at Jerome Park was credited with retrieving the once-noble sport of horse racing from the lowlifes into whose hands it had slipped and making it respectable again in 1866. Spacious, 310-acre Woodlawn Cemetery, which had opened for business the year before, became a favorite place of New Yorkers seeking pleasant burial grounds for themselves.
Large sections of land were bought for parks ó almost a quarter of the total area, the most of any borough and the last of the hemlock forest was preserved as part of the New York Botanical Garden. In the 1890s, as the city moved northward, New York University moved from cramped lower Manhattan to a large, airy campus near Fordham Road, and work began on the Grand Concourse a broad, tree-lined avenue imitating Paris' Champs-Elysées and one of the most elegant thoroughfares in the city.
As transit facilities increased between the Bronx and New York, the advantages of integrating Manhattan and the surrounding areas into one metropolis seemed more and more obvious to some; Brooklyn and Queens, with their scattered villages, were not so sure, but the Bronx welcomed consolidation. By the 1860s Morrisania was already renumbering its streets as an extension of those in Manhattan, and consolidation took its first step in 1874 when the western Bronx villages of Morrisania, Kingsbridge and West Farms were annexed nearly doubling the city's area and extending it from the Battery to Yonkers. Three townships east of the Bronx River ó including the thriving villages of Throgs Neck, Unionport, Olinville, Williamsbridge, Wakefield, Eastchester and part of Pelham joined up in 1895, adding another 14,000 acres and 17,000 people to the city. Greater New York was on its way.
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