Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Very Rare First Account of New York in English

by Stephen J. Gertz

DENTON, Daniel. A Brief Description of New-York:
Formerly Called New Netherlands.
With the Places thereunto Adjoyning.
Together with the
Manner if its Scituation, Fertility of the Soyle,
Healthfulness of the Climate, and the
Commoditites thence produced.
Some Directions and Advice to such as shall go thither:
An Account of what Commodities they shall take
with them; The Profit and Pleasure
that may accrue to them thereby.
A Brief Relation of the Customs of the Indians there.
London: Printed for John Hancock, 1670.

Daniel Denton, an early American colonist of Long Island, NY, was the town clerk for Hempstead, later Jamaica, and, later still, in 1666, Justice of the Peace for New York. He was one of the purchasers of the land tract that would become Elizabeth, New Jersey.

In 1670, after returning to England, he published A Brief Description of New-York: Formerly Called New Netherlands, the first eyewitness account in English of the colony recently acquired from the Dutch, and designed to promote the region for English settlement.

"The first account of New York printed in English and very rare" (Sabin).

FERRIS, Jean Leon Gerome. The Fall of New Amsterdam.
Peter Stuyvesant, in 1664, standing on shore among residents of
New Amsterdam who are pleading with him not to open fire on
the British who have arrived in warships waiting in the harbor
 to claim the territory for England
An outstanding copy of this rare book is coming to auction at Christie's - London on October 27, 2010 in Part II of The Arcana Collection. It is estimated to sell for $46,000 - $60,000.

New York is the land of milk and honey. Give me your tired, your poor, your industrious yearning  for the good life!

"Do men expect profit in what they carry with them to a foreign land? - They need not fear it here, if their goods but suit the country. Would they live in health? - no place so likely to live so in, in this part of America. Would they have plenty of necessaries for food and raiment? - New York, in these, is not unkind; but though a stepmother to those who came from England, yet furnishes them as plentifully, if equally industrious, as their natural county does those who stay behind.

"In short, there is nothing wanting to make the inhabitants thereof happy..."

Come on over, settle down, and take a bite  of the Big Apple, no worms inside.

Yet New York did have its disadvantages, six worms, by Denton's count:

"I shall not speak of every slight and trivial matter, but only those of more considerable importance, which I count to be six. 1st, The wickedness and irreligion of the inhabitants; 2d, want of ministers; 3d, difference of opinion in religion; 4th, a civil dissension; 5th, the heathenism of the Indians; and, 6th, the neighborhood of Canada."

Canada? What gives? Gangs in the 'hood, it seems. You couldn't go to the corner for a bottle of maple liquor without incident.

"By now, of late, since some people are become wealthy enough to purchase and have by them what is worth the taking away, and that the out-parts of the province (where the best land is) towards Canada are so harassed by the French and their Indians, that men are fearful to plant and dwell there..."

It gets worse; welcome to Fun City, in 1670 already earning a dubious reputation:

"...people have fallen into so great debauchery and idleness, thieving is become more frequent; and many considerable robberies have been committed in my time in New York, to the great discouragement of industrious people, and increase in vice and sin."

That's Lou Reed in the background, wandering troubadour in black breeches, waistcoat, and tricorn, singing Walk on the Wild Side while gently strumming his lute.

Don't blame Jews: at the time Denton published, he charted only twenty Jewish families living in New York. It was impossible to get a decent bowl of matzoh ball soup if you weren't well-connected, much less dim-sum.

One passage in the book is considered to be an early proclamation of Manifest Destiny:

"A Divine Hand makes way for them [the English settlers] by removing or cutting off the Indians, either by Wars one with the other, or by some raging mortal Disease."
In over thirty-five years only two copies of this book in first edition have come to auction and this copy was one of them, offered at Sotheby's in 1987. This particular copy is exceptional for  another, very important reason. Because of the height of the text on the titlepage, out of proportion relative to the margins of the rest of the book, the "A" at the top or the date at the bottom of the titlepage is usually trimmed by the binder's knife. The date is often completely lost. Not here.

This is an extraordinary copy of an extraordinarily rare book.

References: Church 608. Howes D-259. Sabin 19611. Wing D-1062.

Titlepage image courtesy of Christie's.

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