By Amy Johnson
It is hard to imagine Manhattan Island without skyscrapers, traffic, and nearly two million people living upon it. It is equally as difficult to believe that this great metropolis was previously covered in forests, with vast streams crisscrossing the hilly granite terrain.
Prior to the establishment of a permanent Dutch settlement on the homeland of the Lenni-Lenape, Manhattan was such a place. And just a little south of modern East 74th street, where Manhattan Island touches the East River, a creek named the Saw-kill once flowed.
Surging into the East River between two rocky points, the Saw-kill was the island’s “largest hydrological network (by length),” a 13,710-meter long stream that began in the northern reaches of today’s Central Park (Sanderson and Brown 2007: 11; Koeppel 2000: 10). The land contained by the arms of the Saw-kill was “delightfully situated,” overlooking “a bay of considerable size” (132). In the coming years, the Dutch would utilize watercourses, like the Saw-kill, to access and process the forest’s major product: timber.
Though the date of its assemblage is unknown, it is possible that the Dutch colony of New Netherland established one of Manhattan’s earliest sawmills upon the Saw-kill. The Manatus Map of 1639, the first landmark map of the island known to the Dutch as Manhates (being the most common translation, and thus the Dutch may have confused the two) references the Saw-kill, yet highlights the creek as the “the quarter of the blacks, the company’s slaves,” rather than the site of a mill. This evidence suggests that by 1639 logging efforts surrounding Saw-kill may have declined, while the name Saw-kill remained in use. Undoubtedly the Lenape called the creek by their own name. The mill at Saw-kill represented only a part of the network of mills established on Eastern and Southern Manhates in the late 17th century.
Indeed, the abundance of trees on Manhattan had caught the attention of many of Manhattan’s first European visitors. When the Dutch carrack the Halve Moon, captained by Henry Hudson, ventured into the Lower Bay on 2 September 1609, officer Robert Juet described the country, “as pleasant with grass and flowers and goodly trees as ever they had seene, and very sweet smells came from them” (Burrows and Wallace 1999: 14). Henry Hudson echoed Juet’s statements, remarking as he exited the Narrows, “the land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon and it also abounds in trees of every description” (1999: 14).
According to Sanderson and Brown (2007). Hudson’s “trees of every description” most likely included American Chestnut, White Oak, Tulip Tree, Red Maple, American Beech and softwoods such as White Pine, Spruce and Fir. In their extensive analysis of pre-colonial Manhattan ecology, the authors account for the subtle differences in forest type and composition across the island, from the “the more xeric chestnut-oak forest type” of hill tops and sandy soils to the “mesic oak-tulip forest” of the hill side slopes and “deeper soils” (564). Along riparian habitats, “hemlock–northern hardwood forest” was probably a dominant feature with “red maple hardwood swamps” or “shrub swamps” occupying lower lying depressions (564). One can speculate that the forest lining the banks of the Saw-kill would have taken this character. Combined, these trees contributed to the mosaic “of the vast broadleaf deciduous forests that cloaked the Northeast” and have today largely disappeared from Manhattan1. At the time of the arrival of the Nieu Nederlandt in 1624, however, the expansive woods and waist-high meadows offered a “terrestrial Canaan,” a welcome respite for the weary traveler (Burrows and Wallace 1999: 3).
Manhates was not a landscape empty of people. Over fifty Native American habitation sites, camps, and towns have been documented to exist within what would become the five boroughs of New York City. The majority of the island’s inhabitants, roughly 15,000 people, belonged to the Lenni-Lenape, a collective of various bands speaking the Munsee dialect of the Delaware language. Their presence, alongside climactic processes, shaped the ecological world of Manhattan creating the island’s extensive forest cover and grasslands. Archaeological evidence and ecological modeling techniques have determined that these bountiful habitats were the result of a succession of fires initiated by native peoples of the area “to clear the underbrush to ease travel and to increase levels of game” (Sanderson and Brown 2007: 20).
From the earliest days of the colony, the Dutch praised the dense groves of the island, unaware of their indebtedness to their Lenape neighbors, and speculated about the marketability of Manhates’ timber in the Netherlands. Yet, to the dismay of the Dutch, the ecology of Manhates proved to be an impediment both for enhancing settlement and establishing a timber trade on the island. Settlers such as the Revered Jonas Michaelus, in August 1628, declared his fervent belief that Manhates, not the Northern Dutch settlement of Fort Orange, should be established as the stronghold and center of New Netherland. He conceded, however, that realizing the island’s potential would be difficult due to the multitude of thick shrubs and trees, which made the clearing of land for settlement and cultivation exceedingly strenuous. But if Manhateswas to become the center of Dutch New Netherland, it was imperative that the forests be cleared, allowing for the building of homes and other structures for the necessary growth of population and a competitive advantage for the Dutch timber trade.
To accomplish this, the Dutch needed to establish a number of mills in areas both accessible to the thick forests and to the newly planned fort of New Amsterdam, established in 1626. Several early constructed mills noted on the Manatus Map, such as the Saw-kill, were located in the tree filled landscape of Eastern Manhattan, which served as a primary base for initial logging efforts on Manhates.
The Dutch, however, had to carefully consider the Native American inhabitants ofManhates before any permanent settlement could be established or felling of trees could occur. The Dutch mentality behind their relationship with the Native Americans ofManhates, according to historical accounts, appears to have revolved largely around trade. From the available historic records, it can be assumed that trade on Colonial Manhattan occurred in both directions, sometimes with the Native Americans inhabiting Manhates or surrounding lands initiating the exchange. Anonymous “Native Peoples” are recorded in December 1626 as giving the Dutch settlers permission to cut logs on the island. Remarkably, historical accounts document this agreement as occurring one month after Peter Minuit’s supposed purchase of Manhates from the alleged “wild men” on 5 November 1626. Thus, it appears that the Native Peoples of Manhates did exert influence within the Dutch colony in the 17th century. To supply large, sturdy masts for the Dutch Navy and merchant ships, such as the West India Company, as well as materials for building homes, the extensive Oak, Pine and nut grove forests of Manhateswere steadily cleared by Dutch settlers and the slaves of the West India Company.
Slave Quarters at Saw-kill and Slavery in Dutch Manhattan
Slavery was a contested practice in 17th century Netherlands. While it is possible slavery always existed at some intensity on Manhates the first instance of slaves on the island is recorded as approximately 1625 or 1626 when the Company imported eleven men, “among them Paulo d’Angola, Simon Congo, Anthrony Portuguese, and John Francisco” followed in 1628 by three women from Angola to Manhates (1999: 31). An overseer, named Jacob Stoffelsen, was officially hired in 1635 to care for the “negroes belonging to the Company” (1999: 32). Furthermore, the slave population would most certainly have included Native Americans, in addition to “captured Spanish or Portuguese sailors,” creating a diverse slave community that mirrored the hodgepodge of nationalities living as freemen alongside them (1999: 32). Slaves, while retaining the right to own property, marry, bear arms, attend religious services, observe holidays, and remaining subject to the same legal procedures and laws as other New Netherland colonists were nonetheless hardly treated equally (1999: 32). Men typically were employed for arduous tasks, most often performing repairs to New Amsterdam and cutting wood (1999: 32).
The slaves of the West India Company were quartered as early as 1626 at the mouth of the Saw-kill, their lodgings bordered by the smaller northern creek and the Wiechquaesgecks Trail. Historians believe the slaves living at Saw-kill were the primary workers of the mill (Stokes 1998: vol. 6, 132). After cutting down trees in the forests, the slaves would use the mill to help saw logs, which would then be placed in the Saw-kill. These logs would float downstream and be transported by ship to the settlement of New Amsterdam or across the Atlantic to the Netherlands. As of 1639, however, the Manatus Map still referred to the Saw-kill as the “the quarter of the blacks, the company’s slaves.” It is undoubted that the labor of slaves at the Saw-kill and other locations across Manhates led to the development of New Amsterdam.
In the late 17th century, the Saw-kill remained an important mill as evidenced by the construction of two roads connecting the mill both to New Amsterdam and New Harlem. Saw-kill’s prominence existed at this time in spite of the presence of two other mills on the Eastern portion of Manhates and the further construction of three expensive mills by the West India Company after the arrival of permanent settlers to Manhates in 1626. On the eastern portion of the island, the Dutch exploited the hydropower of existing creeks by constructing mills at Turtle Bay (between present day East 45th- 48th Streets) and Montagne’s Kill, later called Harlem Mill Creek (East 108th Street). The Saw-kill was situated between these two mills. The Dutch erected perhaps their first sawmill on Noten Island, their name for today’s Governor’s Island which during the Dutch Colonial Period was covered in nut trees. The mill upon Nut Island was later taken apart for iron in 1648. This network of saw mills, some powered by water, others by wind, were the foundation for the construction of New Amsterdam, the building of permanent homes for Dutch colonists, and the advancement of the Dutch Naval and commercial vessels during the 17th century. The Saw-kill, while quoted as, “the well known Saw-kill, which played an important part in the early days of Manhattan,” however, eventually became lost to time.
The Saw-kill’s later life
By 1677, that the property was referred to by a surveyor as, “ye run of water formerly called ye saw mill creeke,” indicating that the sawmill, from which the stream received its name, had long been out of operation (133). Subsequent owners of the land replaced the sawmill with a leather mill and, eventually, the Saw-kill wad redirected into a culvert, “arched over, and its trickling little stream was called Arch Brook” (133). Prior to this occurrence, however, the Saw-kill Bridge, built in was known popularly as “The Kissing Bridge,” first mentioned as such in 1806 (Stokes 1998, vol 4: 340). Its position four miles north of town, the surrounding picturesque landscape, and, above all, its seclusion, made the Saw-kill Bridge a favorite among Kissing Bridges in 18th century Manhattan. This distinction remained throughout the 19th century.
Although even Arch Brook has since disappeared, the waters of the Saw-kill are still present in Central Park. At the time of Central Park’s development in the mid-19th century, planners utilized the Saw-kill’s source waters, located approximately underneath the American Museum of Natural History, to create the 22-acre Lake enjoyed by New Yorkers today (2006: 87). Until the early 20th century a portion of the Saw-kill continued to flow into Ladies Pond. This small ice skating pond, consisting of two bays connected by the Saw-kill, was reserved for women’s private use to allow women to avoid the gaze of their male counterparts while changing their shoes. As standards changed, Ladies Pond fell out of use and in 1930 the Pond was filled in to serve as a pedestrian path (2000: 60). Thus the last active watercourse of the Saw-kill disappeared.
While it is no longer possible to witness Manhattan’s largest stream rush into the East River or meander through forested hills, the Saw-kill remains a prominent part of the Manhattan landscape. By remembering the Saw-kill and its place in the history of Manhattan this great stream can begin a new course through the island, bringing into relief the connectedness of past and present.
- Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace
1999 Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. (New York: Oxford University Press).
- E.W. Sanderson and M. Brown
2007 “Mannahatta: An Ecological First Look at the Manhattan Landscape Prior to Henry Hudson.” Northeastern Naturalist 14(4): 545-570.
- Jennifer C. Spiegler and Paul M. Gaykowski
2006 The Bridges of Central Park. (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing).
- I.N.P. Stokes
1998  The iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 : compiled from original
sources and illustrated by photo-intaglio reproductions of important maps, plans, views, and documents in public and private collections, 6 v. (Union, N.J.: Martino Fine Books).
- Approximately 77% of Manhattan was covered in forest at the time of Hudson’s arrival (Sanderson and Brown 2007: 11 [↩]