Tag Archives: Georgian

Finding New York in 1745

I thought that I would find tons of readily available material about 18th century Manhattan when researching for my latest book. I was wrong. I did not predict the depth and longevity of scarring left behind by the British occupation of New York during the revolution, nor did I fully grasp the minute repercussions of history being written by the winners.

I found plenty of material about Dutch-era Manhattan, as New Yorkers seem to love their Dutch history. The Dutch, after all, weren’t British. The internet boasts a plethora of maps, anecdotal stories, artwork, family history, architecture, etc. of the original colony. There is a fond collective memory of naive early days. Unless one is researching First Nations history, which is a very different story (note first paragraph, ironically).

The 17th century ends with the secession of Dutch power and most casual histories of New York give a nod in a paragraph or two acknowledging the colony was British before moving on.

The bulk of American history doesn’t start until the revolution does. Everything one might be curious about is well documented from that point on. I should not be surprised that American history starts with its inception—but it’s like there was nothing worth mentioning before 1776.

At first I grew very frustrated by the minimal resource materials available online. Then it occurred to me that if I couldn’t corroborate many of the details of my setting, then neither could many of my readers. Once I embraced this realization, I felt liberated to write whatever I wanted within the loose framework of what I had been able to research.

I was successful in finding a handful of contemporary maps, which I refer to often. I sometimes take walks in my imagination, inspired by annotations on the map of markets, palisades, ports and forts, churches and commons. (Note that the above map is from 1662.)

During the year 1741, just before my characters arrive in New York, a well-documented tragedy occurred which was not dissimilar to the witch trials of Salem. This time the hysteria developed following several arson incidents which were blamed on the swelling population of African slaves, who at that time made up 20% of New York. While this event is not directly referenced in my novel, the documentation around it reveals a fascinating glimpse into the cultural make-up of the city in that era.

My favourite research treasure (and one which I’ve been promising to dedicate a post to) has been a small collection of newspapers from the mid 1750’s that have been made available online. I suspect the interest in publishing these particular issues is the documentation of troop movements during the Seven Years War (known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War), but buried in the back pages are local news stories and a slew of advertising, all of which are priceless sources of information.

Apart from Maps and Newspapers, another favourite source of life at the time is a You-Tube channel published by a three-generation family of historical enactment suppliers, who in their own time re-enact recipes from the colonial era. They also publish question and answer videos for people who wish to make their reenactment experiences as true to history as possible, and some of the details have been invaluable.

Everything else in my novel is made up from my imagination. But my story is about two young people who fall in love, and that type of situation hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. So I think a little loose interpretation of history will be ok.

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Excerpt from Servitude (Work-in-Progress)

Eva winced at the ivory-stitched swatch of fabric her mother held up to her for approval.

“Evaline, it is unfathomable that you should object to every pattern in the shop,” said Eva’s mother.

Eva understood her mother’s point. The shop had no shortage of the latest silks in new patterns and colours for the season. Birds, flowers, sea shells, butterflies and more creatures than she could dream of festooned every set of colour variations. Most of the selections improved on the items she owned, and several met well with her approval. But the fabric was not the point.

“Mama, it is not the fabric which is objectionable,” replied Eva

“I don’t want to hear it,” snapped Elizabeth, lowering her voice.

“Why don’t you pick something suitable,” Eva flung back at her. “This entire arrangement is for your and father’s interest. I have no say in it at all.”

Eva ducked out of the reach of her mother’s arm and ran out the door of the shop into the street. She shivered in the cold spring morning air, having left her overcoat inside. She looked back at it through the glass, pondering whether its retrieval was worth it. Eva caught her mother’s glare fixed on her from inside, and turned her back to the window. Why could her parents not have found someone less horrific? Why in all of London was there not a handsome well-to-do gentleman willing to liberate her from this dire engagement predicament and insist on making her a better offer?

Eva could see her own breath as she exhaled. She rubbed the cold from her arms. In her distraction she missed an approaching couple who jostled her aside. Their rudeness interrupted her daydreams of marital rescue. Eva noted that back inside the shop her mother had indeed taken matters in hand and was poring over several new imports and a variety of laces.

Across the street, a crowd gathered around a new print shop. Individual prints filled each window pane on the facade. Eva could hear gasps of surprise and loud chuckles from where she stood. She looked back at her warm cloak but decided that to risk its retrieval would be to succumb to entrapment once again. She shivered once more and set out across the street in the cold to have a look at what was so funny.

Eva was much smaller than most of the crowd. With two slight parents she had not much hope of ever being of average size. She attempted to squeeze through a break in the crowd, but a heavy roughly-dressed man pushed her aside and filled the gap. Determined, she moved around the crowd to the other side of the print shop. The crowd swelled as greatly on this side, and their jostling knocked her into the adjacent alley. Standing alone in a covered alley was too much for Eva, who despite a sheltered upbringing had spent enough time around her family’s various shop merchants to know that alleys were cesspools of dangerous vagrants.

Eva looked down the small stretch of covered cobblestone way, to where the alley opened up at the other end. A hang-dog group of men strutted towards her in silhouette. Most of the men appeared worn and broken, with the exception of one who walked upright and strong with the pride of youth. Perhaps he was a son of one of the others, or perhaps he led the gang—either way, the figure struck her with fear. Eva didn’t know which way to turn and as the group bore down on her, she froze in the mouth of the alley.

The men burst into the sunlight from the covered darkness, their faces as frightening once the light hit them as her imagination had made them unseen. They moved around her as if she were nothing more than an inconvenient post. The smell of sweat and coffee lingered in the air as they passed. Unlike the others, the young one stopped directly in front of her, standing a head above and only inches away. Her heart skipped against her closed throat, as if his strong hands already closed around it, choking the life from her.

“What are you doing here?” asked a familiar voice.

Eva forced her gaze up across his half-open linen shirt, across the bare chest that still carried a glisten of sweat, under the chin that wore the faintest shadow of a future beard, and onto the much matured face of her long-lost Sam. Relief burst from her with such force that she threw her arms around him.

“Sam!” she cried.

“Please don’t,” said Sam, peeling her from around his waist. His voice was colder than the air.

Eva swallowed her flush and began to straighten out her skirts as a distraction. She shivered with the removal of his body warmth.

“Why don’t you have a cloak?” asked Sam. He sounded annoyed, as if her lack of warmth obligated him to take care of her, and this were the worst of outcomes.

(Updated Mar. 17)

To be published in a 3-part series, beginning June, 2018.

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