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)

“Evaline, it is unfathomable that you should find every pattern in this shop objectionable,” said Eva’s mother.

Eva understood her mother’s point. The shop had no shortage of the latest silk patterns and new colours for the season. More birds and flowers and sea shells and butterflies than she could dream of festooned each set of new selections. Most of the fabrics met well with her approval, and stood above the items she already owned. But the beauty of the silks was not the problem.

“Maman, 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 you and Papa’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 the shop. She looked back at it through the glass, deciding whether the risk of its retrieval was worth more than her discomfort. She caught her mother’s glare fixed on her, and turned her back to the store. Why could her parents not have found a husband less horrific? Why in all of London was there not a handsome well-to-do gentleman willing to liberate her from this predicament and insist on making her his?

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 decided to indeed take matters into her own hands and was poring over several new imports and a variety of laces.

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

Eva was much smaller than most of the crowd—and not only because she was not yet a full adult. 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 beat her to it, shutting her out. Determined, she moved around the crowd to the other side of the print shop. The crowd swelled as greatly on this side, pushing her into an adjacent alley. This was too much for Eva, who despite a sheltered upbringing had spent enough time around her family’s various shops to know that alleys were the cesspools of dangerous vagrants.

Eva looked down the short stretch of covered cobblestone to see a hang-dog group of men strutting towards her. In the dim light of the alley, which opened up to another bright road at the far end, Eva could not make out more that their silhouettes. Still, she could see that most of the men appeared worn and broken, except for one of them who walked upright and strong with the pride of youth. Perhaps he was a son of a member of the gang, or perhaps he led them. Either way he would be the last one she’d want to face. As the group bore down on her, Eva didn’t know which way to turn. She froze in the mouth of the alley.

The men burst into the sunlight, their faces as frightening in daylight as her imagination had made them in the dark. 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, only inches away and standing a full head above. Her heart fluttered against her closed throat. She forced her gaze up to meet his, across his half-open linen shirt, his bare chest which glistened with sweat, under his chin with its faintest fuzziest shadow of a future beard, finally reaching the barely familiar face of her long-lost Sam. Relief burst from her with such force that she threw herself into his arms.

“Sam!” she cried.

“Please don’t,” said Sam, peeling her arms off 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.

“I do,” she defended. “But I left it in the shop with my mother. She’s purchasing a new outfit for me.”

Eva’s gaze stretched back down the other side of the street to the silk shop. She saw no sign of her mother, but knew there was not much time before Elizabeth expected her to return to have her measurements taken—she had changed so much lately. If her mother came out looking for her and found her talking to Sam…

“How nice for you,” groaned Sam, moving out into the sun to get passed her. “I guess you’re showing your appreciation by removing yourself from the process?”

“It’s not nice for me,” declared Eva. “She’s buying an outfit to flaunt me, like a fancy horse. They are marrying me to an old man!”

Eva’s voice cracked in its crescendo. She felt her eyes fill but choked back her tears. For whatever reason she suddenly needed Sam to understand what she was going through, and how desperate her situation really was.

“Help me, Sam,” she cried, grabbing his hand and holding it up against her face. His skin felt rough but warm against her cold cheek. A drop spilled over from the pool in her eyes and rolled down across the back of his hand. She kissed the tear away.

“What can I do?” asked Sam, snatching his hand away and rubbing it against his breaches. “What am I to you?”

“You’re my only true friend,” explained Eva.

“If that’s the truth, it is a sad one,” said Sam. He turned his back and started off in the direction his crew had gone. One of the men stood waiting for him, long down the street at the far corner.

“Wait!” called Eva. “Where can I find you?”

Sam’s back stiffened. When he turned back to her the anger in his eyes scared her.

“At the Parish where my mother and I receive our poor rations,” said Sam, before turning again and heading down the road. Sam’s tone hung heavy with finality. That he didn’t mention which Parish told her he had meant his statement as a warning to leave him alone, to let her know that he was destitute and out of her reach. His information was not an invitation to future acquaintance, but Eva stored the kernel of it away for future use. She had a vague idea where Sam and his mother might be living, or guessed at least that they would not be far from where her father had cut Sam’s widowed mother off from her livelihood and thrown her and Sam into the street.

Eva watched Sam walk away until he reached the far corner of the road. Once there the elder man waiting from his crew boxed Sam’s ear before the two of them carried on out of sight.

At the throes of another shiver, Eva shook off the incident and turned back to the silk shop. This time her mother was standing outside, a cold hard stare fixed on her daughter. Eva’s warm cloak hung over one arm, while in the other she carried a wrapped package of niceties from the shop. When Eva reached her mother’s spot across the street, her mother slapped her wrist.

“Did you get your fill of smut?” hissed her mother. At first Eva thought her mother had seen the entire exchange with Sam, but when her mother then wrapped Eva’s cloak around her cold shoulders, Eva realized her mother referred to the cartoons in the print shop windows. Had her mother seen Sam, she would have demonstrated no evidence of kindness.

My favourite was the caricature of the parents selling their daughter on an auction block, Eva wanted to say. But instead she chimed, “No, Maman, I couldn’t get close enough to the windows to see any.”

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