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.