Greenwich Village has a very diverse history. Over the years, many groups have come to call the neighborhood home, from aristocrats, to bohemians and beats, to radicals. But even before it was christened Greenwich Village, the area was occupied by multiple cultural and national groups, whose comings and conflicts helped shape the neighborhood we know today.
The earliest settlement in Greenwich Village was Sappokanican, a village of the Lenape Native Americans, who lived all over Manhattan Island. Manhattan was still a wilderness then, and the land in the Village area was marshy and fertile, filled with plant and animal life and a small stream, the Minetta Brook. When Dutch explorers came to Manhattan in the 17th century, the made contact with the Lenape.
But the relationship of the natives and Dutch would not be a very friendly one. In 1624, Dutch settlers founded the colony of New Amsterdam at the lower tip of Manhattan. The colony was sponsored by the Dutch West India Company and was created as a trading post. In 1626, Peter Minuit, then the director of the colony, purchased Manhattan from the Lenape for an infamously meager amount of trade goods.
The land north of New Amsterdam proper was dubbed “Noortwyck” and was soon filled with farm plots. Wouter van Twiller, director of the colony from 1633 to 1638, founded a large and prosperous tobacco farm. Twiller’s farm, which he named “Bossen Bouwerie,” or “Farm in the Woods,” sat in today’s Greenwich Village; his farmhouse stood about a block from the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. But as the dutch farms spread north, conflicts with the remaining natives grew. The Lenape attacked the farms, burning crops and killing livestock and even some settlers.
Willem Kieft, another director of the colony, found a solution to the danger posed by the Lenape in the African slaves that had been brought to New Amsterdam as early as 1626. In 1643, Kieft granted some African’s their freedom and gifted them parcels of land in the Village area. The farms of the former slaves acted as a buffer zone between the Dutch and Lenape and provided an early warning system for any Lenape attacks. The Africans built a fence along the northern boundary of their farms (about Washington Square North) in 1644 to defend against any such assaults.
But the Dutch soon faced an even more perilous enemy. In 1664, James Stewart, Duke of York, sent a fleet of English ships to take over the colony of New Amsterdam. Unable to resist the greater English numbers, the Dutch surrendered their settlement, which was renamed New York. The English also spread throughout the northern reaches of the colony, and referred to the fields of the former Dutch farms as the “Green Village” or “Greenwich,” though this name for the neighborhood was only first officially noted in a 1713 city record.
In the mid-18th century much of Greenwich Village was owned by Peter Warren, a wealthy Admiral of the British Navy, who built a country estate on his property for summer retreats from the city. After Warren’s death, his land was divided and left to his three daughters, who subsequently sold most of the property. The land was partitioned into blocks and sold to other English aristocrats, who built similar country getaways where they could escape the mess and congestion of lower Manhattan.
These wealthy residents began to shape Greenwich Village, both physically and culturally, into the neighborhood we know today. Though little trace can still be seen of the Native Americans, Dutch farmers, and African Americans that came before, those early occupants laid the course for present day Greenwich Village.
- Emily Kies Folpe, It Happened on Washington Square (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002).
- NYC Parks Department, “Washington Square History,” http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/washingtonsquarepark/history.
- Laura Helene Schoenbaum, Manhattan’s Washington Square Park: Its History, Evolution, and Prospects for Change (Masters dissertation, Cornell University, 1988).