Colonial New York
European Contact
The reports of Dutch and English explorers along the east coast of North America described a place of astonishing plenty, awaiting the arrival of the European to reap her bounty. The second-hand report of Nicolaes van Wassenaer, a popularizer of the Dutch enterprise in the New World, is typical:

In their waters are found all sorts of fowls, such as cranes, bitterns, swans, geese, ducks, widgeons, wild geese, as in this country. Birds fill also the woods so that men can scarcely go through them for the whistling, the noise, and the chattering. Whoever is not lazy can catch them with little difficulty. . . . Pigeons fly wild; they are chased by the foxes like the fowls. Tortoises are very small, and are not eaten, because there is plenty of other food. The most wonderful are the dreadful frogs, in size about a span, which creak with a ringing noise in the evening, as in this country. 'Tis surprising that storks have not been found here, since it is a marshy country. Spoon-bills, ravens, eagles, sparrow hawks, vultures are numerous and are quickly shot or knocked down by the natives....

One had only to dip one's hand into the water to catch a fish, or grasp the air to catch a bird. Oysters are described as “foot-long,”  mullets “a foot and a half long a peace,” and Rays “as great as fore men could hale into the ship.” The land bore a cornucopia of wild fruits – grapes, berries, wild plums and cherries. And trees.  Hudson reported the existence along the Great River of “all kinds of timber suitable for shipbuilding.”  Wassenaer described oaks “of very close grain” and “thick as three or four men.”  The traveler Isaac de Rasieres described New Netherland in 1629 as full of “oaks, elms, walnuts and fir trees.  Also wild cedar and chestnut trees.”

Henry Hudson, an Englishman sailing under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company, nosed his little ship “The Half Moon” into Lower New York Bay in 1609. Based on Hudson’s “discovery,” the Dutch staked their claim to the region they named New Netherland, which roughly corresponded with Lenapehoking (Land of the Lenapes). They claimed control of both the Delaware and Hudson rivers, which gave them access to the lucrative fur trade. The Dutch West India Company (DWIC), chartered in 1621, was given exclusive North American trade rights. As long as the fur trade was of high priority, relations between the Dutch and Indians were relatively peaceful, as suited each others’ purposes. However, once the fur trade diminished in importance, land and long-term settlement became the focus of a new wave of colonists. Conflicts between Indians and settlers over land and resources erupted into a series of bloody wars in the mid-1600s, and ultimately led to the routing of the Indians from the region.

European impact on habitats and wildlife.
The landscape of the mid-Atlantic was hardly virgin land, for it had long been managed by the American Indians. But to Europeans used to deforested lands and depleted fisheries, America seemed the proverbial Land of Plenty. Plenty of resources to exploit, plenty of land for the taking. And this they did with abandon, with severe environmental consequences.

They set to work draining and dyking the extensive wetlands of the region to create crop and pasture land. They planted single crops such as wheat and tobacco, which quickly depleted the soil of its fertility. Their cattle degraded grasslands by compacting the soil and spreading alien grasses and forbs (like clover). They clear-cut forests, and let their cattle loose to graze in remaining woodlands; the cattle compacted the soil and browsed on young undergrowth, preventing trees from growing to maturity.

The destruction of native habitats routed the wild animals who had inhabited the region for millennia. Domestic animals competed for forage with wild animals such as deer, elk, and wood bison. The draining of wetlands forced out waterbirds and other animals that depended on these marshy habitats for sustenance. Wild animals such as wolves and bears that were deemed threats to the colonists and their livestock were killed with impunity. Bounties were placed on wolves, a practice that effectively led to their eradication from the region.

Hunting took a terrible toll on wildlife, particularly market hunting. New Amsterdam was originally a trading outpost, strategically placed at the mouth of the Hudson, which was a fur-trading corridor. Beavers were an especially profitable commodity, their pelts highly valued in the manufacture of the felt hats that were the fashion rage in 17th-century Europe. Indians were recruited in the hunting of beaver, and once armed with guns, they decimated the beaver population. Within decades, beavers were gone from the region. 

To read more about the destruction of specific habitats, go to the
habitats page. For information on New York wildlife, go to the fauna and bird pages. Also see my book City at the Water's Edge: A Natural History of New York.  --Betsy McCully
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