South Battery on Governors Island.
Directions: The island is not currently open
to the public. When it is, a ferry will run from the
Battery Maritime Building, near the Staten Island Ferry
slips at Whitehall Terminal in Lower Manhattan. To get
to the terminal, take the 1 or 9 train to South Ferry.
Size: .26 sq. mi. (.7 sq. km.)
Origin of current name: The island was set aside
for British governors, beginning with Lord Cornbury,
Edward Hyde, in 1698.
Previous names: Paggank (to 1637), Nutten (1637-1784),
Current use: National monument; future uses are
being determined by the Governors Island Preservation
and Education Corporation.
Ax Heads, A String of Beads and A Handful of Nails
By Beth Schepens
the Dutch came to the New World, their ships sailed into New
York Harbor and past the three wooded islands that guarded the entrance.
After buying Manhattan Island from the Manahatas Indians in 1637,
they paid for the island sitting in the heart of the harbor with
two ax heads, a string of beads and a handful of nails. The new
settlers called it Nutten Island, after the hickory, oak and chestnut
trees that flourished there.
Over the next 61 years, the island and colony was
traded four times between the Dutch and the English. It served as
a retreat for government officials, who used it as a game reserve.
Cattle and goats were raised there. In 1698, the island was set
aside for Gov. Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, and subsequently took
up the name Governors Island, which was made official in 1784. The
governor's mansion, named "The Smiling Garden of the Sovereigns
of the Province," was built three years later.
in 1710, the island was used as a quarantine station to house Protestant
settlers from the Palatinate region of Germany, with between 7,000
and 10,000 people living there at a time. John Peter Zenger, who
would later publish the New York Weekly and become the first American
to defend his freedom of speech, was one of those who made their
way into New York through Governors Island.
Troops came to Governors Island in 1755 and would not leave again
for another 241 years. The 51st Regiment of British Colonial Militia
was the first group to arrive. Three other regiments arrived shortly
after and made up the "Royal Americans." After the French
and Indian War, there was little military movement on the island.
That all changed in April 1776. <Click
here to see a timeline of Governors Island history>
With the American Revolution brewing and British ships threatening
the harbor, George Washington sent Gen. Israel Putnam and the 1,000-man
Bunker Hill Regiment to guard the city and fortify the island. It
was one of many batteries built to protect New York City from British
attack. Americans had to abandon the base in late August, when they
came under heavy attack while rowing back to Manhattan. Cannon balls
from British ships bombarding the island's fortifications were still
being found in the early 1900s.
a November 1783 peace agreement, the island was again American.
The memory and wounds of war still fresh, New York gave the island,
at no cost, to the federal government in 1800. The U.S. Army quickly
built batteries on the northern end of the island. Fort Jay, a star-shaped
fortification with low walls, was built in the 1790s and expanded
again between 1806 and 1809. By 1811, Castle Williams, which looks
a bit like a medieval castle with its high and exposed red sandstone
walls, was built. In 1812, the South Battery was built to protect
against an attack from Brooklyn. <Click
here to watch an animated slideshow about Governors Island monuments>
island played a critical role in the War of 1812, fighting off the
British and saving New York from burning. Governors Island remained
vital to the city's defense throughout every war in the 19th and
20th centuries. Castle Williams held as many as 1,000 Confederate
soldiers during the Civil War; Fort Jay's dungeon held prisoners
waiting to be executed. Later, the castle was a prison for AWOL
soldiers (including Walt Disney and boxer Rocky Graziano), who kept
up the surrounding golf course.
the 1863 draft riots, troops from Governors Island were sent to
guard the Sub-Treasury Building on Wall Street. Rioters decided
to seize the Army's ferries and take over the island's store of
ammunition and guns. Civilian workers had to line the island, poised
with guns, to turn the rioters back.
Wright made the first airplane flight over American waters in September
1909, taking off from Governors Island and circling the Statue of
Liberty. Glenn Curtis landed on the island in 1910 to collect a
$10,000 prize from Joseph Pulitzer for completing a trip from Albany
to New York City.
Governors Island literally grew in the early 1900s. Landfill from
the Lexington Avenue subway added 82 acres to the southern end of
the island, making it a 172-acre island. That land was put to use
during World War I and World War II, when the island was filled
with soldiers and supplies.
its years as an Army base, it was a quaint community with all of
the amenities a small town affords (steam ferries transported soldiers
and their families to and from Manhattan) and some that come only
on an island situated so closely to the center of the world
New York City. <Click
here to see a slideshow about Army brats>
were the spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue
of Liberty, Ellis Island. Brooklyn looked a stone's throw away from
the eastern side of the island although many of the officers'
young sons of who lived on base proved that it was not.
AP Photo Archive
Coast Guard leaving the island in 1996.
1966, the Army relocated its operations, turning the island and
its views over to the U.S. Coast Guard to use as their northeastern
headquarters. With as many as 4,000 people living there, Governors
Island was the largest Coast Guard base in the world.
under the Coast Guard, the island hosted the 1986 relighting of
the Statue of Liberty. President Ronald Reagan stood with French
President Francois Mitterrand on the southern tip of Governors Island
to light the Statue and celebrate the great lady's 100th anniversary.
In 1988, Reagan met with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to negotiate
a disarmament agreement in one of the last summits of the Cold War.
And in 1993, it was the meeting place of United Nations-sponsored
talks to restore democratic rule in Haiti.
years later, the Coast Guard closed the base, ending three centuries
of military use. President Bill Clinton offered to sell the island
to New York for $1 in 2000, if a plan could be developed that preserved
the unique historical environment of Governors Island. But despite
talk of a casino, television tower, public park, museum and a conference
center, plans for the transfer of the land from the federal government
to New York State never developed. In 2001, President George W.
Bush designated the island's northern 22 acres a national
On Jan. 31, 2003, President Bush returned Governors Island to New
York for $1. Plans for a campus of the City University of New York,
a park and space for commercial development in line with educational
purposes and fitting the historical theme are under way, headed
by a newly formed Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation.