PHOTO: Beth Schepens
The South Battery on Governors Island.

Name: 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.)
Borough: Manhattan
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), Governors (1784-present)
Current use: National monument; future uses are being determined by the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation.

Two Ax Heads, A String of Beads and A Handful of Nails
By Beth Schepens

hen 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.

eginning 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.

fter 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>

The 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.

During 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.

Wilbur 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.

Throughout 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>

There 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.

PHOTO: AP Photo Archive
U.S. Coast Guard leaving the island in 1996.

In 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.

hile 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.

Four 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 monument.

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.

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