Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty


The Statue of Liberty, photo by 9 year-old Ella Nobo, Legends of America's granddaughter in training.

The Statue of Liberty, photo by 9 year-old Ella Nobo,
Legends of America’s granddaughter in training.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

your huddled masses yearning

 to breathe free.”


The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World was a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States and is a universal symbol of freedom and democracy. The Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886, designated as a National Monument in 1924 and restored for her centennial on July 4, 1986.

Today, Liberty Island is home to the Statue of Liberty. The island’s history, however, goes back much further than the Statue. In 994 A.D., the first people to occupy the island were Native Americans. These indigenous people were members of the Algonquian tribes and often visited Liberty Island because it contained numerous oyster beds, which were a main source of food. As a result, it was referred to as one of the three “Oyster Islands” in New York Harbor. In addition to harvesting shellfish, the Indians also hunted small animals on the island.

Indians fishing on the East Coast, 1590

Indians fishing on the East Coast, 1590

Native Americans on Liberty Island may have spoken a Munsee dialect of the Algonquian  Delaware language. Other tribes that lived throughout the surrounding areas spoke the same dialect. These tribes included the Hackensack, Tappan, Esopus, and Warranawankong tribes (who lived west of the Hudson River); the Rechgawawank, Wiechquaeskeck, Sinsink, Kichtawank, Nochpeem, and Wappinger tribes (who lived in Eastern New York); the Canarsee tribe (who lived in what is now Brooklyn and Queens), and the Raritan tribe (who lived in what is now Staten Island). All of these tribes lived in relative harmony.

During this time, much of the west side, Upper New York Bay, contained large tidal flats which hosted vast oyster beds, a major source of food for the Indian population. There were several islands which were not completely submerged at high tide. Three of them, later to be known as Liberty, Ellis Island and Black Tom, were given the name Oyster Islands by the settlers to the New Netherland. The oyster beds would remain a major source of food for nearly three centuries. However, land-filling, overfishing, disease, and pollution essentially wiped out the local oyster. Land-filling also totally engulfed one island and brought the shorelines much closer to the others. Today, with dramatic improvements in water quality, efforts are being made in the area to launch oyster bed restoration projects.

In the 16th century, several countries in Western Europe began to search for a passage to the Indian subcontinent – what is now South India. Europeans wanted access in order to expand their global trading network. Unfortunately, this search would forever change life for the Native American tribes who occupied the Oyster Islands. In 1606, the Dutch called on Henry Hudson to find a passage to the Indian subcontinent through the north-east region of the American continent. Although Hudson did not find his way to the Pacific Ocean, he arrived in New York harbor in 1609 and set up a Dutch colony along what is today the Hudson River.

Native Americans watch as Sir Henry Hudson arrives in New York

Native Americans watch as Sir Henry Hudson arrives in New York

In the early years of European settlement, the Native Americans and Europeans traded together.

In 1614, an exclusive trading agreement was made between the New York tribes and the Dutch settlers. The tribes gave the Dutch three years (or four voyages) of exclusive rights to collect furs and pelts on the land. In return, the Dutch provided the natives with cast iron pots, iron axes, hoes, lead, knives, and other items.

By the mid-1600s; however, occupation, war, and disease forced the local tribes to move out of the area. They went both north and west of New York State. This resettlement made way for further European colonization.

In 1664, the English took possession of New Netherland from the Dutch, renaming it New York. Ownership of New York was valuable because of its location and status as a port of commerce and trade. The Oyster Island, now known as Liberty Island, was granted to Captain Robert Needham by the colonial Governor of New York, Richard Nicholls. Needham sold the island on December 23, 1667, to Isaac Bedloe – a Dutch colonist, merchant, and shipowner.

The Fall of New Amsterdam

The Fall of New Amsterdam

Two years into Bedloe’s ownership of the island, the new colonial Governor, Colonel Francis Lovelace, confirmed Bedloe’s ownership of the land on the condition that Bedloe rename the island Love Island and allow persons facing civil charges to live there safely. In 1673, Bedloe died and the Dutch colonists temporarily overthrew Governor Lovelace. Within a year, the English had regained control of New York and Love Island was renamed Bedloe’s Island.

In 1732, Bedloe’s widow, Mary Bedloe Smith, who was facing bankruptcy, sold the island to New York merchants Adolph Philipse and Henry Lane. Though privately owned, the City of New York took control of the island, using it as a quarantine station, inspecting incoming ships for smallpox.

On January 22, 1746, Archibald Kennedy purchased the island and became the Collector and Receiver General of the Port of New York. By 1753 he had built a house and a lighthouse, and began to promote a name change to “Kennedy Island.” He also advertised it for rent as seen in this 1953 advertisement:

“To be Let. Bedloe’s Island, alias Love Island, together with the dwelling-house and lighthouse being finely situated for a tavern, where all kinds of garden stuff, poultry, etc., may be easily raised for the shipping outward bound, and from where any quantity of pickled oysters may be transported; it abounds with English rabbits.”

Just two years later; however, in 1755, the City of New York, once again took control of the island for use as a quarantine station for smallpox.

On February 18, 1758, Bedloe’s Island was sold to the City of New York. In the following years, the city erected a pest house (a hospital for patients who suffer from infectious disease) and leased land to tenants. During the American Revolution, the British government (which had occupied New York City) used Bedloe’s Island as an asylum for Tory refugees (American colonists loyal to Great Britain during the war). In April 1776, colonial forces attacked the island and burned the buildings.

Southern shore of Bedloe's Island.

Southern shore of Bedloe’s Island.

After the American Revolution, Bedloe’s Island continued to change ownership. From 1793 to 1796, the French (allies of the colonists during the Revolution) were ceded control of the island, appointed a Governor, and used the island as an isolation station. During this period; however, the young American government realized that Bedloe’s Island had a value beyond its use as a quarantine station. Since the British had easily invaded New York with very little resistance during the American Revolution, the protection of New York became a top priority for the new government. With its clear view of the entrance to New York Harbor and New York City, Bedloe’s Island had great strategic value as a defense post.

The French were asked to leave the island and in 1796, ownership was transferred to the State of New York. By 1807, a number of forts were constructed (or rehabilitated) throughout New York Harbor to protect New York City from invasion. On Bedloe’s Island, an eleven point star-shaped fort initially known as the “Works on Bedloe’s Island,” was constructed. In 1814, this fort was renamed Fort Wood by New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins in the memory of Eleazer D. Wood, an army hero killed in action at Fort Erie during the War of 1812.

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