The first detailed study of life in a New York colonial community
The Evolution of an American Town
Newtown, New York, 1642-1775
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The literature on colonial America is full of town studies, almost all of them set in New England, where the town holds an almost mythic place in American memory. Until this book, there has been no detailed study of life in a New York colonial community. Professor Kross analyzes the changes that Newtown (located near what is now New York City’s LaGuardia Airport) underwent from its founding in 1642 to the American Revolution. The direction of those changes is from simpler to more complicated forms, from fewer options to more, in political, economic, and social spheres. The result is an unusually broad and yet concrete portrait of a town in the process of coming of age.
Beginning with the founding of Newtown, Professor Kross turns quickly to an analysis of the roots of social structures under Dutch administration. What the townspeople fashioned was an agricultural village with considerable contact with the outside. With British conquest, government became more complex. The author describes in detail the nature of these changes, leavening her analysis with vivid scenes from everyday life. Newtown became part of the larger economic circle of New York City, which took produce and in return offered goods and specialized services. Since farming was combined with entrepreneurial ventures, as the eighteenth century moved on, some townsmen began to think of themselves as artisans, not as yeomen.
In general Newtown became more involved in the great Atlantic mercantile empire. Black slaves were a major import, and by 1790 comprised about twenty percent of the population. Shared attitudes and values united townsmen with each other, with other New Yorkers, and with other British colonials. These included liberty, the sanctity of private property, the legitimacy of profit, family, and harmony. In time they were translated into specific activities, such as government by consent and the development of mortgages and money-lending.
The book's chronicling of the history of the town points consistently to the effects of a more complicated environment on the lives of individuals. Newtown represents a shift in focus from community to individual, an experience repeated in New England.
Jessica Kross is Assistant Professor History at the University of South Carolina.