Some Names

I was surprised to see, on a large banner on Smith St., which pictured what was there before industrialization, the nearby body of water referred to as “Hudson Bay.” This would be the water ground water flowed to from the Gowanus creek and swamp and the “Woody Heights of Guana,” as the British called the Harbor Hill Moraine in 1776. But of course, that isn’t the Hudson Bay; Hudson, or Hudson’s, Bay is quite some distance to the north of us. Heading up the river Hudson wouldn’t get you there, nor even as far as the St. Lawrence, unless you continued over land; I’d recommend some guidance from the local voyageurs and coureur des bois as you get further north. Water in Brooklyn can only be said to flow thataway in the grand, global, hydrological scheme of things. Both Bay and River are named after Henry Hudson, who nosed into our river in 1609 and died somewhere in their Bay c. 1611 after being set adrift by mutineers.

What this well-meaning banner person meant was Upper New York Bay. It is separated from Lower New York Bay by the Narrows. Further out, flanked by the long coasts of New Jersey and Long Island, is the New York Bight. Through the Bight runs a submerged valley cut by the ancient precursor of the Hudson. When all that water was locked up in ice, the Atlantic coastline was a hundred miles further south.

On old maps, you’ll see that the Hudson is called the North River on the west side of Lower Manhattan, because it actually flows north-south there. Manhattan island is angled, oriented SW-NE, meaning that the standard “east west” compass points of direction on the island are a convention for ease of use. Stuyvesant Street in the East Village is the only east-west oriented street on the island.

I feel sad for people who think maps are ugly digital things that get them to a store.

One of the amazing things about NYC is that it is an archipelago, a city spread out on islands. Seventy-six of the over two thousand bridges in the city are over water. Only the Bronx is part of the mainland of North America. There is water in almost every direction.

The East River is of course not a river, but rather a tidal strait connecting the Bay and ocean with Long Island Sound. The tide rips up and down through it. Yesterday, the ice was flowing…ice

5 Responses to “Some Names”


  1. 1 Elizabeth January 25, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Usually spelled Heights of Gowan, or Gowan’s Heights. Some interesting entries when you Google those terms.

    • 2 mthew January 25, 2014 at 12:12 pm

      Always difficulty transcribing Native American names. My source was a British broadside published to celebrate the great victory over the upstart colonials in Brooklyn that August. Lots of propaganda shoring-up to do there with Brits who had no interest in battling their cousins, hence those Hessians bastards.

  2. 3 Elizabeth January 25, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    When I Googled “my” spelling, I found an account of the battle – one I hadn’t seen when I was the Brooklyn History librarian. Oh, the wonders of the internet!

  3. 4 unautrehomme January 26, 2014 at 10:22 am

    I love the designation of New York City as a archipelago. But in defense of my borough (the Bronx), while connected to the mainland it is very much a maritime community running from Spuyten Duyvil on the Hudson (wonderful name) to Long Island Sound, with its own archipelago of islands (City Island, Hart Island, and what were Hunter’s and Twin Islands). The salt marshes with tall cordgrass, sea lavender, and phragmites and the wooded coast along Long Island Sound ending at the exposed bedrock of the Hartland Formation surrounding Twin Island is some of the most unusual landscape to be found in NYC. I’ve read recently that mariners still refer to the Hudson as the North River.


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