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Governors Island is a 172-acre (69 ha) island in Upper New York Baymarker, approximately one-half mile (1 km) from the southern tip of Manhattan Island and separated from Brooklynmarker by Buttermilk Channelmarker. It is legally part of the borough of Manhattanmarker in New York Citymarker. The island was expanded by approximately of landfill on its southern side when the Lexington Avenue subway was excavated in the early 1900s.

First named by the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block, it was called Noten Eylant (and later in pidgin language Nutten Island) from 1611 to 1784. The island's current name—made official eight years after the 1776 Declaration of Independence—stems from British colonial times when the colonial assembly reserved the island for the exclusive use of New York's royal governors.

From 1783 to 1966, the island was a United States Army post. From 1966 to 1996 the island served as a major United States Coast Guard installation. In 2001, the two historical fortifications and their surroundings became a National Monument. On January 31, 2003, control of most of the island was transferred to the State of New Yorkmarker for a symbolic $1, but 13% of the island (22 acres or 9 ha) was transferred to the United States Department of the Interiormarker as the Governors Island National Monumentmarker, administered by the National Park Service. The national monument area is in the early stages of development and open only on a seasonal basis, so services and facilities are limited.

The portion of the island not included in the National Monument is administered by the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), a public corporation of the State of New York. The transfer included deed restrictions which prohibit permanent housing or casinos on the island.

The national historic landmark district, approximately of the northern half of the island, is open to the public for several months in the summer and early fall. The seven minute ferry ride and admission to the island are free. The ferry leaves from the Battery Maritime Building (built in 1909) at South and Whitehall Streets at the southern tip of Manhattan.

Colonial history

Map of Governors Island

Jan Rodrigues from Santo Domingomarker on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, a Latin-American of African ancestry and a free man, was the first person to summer on Governors Island, in 1613. He was employed as interpreter in trade negotiations with the Hudson River Indians by the private Amsterdam fur trader and explorer Adriaen Block. Rodrigues was left behind on the island in May 1613 to serve as on-the-spot factor to trade with the natives. Rodrigues and Block rendezvoused again in December that year.

In May 1624, Noten Eylandt ("Island of Nuts"; officially renamed Governors Island in 1784) was the landing place of the first settlers in New Netherland. They had arrived from the Dutch Republic with the ship New Netherland under the command of Cornelis Jacobsz May, who disembarked on the island with thirty families in order to take legal possession of the New Netherland territory extending between the 38th and 42nd parallels. Captain May was appointed the first director of New Netherland (Petrus Stuyvesant was its seventh and last director). Most of those first settlers were quickly distributed, to an island in the Delaware River, one at the top of the Hudson River and at the mouth of the Connecticut River.

That territory was discovered in 1609 by the Dutch East India Company with the ship Halve Maen (Half Moon) under the command of Henry Hudson. Hudson and his crew explored chiefly the Mauritius (Hudson) River. The region between 42 and 38 degrees was subsequently explored, surveyed and mapped in detail by Adriaen Block and his partner Hendrick Christiaensz from 1611 to 1614 (the name "New Netherland" was first recorded on Block's map of 1614) in order to pave the way for a well-planned, successful landing under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company in 1624. That year, New York Harbor's first fortification was built on Noten Eylant, as well as the region's first windmill, a saw mill erected by Franchoys Fezard. Fezard, also known as Veersaert, arrived with the 1624 settlers who were mostly of Walloon extraction living in the northern Netherlands and having migrated originally from the French-speaking southern Netherlands. Peter Minuit (Pierre Minuyt) was among them as volunteer. The Noten Eylant (Governors Island) settlers of 1624 were instructed by the West India Company to constitute a New Netherland governing council comprising Willem vander Hulst, Adriaen Jorissen Thienpont, Daniel van Cryeckenbeeck, Francoys Fezard and Johan Lampo.

In June 1625, forty-five more colonists, under five master-farmers, disembarked on Noten Eylant from three ships named Horse, Cow and Sheep. The ships also landed 103 horses, steers and cows in addition to numerous pigs and sheep. The New Netherland council was expanded with the addition of Joost van den Boogaert, Gerrit Fongersz, Pierre Minuyt and Cryn Fredericxsz. This new council (i.e., not the West India Company), seated in a fort on Noten Eylant, selected Manhattan Island as the permanent place of settlement and commenced construction of Fort Amsterdam on Manhattan Island in 1625. Most of the cattle were moved to Manhattan for better pasture within weeks of arrival. Military engineer and surveyor Crijn Fredericksz, who had arrived with the June colonists, promptly started to lay out the moats and ramparts of a large citadel on the southern tip of Manhattan to contain the colonists and Fort Amsterdam as centerpiece of the town of New Amsterdam. Hence, the members of the 1625 New Netherland council are the founders of New York City.

In 1633, the fifth director of New Netherland, Wouter van Twiller, arrived with a 104-men regiment on Governors Island — its first use as a military base. Later he operated a farm on the island. He secured his farm by creating a deed on June 16, 1637 which was signed by two Lenape, Cacapeteyno and Pewihas, on behalf of their community at Keshaechquereren, situated in what today is New Jersey.

After New Netherland was conditionally ceded to the English in 1664, New Amsterdam was renamed New York by the English in June 1665 but for its population it remained New Amsterdam. Namely, the 1664 Articles of Transfer were contingent upon their bilateral ratification by England and the Dutch Republic. Contrary to popular belief based on the repetition of erroneous secondary information, the historical fact is that the Treaty of Breda did not provide for retroactive application and did not cover the English incursion of 1664. Furthermore, the third article of the Treaty dispels the popular myth that New Netherland was traded for Suriname. Hence, it was retaken by the Dutch Republic with a fleet of 21 ships in 1673 but, following the devastating third Anglo-Dutch war, New Netherland was first and hence finally relinquished to the English by the Treaty of Westminster in November 1674, concluding 60 years of New Netherland during which it had fallen for seven years under provisional English authority.

Noten (in pidgin language, "Nutten") Island was renamed Governors Island in 1784 as the island, in earlier times, had been reserved by the British colonial assembly for the exclusive use of New York's royal governors.

Colonial legacy

The planting of the laws and ordinances of the Dutch Republic on Governors Island by the New York Tri-State region's first settlers has left an enduring legacy on American cultural and political life. Of the settlers' specific instructions, the most important was the one that echoed the language of the 1579 founding document of the Dutch Republic, which promulgated that "everyone shall remain free in religion and that no one may be persecuted or investigated because of religion." This legal-cultural instruction of toleration formed the basis for religious and ethnic diversity in New Amsterdam, now New York City.

In 1643, on his visit to New Amsterdam, Father Isaac Jogues reported that on the religious plurality, saying that, besides Calvinists, there were "Catholic, English Puritans, Lutherans, Anabaptists, etc." This religious freedom was preserved by treaty for New Netherlanders exclusively in 1664 as stated above. In 1682, the visiting Virginian William Byrd commented about New Amsterdam that "they have as many sects of religion there as at Amsterdam" whereas in 1686 religious diversity in the newly acquired territory was described by its English governor as "Here be not many of the Church of England; few Roman Catholics; abundance of Quakers; preachers, men and women especially; singing Quakers, ranting Quakers; Sabatarians; Antisabatarians; some Anabaptists; some independents; some Jew; in short of all sorts of opinion there are some, and the most of none at all."

Contemporary and Ongoing Relevance

Governors Island is the place on which the first new world expression of religious tolerance took place. The instructions given to the Governors Island settlers in 1624 incorporated the laws and ordinances of the states of Holland. In addition, they were specifically instructed to “attract through attitude and by example”, the natives and non-believers to God’s word “without, on the other hand, to persecute someone by reason of his religion and to leave everyone the freedom of his conscience.” These laws and ordinances thus delivered onto Governors Island in 1624 applied as of that year to New Netherland as a provincial legal entity of the Dutch Republic and formed the basis for ethnic diversity in the province, later referred to as the New York Tri-State. The planting of that legal-political condition of religious tolerance on the island was rooted in the 1579 founding document of the Dutch Republic which had stated "that everyone shall remain free in religion and that no one may be persecuted or investigated because of religion.” The New York State Senate and Assembly, therefore, have recognized Governors Island as New York State’s birthplace in 1624 and as the place of origin of religious tolerance and pluralism in the region.

Namely, in Article VIII of the August 1664 provisional Articles of Transfer, New Netherlanders were guaranteed, under future English jurisdiction, that they “shall keep and enjoy the liberty of their consciences in religion,” a precept so reintroduced, on March 4, 1789, in a proposed Congressional amendment to the Constitution of September 17, 1787. That proposal was presented to the state legislatures by John Adams as Vice-President of the United States and President of the Senate who, from 1780-1784, had been the Congressional envoy and first plenipotentiary minister of the United States at The Hague in the Dutch Republic. What was to become the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, was ratified in the "State General" of New York, on February 22, 1790, by order of the Assembly, Giulian Verplanck, Speaker, and, on February 24, 1790, by order of the Senate, Isaac Roosevelt, President Pro Hac Vice.

The freedom of religion clause became New York State law on February 27, 1790, upon the signature of the "well-beloved George Clinton, Esquire, Governor of our said State General." In the State of New York, that legal-political right to religious freedom had come full circle thus 166 years after the founding of the province of New Netherland on Governors Island in 1624. New York State thus recognized freedom of religion prior to the ratification of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, that "Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion or respecting an establishment of religion."

"The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted are all the work of other people who went before us" so wrote David McCullough, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, historian and biographer.

Legislative Recognition

The New York State Senate and Assembly have recognized Governors Island as the birthplace, in 1624, of the state of New York. They have also acknowledged the island as the place on which the planting of the “legal-political guaranty of tolerance onto the North American continent” took place ( Resolutions No. 5476 and No. 2708).

The American Revolution and beyond

Episcopalian Chapel of St Cornelius
Liggett Hall, former barracks for a regiment
After the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, in one night, 9 April 1776, Continental Army General Israel Putnam fortified the island with earthworks and 40 cannon in anticipation of the Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn), to be the largest battle of the entire war. The harbor defenses on the island continued to be improved over the summer, and on 12 July 1776 engaged HMS Phoenix and HMS Rose. The Americans' cannon inflicted enough damage to make the British commanders cautious of entering the East Rivermarker, which later contributed to the success of General George Washington's retreat across it from Brooklyn into Manhattan. The Continental Army forces eventually withdrew from the island as well, and the British occupied it in late August. From September 2 to 14 the new British garrison would engage volleys with Washington's guns on the batterymarker in front of Fort Georgemarker in Manhattan. The fort (along with the rest of New York City) was held by the British for the rest of the war until Evacuation Day at the end of the war in 1783.

After the war two fortifications were placed on Governors Island in the years preceding the War of 1812 as part of an extensive coastal defense system including Castle Clintonmarker (or Fort Clinton) at the southern tip of Manhattan. The first, Fort Jaymarker, is a square five bastioned fort started in 1794 on the site of the earlier earthworks. The second, Castle Williams, is a circular casemated work completed in 1811. The two forts are among the best remaining examples of First System (Fort Jaymarker) and Second System (Castle Williamsmarker) American coastal fortification.

During the American Civil War, Castle Williams held Confederate prisoners of war and Fort Jay held captured Confederate officers. After the war, Castle Williams was used as a military stockade and became the east coast counterpart to military prisons at Fort Leavenworthmarker, Kansas and Alcatraz Islandmarker, California.

In 1878, the military installation on the island, then known collectively as Fort Columbus, became a major Army administrative center. By 1912, when it was known as Governor's Island, its administrative leaders included General Tasker H. Bliss, who would become Army Chief of Staff in 1917. In 1939, the island became the headquarters of the U.S. First Army. When the Army left Governors Island in 1966, the installation became a United States Coast Guard base, serving as headquarters for the Atlantic Area, the regional Third District, the local office of the Captain of the Port of New York, AMVER (Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System), and the homeport for several U.S. Coast Guard Cutters including USCGC Dallas , USCGC Gallatin , USCGC Morgenthau , and USCGC Sorrel . Its closing in 1996 concluded almost two centuries of the island’s use as a federal reservation.

The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnelmarker passes underwater and off-shore of the island's northeast corner, its location marked by a ventilation building connected to the island by a causeway. At one point prior to World War II, Robert Moses proposed a bridge across the harbor, with a base located on Governors Island; the intervention of the War Department under Franklin D. Roosevelt quashed the plan as a possible navigational threat to the Brooklyn Navy Yardmarker.

Prior to the construction of Floyd Bennett Fieldmarker in Brooklynmarker, the island was considered as a site for a municipal airport. It did hold a small grass strip, Governor's Island Army Airfield, from the 1950s until the 1960s.

On February 4, 1985, of Governors Island were designated a National Historic Landmark district.

The island was the site of a December 8, 1988 meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan, President-elect George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Tom (1937) and Dick Smothers (1939), also known as the Smothers Brothers, were born on the island, as was comic book (Batman, Green Lantern) legend Neal Adams (1941).

Development and new usage

The question of what to do with Governors Island has been an issue which the mayor and governor have faced since 1996 when the Coast Guard closed the base located there since 1966 as a cost savings measure.

In 1996 Van Alen Institute hosted an ideas competition called "Public Property" which asked designers “to consider the urban potential of Governors Island in terms of spatial adjacencies and experiential overlaps between a range of actions, actors, events, and acknowledge the physical reality of cities and their historic programmatic complexity as fundamental to the survival of a vital public realm.” The competition was open to anyone who registered. More than 200 entries from students, faculty, and landscape architects in 14 different countries were received. The jury members included: Andrea Kahn, Christine Boyer, Miriam Gusevich, Judith Henitz, Carlos Jimenez, and Enric Miralles.

On February 15, 2006, Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for "visionary ideas to redevelop and preserve Governors Island" to be submitted to GIPEC (see above). The announcement said proposals should "enhance New York's place as a center of culture, business, education and innovation," include public parkland, contribute to the harbor's vitality and stress "environmentally sustainable development." Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said whatever group or entity is selected to develop the island would assume the $12 million annual maintenance costs that are now split between the city and state. In early 2007, GIPEC paused in the search for developers, focusing on the development of a major park on the island as called for in the deed that conveyed the island from the federal government to the city and state of New York.

With transportation to and from the island, one idea considered was an aerial gondola system designed by Santiago Calatrava.

In recognition of Governors Island’s momentous 1624 legacy that is reflective of New York’s identity of tolerance—the "Lifeblood of American Liberty"—the Tolerance Park Foundation has proposed placing a 151-foot (46 m) high version of Barnett Newman's sculpture Broken Obelisk—dedicated by him to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—as a Tolerance Monument. This three dimensional image of Barnett Newman's sculpture would serve as the universal embodiment of the dynamic force of tolerance in American freedom and as an enduring beacon to humanity. The Tolerance Monument would be the centerpiece of a proposed Tolerance Park on the island's southern tip. It would visualize Governors Island’shistoric message and reveal the island as the oldest natural historic National Symbol in an island triad of three fundamental American symbols: the National Heritage Triangle comprising three New York Harbor islands in their historical priority—Governors Island (Tolerance Monument), Liberty Island (Statue of Liberty) and Ellis Island (American Immigration Museum.)

A proposal has been tendered to adaptively reuse Castle Williams on the island for a New Globe Theater, designed by architect Norman Foster.Since the fortification was constructed for the War of 1812, to defend America against the British, the not-for-profit organization is working in partnership with Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London to create a cultural center. Ultimately, the National Park Service has determined that this use of the Castle is not congruous with its historical significance, and has not chosen to pursue any further discussions related to it.

In the Fall of 2006, GIPEC announced that the New York Harbor Schoolmarker, a small public high school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, would relocate to Governors Island. The school is the island's first tenant and opens in 2010.

In 2007, GIPEC announced five finalist design teams that were chosen to submit their ideas for the future park and Great Promenade. In December 2007, Governor Eliot Spitzer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the acclaimed team, Diller Scofidio + Renfro with West 8 and Rogers Marvel Architects, would design these new signature open spaces.

In 2009, a three-acre commercial organic farm, operated by the non-profit organization Added Value, was launched.

Governors Island Alliance

Since the decision by the United States Coast Guard to vacate the Island in 1995, the Governors Island Alliance has worked collaboratively and successfully to help secure its return to New York and to ensure that the public interest determine its reuse. The Alliance and its 50 member organizations led a campaign to see Governors Island returned back to New York for public purposes, a mandate embodied in GIPEC’s 2003 charter to create "an educational, recreational, and cultural center that will offer a broad range of public uses", create about of parks and public spaces, and abide by design restrictions in the National Landmark Historic District.

The Governors Island Alliance is working with its many partners to make these commitments a reality, and engage the public in their planning. The Alliance publishes a monthly electronic newsletter that provides the latest information on Island happenings. Equally important, the Alliance is working to enliven the Island with a variety of recreation and arts programs so that visitors can enjoy this harbor destination. Last summer, a record 55,000 people enjoyed a variety of free public programs, car-free bicycle lanes, concerts, picnic grounds, and a great harbor views. You can also view a film of the Alliance’s 2007 opening day family festival.

Public access and events

Since its transfer in 2003, Governors Island has been open to the public every summer. Access was via a free ferry from the Battery Maritime Building in the Financial District of Manhattanmarker, or a free ferry operated by NY Waterway from the Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklynmarker on weekends. Activites included free National Park Service walking tours of the island, bike riding, picnicking, art installations, fairs, festivals, and concerts. Responding to the park's increasing popularity, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation is planning to open the island seven days a week.

Notable residents and references

  • The Smothers Brothers were both born on Governors Island in New York Harbor, where their father, Thomas B. Smothers, a West Point graduate and U.S. Army officer, was stationed.
  • Janet Lambert, an author of young adult fiction, resided on Governors Island while her husband was the post commander in the 1950s.
  • Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, lived on Governors Island during her high school years while her father, an army dentist, was stationed there.
  • The Richard Preston novel The Cobra Event has a biosafety field lab located on the island.
  • David Wellington's zombie novels Monster Island and Monster Planet feature Governors Island as a human safe haven in a zombie-infested world.
  • Governors Island was featured in the game Freedom Fighters, in which it was the seat of power for the Soviet Armed Forces which had invaded the United States. Governors Island is the final Soviet stronghold.
  • Steven McCarthy, a well-known Connecticut subprime mortgage financier and entrepreneur.
  • In the Ultimate Marvel Universe, the Triskelion headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Ultimates is located on Governors Island.
  • In Spider-Man 3: The Video Game, the mission "Scorpion Unleashed" takes place at Governors Island.
  • In the World in Conflict video game, Governors Island is captured by Sovietmarker Spetsnaz forces.
  • The drug-making operation in the housing project in the film American Gangster was filmed in a now unoccupied (deemed for demolition) U.S. Military building on Governor's Island.
  • The films Prince of the City and Critical Condition contain scenes shot on the island.


  1. The cast-iron structure was restored in 2001-2006. Lower Manhattan: Battery Maritime Building
  2. Historic Timeline of The Battery - The Battery Conservancy
  3. Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: New York City, Brooklyn
  4. New Globe Theater
  5. Governors Island Alliance
  6. Streetfilms » Go To Governors Island!

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