The first settler
s of the small island in New York Bay
known today as Governor
, 500 yards from the shores of Manhattan Island
, were local bands of Algonquin
, either of the Wappinger
confederacies. They named it Pagganack (or Pecanuc), the place where the nut tree
s grow, for the island was then well forested
trees. The Algonquin did not actually live there, instead visit
ing it to collect nuts.
The first white settlers came in 1623, eight men from a group of Walloons from what is today Belgium, fleeing religious persecution. They chose this island as their home base, feeling perhaps that they could more easily defend this small island rather than establish a settlement on the larger island to the north. Manhattan was also heavily forested at the time, making it easy for people to lose their way. The Dutch settlers also chose to name the island after its principal vegetation, calling it 'Nutten (Nut) Island'. The original eight were soon joined by forty-five more Walloons, who brought with them tools, furniture, and livestock. The livestock soon proved difficult to keep on the small island, and the colony was moved across the water to Manhattan.
Somewhere between 1633 and 1637, the Dutch-appointed Governor Wouter Van Twiller 'purchased' the rights to Nut Island, along with those to what are now Ward's and Roosevelt Islands; Nut Island itself was purchased for two ax heads, a string of beads, and a few nails. Around this time, the island became popularly known as Governors Island (the name was not official until 1784, according to one source; the name also alternately has a posessive apostrophe.). A sawmill was built on the island, and it continued to be used for living space.
In 1710, the island, like many of New York's smaller islands, was used as a quarantine area. It next came into prominence during the American Revolution. The island was used as a first line of defense, to try and stop the British from coming up the Bay to Manhattan. The British circumvented this by going through Brooklyn instead, and eventually captured the island.
The island was cleared somewhat in 1792 and turned into a popular spot for picnics. In 1794, the first fort, Fort Jay, was built. In 1803, the fort was renamed Fort Columbus after being rebuilt; possibly due to local anger at its former namesake, John Jay. In 1904, the fort was given its original name back. Fort Jay was joined in 1811 by Castle (occasionally Fort) William, named after Colonel Jonathan Williams.
During the War of 1812, the forts successfully defended New York City from suffering the same fate as Washington, D.C. did, simply by virtue of being there; neither fort needed to fire a shot during the war. The island passed into the control of the U.S. Government from New York State after the war, and it was occupied by the Army.
In 1842, Samuel Morse ran a cable from the Battery across the Bay to Governors Island. On October 19, Morse and an assistant successfully transmitted messages through the cable, across the water. The experiment was a success until a ship accidentally pulled the cable up with its anchor and cut it, mistaking it for a lost rope.
1862 saw the first mention (if not the founding) of the "School of Practice for U.S.A. Field Musicians" on the island. Young pipers and drummers were trained there, recieving room, board, and $7 a month. The Army had also been busy on the island, builing quarters for their troops. During the American Civil War, volunteers and draftees were assembled on the island, and later during the war it also served as a prison for Confederate soldiers, holding at least 1500. Rioters tried to free these prisoners fairly early on, but failed.
Auguste Bartholdi originally planned for his "Liberty Enlightening The World" to reside on Governors Island; he instead chose Bedloe's Island as the site for the sculpture.
During the early 20th century, the government noticed that Governors Island had diminished in size due to erosion. As with other islands in the New York area, the excavated dirt from the construction of the New York subway system was used as landfill, giving the island its current "ice cream cone" shape. The "cone" part, the landfill, was originally going to be used as an airport; in 1909, Wilbur Wright became the first to fly over Manhattan, using Governor's Island as his starting point.
During the first World War, the island was used as a supply base and hospital for the troops, as well as a military prison; Walt Disney was held for a while at this prison. The Army also used it to launch planes. There was a proposal in the 1920s, after the war, to turn the island into a permanent commercial airport; the Army quickly constructed a building that would make such plans impossible. The airport was built instead as LaGuardia Airport in Queens, and the southern end of the island lay fallow for many years.
World War II also found the island being used by the military to house troops and prisoners (this time, including Rocky Graziano). On June 30th, 1966, the Army left Governors Island, being replaced by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard went to work rebuilding the island, and finished its southern end by adding apartment complexes.
During the late 20th century, the island remained purely military, coming into the public view only rarely. Ronald Reagan relit the Statue of Liberty's torch from there during the Statue's centennial celebration and restoration in 1986, and met there with Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss disarmament in 1988.
Very few New Yorkers have ever visited this island, and even they were usually either born there (as were Tom and Dick Smothers) or were stationed there themselves or with family. For its entire history, the island was only reachable by ferry.
In 1996, the Coast Guard abandoned the island, seeking to cut down operating expenses. The island today still rests in New York Harbor, mostly unoccupied. There are several proposals for what to do with this land, from turning it to an amusement park to using it as a technical school. However, red tape from all sides have stopped any possible development from taking place. Bill Clinton signed a bill protecting the forts as landmarks. The U.S. government wants to sell the land in 2002, with New York City and New York State having first right of purchase; there is some resistance to this by people who think the island should be simply returned to New York.
Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City Kondansha America, New York:1997 (originally published 1966)
http://www.reclaimgovernorisland.org is the movement to give the island back to New York.