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Today in History - May 4

Early Manhattan

On May 4, 1626, Dutch colonist Peter Minuit arrived on the wooded island of Manhattan in present-day New York. Hired by the Dutch West India Company to oversee its trading and colonizing activities in the Hudson River region, Minuit is famous for purchasing Manhattan from resident Algonquin Indians for the equivalent of $24. The transaction was a mere formality, however, as the Dutch had already established the town of New Amsterdam at the southern end of the island.

Map of Manhattan Joan Vinckeboons, 1639. Map Collections

Under the direction of Minuit, New Amsterdam became the principal settlement of the Dutch West India Company’s New Netherland territory. When the British seized the territory in 1664 and divided it into the colonies of New York and New Jersey, New Amsterdam was renamed New York City in honor of England’s Duke of York.

Except for a brief recapture by the Dutch in 1673, New York City was controlled by the British until the American Revolution. After New York ratified the Constitution in 1788, the thriving port city was named state capital, a title it held until 1797. In the late 1700s, New York City also served as capital of the United States (1789-90) and home to Congress (1785-90). By the close of the eighteenth century, it was America’s largest metropolis.

In the 1800s growth on Manhattan Island boomed, first with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which facilitated trading by linking New York with the Great Lakes region, and second, with the arrival of thousands of immigrants, mostly from Europe. In 1898, Manhattan merged with its neighbors Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island to form the five-borough metropolis we know today as New York City. A center for finance, commerce, and culture, New York rose out of a wooded island to become one of the world’s great cities, its Manhattan skyline an icon of the American Dream.

City and Harbor of New York, circa 1896. Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

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Bird Day

On May 4, 1894, Bird Day was first observed at the initiative of Charles Almanzo Babcock, superintendent of schools in Oil City, Pennsylvania. By 1910, Bird Day was widely celebrated, often in conjunction with Arbor Day. Statewide observances of the two holidays inculcated conservation training and awareness in a broad spectrum of the public, especially school children.

Some Overland Friends (detail), Louis Agassiz Fuertes, artist, Illustration in The Harriman Alaska Expedition: Chronicles and Souvenirs, May 1899. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement

In 1901, Babcock published Bird Day: How To Prepare for It. The book included a history of Bird Day, suggestions for its observance based on contemporary school practices, and informative material stressing the importance of bird protection. It also offered guidance on how to integrate bird conservation education into the school curriculum.

Title page, Bird Day: How To Prepare for It (1901), by Charles Almanzo Babcock. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement

Babcock suggested that as part of school programs for Bird Day, children should recite “bird facts and proverbs” such as the following:

Birds flock together in hard times.
A bird in the bush is worth two in the hand.
The American robin is not the same bird as the English.
The bluebird and robin may be harbingers of spring, but the swallow is the harbinger of summer.
The dandelion tells me to look for the swallow; the dog-toothed violet when to expect the wood thrush. . . .
A loon was caught, by a set line for fishing, sixty-five feet below the surface of a lake in New York, having dived to that depth for a fish.
The wood pewee, like its relative, the phoebe, feeds largely on the family of flies to which the house fly belongs. . . .
Seventy-five per cent of the food of the downy woodpecker is insects.
The cow blackbird lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, one in a nest. What happens afterwards?

Charles Almanzo Babcock, Bird Day: How To Prepare for It, pages 50-51. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Bird Day reflected the early American conservation movement’s particular concern with birds, both as vivid examples of the natural world requiring protection and as objects of economic, aesthetic, moral, and sentimental interest to people, including children. The era’s extensive literature on birds is suggested by the lengthy list of titles on popular ornithology in the Library of Congress.

For example, in 1897, pioneering ornithologists Mabel Osgood Wright and Elliott Coues and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes collaborated on Citizen Bird. Written in an entertaining and fanciful style and dedicated to “All Boys and Girls Who Love Birds and Wish to Protect Them,” the popular classic encourages the love of birds and respect for their place in the natural cycle:

Bluebirds have a call-note and a sweet warbling song. . . . He is true blue, which is as rare a color among birds as it is among flowers. He is the banner-bearer of Birdland also, and loyally floats the tricolor from our trees and telegraph wires; for, besides being blue, is he not also red and white? As a Citizen the Bluebird is in every way a model. He works with the Ground Gleaners in searching the grass and low bushes for grasshoppers and crickets; he searches the trees for caterpillars in company with the Tree Trappers; and in eating blueberries, cranberries, wild grapes, and other fruits he works with the Seed Sowers also. So who would not welcome this bird, who pays his rent and taxes in so cheerful a manner, and thanks you with a song into the bargain?

Mabel Osgood Wright and Elliott Coues, Citizen Bird, page 90.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

When the Mocking Birds Are Singing in the Wildwood, H. B. Blanke, music, Arthur J. Lamb, words, 1906. Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920 External

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