The origins of “Gold Street” — in the heart of Manhattan’s Financial District — are easy to imagine. After all, the surrounding collective wealth is almost unimaginable. The Federal Reserve Bank alone stands guard over seven thousand tons of gold, worth more than $250 billion.
But there was gold in the neighborhood long before Wall Street traded its wooden palisades for marble columns. Golden Hill — just north of Maiden Lane — was high ground overlooking Water Street and the East River, a field of wheat waving gracefully in the sea breeze and “looking, in truth, like a hill of gold.”
Well, the wheat is long gone, that bluff has been lowered, and Water Street is no longer on the water, but Gold Street is still there to remind us of the past. January 19, 1770, was not a good day on Golden Hill. Whatever was growing in that field on that cold winter afternoon would soon be stained red with blood.
The Battle of Golden Hill was the first head-on clash between American colonists and armed British soldiers, occurring six weeks before the Boston Massacre.
It was sparked by battles over a Liberty Pole erected in the Commons (today’s City Hall Park) four years earlier. The Commons was the city’s communal space, where citizens gathered to celebrate or to protest, and the pole was there to celebrate the repeal of the hated Stamp Act.
The Commons was also home to a jail, an almshouse, and a soldiers’ barracks, and it was near those barracks that the always-provocative Sons of Liberty threw down the gauntlet by raising the pole.
The Redcoats allowed it to stand for a few months before hacking it down one night. Its replacement lasted only a couple of days. A third pole, however, was still standing six months later as colonists celebrated the first anniversary of the Act’s repeal. As if reawakened to the cause, the soldiers had that one down before the sun came up.
This 1777 New York Gazette beer ad is for Medcef Eden’s brewery up on Golden-Hill.
Edens Alley, the southern portion of the curved street between Gold and Fulton streets, is named for Medcef and is located near the site of the Battle of Golden Hill, the first open clash between British soldiers and American colonists.
But the Sons were back with a vengeance, this time with a pole wrapped in iron bands for protection against British steel. That one stood defiantly for almost three years-until enterprising soldiers blew it out of the ground with explosives, chopped it up into firewood, and neatly stacked the pieces at the entry to the Sons of Liberty headquarters. Talk about in your face!
Three thousand angry New Yorkers gathered around the exploded stump the following morning in white-hot protest, declaring that any and all armed soldiers found in the streets would be considered an “enemy to the peace of the city” and arrested on the spot. The Sons of Liberty were only too eager to enforce the order.
The tinder was now in place. It did not take long for the fire to be lit.
Stay tuned in an upcoming issue for a description of the battle itself
and for the fascinating conclusion to the Liberty Pole debate.
(Spoiler Alert: We won).
John M. Simko