Black Gotham Stories


According to Irving, the most prominent citizens of Gotham were the "Knickerbockers," the name he gave to his fictional historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, reputed author of Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809).   In his book, Knickerbocker poked fun at the city’s early Dutch settlers whose addiction to strong drink and strong tobacco had led them to engage in foolish behavior.  The name Knickerbocker soon came to apply to the actual descendants of New York’s Dutch families.  As their numbers shrank, the designation was extended to include English as well as French Huguenot families.  Mid-century observer, Joseph Scoville, referred to the Knickerbockers as an “old aristocracy” and noted that “there is no strata of society so difficult to approach and apprehend.”  Indeed, the families formed a closed society, marrying and socializing among themselves.  They belonged to the same organizations.  Many worshiped at Trinity Church, where they filled the ranks of the vestry.

In contrast to Irving’s depictions, real life Knickerbockers went to great pains to portray themselves as an aristocracy noted for its dignity, sobriety, work ethic, church attendance, and philanthropy.  But in truth, Knickerbocker men were hard driving, impelled by an entrepreneurial zeal and a fanatic determination to turn New York into the hub of the nation’s commercial, industrial, and financial activities while making lots of money in the process.   So perhaps George Foster, the greatest city chronicler of the time, was simply revealing an uncomfortable but undeniable truth when he disparagingly referred to the group as a “shopkeeping aristocracy.”