The history of Governors Island is as rich as it is dense. In its centuries of human occupation, its important position in New York Harbor and abundant natural resources have been utilized for subsistence, quarantine, imprisonment, military efforts, bureaucratic functions, and recreation. Today the island is a dynamic public site visited by over 1 million people per year. The following is an extremely condensed history of this island, called by some the “gem of the New York Harbor.”
Indigenous Habitation and Dutch Seizure
The Lenni-Lenape were the first known occupants of what was then called Pagganuck. The Lenape did not live on the island, but rather used it as a fishing camp, a place of seasonal harvest, and a resource for timber. In 1624, the Dutch East India Company arrived, and 13 years later “purchased” the island from the Lenape. The Lenape likely did not see this as an exchange of one possession for another, but as an indication of a Dutch desire to share the land. Eventually the colonizers overpowered the Lenape, who had been decimated by European diseases and warfare with other indigenous peoples: in 1600, Lenape in the Manhattan area numbered 20,000, but by the turn of the 17th century, the population had dwindled to just 4,000.
The English captured New Amsterdam in 1664, renaming the city New York. In 1699, colonial powers proclaimed that the site colloquially known as Nutten Island would be reserved for “the benefit and accommodation for His Majesty’s Governors” and renamed it Governors Island. It was used as a country house for British governors until 1710, when it was transformed into a facility to quarantine thousands of German Palatine refugees. The first military presence on Governors Island was emplaced by the British in 1755, during the French and Indian War. Excepting a brief takeover by Revolutionary forces in 1776, the British held control of the island until they withdrew from New York in 1783.
Beginning of US Army Tenancy
In 1800, the City of New York transferred Governors Island to the federal government for military use. In the next decades, the island was cleared of trees, guns were positioned to protect the harbor, and the construction of Fort Jay, Castle Williams, and South Battery began. Throughout the Civil War, the island was used as a recruitment depot and barracks for new soldiers, as well as a prison for Confederate troops. In the late 1870s the island was repurposed as a military administration headquarters and a post for enlisted men and their families. Fort Jay and Castle Williams were used as prisons into the twentieth century, although by that time the incarcerated were mostly deserters from whom the military extracted free labor and services.
Enlargement and History-Making Flights
In the early 20th century, the island was enlarged by prisoners held in Castle Williams using rocks and dirt from excavations for the Lexington Avenue Subway (now the 4, 5, and 6 trains). By 1912 Governors Island had grown to 172 acres. In 1909, in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s journey up the Hudson River to Albany, the Wright Brothers assembled a plane on Governors Island and took their first flight across an American body of water. In 1916 Ruth Law broke the American record for cross-country flying by traveling from Chicago to Governors Island, a distance of 950 miles.
World Wars and Coast Guard Control
As soon as the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, troops from Governors Island were put into action. Within two years the island had 30 million square feet of new military housing and materiel storage, and the Governors Island Railroad was constructed, running 24 hours a day to transport coal, medical supplies, food, weapons, and ammunition. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, construction of military barracks, hospitals, and storage facilities multiplied once more, requiring ferryboats to rotate every fifteen minutes to accommodate the traffic to and from Manhattan. In 1944 the Women’s Army Corps brought 180 of the country's first female soldiers to the island. In 1966 the island was transferred to the US Coast Guard and was used as a residential community for active military and family—as well as the final meeting site for President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev.
By the late 1990s, the federal government's annual operational budget for Governors Island was $30 million. Then-president Bill Clinton closed the island's Coast Guard facility in 1997, and in 2003, the island was sold to City of New York for one dollar and a 22-acre National Monument was created. In subsequent years, the Trust for Governors Island was charged with stewardship and redevelopment of the remaining 150 acres with the mission of transforming Governors Island into a vibrant resource for New York City, making the island a destination with extraordinary public open space as well as educational, not-for-profit, and commercial facilities. To fulfill its mandate to activate Governors Island, maximize public use, and attract long term tenants, the Trust has led with arts, culture, and design.
Since opening to the public in 2005, Governors Island has been transformed into a dynamic, unique venue for arts and culture to be both discovered and created in New York City. The island brings accessible, groundbreaking, and experimental arts to New Yorkers through an open and engaging platform that invites organizations from all five boroughs to produce free visual arts exhibitions and performances. The Trust for Governors Island’s commission program gives the opportunity for artists and audiences to engage in site-specific projects responding to the island’s unique conditions.
The first 30 acres of a park designed by West 8 opened to the public in 2014. Its first phase included a sunny, six-acre plaza, undulating pathways that cut through a 10-acre grove of hammocks and trees, and 14 acres of Play Lawn including two ballfields. In 2016, the Hills opened to the public. This audacious feat of engineering rises 70 feet above sea level.
Shandaken's work Governors Island began in October 2018 with a free residency program in Building 107. In 2021, the organization expanded its work on-island with the debut of a new 3,000-square-foot, year-round, multi-use cultural space in the historic Block House, also called Building 9.
Photograph by Timothy Schenck.