The Hidden History of Liberty Island

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tags: American History, Statue of Liberty, colonial America, Liberty Island

As a rule, a museum tells more by what it leaves out than by what it includes. It’s akin to framing a photo to show the patriarch and the favorite son but exclude the black sheep who’s brought this family nothing but trouble.

Take, for example, the Statue of Liberty Museum on Liberty Island, the 15-acre rock at the mouth of New York harbor. Since 1886, the island has been home to the 305-foot statue, with gown, torch and tablet, standing amid broken chains—the first glimpse of America seen by generations of immigrants, symbolizing the nation’s best sentiments.

The museum, which cost $100 million to build, opened in May in a celebrity-packed ceremony, featuring photos and films of the statue and the original copper torch, which was replaced by a gold-leafed replica in 1985 after it was damaged by leaks. But there is another story that the museum doesn’t tell: the deep history of Liberty Island, what it meant to those who lived and died in eras before the statue arrived.

The saga is still there, of course, only papered over, forgotten: a site of military strategy, land speculation, piratical pursuits and, most notoriously, public executions. In this, Liberty Island epitomizes the telling of all history—each generation overwrites the past. You discover it with a thrill, as when at around age 10, you ask your mother, “Did someone live in this house before us?”

To Europeans who sailed through the Narrows in the 17th century, the island was a cork that stoppered the mouth of the greatest natural harbor in the New World, teeming with seagulls and shellfish when the tide ebbed. On Dutch maps, it was marked as Great Oyster Island, a Lenape hunting ground. With the coming of the British, it entered the only history that counts: commercial.

Its views of town and sea—they would call it a double exposure now—marked it as a choice piece of real estate. A Captain Robert Needham, given the island by the British governor of New York in the way of swag, sold it to a merchant named Isaac Bedloe (also recorded as Bedlow and Bedloo) on Dec. 23, 1667. Until being renamed for the statue in 1956, it was usually known as Bedloe’s Island, awash in Manhattan’s property churn, sold and resold, gussied up, sold again. At one point, it rented as a vacation property called Love Island. At another, it was a quarantine hospital where the stricken looked longingly at the bustling port across the bay.


Read entire article at Wall Street Journal

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