Bowling Green is one of New York City’s oldest public spaces. The teardrop-shaped downtown park is a charmer, with a fountain ringed by park benches and flowerbeds, and leafy trees overhead. At its northern tip is the famous Charging Bull statue, usually mobbed with selfie-snapping tourists. At its broader southern end is the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, now home to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian. Around its edges, skyscrapers tower.
The Green was once probably the location of the home of a Lunaape chief, at the terminus of the Wecquaesgeeks trail - now Broadway. It may have also been the location where Dutch Governor Peter Minuit made arrangements to move the fledgling Dutch colony from Governor’s Island to Manhattan in 1626. When Dutch settlers arrived, they left the open space next to Fort Amsterdam as a parade ground.
Between 1638 and 1647, it housed a cattle or “flesh” market and a parade ground. In the late 1600s, the records of the city note “The committee report that there be two markets for flesh kept—one in the Broadway, over against the fort; the other under the trees by the [boat]slip. The country people to bring their produce to either, as suits their convenience…”
The Philipse family lived in New York City for decades. From the arrival of Margaret Hardenbroek and Frederick Philipse I in the 1650s and 1640s, respectively, members of the Philipse family always had primary residences in New York City. According to the Castello Plan, a map of New Amsterdam dating to 1660, Frederick Philipse’s house (purchased in January 1658) was located on the corner of Whitehall and Stone Streets – just across from Fort Amsterdam and about half a block south of the open area that would later become Bowling Green.
By the 1730s, Frederick Philipse II, grandson of the first Frederick, was the head of the family. He was the Alderman of the South Ward of New York City from 1719 to 1733. In March of 1733, the New York City Common Council passed a resolution to lease the open ground at the lower end of Broadway to private citizens for the creation of a park.
The Common Council records read:
“March, 1733.—Resolved, that this Corporation will lease a piece of ground, lying at the lower end of Broadway, fronting to the fort, to some of the inhabitants of the said Broadway, in order to be enclosed, to make a bowling-green thereof, with walks therein, for the beauty and ornament of said street, as well as for the recreation and delight of the inhabitants of the city, leaving the street on each side thereof fifty feet in breadth, under such covenants and restrictions as to the Court shall seem expedient.”
Dating back to antiquity and known alternatively as lawn bowling, bowls, skittles, boules or pétanque in French, and bocce in Italian, lawn bowling was increasingly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The object of the game is to throw or roll large balls toward a smaller object, usually a white clay ball or a post set in the ground. The game requires a large area of level ground and while it can be played anywhere (including the street), the best surface was a large, circular area, preferably sunken, of close-cropped lawn.
In April, of the same year it was
“Ordered, that Mr. Mayor [Robert Lurting], Aldermen Van Gelde and [FrederickII] Philipse, and Mr. Depeyster, or any three of them, to be a committee to lay out the ground at the lower end of the Broadway, near the fort, for a bowling-green; that they ascertain the dimensions thereof, with the breadth of the streets, on all sides; that the same be leased to Mr. John Chambers, Mr. Peter Bayard, and Mr. Peter Jay,for the term of eleven years, for the use aforesaid, and not otherwise, under the annual rent of a pepper-corn.”
Peppercorn rents were common in English law when landlords wanted to rent property or buildings for free but needed a nominal fee to make the lease binding. The Common Council likely instituted a peppercorn rent because they wanted the lessees to improve the space on their own dime. Mr. Peter Bayard and Mr. Peter Jay must have grown tired of funding the work of creating the park, however, as the following year, in October of 1734, the council records showed:
“October, 1734. — Resolved, that the Bowling-green, as it is now in fence, be leased unto Frederick Philipse, Esq., Mr. John Chambers, and Mr. John Roosevelt, and their assigns, for the term of ten years, for a bowling-green only, at the yearly rent of one pepper-corn, and that Mr. Mayor execute a lease for the same.”
Thus, Frederick Philipse II was one of the wealthy landowners who was tasked to create a formal English-style garden and place for entertainment. Ten years later, the three men renewed their lease for another eleven years, this time “on payment of twenty shillings per annum.” In 1747 the street “around the Bowling-green and along the fence of the fort garden” was paved.
In 1770, the colonial government ordered a statue of King George III and in May of that year requested of the Mayor of New York City that the statue “be erected on some part of the Bowling-green, fronting the fort.”
In August, the statue was installed and opened to the public. Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden recalled the event in an August 18, 1770 letter to the Earl of Hillsborough:
“An Equestrian guilt [sic] Statue, of the king, made by the direction of, and purchased by this Colony, came over in one of the last ships from London. On Thursday last it was opened to view, erected on its proper pedestal, in a square near the Fort and fronting the principle [sic] street of the City. I was attended on this occasion by the Gentlemen of the Council, and Members of the Assembly then in Town, the Magistrates of the City, the Clergy of all Denominations, and a very large number of the principal Inhabitants. Our Loyalty, firm attachment and affection to His Majtys person was expressed by drinking the kings Health, and a long continuance of His reign, under a discharge of 32 pieces of Cannon. A Band of music playing at the same time form the Ramparts of the Fort. The General and Officers of the Army gave us the honor of their company on the occasion. The Whole Company walked in procession from the Fort, round the Statue, while the Spectators expressed their Joy, by loud acclamations, the procession having returned with me to the Fort, and the ceremony concluded with great chearfulness [sic] and good humor.”
Accordingly, in November of 1770, a temporary fence was ordered built around the Bowling Green, but by May of the following year it was still not built, and the Council complained,
“Whereas the General Assembly of this province have lately been at the great expense of sending for an equestrian statue of his present Majesty, and erected the same on the green before his Majesty’s fort in this city, and this Board conceiving that, unless the said green be fenced in, the same will very soon become the receptacle of all the filth and dirt of the neighborhood. In order, therefore, to prevent which, the Board have unanimously agreed to fence in the same with iron rails and a stone foundation, agreeable to a plan now exhibited to this Board, and have contracted with Messrs. Richard Sharpe and others for completing the same, for the consideration of £800.”
The fence was finally installed in 1771 and remains to this day.
That statue would go on to play a leading role in Bowling Green’s most famed event: the destruction of King George III’s equestrian statue at the beginning of the War of Independence. The two-ton, gilded lead sculpture on an elegant pedestal had been cast in London by Joseph Wilton and installed in 1770. The King was depicted as riding a horse, wearing Roman garb in the style of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. A 2016 New York Times feature described the figure thusly: “With right arm upraised over the heads of the rabble, his message to a colony in revolutionary turmoil was plain enough: Don’t even think about it.”
On July 9, 1776, George Washington ordered the newly passed Declaration of Independence read to the troops stations in New York. During the countless unjust Acts and taxes on the beleaguered colonists, Parliament had been the primary target, and many Americans believed King George III was simply unaware of their struggles. But the Declaration made clear that the king had been part of the legislation all along. The announcement was like a fuse to a tinderbox. In the New York City Council chambers, the royal coat of arms and a portrait of King George III were dashed to the ground. Then, a mob of colonial soldiers and sailors, Sons of Liberty, and others, filled the Bowling Green park, climbed the statue of King George, threw ropes around it and toppled it. They also lopped royal crown finials off the fence.
The statue was stripped of its gilding, then chopped up and sent to Connecticut to be converted to 42,088 patriot bullets, which weighed some 2,104 pounds. Several pieces were left intact, most notably the king’s head, which was defaced and paraded through town before being rescued by Loyalists and eventually made its way back to England - and the horse’s tail which, in the 1870s, was found in a Wilton, Connecticut swamp. Today the latter can be seen on the second floor of the New-York Historical Society. The former is lost to the mists of time. The statue’s stone pedestal remained in place until 1818, when it was removed.
The Philipse family too, were removed. Loyalists during the American Revolution, they were named in the 1779 Act of Attainder and banished on pain of death. The Philipses themselves were forced to leave New York with the British Army in 1783. They sailed to England, where Mary Philipse Morris’ husband Roger Morris was from, and where the Philipse family had maintained connections since their father Frederick II was educated there as a child. The 252,000 acres of Westchester and Putnam County property they once held was confiscated by the infant New York state government later sold to help pay war debts.
Bowling Green remained a popular spot in the 19th century – ringed by the homes of wealthy New Yorkers. Trees and shrubs were planted in the park following a beautification effort in the 1810s. Although it was the site of a public well dating back to the 1670s, it did not have a fountain until the 19th century. The date of installation of the fountain is unclear, but by the 1840s a large stone pond with a tall fountain spray was in evidence. The fountain would go on to play an important role in the Great Fire of 1845, which decimated the City of New York.
As the character of Lower Manhattan changed, the use of the park also changed. It became increasingly available to the general public, instead of the front yard of the wealthy residents. By the 20th century, the park was getting a bit shabby. In the 1970s, the New York City Parks Department made significant efforts to improve the park and restore its historic character. In 1980 both the park itself and its historic fence – still the original from 1771 - were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
 Today, the corner of Stone Street and Whitehall Street/Broadway is a Chipotle restaurant, and across the street is no longer Fort Amsterdam, but the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian; “Lot Owners in New Amsterdam in 1660,” New Castle, Delaware Community History and Archaeology Program.
 John Chambers was the uncle of John Jay, a Founding Father who went on to become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
 Peter Jay was John Jay’s father, and the son of Jacobus and Eva (Philipse) Van Cortlandt. Eva was the daughter of Margaret Hardenbroek and her first husband, Peter DeVries. When Margaret married Frederick Philipse I, he adopted Eva.
 John Roosevelt would go on to found the Oyster Bay branch of the Roosevelt family (Teddy Roosevelt being their most famous member). In 1741, his slave Quacko, along with Adolph Philipse’s (Frederick II’s uncle) slave Cuffee, were tried and executed as ringleaders of the 1741 Conspiracy.
 Wall, Alexander James. The Equestrian Statue of George III and the Pedestrian Statute of William Pit Erected in the City of New York, 1770. New-York Historical Society, 1920.
 Dunlap, David W. “Long-Toppled Statue of King George III to Ride Again, From a Brooklyn Studio,” New York Times, October 20, 2016.
 Ruppert, Bob. “The Statue of George III,” Journal of the American Revolution, September 8, 2014; “A Horse’s Tail: How a Legendary Piece of a King George III Statue Landed at the New-York Historical Society,” New-York Historical Society, August 15, 2019.
"Garden Design - The Bowling Green" from Plants & Gardens in Early Colonial America, December 13, 2021.
"Bowling Green" from The History of Early American Landscape Design by the National Gallery of Art.
“The Statue of George III,” by Bob Ruppert, Journal of the American Revolution, September 8, 2014.
The Equestrian Statue of George III and the Pedestrian Statute of William Pit Erected in the City of New York, 1770 by Alexander James Wall, New-York Historical Society, 1920.
“A Horse’s Tail: How a Legendary Piece of a King George III Statue Landed at the New-York Historical Society,” New-York Historical Society, August 15, 2019.