The Verrazano–Narrows Bridge crosses from Bay Ridge to Staten Island at the entrance to New York Bay, named for the Florentine explorer (sailing for France) who was the first European to sail into these waters. Or was he? “Our knowledge of the Verrazano voyage rests on two documents,” Edward Channing explains in volume one of his 1905 A History of the United Sates, “which are known respectively as the Verrazano Letter and the Verrazano Map. The letter purports to have been written on July 8, 1524, by the navigator himself, and exists in two versions, both in Italian. The map was made by the navigator’s brother, Hieronimo, about 1529.”
In the letter, Verrazzano describes his entrance into New York harbor, the first written account of the place.
[W]e found a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flowed out into the sea; and with the help of the tide, which rises eight feet, any laden ship could have passed from the sea into the river estuary.
Since we were anchored off the coast and well sheltered, we did not want to run any risks without knowing anything about the river mouth. So we took the small boat up this river to land which we found densely populated. The people were almost the same as the others, dressed in birds’ feathers of various colors, and they came toward us joyfully, uttering loud cries of wonderment, and showing us the safest place to beach the boat. We went up this river [likely the Narrows] for about half a league, where we saw that it formed a beautiful lake [likely Upper New York Bay], about three leagues in circumference. About XXX of their small boats ran to and fro across the lake with innumerable people aboard who were crossing from one side to the other to see us. Suddenly, as often happens in sailing, a violent unfavorable wind blew in from the sea, and we were forced to return to the ship, leaving the land with much regret on account of its favorable conditions and beauty; we think it was not without some properties of value, since all the hills showed signs of minerals.
But in the late 19th century, two learned men were unconvinced of these documents’ veracity, publicly challenging the dominant Verrazano narrative and sparking a controversy that would smolder for decades. The first was Buckingham Smith, who presented a paper on the subject (later published) to the New-York Historical Society in October 1864; he died in 1871, before he was able to produce an expanded version, as he’d been encouraged to do. But the cause was taken up by Henry Murphy, the eminent Brooklynite and Bay Ridge resident: the first owner of the “Owl’s Head” estate that’s now our park of the same name and the former state senator after whom “Senator Street” was named. (He was also a congressman, the mayor of Brooklyn and the cofounder of the Brooklyn Eagle, among many other accomplishments.)
Murphy published in 1875 a book called The Voyage of Verrazzano, a roughly 200-page j’accuse of forgery and cover-up that’s absorbing, ostensibly thorough and convincing. Reading it without a firm understanding of the issue, I was easily won over. “If any voyage had taken place,” Murphy writes, “it is morally impossible…that no notice should have been taken of it in any of the chronicles or histories of the country, and that the memory of it should not have been preserved in some of the productions of its press.”
According to the letter itself, it was one of the grandest achievements in the annals of discovery, and promised the most important results to France. It was an enterprise of her king, which had been successfully accomplished. There had been discovered a heathen land, nearly three thousand miles in extent, before unknown to the civilized world, and, therefore, open to subjugation and settlement; healthy, populous, fertile and apparently rich in gold and aromatics, and, therefore, an acquisition as great and valuable as any discovery made by the Spaniards or Portuguese, except that of Columbus. Silence and indifference in regard to such an event were impossible.
And yet the king did not act on this information, and the French presses didn’t publish the letter—as they had those of countless other explorers, from Columbus to Magellan—until the Italian translations appeared decades later, off of which the French then worked backward.
Murphy argues, essentially, that the letter was fake, misrepresenting the geography, the natives and their culture; he also argues no such trip was undertaken for the king of France and that the details were plagiarized from those of a trip by Portuguese explorer Estévan Gomez. He believed the hoax might have been in part intended to provide an alibi for Verrazzano, who’d actually been plundering Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of Europe; Verrazzano was likely executed by Spain in 1529 for piracy—not eaten by Caribbean cannibals on another expedition to the Americas, as others have reported. (Could he be our very own Hans Sprungfeld?!) “They might as well name [the bridge] after Jesse James,” a local wrote to the Home Reporter in 1964. “What a travesty to name this beautiful bridge after a thief.”
“Murphy’s argument fell, for the most part, on deaf ears,” David B. Quinn writes in The Hakluyt Handbook (1974). But that doesn’t seem true. The prominent Bay Ridge genealogist and historian Teunis G. Bergen wrote in his 1877 “Address on the Annals of New Utrecht” that the Verrazzano story had “been clearly proved…to be a myth, and without foundation.” Scholar George Dexter noted in the 1880s that “[George] Bancroft has omitted all notice of Verrazano in the revised edition of his History of the United States, and the editors of Appleton’s American Cyclopœdia seem to adopt Mr. Murphy’s conclusions. Mr. Murphy’s book was reviewed by Harrisse in the Revue critique for Jan. 1, 1876, and his conclusions were accepted with some reserve.” Murphy had some influence in his time, even if others strongly disagreed with him.
Dexter provides the fullest account of the controversy in his essay “Cortereal, Verrazano, Gomez, Thevet,” from volume four of Justin Winsor’s 1884–89 Narrative and Critical History of America, more or less settling the issue. Dexter admires Murphy—he calls him a “skilled advocate” and his argument “ingenious and able”—while also tearing apart his book, point by point, with both logic and newly discovered counterevidence. He makes a lot of good points—but then again, so does Murphy. But it’s Dexter’s perspective that has survived to become now-unquestioned history.
“A careful examination of…various writing convinces me that the evidence in favor of the voyage of Verrazano is far stronger than the evidence against it,” Francis Parkman writes in his 1878 Pioneers of France in the New World—“a statement with which the best modern students agree,” Channing adds.
Murphy believed that those who supposedly forged the letter had done so also to enhance the reputation of Verrazzano’s hometown. “All the evidence in favor of the [Verrazzano] story is traceable, [Murphy] says, to Florence,” Dexter writes.
Murphy would have had a similar motive. He had been U.S. Minister to the Netherlands from 1857–61, was fluent in Dutch and translated several obscure, Brooklyn-relevant Dutch texts into English. If the Verrazzano story were false, then the first explorer to reach New York would have been Henry Hudson, an English explorer sailing for the Dutch—Hudson, for whom a river, bay, valley and town were named. It was for Murphy surely a matter of nationalist pride.
But the Italians proved prouder. The Italian Historical Society of America lobbied hard in the 1950s to revive local interest in and knowledge of the Florentine explorer, especially by naming the coming Narrows bridge after him. It was ultimately, obviously, successful, even though at one point the manager of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority had told the society “he had never heard of Verrazzano and that the name was too long and difficult to spell and pronounce,” according to the Society’s website. (So difficult, in fact, that it has been spelled wrong since the bridge opened!)
The Society did such a good job that today anyone who knows Verrazzano knows he was an explorer, the first European to record having sailed into what would become New York; no one remembers Murphy’s well-argued notion to the contrary. And so Verrazzano became an icon in a neighborhood whose most prominent citizens once considered him a fraud.