For more than two centuries, Governors Island, a half mile from the southern tip of Manhattan in New York harbor, has been a mystery to most observers, or perhaps more typically just overlooked by the commanding vista dominated by the neighboring Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. From 1776 to 1996, the military installations on the island protected the United States, and the ideals the statue across the harbor represents.
Governors Island is a 172-acre island whose name dates back to the 1780's when New York was a British colony and the colonial assembly reserved the island for the exclusive use of New York's royal governors.
Once used by Native Americans, the Lenape, as a place to gather nuts and to fish, the island was the first place a Dutch trading colony settled before moving to the island of Manhattan and establishing the settlement of New Amsterdam. When the town was later seized by the British in 1664, it was renamed New York.
During the begining of the American Revolution in 1776, General George Washington had the island fortified with earthworks just prior to the Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn) - the first ever engagement of the fledgling American Army with British forces, and the largest battle of the entire war. The island's artillery covered the retreat of the American Army, preventing an untimely end to the revolution, but at the cost of losing New York City to British occupation for almost eight years, the remainder of the conflict.
With American independence from Britain in 1783, New York and the nation were determined to prevent any future occupation of the city and its strategic waterways by an enemy power. Towards that end, three fortifications were placed on Governors Island in the years preceding the War of 1812 as part of an extensive coastal defense system. The first, Fort Jay, is a square five bastioned fort started in the 1790's on the site of the earlier earthworks. The second, Castle Williams, a circular casemated work was completed in 1811. A third, South Battery, guarded the Buttermilk Channel of the harbor. The first two forts are among the best remaining examples of First System (Fort Jay) and Second System (Castle Williams) of American coastal fortifications.
During the Civil War, Castle Williams held Confederate prisoners of war and Fort Jay held captured Confederate officers. After the war, Castle Williams was used alternately as a recruit barracks and military stockade, becoming the east coast counterpart to military prisons at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Alcatraz Island, California.
In 1878 the military installation on the island, then known collectively as Fort Columbus, became a major Army headquarters center and, in 1933, the home of the United States First Army. When the Army left Governors Island in 1966, the installation became a U.S. Coast Guard base - the largest in the world. The closing of the base in 1996 concluded almost two centuries of the island's use as a federal reservation devoted to the protection of New York and the nation.
In 2001, the historic fortifications of Fort Jay and Castle Williams became a national monument. On January 31, 2003, the Governors Island National Monument was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior and is now managed by the National Park Service.
As a new national monument, Governors Island is not fully operational and is open only on a seasonal basis at this time, so services and facilities are extremely limited.