1600's, Arrant Nonsense, Colonial History, Early American History, History, New York City, NY, Revisionist History



Elegant al fresco dining & social distancing.



A few days ago, I posted some pictures of a young cardinal, and mentioned that even though the chick had left the nest, its parents would continue their GrubHub deliveries.

That prompted me to look up “grub.” Because reading the big dictionary, that’s the kind of excitement you can have, after months of quarantine.

I’d always thought that grub, in the sense of food, was cowboy slang – kind of surprising to find out, the OED lists its first use as 1659!

I took that as a Sign.

Thinking about 1659 + grub +cowboys . . .

I should write about Old New York, back when it was The Frontier.



Once upon a time, New York (then called New Netherlands) was the Wild West — a rip-roaring settlement, clearly no country for old men.  Like a colonial version of Dodge City – – cattle grazing, land barons, company stores, unprovoked attacks on Native Americans, gullible hayseeds from Weehawken, etc.

“Hayseeds” have been sticking around since 1577, to provide comic relief, and to hire on as Barney Fife deputies, the ones whose only line is “They went thataway.”  (“Hicks,” “yokels,” and “rubes” wouldn’t shamble along until much later.)

“Comic relief” wasn’t invented until 1783, and people pretty much just scowled all through the colonial era.



“Bandannas” didn’t mosey along until 1741. The Dutch proto-cowboys used to lament “How you gonna look tough / When you’re wearin’ a ruff?”


In those bucolic days of yore, Manhattan was a lush, verdant island, a little slice of Edam.

And the European settlers brought in livestock.

(Out-of-towners might say “Cattle drives?  in New York?!” and the locals reply, “Haven’t you ever been to New York?  They let anybody drive!”)

And I thought, they must’ve had cowboys.

But I was wrong.

It turns out to be an example, of Just How Badly History is Organized.

Because according to the big book, there weren’t any “cowboys” to eat the grub in 1659.  That word didn’t ride over the horizon until 1725.

Before that, those folks were saddled with a lame, generic job description, just lumped together with “herders” (1625, from a Dutch word), and shepherds tending their flocks, sometimes by night (without getting paid time and a half).

So, if there weren’t any cowboys, just who was eating this antique grub?

And prior to 1725, did the cows just wander around, running roughshod, unsupervised and untutored, in the streets?

I checked, often they did.

“Milkmaids” (invented in 1552) had a surprisingly strong union, and refused to do any “herding, wrangling, or bovine guidance of any kind.”

Cattle & swine roamed freely for centuries, rooting around in gutters, eating the nasturtiums out of folks’ flower beds, leaving hoof marks on the Bowling Green, and making the tavern floors quite a mess.

With no cowboys to keep order, it was just the Dark Ages, practically, and you really had to watch where you stepped.



“Howdy!” The greeting is derived from the old-time, cheese-loving cowboys of New Netherlands, from their salutation “Gouda!”



Even when History finally had cowboys, and could’ve gotten things organized, it wasn’t that great.  Turns out, the harmonica, which to me, is another essential part of the oater scene, wasn’t invented until 1821, so for almost a century, these old-time cowboys had to lug guitars around, and maybe harpsichords.

And History didn’t think of “chuckwagons” for another forty-five years, so they had to brown-bag it until 1866.

Without chuck wagons, there’s no chance of carrying eggs for a Western Omelette, or ranch dressing for your salad.  “Sandwiches” had been created in 1762, but after hours in a saddlebag, no way they’re going to be in good shape.

Kind of a personal night mare.

If it was me, I’d ride down the interstate until I found a “diner,” but that’s even more recent (1935).

You see what I mean about disorganized history?  Nothing happens in the right order.



If you’re planning on obtaining an animal this size, it would behoove you to actually read the operator’s manual, and go through an approved cow-owners’ training class, run by a professional cowboy. (“Behoove” from the Old English “behōf,” meaning, to not get underfoot or trampled by cows.)



Anyway, despite these obstacles, New Amsterdam had cattle grazing, out there in Big Sky Country (Manhattan), by 1625.

Amazon wasn’t around yet, but the West India Co. offered Free Cow Shipping, if you purchased land in the new colony (seriously).

There were even (honestly) honest-to-heck prairies in those days, in the Hempstead Plains region of Long Island.

And “desperadoes” (1647) roamed – this is a real reward notice from those days:  “And whereas complaints are made that the Gardens of many persons have been robbed and their Poultry taken away, if there be any one who can give information of the Thieves…he shall be paid five & twenty guilders…”  Yes, there were no trains or banks to rob, but chickens lived in fear.



Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim. When New Amsterdam was founded, these Puritans had been living next-door in Plymouth for four years already. The Dutch remembered them, living in Leiden for ten or twenty years, and had wondered where the heck they’d gotten to.



New Amsterdam was a company town, just like Durango, Colorado – full of fur traders & colorful eccentrics, a Wild Bunch, on the frontier. Only half this bunch was Dutch (there were Danes, Swedes, Germans, Walloons, Sephardim, Huegenots, Holsteins, etc.), and it was a tolerant place, by the standards of the time — a wrangling, polyglot-trouble-spot of the good, the bad, the ugly.

And there were all those cows – then and now, The Big Apple was all about the bull market and branding.



Each year, more people are killed by cows, than by sharks. Cowboys monitor and prevent gang activity, and keep ’em on the straight ‘n’ narrow.



So by 1659, when people started eating “grub,” New York had all the makings of a good western – prairies, cows, sheriffs (called “schouten” in those days, as in “Fill your hands, and come out schouten!”), soldiers fighting Native Americans, a stockade, and windmills.

As far as I’m concerned, you have to have a clacking, creaking windmill for the right atmosphere, whether you’re filming Hans Brinker or Rio Bravo.




The stockade, along what’s now Wall St, was actually to keep out English & Yankees, not Indians, but again, a great backdrop for a western.  The beer was weak in those days, but a “vaquero” (1519) could have a medicinal shot of Holland Gin, good for arrow wounds, lumbago & sciatica, which you’re gonna get after a long day in the saddle.

But tragically, in its disjointed way, poorly steered, History still lacked chuck wagons, diners, harmonicas, really portable harpsichords, steam locomotives, six-shooters, and cowboys.



Cowboy’s Lament – the end of free range beef and traditional windmills


Sorry to say a discouraging word, pardner, but it’s kinda sad, thinking of those early Dutch herders,  home on the range, making sure the windmills didn’t spook the herd, and yet not considered to be cowboys.

Maybe some of them, who didn’t have horses, would just take the Broadway stage to work.

Glumly setting around the fire, eating their “grub” – probably pickled herrings, maybe a bowl of succotash – washed down by a tankard of warm heiferweizen.

And those colonial range riders, darned if they didn’t feel kinda unappreciated somehow, kinda…undefined, you might say, because they weren’t just herders, they were cowboys…but the word just hadn’t sprang into existence yet.

Dang it.

History is just a mess.


Yep, lose the fancy duds, trade that lace ruff for a bandana, and this Dutch feller’s ready to ride.  That looks to be at least a ten gallon hat.


portrait by Fredric Remington (born in Canton, NY)



Big hats, big boots, horses, cows, prairies, an addictive tobacco habit, windmills, lack of concern for personal hygiene…they were all set for to be cowboys, just didn’t have the right word for it.

But on a happier note, in the morning, there’d be cardinals singing in the trees, beautiful birds which they didn’t have back in Holland – the cardinal chick was what started this whole discussion, remember?  And about exactly the same time in history that people started eating “grub,” the Dutch also started coffee plantations, in Ceylon, India, and then Indonesia, so the 17th c. cow-herders could at least have a cup of Java with their donuts.

They’d sing an ol’ cowboy lament from the Lovin’ Spoonful, accompanied only by guitar, since there weren’t no harmonicas yet:

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a cowboy in the city


Far as I’m concerned, it ain’t a real western without a few windmills.



When my relatives Out West, roughing it in the Wasatch Range, want to do some real cowboy-style cooking, they build a fire, shovel the coals into a pit, and do Cast-Iron Dutch Oven Cooking


A native New Yorker, and cowboy, of New Netherlands descent.  Teddy Roosevelt, at the chuck wagon. Lookin’ kinder ornery, like a man who spotted a saddle sore on his steak.


Yep, most a these here pictures are from The Nat’l Gallery of Art,
The Met & the U.S. Library of Congress.
I don’t hold with readin’ much, myself.
It’s jest a sight easier to make stuff up.









43 thoughts on “Grub

  1. You’ve put together a great imaginative account of history, as always, but hey, reading a big dictionary is always excitement, quarantine or not. I speak from decades of experience. The American Heritage Dictionary traces the root of grub back to an Indo-European root meaning ‘to dig, bury, scratch.’ (The same root has given us the native English words grave and groove.) Originally grub would have been food that was grubbed, i.e. dug, from the ground. Just like crops are plants that are cropped off to be eaten.

    Cowboys lugging around harpsichords is an interesting concept. So’s untutored cows. At least cows aren’t so untutored that they’d topple the statue of an immigrant abolitionist who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War, sprawl crude graffiti everywhere, and burn down a Wendy’s—it would have been easier and faster to ask for just the burger, rather than the whole building, to be cooked well done.

    Your windmill picture is one half of a stereo pair. Too bad your source didn’t show the two side-by-side halves so we could see the image in 3-D.

    Your mention of Hempstead Plains strike close to home—my childhood home, that is; I grew up three miles west of Hempstead. All the land in them thar parts really is flat. As for our current home in Austin, we have cardinals singing in the trees right outside our house.

  2. Reading dictionaries – pandemic or no pandemic – is not my cup of tea. However, I appreciate the hard work of others digging up interesting facts about grub, historically and etymologically. Inspired by Steve’s comment let me add that I see a connection of the English word ‘grub’ to the German word ‘Gube’ or even ‘Grab’. Perhaps if you eat too much grub you are not far away from the grave.
    Great post, Robert!

  3. Ah, shoot. I thought I’d be the first to mention the restoration of Hempstead Plains. A commenter on my post about the prairies mentioned it, and provided this link. These blogging coincidences are neat. Maybe John Muir was right when he said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

    Now I’m wondering whether insect grubs were named after cowboy grub, or vice-versa. I do remember that when we were done grubbing around in the dirt when we were kids, we’d come in and listen to the Big People tell us we looked ‘grubby.’ I don’t think they meant we looked like insects or bowls of chili, so it’s clear that the meaning of the word ‘grub’ spread over time.

    In old-time Sweden, they didn’t have cowboys, but they had kulning. My grandmother used a similar sing-songy way of calling my cousins and I home for grub.

    • Thanks, Linda, I remember hearing “grubby,” too, now that you mention it, hadn’t thought of that. I haven’t visited the prairie restorations on L.I. yet, I was very close, visiting the aviation museum in Garden City, but didn’t know these prairies existed.
      I haven’t tried eating grubs yet, either, but one of my great-uncles did, during training just before WWII. His squad was dropped on an island for survival training, and it turned out to be wrong island. So until HQ noticed they were short a few guys & looked around for them, Uncle Bud had an extra week to practice grubbing up food, and tried palm grubs, which he reported to be not bad.

    • I’ve been assuming insect grubs were so called because they grub [i.e. dig] around in bark or earth or some other medium. In fact I just found that the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary confirms that the noun comes from the verb:

      “GRUB, noun [from the Verb.] A small worm; particularly, a hexapod or six-footed worm, produced from the egg of the beetle, which is transformed into a winged insect.”

  4. This is the kind of history lesson I like! Nothing like a little fun tossed in with highly educational content. I live near Bandera, Texas, one town among several claiming to be the “Cowboy Capital Of The World.” They have a regular Cowboys on Main event on Saturdays, complete with chuck wagons, Dutch Ovens, and grub a-plenty. I’ll think I’ll take your essay down to the chuck wagon one morning and set them straight!

    Thanks for the laughs, Robert. And I, too, have spent many hours reading the dictionary. Sometimes I entertain myself by following synonyms and cross references, just to see where I end up.

    • Thanks, Charles, I really appreciate the compliment! Man, that name alone gets that town points. Bandera, has a real cowboy/vaquero sound to it, surprised they haven’t used it for a movie yet.
      Yeah, it’s funny I resisted looking up stuff in the dictionary when I was in school, and now it seems pretty interesting!

      • Darts and Letters says:

        in complete agreement with you about Bandera, it does have a cool vaquero sound to it. that’s why I’ve always gotten a chuckle at Bandera Mountain above Seattle, lol nobody around here ever gets why I find it funny, though!

  5. I am delighted to learn that you are capable of looking something up in the Big Dictionary! This implies a knowledge of the alphabet and the order in which it unfurls itself. And you have added immensely to my score of knowledge. I had to seek out the meaning of “oater scene” Oater was an unfamiliar term to me but thank you for introducing it to me.

  6. melissabluefineart says:

    Wow~ free cow shipping with the purchase of land~those were the days. I vaguely recall a movie in which Maureen O’Hara is giving her man hell for letting the cattle trample the clothesline….so funny to think of New York being the wild west 😀

    • I’d thought of an old Paul Newman movie, called “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” but that was a cop flick. I do remember a movie with O’Hara and Jimmy Stewart, where he was bringing English cows to Texas, or something like that, but don’t remember if any laundry was harmed in the filming of it.

      • melissabluefineart says:

        Oh yeah, that may have been it. I was trying to think if it was a John Wayne one but didn’t think so. Boy, was she mad. 😀

  7. George says:

    Brilliant! An insightful and colourful slice of creative history. I love the idea of cow-induced chaos due to strongly unionised milkmaids, and how tough was life before the world invention of the harmonica. At least the New Netherlands Dutch were Dutch were Dutch though, and not Deutsch like the Pennsylvania Dutch. Imagine how “howdy” would sound if your Gouda was Schnittkäse. There lurks a profundity here. One strain of the philosophy of language maintains that words are not merely names for concepts but conceptual thinking is only possible with the development of language—the two are inextricably intertwined—so it follows that history is necessarily disorganised until we develop the right words to explain it.

    • Thank you, George, I really appreciate having my random nonsense dignified in this way! Have you seen a movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” where Will Ferrell hears a narration of his life “…accurately, and with a better vocabulary.”
      This Schnittkäse idea is interesting but scary. There’s a vulgar slang phrase (which I’ve never actually heard anyone use, I learned it from “American Graffiti”) “cut the cheese,” and I can just see the cowboys standing up in their stirrups to salute each other that way.

      • George says:

        Haha. No I haven’t seen Stranger than Fiction but it sounds great. I’ll check it out. If the cowboys had been German, it wouldn’t have been the Wild West, it would have been the Ruthlessly Efficient and Very Clean West. The covered wagons would have spotted BMW badges and John Wayne would be Johan Vayne.

        • That’s great, haha! 🤠 They’d have made short work of the Dust Bowl, and no Gunsmoke allowed in the public spaces of saloons. Cattle drives down the autobahn, and serious repercussions if anyone was late for the shootout at high noon.

  8. Darts and Letters says:

    Great essay, Robert. Nice for a rainy reading day like this morning. The period of the cowboys driving cattle on the ranges up to Dodge City and the like that’s so commonly associated with the archetype turned out to be a far briefer period than I ever realized so I particularly like this little prologue as it were :-). Whenever I see pictures of cowboys or frontier people I like to think about how old they really were. It was a really hard existence being a cowboy, it aged a person fast and with the sun damage and ridiculous bushy mustaches, most of them were far younger than they appeared. Some of the mustaches in the archives you shared make me want to shave right now.

    • Thanks, Jason, I have no idea why I wrote this, just cabin fever I expect. I’ll trade you book recommendations – Russell Shorto wrote “The Island at the Center of the World,” that name sounds like some kind of extreme hubris, but it’s a really good book, full of solid history but fun to read. New Amsterdam was a pretty crazy place.

  9. This piece is a real dark horse. Sneaks up on you, like a pie cooked up (or somethinged up) by an unwrangled cow – carefully mixed by its dancing to the dulcet tones of a cowboy harpsichord. Who would have thought of New York as the wild, wild west?

    • Thanks Dave, I like “dark horse,” and way better than “cow pie.” Sometime I’ll have to write a real post about New Amsterdam, it was a wild place, I’ve always been fascinated by it. From Day One, a place for crazy people.

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