If you were to enter New York Harbor by ship, as the first explorers and settlers did, before reaching Manhattan you would come to a smaller island jutting out into the harbor - an ideal base for establishing a small settlement and fort for defending the harbor and the Hudson River from would-be invaders. The Dutch explorers of the early 17th century thought as much, and they chose this, which they named Noten Eylant, or Nut Island, after the walnut and chestnut trees that grew there, as their initial base. We know it today as Governor's Island.
In 1624, the ship Nieu Nederlandt (New Netherland) put in at the island, under the command of Cornelis Jacobsz May. May's passengers comprised a group of 30 families from an area of the Low Countries or Spanish Netherlands called Wallonia. The Netherlands was in the midst of a long war with Spain, and at the time Wallonia was under Spanish rule. Spain hoped to reconvert the Walloons to Catholicism; thus, along with the Pilgrims who had arrived at Cape Cod just four years earlier, these were among first of what would be droves of refugees coming to America seeking religious freedom. Soon after arriving, most of these settlers were transported further up the Hudson River, to present-day Albany. A party of eight men was left on Nut Island, as the West India Company, their employer, thought to make this the center of its fur-trading operations.
During the Civil War it was a camp where Confederate prisoners were held.
In 1909, Wilbur Wright took off from the island in one of the first flights. He flew once around the Statue of Liberty and returned.
The comedy team of Tom and Dick Smothers were born on the island in 1937, when their father was stationed here.