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History of New York City

This article traces the history of New York City part of present day New York State. For the history of the State of New York, see the article History of New York.

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Table of contents

Prehistoric era

About 75,000 years ago, during the last ice age, the area of present day New York City was at the edge of the ice sheet that stretched down from Canada. The ice sheet covered the site of the present city to a depth of approximately 1000 feet (300 m). The glaciers scraped off much of the top layers of material in the region, exposing underlying much-older bedrock, including gneiss and marble that dates from 500 million years ago.

Approximately 15,000 years ago, when the ice sheet began retreating, the glacier left behind a terminal moraine that now forms the hills of Long Island and Staten Island. The two islands were not yet separated by the Narrows, which were formed approximately 6,000 years ago when the waters of the Upper Bay broke through in the Lower Bay.

Archeological excavations indicate that the first humans settled the area as early as 9,000 years ago. These early inhabitants left behind hunting implements and bone heaps. The area was abandoned, however, possibly because the warming climate of the region lead to the local extinction of many larger game species upon which the early inhabitants depended for food.

A second wave of inhabitants entered the region approximately 3,000 years ago and left behind more advanced hunting implements such as bows and arrows. The remains of approximately 80 such early encampments have been found throughout the city. The region has probably remained continually inhabited from that time.

Lenape inhabitants

Main article: Lenape.

At the time of the arrival of the first Europeans, the area around what would later be called New York Bay was populated primarily by the Munsee branch of the Lenape, a people in the ethnic and linguistic Algonquian family, loosely connected by a common language. The Lenape called the region Scheyischbi, or "the place bordering the ocean", and perhaps Lenapehoking, meaning "place where the Lenape dwell," although there is not universal agreement among scholars regarding this. The Lenape hunted, fished, and gathered roughly 150 species of edible wild plants, as well as using slash and burn agriculture, with the women sowing such crops as maize, sunflowers, and squash. The harbor and rivers also provided for rich fishing, especially of oyster and striped bass.

The Lenape lived in small groups and moved seasonally from camp to camp and, according to best historical analysis, had no concept of private ownership of land. Many of the bands of Lenape would later gave their names for place names throughout the city, including the Raritans on Staten Island and the Canarsies in Brooklyn. Manhattan is a word in the Munsee language meaning 'the island.' In addition to water travel, the Lenape moved through the region on an extensive system of trails, many of which would later become major roads and thoroughfares of the city.

The Lenape engaged a network of trade among themselves and with other tribes in northeastern North America through a system of barter. The principal medium of barter was wampum, which largely consisted of ornamented hand-made belts of crafted purple and white mollusk shells. The particular species required for wampum was found exclusively in the areas around Long Island Sound, in areas controlled by the Pequots. Archaeological evidence of wampum manufactured in the New York area has been found throughout the Northeast and Great Lakes area, indicating an extensive trading network that flourished among the Lenape and other Native ethnic groups such as the Iroquois, who at times inhabited the area of present-day western New York State. In effect, New York City was a financial center even before the arrival of the Europeans.

First European settlements

The first European to see the harbor was Giovanni da Verrazano, during his expedition of 1524 and named it Nouvelle-Angoulême. Verrazano entered the harbor on April 17 and set anchor in the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn, where he was greeted by a canoe party of Lenape. In 1609, Henry Hudson entered the harbor a commission from the Dutch East India Company in search of the Northwest Passage. Hudson may have interacted with Native Americans on Manhattan, and sailed up the river that now bears his name as far as Albany. Although Hudson did not find the passage he was seeking, his reports led to further commercial expeditions financed by Dutch East India Company with the intent of establishing fur trading factorijs in the area. At the time in Europe, beaver pelts were of prized value, and the trade in the Dutch East India Company believed it had found a possible source of lucrative trade in the new unexplored area. In 1610, Dutch navigator Adriaen Block spent the winter on lower Manhattan with his crew, then built a new ship in the following spring, which he sailed through up the East River and through Hell Gate, becoming the first European to recognize Long Island as an island. Block christened the coast as New Netherland and his company received exclusive trading rights in the area.

It was not until 1624, however, that the Dutch returned under the auspices of the newly formed Dutch West India Company to establish their first permanent settlement of Fort Amsterdam, a crude fortification that stood on the location of the present Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House on Bowling Green. The fort was designed mainly to protect the company's trading operations further upriver from attack by other European powers. Within a year, a small settlement, called New Amsterdam had grown around the fort, with a population that included mostly the garrison of company troops, as well as a contigent of Walloon families who were brought in primarily to farm the nearby land of lower Manhattan supply the company operations with food.

The Dutch took heavy advantage of the Native American reliance on wampum as a trading medium by exchanging cheap European-made metal tools for beaver pelts. By using such tools, the Natives greatly increased the rate of production of wampum, debasing its value for trade. Lenape men abandoned hunting and fishing for food in favor of beaver trapping. Moreover, the Dutch themselves began manufacturing their own wampum with superior tools in order to further dominate the trading network among themselves and the Natives (a practice undertaken by the settlers in New England as well). As a result of this increase, beavers were largely trapped out in the Five Boroughs within two decades, leaving the Lenape largely dependent on the Dutch completely. As a result, the Native population declined drastically throughout the 17th century through a combination of disease, starvation, and outward migration.

As the beaver trade increasingly shifted to Upstate New York, New Amsterdam became an increasingly important trading hub for the coast of North America. Since New Netherland was a trading operation, and not viewed as colonization enterprise for transplanting Dutch culture, the directors of New Netherland were largely unconcerned with the ethnic and racial balance of the community. The economic activity brought in a wide variety of ethnic groups to the fledging city during the 17th century, including Spanish, Jews, and Africans, some of them as slaves.

The Dutch origins can still be seen in many names in New York City, such as Coney Island (from "Konijnen Eiland"), Brooklyn (from Breukelen), Harlem from Haarlem (formalized in 1658 as Nieuw Haarlem), the Bronx (from Pieter Bronck), Flushing (from Vlissingen) and Staten Island (from "Staaten Eylandt").

The island of Manhattan was in some measure self-selected as a future metropolis by its extraordinary natural harbor formed by New York Bay (actually the drowned lower river valley of the Hudson River, enclosed by glacial moraines), the East River (actually a tidal strait) and the Hudson River, all of which are confluent at the southern tip, from which all later development spread. Also of prime importance was the presence of deep fresh water aquifers near the southern tip, especially the Collect Pond, and an unusually varied geography ranging from marshland to large outcrops of Manhattan schist, an extremely hard granitic rock that is ideal as an anchor for the foundations of large buildings.

Arrival of the British

In 1664, British ships entered Gravesend Bay, in modern Brooklyn, and troops marched to capture the ferry across the East River to the city, with minimal resistance: the governor at the time, Peter Stuyvesant, was unpopular with the residents of the city. Articles of Capitulation were drawn up, the Dutch West India Company's colors were struck on September 8, 1664, and the soldiers of the garrison marched to the East River for the trip home to the Netherlands. The date of 1664 appeared on New York City's corporate seal until 1975, when the date was changed to 1625 to reflect the year of Dutch incorporation as a city, and to incidentally allow New York to celebrate its 350th anniversary just 11 years after its 300th.

The British renamed the colony New York, after the king's brother James, Duke of York and on June 12, 1665 appointed Thomas Willett the first of the mayors of New York. The city grew northward, and remained the largest and most important city in the colony of New York.

The Dutch regained the colony briefly in 1673, renaming it "New Orange", then ceded it permanently to the English in 1674 after the Third Anglo-Dutch War.

1700s: growth of a cosmopolitan city

New York was cosmopolitan from the first, established and governed largely as a strategic trading post. Jews expelled from Brazil were welcome in New York. St. Patrick's Day was celebrated in New York City for the first time at the Crown and Thistle Tavern on March 17, 1756. This holiday has since become a yearly city-wide celebration that is famous around the world as the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Freedom of worship was part of the city's foundation, and the trial for libel in 1735 of John Peter Zenger, editor of the New-York Weekly Journal established the principle of freedom of the press in the British colonies.

Though the lead statue of George III in Bowling Green was melted down for bullets in the first enthusiasm of the Revolution, the city itself was roundly Tory during the war. Five skirmishes comprising the New York Campaign were fought around the city's then limits in late 1776, beginning with the Battle of Long Island in Brooklyn on August 27. A quarter of the city structures were destroyed in the Great Fire on September 21, a few days after the British Landing at Kip's Bay and the Battle of Harlem Heights. Following the highly suspicious fire, British authorities apprehended dozens of people for questioning, including Nathan Hale, who was executed a day later. The British conquest of Manhattan was completed with the fall of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, and thereafter they held the city without challenge until 1783. 'Evacuation Day', in which the last British troops and many Tory supporters departed in September 1783, was long celebrated in New York.

New York, then the nation's second largest city, was briefly the capital of the new United States of America, in 1789 and 1790, and George Washington was inaugurated as President in New York on the steps of Federal Hall. In 1792 a group of merchants began meeting under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street, beginning the New York Stock Exchange, while a yellow fever epidemic that summer sent New Yorkers fleeing (north) to the less affected nearby Greenwich Village.

The 1800s

An 1807 version of the Commissioner's Grid plan for Manhattan, a few years before it was adopted in 1811.

New York remained a cosmopolitan enclave within America. The new French consul gave a report in 1810 that remains perfectly familiar:

"its inhabitants, who are for the most part foreigners and made up of every nation except Americans so to speak, have in general no mind for anything but business. New York might be described as a permanent fair in which two-thirds of the population is always being replaced; where huge business deals are being made, almost always with fictious capital, and where luxury has reached alarming heights... It is in the countryside and in the inland towns that one must look for the American population of New York State." (quoted by Fernand Braudel, The Perspecive of the World, 1984 p 406).

The French consul's "fictitious capital" betokens the world of credit, on which New Yorkers' confidence has been based. The Commissioners' Plan of 1811 imposed a surveyed grid upon all of Manhattan's varied terrain, in a far-reaching though perhaps topographically insensitive vision. The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, helped the city grow further by increasing river traffic upstate and to the west, making it the Atlantic gateway to the heart of the continent.

By 1835 Manhattan overtook Philadelphia as the most populous American city and was in the throes of the first of its building booms, unfazed by the summer of cholera in 1832.

Late in the year 1835, December 16, the Great Fire of New York broke out. The temperature was below zero (F), and gale force winds were blowing. Firemen, some called from as far away as Philadelphia, were at first helpless to battle the wind driven fire due to icing lines and pumps. The fire leveled most of the city below Canal Street. Some merchandise was carried to churches that were thought fireproof, but several of these burned anyway. Eventually the fire was controlled by blowing up buildings in the fire's path.

Many of the merchants who lost their stores thought they would be covered by insurance, but the tremendous losses, and, in many cases, the destruction of the insurance company headquarters in the financial district, bankrupted the insurance firms and much of the loss was not covered.

The city's development was again stopped by the Panic of 1837. But the city recovered and by mid-century established itself as one of the financial and mercantile capitals of the western hemisphere.

The city and its nearby suburbs grew rapidly for several reasons, most tied to geography. The natural harbor at the base of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the New Jersey ports at Newark and Elizabeth provided almost unlimited capacity for trading ships and protection from storms. Not until 1985 did New York lose its place as the busiest port in the world. In the late 19th century, the island's schist bedrock helped facilitate the early development of the highrises which characterize its skyline today.

Other cities, like Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, had decent natural harbors, but New York's advantage over other cities of the Eastern Seaboard was that the Hudson River and the Erie Canal formed the only water-level route through the Appalachian Mountains.

The city's strong entrepreneurial spirit discouraged family connections that would have stifled innovation and economic ambition. The city's cosmopolitan attitude and tolerance of many different cultures encouraged many different types of immigrant groups to settle in the city, especially German immigrants and Irish immigrants who began arriving in the late 1840s.

Raw, unregulated capitalism created large middle, upper-middle and upper classes, but its need for manpower encouraged immigration into the city on an unprecedented scale, with mixed results. The famed melting pot was brought into being, from which multitudes have since arisen in the successful pursuit of "the American Dream". But countless others failed to rise, or entire generations were forced to plough themselves under for their children or grandchildren to rise. In the 1800s these social antipodes could be found in the contrast between rich commercial stretches of Broadway and residential stretches moving with fashion, from Lafayette Street (1820s) and Washington Square and Gramercy Park (1830s), to take up even more extravagant residence on Fifth Avenue— and the almost unbelievably squalid enclave of Five Points (abject poverty later to occupy the Lower East Side).
New York City and the East River, 1848.

In 1857 Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician, founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.

During the American Civil War on July 13, 1863 opponents of conscription began five days of rioting, the 'Draft Riots' that for a century would be regarded as the worst in United States history. The post-war period was noted for the corruption and graft for which Tammany Hall has become proverbial, but equally for the foundation of New York's pre-eminent cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera, the American Museum of Natural History, while the Brooklyn Museum was a major institution of New York's independent sister city. The Brooklyn Bridge epitomized the heroic confidence of a generation and tied the two cities inexorably together.

New York newspapers were read across the continent as editors James Gordon Bennett, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battled for readership.

The flood of immigration from Europe passed through Ellis Island (opened as an immigration facility in 1892), in New York Harbor, under the eye of the Statue of Liberty (1886).

In 1874, nearly 61% of all U.S. exports passed through New York harbor. In 1884, nearly 70% of U.S. imports came through New York. The eventual rise of ports on the Gulf of Mexico and on the Pacific coast reduced New York's share of imports and exports to about 47% in 1910.

The city's banking resources grew 250% between 1888 and 1908, compared to the national increase of 26%.

Between 1860 and 1907, the assessed value of the land and buildings on Manhattan rose from $1.7 billion to $6.7 billion.

The twentieth century

Broadway in 1909
Downtown Manhattan, ca. 1932.
Aerial view of the tip of Manhattan, ca. 1942.

The modern city of New York — the five boroughs — was created in 1898, with the consolidation of the cities of New York (then Manhattan and the Bronx) and Brooklyn with the largely then-rural areas of Queens and Staten Island.

The building of the New York Subway, as the separate IRT and BMT systems, and the later IND, was a later force for population spread and development. The first IRT line opened in 1904.

On June 15, 1904 over 1,000 people, mostly German Immigrants, were killed when the steamship General Slocum caught fire and burned in the East River; and on March 25, 1911 the Triangle Factory Fire in Greenwich Village took the lives of 145 female garment workers, which would eventually lead to great advancements in the city's fire department, building codes, and workplace regulations.

In 1905, the government of the United Kingdom under Marquess Salisbury was forced to borrow a massive loan from the New York Stock Market to help finance reconstruction of South Africa following the Second Boer War. This loan demonstrated to the world that New York was about to take over from London as the hub of international finance.

The world-famous Grand Central Terminal opened as the world's largest train station on February 1, 1913, replacing an earlier terminal on the site. It was preceded by Pennsylvania Station, several blocks to the south. Twice a New York World's Fair has mixed entertainment with a little progressivist instruction.

In 1934, Fiorello LaGuardia was elected mayor, bringing an end to the eighty-year dominance of the Tammany Hall political machine.

New architecture

Starting in the early 1900s, New York City became known for its daring and impressive architecture, most notably the skyscrapers which transformed the skyline, from the Art Deco icon the Chrysler Building to the starkly modernist World Trade Center.

Rise of Broadway

After Jerome Kern's Show Boat, the Broadway musical developed into a characteristically American art, while Tin Pan Alley cranked out the tunes America danced to before rock and roll.

Multicultural impact

The era of graft and corruption, unfairly epitomized by mayor Jimmy Walker was followed by the reformer Fiorello La Guardia, arguably New York's greatest mayor, and the rise of the bridges, parks and parkways coordinator, Robert Moses, the greatest proponent of automobile-centered modernist urbanism.

Culturally New York became a truly international city, rather than a great American city, with the influx of intellectual, musical and artistic European refugees that started in the late 1930s. After the war New York inherited the role of Paris as center of the art world with Abstract Expressionism, and became a rival to London as an art market. However, the city lost two baseball teams to California, the Dodgers and the Giants, in the late 1950s. They were replaced by the Mets.

On November 9, 1965, the city endured a massive power blackout along with much of eastern North America. The city's experience during the ordeal became the subject of a motion picture entitled Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?

Adult entertainment sites filled the Times Square district beginning in the mid-1960s, and continuing until the Disneyfication of the area in the mid-1990s. There are still such sites in the vicinity, although far fewer of them.

1970s

The 1970s are widely regarded as New York's darkest period in history. By about 1970, the city had become notorious the world over for having high rates of crime and other social disorder, including several incidents in which police officers were ambushed and murdered by black militants. A popular song in the autumn of 1972, "American City Suite," chronicled, in allegorical fashion, the decline in the city's quality of life.

Financial crisis hit the city in the mid-1970s, when it briefly appeared that the city might have to declare bankruptcy (see John Lindsay). The fiscal crisis resulted largely from the combination of generous welfare spending by the city government in the 1960s and the stock market and economic stagnation of the 1970s. President Gerald R. Ford earned the enmity of many New Yorkers when he refused to use federal money to "bail out" the city. On October 30, 1975, the New York Daily News famously summarized Ford's decision in a headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead". He was later compelled by advisors --who feared that allowing New York to slide into insolvency could trigger further economic crises-- to reverse himself, and did so.

On May 16, 1977, a New York Airways helicopter idling at the helipad on the MetLife – formerly PanAm – building toppled over and its rotor blade sheared off. The blade killed four people on the roof and then fell over the edge and down 59 stories and a block over to Madison Avenue where it killed a pedestrian.

The blackout of 1977 struck the City of New York on July 13, 1977, lasting for 25 hours and resulting in heavy looting and other unrest.

The financial crisis, the high crime rates, and the damage from the blackouts led to a widespread belief that New York City was in a permanent decline. This resulted in a massive exodus of white middle class families to the suburbs. By the end of the 1970s, the city had lost nearly a million people, a population loss that would not be fully healed for another twenty years.

1980s and early 1990s

Compared to the 1970s, the 80s were a time of restrained optimism in New York. The boom on Wall Street was fueling the speculative real estate market, and employment numbers dropped noticably, however, the city's reputation for crime and disorder was still very much a part of New Yorker's daily lives.

On December 8th, 1980 singer and songwriter John Lennon was shot and killed outside his apartment building on Manhattan's Upper West Side by a disturbed fan.

The 1980s was a time of much racial tension in the city, including the highly-publicized murders of three African-Americans in "white" neighborhoods in separate incidents: Willie Turks in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn in 1982; Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, Queens in 1986; and Yusef Hawkins in Brooklyn's Bensonhurst neighborhood in 1989, in addition to the much-publicized "subway vigilante" shootings by Bernhard Goetz in 1984.

On April 19th, 1989 a woman jogging in Central Park was badly beaten and raped by a group of youths. The case, known as the Central Park Jogger, was touted in the media as an example of how rampant crime had become in the city by the late 1980s.

Homelessness became a serious problem during the 1980s, specifically in the last two of Edward Koch's three terms as mayor (1978-1990). The city outlawed discrimination against homosexuals in such matters as employment and housing in 1986. In 1989, Koch was defeated by David Dinkins in the Democratic primary in his bid for a fourth term, and then Dinkins narrowly defeated Republican Rudolph Giuliani in the general election to become the city's first-ever black mayor; but a combination of continued racial strife (such as that in Crown Heights in 1991), an extremely weak economy (in January, 1993 the city's unemployment rate reached 13.4 per cent, the highest level of joblessness seen there since the Great Depression) caused Dinkins' popularity to seriously decline (including a threat by residents of Staten Island to secede from the city).

On February 26, 1993 six people were killed, and thousands of others injured, when a truck bomb was detonated in a basement garage of the World Trade Center.

In late 1993, David Dinkins was defeated by Rudolph Giuliani in his bid for reelection.

The mid and late 1990s

The city rebounded dramatically in the mid- and late 1990s due to the steady expansion of the national economy and the stock market boom (or bubble) that took place concomitantly, as well as the precipitous drop in crime. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, is credited by many for revitalizing Times Square and making the city more "liveable" by cracking down on crime. Throughout the 1990s, the city's image transformed from being one of a bygone, decaying metropolis to one of the world's preeminent "global cities." Changes in the worldwide economy during this time proved to be especially favorable to New York because of its highly developed transportation and communications infrastructure, as well as its massive population base.

The twenty-first century

The World Trade Center twin towers

September 11, 2001

New Yorkers lived through the city's bloodiest and perhaps most tragic day on September 11, 2001, when hijackers linked to the jihadist organization Al-Qaeda piloted two airliners into each of the World Trade Center towers. The airplanes, designated for cross-country flights and therefore engorged with jet fuel, slammed into the towers in the early morning hours of September 11. The crashes ripped gaping holes into the buildings, and ignited fires that brought the towers down. Nearly 2,800 people, including both New Yorkers and visitors to the city, perished in the attack, including several hundred police officers and firefighters.

On November 12, 2001 American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, killing all 260 people on board and five others on the ground. Although initially feared to be another act of terrorism, the crash was eventually found to have been caused by pilot error.

On February 27, 2003, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), after receiving input from thousands of people all over the world, revealed a design for the World Trade Center site. Designed primarily by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, the plans envision a 1,776-foot-tall tower named the Freedom Tower to help restore the Manhattan skyline to its former grandeur. The site pays homage to the tragedy by leaving intact the slurry wall (which withstood the force of the destruction and held the waters of the Hudson river back), and by keeping the footprints of the towers available as a memorial site.

An electrical blackout rolled through the Northeastern United States and Southern Canada on August 14, 2003 at 4:11 PM, leaving many areas, including NYC, without electricity for over a day. There was no major looting or other crime, unlike in the blackout of 1977 (see 2003 North America blackout).

Over the next ten years, the city expects a wave of public and private-sector building projects to reshape large sections of the city, and a residential construction boom has resulted in permits being issued for over 25,000 new residential units every year.

Historical population

For each year, this list shows the total number of inhabitants of the five boroughs of New York.

1790: 49,000 inhabitants
1800: 79,200
1830: 242,300
1850: 696,100
1880: 1,912,000
1900: 3,347,000
1920: 5,621,000
1930: 6,930,000
1940: 7,455,000
1950: 7,892,000
1980: 7,072,000
2000: 8,008,000
2005: 8,300,000

See also

Histories of New York City neighborhoods, such as Harlem, San Juan Hill, Upper West Side, Lower East Side, Chinatown, the Financial District (which includes the South Street Seaport) and others. New York has many famous thoroughfares, including Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Broadway and others. The city also has numerous smaller streets with rich histories, including Wall Street.

Some of the islands of the city have surprisingly rich local histories: Liberty Island, Governors Island, City Island, Roosevelt Island and others.

There is also a Timeline of New York City crimes and disasters.

Compare history of Brooklyn, New York.

Kenneth Jackson, a preeminent authority on the history of New York City.

Sources








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