A BRIEF HISTORY OF NEW YORK CITY
By Tim Lambert
17th Century New York
An Italian, Giovanni da Verrazano discovered New York Harbor in 1524. In 1609 an Englishman, Henry Hudson, sailed up the Hudson River. Then in 1624, the Dutch founded the first permanent trading post. In 1626 the first governor, Peter Minuit, bought the island of Manhattan from the Native Americans.
The Dutch built a little town on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It was called New Amsterdam and it flourished by selling skins. The settlers sold otter, beaver, mink and seal skins. However, New Amsterdam was a tiny town with only about 1,500 inhabitants in the mid-17th century. However, some farmers cultivated the land on Manhattan and at Brooklyn. (The Bowery takes its name from Bouwerie the Dutch word for farm).
Furthermore by no means all the early settlers were Dutch. They included Walloons (from what is now Belgium), French people and English people. The first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. Meanwhile, the first black slaves arrived in 1628. Slaves played a major role in building the colony.
In New Amsterdam buildings were, at first, made of wood but in time houses of stone or brick were erected. Thatched roofs were banned in 1657 (because of the risk of fire).
In 1653 a wall was built across Manhattan Island to protect the little town of New Amsterdam. The street next to it was called Wall Street.
In 1639 a Swede called Jonas Bronck settled in the Bronx, which is named after him. A settlement was founded at Flushing in 1645.
In 1658 Dutch farmers built a village they called Nieuw Haarlem (New Harlem) after a town in Holland. In the 18th century, it became a fashionable place for merchants to build country houses in. The first settlement on Staten Island was made in 1661.
Meanwhile in 1647 Peter Stuyvesant (c. 1592-1672) became governor of New Amsterdam. Stuyvesant was the son of a Calvinist minister. He had a wooden leg. In 1647 Stuyvesant wrote 'I shall govern you as a father his children'. (Remember that fathers were much stricter in the 17th century than they are today). He was as good as his word. Stuyvesant ruled very strictly and he soon alienated the people. Stuyvesant ordered all taverns to close at 9 pm. Nevertheless in 1653 Stuyvesant established a municipal government for New Amsterdam based on those of Dutch cities.
However in 1664 an English fleet arrived. Fearing the English would sack the colony Stuyvesant surrendered. The Dutch briefly recaptured New Amsterdam in 1673 but they lost it to the English again in 1674. This time it was renamed New York in honor of the Duke of York, brother of King Charles II. Meanwhile Stuyvesant retired to a farm.
In 1689 a man named Jacob Leisler (1640-1691) staged a coup-d'etat in New York. For his pains, he was executed in 1691.
Trinity Church was dedicated in 1698.
Meanwhile in 1635 the Dutch built a fort called Fort Amsterdam. The British later renamed it, Fort George. In 1693 92 cannons were installed to protect New York. The area became known as the Battery.
18th Century New York
By 1700 New York had a population of almost 5,000 and it continued to grow rapidly. By 1776 the population was about 25,000. In 1800 New York City had about 60,000 inhabitants.
In the 18th century the main industry in New York was milling. Grain was ground into flour by windmills. Meanwhile, New York Merchants also traded with Britain and the West Indies. There was also a shipbuilding industry in New York in the 18th century. The first shipyard opened in 1720.
There were still many slaves in New York in the 18th century. In 1712 slaves set fire to a building in Maiden Lane. They also killed 9 white people who attempted to stop the fire. When soldiers arrived 6 slaves committed suicide and another 21 were captured and executed.
A horrific episode in the history of New York happened in 1741. At that time a series of fires broke out. Fires were not unusual, of course, but many people feared they were the result of arson. They feared that there was a conspiracy among the slaves. The authorities began to investigate. They questioned an indentured servant named Mary Burton and she eventually claimed there was a conspiracy of slaves and poor whites. (Indentured servants had to pay the cost of their journey across the Atlantic by working without wages for several years). Mary Burton was later rewarded and released from her indenture for her part in uncovering the 'conspiracy'. There is no proof that any such conspiracy existed. Nevertheless, as the hysteria spread 18 slaves were hanged and 13 were burned at the stake. Furthermore, 4 whites were hanged.
During the 18th century amenities in New York improved. The first newspaper the New York Gazette began publication in 1725. The first theater in New York opened in 1732. Kings College (now Columbia University) was founded in 1754.
The oldest park in New York is Bowling Green. It was first used for lawn bowling in 1733. St Paul's Chapel was built in 1766. St Marks Church-in-the-Bowery was built in 1799. Meanwhile the Jews built their first synagogue in Mill Street in 1730.
In 1776 George Washington withdrew from New York leaving the British army to occupy it. Then on 21 September 1776 New York was struck by a great fire, which destroyed hundreds of houses. Altogether about one quarter of the city was destroyed. The British continued to occupy New York until the end of the war. George Washington entered New York on 25 November 1783.
Life in 18th Century Colonial America
On 20 April 1789 Washington took his presidential oath at Federal Hall.
Meanwhile after the war some New York streets were renamed. King Street was renamed Pine Street and Queen Street was renamed Pearl Street. However nearby Queens County (named for Charles II's queen Catherine of Braganza) kept its original name. Later Queens became a borough of New York.
The Bank of New York was founded in 1784. Until 1792 trading in stocks and shares took place informally in and around Wall Street. However in that year a group of merchants signed an agreement to only deal with each other. That was the beginning of the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1791 and 1798 New York suffered outbreaks of Yellow Fever. However it's population grew rapidly.
19th Century New York
In 1811 a new fort called West Battery replaced Fort George. In 1815 it was renamed Castle Clinton after the mayor DeWitt Clinton.
At first New York City grew in a haphazard way. However in 1807 the governor of the state of New York appointed a commission to draw up a plan for the city. The commission reported in 1811. The plan proposed that new streets should be laid out on a grid pattern. There would be 12 avenues running north to south and 155 streets running east to west. As New York City grew the grid pattern spread north across Manhattan.
By 1820 New York had become the USA's largest city with a population of 123,000. It continued to grow rapidly. By 1840 New York had a population of 312,000. By 1860 it had 813,000 inhabitants.
However in 1835 fire destroyed much of the old district of New York but it was soon rebuilt. In 1837 Harlem was connected to New York by railway. As a result it grew rapidly.
Meanwhile New York boomed as a port. In 1807 Robert Fulton launched a steamboat on the Hudson River. In 1818 ship owners in New York formed the Black Ball Line, the first shipping line between New York and Liverpool.
However the port of New York really boomed when the Erie Canal was built. It allowed goods to be transported from the coast to the interior cheaply and quickly. The shipbuilding industry in New York flourished in the 19th century.
New York University was founded in 1831. New York City Police Force was founded in 1845.
The Astor Place Riot occurred in May 1849. On 10 May 1849 English actor William Macready played Macbeth at Astor Place Opera House. It was a time of anti-English feeling in New York and an angry crowd gathered outside. The crowd then began to riot. The National Guard was called and they fired on the rioters. Altogether at least 25 civilians were killed and many more were wounded. Afterwards 86 rioters were arrested.
On 12 July 1863 New York City was rocked by draft riots. Angry about a new law on conscription rioters roamed the streets until Lincoln sent troops to quell the disorder. Many lives were lost and a great deal of material damage was done.
Like other cities in the 19th century in Europe and North America, New York was an unhealthy place. As a result cholera struck New York in 1832 and in 1849. it returned in 1866.
Nevertheless amenities in New York City improved during the 19th century. Trinity Church was rebuilt in the 1840s. It was consecrated in 1846. The architect was Richard Upjohn (1802-1878). Macy's opened in 1858. Central Synagogue was built in 1870. Bloomingdales was founded in 1872. St Patrick's Cathedral was dedicated in 1879.
In 1832 the first horse drawn streetcars ran in New York. The first elevated railway in New York began carrying passengers in 1868. It was soon followed by many other elevated railways or 'els'. The first line of the New York subway opened in 1904.
The Croton Reservoir was built in 1842 to provide New York with piped drinking water. Madison Square opened in 1847. The New York Times began publication in 1851.
Washington Square Park was created in 1826. Then, in 1858 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux created Central Park. Prospect Park was laid out in 1867. Bryant Park was laid out in 1884. It was named after the poet William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878).
Meanwhile the first telephones were installed in New York City in 1878. New York gained an electricity supply in the 1880s.
Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883. Unfortunately on the opening day a crowd on the bridge panicked, thinking it was going to collapse. As a result 12 people were trampled to death.
The Museum of Natural History in New York was founded in 1869. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870. Carnegie Hall opened in 1891. Bronx Zoo opened in 1899.
In 1883 Metropolitan Opera House was founded on Broadway. In the early 20th century Broadway became famous for its theaters.
Meanwhile the Statue of Liberty was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland on 28 October 1886. Then in 1888 New York City was struck by a terrible blizzard and 400 people froze to death.
The Statue of Liberty
In the mid-19th century many Germans and Irish went to live in New York. In the late 19th century many Italians arrived and in the 1890s many Eastern European Jews came to New York.
In 1892 the United States Immigration Station opened on Ellis Island. Between 1892 and its closure in 1954 almost 17 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island. However restrictions were placed on Chinese immigration in 1882, on Japanese in 1907 and on illiterate people in 1917. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th many African Americans went to live in Harlem.
At that time many poor New Yorkers lived in tenements. They were overcrowded, poorly ventilated and rooms often lacked windows.
In 1892 a notorious slum called Five Points was demolished and replaced by Columbus Park. Seward Park was created in 1901.
Furthermore at the end of the 19th century the garment trade in New York boomed. However working conditions were often appalling with people working very long hours for very low wages.
On 15 June disaster struck New York. A ship called the General Slocum was taking people on an excursion. It caught fire and 1,021 people were killed.
Furthermore on 25 March 1911 a dreadful fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took the lives of 146 workers.
Meanwhile in 1898 the 5 boroughs were united under a single municipal government. The city of New York had a population of 3.4 million.
20th Century New York
In the 20th century New York City continued to grow. In the 1980s large numbers of Asians migrated to the city. By 1980 New York had a population of 7 million.
Many famous buildings were built in New York City in the early 20th century. The Flatiron Building was built in 1902. New York Public Library opened in 1911. The Woolworth Building was erected in 1913. The same year, 1913, Grand Central Station opened. The Chrysler building was erected in 1930 and the Empire State Building was erected in 1931. Also in 1931 the General Electric Building was built. The Rockefeller Center was built in 1932-1940.
Furthermore Times Square is named after the New York Times, which moved there in 1904.
Meanwhile Williamsburg Bridge was built in 1903 and Queensboro Bridge followed in 1909. Manhattan Bridge was also built in 1909. George Washington Bridge was built in 1931. Verrazano Narrows Bridge was built in 1964. Meanwhile, Holland Tunnel opened in 1927. It took 7 years to build and it was named after chief engineer Clifford Holland (1883-1924). The tunnel took 7 years to build and unfortunately Holland died before it was completed.
Many museums opened in New York City during the 20th century. The Museum of the city of New York was founded in 1923. The Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1930. The Guggenheim Museum was founded in 1939 but it moved to a modern building in 1959.
Furthermore The Museum of American Folk Art was founded in 1961. South Street Seaport Museum was founded in 1967. The Museum of The Moving Image opened in 1988. Ellis Island Museum of Immigration opened in 1990.
Other museums in New York include New York City Police Museum (1929), Merchants House Museum (1936), American Folk Art Museum (1961), Bronx Museum of the Arts (1971), Staten Island Children's Museum (1974), Museum of Television and Radio (1975), Ukrainian Museum, Museum of Chinese in the Americas (1980), Museum of American Illustration (1981), New York City Fire Museum (1987), Museum of American Financial History (1988), Museum of Jewish Heritage (1997),
Furthermore many landmark buildings were erected in New York City in the late 20th century including the General Motors Building (1968), the IBM Building (1982), Jacob Javits Convention Center (1986) and the World Financial Center (1988). Furthermore, the Lincoln Center was built in 1962-1969.
World Fairs were held in New York in 1939-40 and 1964-64. However, in 1965 there were also race riots in Harlem. Also in 1965 New York suffered a power blackout. Another blackout happened in 1977.
In 1990 David Dinkins became the first African American Mayor of New York. In 1993 Rudolph Giuliani was elected. He succeeded in reducing crime in New York.
In 2001 tragedy struck when the World Trade Center was destroyed in a terrorist attack. However New York recovered from the attack.
In the 21st century New York continued to thrive. One World Trade Center opened in 2014 and World Trade Center Transportation Center opened in 2016. New York is still a busy port. It is also a major industrial and financial center. New York City is also, of course, an important tourist destination. In 2017 the population of New York City was 8.6 million.
A timeline of New York
A brief history of Boston
A brief history of Philadelphia
A brief history of Washington DC
A brief history of New Orleans
A brief history of Detroit
Last revised 2019