New York City has been called the city that never sleeps, the Big Apple, and the city so nice they named it twice. It is the world center for finance, the location of the United Nations, and a center for fashion and entertainment.
But why did this city become so important, and why did such an important city get founded where it is? Was it chance, was it history, or was it geography?
Learn more about New York City as much as possible on a daily podcast, on this Episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Given the constraints of a podcast like this one, this episode is going to focus on the very big picture about how New York came to be what it is today. That means I obviously can’t be going through all the events in its history or all of the people who helped shape it.
What I can do is give a thousand-foot overview of the city and how it came to be, and how it came to be so important.
The story of New York starts with the indigenous people who lived there before Europeans arrived, the Lenape. They lived in an area that included coastal Delaware, New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania, and the area around the Hudson River Valley.
The Lenape were a woodland people and the area that is New York City today was mostly woodland.
The word Manhattan comes from the Lenape word manaháhtaan which roughly translates to “the place where we get bows”.
The first European to visit the area was the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. He sailed into New York Harbor and today the entrance to the harbor is known as the Verrazzano Narrows.
He sailed into the harbor enough to see the Hudson River and all he really reported back was that he found a large river.
It wasn’t until over 80 years later in 1609 when the English explorer Henry Hudson sailed back into the harbor and up the river which was named after him. He eventually sailed all the way up to Albany in upper New York.
Here I need to explain the geography of New York and what made it so special and appealing for Europeans who were arriving in North America.
Unlike the West Coast of North America, the East Coast has plenty of good harbors. Halifax, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Charleston all had good harbors.
However, New York had several things going for it. For starters, it had a very large deep harbor. However, what really set it apart was that it was connected to the Hudson, which allowed ships to travel far inland.
This was a very big deal because transporting anything inland was very difficult and expensive. Transporting a piece of furniture from Europe by ship would cost as much as sending it just 30 miles overland once it arrived.
New York was a well-protected harbor, which could be defended on a well-protected island, which was the gateway to the interior of the entire New York Colony.
The Dutch arrived in 1613 and established a trading post on the island and named it New Amsterdam.
On May 24, 1626, the Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan from an unnamed group of Indians for the equivalent of 60 Dutch Guilders worth of goods.
There have been many rumors about the purchase of Manhattan which have spread over the years. Mainly that it was purchased for the equivalent of $24 dollars worth of beads and that they basically stole it from the unsuspecting natives.
First, there is no record of them trading beads or wampum. They might have, but there is no record of that. Based on most trades that the Dutch made with the natives of the area, it was probably some combination of guns, clothing, blankets, knives, and other supplies.
Also, the $24 amount which has always been repeated has never been adjusted for inflation. 60 Dutch guilders from 1613 might have a value of about $1,000 to $15,000 now, depending on how you price the goods that might have been traded.
Second, there is no reason to believe that it wasn’t a fair trade. Sure, hundreds of years later Manhattan did become a really big deal and land prices exploded. However, for the entire time whoever made the trade lived on Manhattan, it was just an outpost with a wooden stockade.
The land wouldn’t have really been that special to the natives who traded it. It was woodland just like everything else around it. What made it valuable to the Dutch was its location in the harbor, and the Lenape didn’t have huge ships which required a harbor.
Finally, while the Lenape did have a quasi system of ownership, there is no record that the people who made the trade with the Dutch had any right to the land. It is very possible that it was the Dutch who were scammed.
Either way, a settlement was established in Manhattan. The Dutch influence can still be seen in the name of many of the places in New York including Brooklyn, Harlem, Stuyvesant, and Coney Island.
The boundary of the Dutch Settlement where the rampart existed was known as “de Waalstraat”, which became known as Wall Street.
In 1664, the British military took over the settlement without much difficulty as the residents weren’t very fond of the governor, Peter Stuyvesant. They subsequently named the settlement New York.
The Dutch did briefly retake the city in 1673 and renamed it New Orange, but it was given back in 1674 by treaty.
New York became a major center of British Colonial America. In 1700 the population was approximately 5,000 people and it had reached 25,000 by the start of the American Revolution in 1776
Much of the focus of the war for the British was New York. They held it for the entirety of the conflict and it was the location of one of the major battles of the war, the Battle of Brooklyn or the Battle of Long Island.
After the war, New York began to grow rapidly and it became the first capital of a newly independent United States of America. The population reached 60,000 by the year 1800, and by this time it had surpassed Philadelphia as the largest city in the country. A title it would never relinquish.
Slavery was abolished in New York in 1817. Prior to this, the slave population of the city reached a peak of 20% after the revolution.
Here I should note that at this time, New York only consisted of the island of Manhattan. Brooklyn was a completely separate and growing city across the river from New York. Likewise, there were many communities all based on or around the harbor and the rivers surrounding Manhattan.
New York grew rapidly during the 19th century. By 1820, it became the first American city to have a population of 100,000 people.
By 1850, it had a population of half a million. In 1860 it had a population of 813,000, and Brooklyn had quickly become the third-largest city in the country with a population of a quarter-million.
New York had a very contentious relationship with the Civil War. On the one hand, they had strong relationships with southern ports, and there were large draft riots in the city. On the other hand, no city in the country provides more soldiers for the Union army than New York.
As the city grew, people began moving further up the island. The 1860s saw the opening of what is perhaps the most prominent feature on the island of Manhattan today, Central Park. I’ll be doing a future episode on Central Park because its creation and continued existence is really interesting.
The city kept growing after the war and became even more important as a center of finance as the country began growing west.
After the war, all of the cities around Manhattan slowly began to consolidate.
In 1865, the New York and Brooklyn fire departments merged.
In 1874, the area known as the Bronx was annexed to New York City and it was simply known as the “Annexed District of The Bronx”.
Around this time, Brooklyn began to consolidate all of the communities which neighbor it as well.
The big change which created the modern city of New York happened in 1898. That was the year that Brooklyn, Manhattan, the communities of Staten Island, and Queens County all merged to form New York City.
The new city was set up with a system of boroughs, with each borough acting in some respects as an independent city. The Bronx separated once again in 1914 to create the fifth borough.
Likewise, the counties were rearranged such that each borough became its own county with relation to the State of New York.
New York had always been the primary entry port for immigrants coming to the United States. Begging in 1892 Ellis Island opened which became the primary immigration processing facility in the country. Through 1954, it processed over 12 million immigrants to the United States.
With the surge in immigration and the consolidation of the city, it grew even faster than before. By 1925 it had become the largest city in world history with a population of 7.7 million people.
Just 11 years later in 1936, it became the first city in history to have a population of 10 million people.
It also became the home to the world’s tallest buildings with the construction of the Chrysler, Empire State, and Woolworth Buildings.
New York had certainly become a major international city by this time. As the finance center of the United States, which now had the largest economy in the world, it had become a first-tier world city.
It was in the aftermath of the second world war that New York established a position of predominance.
In 1951, the United Nations established its headquarters in Manhattan at a location on the East River. It is the location of both the UN General Assembly and Security Council, as it also has embassies from every country in the world.
Likewise, the Bretton Woods system which established the post-war monetary framework made the US Dollar the world’s reserve currency, and the largest store of gold in the world was and is located in the basement of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. When there are large transfers between countries, gold is moved from one pile to another.
It is also one of, if not the most, diverse cities in the world. An estimated 800 languages are spoken in the city, a third of all residents were born outside of the United States, and with the UN, there are people living in the city from every nation on Earth.
Today New York has two of the world’s largest museums, the world’s largest subway system, two of the world’s largest stock exchanges, two of the worst football teams in America, and three airports, none of which are connected to their subway system.