The written history of New York City began with the first European explorer the Italian Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. European settlement began with the Dutch in 1609.
The “Sons of Liberty” destroyed British authority in New York City, and the Stamp Act Congress of representatives from throughout the Thirteen Colonies met in the city in 1765 to organize resistance to British policies. The city’s strategic location and status as a major seaport made it the prime target for British seizure in 1776. General George Washington lost a series of battles from which he narrowly escaped, and the British Army controlled New York City and made it their base on the continent until late 1783, attracting Loyalist refugees.
The city briefly served as the new nation’s capital in 1789–90 under the United States Constitution that replaced it. Under the new government the city hosted the inauguration of George Washington as the first President of the United States.
The opening of the Erie Canal gave excellent steamboat connections with upstate New York and the Great Lakes, along with coastal traffic to lower New England, making the city the preeminent port on the Atlantic Ocean. The arrival of rail connections to the north and west in the 1840s and 1850s strengthened its central role.
Beginning in the mid-18th century, waves of new immigrants arrived from Europe dramatically changing the composition of the city and serving as workers in the expanding industries. Modern New York City traces its development to the consolidation of the five boroughs in 1898 and an economic and building boom following the Great Depression and World War II. Throughout its history, New York City has served as a main port of entry for many immigrants, and its cultural and economic influence has made it one of the most important urban areas in the United States and the world.
Native Americans traditionally spoke an Algonquian language now referred to as Unami. These peoples all made use of the abundant waterways in the New York City region for fishing, hunting trips, trade, and occasionally war. Many paths created by the indigenous peoples are now main thoroughfares. The Lenape developed sophisticated techniques of hunting and managing their resources. By the time of the arrival of Europeans, they were cultivating fields of vegetation through the slash and burn technique, which extended the productive life of planted fields. They also harvested vast quantities of fish and shellfish from the bay. Historians estimate that at the time of European settlement in 1600, approximately 5,000 Native Americans lived in 80 settlements around the region.
European exploration continued on September 2, 1609, when the Englishman Henry Hudson, in the employ of the Dutch East India Company, sailed the Half Moon through the Narrows into Upper New York Bay. Like Christopher Columbus, Hudson was looking for a westerly passage to Asia. He never found one, but he did take note of the abundant beaver population. Beaver pelts were in fashion in Europe, fueling a lucrative business. Hudson’s report on the regional beaver population served as the impetus for the founding of Dutch trading colonies in the New World. The beaver’s importance in New York City’s history is reflected by its use on the city’s official seal.
European settlement began with the founding of a Dutch fur trading post in Lower Manhattan at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1624-1625. Soon thereafter, the Dutch West Indies Company imported African slaves to serve as laborers; they helped to build the wall that defended the town against English and Indian attacks. The Dutch sent forces to aid of the settlers, leading to the overwhelming defeat of the Native Americans and a peace treaty on August 29, 1645.
The colony was granted self-government in 1652, and New Amsterdam was incorporated as a city on February 2, 1653. In 1664, the English conquered the area and renamed it “New York” after the Duke of York, ending the 40-year period of Dutch rule. At that time, people of African decent made up 20% of the population of the city. The Dutch briefly regained the city in 1673, renaming the city “New Orange”, before permanently ceding the colony of New Netherland to the English in 1674. The oldest recorded house still in existence in New York City, the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House in Brooklyn, dates from 1652.
By 1700, the Native population of New York had diminished to 200. After the British took over the colony and city in 1664, they continued to import slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. In 1703, 42% of the New York households had slaves; they served as domestic servants and laborers but also became involved in skilled trades, shipping and other fields. Yet following reform in ethics according to British Enlightenment thought this had diminished to less than 25%. By the 1770s slaves made up 25% of the population.
The Stamp Act and other British measures fomented dissent, particularly among Sons of Liberty who maintained a long-running skirmish with locally stationed British troops. The Stamp Act Congress met in New York City in 1765 in the first organized resistance to British authority across the colonies. After the major defeat of the Continental Army in the Battle of Long Island in late 1776, General George Washington withdrew to Manhattan Island, but with the subsequent defeat at the Battle of Fort Washington the island was effectively left to the British. New York City was greatly damaged twice by fires of suspicious origin during British military rule. The city became the political and military center of operations for the British in North America for the remainder of the war and a haven for Loyalist refugees. British occupation lasted until November 25, 1783.
In 1789, New York City became the first national capital of the United Stated under the new United States Constitution. New York City remained the capital of the U.S. until 1790, when the role was transferred to Philadelphia.
During the 19th century, the city was transformed by immigration, a visionary development proposal which expanded the city street grid to encompass all of Manhattan, and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which connected the Atlantic port to the vast agricultural markets of the Midwestern United States and Canada. By 1835, New York City had surpassed Philadelphia as the largest city in the United States. New York grew as an economic center. In 1842, water was pumped from a reservoir to supply the city for the first time.
The Great Irish Famine (1845–1850) brought a large influx of Irish immigrants, and by 1850 the Irish comprised one quarter of the city’s population. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the city was affected by its history of strong commercial ties to the South; before the war, half of its exports were related to cotton, including textiles from upstate mills. Together with its growing immigrant population, sympathies among residents were divided for both.
Many blacks left the city and moved to Brooklyn. After the Civil War, the rate of immigration from Europe grew steeply, and New York became the first stop for millions seeking a new and better life in the United States, a role acknowledged by the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. From 1830 to 1930, the skyscrapers and tourist attractions were widely publicized. New York City dominated the entire nation in terms of communications, trade, finance, popular culture, and high culture. More than a fourth of the 300 largest corporations in 1920 were headquartered in New York City. The Bronx had a steady boom period during 1898–1929, with a population growth by a factor of six from 200,000 in 1900 to 1.3 million in 1930. The Great Depression created a surge of unemployment, especially among the working class, and a slow-down of growth.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the city became a world center for industry, commerce, and communication, marking its rising influence. The railroads operating out of Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station thrived. Despite the effects of the Great Depression, some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers were built during the 1930s.
For a while, New York City ranked as the most populous city in the world, overtaking London in 1925, which had reigned for a century.
After World War II, veterans and immigrants from Europe created a postwar economic boom. Demands for new housing were aided by the G.I. Bill for veterans, stimulating the development of huge suburban tracts in eastern Queens and Nassau County. The city was extensively photographed during the post–war years. New York emerged rom the war as the leading city of the world. In 1951, the United Nations relocated from its first headquarters in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, to the East Side of Manhattan.
After a short war boom, The Bronx declined from 1950 to 1985, going from predominantly moderate-income to mostly lower-income, with high rates of violent crime and poverty. The Bronx has experienced an economic and developmental resurgence starting in the late 1980s that continues into today.
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