The first native New Yorkers were the Lenape, an Algonquin people who hunted, fished and farmed in the area between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. Europeans began to explore the region at the beginning of the 16th century–among the first was Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian who sailed up and down the Atlantic coast in search of a route to Asia–but none settled there until 1624. That year, the Dutch West India Company sent some 30 families to live and work in a tiny settlement on “Nutten Island” (today’s Governors Island) that they called New Amsterdam. In 1626, the settlement’s governor general, Peter Minuit, purchased the much larger Manhattan Island from the natives for 60 guilders in trade goods such as tools, farming equipment, cloth and wampum (shell beads). Fewer than 300 people lived in New Amsterdam when the settlement moved to Manhattan. But it grew quickly, and in 1760 the city (now called New York City; population 18,000) surpassed Boston to become the second-largest city in the American colonies. Fifty years later, with a population 202,589, it became the largest city in the Western hemisphere. Today, more than 8 million people live in the city’s five boroughs.
New York City in the 18th Century
In 1664, the British seized New Amsterdam from the Dutch and gave it a new name: New York City. For the next century, the population of New York City grew larger and more diverse: It included immigrants from the Netherlands, England, France and Germany; indentured servants; and African slaves.
During the 1760s and 1770s, the city was a center of anti-British activity–for instance, after the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, New Yorkers closed their businesses in protest and burned the royal governor in effigy. However, the city was also strategically important, and the British tried to seize it almost as soon as the Revolutionary War began. In August 1776, despite the best efforts of George Washington’s Continental Army in Brooklyn and Harlem Heights, New York City fell to the British. It served as a British military base until 1783.
New York City in the 19th Century
The city recovered quickly from the war, and by 1810 it was one of the nation’s most important ports. It played a particularly significant role in the cotton economy: Southern planters sent their crop to the East River docks, where it was shipped to the mills of Manchester and other English industrial cities. Then, textile manufacturers shipped their finished goods back to New York.
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But there was no easy way to carry goods back and forth from the growing agricultural hinterlands to the north and west until 1817, when work began on a 363-mile canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The Erie Canal was completed in 1825. At last, New York City was the trading capital of the nation.
As the city grew, it made other infrastructural improvements. In 1811, the “Commissioner’s Plan” established an orderly grid of streets and avenues for the undeveloped parts of Manhattan north of Houston Street. In 1837, construction began on the Croton Aqueduct, which provided clean water for the city’s growing population. Eight years after that, the city established its first municipal agency: the New York City Police Department.
Meanwhile, increasing number of immigrants, first from Germany and Ireland during the 1840s and 50s and then from Southern and Eastern Europe, changed the face of the city. They settled in distinct ethnic neighborhoods, started businesses, joined trade unions and political organizations and built churches and social clubs. For example, the predominantly Irish-American Democratic club known as Tammany Hall became the city’s most powerful political machine by trading favors such as jobs, services and other kinds of aid for votes.
New York City in the 20th Century
At the turn of the 20th century, New York City became the city we know today. In 1895, residents of Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn–all independent cities at that time–voted to “consolidate” with Manhattan to form a five-borough “Greater New York.” As a result, on December 31, 1897, New York City had an area of 60 square miles and a population of a little more than 2 million people; on January 1, 1898, when the consolidation plan took effect, New York City had an area of 360 square miles and a population of about 3,350,000 people.
The 20th century was an era of great struggle for American cities, and New York was no exception. The construction of interstate highways and suburbs after World War II encouraged affluent people to leave the city, which combined with deindustrialization and other economic changes to lower the tax base and diminish public services. This, in turn, led to more out-migration and “white flight.” However, the Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 made it possible for immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America to come to the United States. Many of these newcomers settled in New York City, revitalizing many neighborhoods.
New York City in the New Millennium
On September 11, 2001, New York City suffered the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the United States when a group of terrorists crashed two hijacked jets into the city’s tallest buildings: the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The buildings were destroyed and nearly 3,000 people were killed. In the wake of the disaster, the city remained a major financial capital and tourist magnet, with over 40 million tourists visiting the city each year.
Today, more than 8 million New Yorkers live in the five boroughs–more than one-third of whom were born outside the United States. Thanks to the city’s diversity and vibrant intellectual life, it remains the cultural capital of the United States.