Offbeat New York

Exploring New York City's History

Early Beginnings
The lushly forested isle of Manhattan was first "discovered" (by Europeans) in 1524 by Giovanni da Verrazano (a Florentine noble sailing for the French king), as he gazed from the salty deck of his vessel La Dauphine. The following year, Esteban Gomez, a Portuguese sailor employed by Spain, sailed into New York Harbor in search of gold. Explorer Henry Hudson came next, claiming the island for the Dutch West India Company. It was "as beautiful a land as one can hope to tread on," rhapsodized Hudson, an Englishman in employ of the Dutch. Seventeen years later, company director Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan from local Native American tribes for trinkets that contemporary historians value at $600, but which popular history records as $24. Either way, it was quite a bargain.

Originally, the Dutch called the proud settlement New Amsterdam. Their influence lingers today in the city's oldest places that still retain Dutch-based names (such as Breukelen and Haarlem, or streets like the Bowery, recalling Dutch farms known as "bowerij" which were laid out here along the path of an old Indian trail). The last Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, peg-legged and tyrannical, was one of the first of a stream of colorful characters to people the city's colorful history. It was Stuyvesant who built the protective wall (which no longer exists) on Wall Street, the canal (also no longer in existence) that later became Canal Street, and who, in 1664, relinquished the thriving colony to British rule (in a trade for Surinam), at which point it was renamed New York.

Marvelous sites that cover the early history of the city include: the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum the oldest home in New York City; the Dyckman Farmhouse , the only remaining Dutch colonial farmhouse in Manhattan; and Historic Richmond Town, a living history museum. The Historic House Trust preserves and promotes these sites and more than a dozen more. And the National Museum of the American Indian, located in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, explores the diversity of the native peoples of the Americas through exhibitions and public programs that include music, dance, film, and symposia.

Birth of a Nation
In 1664, England takes over New Amsterdam, naming the colony New York. The British control the area until the late 1700s, when they lose the Revolutionary War, resulting in the creation of the United States of America.

Eighteenth century New York was largely farmland: The remnants of farm boundaries are why Manhattan from Greenwich Village southwards is not laid out on a grid.

After the Continental Congress selects New York City as America's first capital, George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other statesmen forge plans for their new country. Many of the churches, houses, and public buildings where these leaders made history still stand and are open for the public to enjoy.

Before Washington became president he led the troops as a General in the Revolutionary War. On December 4, 1783, he bade farewell to his troops at Fraunces Tavern . It is still a restaurant but it is also now a museum that houses a comprehensive collection of early American and New York City historical artifacts. The Federal Hall National Memorial, now reopened, was built in 1862 and replaced the Federal Hall where Washington took the oath of office in 1789 as America's first president and Congress ratified the Bill of Rights. After his inauguration, Washington attended a service at St. Paul's Chapel. Built in 1766, it is Manhattan's oldest public building in continuous use.

The Alliance for Downtown New York offers the self-guided Patriot Trail walk that highlights historic sites in Lower Manhattan.

For greater insight into New York City's early beginnings, head to the New York Historical Society. Also uptown is the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the former headquarters for Washington and his troops during the Battle of Harlem Heights, which now serves as a museum.

In Staten Island, the Conference House is where Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge held peace negotiations with British Lord Admiral Richard Howe and rejected Howe's demand of returning the colonies to British control. Today, this handsome stone manor offers concerts, historical readings, and colonial-era craft workshops.

Brooklyn boasts the beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery , where many famous people rest in peace. It is also the site of the bitter fighting of the Battle of Brooklyn, the Revolutionary War's earliest conflict. Prospect Park , includes the Battle Pass section where, in August 1776, American soldiers suffered one of their worst defeats during the Revolution.

The first military encampment of the Revolutionary War was in the Bronx on the grounds of the Van Cortlandt House . The former headquarters of George Washington is now a museum and features a historical collection of artifacts.

New Settlers, New City
Thanks to a surge in European immigration, the 19th century saw the city's population explode, from 65,000 in 1800 to 1.1 million by 1880. Great fortunes were made and the millionaires of the Gilded Age built mansions on Fifth Avenue, where Caroline Schermerhorn Astor presided over society's famed "First Four Hundred."

By 1820 New York had become the United States' largest city. The 1800s mark a period of great population growth with the influx of immigrants from all over the world. More than 12 million people made their way through Ellis Island, past the Statue of Liberty (opened in 1886), from 1892 to 1954 to pursue their dreams for a new life in America. Today, those dreams are documented at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum , located within an 1863 tenement building, also provides rich historical perspective, interpreting immigrants' and migrants' experience through informative tours of apartments that used to house families from Russia, Italy, and Lithuania.

In 1898, Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island consolidated to become a five-borough city. The New York City landscape also began to transform with the establishment of great city institutions that still exist today. Notable additions include Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as the American Museum of Natural History , Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York Botanical Garden, sometimes called the Bronx Botantical Garden because of its location.

Borough History at a Glance
Perhaps the most famous and certainly the most populated of the boroughs is Brooklyn, just across the East River from downtown Manhattan. It was settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, it was the site of the Battle of Long Island in 1776, and it now has elegant 19th century brownstone houses dotting its neighborhoods.

Queens, the largest of the boroughs - it sprawls across 121 miles of Long Island - was named for Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II of England. Different ethnic groups have long defined Queens' neighborhoods. More than one million immigrants in 2000 made their home in Queens: The residents of the city's largest borough are one of the most diverse groups in the country - so diverse that the local subway line, the number 7, is called the "International Express." Spend an evening at a Spanish theater production or a Romanian night club, hear traditional music at an Irish pub, or join in Czech songs at an authentic Bohemian beer garden. Restaurants reflect residents' backgrounds from Italian to Indian and Turkish to Thai. Try Korean barbeque in Flushing, Brazilian churrascuria in Corona, an Indian smorgasbord in Jackson Heights.

The Bronx is the only one of New York's boroughs on the mainland (the others are islands). Named for Jonas Bronck, a Swede who bought 500 acres from the Dutch in 1639, immigrants have flocked here from the 1840's onward (the Irish, the Germans in the 19th century, the Italians and Jews in the early 20th), and in later years, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Russians.

Staten Island, the most rural of the boroughs, is reachable by the Staten Island Ferry and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Once a Native American stronghold (of the Lenape Indians of the Delaware tribe), then Dutch-owned farmland in the 1600s, the island had early settlers including the English, French, and African-Americans, both free and slaves. Today, a large Italian-American community dominates Staten Island, and there are fast-growing Hispanic and Asian populations.

The Museum of the City of New York and the New York Historical Society are wonderful sources of information about New York City's history.

The NYC Heritage Tourism Center -- A New Source for Historical Tourism in Lower Manhattan
Located at Broadway and Barclay Street in Lower Manhattan, the new tourism center is part of a partnership between the City of New York and The History Channel to promote heritage tourism. The NYC Heritage Tourism Center is owned and operated by the City, and serves as the central location for detailed information on history-themed tours, and activities and events for historical sites throughout the City. It is open seven days a week -- from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. weekdays, and 10:00 a.m. until 6 p.m. on weekends.

This information provided by NYC & Company.
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