It’s hard to think of New York as anything but the bustling metropolis we know it as today. Skyscrapers, yellow cabs, and massive bridges are all part and parcel of the NYC experience. But before NYC was the capital of the world, it was little more than a fur trading outpost for a massive global empire. By the time the English conquered the region in 1664 and christened the city New York, the island we now call Manhattan was well on its way to becoming a center of culture not only in the Americas but for the entire world.
Before Europeans landed in New York harbor, the area was populated by the Lenape people. Lenape agriculture and fish harvesting supported a relatively large population, with an estimated 15,000 people in the New York City area alone. The name Manhattan originates from Manhatta, the Lenape name for the island. Early Dutch visitors to the Americas were drawn by one major commodity: furs. The most common were beaver furs which could be converted to felt for waterproof garments favored by city dwellers. Their rarity in Europe paired with huge demand brought countless explorers, adventurers, and opportunists from Europe to North America to get their piece of the pie.
From Post to Permanence
For the first nine years of its existence, New Amsterdam was little more than a trading post, a place where trappers who did the dirty work turned in their spoils to the more genteel importers. As the fur trade expanded, the outpost became a strategic location for the Dutch West India Company to oversee operations in the Hudson River region. The company built a fortification on the modern day site of Bowling Green park called Fort Amsterdam to solidify their presence. Eventually, a settlement of soldiers and farmers was built out, first as simple tents and smaller, temporary domiciles. As the settlement grew and more Europeans moved to the area, the city of New Amsterdam was established.
Conflict Shapes the Land
This growth eventually came at the expense of the Lenape, who felt the spirit of their land-sharing tradition was being violated. Additionally, diseases brought from Europe infected large swaths of their population, and Manhatta soon became the site of physical confrontations and skirmishes between natives and settlers. The Dutch built a wall to keep others from the settlement, giving the name to modern day Wall Street. Eventually, the fur trade died out and New Amsterdam was conquered by the British in a series of wars between England and the Dutch. The city changed hands multiple times, with the decisive victory won in 1674’s Third Anglo-Dutch War whereupon the city permanently became New York.
Centuries later, New York still bears many remnants of its Dutch origins, with place names like Bowery (from bouwerij, or farm), Brooklyn (breukelen), and Spuyten Duyvil, Dutch for “devil’s spout.” A city born from commerce, New York remains a center of finance and trade in an increasingly global economy. Long separated from its Dutch origins, the city is now home to over 8.5 million New Yorkers from countless ethnicities. What was once a tiny trading post has developed, over a few short centuries, into a truly international metropolis.