A Minute History of New York City

What’s the saying again? “Anything can happen in a New York minute.” Well, that’s convenient because in this city, that’s about the only free time anyone seems to have. But if you can make it here — trust me, as a native myself — you can make it anywhere. So, before you come over to discover what makes the greatest city in the world tick, you need a little backstory first. Without further ado, let’s make this minute history a New York minute history (…so more like 30 seconds, then).  


After being discovered by various conquistadors from all over the world, and mostly by accident, the British eventually seized the territory from the first Dutch explorers (who had named it New Amsterdam), in 1664 and gave the city a new name. Over the next few decades, the population began to grow and change, with people from all over Europe, indentured servants and the rise of the slave trade, establishing New York as a major trading city and economic hub.


New York’s present day area, including all of the five boroughs, as well as western part of Long Island, and parts of the Lower Hudson Valley, was first inhabited by various Algonquian Native American tribes, particularly the Leni Lenape (this particular tribe name is important, but we’ll come to that later).


New Amsterdam, now New York.

The first documented European to have visited New York was Florentine explorer, Giovanni da Verazzano – his last name attributed to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – in 1524. Though of Italian descent, Verazzano came in service of French monarch, King Francis I of France, and later claimed the area for the country.

Though Verazzano can be traced back as the original explorer of the New York harbor, it is English explorer, Henry Hudson, who is notoriously given the credit in history. In 1609, Hudson rediscovered the area whilst trying to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, for the Dutch East India Company. Ten days of sailing upward the now Hudson River, he claimed the area for the Dutch. In 1614, the area was renamed to New Netherland.

A permanent European presence was established just ten years later, with one of the first forts established as Fort Amsterdam, later called New Amsterdam. Two years later, the Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan from the Lenape tribe, named after the tribe’s Munsi word, Manahata, or ‘the island of many hills.’

After buying the land, New Amsterdam grew exponentially. By the 1650s, the population increased from 2,000 to 8,000 thanks to the last Director-General, Peter Stuyvesant. However, with new settlers and residents, Stuyvesant would soon clash with the desires of the people and eventually, surrender New Amsterdam to English troops in 1664, who immediately renamed the city after the Duke of York in England.  


Following more growth, change and expansion, in 1898, Brooklyn and Queens were finally adopted into the NYC geographical family. The subway system (the MTA) was launched in 1904 – one of the oldest transit systems in the world – and finally connected the growing public and binded the full city together.

The 1900s also saw another wave of immigrants from all over come to New York, especially African Americans from the south, and became known as the Great Migration. The migration also gave way to an art and culture renaissance and a huge economic boom, which allowed for construction and industry to flourish, while leading to the cultivation of skyscrapers, for which the iconic Manhattan skyline is so known today.

The 1920s-1940s saw yet another economic boom within the city, following two World Wars, with capitalism dominating the public’s consumer habits and thriving in a way that continues to exist in New York’s modern times. (Yes, we all know how expensive New York is…)


New York’s been through a lot since colonization, but one thing that remains the same, is that the population continues to grow and grow, though not because of the city’s original status as a trading port. Now, NYC acts more like a mecca for everything art, culture, finance, politics, the list goes on. The population is now 8 million and counting.

The effect that the September 11 attacks had on American history and its people, in particular, remains significant because of the way New York City has continued to present itself as a world capital. It was like, “how could this have happened to New York?” Though the 9/11 terrorist attacks are one of the sadder and heart-wrenching times within New York’s modern history, the way the city persevered, continued to thrive, populate, and prove itself as a force to be reckoned with, is why it will continue to be known as one of the world’s greatest cities. And where I can proudly say that I am from.

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Diana Figueroa

Diana Figueroa is a NYC native and graduate of Fordham University, where she graduated with a degree in Communications, concentrating in journalism and creative writing. She is currently pursuing freelance writing projects and recently launched her own website,, dedicated to her passion for travel and her life in the Big Apple. She is off to pursue her Master's degree in Berlin, Germany at the end of this year. You can find her on route to the next music festival or curing her wanderlust as she plans her next adventure abroad. Feel the fernweh at @dianadoesntknow for photos.

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