New York Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Dominated by the nation’s most heavily populated city, New York has been an area of economic and political importance since the earliest years of the United States.

History of New York

Dominated by the nation’s most heavily populated city, New York has been an area of economic and political importance since the earliest years of the United States. Its position between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes made it a major area of population movement to the west, and New York City attracts emigrants from around the world.

Early History

The first humans to reside in the area arrived about ten thousand years ago and hunted bison and other large game. Thousands of years later, the culture known as the Mound Builders grew crops in southwestern New York. By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, the Atlantic coast was inhabited by the Mohegans and the Munsees, members of the Algonquian language group. Farther inland resided the Onondaga, the Oneida, the Seneca, the Cayuga, and the Mohawk tribes, members of the Iroquois language group. In 1570, these five peoples united into the Iroquois League, a powerful confederation that dominated the area for two centuries.

Exploration and Colonization

The first European to visit the area was the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazano. Working for the French, Verrazano explored the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Canada, including New York Harbor, in 1524. The French explorer Samuel de Champlain journeyed from Canada to northern New York and reached Lake Champlain in 1609. The same year, the English navigator Henry Hudson, working for the Dutch, sailed up the Hudson River about as far as the modern site of Albany.

Despite this early exploration, settlement of New York began slowly. The Dutch established Fort Orange, later known as Albany, in 1624 as the first permanent European settlement in the area. The next year they established New Amsterdam, later known as New York City, on Manhattan Island. By 1650, the Dutch colony had about one thousand residents. In 1664 an English fleet sailed into New York Harbor and captured the colony without a fight. At this time the area contained about eight thousand colonists, including Dutch, English, French, Germans, Finns, Swedes, Jews, and African slaves.

The colony was granted by English King Charles II to his brother, the duke of York and Albany, later King James II. After approving a charter adopted by the colonists in 1683, James II revoked it when he became king in 1685. Instead, he united New York and the colonies of New England to the north under a single administration. Strong resistance to the unification of the colonies led to a rebellion in 1689, after a political crisis in England forced James II to abdicate. Jacob Leisler, the leader of the rebellion, controlled New York until 1691, when the new king, William II, sent in a new royal governor, who had Leisler hanged for treason.

The next several decades brought conflict between the French and the English in the area. The French made a number of raids from Canada into central and northern New York, limiting settlement beyond Albany. An important factor in England’s ability to retain control of the colony was an alliance with the Iroquois League. The struggle for control of North America led to the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which ended with the English in firm control of New York. The war also weakened the power of the Iroquois League, which ceded much of its land to the colonists.

Revolution and Population Growth

The British victory in the war encouraged settlement of the area. By the start of the American Revolution (1775-1783), New York had a population of 163,000. About one-third of the battles of the Revolution took place in New York. American forces under Ethan Allen captured Fort Ticonderoga, in the northeastern part of the colony, in 1775. The British captured New York City in 1776 and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga in 1777. One of the most important events in the war took place in New York on October 17, 1777, when British general John Burgoyne surrendered his army at Saratoga, between Fort Ticonderoga and Albany. This American victory, often considered the turning point in the Revolution, helped bring France into the war against the British.

New York adopted it first state constitution on April 20, 1777, with Kingston, located between Albany and New York City, as the first state capital. After the war, New York City served as the capital of the United States from 1785 to 1790. It became the most populous city in the nation in 1790. New York officially became the eleventh state of the Union in 1788, when it ratified the U.S. Constitution. The state capital was moved to Albany nine years later.

Migration to the state from New England made New York the second most heavily populated state in 1800 and the most heavily populated state in 1810. The opening of the Erie Canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie in 1825, linking New York to new territories in the west, contributed to the state’s rapid growth.

The Civil War and Tammany Hall

New York abolished slavery in 1827 and was a center of the antislavery movement. Although the state was firmly on the side of the Union during the Civil War (1861-1865), violent draft riots in New York City in 1863 led to two thousand deaths, including those of many African Americans. Despite this crisis, the war was generally good for the state’s growing economy.

Meanwhile, New York City became a stronghold of political corruption with the rise of Tammany Hall. This group had been founded in 1789 to represent the interests of the middle class against the policies of the Federalist Party. It later evolved into an organization that dominated the Democratic Party in New York City, giving it control of the city government. Tammany Hall reached its greatest power in the middle of the nineteenth century, when William Marcy “Boss” Tweed took control in 1857. Tweed stole millions of dollars from the city treasury. Tammany Hall lost much of its power when Tweed was arrested in 1872, but it continued to have an influence in city politics well into the twentieth century.

Economic Growth and Immigration

New York’s position as one of the most economically important states in the nation began soon after statehood. Dairy farming, long the most important agricultural activity in the state, was established before the American Revolution. Poultry and egg production, as well as fruit and vegetable farming, also began at an early date. Such agricultural pursuits would remain important parts of the state’s economy.

Investment and finance, which began with the founding of the New York Stock Exchange in 1817, would remain centered in New York City’s Wall Street. The textile industry began in the 1820’s. International trade was also established at an early date, with New York handling half of the nation’s imported goods as early as 1831.

The first railroad in the state was completed in 1831. The growth of the New York Central Railroad Company throughout the nineteenth century was a major factor in the rise of industry in the state. After the Civil War, during the so-called Gilded Age, rapid economic growth created many millionaires and led to the founding of nationally important companies such as Westinghouse, General Electric, and Eastman Kodak.

Meanwhile, the first of many waves of immigration brought large numbers of Germans and Irish to New York in the 1840’s. During the late nineteenth century, new residents from around the world arrived, particularly from eastern and southern Europe. New York’s Ellis Island was the center of immigration in the United States from 1892 to 1943.

Large numbers of African Americans began to arrive in New York during World War I, followed by an even larger number during and after World War II. New York’s African American population rose from less than 5 percent in the early 1940’s to more than 20 percent by the end of the century. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, large numbers of Puerto Ricans arrived in the state. Later decades brought an increase in immigration from Asia and the Middle East.

The Twentieth Century

New York, long dominant in national politics, began a new era with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as governor in 1928. Roosevelt’s policy of increased government spending on social services, particularly after the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, continued when he served as president of the United States from 1933 to 1945. This trend continued in New York City after World War II, leading to a financial crisis in 1975, when federal funds of $4.5 billion were needed to protect the city from bankruptcy.

In 1970 California surpassed New York in population. Between 1970 and 1980, New York was one of the few states to decrease in population. Despite a decline in manufacturing during the same decade, the rise of service industries led to economic growth in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. This growth came to a sudden halt in late 1987, when a stock market crash led to a recession. In addition to economic problems, New York City faced an increase in racial violence in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Although New York City managed to improve its image as a center of crime and poverty in the late 1990’s, it still faced numerous challenges in the twenty-first century.

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