What to know about Manhattan Island’s pre-English history

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Manhattan Island wasn’t always about skyscrapers. It was also the land of ice caps, Lenape settlements and a thriving Dutch colony.

Have you ever wondered about the deep history of Manhattan? While it’s hard to see anything other than high-rise buildings, Times Square, Broadway, the Statue of Liberty, and Wall Street, it wasn’t always that way (and where does the name come from? “Wall Street” anyway?).

This is the story of the heart of what is now the financial world until it became “New York”. Today there are tours in New York that delve into the history of Dutch New York (New Amsterdam). There are also a number of surviving buildings in and around New York that date from the Dutch colonial period.

The Geological History of Manhattan Island

250 million years ago, this region of North America was part of the Pangea supercontinent and would have been next to what is now Morocco. Moving much closer in time, 2 million years ago was the start of the Ice Age when ice sheets covered much of North America in glaciers.


The peak of the Ice Age occurred about 19,000 years ago with the towering Laurentide Ice Sheet of North America at its peak. At that time, it would have been about 2,000 feet thick at its peak – that’s thicker than World Trade Center One is tall.

  • Ice cap thickness: 2,000 feet
  • World Trade Center One Height: 2,000 feet

As the world warmed, the ice melted and the ice receded. What remained in its wake would have been marshes, streams, and forests teeming with wildlife and fish.

Related: This prehistoric lake was once bigger than all of the Great Lakes

Arrival of humans in the region

The first humans to arrive in the area are believed to have been around 9,000 years ago, but were later abandoned. Later, the Algonquins were one of the first known tribes to settle in the Hudson Valley. They were a group of nomadic tribes inhabiting much of North America.


  • Early Humans: About 9,000 years ago (later abandoned)
  • One of the first known tribes: The Algonquians became the Lenni Lenape

They eventually established agriculture in the area and planted crops. This transformed their nomadic culture into more established tribes and communities. Their diet was typical of many Native Americans, comprising mostly corn, squash and beans – although they were also skilled hunters and enjoyed deer, moose and small game. They cultivated using slash and burn tactics.

  • Farmers: Corn, squash and beans grown by Lenape

A group of Algonquians who settled in the northeastern forests eventually became known as the Lenni Lenape. They became extremely skilled at farming, weaving and hunting.


Around 3,000 years ago, a second wave of people arrived in the area – around 8,000 encampments with many of their artifacts were discovered, including advanced hunting tools such as bows and arrows. It is likely that the area has remained permanently inhabited since then.

  • Original population: There were possibly 15,000 Lenape NYC area
  • Regulations: About 80 settlement sites

At the time of European settlement, it is estimated that there were approximately 15,000 Lenape in total at approximately 80 settlement sites around much of the New York area alone. The first European explorer was Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524.


Related: Cherokee Nation: What You’ll Learn at Oconaluftee Village

The Dutch Age – New Amsterdam

The Dutch began to settle in the 1620s and founded what they called New Amsterdam – a modern European village. They purchased the island of Mannahatta in 1626 for 60 guilders in trade.

  • Dutch: Began to settle in the 1620s
  • To buy: The Dutch bought the island of Manhattan
  • New Amsterdam: The name of the Dutch colony here in the colony of Greater New Netherlands

Soon the Dutch were in conflict with the native population with the massacre of the natives of Hoboken which took place in 1643 where 120 natives were killed. The following year, in 1644, they made a peace treaty with the Native Americans to reduce violence and open up trade.


The Dutch built a fort around 1650 and called it Fort Amsterdam. At this time, they also built a wooden palisade or wall to defend their settlement. The wall was built to defend against the English invasion, this wall ran on the northern boundary of New Amsterdam. They called it “de Waalstraat” – or Wall Street.

The wall was built with dirt and 15-foot (4.6 m) wooden planks, measuring 2,340 feet (710 m) long and 9 feet (2.7 m) high.

  • Wall Street: Named after a wooden palisade built in 1653
  • Cut: The wall was 2,340 feet long and 9 feet high

Even before the American Civil War, Wall Street was considered the financial capital of the nation. Wall Street was a slave trade market and securities trading site in the 17th century.

The Dutch era ended when the general manager Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch soldiers left New Amsterdam after ceding it to the English. The English renamed it New York, after their king.

  • 1664: The British have conquered New Amsterdam

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