In 1624, the Dutch West India Company sent around 30 families to live and work on an island in the north east of a country that will go on to become the United States of America. They called this settlement New Amsterdam—an ode to the city and their homeland. The land had previously been called New Angouleme, named by Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in honor of the French King Francis I.
New Amsterdam eventually moved when the governor purchased the larger Manhattan Island from the natives. The settlement kept the name New Amsterdam, which then grew and grew throughout the following decades. In 1664, however, the British seized New Amsterdam and changed its name, naming it in honor of the Duke of York and from here are the origins to one of the most iconic cities in the world, New York City.
New York’s Dutch origins can still be seen in many places, with orange and tulips scattered across the cities’ flags. This mixture of Dutch and English colonization is not only present in the changing of the city’s name, but also in the names of the five just as iconic boroughs of New York City: the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, and Manhattan. NYC’s interwoven, multicultural history explains to us this eclectic collection of names, let us look at each.
The Bronx actually comes from a family name, a name belonging to Jonas Bronck. Jonas’ early life seems to be a bit of a mystery, in hindsight. Swedish born—though this is still up for debate—he eventually emigrated to Denmark, then to the Netherlands, before eventually marrying a Dutch woman and sailing to New Amsterdam as it was called at the time. This migration was due to the local economy in the Netherlands falling into pieces, thanks to “tulip mania.”
Jonas and his wife have flourished here. Here he established a farm on the eastern bank of a river, a river that would eventually be named after him. However, with a different spelling of his surname, the Bronx River, which of course led to the naming of the borough of the Bronx.
Brooklyn’s name, on the other hand, comes from New York’s Dutch origin. Its name comes from the Dutch word for “marshland,” which is “breuckelen.” This is also the name of a small town in the Netherlands. So, we can say that New York is kind of the home of New Brooklyn.
Many places in New York are named after Dutch places and things. Harlem, for one, is named after the Dutch city of Harlem. Coney Island’s name comes from the anglicization of the Dutch “Konijn Eiland,” meaning “Rabbit Island.”
The name of the borough of Staten Island is also of Dutch origins. The official name of Dutch parliament is “The States General,” which in Dutch is “Staten-Generaal.” This simply means that Staten Island is named after the Dutch government.
Queens, however, is from New York’s English heritage. It was named in 1683, in honor of Queen Catherine of Braganza, who was the wife of King Charles II of England. In essence, Queens was named in correlation with Kings County, which was named after the aforementioned King Charles II. Kings County is the biggest county in the state of New York and shares its boundaries with modern Brooklyn.
Surprisingly enough, the most famous of all of New York’s boroughs, Manhattan, has a name that does not come from Dutch or English. As a matter of fact, its name comes from the language of the Lenape Native Americans, deriving it from the word “manna-hata.” Its first known recordings are in the 1609 logbook of Robert Juet on his travels into what would now be New York Harbor. It is thought that the name means “island of many hills” in the Lenape language.
Bonus: Why is NYC Called “The Big Apple?”
The Lenape, also known as the Delaware, are the Native Americans native to the area that covers New York City before it was called New York, New Amsterdam, or even the New Angouleme. These natives called the land “Lenapehoking.” Yet, of course, while New York has an iconic name as its boroughs, it also has an equally iconic nickname “the Big Apple.”
The nickname of Big Apple was originally coined in 1920. Despite New York State being America’s top apple grower, its origins actually lie in horse racing. NYC newspaper sports journalist John Fitzgerald heard of stable hands in New Orleans calling New York “the Big Apple.” He liked that name and began using it in his columns.
The name ended up being used at jazz clubs in the 1930s. Jazz musicians used it to allow people to know that New York City was the home of jazz. The name, however, did fall out of popularity until the 1970s, when a big tourist campaign revitalized the name and since then, New York and big apples have been synonymous.
America is often referred to as a melting pot, a place where many cultures meet and come together. And where else is this easier to see that in the names of the boroughs in its most populated city?