Lower Manhattan--What's In a Name? - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Lower Manhattan--What's In a Name? September 28, 2006
by Sarah Pickman

Visitors to New York City are often warned that if they don't want to look like tourists, they shouldn't look up and gawk at buildings while walking the city streets. But both tourists and natives alike can learn quite a bit about New York's history by looking up--at street signs. The stories behind the names of streets in Lower Manhattan--many of which date to the city's Dutch and British colonial periods--are just as fascinating as the structures that line them.

Wall Street--In 1653, Dutch colonial residents erected a wall at the north end of the city to fortify themselves against an anticipated British attack from New England. The attack from land never came, though the British did attack Manhattan from the sea in 1664. Known to the early Dutch New Yorkers as "de waal," it was demolished by the British in 1699, more than two decades after they gained control of the colony.


Pearl Street--Before landfills left it several blocks inland, the area that is now Pearl Street was the shore of the East River, referred to by locals as "the strand." At that time, it was virtually paved with oyster shells that washed up from the water, which gave off a beautiful shine from the mother-of-pearl inside them.

Reade Street--A political and social bigwig in colonial New York City, Joseph Reade (1694-1771) was a warden of Trinity Church and a member of the governor's council. The name of Reade Street appears on maps from as early as 1797.

Elk Street--In 1867, a group of New York actors formed a drinking club called the Jolly Corks and held their first meeting at a boarding house on this street, which was then known as Elm Street. By the early twentieth century, the club evolved into a fraternal and philanthropic society, renamed the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, now with hundreds of chapters across the United States. The street's name was changed to honor the first Elk lodge in 1939.


Water Street--Originally only one block long, Water Street was extended during a city landfill program in 1692. The landfill was necessary to hold back the erosion of the island's shore and the waters of the East River, which washed over this aptly named street during high tide.

Hanover Square--Named for the House of Hanover, the German dynasty that came to the throne in England when they succeeded the Stuarts in 1714. In 1794, the New York Common Council, in a purge of names associated with British rule, incorporated Hanover Square into Pearl Street, but the change was never enforced.

Worth Street--This street is named for William Jenkins Worth, a former store clerk and veteran of the War of 1812, who rose through the ranks of the military to become a major-general. In 1848, during the Mexican-American War, he was reputedly the first American soldier to enter Mexico City. He is buried in Manhattan's Madison Square.


Coenties Slip--When Manhattan was a Dutch colony and this street an artificial inlet, Conraet Ten Eyck and his wife Antje lived alongside the slip's waters. "Coenties" is a contraction of "Conraet en Antje"--"Conraet and Antje."

Chambers Street--Named for John Chambers, a prominent New York lawyer, corporate counselor, alderman and New York Supreme Court justice from 1727 until his death in 1765.

Broad Street--The street was originally the Broad Canal ("de Heere Graft"), an inlet of the East River, flanked by three-story homes during Dutch rule. The canal was filled in much earlier than other waterways in Lower Manhattan, in 1676, because city officials and residents objected to the litter left behind by the produce vendors who used the canal to transport their goods.

Source: The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan's Street Names and Their Origins, by Henry Moscow (Fordham University Press)

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America