The best books on New York City history to 1900

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a biographer and a professor. I live in and love New York, and my recent work focuses on the history of the city to 1900. I am passionate about understanding the layers of past lives lived. Each layer we uncover represents a set of historical ideas about nature, about the meaning and worth of different human lives, about the aesthetics of buildings and cities. Each layer teaches us that the world we’ve inherited was not foreordained. Things we value will collapse if we don’t nurture them. Things we lament may, with effort, be altered. The books I’ve chosen are ones that help us understand how a bucolic green island gave birth to magical, difficult, gorgeous New York.


I wrote...

American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic

By Victoria Johnson,

Book cover of American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic

What is my book about?

My most recent book is American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. When Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on a dueling ground in July 1804, they chose the same attending physician: David Hosack. Family doctor and friend to both men, Hosack is today a shadowy figure at the edge of a famous duel, the great achievements of his life forgotten. But in 1801, on twenty acres of Manhattan farmland, Hosack founded the first public botanical garden in the new nation, amassing a spectacular collection of medicinal, agricultural, and ornamental plants that brought him worldwide praise from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander von Humboldt.

In an age of rampant epidemics and dangerous treatments, Hosack used his pioneering institution to train the next generation of American doctors and naturalists and to conduct some of the first pharmacological research in the United States. American Eden takes us back to old New York, when the nation’s founders strolled the city sidewalks and most of Manhattan was covered with farms and country estates. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

Victoria Johnson Why did I love this book?

When explorer Henry Hudson arrived in 1609, the island we know today as Manhattan was covered with forests and wetlands and was known as Mannahatta by the native Lenape people. This revelatory, genre-defying book shows us what the island was like before Dutch colonists settled there in the seventeenth century. Mannahatta combines ecological data on the plants and animals that once covered the island with astonishing digital imagery that will make you feel like you are gazing at aerial photographs of a vanished world. Before-and-after pictures thrillingly juxtapose two extraordinary places—a stunning green landscape and the dense, vibrant city of today.

By Eric W. Sanderson, Markley Boyer (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Mannahatta as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 12, 1609, Henry Hudson first set foot on the land that would become Manhattan. Today, it's difficult to imagine what he saw, but for more than a decade, landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson has been working to do just that. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City is the astounding result of those efforts, reconstructing in words and images the wild island that millions now call home. By geographically matching an 18th-century map with one of the modern city, examining volumes of historic documents, and collecting and analyzing scientific data, Sanderson re-creates the forests of Times Square, the…


Book cover of The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

Victoria Johnson Why did I love this book?

New York City is known as one of the most tolerant places in the United States. In this absorbing page-turner, Shorto traces the origins of this tolerance back to the Dutch colonists who settled Manhattan in the seventeenth century. Americans are used to thinking of eighteenth-century Philadelphia and Boston as the cities that gave rise to a new nation, but Shorto upends received American history by arguing persuasively that much of what we value in our culture came from the Dutch who founded New York a century earlier. Shorto’s writing is witty and compulsively readable, and like Mannahatta, it will alter the way you see New York City.

By Russell Shorto,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Island at the Center of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a riveting, groundbreaking narrative, Russell Shorto tells the story of New Netherland, the Dutch colony which pre-dated the Pilgrims and established ideals of tolerance and individual rights that shaped American history. 

"Astonishing . . . A book that will permanently alter the way we regard our collective past." --The New York Times

When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the truth about its thriving, polyglot society began to disappear into myths about an island purchased for 24 dollars and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. But the story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was merely…


Book cover of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Victoria Johnson Why did I love this book?

Stiles is one of our most talented biographers, and his books manage to be both erudite and highly entertaining. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes (among many other awards), and one of them was for The First Tycoon, a riveting biography of a New Yorker who dramatically influenced his city and nation in ways that continue to affect our lives today. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) was a brilliant and ruthless man from a modest Staten Island farming family who saw the future and made a fortune in steamboats and railroads over many decades of the nineteenth century. His business practices helped give rise to American corporate structures, and his enormous wealth—wielded after his death by generations of his descendants—has profoundly shaped the city’s politics, cultural institutions, and built environment. The life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, as told by Stiles in this tour-de-force biography, is also a gripping portrait of New York as it sheds its small-town ways and becomes an international center of commerce and culture.

By T.J. Stiles,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The First Tycoon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

In this groundbreaking biography, T.J. Stiles tells the dramatic story of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, the combative man and American icon who, through his genius and force of will, did more than perhaps any other individual to create modern capitalism. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, The First Tycoon describes an improbable life, from Vanderbilt’s humble birth during the presidency of George Washington to his death as one of the richest men in American history. In between we see how the Commodore helped to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan,…


Book cover of Gotham

Victoria Johnson Why did I love this book?

Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for History, this book is the essential guide to New York City history from the days of the Dutch colony to 1898, the year New York expanded to become the city of five boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Despite its length, Gotham is eminently readable, thanks to its hundreds of colorful characters and fascinating stories of politics and culture in a rising world city. The wealth of research that went into this book—over twenty years’ worth—gives us by far our most complete single-volume account of how New York became New York. I reach for this book over and over as I seek to learn the story of the city.

By Edwin G. Burrows, Mike Wallace,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Gotham as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

To European explorers, it was Eden, a paradise of waist-high grasses, towering stands of walnut, maple, chestnut, and oak, and forests that teemed with bears, wolves, racoons, beavers, otters, and foxes. Today it is the city of Broadway and Wall Street, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, and the home of millions of people, who have come from every corner of the nation and the globe.

In "Gotham", Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace have produced a monumental work of history,on ethat ranges from the Indian tribes that settled in and around the island of Manna-hata, to…


Book cover of The Age of Innocence

Victoria Johnson Why did I love this book?

Great fiction transports us to lost historical moments and helps us feel viscerally what it was to live through them. Among the boundless books that capture pre-twentieth-century New York, Wharton’s masterpiece stands out. In 1921, she won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Age of Innocence, making her the first woman to be so honored. Writing from personal experience and with a supreme command of the novel form, she distills class and gender relations among the wealthy tribes of 1870s New York—descendants of Dutch and English settlers, some with Vanderbiltian fortunes—into the story of a love affair that violates the strict social conventions governing these powerful New Yorkers.

By Edith Wharton,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Age of Innocence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Edith Wharton's novel reworks the eternal triangle of two women and a man in a strikingly original manner. When about to marry the beautiful and conventional May Welland, Newland Archer falls in love with her very unconventional cousin, the Countess Olenska. The consequent drama, set in New York during the 1870s, reveals terrifying chasms under the polished surface of upper-class society as the increasingly fraught Archer struggles with conflicting obligations and desires. The first woman to do so, Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for this dark comedy of manners which was immediately recognized as one of her greatest achievements.


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Book cover of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

Victoria Golden Author Of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

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