The best books on New York City history to 1900

Victoria Johnson Author Of American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic
By Victoria Johnson

The Books I Picked & Why

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

By Eric W. Sanderson, Markley Boyer

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

Why 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.


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

By Russell Shorto

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

Why 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.


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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

By T.J. Stiles

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Why 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.


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Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

By Edwin G. Burrows, Mike Wallace

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Why 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.


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The Age of Innocence

By Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence

Why 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.


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