When was this place founded?

In the NYT yesterday, a cute piece “Resolving the Nagging, if Minor, Mysteries of New York City”, looking at two of these little mysteries: When was this place founded? Is the lagomorph in the Alice fountain in Central Park the White Rabbit or the March Hare? The first of these is in significant part a linguistic question: what does founded mean?

Photo from the article:

Souvenir caps made by Elidan, left, put the date of New York City’s founding at 1625, the same as the city seal. Caps made by Torkia, right, say 1664, the year the British ousted the Dutch from New York

From the text:

“I said, if it’s on the seal, that’s the best argument,” [Daniel Yun, an owner of the Elidan company] said. “Sixteen sixty-four, the name changed, but the city was still the same.”

A call to Michael Miscione, the borough historian of Manhattan, essentially confirmed that version of events.

“The first Dutch settlers get here in 1624 and settle on Governors Island,” he said. “The following year, 1625, after one year on Governors Island, they move to Manhattan. They go there to set up a trading post, and in that year, 1625, they get a city charter establishing the city of New Amsterdam.”

There is a but.

“Some historians, and I’m sort of in this camp myself, think 1624 was a more critical date” than 1625, Mr. Miscione said. In fact, “The Encyclopedia of New York City” made no mention of 1625 in its entry on Manhattan. It gave 1624 as the year the Dutch arrived there and referred to 1664 as the year that New Amsterdam came under British control.

There are three significant events here:

1. Settlement. When was the place settled? (The settlers in the new community will usually have their own, informal, names for the place.) For NYC, this was 1624, and the settlers referred to the place as New Amsterdam (well, in Dutch).

2. Legal status. When was the place given legal status, through a charter or a document of incorporation? (In either case, the legal act involves stipulating a name.) For NYC, this was 1625.

3. Adoption of the current name. When did the place get its modern, current name? Ordinarily, this is part of the gaining of legal status, but on occasion, places go through legal proceedings to change their name. For NYC, the current name was legally adopted in 1664.

All three events have some legitimate claim to being the date of the founding of New York City.

A note on the second event. Places can remain unincorporated, but standardly named, for quite some years before gaining legal status. And unincorporated places are not at all uncommon. For example,

Stanford is an unincorporated area of Santa Clara County and is adjacent to the city of Palo Alto. Stanford, California is a valid postal address, and has its own post office and ZIP codes (link)

The gaining of legal status can be many years in the making. Consider the city of Rancho Cucamonga CA:

In 1977, the unincorporated communities of Alta Loma, Cucamonga, and Etiwanda voted to incorporate, forming the city of Rancho Cucamonga.

There had been a community at Cucamonga (first part of Mexico, then part of the U.S.) since the 19th century. And of course a Native American settlement, named in the local languages, going back seven or so centuries before that, though their naming practices never count in the assessment of “real American” names for places. But this place didn’t get a legal name until 1977.

A note on the third event. There are two slightly different ways to talk about the second and third events taken together. One is to say that the modern city of Y “was founded as” the city X, as here, about the town of Jim Thorpe PA:

Jim Thorpe was founded [in 1818] as Mauch Chunk … The company town was founded by Josiah White and his two partners, founders of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company

In the mid-20th century, the boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were merged and re-named in honor of a local son, the athlete and Olympic medal winner Jim Thorpe.

The other way of talking about incorporation and renaming is simply to talk about them as two separate events, as here, about the city of Truth or Consequences NM:

In 1916, the town was incorporated as Hot Springs … [and] the city changed its name to “Truth or Consequences”, the title of a popular NBC Radio program … on March 31, 1950 (link)

4 Responses to “When was this place founded?”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Of course, that was supposed to say “So what’s the answer…”. If there’s en “edit” function for comments I can’t find it.

  2. Bob Richmond Says:

    I heard the radio show in 1950 – I was not quite eleven years old – when the town of Hot Springs, New Mexico – changed its name to Truth or Consequences. The radio show – a quiz program – was broadcast from there weekly for about six weeks.

  3. John Baker Says:

    I wouldn’t think that the renaming ordinarily would be considered a “founding.”
    I used to live in Reading and Wakefield, Massachusetts (at different times), and was amused by their history. Originally the towns we now know as Wakefield, Reading, and North Reading were all just Reading. Reading was settled in 1639 (Wikipedia says 1638, but the local signage only claims 1639), but the part that was settled at that time was the southern part, which today is Wakefield. Reading was incorporated in 1644. The southern part split off from Reading in 1812 and renamed itself as “Wakefield” in 1868, while North Reading split off in 1853. All three towns celebrated their sesquitricentennials in 1994 (although each just called it its “350th anniversary”).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I would think that the renaming shouldn’t be considered a “founding”, but some people take the position that the renaming is the founding *of the city we know as CURRENT-NAME* — that is, as the founding of a new entity that replaces an old one. But, yes, the “founded as” language is the most common, not just for places, but for other named legal entities, like business companies. For example, SRI, International tells us it was “founded as” Stanford Research Institute in 1946.

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