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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

5 Surprising Facts about Revolutionary New York

Ah, the Fourth of July. A time for barbecues, beers, and (hopefully controlled) explosions. But don't let today's fanfare make you forget what we're celebrating: American independence! Here are five (not boring) facts I bet you didn't know about Manhattan's involvement in the Revolutionary War. Happy celebrating!

1.  Manhattan fell to British forces in 1776 and became their North American center of operations. That's right: New York was British-ruled for the end of the Revolutionary War! The British took Fort Washington, located in the present-day Manhattan neighborhood known as Washington Heights, on November 16, 1776. As one of the highest points on the island, the fort bore huge tactical advantage and was one of America's last strongholds. Washington watched the losing battle helplessly from Fort Lee across the Hudson River.

2.  New York was feeling crowded... already. Most of the city's 20,000 inhabitants before the Revolutionary War were crowded into less than one square mile in lower Manhattan on the East River. The mariners, stock brokers, and traders had brought great wealth to New York, bringing with them a luxurious, free-wheeling environment. The 500+ prostitutes working in the city at the time (and other "loose-tongued," progressive types of women) offended the mostly Puritan soldiers of the Constitutional Army when they began their occupation. Luckily for them, about 1/3 of the island's population fled in anticipation of the coming conflicts there.

3.  New York used to celebrate a whole other holiday: Evacuation Day. Armed hostilities in New York City ended in 1781, but British troops remained in the city for another two years. Finally the British and newly-formed American governments agreed on a date for the British occupation to end: November 25, 1783. Of course, huge celebrations and parades ensued as New Yorkers took back their home. The tradition of celebrating Evacuation Day waned slowly in New York until World War I, when it no longer seemed appropriate to continue to ceremonialize the opposition of British forces.

4.  New York City was the capital of the newly-formed United States of America. Well, kind of. Under the Articles of Confederation, there were five rotating capitals, New York City being the fifth. When the Founding Fathers, trying to make the federation stronger, signed the Constitution into law in 1789, New York was still the capital of the country. Congress met in several other locations before settling into Washington DC.

5.  Most of lower Manhattan was under water. If you've taken one of our tours, you probably already know this, but during the Revolutionary War the shape of lower Manhattan looked a little different than it does today. Well, actually, a lot different. The former World Trade Center site, Battery Park, South Ferry -- all of it was still part of the merging Hudson and East Rivers. The shorelines were built up on landfill in the following two centuries to accommodate bourgeoning commerce and population.

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