Wall Street – a tiny street with a big history

The name Wall Street stands for high finance and is often used interchangeably with the Financial District. However, before it came to symbolize the American financial might, it was a location of an actual wall making its name – Wall Street – not a figure of speech but a reflection of reality.

In 1625, the Dutch acquired the land from Lenape Indians and settled in lower Manhattan; the settlement’s northern boundary reached the present location of Wall Street. In 1653 Peter Stuyvesant, the colony’s Director-General, incorporated New Amsterdam as a city. To ensure that the realm was well protected from the Indians, wild animals, and, above all, from the English, Stuyvesant built a wooden wall that stretched all the way from the East River to the Hudson River along Wall Street.

A map of New Amsterdam in 1660, showing the wall.

The 12-foot wall bothered neither the Native Tribes, who traveled easily by water nor the English who invaded from the harbor. They took over the colony in 1664, renamed it New York, and, shortly after, tore down the mighty protective wall.

As the city grew north, Wall street enjoyed its central location. In the 18th century, it evolved into a lively residential street lined with houses of well-do-to citizens. One name, in particular, comes to mind – Captain William Kidd. An English captain turned privateer, he lived around the corner but owned quite a few properties along Wall Street. His demise was brutal: he was accused of piracy, caught, and hanged. His story inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure book Treasure Island. The buried treasure of the real Captain Kidd has not been discovered still.

Wall Street, 1790 Print by Jennie Brownscombe (1850-1936)

After the American Revolution, Wall Street took the national spotlight. In 1789, on the balcony of New York City Hall, George Washington was sworn the first American President. New York City became the nation’s capital (1785-1790), and the City Hall transformed into the Federal Hall. Wall Street became the location of the nation’s first Capitol building.

Inauguration of Gen. George Washington, Creator
Joseph Laing, ca. 1865

Just a few years later, in 1792, Wall Street witnessed an event that changed its destiny – it was the year when New York Stock Exchange was established. By the end of the 18th century, New York transformed into a bustling commercial port city. Just steps away from the port, Wall Street was where ‘brokers’ gathered to trade. Business meetings often took place under a huge sycamore (buttonwood) tree in front of 68 Wall Street. One meeting under the buttonwood tree in 1792 resulted in signing a document that went down in history as Buttonwood Tree Agreement. 24 brokers agreed to only trade with one another and charge a standard commission rate essentially giving birth to the New York Stock Exchange.

George Hayward, Tontine Building, Wall Street, N.Y., 1797, n.d., media undetermined, Smithsonian American Art Museum

As the 19th century rolled around, the residences on Wall Street were gradually replaced by businesses. By the second part of the 19th century, as the city grew, most residents moved further uptown. New York evolved into the nation’s financial center, the banks moved in, and the character of Wall Street changed from residential to commercial. By the 20th century, Wall Street became home to the nation’s most powerful financial institutions such as the House of Morgan, the Bank of Manhattan, and, of course, the mighty Stock Exchange.

Wall Street, N.Y. 1847. Drawn from nature by German artist Augustus Köllner (1813-1906), from lith. by Laurent Deroy (1797-1886).

Wall Street, the tiny narrow street that started as the northern edge of a Dutch settlement, went on to become the birthplace of the U.S. government and the financial capital of the world.

View from Trinity Church Looking Down Wall Street with Sketches of the Buildings on Each Side. Creator
Peter Maverick, 1834
View in Wall Street from Corner of Broad, ca. 1850
Wall Street in 1856. Print Engraved in aquatint. Copyright by Sidney L. Lucas. ca 1950
Irving Underhill, postcard ca. 1917

All images are via MCNY digital collection

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