A History of the Geography of New York City (revised version)


By Stephen P. Morse & Joel D. Weintraub


An early version of this article appeared in Dorot Volume 36-1, Fall 2014

A copy of that version, augmented with additional material, appears here.

This revised version was written in August 2019



Introduction: New York City has undergone numerous changes in its geographical boundaries.  An understanding of these boundaries is important in order to know which archive to search in when looking for vital records.  This paper discusses the changes to New York City's geography over the years, and describes the difference between New York City and the City of New York.



Present Day New York: Let's start by looking at the present geography of New York.  New York City and the City of New York are now synonymous terms and consist of the five boroughs, namely Manhattan (New York County), Brooklyn (Kings County), Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island (Richmond County).  Note that each borough is a county but possibly with a different name.  This was not always the case.  Note that everywhere else in the country, a county contains one or more cities.  In New York, there are five counties within one city.


                  The five boroughs and counties of New York City


The Boroughs of Manhattan (less the Marble Hill section discussed later) and Staten Island are on their own islands, while Brooklyn and Queens are part of a larger island known as Long Island.  By common usage, the term "Long Island" refers to the parts of the island that are outside the city boundaries -- namely Nassau County and Suffolk County.  But this is a misnomer since Nassau and Suffolk by themselves do not constitute an island.  The Bronx is not an island but is connected to the North American mainland and abuts Westchester County.


The major islands of New York City


As we will see, New York City originally referred to Manhattan Island only.  And to this day, common usage of the term "The City" refers to just Manhattan, although that too is a misnomer.  Many maps with the title of “New York City” turn out to be primarily maps of Manhattan.



The French, the Dutch, and the British:  Here are the dates of some key events in the early history of New York City.



Giovanni da Verrazzano, sailing for France, discovers New York Harbor.  He names it New Angoulême.


Henry Hudson, sailing for Holland, rediscovers New York Harbor and is given the credit for its discovery.  He continues sailing up to Albany.


First European settlers arrive in the region and name it New Amsterdam.


Governor Peter Minuit purchases Manhattan Island from the Indians for $24 worth of trinkets, or so it is alleged.


First city charter is granted.


Governor Peter Stuyvesant surrenders to the British Duke of York.  New Amsterdam is renamed to New York.


Cornelis Evertsen recaptures New York for the Dutch and renames it New Orange.  But the Dutch didn't want it back, and he is forced to return it the following year (oops).


Some of these dates are reflected in the city's seal.  The original seal of 1686 didn't have a date.  The revised seal of 1915 gives the date of 1664, which is the year that the city was first called New York.  But there was some concern amongst New Yorkers that Boston was claiming an earlier date of 1630.  So in 1977 the City Council revised the seal to display the date of 1625.  Unfortunately 1625 doesn't have great significance in the history of the city.  But it's close enough to 1624, which is the year that the city received the name of New Amsterdam.




What is New York City's birthdate: As we've already seen from the seal, New York doesn't seem to know when it was born.  Here are different answers that the city has given at different times.


City seal shows 1625, a date that is close to 1624, the year that the city became New Amsterdam.

A 1953 postage stamp proclaims the 300th anniversary.  That would imply a date of 1653, the year that New Amsterdam was incorporated by the Dutch government and the first city charter was granted.

A 1948  postage stamp, commemorating the 50th (golden) anniversary for the City of New York, gives the date of 1898.  That is correct if a distinction is made between "New York City" and "the City of New York."  This will be discussed later.




How do you spell Verrazzano:  As already noted, Giovanni da Verrazzano was the original discoverer of New York Harbor, although Henry Hudson received the credit for it.  In 1964 a major bridge was built connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, and the City Fathers decided to give Verrazzano his long-overdue credit by naming the bridge after him.  Unfortunately, they misspelled his name as Verrazano when the bridge was dedicated, blaming it on a typo.  That wasn't rectified until 2018 when Governor Cuomo signed a bill to correct the error and create new signage.  The Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge in Rhode Island had the correct spelling from the start.




Verrazzano is misspelled



The Origin of the Counties: In 1683 New York State was divided into 12 counties.  Of those, the ones that are today part of  New York City are Richmond County (Staten Island), New York County (Manhattan), Kings County (Brooklyn), and Queens County.  The land area of what is the Bronx today was part of Westchester County.  Queens County then included what is today Nassau County.


An 1829 map showing the counties of Richmond, New York, Kings, and Queens

reprinted from  https://www.mapsofthepast.com/new-york-queens-kings-richmond-county-rawdon-1829.html


The area of New York County (and, synonymously, New York City) remained static until 1874.  In that year New York County expanded as the land west of the Bronx River (Kingsbridge, West Farms and Morrisania) was annexed from Westchester County.  This is the western part of what is today the Bronx.  If you were looking for a person in the New York State Census of 1875, and they lived in the western part of the Bronx, you would find them on New York County census forms.


In 1895 the remainder of what is now the Bronx was annexed from Westchester County.  And in 1915 the Bronx was removed from New York County and made into a county of its own.


So now let's see what happens if you are looking for a New York State census record of someone from the Bronx.  For censuses prior to 1874, you would look in Westchester County.  For years between 1874 and 1894, you would look either in New York County or Westchester County, depending on which side of the Bronx the person resided.  After 1894 and before 1915, you would look in New York County.  And starting from 1915 you would look in Bronx County. 


And in 1890, New York City took a so-called "Police Census" of the residents of New York County.  So a person living in the West Bronx would be in that census but a person living in the East Bronx would not be.


New York County 1683 to 1874                        New York County 1874 to 1895




New York County 1895 to 1915                           New York County 1915 to the present


And county changes were occurring in the eastern part of the city as well.  In 1899 the eastern portion of Queens County broke away and formed Nassau County.



Queens County before 1899


Queens County from 1899 onwards



The Changing Geography of Brooklyn: The area that is today Kings County began as six towns back in the 1600s.  These towns and the year in which each was founded are:


Town of Gravesend


Town of Brooklyn (originally Breuckelen)


Town of Flatlands (originally New Amersfoort)


Town of Flatbush, western part (originally Midwout)


Town of New Utrecht


Town of Bushwick (originally Boswijck)


Town of Flatbush, eastern part (originally New Lotts of Midwout)


And in 1683 Kings County was created and it consisted of these six towns.  The changing geography of Kings County then continues as follows:



Village of Brooklyn is incorporated



Village of Williamsburgh (with an "h") is incorporated



Village of Brooklyn + Town of Brooklyn => City of Brooklyn



Village of Williamsburgh => Town of Williamsburgh



Town of Williamsburgh => City of Williamsburgh



Eastern Flatbush => Town of New Lots



City of Brooklyn annexes City of Williamsburg (dropping the h) and Town of Bushwick


City of Brooklyn annexes Town of New Lots



City of Brooklyn annexes Towns of Flatbush, Gravesend, and New Utrecht



City of Brooklyn annexes Town of Flatlands



The unification of Brooklyn is now complete but it will be short lived.



The original six towns of Brooklyn


For comparison purposes, the following map shows the boundaries of the original six towns overlaid on a contemporary neighborhood map of Brooklyn.  The boundaries of the six towns are approximate.  And there is no standard for the contemporary neighborhood names or their boundaries.  So this comparative map should be taken with a grain of salt.


The original six towns overlaid on a contemporary map of Brooklyn.

Contemporary map derived from the image at http://i.imgur.com/NqufQJT.gif



The Changing Geography of Queens: The area that is today Queens County began as five towns back in the 1600s.  These towns and the year in which each was founded are:


Town of Hempstead


Town of Flushing (orig. Vlishing)


Town of Newton (orig. Middelburgh)


Town of Jamaica


Town of Oyster Bay


And in 1683 Queens County was created and it consisted of these five towns.  The changing geography of Queens County then continues as follows:



Town of North Hempstead splits off from Hempstead


Town of Long Island City splits off from Newton


Newton changes its name to Elmhurst


Borough of Queens created, western part of county only




1683: Queens County created, consists of five towns.

This image and next four images reprinted from




1784: Town of North Hempstead splits off from Town of Hempstead.

1870: Town of Long Island City splits off from Town of Newton

1896: Town of Newton changes its name to Elmhurst

Borough of Queens created, western half of county only.



The Changing Geography of The Bronx: We already learned part of this story when we looked at the origin of the counties.  In particular, we saw that:


from 1683 (when the counties were formed) to 1874, Bronx was totally contained in Westchester County


in 1874 New York County annexed the West Bronx from Westchester County


in 1895 it annexed the East Bronx too.


Let's look at this in a bit more detail.


Prior to 1846 the southern part of Westchester County consisted of four towns -- namely Yonkers, Eastchester, Pelham, and Westchester.


Southern Westchester prior to 1846.


In 1846 the town of West Farms is split off from the southwestern part of the town of Westchester.  Then in 1855 the town of Morrisania is split off from the southern part of the town of West Farms.  And in 1873 the town of Kingsbridge is split off from the southern part of  the town of Yonkers.


Towns of West Farms, Morrisania, and Westchester in 1873  


Then, as already mentioned, the West Bronx was annexed by New York County in 1874, and that consisted of the three towns we just mentioned (West Farms, Morrisania, Kingsbridge).


Annexation of West Bronx in 1874


The annexation of the East Bronx by New York County in 1895 involved carving some of the existing towns in Westchester County.  Specifically the southern parts of the towns of Eastchester and of Pelham were carved out, and they along with the town of Westchester were all annexed by New York County.  The reason for this carving had to do with a referendum that had just taken place in 1894.


Annexation of East Bronx in 1895



The Changing Geography of The Staten Island: Prior to 1860, Staten Island consisted of the towns of Castleton, Northfield, Southfield, and Westfield.  In 1860 parts of Castleton and Southfield were carved out to form the town of Middletown.  In 1866 the north shore of Castleton was incorporated into the Village of New Brighton, and in 1872 the boundaries of New Brighton were extended to make it coterminus with Castleton.





Original towns of Staten Island

This map reprinted from "Before the Five Borough City"
on the NYG&B website.


The Referendum: Discussions about consolidating New York City with its surrounding areas started in earnest in the late 1860s.  A non-binding referendum was put before the voters in 1894.  Many were opposed to the idea.  The 1893 cartoon from Puck Magazine illustrates this point.  Mr. New York City is offering a marriage proposal to Miss Brooklyn who seems interested, but the Brooklyn politicians and newspaper editors are very much against it.  In the end, Brooklyn supported consolidation but only by 277 votes out of 129,211 votes cast.



Puck Magazine, January 18, 1893



There were several factors affecting the outcome in Brooklyn.  As of the 1890 census, Brooklyn was the fourth largest city in the United States, behind New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia.  By the time of the referendum in 1894, the City of Brooklyn had annexed almost all of Kings County with the exception of Flatlands, which would be annexed in the following year.  That would make Brooklyn the third largest city.  Brooklynites didn't want to give up that distinction.  But on the other hand, Brooklyn was heavily in debt and bankruptcy was looming.  And Brooklyn had limited access to water of any quality.


In Westchester County the referendum was defeated in the town of Westchester (by one vote) and the Cities of Mount Vernon and Yonkers.  Flushing in Queens County voted no, while the rest of what is Queens County today voted yes.  New York County (then Manhattan and West Bronx) voted yes, as did Richmond County and the towns of Pelham and Eastchester, and the village of Wakefield in Westchester County.


Given the general agreement to go forward with the merger, New York County in 1895 annexed the eastern part of the Bronx from Westchester County, which included the village of Wakefield, and the towns of Westchester, Eastchester, and part of Pelham.  Thus New York County and therefore New York City then encompassed Manhattan and all of what is today the Bronx.



The Consolidation: In 1897 New York State Governor Black signed the charter of the City of New York (its official name) which would consist of the counties of Richmond, Kings (Brooklyn), New York (including the Bronx), and the western part of Queens County (what is today all of Queens County).  The eastern Queens towns of Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay were excluded.  The new City of New York started on January 1, 1898.  The air mail stamp, issued in 1948, commemorated the Golden Anniversary of the City of New York.



Here come the Boroughs: Along with the consolidation,  the five boroughs were established.  They were (and still are) the Boroughs of the Bronx, Manhattan, Richmond, Brooklyn, and Queens.  Boroughs are a unique part of the city.  Each elects its own President although their political powers are limited.  The political power is in the hands of the mayor of New York City and the City Council.


So the term "City of New York" came into being in 1898 and consisted of the five boroughs.  At that point the term "New York City," which previously referred to New York County, should have ceased to exist.  But "New York City" continued to be used with some ambiguous meanings through the years.  Today the two terms are synonymous.


Although the city consisted of the five boroughs, it comprised only four counties.  Bronx was not yet a county, and the Borough of the Bronx was part of New York County.  Another peculiarity was that the Borough of Queens was not coterminous with Queens County, instead it was only the western part of the county.  The eastern part of Queens County was not in the Borough of Queens  and not part of the new city.  And the Borough of Richmond posed yet another problem.  Although the official name was the Borough of Richmond, New Yorkers referred to it as the Borough of Staten Island.  These three issues were cleared up by the following events.



Excluded areas of eastern Queens County seceded and formed Nassau County


Bronx County is formed, resulting in five counties coterminous with the five boroughs


Borough of Richmond is renamed to the Borough of Staten Island



What is New York City:  New York City was different things at different times.


From 1664 to 1874

Only Manhattan Island (New York County)

From 1874 to 1895

Manhattan Island and West Bronx (New York County)

From 1895 to 1898

Manhattan Island and entire Bronx (New York County)

From 1898 to 1899

Five boroughs and 3+ counties

(New York, Richmond, Kings, and western Queens Counties)

From 1899 to 1915

Five boroughs and 4 counties

(New York, Richmond, Kings, and Queens Counties)

From 1915 to present

Five boroughs and 5 counties

(New York, Richmond, Kings, Queens, and Bronx Counties)






The Marble Hill Anomaly:  Marble Hill, with a Bronx zip code of 10463, is the exception that proves the rule about historical knowledge leading to correct genealogical resources.  This original northeast tip of Manhattan Island was once separated from the mainland of the Bronx, to its north, by Spuyten Duyvil Creek.  The Harlem Ship Canal was completed in 1895, and it created a waterway on the south side of Marble Hill.  This left Marble Hill surrounded by water: the canal on the south and the original northern loop of the creek along the remaining edges.



Marble Hill as an Island

reprinted from https://orionmagazine.org/place/spuyten-duyvil-creek-inwood-new-york/


In 1914 the creek was filled in so that Marble Hill became part of the mainland of the Bronx and was no longer on Manhattan Island.


Marble Hill, however, remained in Manhattan Borough and New York County.  In 1939 Bronx Borough President Lyons tried to annex Marble Hill.  Lyons even went there as a publicity stunt and raised the flag of the Borough of Bronx over it, declaring that community as a part of Bronx Borough.  Mayor La Guardia then recommended that Marble Hill be placed in the Bronx but angry residents opposed the plan.  Governor Lehman sided with the residents and that ended the takeover attempt.


In 1983 a court ruled that Marble Hill was in Manhattan Borough and in Bronx County!  That paradox was quickly addressed by the New York State legislature, which in 1984 put the area firmly back within New York County and the Borough of Manhattan.


The attempted take-over of Marble Hill in 1939



Telephone Area Codes:  In addition to counties and boroughs, area codes also serve to geographically split up the city.  Area codes were introduced nation-wide in 1947, and at that time New York City was assigned area code 212.  The reason they chose 212 is because it is the fastest area code that you could dial at that time using a rotary dial phone.


By 1984 they were running out of numbers in the 212 area, so they kicked Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island out of 212 and put them into a newly created area 718.   That of course created quite an uproar in places like Brooklyn where the residents felt that they were being removed from New York City whereas the residents of the Bronx were allowed to stay.  But that inequity was rectified in 1992 when Bronx (along with Marble Hill) was moved into 718.  That left just Manhattan in 212.


From 1992 on, no new area codes were created, but overlays for 212 and 718 were defined.  Specifically in 1992  the overlay 917 was created to cover both 212 and  718, and in 1999 the overlays 646 and 347 were created to cover 212 and 718 respectively.  In 2011 overlay 929 was created for 718, and in 2017 overlay 332 was created for 212.  In case your keeping score, that makes two overlays specific to 212, two specific to 718, and one that encompasses both 212 and 718.



Postal Zip Codes:  The first three digits of zip codes are yet another way to geographical split up the city.  But they haven't changed much since they were first introduced in 1963 and were made mandatory in 1967.  Here are the zip code prefixes for New York City:


100xx Manhattan (in general)

101xx Manhattan (certain large buildings)

102xx Manhattan (certain large buildings)


103xx Staten Island

104xx Bronx

112xx Brooklyn


110xx Queens (Floral Park)

111xx Queens (Long Island City)

113xx Queens (Flushing)

114xx Queens (Jamaica)

116xx Queens (Far Rockaway)


In addition to 101xx being used for certain large building in Manhattan, the region on the upper east side from approximately East 86th Street to East 96th Street has zip code 10128.  That zip code was carved out of zip code 10028 in 1983.


Similarly 102xx, in addition to being used for certain large buildings, is used for a region around Battery Park -- namely zip code 10280.


While we are on the topic of zip codes, a word about postal address is in order.  Normally the last line of a postal address contains the city and state, as for example San Francisco CA.  But that is not the case in New York City.  Instead the borough name is used in place of the city name and we have Brooklyn NY, Bronx NY, and Staten Island NY.  But there are two exceptions.  In Manhattan the county name is used and we have New York NY.  And in Queens the neighborhood name is used and we have things like Flushing NY, Jamaica NY, etc.  There are numerous neighborhoods in Queens and their names and boundaries are not always well defined.  So the Postal Service will let your use the neighborhood name of your choice as long as you include a valid zip code.



The Street-Name Problem: One byproduct of the consolidation of the areas into the City of New York was the loss of autonomy of the small communities in Queens and Staten Island.  Eventually those original communities grew together, and that created a problem with street names and house numbering, since a street could change its name every few blocks.  Queens then underwent a massive street name change and address renumbering process in the 1910s and 1920s, which makes it difficult to locate old addresses on modern maps.  Staten Island also changed many street names.


A collection of resources for resolving problems with old street names has been compiled and it appears at https://stevemorse.org/census/changes.  That utility contains information about street name changes for many cities of the United States, and certainly New York City is included.

In addition to street name changes, the utility shows the conversion of old house numbers to the modern house numbers for streets in Queens.



Conclusion and Credits: Although the history of New York City/City of New York is obviously unique to that area, it illustrates that an understanding of the history of street names and address number changes, the changing boundaries of communities, and what political units they were in, are often crucial for deciding which archives or collections have the information you seek.  Location, Location, Location, isn’t only the realtor’s motto; it is the motto of successful genealogists as well.


We thank Gloria Weintraub for providing critical comments on this paper.