by John

Sometimes a new book comes into The Genealogy Center that commands our attention on account of the novelty of its thesis or because it breaks convention with its approach to a particular subject. One such title was added to our collection this week, and while it is not “new” by its publication date, it does represent a wonderful new addition to our collection.

The book is New York City Neighborhoods: The 18th Century by Nan Rothschild (San Diego: Academic Press Inc., 1990) GC 974.702 N422rn. What makes it wonderful is its interdisciplinary approach to local history, employing a paradigm that is refreshingly different and even groundbreaking. It weaves together historical writing with ethnography, archaeology, cartography, urbanization, and architecture, giving us an unusual glimpse into the rise of New York City neighborhoods in the eighteenth century. Beginning with a detailed study of Manhattan at a grassroots level from the beginning of the eighteenth century, when there was still a strong Dutch cultural influence, it carries us to the period after the Revolution, when New York had become transformed into a modern urbanized setting stratified by economics and restructured by many new arrivals that had diluted the former Dutch colony.

Rothschild’s thesis is this: “Early in the century, clusters of people that shared an ethnic identity lived and worked near each other. They spoke the same language, had a cultural heritage in common, and worshipped at the same church, but worked in a variety of occupations and lived at different economic levels. By the end of the century, after the Revolution, many of these early ethnically defined groups had dispersed, and people lived instead among those with similar occupations and levels of wealth.”

She argues further that by 1790, powerful landowners had begun to exert influence on residential choices and together with new groups of immigrants and free blacks, shifted the spatial clustering of households and altered a larger pattern of how the city functioned. In support of her thesis, she uses a variety of tools, including archaeological studies of house foundations and animal bones found at the sites of taverns and markets, historical maps, and lists of residents from 1703 and 1789, all of which document this transformation.

What does this have to do with genealogy? In short, everything. The lists of residents derive from the 1703 and 1789 tax assessment rolls of Manhattan in the Municipal Archives of the City of New York. Like census records, they include the resident’s name, tax rank (by number) street of residence, occupation, job class (by code), ward, and religion. Keys to the codes are provided at the end of both lists. In addition to some reprinted historical maps, a variety of new ones are included throughout the work showing the locations of churches, taverns, markets, and the distribution of ethnic groups by neighborhood and street.

We learn, for example, that in 1703, the Dutch were found widely in all wards but were concentrated heavily in the North Ward, while few English and Huguenots lived there. The English dominated the East Ward, especially on Queen Street, and in the Dock Ward, and were drawn to Trinity Church. Huguenots also frequented the East, Dock, and South Wards, and many lived close to the Dutch Reform Church. By 1789, Dutch- and English-descended residents were evenly dispersed through all the wards. Scots were spread through the East and Montgomerie wards, Germans lived primarily in the North Ward, Jews in the Dock and East wards, and free blacks almost entirely in the Montgomerie Ward. In other chapters Rothschild correlates the wards and ethnic groups by occupation, and she even studies specific varieties animal bones from archaeological sites to determine what kinds of fowl and fish people ate.

Even beyond these lists and the amazing array of sources, what makes the book instructive is its highly localized approach to the study of urbanization. By focusing on neighborhoods and using an integrative approach, Rothschild almost puts the reader onto the streets of New York in the eighteenth century, and she reconstructs those worlds in a way that a more generalized history of New York does not. She goes on to say, “The analytic method used here can be applied to any community where the appropriate documentation exists …The research presented is also of concern to many urban scholars, namely, how do people really live in the city? What are their lives like? What kinds of strategies do they use in adapting to the great numbers of these people, most of whom they do not know?”

These are the same sorts of questions genealogists should ask about their ancestors. As many professional genealogists will tell us, research is all about location, about connecting ancestors to the communities and neighborhoods around them. We do this not only to find associates and possible relatives of our immediate family (which may give us clues of earlier connections), but we should also do it to write more accurate and engaging family histories.

While New York remains among the best documented places in the United States and offers a wealth of material for any local historian, Rothschild’s book challenges scholars everywhere to take similar multi-disciplinary approaches in more communities. The problem is that many places do not have the treasure of archaeological and textual sources to do them. But where the sources are extant and the interest exists, the possibility for more studies like this one abounds. And for genealogists, that would truly be wonderful.