New York: The American City
In the half century following the American Declaration of Independence New York City grew at a much faster rate (except during the Revolutionary War itself and during the period around the War of 1812) than it had during colonialism. The city, once its population had stabilized following the drastic shifts during and immediately after the Revolution, doubled and then redoubled in size within a very short span of years. During this era its population composition more closely resembled the ethnic mix of the United States as a whole than at any other time in its history. But, ironically, as New York began to burgeon it simultaneously commenced to diverge in character from the nation since the newcomers from abroad (principally Irish Catholics) were regarded as quite different from the archetypal Americans.
THE REVOLUTIONARY PERIOD
New York became an American city in 1775 when revolutionary committees took over the municipal government. Between 1775 and 1783 political and military events brought about the most radical fluctuations in population in the city's history. The actual dimensions of the population movements, however, are subject to conjecture.
According to one account, "nineteen twentieths at least of the inhabitants with their families & affects . . . left . . . between the latter part of the year 1775 & . . . June, 1776." These emigrants included "rebels or persons in opposition to his Majesty's government,""those who feared the consequences of remaining in a besieged town," and loyalists who wished to avoid military duty. In addition there were included "some hundreds of persons who were taken up & rent into confinement, or on parole in different parts of the country by orders of the Generals, Provincial Congress, or Committees on account of their loyalty."
Oscar T. Barck, leading historian of this period, did not believe the mass exodus was quite so complete. Of the original 25,000 residents just after the outbreak of war, Barck pointed out that "neutrals and those who successfully concealed their opinions must have numbered five thousand." He estimated that this number remained in the city when the British captured it in September 1776.
The British military occupation of New York lasted seven years, a period in which the population of the city fluctuated continually due to "the movement of troops, the incoming and releasing of prisoners, and the ingress and egress of loyalists." Immediately after the American forces were driven out, New York loyalists who had fled the city began returning. They were joined by others from neighboring parts of the country who preferred royal rule. By February 1777 the population increased to an estimated 12,000; by 1781 there were "probably about 25,000 civilians." The city, which also had to house several thousand troops, suffered from a severe housing shortage because an extensive area had been destroyed by a great fire in 1776.
In 1783 New York again experienced a tremendous population turnover. Over 29,000 persons, including discharged soldiers and their families, sailed from New York City before the official evacuation November 25, 1783, the great bulk going to Canada. Barck estimated that including the emigration prior to 1783, about 32,000 civilian loyalists left New York, "perhaps one-third of whom were originally New Yorkers." The homecoming patriots began to enter the city in large numbers by the summer of 1783, and the influx accelerated in November. The population of the city at the date of the British evacuation has been put at 12,000. A contemporary noted the Americans "took possession of a ruined city" with a "heterogeneous set of inhabitants, composed of almost ruined exiles, disbanded soldiery, mixed foreigners, disaffected Tories, and the refuse of a British army."
Points of Interest