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'New York' and 'Albany' - United States Place Names History

Updated on September 12, 2013

Where did the names come from?

Place names in the USA

How did 'New York City' and 'New York State' - in the United States of America - get their names?

Can we assume that the city and the state names originate in the same place?

Was that York, in England?

If so, why?

And what about 'Albany', capital of New York State?

Where does that name come from?

Is there a place, in Britain, called Albany?

*

Seeking out the answers has been fascinating.

My interest in place-names, and their value as a historical source, developed when I took a course by the late Dr Margaret Gelling, enthusiastic and knowledgeable place-names expert, at the University of Birmingham (England).

I only hope that I haven't made any errors.

Maps: New York

Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova, engraved in 1635 by Willem Blaeu
Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova, engraved in 1635 by Willem Blaeu
Map ~ Nicolaes Visscher II ~ 1656
Map ~ Nicolaes Visscher II ~ 1656
New York Harbour around 1770
New York Harbour around 1770

New Amsterdam and Fort Orange


During the 17th century, the Dutch experienced a 'Golden Age', when Amsterdam became very wealthy and influential, as ships sailed throughout the world, trading and colonising. The colonial province of 'New Netherland' was set up in North America, along the Hudson River, specifically to trade with the native people. They sought the furs.

The most Northern of the Dutch outposts, on the river, was 'Fort Orange', close to the site of their earlier, short-lived, trading post, Fort Nassau. ('Nassau' and 'Orange' come from the Royal House of Orange-Nassau.) Today 'Fort Orange' is called 'Albany'.

Another important settlement ~ the provincial capital ~ was 'New Amsterdam', which is now known as 'New York'.

When the Dutch arrived, the area was populated by Algonquin, Iroquois, and Lenape Native Americans. Dutch control in the area lasted from 1609 until 1664, when the Dutch surrendered their territory to the British, who annexed the land.

The colony that was the 'Province of New York' is roughly equal to present day New York State. Many American Revolutionary War battles were fought in New York City, which was the United States capital until 1790.

Historic York - England

York Minster. Copyright Tricia Mason
York Minster. Copyright Tricia Mason
'Gate' - York. Copyright Tricia Mason
'Gate' - York. Copyright Tricia Mason
Walls. Tower. York. Copyright Tricia Mason
Walls. Tower. York. Copyright Tricia Mason

Re-Named 'New York' and 'Albany'

It is not surprising that the Netherlands should name their new territory 'New Netherland'.

Neither is it surprising that they should name their new capital of the province 'New Amsterdam', after the wealthy town, back home, by the dam on the Amstel, and their other major settlement, 'Fort Orange', after their royal family.

But why did the British re-name 'New Amsterdam' 'New York' and why did 'Port Orange' become 'Albany'?


York

York is a very attractive and very interesting town in Northern England, famed for its fascinating history, archaeology and architecture, including the medieval 'Shambles' and 'Minster'; many Roman ruins and a famous 'Viking' museum.

'York' - Place Name

The place-name 'York' has evolved over many centuries.

It is easy to see how the Roman name for this settlement ~ 'Eboracum' ~ evolved into the Anglo-Saxon 'Eoforwic', and then to Viking ' Jorvik' and finally to 'York' ~ as we know it today.

According to Yorkshire-England.co.uk, the Roman name 'Eboracum' would have derived from a native name ~ that is a 'British' name ~ and it would have referred either to a man named 'Eburos', who might have founded the original settlement, or to the noun 'eburos', meaning yew tree, from which this personal name would have originally derived. The site also states that, though Anglo-Saxon 'Eoforwic' was a corruption of 'Eboracum', it did also have a meaning of its own ~ 'settlement of the wild boar'.

See: http://www.yorkshire-england.co.uk/YorkCity.html

Filte gu Alba ~ Welcome to Scotland * Fayenatic london 2009 * Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
Filte gu Alba ~ Welcome to Scotland * Fayenatic london 2009 * Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

Albany

'Albany' or 'Albion' is what Britain was once called. 'AskOxford' calls it 'the poetical name for Britain'. Ask Oxford gives two alternative origins; either that it comes from Latin 'albus' (thence, presumably, from a similar Indo-European term) meaning 'white' or from the Celtic element 'alp' meaning 'rock' or crag'. AskOxford prefers the latter definition.

However, if it does mean 'white', then one can only assume that the name came from the white cliffs of Dover. (The Alps are both rocky and white, but AskOxford given their origin as the Greek 'Alpeis'.) Latin documents used the term 'Albion' for Britain.

Over time, the name 'Albany' came to refer to the far North of Britain ~ ie to Northern Scotland. The Gaelic term is 'Alba', and 'Alba' later incorporated territory further south ~ in Latin this became 'Albania', whence came the Ducal title 'Albany'. Scotland's current Gaelic name for itself is 'Alba'.

Albion and Alps - Craggy and White

White Cliffs of Dover. Craggy & White. Copyright Tricia Mason. 2008.
White Cliffs of Dover. Craggy & White. Copyright Tricia Mason. 2008.
The Alps from above. Craggy and White. Copyright Tricia Mason 1980
The Alps from above. Craggy and White. Copyright Tricia Mason 1980

Why New York? Why Albany?

So why was 'New York' named after a historic English town? And why was 'Albany' named after an old name for Scotland?

The answer is that they weren't ~ well, only indirectly, anyway.

These settlements were not named after places, they were named after a person: The Royal Duke of York and Albany.

This Duke of York and Albany was Prince James ~ the future James II ~ brother of the 'Merry Monarch', Charles II, and son of (the not-so-merry) Charles I ~ the king who was executed (beheaded).

James actually bought the grant of some islands on the New England coast, including Long Island.

James was of the Royal House of Stuart ~ the dynasty which had inherited the English throne after the Tudor Dynasty had died out. His grandfather, also named James, had been James VI of Scotland and James I of England. James senior was son of Mary Queen of Scots.

Because James junior was a prince, both of Scotland and of England, he was granted dukedoms reflecting both countries.

'Duke of York' is a title which is still used for British royal princes. The Queen's son, Prince Andrew, is currently Duke of York. The Dukedoms of York and Albany have been bestowed together a number of times, since James I and VI became monarch of both countries.

Before King Charles II became king, he held both titles.

King James I & VI was Duke of Albany, as was his father, Lord Darnley.

The first time that the title 'Duke of Albany' was used was in 1398. Robert III of Scotland granted it to his brother.

If a title-holder dies or inherits the throne, then the title is absorbed by the crown, and can be granted again, by the monarch. The House of Hanover, which inherited the crown after the Stuarts, granted the title "Duke of York and Albany" several times.

The 'last' dukes of only 'Albany' were Queen Victoria's son Leopold, and his son Charles, Duke of the German duchies of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. However, Charles had his title removed for 'bearing arms' against Great Britain in the First World War. He fought on the side of his cousin, the Kaiser, Friedrich Wilhelm Victor Albert, son of Queen Victoria's daughter, Victoria, the Princess Royal.

James II Duke of York and Albany
James II Duke of York and Albany
James II Duke of York and Albany
James II Duke of York and Albany

James, Duke of York and Albany

Prince James Stuart, later King James II, was born in 1633, to Charles I of England and his wife, Henrietta Maria of France. His elder brother was Prince Charles Stuart, later King Charles II.

James was made Duke of York in 1644. Charles I was executed in 1649, during the English Civil War. Charles II was proclaimed king of Scotland, on his father's death, but not of England, where a 'Commonwealth' was announced, led by Oliver Cromwell ('the interregnum'). James spent a long time in exile in France and even became an officer in the French army. While in France, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Charles was also exiled.

In 1658, Cromwell died and the crown was offered to Prince Charles (the Restoration). In 1659 James married Anne Hyde, by whom he had a number of children, of whom only two girls survived ~ the future queens Mary and Anne. In 1660 the Stuarts again became the royal house of Great Britain. Prince James Returned, with his brother, and reclaimed the title 'Duke of York'.

In 1673 the Test Act was passed. This prevented Roman Catholics from holding official positions. This was the same year that James married his second ~ Roman Catholic ~ wife, Mary of Modena. In 1679, the House of Commons introduced the Exclusion Bill, in an attempt to prevent Catholic James from becoming king. Charles was against the Bill.

This anti-Catholic feeling, amongst British officialdom, became a major problem for James, especially when, in 1685, King Charles died, and James succeeded to the throne.

The Protestant British were wary of a Catholic monarch, but knew that his daughters, and heirs to the throne, were Protestant. However, they became even more wary when a male Catholic heir, young Prince James, came along.

The result was that King James's Protestant daughter Mary, and her husband William of Orange (of the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau), were invited to take the crown ~ they did so jointly, as Mary did not wish to 'govern' alone. They became Mary II and William III.

In 1688, with no real support, James was forced to flee. This coup d'etat was named 'The Glorious Revolution'. James lived out his life in France. He died in 1701 at Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

His son, James, known as 'The Old Pretender', continued to lead the Jacobite cause, and his son, in turn, became known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, 'the young Pretender'.

The Duke of York's Slaves

Sadly, the House of Stuart was very involved in the evils of African Slavery.

In 1632, Charles I licensed traders in African slaves.

In 1660 King Charles II chartered the 'Royal Adventurers' to trade in goods, gold and slaves from Africa.

Before the company's demise, in 1672, they had carried thousands of Africans to the West Indies.

Another, similar, enterprise ~ 'The Royal African Company' ~ was immediately set up by the Stuarts, and their colleagues, to transport African slaves to the Americas. The chief shareholder in this company was James Duke of York and Albany.

I have read that 'Royal African Company' slaves were branded with the letters 'DY' ~ for 'Duke of York'.

Both royal companies were given the monopoly of the business.

''The Grand old Duke of York' - Nursery Rhyme

A famous 'Duke of York' is the one in the childrens' poem. But who is this duke?

One possibility is that it dates to the the Wars of the Roses, when Richard, Duke of York, was defeated at Wakefield Castle, in 1460.

Anther possibility was Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, who was defeated at the Battle of Tourcoing, in 1794.

And there was James II, who tried, unsuccessfully, to resist his son-in-law's attempt to take the British crown, in 1688.

The Rhyme:

The Grand old Duke of York;
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.

When they were up, they were up
And when they were down, they were down
And when they were only halfway up
They were neither up nor down.

York, Yorkshire

New York

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      gepeTooRs 18 months ago

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      annemanamma 2 years ago

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    • Trish_M profile image
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      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Dahoglund :)

      Thank you.

      I'm very pleased that you found it interesting.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I did not know much of this. I would have thought that the American towns had been named foe English towns. very interesting.

    • Trish_M profile image
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      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Thank you William :)

      Glad you enjoyed it!

      I enjoyed researching it, too!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I enjoy reading about the cities, the kings and all the royalty, Trish_M. History is always fascinating, and the names of cities all along the East Coast of the United States is very colorful. I appreciated this well-researched piece. Thanks.

    • Trish_M profile image
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      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      I admit, Brian, that I thought that it was named after 'old' York, as well, until I checked this out :)

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 7 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      Oh well I guess I will need to break the news to my wife who is from Yorkshire and, as I, always assumed that New York was named after the city of York. I suppose there is still that tentative link there but not quite the strong link we suspected. Thanks for this interesting information.

    • Trish_M profile image
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      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Grace. Thank you. I became fascinated by place names, and what they can tell us about history, when I did an introductory course on the subject, at university. :)

    • gracenotes profile image

      gracenotes 7 years ago from North Texas

      Again, an interesting hub about place name origins. I enjoyed this.

    • Trish_M profile image
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      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi John :)

      That's often the way, I think.

      Glad to be of service!

    • aguasilver profile image

      John Harper 7 years ago from Malaga, Spain

      Well done, excellent research and I learned more here than I did in school! - but then I hardly paid attention in school....

      Thanks,

      John

    • Trish_M profile image
      Author

      Tricia Mason 7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Thisisoli!

      Thanks for commenting.

      Yes, York has a long and fascinating history ~ and its Minster shows, I think, how 'venerable' it was. :)

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      thisisoli 7 years ago from Austin, Texas (From York, England!)

      Don't forget that the city of York used to once have a much greater prominance, and was next to london in englands most important cities (It has traditionally been the home of the british armies) and was once the capital of northern england, when the country was separate.

      York only really lost it's prominance when the industrial revolution came about. This is when it's surrounding cities (Which used to rely on york for trade) grew in size.