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Wall Street earned its name after an actual wall was built by Dutch settlers in the 17th century

Alex A

Perhaps one of the most famous places in the world is Wall Street, situated in lower Manhattan, the hot spot of the Financial District of New York City. It is where, famously, money never sleeps, and it is the very street that has helped the city of New York to elevate itself as a power center at a global scale.

The district kicked off in the now-distant 1792 when May 17 of that year marked the date when the first stock exchange was officially opened in New York. A historic moment, signing the agreement for the stock exchange, reportedly took place just outside 68 Wall Street, under a famed buttonwood tree, where early traders of the day previously came there to exchange goods in more informal ways. But how did Wall Street pick its name in the first place?

New York City, USA – June 25, 2016: The New york Stock Exchange on the Wall street in New York, NY. It is the largest stock exchange in the world by market capitalization.
New York City, USA – June 25, 2016: The New york Stock Exchange on the Wall street in New York, NY. It is the largest stock exchange in the world by market capitalization.

Its history can be traced back to Dutch settlers of the 17th century. Several varying accounts tell the story of how the name of the street originated.

In one of his 1930s publications, The Tribes and the States, William James Sidies writes of an alleged treaty that was signed between Native Americans who lived in the area where New York is today, and the Dutchmen who were the newcomers and founders of their city New Amsterdam.

It was the Europeans who were the first to break the treaty, the Pipe of Peace agreement. In one version of the story, following the agreement, they supposedly went after slaughtering the entire tribe in question that signed the bilateral agreement, and only a few people from the tribe managed to save their lives. Those who survived told what happened to the other tribes, alerting the rest of the tribes. In fears that there may be a revenge, the Dutch raised a double palisade to protect them from any possible attack from Natives who might have sought revenge.

The original city map from 1660 showing the wall on the right-hand side  

For a period of time, such a wall would have remained the northern border of New Amsterdam, and the realm between where the two palisades used to stand is supposedly where Wall Street is now, “and its spirit is still that of a bulwark against the people,” Sidies wrote.

However, this is not the most widely accepted version of the origin of Wall Street. A more popular version claims that there was an earthen wall that marked where the settlement of New Amsterdam ended on its north side. 

This wall was possibly raised to stop the English colonial encroachment, a possible invasion by Native Americans, and also trouble from pirates. The Dutch also acted as the “Godfathers,” in this case, naming the city border wall “de Walstraat.”      

Another story goes that the street picked its name after the Walloons, because there were 30 Walloon families that came in the first wave of settlers. These would have boarded the ship Nieu Nederlandt in 1624 and it is due to the Dutch wordings, where Walloon is Waal, that the name stuck. The word “wall” in Dutch further denotes “rampart.”

The depiction of the New Amsterdam wall on the tiles of the Wall Street subway station

Anyhow, a wall was there and it was later improved with efforts both from the local governing bodies and the West India Company. They arranged the building of a new, stronger wall for which African slaves were used for the labor.

From Pearl Street that was a shoreline, this wall stretched along Broadway and stopped where Trinity Place is nowadays. From there the wall extended to the south, snaked parallel with the shore and eventually ceased at the site of the old fort.

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Back in the day, local traders and merchants met at a number of different spots in the area where Wall Street is today. It was by far one of the busiest zones across the entire city, where people would buy bonds and shares and where over time two classes emerged, both dealers and auctioneers. Infamously, it was on Wall Street where slaves were bought or sold by slave-owners, too.

In 1699 the wall was removed thanks to the British colonial government, but the name, as we all know, stuck.