The history of Washington Heights and Inwood dates back to the Native Americans who inhabited the area for centuries. Remnants of their settlements are still evident in Inwood Hill Park where Native American trails, caves and artifacts can be seen. Inwood is also reported to be the place where Peter Minuit paid the Lenape Indians $24 in ‘trinkets’ to purchase Manhattan island in 1626.
After forcing the Native Americans to depart, the early colonists turned this area into farms. The Dutch West India Company administered the entire village of Manhattan calling it New Amsterdam. Peter Stuyvesant was named governor and later incorporated it as a city. In 1664, the British sent a fleet of warships to New Amsterdam demanding that the Dutch surrender to the Duke of York. By this time, many Englishmen had also settled in New Amsterdam and the colonists refused to fight. New Amsterdam subsequently came under English rule and was renamed New York.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, wealthy British and Dutch merchants owned most of the land in Washington Heights and Inwood. Because the hilly terrain inhibited the commercial development of this area, the landowners maintained their estates as summer residences.
Revolutionary War Period
The advent of the Revolutionary War changed this pastoral area into one of strategic military importance. Most of the residents abandoned their homes as the numerous hills were turned into forts during the war. The history of the war in Washington Heights really began when General Washington’s troops lost the Battle of Long Island (actually fought in Brooklyn). He led his army across the East River into Manhattan and was followed up the west side of Manhattan into Harlem. There the battle of Harlem Heights took place. The American forces ended up in what is now Bennett Park, and began fortifying the area into Fort Washington. An outline of the fort still exist in the park.
General Howe’s British army then moved from the Harlem River to Laurel Hill where they established Fort George. They then attacked Fort Washington, which extended from what is now 181st street, north to the site of the Cloisters. When the northern outworks of Fort Tryon were overrun, the British named that area Fort Tryon, after the last British governor of the island.
Captain William Demont, an officer in the Continental army, became America’s first traitor when he secretly left Fort Washington carrying with him the plans of the fort and brought them to General Howe’s headquarters. Meanwhile, the American officers met below the fort at the Blue Bell Tavern, which is now memorialized by a frieze in the lobby of the apartment building at the eastern corner of Bennett Avenue and 181st street. During the time, Washington maintained his headquarters at what is now called Morris-Jumel Mansion.
The fort’s commander, Col. Robert Magaw, gallantly led the defense of the fort when Howe’s army attacked. Colonel Magaw defied the demand for surrender with the famous words inscribed on the plaque attached to the Fort Washington Collegiate Church at 181st street, “We will defend this outpost to the last extremity.” This was not to be as the fort was overrun and many soldiers were killed or captured.
Meanwhile, Washington led the main force from Manhattan to White Plains where they crossed the North River to Fort Lee, New Jersey. At one point, Washington was rowed across the river from Fort Lee to Jeffrey’s Hook (now the site of the famous Little Red Lighthouse) to confer with Fort Washington’s few remaining soldiers. Ultimately, the colonial army lost the Battle of Fort Washington, struggled to survive and won the war seven years later.
The 19th and 20th Century
During the 1800s, wealthy New Yorkers again enjoyed Northern Manhattan as an area for summer retreats. Among the neighborhood gentry were James Gordon Bennett, the publisher of the New York Herald newspaper and John James Audubon, the famous ornithologist and illustrator. Audubon’s heavily forested property, 40 acres around 157th street from Amsterdam Avenue to the Hudson River, was the place where he wrote his book about the mammals of North America. Early in the 20th century when subway lines began service to Northern Manhattan, the area began to change. The construction of multi-family buildings and the extension of the IRT subway line to Dyckman Street turned Washington Heights and Inwood into a totally urban area.
Many immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe and Germany settled in the community. In the early 1960s, African American, Puerto Ricans and Cuban settled in this part of Manhattan. Russian-Jewish refugees arrived in the 1980s. A large number of immigrants from the Dominican Republic started settling here as early as the 1960s and by 1990, represented the largest Dominican population outside of their native country and in the United States.
Today, many New Yorkers have rediscovered the beautiful landscape and residential communities. New restaurants and shops have opened to meet the demands of the diverse population.