How Manhattan’s Turtle Bay got its name

Turtlebay1878mapTurtle Bay is a wonderful name for an urban neighborhood.

I always imagine hundreds of turtles sunning themselves on the rocks along the East River between 45th and 48th Streets.

That’s where the actual bay was once located in Colonial-era Manhattan, surrounded by meadows and hills, with a stream that emptied at the foot of today’s 47th Street.

Click on the map for a bigger view; it was drawn in 1878 to accompany a book about New York during the Revolutionary War.

Turtlebay1853But while turtles were plentiful in Manhattan (and made for a tasty meal), the name may come from a corrupted Dutch word.

“Some historians attribute the name to the turtle-filled creek, while others say it had nothing to do with turtles, that the name was more likely a corruption of the Dutch word “deutal” (a bent blade), which referred to the shape of the bay,” states the Turtle Bay Association.

“Regardless, the turtle feasts of the day prevailed and so did the name, Turtle Bay Farm.”

Not the Hudson, a site about the East River, has a more definitive answer.

Beekmanmansion“It was named after the Deutal (Dutch for “knife”) Bay farm, which originally covered 86 acres of land shaped like a knife blade. Also occupied by turtles, historians are unsure as to which one of these factors resulted in the name.”

If it was named for the shape of the bay, it no longer applies. The “rock-bound cove” that sheltered ships from storms was filled in and smoothed over in the 1860s.

The Beekman mansion—known as Mount Pleasant (left)—once stood at the northern end of Turtle Bay; it was demolished in the 1870s.

The United Nations occupies most of the site now.

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13 Responses to “How Manhattan’s Turtle Bay got its name”

  1. Manhattan Past (@ManhattanPast) Says:

    I don’t find any documentation that “deutal” or anything similar means “knife” or “blade” in old Dutch. The old (and modern) Dutch word for knife is “mes.”

    Interestingly, the origin of the name Gramercy is thought to be the Dutch term kromme-mesje, which means “curved knife” in both old and modern Dutch. The name supposedly referred to a curved hill that once stood in that part of Manhattan.

    I think somewhere along the line someone confused the origin of Gramercy with the origin of Turtle Bay and got the stories mixed up.

    Egbert Benson claimed the name came from the Dutch word for a wedge-shaped peg used to seal casks. I haven’t found any documentation for this usage, either, however:

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Interesting, thanks MP . . . not knowing old or modern Dutch, I simply trusted the documentation.

    • Manhattan Past (@ManhattanPast) Says:

      Well the story has been repeated in some authoritative books, like the Encyclopedia of New York, and it seems clear that “Turtle” did in fact come from “Deutel,” but nobody has offered any firm etymology of the word “deutel.”

      In modern German or Dutch, the word would be pronounced “DOY-tell,” with a bit of a harder T sound to the first letter than we use in English. You can easily imagine it sounding like “toitle” to English New Yorkers and getting transformed to “turtle” from the regional tendency to interchange “oi” and “ur” sounds (“Berl up some water to steam the ersters…”).

      It’s also interesting to note that the stream that fed the bay was called Deutel Kill, but whether the bay was named for the stream or the stream for the bay is not entirely clear.

  3. petey Says:


  4. fivepointsguy Says:

    “Interestingly, the origin of the name Gramercy is thought to be the Dutch term kromme-mesje, which means curved knife in both old and modern Dutch. The name supposedly referred to a curved hill that once stood in that part of Manhattan.”

    Yes, I think there was a mix-up somewhere. I had always thought that Gramercy was a contraction for “grant mercy”, a common British expression which was also the inspiration for place names.

  5. Edward Says:

    Keep in mind that the Dutch language of 17th and 18th century New York is very different from modern Dutch, so any literal translation is extremely difficult. But, to paraphrase and old saying, when the unknown origin is more interesting than the real origin, go with the unknown.

  6. Linkage: CitiBikes Should Be Heavy; How Turtle Bay Got Its Name – Says:

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  7. Turtle Bay | Dan Rosen Says:

    […] Debate, on a really good blog, about the name Turtle Bay. Some say it might be a corrupted version of the deutal in Deutal Bay Farm, an estate that once occupied the space. ”Deutal” is allegedly being Dutch for knife and the farm wound around 86 acres in a shape reminiscent of a knife blade. Others say  Turtle Bay comes from the turtles that were once plentiful in the area (and graced the bottom of many a soup pot). […]

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    […] terrapins who ended up in New Yorkers’ soup bowls came from the waters around the city (like Turtle Bay, perhaps). Into the 19th century, however, they arrived here from the Bahamas and other parts of […]

  9. The fence post turtles adorning East 49th Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Or is “turtle” an anglicized form of the Dutch word deutal, which means bent blade or knife—once the shape of the bay? […]

  10. Barbara A. Pryce Says:

    Suddenly, I am not being allowed to comment. What’s going on here?

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    […] while the areas around the former Murray estate and Beekman mansion retained the names of the families who owned them, Rose Hill all but disappeared, swallowed up by […]

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    […] the sleek condo building now rises inside the school—a curious mix of old and new New York on a Turtle Bay […]

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