Williamsburg used to be Williamsburgh—when did it lose the h and why?

The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn has taken some strange and convoluted turns during its journey from farm village to urban neighborhood.

In the 17th century it was part of the Dutch town of Boswijck, which became the anglicized Bushwick when the British captured New Amsterdam in 1664.

But it wasn’t until 1802 when real-estate developer Richard M. Woodhull purchased 13 acres in Bushwick near the East River, intending to develop what had been farmland into an urban enclave. Woodhull hired an engineer, Jonathan Williams, to survey the land—then named the new development after Williams.

He called it Williamsburgh, with an h.

Williamsburgh grew rapidly. It became its own village in the town of Bushwick in 1827 and an affluent suburb of New York, according to Victor Lederer’s book Williamsburg. Riverfront industry such as shipbuilding and sugar refining attracted even more residents, and Williamsburgh incorporated itself into a town in 1840.

In 1852, the booming town—now home to 35,000 people—declared itself a separate city in Kings County. In the process, city officials dropped the h and called it the city of Williamsburg.

Williamsburg’s time as a city didn’t last long. By 1855, Williamsburg was annexed by the city of Brooklyn. And in 1898, the city of Brooklyn bit the dust, becoming the borough of Brooklyn of Greater New York City.

So it’s been 171 years since Williamsburgh became Williamsburg. What I’d like to know is why government officials decided to do away with the h in the first place.

Newspaper archives and other records aren’t giving me an answer. But my guess involves the ethnic background of Williamsburg’s newest residents in the mid-1850s. During the first half of the 19th century, thousands of Irish and German immigrants came to New York City, and a sizable number ended up in Williamsburg, laboring in the refineries and shipyards.

Perhaps “Williamsburgh” sounded a little too English. By ditching the h, Williamsburg may have been more appealing to new arrivals from nations that didn’t always have good relations with Britain.

Tags: , , , , ,

13 Responses to “Williamsburg used to be Williamsburgh—when did it lose the h and why?”

  1. beth Says:

    I’m guessing the h drop was an attempt to ‘American-ize’ the place

  2. andrewalpern Says:

    Edinburgh didn’t become Edinburg. The Irish and the Germans had truck with the English, not the Scots. So why would they have a problem with Williamsburgh and lobby to change its spelling? Most of those immigrants were illiterate anyhow, so how something was spelled wouldn’t matter.

  3. Ty Says:

    It just might be case of dropping an unnecessary letter that people were already not using. Especially since most of the new residents first language was not English.

  4. velovixen Says:

    Actually, the “h” at the end gave it a different sound–more like “burg-uh,” as opposed to “burg.” You can still here an echo of it in the way Scots pronounce the name of one of their cities: “Eddin-burrah,” which is a sort of rounded-off version of “Eddin-burgah.”

  5. Greg Says:

    I don’t think the matter was settled by those City of Williamsburg officials. They had only three years of authority. Once the city ceased to exist as such there was no official name, because neighborhoods don’t really have those.

    That is why, for instance, you had the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh (founded 1864) opting for the older spelling.

  6. Bob Says:

    It seems to me that Williamsburgh, Kings County lost the “h” through the widespread process of the evolution, harmonization, and simplification of American English spelling during the 19th century as education, literacy, communication, and media matured and spread in the United States. There were probably two dozen “Williamsburg”s and no other “Williamsburgh”s in the United States in the 1850s.

    The state of New York passed “An Act to incorporate the city of Williamsburgh (sic) on April 7, 1851. Two days later the state passed “An Act to incorporate the Williamsburgh (sic) Savings Bank.” The state of New York then passed “An Act to consolidate the cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburgh (sic) and the town of Bushwick into one municipal government, and to incorporate the same” on April 17, 1854. Google Books has digitized the contemporaneously printed law books.

    That said, there were some state laws in the late 1840s that already refer to the town and village of “Williamsburg (sic).”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I think your explanation—the simplification of American English through the 19th century—is likely correct. And both spellings appear throughout the 1800s…particularly in Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh, as Greg points out above.

  7. sheryl Says:

    My question is why was the “H” there in the first place. The German businessmen must have noticed the misspelling.

  8. Bill B Says:

    Losing the “H” is an American tradition “Pittsburgh PA” became Pittsburg for a time, after objections it got it’s “H” back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: