The skyline of New York.
The skyline of New York. A new film looks at the first European to reach the shores and the French name he gave the city: Angoulême. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

If the first European explorer to reach New York Harbor had gotten the name "Nouvelle Angoulême" to stick, NYC might be NAC, according to a new documentary.

How would it have been if America’s most populous city had not been called New York, but something completely different? Such is the question explored by a new documentary being screened in the city itself this month.

While many people are aware of NYC’s earlier incarnation as New Amsterdam, few know that New York City’s future site was, in the early 1500s, already given a previous European title by the explorer Giovanni Da Verrazzano—the French name Nouvelle-Angoulême (“New Angoulême”). Screening November 12 in New York’s French Cinema Week, the film If New York Was Called Angoulême featuring historian Florent Gaillard, glances briefly at this tantalizing, largely forgotten connection between France and New York. It invites the viewer to think a bit about how things could have been, if both the French name and the French themselves had just tried to linger a little longer.

This early French encounter with New York was brief, but striking. Verrazzano became the first recorded European to enter the Upper New York Harbor in 1524, on an exploratory voyage up the East Coast from Cape Fear. Anchoring somewhere within the Narrows that separate Staten Island from Brooklyn on his 50-man ship La Dauphine, Verrazzano told of how he was greeted by Lenape people, and described their territory as the “most pleasant that can be told, suitable for all kinds of crops: wheat, wine, oil.” As for the Lenape themselves, Verrazzano found them beautiful people “[who were] very generous and give everything they have. We have made a great friendship with them. … they live a long time and are rarely sick.”

These words—poignant with little hint of what would be Native Americans’ subsequent experience of conquest, warfare, expulsion, and death by epidemic related to European colonists—were addressed to the French King Francois I. For while Verrazzano was from Tuscany, La Dauphine was a French ship, sent across the Atlantic with funds from the city of Lyon. Sailing under French colors, the explorer thus baptized Manhattan “Angoulême” in honor of Francois, whose title before his coronation was Count of Angoulême, the name of a small city in Western France that still retains a good measure of historic beauty.

While such dedications were common at the time—New York also got its later name in honor of an English duke and later king—it still seems like a bit of a slap in the face to the deep-pocketed burghers of Lyon. Francois himself probably never read the letter, anyway, because when Verrazzano dispatched the news to France, Francois was busy languishing in prison in Madrid after being beaten in battle by his arch-rival, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

After this flurry of activity, the newly named land of Angoulême largely falls from history, with later chronicles of New York tending to prioritize Henry Hudson as a proto-founder. The English explorer sailing under Dutch colors tends to get star billing mainly because his 1609 voyage up the Hudson was actually followed by Dutch settlement in New York State five years later—though in days gone by, the fact that he was a WASP may also have helped promote his official recognition over a Catholic Italian. Indeed, it’s arguable that, until the naming of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in 1964, Verrazzano’s great contribution to global geography was a mistake—namely his mis-recognition of North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound as the mouth of the Pacific Ocean, a misconception that endured in Europe for over a century. His imprint on New York is certainly slight to non-existent: the documentary has to make do with the carved stone fleurs-de-lys and salamanders—symbol of Francois I—that cover the front of Seventh Avenue’s Beaux Arts-style Alwyn Court.

Still, New York’s earliest European name lingers on somehow, as a tantalizing “What if?” What if Verrazzano had not just planted a flag, but actually founded a French outpost? What if the name he affixed to it had stuck? As French power in America’s northeast was extinguished in the mid 18th century, imagining a Francophone Grosse Pomme continuing up to today might be a bit of a stretch. But what if the French had chosen to settle and had held on to territorial control in the city for as long as the Dutch did? When they relinquished power in 1674, the colony of New Netherland had scarcely 4,000 Dutch people in it. New York nonetheless ended up with a substantially Dutch-descended elite, a heavy scattering of Dutch place names, and the spoken language lingered on in greater New York City as late as the 1920s. If the French had been in place for as long a time, they might have likewise left the city with a distinct Gallic tinge, at least among its upper crust.

For the sanity of Americans living elsewhere in the U.S., it may be no bad thing that they didn’t—and that America’s Angoulême faded from memory. In the country that coined the term “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” to describe the French and invented the Freedom Fry, imagine how much more New Yorkers would be resented if they were not just considered pushy and brash, but also a little bit French.

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