In 1639, a Swedish sea captain named Jonas Bronck sailed from the Netherlands with his wife, some domestic servants, and a number of other emigrants to New Amsterdam—still 25 years away from being rechristened “New York.” Upon Bronck’s arrival, the Dutch West India Company granted him about 500 acres of land that had belonged to the Mohegan people. (And while certain historical texts report that Bronck compensated Mohegan leaders, the details of the deal aren’t very clear.)
The tract was between two rivers: the Great Kill and the Aquehung (meaning “River of High Bluffs”), now known as the Harlem River and the Bronx River, respectively. And if you think Bronx and Bronck sound a little too similar to be coincidental, you’re right.
Bronck leased some of his land to aspiring tobacco and corn farmers and also built himself a house, which is thought to have served as the site of a peace treaty between the Lenape people and the Dutch in 1642. Unfortunately, Bronck had little time to enjoy his unofficial status as northern New Amsterdam’s promising new settler: He died of unknown causes the very next year.
Though his tenure in North America was short-lived, Bronck’s association with the area lingered long after his death. His land was referred to as “Bronck’s Land” (or “Broncksland”), and the Aquehung became “Bronck’s River.” The moniker “Bronck’s Land” didn’t stick, possibly because many of Bronck’s tenant farmers didn’t stick around, and the influential Morris family birthed a new name, “Morrisania,” when it later acquired the land [PDF]. But “Bronck’s River” had staying power. It eventually got simplified to “Bronx River,” which in time became “the Bronx River”—or just “the Bronx,” in the same way that you might call the Mississippi River “the Mississippi.”
In the late 19th century, New York City started annexing its myriad surrounding towns and consolidated them into the boroughs we’re familiar with today. When it came to choosing a name for the borough by the Bronx, officials borrowed the name of the river itself.
In other words, unlike Southern Californians’ habit of adding the before freeway numbers, The Bronx’s definite article is definitely more than just an informal custom. As for whether it calls for a capital T, it depends on whom you ask. According to official Bronx Borough Historian Lloyd Ultan, it does.
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