The History of American Urban Development Part 1: The Mercantile Period (800 BCE — 1840 CE)

Hey everyone, I am here again to be a massive nerd and talk about history, this time with a special focus towards cities and urban development.

Initially, I planned to release this project as one massive article, that would cover the entire history of American urban development, from the very first trade outposts on the Hudson up to the development of some of the world’s largest and most economically powerful regions. However, I realized that maybe 500 years of history could not be neatly and compactly summarized in a comfortable and readable length.

Instead, I have decided to split this project into 6 smaller chunks, each covering a distinctive period of urban development within the United States. For this article, I’ll be covering the Pre-Mercantile (~1500–1790) and the Mercantile (1790–1840) periods.

My main source for this project is going to be Urbanization: An Introduction to Urban Geography (3rd Edition) by Paul L. Knox and Linda McCarthy, which was my textbook for Urban Geography in University. It’s unironically a very fascinating read, though…I am totally bias because this stuff kind of activates my almonds.

Anyways with this spiel done, grab a drink, grab some potato chips, and let’s gather around the campfire so we can talk about the history of urban development…in the United States…from 1500–1790…

Wow, that’s a mouthful.

While little remains of classical Greek architecture, early Greece played a critical role in propagating city building throughout Europe. (Image by Sheikyerbutti)

Pre-Colonial History

The history of urbanization in the Americas pre-dates European colonization, with urbanized settlements springing up in the Andes as far back as 3000 BCE and reaching North America by 500 BCE with the Zapotec civilization of Mesoamerica.

These cities often rivalled the size of European contemporaries, with the Aztec city of Teotihuacan reaching a population of 200,000 prior to Spanish conquest (comparable to Paris, Naples, Seville, and Amsterdam).

However, the modern history of urbanization within the Americas, and especially the United States, is heavily influenced by the European colonists who imported their philosophies of urban design.

So, to have a better understanding of how American cities were shaped we must first briefly discuss the urban system that influenced it.

The concept of gathering a large number of people together in densely populated settlements was first seen within Europe when the Greeks adopted the idea from their neighbours in the Levant and Anatolia, who in turn adopted the idea from Mesopotamia (one of the five birth places of urbanization). By 800 BCE, we begin to see the first Greek cities take shape such as Athens, Sparta, and Corinth.

The burgeoning population of these settlements created a desire to establish trade networks in order to sponsor the flow of food into these cities, as the limited amount of arable land severely constraining their supply. Food, it turns out, is something which almost everyone agrees is a pretty important for survival. This trade not only increased the supply of food but also brought in a ton of tariffs and taxes, which concentrated wealth within cities and helped increase their influence and importance. The city’s role as trade centres would be one of the characteristics which determined the importance of cities for…well pretty much the rest of time.

However, even trade couldn’t support the constantly growing Greek population, and soon their city-states began to establish colonies, spreading not only the Greek people but also their city building philosophies through the Aegean, Black, Adriatic, and Mediterranean Seas.

Inspired by the Greeks, the Roman Latins began to establish their own urban system. By the 2nd-1st century BCE this system had begun to displace the previously hegemonic Greek model and by the 2nd century CE the Romans had settlements spread throughout Europe, Africa, and the Near-East, founding cities such as London, Paris, and Vienna.

Cities for the Romans were not strictly commercial or colonial enterprises but became centres by which the Romans could impose their authority and legal code throughout their Empire. The Romans also established an intricate network of roads, laying down a well-developed infrastructure system which connected urban settlements from England to Babylon, one of their most important legacies.

However, with the fall of the empire, urban life within Europe stagnated during what some have called the European Dark Ages. While many cities did languish in this period, certain former Roman cities, which found themselves under Muslim (Cordova, Granada, Seville) or Eastern Roman (Constantinople) jurisdiction, thrived. Though this can be attributed mostly to their favourable position in newly-cemented trade networks and not because of religion. Don’t be a neckbeard atheist please. :c

Within the borders of the various Non-Roman Christian domains, which made up the majority of Europe, three types of cities persisted.

1) Urban settlements which were centred upon academic or religious centres, such as the seats of bishop (Liege, Belgium and Cambridge, England).

2) Defensive strongholds, as the fragmenting of Europe made the defensibility of settlements important (Folingo and Urbino, Italy).

3) Administrative centres of the major post-Roman powers. (Cologne, Germany, Toulouse, France, and Winchester, England).

While there was a period of urban decline in Non-Roman Christian Europe from about between 500CE to 1000CE, by the 11th century this trend began to reverse as a period of urban renewal was experienced. This was due to the nobility beginning to run more complex bureaucracies and field larger armies, forcing them to levy higher taxes upon their peasanty. This in turn forced the peasantry to trade an increasing quantity of produce to pay their taxes. This created an infant money economy and rebooted trade centred upon agricultural goods, craft textiles, and even some long-distance high-value luxury goods, such as silk and spices. And as I said earlier, trade is pretty freaking important for cities to thrive.

In this period, we see the emergence of five different categories of urban settlements.

1) Old Roman towns which either survived the empire’s collapse or were re-established in this period (London, England and Regensburg, Germany).

2) Burgs, which were fortified military bases which evolved to become commercial hubs (Oxford, England and Magdeburg, Germany).

3) Towns which grew organically from village settlements (Wycombe and Wickham, England).

4) Bastides, which were planned towns in France, England, and Wales which were a form of investment placed in strategic locations. These investments paid dividends via market tolls, rents, and court fines (Kingstone, England, Caernarvon, Wales, and Aigues-Mortes, France).

5) Planted towns which were settlements placed upon important junctions that looked to capitalize upon the newly re-established long-distance trade networks of Eurasia (Offenburg, Germany and Berne, Switzerland).

The emergence of trade patterns created by this new era of urbanization were based around Merchant Capitalism, with the mercantile class playing a key role, often providing the entirety of capital necessary for trade. And as this trade became more and more complex, the merchants could call upon an increasing pool of investment, further growing their cities as they needed more artisans, skilled labourers, and various other professionals.

By the end of the 13th century, Europe had 3000 cities with 4.2 million residents, making up somewhere between 15–20% of the continent’s population. The largest was Paris which dominated with 275,000 citizens and was followed by Constantinople, Cordoba, Milan, Genoa, Venice, Florence, and Bruges which all held more than 50,000 residents, modest by our standards, but cut them some slack, they hadn’t discovered the potato…or sanitation yet. Most “cities” however, had fewer than 2000 residents.

Finally, as we draw towards the 14th century, what we see are a series of highly developed cities which act as termini within a Eurasian trade network, with these cities both being the product of trade and the main source of demand for trade goods. Merchant Capitalism will continue to develop and finance the first voyages of discovery.

It only took 1000 words but we are finally ready to talk about the Americas.

Map of Santa Fe, New Mexico from 1882. Santa Fe was actually the first permanent European urban settlement within the borders of the modern United States, first being populated in 1610. (Image is from US Public Domain)

Frontier Urbanization

The Portuguese and Spanish were the first to bring European urban design to the Americas, doing so in the 1520s and taking about 60 years to establish a solid base throughout Latin America.

For the Portuguese, these ventures were chiefly commercial in nature, and they located their cities where it was easy to collect and export the resources of their mines and plantations. For example, Sao Paulo was a centre of coffee, while Rio de Janeiro had exceptionally good access to Brazilian gold.

Cities like these were known as gateways cities, which acted as the terminus of a region, holding complete control over the access of one province to the world at large. While these cities began as colonial trade posts, they soon grew to become administrative centres and would become the focal point of inland trade, being the collecting point of all raw goods leaving the colonial province and the port of entry for all manufactured goods and settlers coming in.

While the Spanish also employed commercial gateway cities, with Buenos Aires being an example, the Spanish were more focused on establishing military and administrative centres to help facilitate their exploitation of the Americas and its people. These were often built upon conquered indigenous settlements, like Oaxaca, Mexico City, Cuzco, and Quito, or in regions with a dense indigenous population, like Puebla, Guadalajara, and Lima. These were established in order to have better accessibility to large slave populations, which the Spanish exploited eagerly.

Yeah, they were kind of shit.

It wouldn’t be until the drafting of the Laws of the Indies, in 1583, that a European power would begin to establish itself in what is today the United States of America. With the passing of this ordinance, the Spanish would begin to settle Florida and the Southwestern United States.

While several settlements were established prior to 1610, the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States was city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, an administrative centre for New Spain’s northern most domains. Over the next 150 years, the Spanish would go on to establish many more urban settlements, including Saint Augustine, San Antonio, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.

When first established, a Spanish settlement was usually designated a singular role. There were Pueblos, centres of commerce and administration, Missions, religious centres, and Presidios, military outposts. However, as settlements grew, they usually began to adopt a more mixed and varied role.

As this happened, other European powers began to establish their own colonial enterprises. For both the Dutch and French, this took the form of fur trading outposts. The Dutch established theirs on the Hudson estuary, with the settlement of New Amsterdam, while the French settled in Quebec, the Great Lakes, and along the Mississippi River, forming urban centres such as Quebec City, Montreal, Detroit, St. Louis, and New Orleans.

However, when it comes to the modern American urban system, no other Europeans had a greater impact that the English.

The first English colony was established in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. While this colony did fail, it laid the foundation of the English colonial system and throughout the 17th century the English would establish or acquire many North American cities.

In 1630, they established Boston, which rapidly became a prosperous centre of trade. By 1639, this was joined by Newport, a religious safe haven and yet another prosperous trade hub. In 1663, they established another colony in Virginia, with Williamsburg eventually becoming the centre of the burgeoning tobacco trade. In 1664, they kicked the Dutch out, conquering New Amsterdam and renaming it to New York, which just happened to occupy the greatest natural port on the Atlantic seaboard. Then in 1680, they established Charles Town (Charleston), which acted as the administrative capital of the Carolinas, and Philadelphia in 1682, which did the same for Pennsylvania.

These early English cities were all gateway settlements, which had less connectivity to each other than to the European homeland which sponsored them, leaving them quite isolated and independent of each other.

However, as the colonial system, and thus urbanization, were pushed further into the interior a hierarchy of cities began to form. The cities which had the best access to resources and greatest accessibility to Europe grew larger and began to dominate larger and larger economic zones. As these zones and cities grew, so did the demand for transatlantic shipping, which in turn sponsored a side industry for coastal shipping which connected these largest colonial ports.

As this happened, new urban centres began to spring up in the interior, away from these ports. These acted as inland gateways, which worked in tandem with coastal gateways to ferry raw goods out of the Americas and finished goods and settlers into the freshly-settled interiors.

As stated, the cities which could call upon the greatest economic regions began to grow in prominence and we begin to see several gateways gain a dominant position in the English colonial system. These included Charleston, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia. However, even these cities were modest in size. For example, prior to the revolution, New York and Philadelphia held around 24–25,000 residents, Boston 16,000, and Baltimore, Charleston, and Newport around 10–12,000. As you may notice these are all port cities, with no inland settlements achieving a population greater than 10,000.

This system of loosely connected urban centres, who were more focused on their trade with Europe, than each other, existed all the way up to the American Revolution. At which point, the English settlers realized that maybe they needed an alternative system of trade, rather than shipping everything of value to the people they just spent 5 years shooting at.

Even though the Jay Treaty kinda…LOOK we’re moving on.

Map of the United States from 1790 by population density. As you can see, the majority of the US population was located along the east coast and centered in a few coastal cities. (Source: United States. Census Office, 1898)

The Mercantile Period (1790–1840)

Ok, now we can actually sink our teeth into this and begin to talk about the American Urban System. It only took what… like 2000 words?

Now, at the start of this period, about 1 in 20 people in the newly-minted United States lived within urban areas. However, when the Constitution was being written it was heavily influenced by city-based newspapers and drafted by urban lawyers and merchants. This meant that the Constitution favoured city-based manufacturing and trade, and stimulated urban growth, doing so to avoid the fracturing of the new American economy into many decentralized rural communes.

The Constitution stimulated urban growth in four ways:

1) Independence required that economic links be established between domestic towns and cities, rather than the former colonial system which favoured transatlantic trade, establishing a new era of coastal trade and shipbuilding.

2) A greater proportion of investment was provided by domestic capital, ensuring that a greater share of returns and dividends remained within the United States, centred chiefly within the pockets of urban elites.

3) New government functions meant that new urban centres were needed to support county courthouses, state capitals, and most importantly, the new capital in the District of Columbia.

4) The Constitution supported the migration of people, and then the American urban system, westwards. First, with the Northwest Ordinance in 1785, the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and finally with the annexation of Texas and other Mexican lands in 1846.

Now as this westward expansion progressed, a greater importance was placed upon inland river ports to help facilitate the trade of goods from the interior towards the vast markets of the eastern seaboard, as the main means of transportation was still focused upon ships. This was helped along by a wave of canal building which greatly increased the connectivity of the interior. Mirroring this increased importance, we begin to see explosive growth within these inland river cities, with New Orleans becoming one of the United State’s biggest, being the end terminus of the Mississippi River trade network.

Now as this canal building took place, and the interior opened up to the metropolises of the east, we begin to see two very important corridors of trade form.

The first stretched from New York up the Hudson River and the along the Erie Canal network to the eastern Great Lakes, connecting together cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee, which all began to emerge as important trade centres.

The second stretched from Philadelphia and Baltimore across the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio Valley, where cities like Cincinnati and Louisville were important interior hubs.

As you can see, this greatly increased the economic area that the eastern metropolises could draw upon for resources and wealth to perpetuate their dominance in the new American urban system. A dominance which was further increased by a wave of industrialization which heavily favoured the existing metropolis of the east, which benefited due to them already having the populations necessary to work these industries and the capital available to finance them.

In fact, in this era we begin to see the Industrial Revolution reach the American shores, with its cradle being within the northeast, with towns like Albany, Lowell, Newark, Poughkeepsie, Providence, Springfield, and Wilmington benefiting greatly from these new economic opportunities.

At the same time, we also begin to see a degree of specialization in cities, as they begin to gear their infant manufacturing towards profitable local conditions. For example, Cincinnati found itself surrounded by a rich supply of delicious (I guess?) pigs, so they specialized and became a centre of hog processing. This is called comparative advantage and would play a huge role in future stages of urban development.

Now, while this great change was being experienced in the United States, their cities also entered an era of peopling as their populations skyrocketed. This was due to two factors.

The first, immigration. At the time of the Revolution, almost 1 in 5 Americans were recent immigrants, and this trend would continue after the revolution as a growing number of Germans and Scot-Irish made the voyage to the new world.

The second, changing technology and social norms. The Industrial Revolution brought about new technologies and changes in the social order which greatly increased agricultural productivity. Not only did this allow for a greater number of urban dwellers to be fed but it also freed up rural labour which then migrated to cities for increased employment opportunities.

You can see the effects of this explosive growth in terms of how large cities became within 50 years. In 1790, New York had 25,000 residents, and by 1840 this figure ballooned to 390,000. While New York stood alone in terms of sheer size, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston all stood at around 100,000 residents, a still tremendously explosive rate of growth. We can also see the growing importance of inland trade centres in this period. In 1790, not one inland trade centre topped 10,000 residents. By 1840, New Orleans had 100,000, and Cincinnati and Albany were somewhere between 25–50,000.

Now what was life like inside of a city during this period?

Nightfall at St. Thomas Church. This painting depicts life in Pre-Industrial New York. When looking at this picture you should note that the main sources of locomotion are by foot and on horseback. (Source: Public Domain)

The Pedestrian City

How cities are designed and lived in are based on many factors. They are a product of economic development, trends in migration, interactions of economic and demographic growth, advances in transportation, and changes in the legal frameworks of landownership, land use, and policy. However, the most important of these factors is by and far transportation, this controls the density and extent of a city.

In this era, people walked. Oh sure, the rich might be able to afford a carriage and the more well to do merchants the ability to move their goods around by horse. However, the bulk of the population walked and the majority of goods within a city were transported by handcarts.

And as previously mentioned, almost all goods were transported between cities via waterways. This meant that the centre of economic activity was focused on waterfronts, centred upon a seaport or riverport. These zones were dominated by merchant offices, workshops, warehouses, and wharves. Then clustered around this were hotels, churches, retail stores, public housing, and the homes of important families. Finally, on the edges existed the homes of artisans, storekeepers, and labourers, plus any commercial activity that needed extra space (textile mills), access to large quantities of water (breweries), or were particularly unpleasant (slaughterhouses).

Since almost everyone walked, this meant that cities were compact and built on the human scale, with little separation between the workplace and home. Factories were built alongside the housing for their workers, storekeepers lived above their shops, and servants lived in their master’s homes. This compact nature also meant there was little distance separating the rich from the poor, ensuring they were constantly interacting and that the city was relatively heterogenous.

And while there were some ethnic enclaves, they were nowhere near as pronounced as they would eventually become. There was no Little Italies, Chinatowns, or Irish Conclaves, though the seeds for such things were planted in this period.


Holy shit I’m actually impressed that I managed to keep this to only about 3.5k words. If you managed to stick it out, thank you so much for reading this and I hope to see you around next time when I tackle American Cities as they enter the Industrial Revolution and weather the rough seas that are, 1840–1875.

Yeah…kinda funny that the first period covers well… 2000+ years of urban development and then all the other parts are like 30 years long. But this should show you, just how quickly cities are about to change and how much the Industrial Revolution, advent of the railway, and growing economic might of the United States is going to change everything.

As always, feedback and questions are greatly appreciated, and follows let me know that there’s an audience out there for this kind of stuff. If you haven’t heard, I do have a Patreon and Ko-Fi if you are interested in financially supporting these weird little articles. The Patreon is especially cool because for $5 you get everything I write, a week early, or for $10 you can have live access to all my blogs as their written and the ability to view my research notes. Oh! I also have a Twitter!

Anyways, with that little bit of selling my soul over, I hope you all have a really great day!




A weird little author who loves to write about history and human sexuality.

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kimberly e.a.b

kimberly e.a.b

A weird little author who loves to write about history and human sexuality.

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