Life's Little Mysteries

Why is it called 'Wall Street'?

A photo of a Wall Street sign in front of an American flag
A photo of Wall Street in lower Manhattan. (Image credit: Bloomberg Creative via Getty Images)

As the drama of the civil fraud lawsuit against Goldman Sachs continues to unfold, all eyes are focused on Wall Street.

The reverberations from Goldman's public flogging at the hands of lawmakers and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will be felt throughout the financial industry. But, while Goldman Sachs may be one of Wall Street's top investment banks and most powerful firms, the street itself has a storied history, beginning long before the bankers, brokers and traders moved in.

Wall Street an actual street by that name is located in Lower Manhattan in New York City. The street acts as the epicenter of the city's Financial District.

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The name of the street originates from an actual wall that was built in the 17th century by the Dutch, who were living in what was then called New Amsterdam. The 12-foot (4 meter) wall was built to protect the Dutch against attacks from pirates and various Native American tribes, and to keep other potential dangers out of the establishment.

The area near the wall became known as Wall Street. Because of its prime location running the width of Manhattan between the East River and the Hudson River the road developed into one of the busiest trading areas in the entire city. Later, in 1699, the wall was dismantled by the British colonial government, but the name of the street stuck.

The financial industry got its official start on Wall Street on May 17, 1792. On that day, New York's first official stock exchange was established by the signing of the Buttonwood Agreement. The agreement, so-called because it was signed under a buttonwood tree that early traders and speculators had previously gathered around to trade informally, gave birth to what is now the modern-day New York Stock Exchange NYSE.

Today, "Wall Street" is used to describe the country's financial sector. Since the start of the latest economic recession, in some circles, the term "Wall Street" has become a metaphor for corporate greed and financial mismanagement.

Originally published on Live Science.

Denise Chow
Live Science Contributor

Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.