The European settlement was started by refugee Huguenots (French Protestants) in 1688, who were fleeing religious persecution in France (such as dragonnade) after the revocation by the king of the Edict of Nantes. Many of the settlers were artisans and craftsmen from the city of La Rochelle, France, thus influencing the choice of the name of "New Rochelle".
In 2007, the city had a population of 73,260, making it the seventh-largest in the state of New York. As of the 2010 Census, the city's population had increased to 77,062. In 2008, New Rochelle was recognized by the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) as one of the 100 Best Walking Cities in America, and the second best in New York State after nearby New York City. In November 2008 Business Week magazine listed New Rochelle as the best city in New York State, and one of the best places nationally, to raise children.
Some 33 families established the community of la Nouvelle-Rochelle in 1688. A monument containing the names of these settlers stands in Hudson Park, the original landing point of the Huguenots. Thirty-one years earlier, the Siwanoy Indians, a band of Algonquian-speaking Lenape (also known as the Delaware by English colonists) sold their land to Thomas Pell. In 1689 Pell officially deeded 6,100 acres (25 km2) for the establishment of a Huguenot community. Jacob Leisler is an important figure in the early histories of both New Rochelle and the nation. He arrived in America as a mercenary in the British army and later became one of the most prominent merchants in New York. He was subsequently appointed acting-governor of the province, and it was during this time that he acted on behalf of the Huguenots.
Of all the Huguenot settlements in America founded with the intention of being distinctly French colonies, New Rochelle most clearly conformed to the plans of its founders. The colony continued to attract French refugees until as late as 1760. The choice of name for the city reflected the importance of the city of La Rochelle and of the new settlement in Huguenot history and distinctly French character of the community. French was spoken, and it was common practice for people in neighboring areas to send their children to New Rochelle to learn the language.
In 1775, General George Washington stopped in New Rochelle on his way to assume command of the Army of the United Colonies in Massachusetts. The British Army briefly occupied sections of New Rochelle and Larchmont in 1776. Following British victory in the Battle of White Plains, New Rochelle became part of a "Neutral Ground" for General Washington to regroup his troops. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1784, patriot Thomas Paine was given a farm in New Rochelle for his service to the cause of independence. The farm, totaling about 300 acres (1.2 km2), had been confiscated from its owners by state of New York due to their Tory activities.
Through the 18th century, New Rochelle had remained a modest village that retained an abundance of agricultural land. During the 19th century, however, New York City was a destination from the mid-century on by waves of immigration, principally from Ireland and Germany. More established American families left New York City and moved into this area. Although the original Huguenot population was rapidly shrinking in relative size, through ownership of land, businesses, banks, and small manufactures, they retained a predominant hold on the political and social life of the town.
The 1820 Census showed 150 African-Americans residing in New Rochelle, six of whom were still slaves. The state had abolished slavery with by a gradual plan; children of slave mothers were born free and all slaves were freed by 1827.
In 1857 the Village of New Rochelle was established within the borders of the Town of New Rochelle. A group of volunteers created the first fire service in 1861. In 1899, a bill creating the New Rochelle City Charter was signed by Governor Theodore Roosevelt. It was through this bill that the Village and Town of New Rochelle were joined into one municipality. In 1899, Michael J. Dillon narrowly defeated Hugh A. Harmer to become New Rochelle's first mayor. The recently established city charter designated a board of alderman as the legislative unit (with two members to be elected from each of four wards, and 10 elected from the city at-large.
20th and 21st centuries
By 1900 New Rochelle had a population of 14,720. In 1904, plans were completed for Rochelle Park, one of the first planned communities in the country. In 1909, Edwin Thanhouser established Thanhouser Film Corporation. Thanhouser's Million Dollar Mystery was one of the first serial motion pictures. In 1923, New Rochelle resident Anna Jones became the first African-American woman to be admitted to the New York State Bar.
Poet and resident James J. Montague captured the image of New Rochelle in his 1926 poem "Queen City of the Sound". The last four lines of the poem are:
In 1930, New Rochelle recorded a population of 54,000, up from 36,213 only ten years earlier. During the 1930s, New Rochelle was the wealthiest city per capita in New York state and the third wealthiest in the country.
By the end of the century, the City had begun a massive revitalization of its 'downtown'. In 1999, part of downtown New Rochelle near the Metro North railroad station was rebuilt with a $190 million entertainment complex, nicknamed New Roc City, which features a 19-screen movie theater, an IMAX theater, an indoor ice-hockey arena, mini-golf, go karts, an arcade, restaurants, a hotel, loft-apartments and a mega supermarket. The complex was built on the former Macy's and Mall, which had opened in 1968.