Vintage Books



If you were to step inside an elevator in the lobby of the New York State Library in Albany, you would discover that, although the building has eleven floors, there is no button marked eight. To get to the eighth floor, which is closed to the public, you ride to seven, walk through a security door, state your business to a librarian at the desk, then go into another elevator and ride up one more flight.

As you pass shelves of quietly moldering books and periodicals-the budgets of the state of Kansas going back to 1923, the Australian census, the complete bound series of Northern Miner-you may be greeted by the sound of German opera coming from a small room at the southeast corner. Peering around the doorway, you would probably find a rather bearish-looking man hunched over a desk, perhaps squinting through an antique jeweler's loupe. The hiddenness of the location is an apt metaphor for the work going on here. What Dr. Charles Gehring is studying with such attention may be one of several thousand artifacts in his care-artifacts that, once they give up their secrets through his efforts, breathe life into a moment of history that has been largely ignored for three centuries.

This book tells the story of that moment in time. It is a story of high adventure set during the age of exploration-when Francis Drake, Henry Hudson, and Captain John Smith were expanding the boundaries of the world, and Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Galileo, Descartes, Mercator, Vermeer, Harvey, and Bacon were revolutionizing human thought and expression. It is a distinctly European tale, but also a vital piece of America's beginnings. It is the story of one of the original European colonies on America's shores, a colony that was eventually swallowed up by the others.

At the book's center is an island-a slender wilderness island at the edge of the known world. As the European powers sent off their navies and adventurer-businessmen to roam the seas in history's first truly global era, this island would become a fulcrum in the international power struggle, the key to control of a continent and a new world. This account encompasses the kings and generals who plotted for control of this piece of property, but at the story's heart is a humbler assemblage: a band of explorers, entrepreneurs, pirates, prostitutes, and assorted scalawags from different parts of Europe who sought riches on this wilderness island. Together, this unlikely group formed a new society. They were the first New Yorkers, the original European inhabitants of the island of Manhattan.

We are used to thinking of American beginnings as involving thirteen English colonies-to thinking of American history as an English root onto which, over time, the cultures of many other nations were grafted to create a new species of society that has become a multiethnic model for progressive societies around the world. But that isn't true. To talk of the thirteen original English colonies is to ignore another European colony, the one centered on Manhattan, which predated New York and whose history was all but erased when the English took it over.

The settlement in question occupied the area between the newly forming English territories of Virginia and New England. It extended roughly from present-day Albany, New York, in the north to Delaware Bay in the south, comprising all or parts of what became New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. It was founded by the Dutch, who called it New Netherland, but half of its residents were from elsewhere. Its capital was a tiny collection of rough buildings perched on the edge of a limitless wilderness, but its muddy lanes and waterfront were prowled by a Babel of peoples-Norwegians, Germans, Italians, Jews, Africans (slaves and free), Walloons, Bohemians, Munsees, Montauks, Mohawks, and many others-all living on the rim of empire, struggling to find a way of being together, searching for a balance between chaos and order, liberty and oppression. Pirates, prostitutes, smugglers, and business sharks held sway in it. It was Manhattan, in other words, right from the start: a place unlike any other, either in the North American colonies or anywhere else.

Because of its geography, its population, and the fact that it was under the control of the Dutch (even then its parent city, Amsterdam, was the most liberal in Europe), this island city would become the first multiethnic, upwardly mobile society on America's shores, a prototype of the kind of society that would be duplicated throughout the country and around the world. It was no coincidence that on September 11, 2001, those who wished to make a symbolic attack on the center of American power chose the World Trade Center as their target. If what made America great was its ingenious openness to different cultures, then the small triangle of land at the southern tip of Manhattan Island is the New World birthplace of that idea, the spot where it first took shape. Many people-whether they live in the heartland or on Fifth Avenue-like to think of New York City as so wild and extreme in its cultural fusion that it's an anomaly in the United States, almost a foreign entity. This book offers an alternative view: that beneath the level of myth and politics and high ideals, down where real people live and interact, Manhattan is where America began.

The original European colony centered on Manhattan came to an end when England took it over in 1664, renaming it New York after James, the Duke of York, brother of King Charles II, and folding it into its other American colonies. As far as the earliest American historians were concerned, that date marked the true beginning of the history of the region. The Dutch-led colony was almost immediately considered inconsequential. When the time came to memorialize national origins, the English Pilgrims and Puritans of New England provided a better model. The Pilgrims' story was simpler, less messy, and had fewer pirates and prostitutes to explain away. It was easy enough to overlook the fact that the Puritans' flight to American shores to escape religious persecution led them, once established, to institute a brutally intolerant regime, a grim theocratic monoculture about as far removed as one can imagine from what the country was to become.

The few early books written about the Dutch settlement had a brackish odor-appropriately, since even their authors viewed the colony as a backwater, cut off from the main current of history. Washington Irving's "Knickerbocker" history of New York-a historical burlesque never intended by its author to be taken as fact-muddied any attempt to understand what had actually gone on in the Manhattan-based settlement. The colony was reduced by popular culture to a few random, floating facts: that it was once ruled by an ornery peg-legged governor and, most infamously, that the Dutch bought the island from the Indians for twenty-four-dollars' worth of household goods. Anyone who wondered about it beyond that may have surmised that the colony was too inept to keep records. As one historian put it, "Original sources of information concerning the early Dutch settlers of Manhattan Island are neither many nor rich [for] . . . the Dutch wrote very little, and on the whole their records are meager."

Skip ahead, then, to a day in 1973, when a thirty-five-year-old scholar named Charles Gehring is led into a vault in the New York State Library in Albany and shown something that delights his eye as fully as a chest of emeralds would a pirate's. Gehring, a specialist in the Dutch language of the seventeenth century (an obscure topic in anyone's estimation), had just completed his doctoral dissertation. He was casting about for a relevant job, which he knew wouldn't be easy to find, when fate smiled on him. Some years earlier, Peter Christoph, curator of historical manuscripts at the library, had come across a vast collection of charred, mold-stippled papers stored in the archives. He knew what they were and that they comprised a vast resource for American prehistory. They had survived wars, fire, flooding, and centuries of neglect. Remarkably, he doubted he would be able to bring them into the light of day. There was little interest in what was still considered an odd backroad of history. He couldn't come up with funds to hire a translator. Besides that, few people in the world could decipher the writings.

Christoph eventually came in contact with an influential American of Dutch descent, a retired brigadier general with the excellent name of Cortlandt van Rensselaer Schuyler. Gen. Schuyler had recently overseen the building in Albany of Empire State Plaza, the central state government complex, for his friend, Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Schuyler put in a call to Rockefeller, who was by now out of office and about to be tapped by Gerald Ford as his vice president. Rockefeller made a few telephone calls, and a small amount of money was made available to begin the project. Christoph called Gehring and told him he had a job. So it was that while the nation was recovering from the midlife crisis of Watergate, a window onto the period of its birth began to open.

What Charles Gehring received into his care in 1974 was twelve thousand sheets of rag paper covered with the crabbed, loopy script of seventeenth-century Dutch, which to the untutored eye looks something like a cross between our Roman letters and Arabic or Thai-writing largely indecipherable today even to modern Dutch speakers. On these pages, in words written three hundred and fifty years ago in ink that has now partially faded into the brown of the decaying paper, an improbable gathering of Dutch, French, German, Swedish, Jewish, Polish, Danish, African, American Indian, and English characters comes to life. This repository of letters, deeds, wills, journal entries, council minutes, and court proceedings comprises the official records of the settlement that grew up following Henry Hudson's 1609 voyage up the river that bears his name. Here, in their own words, were the first Manhattanites. Deciphering and translating the documents, making them available to history, Dr. Gehring knew, was the task of a lifetime.

Twenty-six years later, Charles Gehring, now a sixty-one-year-old grandfather with a wry grin and a soothing, carmelly baritone, was still at it when I met him in 2000. He had produced sixteen volumes of translation, and had several more to go. For a long time he had labored in isolation, the "missing floor" of the state library building where he works serving as a nice metaphor for the way history has overlooked the Dutch period. But within the past several years, as the work has achieved a critical mass, Dr. Gehring and his collection of translations have become the center of a modest renaissance of scholarly interest in this colony. As I write, historians are drafting doctoral dissertations on the material and educational organizations are creating teaching guides for bringing the Dutch settlement into accounts of American colonial history.

Dr. Gehring is not the first to have attempted a translation of this archive. In fact, the long, bedraggled history of the records of the colony mirrors history's treatment of the colony itself. From early on, people recognized the importance of these documents. In 1801 a committee headed by none other than Aaron Burr declared that "measures ought to be taken to procure a translation," but none were. In the 1820s a half-blind Dutchman with a shaky command of English came up with a massively flawed longhand translation-which then burned up in a 1911 fire that destroyed the state library. In the early twentieth century a highly skilled translator undertook to translate the whole corpus only to see two years' worth of labor burn up in the same fire. He suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually abandoned the task.

Many of the more significant political documents of the colony were translated in the nineteenth century. These became part of the historical record, but without the rest-the letters and journals and court cases about marital strife, business failures, cutlass fights, traders loading sloops with tobacco and furs, neighbors stealing each others' pigs-in short, without the stuff from which social history is written, this veneer of political documentation only reinforced the image of the colony as wobbly and inconsequential. Dr. Gehring's work corrects that image, and changes the picture of American beginnings. Thanks to his work, historians are now realizing that, by the last two decades of its existence, the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan had become a vibrant, viable society-so much so that when the English took over Manhattan they kept its unusually free-form structures, ensuring that the features of the earlier settlement would live on.

The idea of a Dutch contribution to American history seems novel at first, but that is because early American history was written by Englishmen, who, throughout the seventeenth century, were locked in mortal combat with the Dutch. Looked at another way, however, the connection makes perfectly good sense. It has long been recognized that the Dutch Republic in the 1600s was the most progressive and culturally diverse society in Europe. As Bertrand Russell once wrote, regarding its impact on intellectual history, "It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Holland in the seventeenth century, as the one country where there was freedom of speculation." The Netherlands of this time was the melting pot of Europe. The Dutch Republic's policy of tolerance made it a haven for everyone from Descartes and John Locke to exiled English royalty to peasants from across Europe. When this society founded a colony based on Manhattan Island, that colony had the same features of tolerance, openness, and free trade that existed in the home country. Those features helped make New York unique, and, in time, influenced America in some elemental ways. How that happened is what this book is about.


I came to this subject more or less by walking into it. I was living in the East Village of Manhattan, a neighborhood that has long been known as an artistic and countercultural center, a place famous for its nightlife and ethnic restaurants. But three hundred and fifty years earlier it was an important part of the unkempt Atlantic Rim port of New Amsterdam. I often took my young daughter around the corner from our apartment building to the church of St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery, where she would run around under the sycamores in the churchyard and I would study the faded faces of the tombstones of some of the city's earliest families. The most notable tomb in the yard-actually it is built into the side of the church-is that of Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colony's most famous resident. In the mid-seventeenth century this area was forest and meadow being cleared and planted as Bouwerie (or farm) Number One: the largest homestead on the island, and the one Stuyvesant claimed for himself. St. Mark's is built near the site of his family chapel, in which he was buried. Throughout the nineteenth century New Yorkers insisted that the church was haunted by the old man's ghost-that at night you could hear the echoed clopping of his wooden leg as he paced its aisles, eternally ill at ease from having to relinquish his settlement to the English. I never heard the clopping, but over time I began to wonder, not so much about Stuyvesant, who seemed too forbidding for such a verb, but about the original settlement. I wanted to know the island that those first Europeans found.

Eventually, I got in touch with Charles Gehring. I learned about the extraordinary documents in his keeping, and about the organization, the New Netherland Project, he had founded to promote interest in this neglected period of history. In the fall of 2000, I attended a seminar he sponsored on the topic and encountered dozens of specialists who were exploring this forgotten world, unearthing pieces of it that hadn't seen the light of day in centuries. They were digging into archives from Boston to Antwerp and turning up hitherto forgotten journals, voyage diaries, and account books. Our understanding of the age of exploration was expanding under this new examination. In my interviews with Dr. Gehring and others, I realized that historians were fashioning a new perspective on American prehistory, and also that no one was attempting to bring all the disparate elements, characters, and legacies into a single narrative. In short, no one was telling the story of the first Manhattanites.

It turns out to be two stories. There is the small, ironic story that originally attracted me, of men and women hacking out an existence in a remote wilderness that is today one of the most famously urban landscapes in the world, who would shoulder their muskets and go on hunting expeditions into the thick forests of what is now the skyscrapered wilderness of midtown Manhattan. But going deeper into the material, you begin to appreciate the broader story. The origins of New York are not like those of other American cities. Those first settlers were not isolated pioneers but characters playing parts in a drama of global sweep-a struggle for empire that would range across the seventeenth century and around the globe, and which, for better or worse, would create the structure of the modern world.

Moving back and forth from the individual struggles detailed in the records to the geopolitical events of the day, you can sense the dawning of the idea that would lead to the transformation of Manhattan into the centerpiece of the most powerful city in the world. Of all the newly claimed regions whose exploitation was rapidly changing Europe-from the teeming cod fisheries off Newfoundland to the limitless extent of North America to the sugar fields of Brazil-this one slender island, sitting in the greatest natural harbor on the coast of a vast new wilderness and at the mouth of the river that would become the vital highway into that continent, would prove the most valuable of all. Its location and topography-"like a great natural pier ready to receive the commerce of the world" is how one early writer described it-would make it the gate through which Europeans could reach the unimaginable vastness of the North American land mass. Possess it, and you controlled passage up the Hudson River, then west along the Mohawk River Valley into the Great Lakes, and into the very heart of the continent. Later migration patterns proved this to a T; the Erie Canal, which linked the Hudson and the Great Lakes, resulted in the explosive growth of the Midwest and cemented New York's role as the most powerful city in the nation. In the seventeenth century that was still far in the future, but one by one, in various ways, the major players in this story sensed the island's importance. They smelled its value. Thus Richard Nicolls, the British colonel who led a gunboat flotilla into New York Harbor in August 1664 and wrested control of the island from Peter Stuyvesant, instantly termed it "best of all His Majties Townes in America."

So the story of Manhattan's beginnings is also the story of European exploration and conquest in the 1600s. And at the heart of the material I found a much smaller story: a very personal struggle between two men over the fate of a colony and the meaning and value of individual liberty. Their personal battle helped to ensure that New York City, under the English and then as an American city, would develop into a unique place that would foster an intense stew of cultures and a wildly fertile intellectual, artistic, and business environment.

One of the protagonists in this struggle, Peter Stuyvesant, has been portrayed by history as almost a cartoon character: peg-legged, cantankerous, a figure of comic relief who would do his routine, draw a few laughs, and then exit the stage so that the real substance of American history could begin. But much of what was known about Stuyvesant before came from records of the New England colonies. To New England, the Dutch colony centered on New Amsterdam was the enemy, and so history has accepted the portrait of Stuyvesant drawn by his greatest detractors. In the New Netherland records, by contrast, Stuyvesant comes across as full blooded and complex: a genuine tyrant; a doting father and husband; a statesman who exhibits steel nerves and bold military intuition while holding almost no cards and being surrounded by enemies (English, Indians, Swedes, foes from within his own colony, even, in a sense, the directors of his company in Amsterdam). He is a man who abhors unfairness-who publicly punishes Dutch colonists who cheat the Indians in business deals-but who, with the harshness of a hard-line Calvinist minister's son, tries to block Jews from settling in New Amsterdam. He is a tragic figure, undone by his own best quality, his steadfastness. But Stuyvesant didn't act in isolation. The colony's legacy revolves around another figure of the period, a man named Adriaen van der Donck, who has been forgotten by history but who emerges as the hero of the story and who, I think, deserves to be ranked as an early American prophet, a forerunner of the Revolutionary generation.

But if the colony's end points forward to the American society that was to come, its beginning is dominated by another figure-willful, brooding, tortured-who hearkens back to an earlier era. Henry Hudson was a man of the Renaissance, and Manhattan's birth thus becomes a kind of bridge between these two worlds. So the story begins far from the American wilderness, in the heart of late Renaissance Europe.

All that said, what originally captivated me about the Dutch documents-that they offered a way to reimagine New York City as a wilderness-stayed alive throughout my research. More than anything, then, this book invites you to do the impossible: to strip from your mental image of Manhattan Island all associations of power, concrete, and glass; to put time into full reverse, unfill the massive landfills, and undo the extensive leveling programs that flattened hills and filled gullies; to return streams from the underground sewers they were forced into, back to their original rushing or meandering course. To witness the return of waterfalls, to watch freshwater ponds form in place of asphalt intersections; to let buildings vanish and watch stands of pin oak, sweetgum, basswood, and hawthorne take their place. To imagine the return of salt marshes, mudflats, grasslands, of leopard frogs, grebes, cormorants, and bitterns; to discover newly pure estuaries encrusting themselves with scallops, lamp mussels, oysters, quahogs, and clams. To see maple-ringed meadows become numbered with deer and the higher elevations ruled by wolves.

And then to stop the time machine, let it hover a moment on the southmost tip of an island poised between the Atlantic Ocean and the civilization of Europe on one side and a virgin continent on the other; to let that moment swell, hearing the screech of gulls and the slap of waves and imagining these same sounds, waves and birds, waves and birds, with regular interruptions by wracking storms, unchanged for dozens of centuries.

And then let time start forward once again as something comes into view on the horizon. Sails.

Excerpted from The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto Copyright© 2004 by Russell Shorto. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


The Island at the Center of the World
Russell Shorto
April 2005
$14.95 (Can. $21.00)