974: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto

by Gerard


974.7102: Shorto, Russell. The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. New York: Vintage, 2005. 325 pp. ISBN 1-4000-7867-9.

Dewey Construction:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 970: History of North America
  • 974: History of the Northeastern United States
  • 974.7: History of New York State
  • 974.71: History of the Borough of Manhattan
  • 974.7102: History of Manhattan during the colonial period, 1620-1776

For years, Charles Gehring has been at the New York State Library, toiling away at a single task: translating the original Dutch records of the colony of New Amsterdam. In 1624, a contingent of settlers left The Netherlands to establish a permanent European presence just south of the Pilgrims who had settled just fours before. The next year, 45 more colonists arrived. They weren’t all Dutch—the atmosphere in The Netherlands was already one of religious, social, and political tolerance, so a mixture of European settlers came to the colony. Today, we now New Amsterdam by a different name, though. Today, it’s called Manhattan.

Russell Shorto, working hand in hand with Gehring, helps to tell the tale of the early days of the Dutch colony. The story is full of wonderful characters. We meet Catalina Trico and Joris Rapalje, a young married couple whose love, life, and offspring created one of the first great American lineages; Adriaen van der Donck, an ambitious lawyer who fostered a sense of community and tolerance; and Peter Stuyvesant, the one-legged early draconian leader of the establishment. Their stories provide a rich history of the settlement and Shorto’s words bring them to life again.

At times, Shorto takes a little bit of imaginative liberty with what exists in the historical records, but more often than not, his descriptions of the early colony are vivid and grounded in the original stories. It’s amazing that the records have survived, given all the calamities that have eroded other document repositories. A lot of Shorto’s writing centers around how many of the documents were found and how each find helped to inform our collective understanding. And it’s the little things that are the most important sometimes. When the diary of a colonial scout is found, it gives insight into the welcoming ceremonies of the local Native Americans. An interview with a descendant of the Rapaljes in the 18th century reveals the interpersonal dynamic of the colony. And so on. It’s these windows into the daily life of Manhattan Island that make this book worth reading. If you’re a enthusiast of the American history, then this one is a treasure trove.