The island at the center of the world : the epic story of Dutch Manhattan and the forgotten colony that shaped America

by Russell Shorto

Paper Book, 2005



Call number

F128.4 .S56 2005


New York : Vintage Books, 2005.


In a landmark work of history, Russell Shorto presents astonishing information on the founding of our nation and reveals in riveting detail the crucial role of the Dutch in making America what it is today. In the late 1960s, an archivist in the New York State Library made an astounding discovery: 12,000 pages of centuries-old correspondence, court cases, legal contracts, and reports from a forgotten society: the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan, which predated the thirteen "original" American colonies. For the past thirty years scholar Charles Gehring has been translating this trove, which was recently declared a national treasure. Now, Russell Shorto has made use of this vital material to construct a sweeping narrative of Manhattan's founding that gives a startling, fresh perspective on how America began. In an account that blends a novelist's grasp of storytelling with cutting-edge scholarship, The Island at the Center of the World strips Manhattan of its asphalt, bringing us back to a wilderness island, a hunting ground for Indians, populated by wolves and bears, that became a prize in the global power struggle between the English and the Dutch. Indeed, Russell Shorto shows that America's founding was not the work of English settlers alone but a result of the clashing of these two seventeenth century powers. In fact, it was Amsterdam, Europe's most liberal city, with an unusual policy of tolerance and a polyglot society dedicated to free trade, that became the model for the city of New Amsterdam on Manhattan. While the Puritans of New England were founding a society based on intolerance, on Manhattan the Dutch created a free-trade, upwardly-mobile melting pot that would help shape not only New York, but America. The story moves from the halls of power in London and The Hague to bloody naval encounters on the high seas. The characters in the saga-the men and women who played a part in Manhattan's founding, range from the philosopher Rene Descartes to James, the Duke of York, to prostitutes and smugglers. At the heart of the story is a bitter power struggle between two men: Peter Stuyvesant, the autocratic director of the Dutch colony, and a forgotten American hero named Adriaen van der Donck, a maverick, liberal-minded lawyer whose brilliant political gamesmanship, commitment to individual freedom, and exuberant love of his new country would have a lasting impact on the history of this nation.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cameling
Manhattan, or New Amsterdam as it was known in the 1620s had a short colonization under the Dutch who founded New Netherlands before it was seized by the English in 1664. Under the directorship of Peter Minuit, famous not only for establishing this new colony for the Dutch but for purchasing it
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from the Indians for $24, this colony was a vigorous and cosmopolitan trading post.

Filled with details about the lives and trials of famous historical figures such as Henry Hudson, after whom the Hudson River is named, Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant, the one-legged governor who lost Manhattan to the English in 1664, this book also covers lesser known individuals such as Adriaen van der Donck, who proposed and fought for more representative government, free speech and tolerance.

This reads more like an adventurous novel than it does a history book, and I credit Shorto's wonderfully descriptive style for bringing to life the people, sights, smells, thrills and tragedies to the reader.
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LibraryThing member setnahkt
Author Russell Shorto regrets that the Dutch presence in North American is usually seen as a sort of comic preface to the main event – Peter Stuyvesant and his wooden leg stump around a little bit but Nieuw Amsterdam quickly becomes New York and it’s the Big Apple rather than the Big Tulip. In
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The Island at the Center of the World, Shorto makes a fairly strong case that many of the political and social customs center to the founding of the United States – particularly tolerance for others – were inherited from the Dutch, rather than England, pointing out that the Pilgrims in Massachusetts – usually taught in school as the “founders” – were running a dictatorial theocracy at the same time as the Dutch had an open and multicultural society to the south. Shorto’s helped by the 1973 recognition that bundles of moldering documents in the New York State Library were the records of the Dutch West India Company, and their translation by scholar Charles Gehring.

It wasn’t all a tulip garden on Manhattan Island, of course. The Pilgrims more or less had self-government – religio-fascist government, but at least they picked it themselves – while the Dutch had a company town run by a board of directors in Amsterdam and a local boss (from the Dutch baas with dictatorial powers. And “tolerance” was grudging; Jews could live in Manhattan – if they had permission from Amsterdam – but they couldn’t build a synagogue; and recognition of Native American rights fluctuated, seemingly because neither side really understood the other. Still better than a lot of other places, though. (Interestingly, the first use of “American” to describe a people refers to the natives and turns up in letters to Amsterdam).

The key was when the English took over in 1664 they agreed to “liberty of conscience”, free trade, and local political representatives – the citizens of New York actually ended up with more rights after the English conquest than they had before – and more rights than the entirely English citizens of Boston. had.

I do have a question; Shorto notes that the New Netherlands came under increasing pressure from New England, which quickly outnumbered it in population; I wonder why. I’m not familiar with how New England got populated; after the initial Mayflower passengers, were there subsequent waves of arrivals? Did the New Englanders breed faster? Did nobody want to emigrate from the Netherlands because things were so good there? The Dutch West India company did encourage emigration, but through the patroon system rather than individual farmers.

An easy read, but well footnoted and referenced. Appropriate illustrations. As a final illustration of the “melting pot”, Peter Stuyvesant’s homesite is now occupied by an Arab newsstand, a Yemenite restaurant, a pizza place, and a Jewish deli. Interesting and recommended.
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
A superb popular history of the founding of European Manhattan. The personalities come alive, and Shorto's vision of a religiously and racially tolerant Manhattan of 400 souls at the southern tip of the island; with the governor, being a country boy, settling his family way out in the wilds
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(Greenwich Village); the building of the protective stockade which later marked Wall Street; the growing demand for civil participation in government which led to a bloodless turnover of the colony to England - well, the book is hard to put down. Dutch Manhattan is often thought of as something which disappeared with the coming of the English, but, of course, the Dutch didn't go anywhere, and America owes much of its heritage as a melting pot to this early manifestation of differences being overcome to make a successful community. My only complaint, and the reason for the half-star deduction from 5 stars, is the lack of maps. There are a few reprints of antique maps in the two sections of illustrations, but they're much too small to use for following the story. There is also no list of illustrations in the table of contents, which seemed odd.
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LibraryThing member okalrelsrv
Breathtaking immersion in what might have been and almost was. Shorto takes us into the past and shows us treasure missed by generations of historians. I'm in love with Adriaen van der Donck. He should have had monuments. 17th Century Manhattan is a microcosm of world views in conflict with power
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at stake, mistakes made and greatness grasped at. It is a cruel irony van der Donck was killed as a side effect of the very mismanagement he strode so hard and brilliantly to surplace with something much more modern.
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LibraryThing member manque
Fascinating story, and a well-researched book--but dragged down by uneven writing and a repetitive cheerleading for the Dutch--at times the writing betrays a certain lack of respect for the audience, as if the author thinks he must spell everything out for the reader, and then repeat it three or
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more times...

The writing is also marred by the use (abuse, really) of phrases such as "he must've been...", "he must have thought...", "he must have wanted...", and their like. Shorto uses these in an awkward attempt to enter the inner lives of some of the central historical characters he presents -- but the problem with this approach, of course, is that there's no way for us (or Shorto) to know what any of these individuals were really thinking or feeling at the time. Shorto would have done better to stick to relating the "facts" of the story, which are dramatic enough in their own right (not to mention highly disputed in some cases). His repeated attempts to portray the thoughts and feelings of his main characters has the weird effect of appearing to fictionalize them, ultimately detracting from the sense of the historical reality of these persons--rather the opposite of bringing history to life. Seems Shorto couldn't decide if he was writing history or historical fiction, and the result is somewhat irritating for the reader interested in history.

Despite these flaws, though, an informative and sometimes surprising look at a crucial period in the history of an important city (New Amsterdam/New York) and the development of what would become the United States.
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LibraryThing member Greenberry
Fascinating account of a little known period and people in American history. The influences of the Dutch settlers of Manhattan on American culture have been little recognized, and this well-written, fast-paced and informative book should correct this oversight!
LibraryThing member Clueless
It ain't much if it ain't Dutch.

I suppose this explains why I felt immediately at home when I moved to the Netherlands almost 20 years ago.

I found the Catholic and Protestant arguments fascinating- as well as the Monarchists vs Republics viewpoints.

The idea of a Dutch contribution to American
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history seems novel at first, but that is because early American history was written by Englishmen,

The Indians were as skilled, as duplicitous, as capable of theological rumination and technological cunning, as smart and as pig headed, and as curious and as cruel as the Europeans who met them.

On the difference between mainstream parenting elsewhere in the world and in the low countries in the 17th century;

The Dutch thinking was the opposite; they hugged and coddled their children, ignoring the scorn of outsiders and following their own experts.

He shows at least that some of the Dutch colonists were aware of the nuances in the Indians' understanding of property rights, noting that to the natives "wind, stream, bush, field, sea, beach, and riverside are open and free to everyone of every nation with which the Indians are not embroiled in open conflict."

In the early 1640’s, however, one of those epochal changes of thinking began to occur in the minds of men from different nations and traditions. The new mind-set had its intellectual origins, most notably, in the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, the man who was the guiding light to Adriaen van der Donck and other law students of the era. Twenty years before, Grotius had put forth the idiosyncratic proposition that peace was the natural state of mature, civilized nations, an war ought to be considered only as a last resort, and even then should only be governed by rules to which all parties subscribed.

Even the Dutch vs English notion of 'who gets what' on discovering new land differs and opens ownership up to conflict.

Stuyvesant despised Jews, loathed Catholics, recoiled at Quakers, and reserved a special hatred for Lutherans. Which is to say, he was the very model of a well-bred mid-seventeenth-century European.

I find this totally repugnant;

Out of the Puritans' exceptionalism--their belief that the Old World had succumbed to wickedness and they had been charged by God to save humanity by founding a new society was similarly divinely anointed. In 1845, journalist John O'Sullivan coined the phrase that would carry this doctrine forward across the continent when he declared "the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self government."

What matters about the Dutch colony is that it set Manhattan on course as a place of openness and free trade. A new kind of spirit hovered over the island, something utterly alien to New England and Virginia, which is directly traceable to the tolerance debates in Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to the intellectual world of Descartes, Grotius, and Spinoza.

This was just laughable (regarding that the Dutch hadn't made important contributions to America);

...he found it particularly ludicrous that so great and powerful a country as the United States could have gotten where it had by "following the example of the policy of the petty cheese-paring of the Batavian provinces, with their windmills, and barren soil, fit only for fuel..."
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LibraryThing member stephenrbown
I loved this book, principally because I learned a great deal. I had no idea that Dutch Manhattan was such a vibrant place before the British took it over. The Dutch West India Company and Peter Stuyvesant managed the entire colony as a business interest, a private corporate land holding, denying
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settlers civil rights. He refused to relinquish his or the Company's dictatorial powers and pursued policies counter to the interests of the colonists. As a result, when British war ships entered the harbour in 1664 during the third Anglo-Dutch war and offered the people of New Netherlands civil government if they surrendered, the entire militia laid down their arms without firing a shot. That is worth thinking about.
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LibraryThing member wildbill
I have owned this book about five years so it is definitely a TOME. I bought it because I knew nothing about the topic and it piqued my curiosity.
There has been significant new research which helped the author tell his story in great detail. Since the 1970's the records of the Dutch colony of New
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Amsterdam have been being translated and published. They figure prominently in the copious bibliography. The ample footnotes also attest to the amount of research that went into this book.
This was the beginning of the colonial era in the Americas. The Dutch had recently won their freedom from Spain and were getting wealthy from the spice trade. The colony was run by the West India Company and Peter Stuyvesant worked in Curacao before he took over New Amsterdam in 1647. There is a very striking portrait of him in the illustrations. He has dark eyes and a steely stare. His portrait is right above that of Adriaen van der Donck who led the opposition against Stuyvesant in a battle for self government by the colonists. That struggle is a large part of the story of the colony. In addition to self government the colonists fought for freedom of speech and dissent. The personalities of Stuyvesant and van der Donck and the political struggle dominated the narration. There was a foreshadowing of the American Revolution in the political struggle of the colonists.
I did not think that the writing gave justice to the story. At times the author seemed to just plod along filling in the narrative. It did seem to move better towards the end but I learned more from the book more than I enjoyed reading it. The one item that kept up my interest was the variety of items that this country inherited from the Dutch. Many of the boroughs of New York of course but odd items like the office of District Attorney which did not exist in English law. I did feel that I learned a lot. The Dutch were definitely a factor in American colonial life. They occupied all of New York and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. To the extent the book satisfied my curiosity it was a worthwhile read. I don't think I would want to read it again.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
The book really suffers from the stupid title. Apart from the fact that every place is the center of the world relatively speaking, New Amsterdam was clearly a side show during the time frame discussed. Its wealth derived from the trade in beaver pelts and as a transport hub for pirates and the
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transfer back to the Old World. Precisely because it wasn't central to the Dutch, the English could take it over rather effortlessly. The dramatic confrontation built by the author ends in a anti-climatic surrender without a single shot being fired.

The author's claim that the Dutch traditions and culture shaped the future New York are widely exaggerated. The original Wall Street may have given its name to the location but was in no way responsible for the future financial center of the world. Only as New York did the town gain access to the large British markets and become the center of the Atlantic seaboard.

The book also suffers from the author's muddled allegiance. His fervent promotion of the USA as the bestest and greatest-ever nation clashes with his equally fervent pleading for Dutch culture and civilization. He missed to learn that there are many great places to live on this planet. Not all roads lead to New York. Staying in Amsterdam can be just as pleasant. One constant feature of the Dutch project of New Amsterdam was that it relied on outsiders (Frisians, Walloons) because the Dutch city slickers preferred the riches and comforts of home. Demography made New Amsterdam English, as the Dutch lacked the English reservoirs of misery in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Thirty Years' War had depleted the German population which might have supplied the numbers for the Dutch. Overall, though the Dutch escaped without economic losses from their American colony as the English accorded them large trade privileges. The Dutch later repaid perfidious Albion by supporting the American Revolution from the beginning.
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LibraryThing member alic
Bet you didn't know that everything good about American culture (religious tolerance, multi-culturalism, front stoops and cookies) came to use from the Dutch by way of New Amsterdam. Well, now you do.

Quibbles for the weasally language (he must have seen...) for the details that there's no evidence
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for, and for the suspicion that he started with his premise and then looked for evidence to support it. A good writing style.
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LibraryThing member sscarllet
I enjoyed this book and I will definitly read it agai. Shorto did amazing research and it really shows. I feel like this is a pretty definitive book on the early history of Manhattan. Shorto brought long dead - and sometimes ill remembered - early Americans to life. I'll never walk down the streets
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in the bottom of Manhattan without thinking of them.

Even better were the litte 'extras' about how 17th century Dutch language and culture has trickled down to make up part of the American identity.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Shorto composes a brief, popular history of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, specifically focusing on the settlement on Manhattan island. He contends that the Dutch colony is often overlooked in American history and what is known about it is generally based on English sources that downplay the
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significance of the Dutch. A decades-long project to translate and publish Dutch records in the state archives at Albany has opened a new understanding of the times when "old New York was once New Amsterdam."

The narrative examines the history of the Dutch settlements between English New England and Swedish Delaware starting with the exploration by Henry Hudson of the river once named for him. Relationships within the colonies, to the Netherlands, with other European colonists, and with the indigenous peoples are explored. Some familiar names such as Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant pop up, but the key figure is the less well-known Adriaen van der Donck, whom Shorto considers a candidate for the founding father of New York. He's remembered indirectly by way of his honorific Jonkheer, became the name of the city built on his former estate, Yonkers.

Shorto argues that what the Dutch created in New Amsterdam ended up having lasting influence on the future United States. Coleslaw and Santa Claus are just a couple of things that the Dutch colony introduced to the Americas. More specifically, Shorto illustrates how Manhattan became an early center of religious tolerance, cultural plurality, and free trade, all things embraced by Americans, albeit awkwardly in balance with the Puritan traditions handed down from our New England forebears.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Shorto's book on the Dutch founding of New Amsterdam adds an important dimension to our understanding of early American history. A fascinating detailed story including power struggles, interplay between New Amsterdam and the home country, Director-General Peter Stuyvesant versus Adriaen van der
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Donck, and the mostly peaceful interactions with the Indians. His thorough treatment of the omnipresent interactions between the tribes and the settlers is anything but simplistic.

While interesting, Shorto's desire to place the Dutch at the center of American origins is overdone. Shorto is a journalist not an historian and it shows when he tries to directly connect New Amsterdam's diversity with today's ethnic and cultural pluralism. Fortunately, Shorto's book is good enough to easily overcome the distraction of that thesis.

Shorto also provides a lesson in the 'history of history' when he describes a circular process whereby this chapter has been overlooked because the raw materials had never been accurately translated until the 1970's and the materials were never sought because of the Anglocentric view of American history. These materials now allow the telling of a much fuller history of Dutch America.

All in all, a very worthy addition to your collection of American history and an enjoyable read. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
Like the vast majority of the world, it seems, I had but a meagre knowledge of Dutch Manhattan. "The Island at the Center of the World" certainly brought me up to speed on it somewhat but as a non-American I think some of Shorto's information was lost on me. Indeed, you would get a lot more out of
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"The Island at the Center of the World" if you have ever visited the place (the closest I've been is Georgia).

The book "The Island at the Center of the World" was only possible thanks to the discovery of a large collection of first-hand documents relating to New Netherlands Shorto starts with a lengthy introduction on how the collection was found, how they found some one with exactly the right experience and knowledge to translate, how the salary to pay him was organised and then how he's been translating over the last 40 years. After a while you're thinking "just get to the damn history of New Netherlands." You'll be pleased to hear that Shorto does eventually start writing about the book's actual topic.

We then read of Manhattan's rise under the Dutch to what could almost be called a city before the English invasion. We get to hear a lot about the main figures in Manhattan's Dutch history, from the managers to the farmers, the brewers, the prostitutes and even the chap who used a stick to perform some eye watering damage to an Indian's groin. And then there is the reference to the amazing powers of beaver testicles.

A well-researched tome that I would have enjoyed more had I been a New Yorker but still worth the read.
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LibraryThing member PhyllisHarrison
Five Stars! It's not just the people I already knew in the book, but getting acquainted with others in the way that only Russell Shorto can make his introductions ("The King, the Surgeon, the Turk, and the Whore"). The humanity in the pages is eerily reminiscent of today's headlines and political
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squabbles; this alone reminds you that Shorto is one very good modern-day journalist, not an eye-witness who might have written the accounts down nearly four hundred years ago.
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LibraryThing member simontuchman
Mediocre. Good introduction to New Amsterdam, but the author has an serious bias against New England. It's obvious enough that it detracts from the books overall quality. If I want a rant about how much Boston sucks as compared to New York, I'll deliver it myself thank you very much.
LibraryThing member rypotpie
This is a beautifully researched book about the early days of Manhattan under Dutch occupancy. It argues that the liberal, democratic-leaning, polyglot Dutch society had a profound but overlooked influence in shaping the culture of New York City and America as a whole.
LibraryThing member Gary10
Nonfiction account of the Dutch contributions to New Amsterday in the 1600s, before the British took control. Author does a convincing case of arguing that the unique characteristics of New York were due to the contributions of the Dutch in the early settlement period. Given the outsized impact of
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NYC on the US and the rest of the world, an intersting and largley untold story. Also, this is a history not just of wars and politicians but of everyday life.
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LibraryThing member hifiny
Very in depth book with a look at early New York. This was a great book to round out my understanding of the city.
LibraryThing member Scarchin
Fascinating account of the Dutch origins of the Big Apple.
LibraryThing member NielsenGW
Dr. Charles Gehring has spent the better part of his life translating the Dutch records, documents, letters, and ledgers from the Dutch East India Company and the small trading outpost on the then-unknown Manhattan Island. Only recently has light been shed on this earliest of histories of the most
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well-known city on Earth. The translations tell the tale of Adriaen van der Donck, the young lawyer, who saw the potential of the American "melting pot", the saga of Peter Stuyvesant, the peg-legged military commander of early New Netherlands, and of John Winthrop and George Downing, the two Englishmen who ultimately wrested control of the land from the early Dutch settlers. Shorto's telling of the founding of Manhattan dispels old myths and offers a humane glimpse into the lives of the first settlers of Wall Street and Broadway. This is a terrific read and a must-have for American history buffs.
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
A book better read than listened to. I found the middle portions of the history agonizingly slow with every tittle and jot of the massive research done by Shorto. The last third of the book was well-done: stirringly written, in fact.

Although I had read of Peter Stuyvesant, I had never heard of
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Andriaen van der Donck--and I suspect I am not alone. Because of him, I forgive the audible book its shortcomings. It is definitely worth the read, but be prepared to wish to skim certain portions.
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LibraryThing member JBGUSA
I just finished reading The Island at the Center of the World::The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto. The book is an excellent history of an overlooked but apparently crucial period of American history; the Dutch heritage of New York City,
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Albany and other adjacent lands. Most American history assumes an Anglo-centric perspective. That perspective is far from wrong, since the English dominated even the earliest colonization of what is now the United States, from the Georgia-Florida border through Virginia and to some extent Maryland, and from Maine partway through modern Connecticut. In between lay "the Middle Colonies", or what became New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Maryland is a special case, a Catholic island in the middle of Protestant America but I digress.

The Middle Colonies also featured a strong Swedish presence in what is now Delaware, southern New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania. The tumultuous history of "New Sweden" is discussed extensively in the book.

The book's main geographic focus is what was known as "Nieuw Amsterdam", later New York City and Fort Orange, later Albany. The book's main human focus is Adriaen van der Donck, of whom I was aware mostly for the fact that Yonkers, a city bordering New York City was named after him. In modern terms he would be understood as a "lawyer's lawyer." The profession of law did not exist in a modern sense in those days. He was dogmatic in his insistence on the rule of law. He was sometimes an ally and sometimes a bitter enemy of the far more famous Peter Stuyvesant.

The book's main argument is that while Dutch rule did not survive, New York City's underlying tradition of tolerance did survive and indeed spread throughout the nation, though imperfectly. The author states, on Page 125-6 "(w)e should be clear, however, about the meaning of tolerance, which had nothing to do with 'celebrating diversity' -- a concept that would have been seen as sheer loopiness in the seventteenth century. 'Putting up with' was probably closer to the mark. If this sounds wan, consider that in Germany as of the time an estimated forty percent of the populated died due to the unholy enmeshment of religious intolerance and politics that gave rise to the 'Thirty Years' War' (in the city of Magdeburg only, thirty thousand were killed in a single day." The book does argue that the flood of people coming to the New World, and largely to New York, came as a result of the mindless massacres and the narrow-mindedness that spawned those.

My minor quibbles, and why I give it "four stars"; certain literary flourishes are clearly invented. How does he know, for example, that after giving a presentation of various "Remonstrances" Adriaen van der Donck turned with a "pirouette" as he departed? This historical device is common, and somewhat lamentable. However, it does add to the book's readability. I highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member joeydag
This book convinced me that America owes much to the Dutch for its freedom of religion and the bill of rights. Freedom of religion was not an issue for either New England nor Virginia. Only the Dutch had to resolve the Roman Catholic vs Protestant issues because of their Protestant revolution and
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independence issues from Roman Catholic Spain.

I read the book years ago but I remember it was interesting and I enjoyed reading it.
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Audie Award (Finalist — 2005)


Original publication date

2004 (copyright)

Physical description

xiv, 384 p.; 21 cm


1400078679 / 9781400078677


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