The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

by Russell Shorto

Paperback, 2005

Call number

974.7 SHO



Vintage (2005), 416 pages


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 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 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 (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.… (more)
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 for, and for the suspicion that he started with his premise and then looked for evidence to support it. A good writing style.… (more)
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 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 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.… (more)
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member patsplendore
Fascinating. More like a novel than a history
LibraryThing member pdxburley
This was the March 2007 book for my Library book group. I find that the older I get the greater appreciation I have for history and this book covers a very interesting part of US history that had not had the attention it deserves.

The American history I was taught started with the Pilgrims and then fast forwarded to the Revolution. The implication was that there was nothing else of interest.

This book starts in the 1620's covering the early colonial history with a focus on the Dutch settlement on what is now New York City. It is apparent that this colony had a dramatic effect on the personality of the English colony that followed and on the Democracy that was established to replace it.

Given my personal interest in history and the fascinating era this book covers I had high expectations that were not met. The author has a round about writing style that I found difficult to follow. He tends to skip around in time and geography following a thread that I was unable to see. When introducing one of the most influential characters it took two pages to get to revealing his name.

I found this book so difficult and frustrating I only made it half way through. Of the dozen people in the book group only two finished the book.

If you persevere you can learn quite a bit from this book, I just found that I did not have the energy to expend.
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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 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.… (more)
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 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member itzar
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 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 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 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Scarchin
Fascinating account of the Dutch origins of the Big Apple.
LibraryThing member deckla
In this breathless page-turner describing life in New York City from 1609 to 1664, based on impeccable archival research, you’ll find a cinematic panorama of high adventure, low comedy, melodrama, tragedy, enlightenment, complete with conspiracies, shipwrecks, mislaid letters, incendiary pamphlets, battle scenes, betrayals, massacres of innocents, and a commander surrounded by enemies, pacing the ramparts of his fort, muttering. Two protagonists push the action to its climax: Peter Stuyvesant, the shrewd one-legged soldier with steel nerves and a penchant for parakeets; and Adriaen van der Donck, an idealistic young lawyer who waxes poetic on the American pastorale, and embarks on an unrelenting campaign for representative government that lands him in prison and carries him across the Atlantic to The Hague. Juicy parts are also available for the bit players: pirates, prostitutes, smugglers, soldiers, business sharks, government officials, slaves, spies, secretaries—AND Norwegians, Germans, Italians, Jews, English, Africans, Walloons, Montauks, Mohawks, and Mahicans.… (more)
LibraryThing member nx74defiant
I didn't know much about the Dutch settler's in Manhattan. I was interested because of my Dutch American ancestors. So much of what we consider "American" ideals came from the Dutch. Yes the Puritans fled England seeking religious freedom. But those who stopped in the Netherlands didn't stay because there was too much religious freedom. In America the Puritans built societies where you were free to worship as long as you did it their way. It was the Dutch who had the idea's we think of as "American".

It is from them that we get boss, Santa Claus, coleslaw, cookies instead of the English biscuit.
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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 "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 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 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.… (more)




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