A number of years ago, I learned one of my ancestors was an Englishman, who, around the year 1640 settled in a place called New Amsterdam. After learning this, I was bent on knowing as much as I could about the place. I bought a bestseller called The Island at the Center of the Word, by Russell Shorto.
Shorto’s book is based on the research and translation of Dutch records by The New Netherlands Project director, Charles Gehring. Shorto effectively strips the reader’s mind of modern New York, and builds up a vivid image of a 17th century Dutch Manhattan in its place. He tells the story of several common citizens of New Amsterdam, which pulls the reader into daily working and family life inside the Dutch colony, but his focus is on two prominent figures, Peter Stuyvesant and Adriaen Van der Donck. Shorto, in the forward, makes it clear his intentions are to dismiss the modern perception of Governor Stuyvesant as a peg-legged cartoon, and give him the respect he has deserved. The other main character, Van der Donck, is a forgotten contributor to history, whose 400-year-old documentation of life in New Amsterdam provided much of the essentials for Shorto to write the book.
While reading, I imagined my ancestor walking a street that ran along the wall of the fort, a street that would later be named Wall Street. I envisioned him tipping his hat to say good day to some of the people Shorto plucked from a forgotten past. Knowing my ancestor lived and breathed the same atmosphere in which The Island at the Center of the World was set, only added to my enjoyment of the book. Whether a reader has a connection to New Amsterdam or not, it’s an entertaining, informative book, and it brings to light a part of American history few are aware ever happened.