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Russell Shorto
An Interview

March 24, 2004

5:00 p.m. Reading/Exhibit
Clark Auditorium
Cultural Education Center

Albany, New York

Registration advised
Call 486-4815

The Island at the Center of the World

Russell Shorto is the author of The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America (March 2004), a radically new history of New Netherland. Written for the common reader, the book is based on the vast, newly-translated 12,000-page 17th century Dutch archive of the New Netherland Project. It is the first popular history book to make use of these sources.

"Russell Shorto�s dramatic adventure tale about the settling of Manhattan will transform the way we look at American history," asserts bestselling historian Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Indeed, Shorto�s book shows persuasively that modern American culture is more firmly rooted in Dutch New Amsterdam than it is in the Plymouth Colony of New England. The democratic traditions, ethnic pluralism, commercial ingenuity, intellectual flexibility, and moral open-mindness that have come to be thought of as American values come not from the rigid, intolerant Pilgrims, but from the unique society that flourished in old Manhattan.

The Island at the Center of the World brings New Amsterdam vividly to life, with its mixed community of Dutch aristocrats, merchants, farmers and seamen, as well as its sizable populations of Jews, Italians, Germans, Africans and Scandinavians, all of whom helped establish Manhattan as the first melting pot of North America.

"Shorto�s prose is deliciously rich and witty, and the story he tells�drawing heavily on sources that have only recently come to light�brings one surprise after another. His rediscovery of Adriaen van der Donck, Peter Stuyvesant's nemesis, is fascinating." - Historian Edwin G. Burrows, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History

Gospel Truth

Shorto is perhaps best-known for books that explain rational and scientific investigations of religion, including Saints and Madmen: Breaking Down the Boundaries Between Psychiatry and Spirituality (1999) and Gospel Truth: The New Image of Jesus Emerging from Science and History and Why It Matters (1997).

A prolific writer, Shorto has produced several short popular biographies of various American cultural figures, including Jane Fonda, Jackie Robinson, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, David Farragut, Tecumseh, Geronimo and Edgar Allen Poe. He has also written several children�s books in the Where Does This Come From? series, including Ice Cream, Baseball Bat, Crayon, and Penny.

Charles Gehring

The New Netherland Project, the source of Shorto�s primary documents for The Island at the Center of the World, is a joint venture of the New York State Library, based in Albany, and the Holland Society, based in New York City. Its primary objective is to complete the transcription, translation, and publication of all Dutch documents in New York repositories relating to the seventeenth-century colony of New Netherland. Most of the work of translation has been carried out during the course of a 20-year period by local scholar Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Project.


What is the 'forgotten colony," and why was it forgotten?

In school we're taught that America began with 13 English colonies, but that's not true. The Dutch colony of New Netherland, which covered all or parts of five future states and had Manhattan Island as its center, was founded only three years after the Pilgrims landed. It was forgotten because the English and the Dutch, the two superpowers of the 17th century, were bitter enemies. Once the English took over the Dutch territory and changed New Amsterdam to New York, they decided that was when the real history of the region began.

How is the colony being rediscovered?

Through its records. For the past 30 years, a scholar named Charles Gehring has been translating the official records of the Dutch colony. History has told us that the settlement that predated New York was inconsequential, but these 12,000 charred, mold-riddled documents--which recently were declared a national treasure--paint a very different picture. They show that the Dutch built a vital North American territory, and that the port of Manhattan was plugged into the global Dutch trading empire.

So how did this colony shape Manhattan?

The Dutch Republic of the 17th century was an unusually open and tolerant society, where thinkers from all over the continent went to teach and publish their works. It was also the melting pot of Europe. So when this society formed a colony based on Manhattan, this official policy of tolerance helped bring about anunprecedentedd mix of people there. Only 20 years after New Amsterdam's founding, a visitor reported 18 different languages being spoken--and this at a time when its population was no more than 500. The Dutch of the time were also the world's most power trading nation, with a vigorous policy of free trade. These two things--a mixed society and a commitment to free trade--became the foundation of New York City.

And in what way did that influence America?

Because we aren't talking about a colony centered in some isolated valley. We're talking about Manhattan. Another part of the story is how New York itself has gotten short shrift in accounts of early American history. Again, this has to do with the Anglocentrism of the early American colonists. The men who wrote the first two histories were from New England. In these histories, that region, and to a lesser extent Virginia, were given prominence. The English Puritans and Pilgrims were seen as the progenitors of the American saga. The whole middle section of the Northeast--what historians now call the Middle Colonies--was considered a muddle, a confused mix of peoples, who spoke different languages. But this region is the birthplace of religious pluralism in America, and one major reason for that--one source of the American melting pot--was the Dutch colony. It has influenced America in all sorts of ways: language, food, traditions. But it's all beneath the surface. You have to look for it.

Cosponsored by
The New York State Library & The Friends of the New York State Library
Times Union Article