A Dutch Manhattanite, 10 Generations Away

The tip of Manhattan, mid 17th century, everything to the West was unsettled

Lately I have been on a bender, reading and watching everything I can about New York City. And for two reasons. One: I haven't been to a city bigger than Sacramento in FIVE YEARS. I drove out of San Francisco in December '05 and haven't made it back since, despite the fact that it's 3 hours away. And I am starting to feel crazy crazy stir crazy in my idyllic rural little town. I need people, movement, actions, and shops and restaurants that open before 11am and close well after 6pm. (I have never been to NYC. In fact, as far as America is concerned, I haven't been further east than Idaho).

And two: I recently discovered that I am the direct descendent of folks who were among the original settlers of New Amsterdam, later to be named New York (when the English realized that the key to the continent lay in conquering that one tiny island, and quickly did so). Roelof Martense Schenck was born in the Netherlands in 1619 and emigrated to "Nieuw Amsterdam" in 1650, where he soon found himself a wife. They are my great great great great great great great great grandparents.

Upon making all of these discoveries my first thought was The Dutch settled Manhattan before the English? which I quickly learned is a common reaction. It seems that historians all over the world are discovering how the early mythologizing of NY's origins by the English conquerers effectively blotted out the contribution made by the Dutch to the future cultural milieu of the Unites States.

And quite a contribution it was. The Dutch have long been considered the most tolerant nation on the planet (going back to at least the 1600s, which is also when they first sailed onto American soil). Amsterdam at the time was a thriving hotspot of new and rapidly evolving ideas about politics, economics, government, science, philosophy, botany, you name it. The leaders realized that it was, in part, the great diversity of people who sought refuge in their country that made it such an exciting and economically successful place, and they brought this belief with them to the New World.

Which is not to say that the Dutch, or my ancestors among them, were forward thinking idealists and pacifists with love in their hearts and freedom for all on their minds. No no. They were self serving, money grubbing, slave trading go-getters who just happened to realize that tolerance toward diversity served their best economic interests.

They loved them a free market, put commerce before all other gods, and were willing to find a way to live alongside people vastly different from themselves in order to make their lives as prosperous and comfortable as possible. Which is to say that they were, truly, the spiritual and intellectual forefathers of New Yorkers from then on out.

Once all of this started to settle into my mind, my imagination was effectively captured (sometime in the last decade or so I've become a serious history nerd), and my reading has followed suit ever since. In The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, Russell Shorto makes sense of tens of thousands of pages of 17th century Dutch papers from the colony (translated only recently by Charles Gehring) and weaves them into a fascinating tale of early American vision and drive.

He is also quite keen sighted and humorous in his presentation of some of the documents, as when describing the close, almost fawning-over-one-another friendship (expressed in letters and poems) between the Dutch colony's most long standing governor, the peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant, and his friend (and cohort in the world dominating East India Trading Company) John Ferret. Shorto writes, "At times the correspondence cries out for a latent-homosexuality reading (i.e., when the men write of 'such pleasure' each receives from the 'skilled hand' of the other); it's probably more profitable, though, to see the poems as little portals onto the relationships between seventeenth-century Dutch merchant-soldiers, in which there was a frank deference to one's greater power and in which language was expressed in language as Baroque as the pink-cheeked detailing in a Frans Hals portrait."

My point in quoting that long winded paragraph is simply that the book is not only informative, but quite entertaining as well.

Moving on. On my nightstand, but as of now still unopened, is The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty by Jean Zimmerman. I look forward to reading it.

Next to it, and having been open a few times, is City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan. This book follows a couple centuries in the life of a family of medical practitioners- barber surgeons (yes, one and the same professions), herbalists, and certified medical doctors. It is a fascinating study on the state of understanding of the human body and medicine at the time (blood transfusion, for example, was quite a new and controversial concept, which is too bad for the poor folks who almost had the life sucked out of them by leeches set upon them for therapeutic "blood letting").

All in all, it's a piece of American history that is highly relevant to who we've become and yet is unknown to, and taken for granted by, most of us. Broadway (literally, a broad way), Wall Street (the street where they built a wall to keep the Indians out), Queens, Harlem, Staten Island, the Hudson River, and many of the other place names around that area all came from the Dutch. The words boss, stoop, coleslaw, and cookies- and even good ol' Santa Claus (Sinterklaas) himself- come to us from the Dutch.

But Manhattan's history, of course, goes well beyond its original European settlers. Graham and I have been watching a PBS American Experience documentary by Ric Burns all about the history of New York City. It's something like 15 hours long and completely captivating. The building of Central Park, How The Other Half Lives, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Draft Riots of the Civil War, the capitalistic free for all on Wall Street in the 19th century, the Erie Canal, the brilliant mind and roving eye of Walt Whitman, the insanity of early skyscraper building, Ellis Island- it is such a big history. Here's a little taste from the first episode (which, of course, begins with the story of New Amsterdam).

Someday, I will go there. Though I do have to keep reminding myself of what it looks like now, in 2011, before I become too enamored of the image of myself disembarking from a 17th century Dutch sailing vessel onto a rickety old dock and looking up to see neat little rows of narrow yellow brick houses with an abundance of variegated tulips planted out front...