The Dutch and the Founding of New (Amsterdam) York

island-center-world-shorto-2004One of my spring/summer reads is Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America (Doubleday, 2004). I’ve often wanted to read more about the history of the Dutch settlers in the New World, and when this book was brought to my attention, I knew it was one I wanted to delve into.

It is a well written narrative, filled with fascinating details and interesting twists. It is based on a remarkable (and abundant!) set of Dutch records that surfaced in the State Library in Albany, New York and that are still being translated by 17th-century Dutch scholar Charles Gehring. It seems the common Dutch characteristics – hard work, cleanliness, strong faith (especially Calvinism), and a penchant for stubbornness and strife (persistence, perseverance?) – marked the early adventurers who signed on to go with Henry Hudson (think of Hudson Bay and the Hudson River) to settle on the island of Manhattan.

In the third chapter (“The Island”) Shorto speaks, for example, of a newlywed couple – Catalina Trico and Joris Rapalje, who having married in the Walloon Church in Amsterdam in January of 1624 at the ages of 18 and 19 respectively, set sail with Hudson for the New World. Here’s how he describes their adventure – and their influence:

Considering the stupendous dangers awaiting them, first at sea and then on arrival, it wasn’t a union a betting man would likely lay money on. And yet, sixty years later, when the English colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland were embroiled in a border dispute and needed evidence of ‘Christian’ occupation of certain lands along the eastern seaboard, the representatives of William Penn found an old woman to testify who was known to have been among the first European settlers. Catalina Trico, now in her eighties, was a widow, but she and Joris had had a long and fruitful marriage. The records of New Netherland show them among the first buyers of land in the wilderness of southern Manhattan, building two houses on Pearl Street steps away from the fort, obtaining a milk cow, borrowing money from the provincial government, moving their homestead to a large tract of farmland across the river in the new village of Breukelen [Brooklyn], and giving birth to and baptizing eleven children. Their first, Sarah, was considered the first European born in what would become New York (in 1656, at the age of thirty, she proclaimed herself ‘first born christian daughter of New Netherland’). She was born in 1625, and the same records duly show her marriage in 1639, to the overseer of a tobacco plantation in what would become Greenwich Village, and in turn, the birth of her eight children. Over the course of the brief life of New Netherland and into the history of New York the Rapalje children and their offspring would spread across the region. …Their descendants have been estimated at upwards of one million, and in the Hudson Valley town of Fishkill, New York, a lane called Rapalje Road is a quiet suburban testament to the endurance of a long-ago slapdash wedding of two young nobodies on the Amsterdam waterfront, which, as much as any political event, marked the beginning of the immigrant, stake-your-claim civilization not only of Mahattan but of America (pp.41-42).


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I look forward to adding this to my library!


    • By all means do! I think our HS students could handle it – the ones that want deep and detailed history, anyway.


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