New York: Vintage Books, 2005

Soft cover, $15.95

Lost and found

Sometimes things get lost. Take the 12,000 pages of detailed records left behind by the Dutch when they turned their Manhattan colony (modern-day New York City) over to the British in 1664.

Like similar records in, say, some Maine town office, the papers sat in their boxes or on their shelves, got moved around, damaged by water, partially burned and generally ignored-for more than two centuries. Written in a foreign language, the papers were largely meaningless to the English (and then Americans) who ran what became New York. At one point they were bundled across the Atlantic to the Tower of London. At another, they were badly translated. The results of a subsequent, better translation in the early 20th century went up in flames.

Today the documents reside in an archive in Albany, New York, where in 1973 one man began digging through them, translating the 17th century Dutch into modern English.

Dr. Charles Ghering’s modern-day foray into the Dutch records, according to author Russell Shorto, has revealed a colony established by an ambitious group of investors, the Dutch West India Company that more or less governed itself and reflected the tolerant, multicultural society of 17th century Holland. This in contrast to societies and governance elsewhere in Europe including England, where intolerance and religious persecution were the order of the day.

Dutch Manhattan, Shorto demonstrates through its tattered but surprisingly detailed records, had many of the characteristics of modern-day New York and even contemporary America-it was multicultural, religiously tolerant, entrepreneurial, oriented toward commerce. It was also orderly: early maps of lower Manhattan show a grid of streets surrounding its fort, as well as carefully constructed bulkheads on the East River and the Hudson, a canal, well laid-out house lot on fairly wide streets, and a defensive wall in the general vicinity of modern-day Wall Street.

“What matters about the Dutch colony,” Shorto writes, “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…” Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were both religiously tolerant, but New York was multiethnic from its earliest (Dutch) days.

The idea of a district attorney, a law officer authorized to prosecute cases on the government’s behalf, originated in Dutch Manhattan. The New York delegation to the Constitutional Convention decided it would only vote to ratify the Constitution in 1791 if it included a declaration of individual rights-the Bill of Rights. And then there are the inheritances of less official import but powerful cultural implications: Santa Claus, cookies, cole slaw.

“The legacy of the people who settled Manhattan Island rides below the level of myth and politics,” Shorto writes. “They reshuffled the categories by which people had long lived, created a society with more open spaces, in which the rungs of the ladder were reachable by nearly everyone.” Still, he admits, “there was a distinct messiness to the place they created. But it was very real, and in a way, very modern.”

The power of this book is its insistence that the ideas, people and events that shaped a long-ago place, Dutch Manhattan, continue to affect the world today. The case wouldn’t be as compelling, of course, had the author’s subject not become one of the modern world’s great financial and cultural centers. But it did-and why that happened can be explained, in large part, by its origins. The better we understand that history, the better we understand ourselves today.

David D. Platt is former editor of The Working Waterfront.