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Capitalizing On Our Dutch Heritage

In cultural studies the cosmic center refers to the meeting point between the heavens and the earth at the center of the universe. It often is associated with a high place perhaps in nature like a mountain or human-built like a ziggurat.

For the United States of America, New York City is the cosmic center, the crossroads of the universe, ground zero.  But as New York prepares to ignore the 350th anniversary of when it became New York, it’s also appropriate to remember that when New York began as New Amsterdam, no one thought of it as a city on a hill. There is a story to tell of how it turned out that way.

Scholars have recognized that differences existed among the Europeans who settled America. For example, David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, traces the transplantation (plantation meant “colony” then) of four distinct ways of life from what would now be the United Kingdom to the English colonies here. These groups, the Puritans, the Quakers, the Cavaliers, and the Scotch-Irish, brought with them their material and cultural way of life. The antagonisms and conflicts they had in the old country continued on in the new country as it does right to this very day (see the healthcare fight).

These distinctions were more narrowly addressed by E. Digby Baltzell, who coined the term WASP, in Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia with Ben Franklin, who founded the University of Pennsylvania where Balzell taught, crossing the boundary between the two. Baltzell sought to show how the Puritans and the Quakers contributed and defined the cultural identities of their respective cities and how such influence continued on into the 20th century.

And still to this very day, it is Boston/Massachusetts and Philadelphia/ Pennsylvania which have the active history tourist market for colonial and revolutionary times. New York is minimized in historical accounts on America even though the Hudson River was the object of great importance and the Battle of Saratoga which transformed the war into a global one was fought are here…and Washington spent more time in New York than in any other state. Thank the Dutch for New Amsterdam/New York secondary status in the historical record with historians educated in New England controlling the accounts of the American Revolution and Southerns the Civil War. But perhaps Dutch-founded New York will have the last laugh after all because what city is better situated to be world capital of the 21st century? Boson? Philadelphia? Atlanta?

The story of the Pilgrims landing in Massachusetts is told annually by school kids. At the spot designated Plymouth Rock one can stand where those first settlers (allegedly) did. What could be more Thanksgiving than the New England Thanksgiving tradition? How about the Macy*s Thanksgiving parade? The cosmic center of Thanksgiving, the national holiday of Lincoln’s America, is not Plymouth but Broadway in New York.

There is a story to be told about Philadelphia and the birth of liberty in America. The city hosted the continental congresses where the call for independence was written and declared, where we constituted ourselves as a people, where the Liberty Bell rang. What could be more American Revolution than July 4th in the cradle of liberty in Philadelphia? The cosmic center of the American Revolution is Lady Liberty.

There is a story to be told about Jamestown which recently celebrated its quadricentennial. And it has been told by Hollywood, including Disney, which took great liberties. Finding the actual original Jamestown has proved a challenge and the discovery of the colonial site is one of the recent archaeological triumphs. New York doesn’t have much of a story for its founding – more of a one-liner about $24. On the other hand, New York never disappeared, there was never any mystery about where it was located.

When John Winthrop gave his lay sermon (he was not ordained) mentioning the city on a hill that the eyes of the world were to be upon, he was referring to Boston not America. But it was New York which became the “Island at the Center of the World“, in part because it was founded not by the Puritans, Quakers, Scotch-Irish, Cavaliers or Palatines, but by the Dutch. And the Dutch came here to make money. They built a wall at the edge of the community and that street became a cosmic center where people come to make money. People go to schools founded by Puritans and then they come work in New York. America and the world’s rich buy apartments in New York skyscrapers, not Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, or Bejing because, thanks to the Dutch, New York is the island at the center of the world.

The title of Russell Shorto’s book tells a story that continues to be true, on an even larger scale. The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America needs to be extended to include and Shaped the World. America’s field of dreams has always been and continues to be New York. We are the Netherlands greatest legacy.

We need to do a better job of remembering the significance of our Dutch heritage so for our 350th anniversary of no longer being New Amsterdam. If we build it, they will come.

 Illustration courtesy

9 thoughts on “Capitalizing On Our Dutch Heritage

  1. Totally got it right, Peter, thank you !!

    Shorto’s book was my personal introduction to my love for history, and it starts with the story of how the Dutch kick-started America in New Amsterdam. Though the British renamed it New York, as they renamed Staten Island to Richmond, and Brooklyn became Kings County all those 350 years ago, the fact that today’s maps STILL carry the original Dutch names is a constant reminder of “who, exactly” gets the credit for setting things up for the eventual creation and growth of the “Empire State”.

  2. Dutch contributions to American history are legion albeit understated. Shorto’s book is a step in the right direction to bringing more attention to their role. But for almost 40 years, Charles Gehring has been systematically transcribing and translating the 12,000 original records of New Netherland along with his colleague Janny Venema. Their work is readily available at the New Netherland Research Center in Albany and their support group, the New Netherland Institute, has worked tirelessly since 1979 raising millions of dollars and promoting nationwide the Dutch heritage. Go to to learn more about all of it.
    Incidentally, Russell Shorto, on the heels of his recent history of Amsterdam, is currently working on the Dutch and the American Revolution with support from the New Netherland Institute.

  3. What is our story? This is the core of what distinguishes New York State. Even beyond Albany, the Dutch influence on the east-to-west Quaker and Puritan stream is the subtle spice that makes us different.

  4. Really enjoying my exploration of that topic via the research for my Amsterdam Trilogy historical fiction writing. The Seventh Etching already released. The New Worlds of Isabela Calderon to be released in 2014. Example: Just learned about Roman Dutch law which, unlike English law, allowed women to own and operate their own businesses in New Netherland. They also had the right to control their own wealth.

  5. There is also the wonderful New Amsterdam History Center web site (, which is home to the virtualNew Amsterdam project.

  6. I am so happy to have found this blog! As a native of NY and a family historian I find the info on your blog to be both fascinating and a great resource. Would love to see some posts on immigration and it’s impact on NYC throughout history ;- )

    1. Welcome and thank you for writing. I am working my way through the timeline. The next immigrant group I will mention will be the Irish when I get to my post on New York: The Empire State covering the post War of 1812 period to Manifest Destiny.

  7. My mother’s family “‘way back” (1638) was Dutch, and helped found what is now Brooklyn. As I understand, they owned part of what is now Prospect Park. (I shocked a very family-proud great-aunt by saying “They should have held on to it; it would be worth a lot of money today!” I was probably about 10 years old at the time and not impressed by family background! Celin Schoen

  8. The Wyckoff Museum in Brooklyn features Pieter Claesen Wyckoff’s farm house, the oldest Dutch building in America – one of the oldest wood-frame houses in the nation – and helps tell the story of the critical importance of the Dutch family farm, immigrant labor, and slavery to the rise of New Amsterdam/New York as the “Island in the Center of the World.” Pieter, who arrived in 1637 as a young boy began his life as an indentured servant to the Renselaer’s and later in 1652, with his wife Grietje van Ness, became the superintendent of the Bowery and cattle of Peter Stuyvesant New Amersfoort, living on Canarsie Lane, Flatlands of Brookyln. Shorto’s books have provided an invaluable door to the importance of the Dutch in establishing values of inclusion, diversity, and hard work that have enabled our country to become the international leader, and beacon of hope that it is.

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