Russell Shorto

The Island at the Center of the World

The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, and the Founding Colony that Shaped America

The Island at the Center of the World is a narrative history of Manhattan’s founding.  The argument is that the Dutch founding of Manhattan—and of the colony of New Netherland, which extended across the whole Middle Atlantic region—seeded not only New York’s immigrant culture, but America’s melting pot.  I’m a strong believer in the idea that meaning is best conveyed via narrative, which means focusing on individuals and their struggles, and the story I tell centers on two men and their very different ideas about what the wilderness island called Manhattan might become.  (Hint on the outcome: neither man got his wish, but both ended up influencing American history in startling and profound ways.)

The Island at the Center of the World was a bestseller in the U.S.  It was also published in Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Brazil, and has received international acclaim.  The Wall Street Journal called it “a masterpiece of storytelling and first-rate intellectual history.”  The Times of London said it was “a landmark book.”  The New York Times described it as “masterly” and “a book that will permanently alter the way we regard our collective past.”  Holland’s Algemeen Dagblad called it “a masterwork,” and Britain’s Guardian described it as “narratively irresistible, intellectually provocative, historically invaluable.”  It won the New York City Book Award, the Washington Irving Prize for contribution to New York history, and several other awards.  It was a New York Times Notable Book for 2004 and was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of its 25 outstanding books for the year.

The book has helped spark a reappraisal of the Dutch colony by historians.  It is taught in college and high school history courses.  It has also led to a new awareness among the Dutch of their role in shaping U.S. history.  It was the inspiration of a four-part documentary on Dutch public television (featuring me–here’s a You Tube clip) called “The New York Connection.”


Here is a review that appeared in the Guardian.

In April 2011 The Island at the Center of the World came out for the first time in Spanish--the sixth language in which it has appeared.  Here's a review in El Pais.

Readers of The Island at the Center of the World might want to visit the website of the New Netherland Project, where the Dutch documents of the New Netherland colony are being translated and published.  While on the site, you can take a vitual tour of New Netherland (which, as it happens, was written by me).  Those of a philanthropic nature might care to contribute to the ongoing work of the nonprofit New Netherland Institute by becoming a member. Genealogists interested in researching New Netherland ancestors might want to explore the Olive Tree genealogy website.

Read a selection from The Island at the Center of the World.

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There's quite a bit more information about the book and the topic at the Doubleday/Vintage website.

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About the Author

  I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I have three children (Anna, Eva and Anthony) and three step-children (Reinier, Hector and Benjamin).  I write books of narrative history; I believe history is most meaningful to us when it manifests itself through individuals in conflict. My books have been published in fourteen languages and have won numerous awards.  I am senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My interests include the past, the present and the future, not necessarily in that order.  

photo by Keke Keukelaar