The Island of Mannahatta

By Beatty, Mary Lou | Humanities, September/October 1999 | Go to article overview

The Island of Mannahatta


Beatty, Mary Lou, Humanities


In the 1600s, the place was known as "mannahatta," an Indian word for "island of hills" or "place of general inebriation." It was a narrow and not-too-long strip of land where two rivers converged on a harbor. Voyagers from the Dutch West India Company landed there in 1624 and began building cabins and a fort and a counting house. It was the beginning of what would become New York City.

"Other settlements soon sprang up around the harbor," we are told, "including the village of Breuckelen, named for a town back in Holland, and up along the East River, a sprawling plantation, owned by a Danish farmer, Jonas Bronck. It was soon known simply as 'the Broncks."'

How the small Dutch outpost grew into a world-class city is traced in a documentary airing this fall, produced by Ric Burns and supported by NEH. The narrative recounts how the Dutch eventually lost out in the free-for-all trade in the Atlantic, and how its English landlords arrived and renamed it for the Duke of York.

In the twelve-hour film we meet the heroes and charlatans and visionaries who have populated the city's history. Among them we encounter the New Yorker who was the richest of them all-J. P. Morgan, financier of railroads, creator of conglomerates, connoisseur of art and of women. Jean Strouse, who has written a biography of Morgan, talks about his complexities with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris. Was Morgan a robber baron or do-gooder? At one point, Strouse points out, he saved the American economy from bankruptcy only to find much of the nation appalled rather than grateful.

Morgan, like his contemporary Henry James, drew his cultural compass from Europe. Its treasures filled his house on Fifth Avenue; he gave Old Masters to the new Metropolitan Museum of Art. …

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