New Amsterdam: The Center of the Dutch Settlement

Teaching with Russell Shorto’s book Island at the Center of the World


  1. Students will examine primary documents and secondary sources to analyze the effects of the Dutch West India Company settlement in North America.
  2. Students will be able to identify the role of geography, seventeenth-century Dutch law, and commercial interests of the DWIC in the development of New Amsterdam.
  3. Students will analyze the encounters of the settlers of New Amsterdam with the indigenous population.
  4. Students will be engaged in historical research and critical analysis.


In September 1609, Henry Hudson and the crew of De Halve Maen were on a voyage to find the northern route to Asia when they sighted a large bay. It caught their attention as it encompassed several islands and passages to an inner bay and a river both deep enough and wide enough to accommodate large ships. Hudson’s discovery and the intriguing accounts written by the ship’s mate of the natural abundance and commercial potential of the land and the river attracted the interest of Dutch merchants and competition for exploitation ensued.  

In 1621, the States General, the governing body of the Netherlands, granted an expansive charter to the Dutch West India Company authorizing it to negotiate treaties with indigenous peoples and establish commercial ventures in the region. The chartered claim stretched from the Delaware River to the Connecticut River and encompassed the Hudson River and the tidal basin known today as the East River. The DWIC named their settlement New Netherland and the island at the entrance to the river New Amsterdam. 

The island named New Amsterdam is the focus of Russell Shorto’s book Island at the Center of the World. He offers his readers both a thorough history of the Dutch settlement and thought-provoking claims about the significance of the settlement in the larger history of colonial North America and the United States. This lesson is designed to give students an opportunity to read a generally ignored segment of American history and to critically consider the author’s thesis. 

Have the class read: Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. It is more than 300 pages in length so it is a good summer reading project. 

Student Activity One: Analyze the Book

It is important to understand the contribution of the book to New York history specifically and American history generally. Divide the class into five groups. Each group should review the reading for the author’s references to and conclusions about one of the following topics:

  1. Diversity and tolerance in New Amsterdam
  2. Individual liberty and Dutch law
  3. Commercial development
  4. Significance of the geography of the area
  5. Encounter with the indigenous population

Have each group share its research on the assigned topic with the class. There is additional information on the Internet if needed for clarification or visual reference. The following sites will be helpful (this is not a complete list and should be used as a starting point):

Conflict and Commerce: The Rise and Fall of New Netherland, an essay from History Now 12
Map of the City of New Amsterdam, 1660 from Archiving Early America
Map of New Amsterdam 
Virtual Tour of New Amsterdam from the New Netherland Institute
Indigenous population- Lenni Lenape and Indigenous population- Ancestral Art
History of New Amsterdam  from the History of Holland

Student Activity Two: Panel Discussion

Select four panelists to present essential information about the book. Select a student moderator as well.

The panelists will:

  1. Prepare an opening speech on one of the following:
    • Why did the Dutch West India Company choose New Amsterdam as its commercial and administrative center?
    • How was the settlement governed (both before 1654 and after 1654)? How did the governance both limit and preserve individual freedom?
    • What role did the indigenous population play in the economy and how did the commercial relationship affect the  American Indians in the area?
    • How and why did the DWIC encourage diversity in the settlement? 
  2. Respond to questions about New Amsterdam and the DWIC.

The moderator will:

  1. Introduce the issue for the panel discussion.
  2. Prepare questions for panelists.
  3. Direct questions from the audience (all non-panelist members of the class) to the panelists.

Extension Activity: Essay

Russell Shorto claims that New Amsterdam and the characteristics that were uniquely part of its development embody the values and motives at the core of our national identity. To what extent did Russell Shorto prove his thesis? Be sure to identify the elements of the author’s argument and the facts he used to substantiate that argument.