Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some light genealogical and historical summer reading

No chick lit for me, thank you. This summer my poolside and beach reading has been Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America. Published about six years ago, the title is pretty much self-explanatory. I'm only about a third of the way through it, but as a lover of history and a person with both Dutch and English colonial New York roots, this book is fascinating. It's so well-written and its based on actual Dutch documents that were, at the time, being translated and transcribed by Charles Gehring at the New York State Library as part of the New Netherlands Project.

Everybody knows about the Pilgrims and the Puritans and Jamestown, all the English roots of America, and I think people know about the Dutch in New York, but unless you're really into New York history or have colonial New York ancestry, the Dutch really are just a footnote in American history. I don't really know a lot about my Dutch roots - it mostly comes from women who married into my Raynor family and who I have so far been unable to trace back - so I focus a lot on my English colonial roots. But I remind everyone who will listen that the settlers of Hempstead on Long Island started their town in Dutch territory. And that many of the place names in the greater New York metro area are actually Dutch in origin - including the name of the county I live in, Nassau. Anyone who reads any Washington Irving reads about the colonial Dutch. Many of the old, established New York families, such as the Vanderbilts or, say, the Roosevelts, are of Dutch origin. People know it, but just might not realize how intertwined New York history is with the Dutch.

Anyway, it's been interesting to read about, among other things, how similar the beginnings of the Netherlands are to the United States, how different the raucous New Amsterdam and New Netherlands colonies were to their English contemporary counterparts. I even learned something new - I had no idea there were Swedish immigrants in America (down around Wilmington, Delaware) in the 1600s. It's a fun, easy read and I get excited and passionate about, obviously, history in general, but the fact that this book ties in to my own personal family history is making it all the more interesting.

You can find out more about this book at http://www.randomhouse.com/features/island/.

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