The Castello Plan, a map depicting New Amsterdam at the peak of its settlement circa 1660, just before the English took control, provides a remarkable, rare glimpse of everyday life in New Amsterdam, revealing a small but complex city at the southern tip of the island then known as Mannahatta.
The Castello Plan was painted in Amsterdam by artist Johannes Vingboons, based on a surveyor’s plan commissioned by New Amsterdam’s leaders. It was sold to the Archduke of Tuscany, who hung it in the Villa di Castello in Florence, hence the name.
The Castello Plan shows the city at its height and extraordinary details, including gardens, docks, canals, and a windmill. The 1,500 inhabitants lived in about 300 houses. Thanks to an accompanying census, the names of the owners of each home are known.
In 1626, Peter Minuit, director of the colony of New Netherland, purportedly acquired the island that would eventually be known as Manhattan from a local tribe — probably ancestors of the people known today as Lenape, Munsee, or Delaware.
The Native people didn’t consider it a purchase, as they didn’t share the European concept of property transfer; to them, it was a land-use agreement, which needed to be renewed and affirmed on a regular basis.
When word of the land transfer reached Europe, a Dutch government official, Pieter Schagen, wrote a letter discussing the “purchase” of the island. This letter, on loan from the Hague in the Netherlands, is on view in the installation. In it, Schagen notes that “our people…have purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders.”
While the amount of goods represented a symbol of alliance, a 19th-century historian converted the 60 guilders into dollars, and thus was born the myth that the Dutch bought Manhattan for $24. The letter is the only record that exists of that “purchase,” which was then followed by hundreds of other purchases, treaties, and deceptions by which Europeans slowly took the continent of North America from its Native inhabitants.
Most surviving artifacts from New Amsterdam relate to European settlers, but in 1984, archaeologists found a collection of objects outside of the home of Cornelis Van Tienhoven, Peter Stuyvesant’s secretary, on present-day Pearl Street: a mpungu thought to be created circa 1660 by an enslaved person.
Mpungu means “to stick together” and refers to a gathering of objects that in central African culture were invested with healing powers. This collection, featuring bone and shell fragments, marbles, nails, pieces of pipe stems and bowls, glass beads, a copper thimble, and other items, was found in a basket buried in the ground, covered with a Dutch plate. It is an example of how Africans in New Amsterdam sustained their cultural practices in the face of adversity.
This March, the New-York Historical Society presents “New York Before New York: The Castello Plan of New Amsterdam,” on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Dutch founding of a colony that would give rise to New York City.
On view March 15 through July 14, 2024, the special installation is organized around the Castello Plan. Through documents and objects, the installation explores how settlers, Indigenous people, and enslaved Africans experienced the world illustrated in the Castello Plan.
“We’re very excited to share this rare glimpse into life in New Amsterdam as we mark the 400th anniversary of the city with our visitors,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “The Castello Plan, along with documents, coins, maps, and even a piece of the Dutch canal, will help visitors envision how New Amsterdam was a place of dynamism and opportunity as well as enslavement and hardship.”
Accompanying the exhibition is a digital, 3D version of the Castello Plan. Created in partnership with the New Amsterdam History Center, the interactive map gives visitors the chance to explore select locations depicted on the Castello Plan, including the original City Hall, a house where enslaved Africans lived, and the trail created by the Lenape that would later become Broadway.
“New York Before New York: The Castello Plan of New Amsterdam” is curated by Russell Shorto, director of the New Amsterdam Project at New-York Historical. The New Amsterdam Project explores New York’s origins and connects critical themes from that formative period — tolerance, free trade, race, and colonialism — to the world today.
Additional scholarship and assistance was provided by Dr. Joseph Diamond, Dr. Charles Gehring, Dr. Joel Grossman, Dr. Deborah Hamer, Dr. Andrew Lipman, Dr. Michael Lucas, Dr. Nicole Mahoney, Dr. Dennis Maika, Dr. Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, Brent Stonefish, F. Len Tantillo, Dr. Chelsea Teale, Laura Ten Eyck, Dylan Yates, the New Netherland Institute, and the New Netherland Research Center at the New York State Office of Cultural Education.
On March 20, scholars — Deborah Hamer, director of the New Netherland Institute; Nicole Maskiell, associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina; and Robert Odawi Porter (Seneca Nation), New-York Historical trustee and former president of the Seneca Nation of Indians — join moderator Russell Shorto to discuss the founding of the Dutch colony of New Netherland and its dichotomy of pluralism and inequality.
Later in the spring, a two-day conference focused on slavery in New Netherland and the Dutch Atlantic world will take place at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (May 3) and New-York Historical (May 4).
Academic scholars, researchers, public historians, archivists, and librarians from the Netherlands and the United States convene to weigh the history and legacy of slavery, the slave trade, and colonialism in New Netherland, the Netherlands, and the Americas.
Illustration: The Castello Plan from 1660.