No city has a richer cartographic history than New York. It is America’s oldest metropolis, and much of its geography and history can be chronicled in maps and views. There are maps from the time it was a settlement called New Amsterdam—and from nearly every subsequent phase of its development.
Venerable European and Asian cities are much too old to have comparable records of their embryonic years. New York profits from the lucky circumstance that its first colonizers, the Dutch and the English, obsessively mapped their surroundings; the collector and the historian are left with a cartographic treasure trove.
When the Dutch colonized New Amsterdam, Holland was the cartographic center of the world. This was the golden age of mapmaking, when the most accurate and lavish maps, atlases, and globes came from Dutch presses. The most significant early image of New York is by Johannes Vingboons, who drafted an extraordinary map of the Dutch presence in and around the island (Fig. 4). Executed in 1639, the map shows the results of an accurate survey carried out by the colonists. The original is lost, but a faithful copy from the 1660s is reproduced here.
The map covers the same geographical area as Louis Risse’s 1898 map of the consolidation of the boroughs into Greater New York City (Fig. 2). Vingboons’s map shows the topography of the boroughs in near pristine states, with just a few structures: the fort, the windmills, and some farms located in the hilly area of streams, coves, and bays.
The island remained under the Dutch West India Company until a squadron of British warships entered the harbor in 1664 and took possession of the fledgling colony. Except for a brief lapse in 1673, when the Dutch recaptured their colony, New York remained under British control continuously until after the Revolutionary War. The shift of power is shown on a manuscript map known as the Duke’s Plan (Fig. 3). It was created for James (1633–1701), the duke of York and Albany, for whom New York City was named. His brother, King Charles II (1630–1685), had given Manhattan to him in March of 1664, along with much of northeastern America. While this map is based on a Dutch survey and the town is still called New Amsterdam, an English flag flies triumphantly from the fort and several English ships occupy the harbor. A conspicuous feature is the wall that enclosed the settled part of the island and later became Wall Street.
The sparsely populated town in the Duke’s Plan provides a striking contrast to the fully developed European city in the Jollain view of 1672 (Fig. 6). Eager to publish a map of the new settlement in America, Gérard Jollain took an existing view of Lisbon, Portugal, added some New York place names, and presto, he had created the most spectacular of the fictional views of the city. —By Paul E. Cohen
Excerpt from “American Cities” by Paul Cohen and Henry G. Taliaferro. Copyright (c) 2014 and reprinted by permission of Assouline.