400 Years Ago
June 4, 2009 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever wondered what New York was like before it was a city? Find out at The Mannahatta Project, by navigating through the map to discover Manhattan Island and its native wildlife in 1609.

“The goal of the Mannahatta Project has never been to return Manhattan to its primeval state. The goal of the project is to discover something new about a place we all know so well, whether we live in New York or see it on television, and, through that discovery, to alter our way of life. New York does not lack for dystopian visions of the future…. But what is the vision of the future that works? Might it lie in Mannahatta, the green heart of New York, and with a new start to history, a few hours before Hudson arrived that sunny afternoon four hundred years ago?”
posted by netbros (16 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Does it identify all the bodegas? The natives had to have somewhere to get smokes, 40s and scratch offs.
posted by spicynuts at 2:38 PM on June 4, 2009

The house (or large canoe, as some will have it,) stops, and a smaller canoe comes ashore with the red man and some others in it; some stay by this canoe to guard it. The chiefs and wise men (or councillors) had composed a large circle, unto which the red-clothed man with two others approach. He salutes them with friendly countenance, and they return the salute after their manner. They are lost in admiration, both as to the colour of the skin (of these whites) as also to their manner of dress, yet most as to the habit of him who wore the red clothes, which shone with something they could not account for. He must be the great Mannitto (Supreme Being,) they think, but why should he have a white skin?
posted by Joe Beese at 2:45 PM on June 4, 2009

oh this is cool.
posted by fuzzypantalones at 2:48 PM on June 4, 2009

Huh. It turns out that the Coney Island Whitefish isn't a native at all.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:52 PM on June 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


(Beyond that, this is a really neat project. Thanks!)
posted by heyho at 2:53 PM on June 4, 2009

400 years ago, the street I live on was already 400 years old, as were many of the buildings.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:55 PM on June 4, 2009

And yeah, this is really cool. I just wish:
-They would show a picture of the selected block when you select "this block today" instead of sending you to a different website
-That the slider between 2009 and 1609 would work like a normal slider instead of just stopping working when the mouse goes too far.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:58 PM on June 4, 2009

I remember learning the story of Peter Minuet in elementary school and thinking $24 - they were all nuts.

Then I learned in High School he traded 60 guilders worth of kettles, steel tools, knives, guns and blankets, etc. with the Canarsies for Manhattan and still thinking it was a bit of a swindle. And it just didn't sound right. Didn't have the right ring to it.

And then in college I learned the Canarsie tribe lived in what is modern day Brooklyn. They didn’t own Manhattan. The Manhattoe tribe did. What's more they were at war over hunting rights on that land. The Dutch meanwhile sold the land rights to the British, who moved in on the Manhattoe saying they'd bought the land from the Canarsie and more craziness ensued.
And I thought "Ah, yeah, that sounds more like a New York real estate deal."
posted by Smedleyman at 3:43 PM on June 4, 2009 [11 favorites]

I like the place better in 1609.
posted by barnacles at 4:44 PM on June 4, 2009

Alan Sonfist already did this in real life.
posted by donpardo at 5:20 PM on June 4, 2009

Ooh, this is neat. Thanks.

posted by nickyskye at 7:25 PM on June 4, 2009

Hey, cool. I did my undergrad thesis on part of this project, then worked on it a bit post-college. As you can imagine, this was a huge feat to pull off. Reconstructing even just the original topography involved countless hours with moldy books at the NY Historical Society, old watercolor maps in the office of the Manhattan Burough president, a GPS in the shadiest parts of the island, and re-learning early-19th century surveying techniques. And, of course, a failed hard drive at the worst possible time. And that's just the elevation data.

To try to understand what went into the botanical and wildlife stuff, just know that there's a database now of every species that's ever been recorded on Manhattan, cross-referenced with any species it depends on or that might depend on it. When you visualize the web of interactions, you get something like a spore print.

And then there's the British Headquarters Map, made during the Revolutionary War. It maps every stream, spring, wetland (painted differently for fresh and salt), orchard, garden, fort, road, and building on the island. It was constructed by the world's leading cartographers. That's a pretty good representation of Manhattan in 1609, but not perfect. By 1782, the southern tip of Manhattan had already been filled in. So you have to go back earlier, to 17th century maps to really get a sense of the original shore line. And that's when you learn that Maiden Lane was where the maidens used to wash their clothes in the stream that used to run there.

So, you've got a map of the ecological communities, and some idea of what species to expect in those communities. But what about the people living there? That's when you develop models for their disturbances: fire, gardening, hunting. Then you add in other, less-frequent disturbances (e.g. hurricanes), and you're approaching the level of detail necessary to do this right.

As cool as the website is (and there's a book, and a museum exhibit), I'm certain that it was even more fun putting the whole thing together.
posted by one_bean at 7:26 PM on June 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

I'm delighted by this, as I have lived in Manhattan, and wondered this very thing. I had concluded it was a very beautiful place, back when. But then, I quite love that part of the States anyhow.
posted by Goofyy at 12:53 AM on June 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is also a book.
posted by Violet Hour at 2:05 AM on June 5, 2009

Im sure i was told in some tourist guide or other that Broadway was a Native American pathway from before the invasion settlers, that's why it bends where all the other roads are straight, but it appears not to be so here.
posted by criticalbill at 7:12 AM on June 5, 2009

Yeah, cool, but as Dunkadunc points out, an otherwise awesome project is limited by very poor design.
posted by robhuddles at 3:43 PM on June 5, 2009

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