The Iconography of Manhattan

Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes by John Singer Sargent. Courtesy of Wikipedia

One of my favorite sources for Manhattan research is The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909 by Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes (1867-1944). This six volume set was published between 1915 and 1928 and chronicles the history of Manhattan from the fifteenth century to the early twentieth century. The publication not only records the vast history of Manhattan, it also provides beautiful illustrations and maps.

The volumes most relevant to my own family research are the first and second volumes, which highlight the Dutch period (1609-1664); both volumes have helped me to uncover new information about my family. Most importantly, from this source, I have learned where my Dutch ancestors held property or lived in lower Manhattan during the seventeenth century.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with historical landscapes. How has this property changed over the years? What did this street look like 200 years ago? As this interest overlapped with my family history research, I then wondered – where did my ancestor live on this street? The Iconography of Manhattan Island is a historical landscape lover’s dream source, with detailed descriptions of streetscapes, their evolution, and their residents.

With the aid of Map of the Dutch Grants, located in Volume 2, I learned that my ancestor Abraham Isaacszen Verplanck received a grant of land on Brugh Straet, now Bridge Street, in 1647. Located adjacent to the former location of the Dutch West India Company’s brewery and to Hendrick Hendrickszen Kip, this lot was eventually reclaimed by the Dutch West India Company in 1659 for the construction of a hospital. By 1665, Verplanck settled on Smit’s Vly (or Smith’s Valley), which was located between Wall Street and Fulton Street. From The Iconography of Manhattan Island, I learned that Abraham Verplanck likely lived on Pearl Street, a street that still exists in Lower Manhattan.

Be sure to read Stokes’ preface to The Iconography of Manhattan Island in Volume 1, where he thoughtfully describes his intentions for the epic history. And don’t miss out on the Castello Plan, a detailed 1660 map by surveyor Jacques Cortelyou. This incredible map depicts not only the streetscapes of New Amsterdam, but also its buildings. If you have Manhattan ancestry, this source is a must!

All six volumes are available at Columbia University and

About Sheilagh Doerfler

Sheilagh, a native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, received her B.A. in History and Communication from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research interests include New England, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Westward Migration, and adoptions.

11 thoughts on “The Iconography of Manhattan

  1. Glad you posted these volumes. I am descended from Cornelius Melvyn…Thank you for your geneousity!

  2. May I recommend to read ‘The island at the Center of the World’ by Russell Shorto. Gotham: a History of NYC to 1898′ by Burrows and Wallace, a Pulitzer prize winner. ‘Manhattan Street names past and present’ by Rogerson

  3. Your mention of the Verplancks brought back wonderful childhood memories. Although I an not related, my grandmother’s life-long best friend was Marguerita Verplank, wife of John C. Cattus. Aunt Margie had no children, but I spent a great deal of time at the Cattus house in Bay Head and at our house for Sunday dinner Her father was Uncle Major who published a genealogical chart which I used until I out grew it. I have many New York Dutch ancestors, so we might be cousins

  4. Sargent’s sympatico-ness with many of his female “sitters” is famous (i.e., Madame X). Often, as here, the young married woman is front and center, the bearded husband hovering in the back. Having 1st seen this work, likely in an American Heritage article way back when, I’ve always wanted to at least have chance to have a conversation with her. A date? I’d never have gotten through the front door to the parlor to await Miss Edith’s entrance.

    For the Real Dynamo in the Phelps-Stokes family (I.N.’s niece Caroline), see the Wiki article on the Phelps-Stokes Foundation:

    Amazing. A little engine that could. Still little (seed money, really), still doing.

    And isn’t simply great. Which site has the better resolution of the pictures and maps?

    1. Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your inquiry. For the best quality images, I would view them at the Columbia University site. Enjoy!


  5. as an undergraduate at columbia i used those beautiful volumes to research the built environment for papers in my architectural history classes. it was a joy just to handle them !

  6. I first learned about the Iconography many years ago when I found it in the NYG&B library (before they sold their building and gave away their library). I was researching my ancestor William Bedlow, and had been told that he had once owned Liberty Island, at which time it was called Bedlow’s Island. The only place I could find any proof of this was in the Iconography. I am glad to hear that it can now be found on-line!

    PS: I too am descended from Abraham Isaacszen Verplank, so am anxious to look him up in the Iconography.

  7. Thank you for this article! My husband’s ancestor is Jacobus deBakker. He is listed on one of the maps.

  8. Thank you for posting this informative article! Within the 1662 to 1670 time frame, my ancestral grandfather, Nicholas Davis, a Quaker, purchased land within Smith’s Valley. Are you able to check to see if he purchased a house or piece of land from Abraham Verplanck?

    Thank you!

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