The Lenape people inhabited Mannahatta for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. They named their island home “Mannahatta,” meaning “Island of Many Hills.” We use the term “Mannahatta” to refer to the island as it was in 1609, and “Manhattan” to refer to the metropolis of today.

What about “Welikia”?

The Lenape didn’t have a term for all of New York City though (because it was hundreds of the years into the future and how would they know what the boundaries would be?), so we have adopted the Lenape expression “Welikia,” Hear Welikia pronounced meaning “my good home,” to refer to the whole of the city or its parts, as in, “Welikia Bronx,” “Welikia Queens,” “Welikia Brooklyn,” or “Welikia Staten Island.”

The Big Idea

The Mannahatta Project began in 1999, when landscape ecologist Dr. Eric Sanderson, a life-long Californian, moved to New York City to work for the world famous Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo. Dr. Sanderson realized that, to fully appreciate the concrete landscape of streets and buildings that was his new home, he would have to “go back in time” to recreate the its ecology from the “ground up.” As a landscape ecologist, Dr. Sanderson uses spatial analysis techniques to protect wildlife in modern landscapes. His idea was to apply these techniques to recreate an extinct, historic landscape in detail, that is, to recreate, in digital form using mapping software, each and every hill, valley, stream, spring, beach, forest, cave, wetland, and pond that existed on Mannahatta.

Dr. Eric Sanderson, Founder & Director, The Mannahatta Project

Dr. Eric Sanderson, Founder and Director, The Mannahatta Project. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

The British Headquarters Map

But where to start? By chance, Dr. Sanderson came across the British Headquarters Map, created by the British military in 1782 when they controlled New York City during the American Revolution. This detailed military map illustrates locations of natural features, such as salt marshes, streams, hills, and woods, that army cartographers considered important obstacles to soldiers as they traveled the island. This map was an important find because of the degree of topographic detail and range of natural features it depicts. For instance, the map even shows what type of trees grew in a stand — green triangular shapes represent evergreens while rounded tufts represent deciduous trees. No other map of Manhattan Island from this era depicts so many natural features in such detail. With this key to the past, we now had a starting point to launch the recreation of the island.

The British Headquarters Map, circa 1782, is the best record of Mannahatta's early topography and ecology. ©National Archives, London

The British Headquarters Map, circa 1782, is the best record of Mannahatta's early topography and ecology. The National Archives of the UK, ref. MR1/463.

Going Back to 1609

But the British Headquarters map was created in 1782, well after Europeans arrived on Mannahatta’s shores and began to dramatically alter its landscape. The development of Manhattan Island actually began much earlier, shortly after Henry Hudson sailed his vessel, the Half Moon, into New York Bay on September 12, 1609. This pivotal point in the island’s history was the was the point we chose to recreate in digital form. To “go back” all the way to 1609, we would need more than the 1782 British Headquarters map.

Go to the Science page to learn more about recreating Mannahatta.

Why Go Back?

But why go through so much trouble to find out such detailed information about natural features that are long gone? Well, as you may have guessed, we at the Wildlife Conservation Society are interested in conserving wildlife. We know that many animal species are faltering because humans have taken over what was once wildlife habitat, converting it to cities, suburbs, farms, roads, mines, and other human-dominated landscapes. Of all of these types of development, cities are the most efficient at housing people. That is, cities concentrate people into a relatively small area instead of spreading them across the landscape. From a wildlife conservation perspective, that makes cities the best option for housing people, which makes sense to us, because we are wildlife conservation organization based in a city.

With more and more of the human population moving to cities, with several mega-cities of 10 million people or more on the horizon, and with a growing urban sprawl development pattern in the USA and elsewhere, we realize that we have the opportunity to “do” cities a better way. Going back to 1609 allows us to see what NYC was before it was a city and to reimagine the city’s development in a way that would incorporate more of the natural cycles and processes (such as the hydrological cycle) that made the island the ecological gem that it was. This is not merely an academic flight of fancy. Rather, in undertaking this exercise, we will discover ways in which we can restore some of the ecological processes lost to NYC in particular, and more broadly, we will learn how to create cities that are more “livable” for people. For instance, maintaining natural waterways like streams and incorporating more open space and tree plantings into city planning would increase a city’s aesthetic value, water quality, and air quality for city folk. Making cities more pleasant and rich places for people to live will increase city folks’ standard of living, attracting more people to cities and minimizing sprawl development between cities where the ecological gems, the “Mannahattas” of today, currently reside.

Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial

The Mannahatta Project was given extra impetus by the celebrations in 2009, which marked the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York Bay (and also the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s trip to the lake that now bears his name, and the 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s first long-distance steamboat trip up the Hudson River.) In recognition of the importance of these historic anniversaries, The Mannahatta Project celebrated the “Quad” with: the recent release of Dr. Sanderson’s new book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (Abrams), an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York entitled “Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City”, and festivities on New York’s “birthday,” September 12, 2009. We hope that when the Quincentennial rolls around, New Yorkers will remember Mannahatta and mark their progress in restoring uninterrupted ecological cycles to the city.

Start exploring the Welikia map on our Explore page.

Going Forward

In the fall of 2010, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced the establishment of the Welikia Project, an effort to expand the Mannahatta Project beyond Mannahatta, and embrace the other four boroughs of New York City.  Welikia includes Mannahatta, but also includes the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.  We expect that working this new project will take three years, with completion scheduled for late 2013.  The new Welikia Project will be made available to the public through this website, additional educational materials, and outreach events designed to delight the eight million people that make New York City their home.  To learn more, sign up for our newsletter (see the footer at the bottom of the page), support your borough through our Welikia map, and come out to visit the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, or New York Aquarium.