The New Yorker Magazine's October 1, 2007, issue has a wonderful article, The Mannahatta Project: What did New York look like before we arrived? Work is underway to develop views of the lay of the land, the ponds and springs, and the vegetation of the island of Manhattan as accurately as possible ~ "down to the varieties of moss."
- Establish geographical models for Manhattan based on historical records, descriptions, and maps.
- Outreach and public education through posting of signs around the city explaining the natural history of, say Times Square, "to help New Yorkers learn about their forgotten, wild past."
The project will be one highlight of the 400th anniversary celebration of New York City in 2009.
Reading the article made me wonder what the original name of Providence was. It is not mentioned in most recent Rhode Island histories I have at hand here. A little web research, plus a little knowledge of the geographic characteristics of the land where the first English settlement was (i.e., North Main Street just south of Smith Street) indicates it would have been called by the name of the river that entered The Great Salt Cove, the Mosshasuck, which means "Great brook in the marshy meadow; great fish; meadow." Providence was Mooshausic in a document quoted in The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, p. 115, by Thomas Bicknell in 1920. This first settlement was at a crossroads of what are now Routes 1, 6, and 44, and it was not inhabited by Narragansetts, I believe, but was used as a meeting place for trading among different tribes in the area. If anyone has more accurate historical information, I'd be happy to have corrections.
Now, if you have ever wandered around downtown Providence, especially on a Waterfire night, you may realize that we have already compiled similar research for what Providence looked like before the English arrived. In the passage under Memorial Boulevard, between Waterplace and the plaza where Union Station Brewery is, the walls have several maps of how the city used to be. In fact, the Mall is sitting in what once was The Great Salt Cove. Take a look at them the next time you are at Waterfire (the next ones are October 6 and 27, 2007).
The New Yorker article has an accompanying slideshow of 11 renderings of such places as Tribeca, Murray Hill, Times Square, and the southern tip of Manhattan, which was originally much smaller than it is today. Boy, did people move a lot of earth around, and probably mostly with horses or oxen and carts.
Providence already has its posted historical illustrations, for instance, of the ford over the Providence River at Weybosset (which means "narrow place or crossing" in Algonquin). You'll see several of these posters on downtown bridges in the Waterfire area. Stop and think about them.
It's probably a deep-set Rhode Island trait to try to see everything "the way it used to be." I always find it intriguing to imagine how quiet the land once was, but how difficult it must have been to live here; and what vistas there were, and how the landfill wasn't visible from Providence once upon a time (which it now is, folks)! Maybe some creative ones among us will learn from the Mannahatta Project how to do a full-blown Mooshausic Project to help Rhode Islanders understand our state's ecology and our place in it.