The Lordly Hudson

Orientals were first upon the river. They came by land, and their journey eastward across the continent from its northwest coast to the banks where, their soothsayers had said, they might rest beside a water that-flows-two-ways, had lasted many generations. There is no knowing who first saw the ocean bound current turn about and run toward the mountains whence it came, but the realization of: a prophecy fulfilled must have come upon him with a stunning impact.

The salty tides of the estuary encounter spring-borne floods that join among the high old rocks to the north, comaier them for measured periods, and then give way, leaving messages for men. Among the slant-eyed, red-brown tribes that gathered by the river were poets whose sensitivity to natural phenomena inspired legends. Dy the fireplaces within their rounded twig-and-clay houses they heard the rush of wind, the roll of thunder, the tattoo of rain, and a goddess who controlled all these and lived in highlands of the sky beyond the river mountains. From her perch above the wide valley she ordered her votaries cursed by lightning or blessed by sun. When the once slim moon hung fat, she lifted it from its hidden hook, cut it into stars, and sowed them like yellow seed into the night’s black furrows. She had plucked and scattered countless full-blown golden blossoms from the sky before European explorers saw from under white sails the river landscape and its habitants, and speculated on its future. Vcrraxano, the Florentine, described his glimpse ol it in 1524 for his patron, “his most serene and Christian Majesty,” Francis I of France:

“We found a pleasant place below steep little hills, and from among those hills a mighty, deep mouthed river ran into the sea.”

Verrazano’s men, launched by a small craft into the beckoning mouth, heard a friendly crying from the tree-darkened shore. They saw a moving mass mottled with vivid colors move down toward the water and disperse into bobbing boats, the occupants “clad in the feathers of fowls of divers hues.” As the flotilla neared them, a change of wind suddenly deprived the Europeans of their welcome. When he sailed into the harbor of Dieppe months later, the Florentine found few words to report a mingling of light and color so transitory it might easily have seemed a dream.

“Loving people,” wrote the English captain Henry Hudson 8j years later in describing for his Dutch employers the natives living in the valley ol the Great River of the Mountains. The upstream cruise of his little vessel— Half Moon —was an early autumn idyl. When the Captain went ashore, “the swarthy natives all stood and sang in their fashion.” A ship’s officer, Robert Juet, dutifully kept the log of the voyage and entered his impressions in simple, direct English. The lands to the north, he wrote, “were as pleasant with grass and flowers and goodly trees as ever they had seen, and very sweet smells came from them.” The days were filled with sun-filtered mists, the nights with clear starlight. Indian summer has not changed upon the river since those September hours in 1609.

Disappointed that the wide stream had not proved a northwest passage to China, the explorers sailed back southward. When the Half Moon lay at anchor beside the long narrow island at the river’s mouth, her crew saw in the twilight a cliff “of the colour of a white greene as though it were either [a] Copper or Silver Mync.” Their cruise, begun in wonder at the stream’s beauty, had ended in greedy speculation, setting an often repeated pattern.

French was the prevailing language of the first settlers—thirty families of Walloon farmers from the southern Netherlands—dispatched to the banks of the Hudson by the Dutch West India Company. Manhattan began as a Gallic community of eight men, and Dutch Albany was first a town of eighteen Frenchchattering families. The little stone dwellings that rose beside the river soon housed a varied assortment ol nationals—Swedes, Germans, English, Danes, Irish— but most of them were Dutch, and Dutch ways prevailed.


The Netherlands population found much in the valley to marvel at, much even to disturb. They had come from Hat country that held no secrets. Now their blucstone cabins were hardly discernible against bluer ridges that suggested mysteries beyond irregular horizons. The squalling of wildcats, like the crying of young children, frightened them, and the laughter of wild streams seeking the level of the vast, silent Hudson set their imaginations aquiver. Their Irish neighbors willingly added to their store of memories of the supernatural, and the Germans, especially after the migration from the Palatinate in 1710, filled their minds with grotesque folk-fancies. Though this country was strange to them, they loved it and thought it beautiful. Jacob Steendam, a Dutch poet who lived on Manhattan for eight years, celebrated his love for the river-girt area about him with ecstatic lines:

This is the land, with milk and honey flowing With healing herbs like thistles freely growing The place where buds of Aaron’s rod are blowing O, this is Eden