Strangers In A New Land

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On September 3, 1609, Henry Hudson and the English and Dutch men on the 80-ton Halve Maen (Half Moon) came within sight of the coastline where New York meets New Jersey today. The view of the sandy white beach backed by forest must have appeared Edenic to the perhaps 20 gaunt and exhausted men, who had endured most of the past five months crammed inside the 85-foot vessel, savaged by storms, frigid weather, and an oppressive diet. It was, Hudson would later observe, “as pleasant a land as one need tread upon” with abundant supplies of “timber suitable for shipbuilding, and for making large casks or vats.” The tall oak trees were a sure index of rich soil, while the waters yielded mullet, salmon, and a ray so large that it took four men to haul it onboard. But to these hardened men, something else lay beyond the trees that filled their dreams and made the costs of exploration well worth it.

Hudson and all European explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries knew that fame and immense riches would accrue to whomever found a quick new route to the vast markets of spices and silks in East Asia and the southwest Pacific. For almost a century, the English had sought a shortcut that would not only bring glory to their realm but also abet the larger Protestant mission of rescuing Christendom from the thrall of Rome. Of course, Hudson's backers had other goals too, above all the enormous fortunes that would reward control of the East Asia trade. The English East India Company, organized only a few years earlier, was already getting ships out of the Spice Islands laden with pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. But they had to follow the long course from India around Africa for thousands of miles, exposed to Barbary pirate slavers. Hudson realized that an Arctic passage despite its icebergs, barren country, and enigmatic and menacing inhabitants—could cut the distance and time substantially. A man of few words but of evident ambition and significant experience, he could have become as famous as Sir Francis Drake and buried his obscure origins under fame and wealth.

Two years earlier, he had led a mission that he hoped would take him over the top of the world, past the pole toward East Asia. This was the first of four voyages that made him one of the most intrepid and important explorers of his age—even as he failed in his quest for a way through ice to the lands of the sun, and even though his final voyage ended in mutiny, mystery, and quite possibly murder.

The Europeans on the Halve Maen soon found that they were not alone in this paradise. They first met the natives the day after they cast anchor; having made land in the ancestral territory of the Delaware (also known as the Lenape), which the local Munsee called Lenapehoking or “the Land of the People.” The ship's chronicler and first mate, Robert Juet, reported that the Munsee seemed happy to see the newcomers and willingly offered green tobacco in exchange for beads and knives. The Europeans found them “very civill” and marveled at their large supply of maize. On September 5 some of the crew ventured ashore in shallow-drafting rowboats known as shallops to fraternize and receive more tobacco. Some of the Indians ventured over to the Halve Maen , where they offered currants and hemp. Despite these peaceful exchanges, the English and Dutch men remained suspicious. They had perhaps heard tales traded around the docks at home of the unpredictability of America's native peoples.

On September 6 Hudson sent a party ashore to scout. They found meadows of plentiful flowers and grasses, as well as tall, fragrant trees. As they returned at dusk amid a rain storm, 26 Munsee paddled toward them in two canoes and attacked, wounding three of the five sailors. One of them, John Coleman, probably a veteran of Hudson's earlier failed East Indies mission two years before, took an arrow in his throat and died. Just as suddenly, the raiders then pulled away, leaving the survivors to bury Coleman in weary puzzlement. They named a point of land for him and maintained a watch the entire night. They returned at dawn to the Halve Maen . Encounters remained tense over the next few days, until the Europeans decided that they had rested long enough. It was time to explore the broad river that they hoped might lead them through the interior to the fabled Northwest Passage water route through North America.

Even after Coleman’s death, Hudson and his crew continued to trade with the Indians, frequently accepting the hospitality of these Algonquian peoples as they sailed up the river that one day would bear his name. But they also grew increasingly suspicious of the locals, scrutinizing each group before allowing some aboard and keeping an eye out for the villain who had murdered their shipmate.