- Historic Sites
Strangers In A New Land
Henry Hudson’s First American Adventure
Spring 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 1
When Hudson had left Amsterdam on April 4, he had no plan to cross the Atlantic. In 1607 and 1608 he had led English expeditions seeking a water route to the Spice Islands of the “South Sea,” as Europeans then referred to the Pacific Ocean. Little is known about Hudson's early life, though it is possible that he had lived earlier in a small town along a rock- strewn edge of the Northumberland coast. His family had in all likelihood been involved in long-distance trade, which could have helped him gain command of the Hopewell in 1607, the year he first appears with certainty in the historical record. On the initial voyage he hoped to find a way across the North Pole, but he turned back when ice blocked his passage. The next year he aimed for the Northeast Passage above Scandinavia and Russia, which Europeans believed led to the Pacific. His ship could not get past Novaya Zemlya, the typically frozen archipelago that separates the Barents and the Kara seas.
Despite these setbacks, Hudson had gained a reputation as a skilled seaman who bravely ventured into little-known waters and returned with ship intact and his crew alive. His skills attracted European merchants eager to find a shortcut to the Spice Islands that avoided the slow 10,000- mile journey overland from the southwest Pacific to western Europe, or the yet longer (if faster) 20,000- mile sea route pioneered earlier by the Portuguese. Both itineraries posed costly dangers. Caravans could be raided on land, and pirates preyed on ships. Whoever found a northern route could bring spices back faster and, in theory, with less risk.
The Dutch fascination with the Northeast Passage was no passing fad. In the 1590s Willem Barentsz (known as William Barents to the English) had made three efforts to break through to the Pacific. He survived the first two attempts but perished on the third after months trapped in the ice, only a few of his men surviving to tell the dismal story.
In 1609 the recently organized Dutch East India Company sent Hudson to follow Barentsz’s trail. He complied by sailing to the northeast, but, as one of his contemporaries put it, he “found the sea as full of ice as he had found it in the preceding year, so that they lost all hope of effecting anything during the season”; some Dutch sailors, accustomed to the temperate East Indies, found the bitter cold unbearable. Hudson offered the choice between sailing westward toward the 40th parallel, to a point where the English Capt. John Smith (who had journeyed to Jamestown in 1607) had suggested that an opening to the Pacific might be found, or sailing north through the Davis Strait, along the west coast of Greenland, toward what Europeans believed to be an ice-free polar sea. The men opted for the mid-Atlantic route and better weather.
Coleman’s death had confirmed the crew's misgivings. Thereafter, even peaceful meetings with the Americans were fraught with suspicions. On September 9 the Europeans, fearful of two warrior-filled canoes, tried unsuccessfully to capture several of the locals. Three days later they faced the largest group of Algonquians they had yet encountered when 28 canoes carrying men, women, and children paddled toward the ship. Juet believed that the Americans had come “to betray us.” Hudson refused to allow any Indians aboard. Nonetheless, the Halve Maen anchored and sent scouts ashore to trade, the sailors being especially interested in beans and oysters. The next day, after the Halve Maen had moved another four miles upriver and anchored again, more Indians arrived to barter oysters, pumpkins, maize, and tobacco for what Juet called “trifles,” which presumably included goods manufactured in Europe that would have been novel to the Americans. Over the next several days the ship sailed deeper into the valley. The sailors continued to trade for goods ranging from grapes to beaver and otter pelts, but they remained always on guard.
They came to realize that they had ventured into the midst of a network of communities. Juet did not provide the names of these groups, but in all likelihood the Halve Maen had sailed into the Catskills territory of the Mahican. To find out whether these Indians “had any treacherie in them,” Hudson and Juet planned to invite some onboard, get them drunk on aquavit and wine, and see how they behaved. The Indians had never been drunk before, but their conduct impressed the English favorably, and soon the crew established peaceful relations with other locals. The Indians, according to Juet, treated Hudson with “reverence.”
By late September the Halve Maen had ventured as far as it could up the once-wide river, probably near modern-day Albany. A small group dispatched to take soundings upstream returned with news that the river was narrowing; only 25 miles farther inland, it was a mere seven feet deep. Hudson realized that this could not be the Northwest Passage. By September 24 they had turned the ship and begun to retrace their route.