December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
Over 350 years a mighty pageant of history has moved through the myth-haunted valley of the “Great River of the Mountains”
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:
The life of the small Dutch river towns before the American Revolution was far from the pastoral idyl that Washington living, James Paulding, and their contemporaries later suggested. The newcomers to these communities had not come to the big stream seeking refuge from religious persecution or from governmental tyranny. They had come seeking wealth, and they had found it not in the copper or silver that Robert Tuet had once thought likely to exist at river’s end, but in beaver pelts so valuable and so easily come by that they were often used as currency in the local economy. The river was a frontier, and law and order had obtained scant foothold. Yelling and shooting, drunken young bloods galloped through the narrow streets of the towns as wildly as would the cowboys and badmen of a Wild West that would not exist in America for another 200 years. Food was plentiful and the Dutch pioneers ate prodigiously, and what they ate they washed down with liquors so strong as to be affectionately titled Kill Devil, Bride’s Tears, Great and Small Fisheries. They were a quarrelsome, rough people, fond of jokes, and at the same time practical and of a whimsical turn. In a sermon, good Dominie Bogardus wounded the local governing officials with a blistering attack: “In Africa which has a climate of intense heat different species of animals come together by which various monsters of men are generated. But I know not from whence, in such a temperate climate as this, such monsters of men are produced.” The colony’s director answered by listing the Dominie’s services in two categories—those conducted when “dead drunk” and those conducted when “pretty drunk.” Then, to keep his congregation from hearing the good man’s deadly riposte on the next Sunday, the Fort Amsterdam Drum Corps were ordered to beat loudly on their instruments at the church door during the sermon, and the fort cannon was discharged frequently.
The people of the Hudson Valley were not slow to wrath in the days before the American Revolution. The Dutch residents joined heartily with those of British and German descent to let England know that they resented British tyranny. Their defiance has been less publicized than that of the New England area, but it was equally angry and violent. The “Battle of Golden Hill,” in which members of the Sons of Liberty and their sympathizers set upon detachments of troops sent into the New York streets to enforce order, rallied the anti-British citizenry some time before the comparable struggle known as the “Boston Massacre.” In 1766, Westchester County farmers, protesting the feudal practices o! the valley manor lords, enlisted under Kilkenny-born William Prendergast to march upon New York, and it was a detachment of these agrarian rebels who, taking shelter in a Putnam County cornfield, fired volleys that brought down two of the hated redcoats. Though these were not shots “heard round the world,” some historians are inclined to regard them as among the first rounds of the revolt against British rule.
Once the Revolution had begun, the British high command very sensibly decided on a divide-and-conquer policy and sought to separate the New England colonies from their allies by winning to themselves the wide stream that separated Yankee-land from the rebelling forces to the west. A stubborn and sometimes inspired defense, and the great good fortune of General George Washington and his armies, kept ths Hudson from ever falling completely into enemy hands. And this contributed mightily to the winning of the War of Independence.
No sooner had galloping riders brought to the Hudson’s banks news of the battles of Lexington and Concord than more than 200 men of the Coxsackie area met to sign a proclamation that the people of the Hudson’s great valley had taken their stand and were firm in their decision “never to become slaves.” Two months before the better-known pronouncement at Mecklenburg in North Carolina, and over a year before the signing at Philadelphia of the Declaration of Independence, these men of many national heritagesDutch, French, German, Swedish—affixed their names to a vow that they would be ruled in the future only by laws that they themselves had agreed upon.
The following war years in the valley were filled with heroic action, exasperating frustration, tragic events, and the sort of grim humor that is inevitable in days of hardship. The storming of Stony Point and the surrender of Burgoyne were greeted with wild celebration; the breaking of the channel-barring chain by the British ships, the burning of Kingston, and the treachery of Benedict Arnold were met with an aghast silence; Baron von Steuben’s triumphant announcement that he had caught a whale while fishing in the river (it turned out to be an eel), and General George Clinton’s escape from the redcoats by descending the Palisades in a slide that took the seat out of his trousers and left his chafed backsides glowing in the dust like a ruddy September moon peeping through a cloud bank, set off paroxysms of laughter.
Perhaps the hardest condition for both sides to bear during the years of the long fight in the valley was that of bitter dissension among neighbors. Loyalists who sincerely felt that armed revolt was unjustified looked upon their rebelling neighbors as deserving of the hangman’s noose, and those sympathetic with the Continental armies were even more strongly convinced that Tories were traitors and should suffer the consequences. The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown set the land ablaze with the fires of victory, and by their light many a worthy family, exiled by circumstance, sadly packed its worldly goods and set out for the colder and less settled land of Canada.
No sooner had Evacuation Day removed the British soldiery from Manhattan than the great experiment, a union of the American states, occupied the minds of the valley residents. They intended to have their share in creating the pattern that the nation would follow, and they battled for it with intelligence and zeal. At the convention in Poughkeepsie in 1788, George Clinton and his Hudson Valley neighbors fought bitterly against New York’s ratifying the newly drawn Constitution unless it included a specific bill of rights. Though they finally allowed ratification, it was with the express understanding that amendments including such a bill would be introduced for the consideration of the Federal Congress at the first opportunity.
The people of the Hudson Valley continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century to contribute to the developing political structure. The Alien and Sedition Laws, which included unreasonable curbs on freedom of speech, had no sooner been passed by a Federalist Congress during the John Adams administration than they aroused strong public resentment. When the Democrat-Republicans invoked them against Harry Croswell, editor of a newspaper in the river town of Hudson, New York, Federalist Alexander Hamilton made his way to Albany and there, in the crowning speech of his career, made certain of their repeal.
Eight shoemakers of the town of Hudson combined to establish a living wage for themselves and called a strike when it was not granted them. Indicted on a charge of conspiracy, they were tried and acquitted- winning the nation’s first recognition of the right to collective bargaining.
While the valley dwellers were improving the architecture of government, they were equally thoughtful and energetic in planning a social way of life. The prosperity of the city at the river’s mouth had provided its inhabitants with the means for a cultured and secure existence. Smarting at the comments of European visitors who had come to America to sneer at its lack of background and its money-grubbing materialism, the well-to-do New Yorkers moved upriver to construct elegant Italian villas, white-pillared Greek Revival mansions, and rambling country houses decorated by poetic carpenters whose pointed windows and improvised scroll-saw fabrications came to be known as Hudson River Gothic, and whose insistence that roofs be given visible and elaborately carved supports gave birth to the term Hudson River Bracketed.
In these homes set high above the wide river, the life of the “gentleman” became the eagerly sought goal. Arbiter of quiet (but elaborate) taste was young Andrew Jackson Downing, tall, dark, reserved, and handsome. The son of a west-bank gardener, he had from the days of his youth been the favorite of the valley families who looked upon themselves as the river aristocracy, and he had proved the democratic American formula by rising above his lowly birth to the most perfect model of a river aristocrat. Let your estates, he advised his neighbors, be either “beautiful” like the well-ordered, man-disciplined landscapes of Claude Lorrain, or “picturesque” like Salvator Rosa’s paintings of deep, wild glens whose foam-covered streams dash beneath dead trees to shatter against jagged rocks. Whichever of these effects you desire, he said, must be achieved without apparent effort. If your lawns must be mowed, your hedges clipped, your walks made symmetrical, see that the labor is done while your guests are asleep or at a time when they may be supposed to be indoors, so that none of them may be aware of the sweat and muscular aches that made their environment a paradise of the “beautiful.”
Summer began during the Moon of Roses. Breakfast was an outdoor ritual celebrated in the shade of blossoming honey locusts. Guests found beside their plates bouquets that in the language of flowers bespoke the host’s opinion of their virtues. There was a reading of poems—this was a literary valley—and talk of music and painting. Noon brought a pilgrimage to a high place and the opening of picnic baskets laden with roasted capon and cold bottles of champagne. At sunset a wail of flutes combed the mist over the cooling river. Dinner was turtle soup haunted by sherry, sweetbread and oyster patties in a shower of Rainwater Madeira, saddle of lamb jeweled by a garnet Burgundy, custards molded to the shapes of lions, whales, grape arbors—and a port, counted like the beads of a circling rosary. In the river parlors followed a harp glissando and a gentle, sad song—perhaps “On the Lake Where Drooped the Willow”—and a stroll on the riverside toward the moonlight and a glittering passenger packet, trimmed with white gingerbread, hissing softly through a cliff-lined channel.
These were the years when painters tramped the wooded slopes of the Catskills looking for vistas they might literally translate. The Hudson offered scenery matched nowhere else in the world, they said, and it was the painter’s mission to reproduce it realistically in order that all who looked might see how God had wrought an awesome beauty in America. Variety lay not in the approach of these artists but in the variety of nature. The result was painting by formula—a foreground rock or plant to show the virtuosity of the painter, then the river, misty in the middle ground, and last, the mountain rising majestically to prove the divinity of its Creator. There were many of these painters—skillful and dedicated. They formed the only recognized and titled group America has ever offered to the art of the world—The Hudson River school- and their works have outlasted the scorn of immediately succeeding generations. The big canvases of Cole, Durand, Kensett, Cropsey, Whittredge, Church, and a score of others are now treasured by collectors and bring prices almost as high as those for which they were originally sold to rich Hudson Valley patrons.
Though most of the great houses built in the Hudson’s golden age have been destroyed, enough of them remain to perpetuate the transitory dream of a great river flowing between lordly estates. Too many of them are in danger of oblivion, however, unless the people of New York State care enough for their past to preserve them as historic landmarks. Here and there lies a community in which the whole record of the region’s architecture remains intact, though its important items are uncared for and crumbling—Dutch houses over whose stone walls no eaves remain; Yankee salt-boxes that once sheltered Washington and his generals; octagons whose functional properties were praised by America’s foremost phrenologist, Orson S. Fowler; stone castles, crenelated and moated; Downing’s “country cottages”; and, of late, stern “modern” boxlike structures punctuated by picture windows and glass walls.
The number of factories on the banks of the Hudson increases slowly, and evidences of manual labor are still few, although big industrial companies are moving their experimental laboratories and their executive offices to campuslike retreats on grassy lawns that carpet the plateaus above the river. Housing developments and enormous apartments (concentrations of expertly packaged people) creep upriver and, despite the efforts of zoning boards to exclude them, lend spiritless monotony to estate acres that once gloried in homes made fanciful by ornamentation. A real-estate directional sign near Tarrytown reads, “To the splitlevel, ranch-type Cape Cods.”
September of 1959 marks the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the river. Only the upper reaches, which the explorer never saw, remain little changed since 1609. From Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds near the summit of the Adirondacks’ highest peak—Mount Marcy (known to the Indians as The Cloud-Splitter)—the river runs as a mountain stream, shallow and trout-inhabited, for about 150 miles until it finds the north-south channel. The northernmost mountains are older—and lonelier —than the tavern-crowded Catskills. Where the Hudson runs at the base of one of them stands an iron mine—a wide gash of rust-colored earth. Miles downstream, at the tiny town of North River, a road running up to a spacious log inn high above Thirteenth Lake turns a deeper red, and the dust of garnets rises in the air when disturbed by rolling wheels.
When, at the middle of their journey, the waters enter the deep sea-running channel traversed by Hudson, they pass by many a vestige of man’s experience through the more than three and a half centuries of his occupancy. The stream itself and its natural surroundings have not been entirely without change. The ice, which used to choke the river near the city of Albany until a day in March when it broke in volleying thunder and set out for the Atlantic, thunders no more. The giant sturgeon leap no more in darkness from the star-reflecting surface. Flocks of songbirds no longer flee before the windstorms while eagles circle above to dive upon their helpless prey, as once they did in 1815, so the French traveler Jacques Milbert reported. The blue Catskills are the same, though, and the steep-walled palisades, and the wide-spreading harbor leading into the Atlantic. There in the ocean bottom a canyon, cut by the river millions of years ago to a depth greater than that of the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon, receives the waters of the stream Henry Hudson called “Great River of the Mountains.”