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Strangers In A New Land

May 2024
10min read

Henry Hudson’s First American Adventure

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.

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.

Hudson had failed again, but at least he could report to his Dutch investors on the potential profits of these lands. As the Halve Maen descended the river, the crew paid careful attention to the landscape, especially what covered it: fertile fields and forests thick with oak, walnut, chestnut, yew, and “flees of sweet wood in great abundance, and great store of Slate for houses, and other good stones.” They traded and ate with the same peoples they had encountered on their journey upriver, a generally positive experience that convinced some of the men that the valley would be a good place to settle. “This is a very pleasant place to build a towne on,” Juet wrote, in the first recorded reference to colonization by anyone associated with Hudson. The sailors believed that the nearby mountains might bear valuable minerals, especially when the Indians gave them stones strong enough to cut through steel or iron.

But just as the Europeans let down their guard and perhaps contemplated coexistence with the Indians, another crisis flared. On October 1 the crew hosted visitors whom Juet identified only as the "people of the Mountaynes,” who seemed not to have encountered the Halve Maen or its crew earlier. The Europeans purchased some small skins from them, some of whom remained onboard. Juet wrote that one Indian, not among the trading party, paddled his canoe so close that eventually he leapt onto the rudder of the Halve Maen and climbed into the window of the cabin, where he stole Juet’s pillow, two bandoliers, and two shirts. This was the kind of treachery that the Europeans had always feared, and they reacted swiftly. A sailor shot the thief dead, his comrades plunging into the river. The English gave chase in a shallop. One Indian grabbed hold of the boat and tried to overturn it. The ship's cook chopped off his hand with a sword, leaving him to drown. The others swam away. Deciding that they had seen enough, the Europeans returned to their ship and hurried downstream.

By then word of the hostilities had quite likely passed ahead of them and roused other communities. A group that had previously traded with the sailors, including one man who had actually been a guest aboard, paddled out in two canoes, discharging arrows. An English fusillade killed two or three of them. In response over 100 men ashore volleyed arrows upon the ship. Again the sailors returned fire. Juet deployed a light cannon, called a falcon, which killed three Indians, while others of the ship's company dropped three or four more with muskets.

When the skirmish abated, the Halve Maen sailed away, soon reaching a place the locals called Mannahata. They met with no other Americans or further violence. On October 4 the ship reached the river's mouth and headed homeward.

Hudson began his return journey pondering a dilemma. Should he head to Amsterdam to admit failure or hatch a new plan, turn the ship, and try again? After six months at sea and two opposite attempts to find a passage to the East Indies, he had had no luck northeast or northwest. His crew also debated their destination, the Dutch arguing for setting a northward course to Newfoundland, passing the winter there, and launching another search for the Northwest Passage in the spring. Giving in to English opinions, Hudson judged such a course unwise. “He was afraid of the mutinous crew,” Emanuel van Meteren, the Dutch consul in London, later reported, “who had sometime savagely threatened him.” Mutiny was bad enough, but food could run out over the long, dark winter, leaving his crew dead or in such debility that they could neither carry on nor return to Europe.

Hudson offered an alternate plan. The ship could winter in Ireland and then proceed to Dartmouth in early spring to prepare for the next year’s search. If he could launch an expedition into the North Atlantic by mid-March, sail northwest, and hunt whales until mid-May, he would have a whole summer to seek the open northern waters before the winter ice closed the way again.

But for reasons no one bothered to document, the Halve Maen instead sailed eastward, reaching Dartmouth on November 7. Soon Hudson was back in London, where he spent the winter regaling others about his journey for the Dutch, his crew's inability to suffer the cold at the start of the trip toward the Northeast Passage, his tour of the North American coast, and the journey up the wide river. He probably described the bounty of that country of tall timber and fur- bearing creatures, its fish-thick rivers, and its potential for settlement. If he mentioned his adventures with the natives of that territory, we have no record of it. Juet left the only surviving full account of the Halve Maen ’s repeated encounters with the Algonquians, their curious trading habits, their strange gear, and their mysterious hostilities. A fragment from Hudson's account briefly described how the Indians lived and included his opinion that they “appear to be a friendly people, but have a great propensity to steal, and are exceedingly adroit in carrying away whatever they take a fancy to.” Despite that harsh judgment, Hudson mentioned to an associate of Sir Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury, that he planned to return soon to the American coast.

True to his word, he set sail the following year, this time to find the passage further north. But the troubles he had found in 1609 paled in comparison to what faced him no At least he had survived the trip to Manhattan and up the river that now bears his name. But he never came back from the American Arctic, succumbing, like poor John Coleman, to unpredictable violence. In Hudson's case, though, the assault came from his own, mutinous crew, who abandoned him, his 17-year-old son, and several other sailors. Those who got home eventually found themselves being prosecuted for murder.

Hudson was in all likelihood not the first European to lay eyes on what became New York. That honor, such as it was, belongs to the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who sailed into the harbor in 1524, though he never ventured upriver as Hudson did. But Hudson, English captain of the Dutch-owned Halve Maen , was the first to report on that rich country and thus encourage Dutch colonization. Juet’s report, published in 1625, added to the growing body of travel literature that inspired the English to seek permanent outposts on the North American mainland. In 1664 they wrested control of New York from the Dutch, keeping it until their last soldiers sailed homeward in 1783 from the new republic. By then the Munsee and other Algonquians whose ancestors had both hosted and confronted Hudson’s crew no longer controlled the harbor, the sweet-smelling forests of the Hudson Valley, or the rich fishing grounds—a future that Hudson, who dreamt of seaways far to the north of Mannahata and Munsee territory, could not have imagined.

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