Here to return to
MOST people have the impression that the first European to see the river was Henry Hudson, whose name it bears; but as early as 1524, the Florentine navigator, Verrazano, while coasting along the shore of the lately-discovered continent, entered the Bay of New York and ascended the Hudson for some distance. He must have gone at least as far as the Palisades, for he describes the stream as “The River of the Steep Hills.”
The next year the captain of a Spanish vessel took notice of the Hudson, and as time went on it was visited by French skippers, some of whom went up to the head of navigation to get furs from the Mohawks, and they built block-houses on Manhattan Island and at Albany. Wars at home, however, presently led to a cessation of French maritime enterprise, and the Hudson was not only abandoned but well-nigh forgotten.
The man to whom the river owes its name was a citizen of London and a warm friend of Captain John Smith. He first won fame by a voyage into the Arctic regions seeking a route to China directly across the North Pole, and though he failed in his main purpose he penetrated the ice-fields farther than any of his predecessors. While wandering on the almost unexplored seas of that time he discovered various of those marvels, of which the ocean anciently had many, and among the rest reported having seen a mermaid. The upper portion of the creature resembled a woman, but when she dove out of view she tossed in the air a “tayle like the tayle of a porpoise, and speckled like a macrell.”
Wonders were expected, and when in 1609 he first saw the Hudson he did not recognize it as a river, but fancied that its broad salt-water channel might afford the short-cut to China for which he was searching. Hitherto he had sailed in English ships, but on this voyage he was in the employ of the Dutch, who as a nation were the most enterprising and intelligent sea rovers and traders of that period, and who owned more ships than all the rest of Europe put together. With his little vessel, the Half Moon, manned by a crew of only eighteen sailors, he had again tried to push through the northern ice-fields. Failing in that he voyaged southward to Newfoundland, and Cape Cod, and even as far as Virginia. Then he returned along the coast exploring it more closely until, early in September, he sounded his way across Sandy Hook bar and anchored. Here he found an abundance of fish, and gazed with delight at the green pleasant shores adorned with “great and tall oaks.” The savages in their canoes, made of single hollowed trees, paddled out to visit the vessel, though at first sight they had been suspicious that the white-sailed ship was some strange sea-monster. They were clad in garments of feathers, deerskin and furs, and carried bows accompanied by arrows which were pointed with sharp stones. One evening when a boat from the ship that had been a few miles to the north exploring was on its way back it was attacked by two canoes, containing twenty-six Indians, and a sailor was killed by an arrow.
After a week’s loitering below Staten Island, Hudson sailed into New York Bay and proceeded on up the broad river enjoying the fragrance of the wild grapes that came from the shores. The scene as he continued northward became one of impressive and sober beauty. On the right bank swept the verdure of an almost unbroken forest, while on the left rose the precipitous rocks of the Palisades, and in both directions stretched a land of unknown extent that was full of mysterious possibilities. Hudson sailed on until he was well past the Highlands and had reached the head of navigation within sight of the Catskills. Meanwhile he had been trading with the savages for beans and oysters, Indian corn, pumpkins and tobacco. When he went ashore “the swarthy natives all stood around and sang in their fashion.” “They appeared to be a friendly people,” he says, but adds that they “have a great propensity to steal, and are exceedingly adroit in carrying away whatever they fancy.”
Hudson sent a boat load of his men up the river, and they explored the narrowing stream to beyond the mouth of the Mohawk. On their return he reluctantly concluded that this route did not lead to China, a conclusion in harmony with that of Champlain who the same summer, and on the same quest, had been making his way from the St. Lawrence down through the lake that bears his name and through Lake George. It was then a common belief that the continent in that latitude was not much wider than Central America. These old mariners never dreamed of the thousands of miles of solid continent ridged with vast mountain ranges that lay between them and their goal.
The prow of the Half Moon was at length turned southward. At one place where it stopped the “Master’s mate went on land with an old savage, who carried him to his house and made him a good cheere.” The mate’s entertainer was chief of a tribe consisting of forty men and seventeen women. They were all together in a house “well constructed of oak bark and circular in shape, with an arched roof.” A mat of interwoven bulrushes was spread in the wigwam for the visitor, and some food — probably boiled corn-meal — was served in a red wooden bowl, while a hunter was sent to shoot some game. In a short time he returned with a brace of pigeons, which the hospitable savages supplemented by a fat dog killed in haste and skinned with clam shells.
When the Highlands had been left behind the Half Moon was becalmed near Stony Point, and the “people of the mountain” came on board and marvelled at the ship and its equipment. One canoe kept hanging under the stern, and an Indian stole a pillow and two shirts from a cabin window. The mate shot at him and killed him. There was more trouble with the Indians near the north end of Manhattan Island. Two canoes full of savages appeared and commenced an attack with their bows and arrows. The sailors responded with a volley of musketry, and with two discharges from a cannon. Nine of the assailants were killed and the rest hastily got out of range of the death-dealing guns.
One month after entering New York Bay Hudson was back on the open sea and sailed for Holland. But part of his crew were Englishmen and these compelled him to stop at Dartmouth. Before he could get away the King interfered with an order forbidding him to leave the country. So the Half Moon was sent on to Amsterdam without him and the following year, still possessed by the South Sea mania, Hudson in command of an English ship sailed again. In June he reached Greenland and keeping on westward presently entered the great bay which has received his name. From November third until early in the succeeding summer the ship was locked in ice at the southern extremity of the bay. After this long delay the crew insisted on returning home. Their food supply was much diminished and they had scarcely bread enough to last a fortnight, but fish could be caught in considerable quantity and the bold navigator was desirous to push on toward Asia. Three days after leaving winter quarters, however, the sailors mutinied and placed him with his own son and some others who adhered to him in a small boat at the mercy of the waves. His fate was revealed by one of the conspirators when the ship reached Europe, and an expedition was sent from England in quest of the famous mariner, but no trace of him or his companions was ever discovered.
The reports of Hudson’s voyage in the Half Moon naturally stimulated interest in the country he had explored, and during the years following, a succession of the small, uncouth, but serviceable craft in favor among the commercial adventurers of the period, anchored in the bay below the Isle of Manhattan, so called from the name of a tribe of Indians dwelling in the vicinity. Whether we have adopted the correct form of this name is open to question, for no less than forty-two different spellings of it have been found in the old manuscripts. By 1613 four rude houses had been built on the island, and Captain Christiansen was sailing to and fro on all the near waters drumming up Indian customers and getting skins of beaver, otter and mink in exchange for blue glass beads and strips of red cotton.
The following year the ship of Captain Adrian Block was burned in New York Bay. So he established himself on the lower point of Manhattan Island and set about building a new one. He and his comrades were fed by the kindness of the Indians until they had constructed and launched a little vessel of sixteen tons which they called the Restless. In this small craft they boldly adventured the untried whirlpools of Hell Gate, and sailed away for Holland through Long Island Sound.
Meantime, a small redoubt had been built on Castle Island, near the present city of Albany, to protect the most advanced Dutch trading-post. But most of the trading was for years carried on in ships and small vessels. Cloth, rum, beads and cheap trinkets, knives, hatchets, awls, hoes and firearms were bartered on the decks of the vessels for beaver skins and other furs. The headquarters for all this traffic was the lower end of Manhattan Island.
As yet the Dutch had only the most slender hold in the new world, and it is a curious fact that the river narrowly escaped falling under the sway of the English through the establishment there of the voyagers on the Mayflower. In November, 1620, the homeseekers on this vessel, after beating about in the neighborhood of Cape Cod, stood for the southward, “the wind and weather being fair, to find some place about Hudson’s River for their habitation. But after they had sailed about half a day they fell among dangerous shoals and roaring breakers, and conceived themselves in great danger, and resolved to bear up again for the Cape.”
The first Dutch colony arrived in 1623, and the larger portion of it settled in the vicinity of the future Albany, but eight men were left on the Island of Manhattan. Three years later this island, thirteen miles long, and for the most part two miles broad, was in due form purchased from the Indians for twenty-four dollars worth of beads and ribbons. It was not an extravagant price; but land was a possession that the Indians had in superabundance, and there is no reason to think that they were dissatisfied with the bargain. The future city continued for many years to be no more than a petty village under the walls of Fort Amsterdam.
The fort was at first simply a block-house encircled by red cedar palisades backed by earthworks. East of it, along the waterside, stretched a line of one-story log cabins with bark roofs, about thirty in number, and these sheltered the greater part of the inhabitants. Nearly all the island outside of the village was primeval wilderness which resounded nightly with the growl of bears, the wail of panthers, and the yelps of wolves, while serpents lurked in the dense underbrush. The fort commanded the southern end of the island, overlooking the reef of rocks afterward filled in and extended to form the Battery. As time went on the log houses gave way to better ones, which, though usually small and for the most part of wood, were apt to have gable ends of small black and yellow bricks brought over from Holland, and often the peak of the front gable was surmounted by a weathercock. The people early had a windmill to grind their grain and another to saw wood, but in 1629, with a population of three hundred, there was neither a minister, nor a schoolmaster. Plainly the citizens had come hither for furs, and few had any intention of making the new world their permanent home.
By 1641 the place had two thousand inhabitants and was considered “a clever little town.” Then began a terrible Indian war which lasted four years and threatened to drive the Dutch from the entire valley.
The town was agitated with fresh alarms in 1652 when war broke out between the Dutch Republic and England. So the fort was repaired and a wall was built across the island at the northern limit of the city. This wall followed the course of what was destined to be one of the world’s most famous streets, and a chief center of commerce and finance — that is, Wall Street. The wall consisted in the main of a line of round palisades six inches in diameter, and twelve feet high, with a sloping earthwork on the inner side that rose to a height of four feet.
The city’s next taste of war did not, however, come from the English, but from the Indians. On the west side of Broadway, a little above Bowling Green, a burgher named Van Dyck had a comfortable house with its garden and orchard. One September afternoon in 1655 he found an Indian squaw on his premises stealing peaches. Instantly he drew his pistol and killed her. The relations of the whites with the Indians were at the time perfectly peaceful, but this cruel act wrought a direful change. On September fifteenth, before daybreak, while the little town was wrapt in slumber, a swarm of canoes came to the shores of the island bringing almost two thousand Indians from tribes near and far. They thronged through the streets, but at first did no particular harm. Some of the city officials got the sachems to come into the fort for a conference. This resulted in the warriors’ embarking in their canoes and paddling over to Governor’s Island But at sundown they returned. A party of them rushed up Broadway to Van Dyck’s house and sent an arrow through his heart, and a neighbor who came to the rescue was struck dead with a tomahawk. The citizens turned out in force, armed and ready for battle, and the Indians withdrew across the Hudson where they further vented their wrath by burning Hoboken and Pavonia. Staten Island and other places were later devastated. Within three days they had slain one hundred persons and held as prisoners fully as many more. Numerous cattle were captured or driven away and an immense quantity of grain was burned, and intermittent fighting continued along the Hudson for nearly a decade.
During these troubled times the town on Manhattan Island barely held its own. It was even then a very cosmopolitan place, and nearly a score of different languages were spoken there. In 1699 the population had increased to six thousand. Just before the Revolution the buildings numbered about twenty-five hundred. They were arranged so compactly that the space occupied was no more than a mile in length and half that in breadth. The streets were irregular and were paved with round pebbles. Most of the houses were of brick, many of them had tile roofs, and quaint dormer windows were common. There was still a marked separation between the Dutch and the English residents. Habits of living were primitive, and society was the reverse of intellectual. Manners were agreeably free, conviviality at the table was the fashion, and strong expletives had not gone out of use in conversation.
By 1800 the inhabitants numbered sixty thousand, which included three thousand slaves. The outskirts of the city were then in the neighborhood of the present city hall, and people went for drives in the country above Canal Street. The increase in population was henceforth very rapid, and seventy-five years later the million mark was passed.
To return to the early days and a more general survey of affairs in the Hudson Valley it is to be noted that while New York and Albany at the extreme southern and northern ends of the navigable river were the first settlements, other primitive hamlets were started between these two. Nevertheless for a long time the greater part of the river shore was practically untouched by the whites. The inland wilderness sheltered a large Indian population and was the haunt of numerous wild animals, including if we can believe a document of the period, “lions, but they are few; bears, of which there are many; elks, and a great number of deer.”
The Netherlands were at this period so prosperous and so liberally governed that very few Dutchmen were inclined to emigrate. Traders came and went but the number of new homes increased very slowly. To meet this difficulty the West India Company granted semi-monarchical powers to patroons, or men of wealth who should establish colonies at their own expense in America. Each patroon had authority to own a tract of land with a frontage of sixteen miles on one side or the other of any stream whose shores were not yet occupied, and the lots were to run back into the interior as far as circumstances made possible. It was, however, stipulated that the patroons should not settle the land until they had purchased it from the Indians.
The device of granting these large “manors” as they were called, served to plant the country, and fields of rye, wheat, maize and barley began to grow in the forest clearings neighboring the forts, and round about the orchards and gardens of the manor lords, whose rule in their little realms was almost absolute. Thus was the country settled, yet in such a thin and inadequate way, that when once the English chose to forcibly assail the Dutch power it crumbled with slight resistance. Both the Dutch and the French spread the ramifications of their trading companies over a vast territory, and neither was able to withstand the closely-settled agricultural colonies of the English. All parties concerned claimed to have right on their side; but Cabot’s discovery and the early Virginia charters were poor pretexts for the seizure of the Dutch colony. It was, however, inevitable that it should be absorbed by the English simply because the great fertile middle region was important to the unity and defense of the English settlements. So in September, 1664, in time of peace, the little capital on Manhattan Island was surprised, overawed and captured by an English fleet. The inhabitants had no desire to fight, and though brave, honest Governor Stuyvesant — “Headstrong Peter” he was often called — angrily tore in pieces the letter from the English commodore requiring the surrender, one of the citizens gathered up the fragments, pieced them together and joined the rest of the people in forcing the governor to accept the terms offered. The subjugation of the whole of New Netherland quickly followed, and the territory was thrown open to English settlers.
Stuyvesant, after journeying to Holland to make a report to the authorities, returned to New York to pass the few remaining years of his life. He lived in peaceful retirement on his bowery, or farm, which occupied the space now bounded by Fourth Avenue and the East River, and by Sixth and Seventeenth Streets. His wooden, two-story house was approached through a garden, bright with flowers, arranged in beds of geometrical pattern. A warm friendship sprang up between him and the English, and these were doubtless his happiest years. He died at the age of eighty in 1672.
Anthony's Nose as seen from Doodletown Heights
England and Holland were then again at war, and the following year a powerful Dutch fleet appeared in New York Bay. There was a brief exchange of volleys between it and the feeble fort, a few lives were sacrificed, and the city on Manhattan passed into the hands of its founders. The fleet shortly all sailed for Europe except a frigate and a sloop-of-war, and the conquerors of the province were left in a decidedly precarious situation. Houses had been built and gardens planted so close to the old Manhattan fort as to interfere with firing its cannon. The offending houses were either pulled down or moved away and the fortress was much strengthened; but in less than a year, by a treaty signed in Europe, the province was surrendered to the English.
Thenceforth for fully a century the history of the Hudson is simply that of the development of local trade and sea-going commerce. At the beginning of the Revolution, New York was among the foremost of American seaports, and the Hudson Valley was the most populous and important highway to the interior north of the Delaware. Besides it had a vital strategic value because it furnished a direct water route between the southern coast and the English strongholds in Canada. It was essential that the American patriots should retain it in their control, since its loss would mean the separation of New England from the rest of the colonies. During much of the war, therefore, a struggle for the possession of the Hudson went on, and many of the most thrilling and consequential operations of both armies were conducted in this valley.
When the war ended, business revived more quickly and vigorously, perhaps, along the Hudson than anywhere else. All the larger towns considered themselves seaports, and each strove to bring to itself not only the country trade but foreign commerce. Turnpikes were built from the towns inland, whaling and fishing craft were constructed and manned, and Albany and Troy secured improvements of the upper channel to give them an equal chance with the towns lower down. Lines of fast passenger sloops sailing at regular intervals were organized, and the up-river ports throve and made good headway even in competition with New York City. But this particular form of prosperity was brief.
In 1807 Robert Fulton proved on the Hudson that steam navigation was practical, and steamboats were used for years on this river before they were adopted elsewhere. The new method of conveyance so cheapened and quickened the transportation of goods and passengers, that it lessened the importance of the up-river ports and ministered to the supremacy of the great town on Manhattan Island. Then came the opening of the Erie Canal and the Delaware and Hudson Canal, and tugs were ready to haul the canal boats which reached the river from the far interior straight on to New York without pause. About the same time the railways began building, and the fate of the up-river towns as seaports was sealed. They were no longer in the race with New York.
Up to this time the river’s present name was by no means universally accepted. In the early days every explorer gave it a name to suit his own fancy, and the names became awkwardly numerous. By the Dutch it came to be commonly called the “Great River,” or the “River of the Mountains,” or the “North River” to distinguish it from the Delaware or “South River,” and they never connected the name of Hudson with its waters. At present the term “North River,” which is still in everyday use in New York, applies merely to the harbor portion of the stream between the metropolis and Jersey City. Probably the adoption of the name “Hudson River” by the company which built the railway along the east shore has done more than any other agency to displace the name “North River,” and fasten the old navigator’s name in popular speech.