Rediscovering Henry Hudson

17th century explorer Henry Hudson
17th century explorer Henry Hudson

From uncharted waters to busy shipping lanes, the Hudson River has undergone some changes in the 400 years since the first Europeans sailed it. We all know the name of that first intrepid captain, but not his face. Martha Teichner explores the mystery.

Does anybody have any idea what Henry Hudson actually looked like?

There is no actual portrait, according to Dutch historian Jaap Jacobs.

So in the 19th century, they just made up an idea of what an explorer should look like, and that's what they ended up with.

Here's aabout all most of us do know:

Four hundred years ago, in 1609, Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon, which probably did look like this, into what is now New York Harbor. He continued on up what is now the Hudson River, until he realized it could not possibly be the Northwest Passage - a shortcut from Europe to the riches of China and the Spice Islands.

End of story? Hardly.

"So what he did is, he returned home, and surely he, himself, considered that a failure," said author Russell Shorto. "And what's interesting about Hudson, I think, is that a lot flowed from this voyage, a lot of history"

Shorto's bestseller about that history, "The Island at the Center of the World," begins with Henry Hudson.

"Hudson was, I think, one of those men of his time who was kind of like Steve Jobs," Shorto said. "He was on the cutting edge. Governments wanted him. Companies wanted him. So he was much in demand."

Which explains how Hudson - an Englishman - happened to be working for the Dutch East India Company when he made his great discovery.

At the beginning of the 17th century, great empires were being built, thanks to explorers like Hudson. It was globalization . . . except then, there was no such thing as an accurate map of the globe.

"What was going on in this era was not only exploration, but it was really the construction of knowledge," said Sarah Henry, who (with Jacobs) is curator of an exhibition commemorating Henry Hudson's voyage at the Museum of the City of New York.

"New maps are being made," Jacobs said of that time. "News is being sent out and is being corrected, and it's an ongoing process."

Charles Gehring, head of the New Netherland Project at the New York State Library in Albany, showed a map dating from 1609.

"So this was an assumption of what the world looked like, yeah. Looking right down at the North Pole, the idea was that the further north you went, the warmer it would become, because the rays of the sun hit directly in the north. This was a theory that they had!"

"That proved wrong," said Teichner.

"Proved wrong!" laughed Gehring.

So after failing three times to find this northern route to Asia, Henry Hudson - defying his orders from the Dutch East India Company - turns around, sails across the Atlantic, and finds himself facing the island the local Indians called Mannahatta, "island of hills."

Ecologist Eric Sanderson has spent ten years working on the Mannahatta Project, using old historic maps, archaeological sources, historic sources, and descriptions from the Dutch (plus a little Hollywood-style animation) to create an extraordinary profile of New York as it once was.

And what was on the island 400 years ago? "Something like 350 bird species," Sanderson said. "About 80 different mammal species, 45 different reptiles and amphibians were living on Mannahatta.

And on the island pre-concrete jungle: over 600 species of plant.

But here's the really cool part that you can see at the Museum of the City of New York, or on the Mannhatta Project Web site: what Times Square was like.

But further north of what is now Manhattan, says Chip Reynolds, much of what Hudson saw would have been very similar to what we see today.

Reynolds captains a replica of Hudson's ship, the Half Moon, sailed by volunteers.

"We take great pains to ensure that all items that you see aboard the ship - the barrels, the ropes and lines, the way we handle the sails - are done in the same manner they were 400 years ago."

Most of what's known about the voyage of the Half Moon is from the log kept by a crew member, Robert Juet, a copy of which is in the New York State Library.

Juet methodically noted the very good harbor at the tip of Mannahatta, trading possibilities, natural resources, and encounters with local Indians.

"One of the Half Moon's crew members was shot through the neck with an arrow and killed right down in lower New York Harbor," Reynolds said. "How they could transition from that experience to their writing about the loving people? They talk about the sorrow that they felt at departing the land of the loving people, meaning the Mohican in the upper Hudson River, and literally a day later, they're right back in open warfare."

So what happened to Henry Hudson after his exploration of the River that now bears his name?

He was still obsessed with finding a route to Asia. He organized another voyage to what is now Hudson Bay in Canada. His ship got stuck in the ice for an entire winter. His crew mutinied; they set him adrift in a small boat and took off.

He was cast off with his son and the ship's carpenter and six other crew members that were suffering from scurvy who the mutineers didn't want to haul back to England.

And that was the end of him.

But not of what he set in motion.

Within a couple of years, Dutch fur traders were working the Hudson Valley. The colony of New Netherland was established by 1621; the village of New Amsterdam (eventually New York City) was founded in 1625.

And where was the original New Amsterdam? Shorto showed us: A small area in what is now Manhattan's financial district, Its street pattern familiar.

That's right: Wall Street. The free trading, multi-ethnic, upwardly mobile capital of what is thought of as American culture, and that's no accident, because it was Dutch first.

Transplanted along with Dutch architecture were Dutch attitudes.

"At a point in the 1640s, when there were only 500 people in New Amsterdam, there were 18 languages being spoken," Shorto said. "The Dutch Republic in the 17th century was the melting pot of Europe. The Dutch out of this need to bind these mixed peoples, developed something new in Europe, this principle called tolerance. It was just a social glue, a way to bind people so they could function alongside one another."

Once the English took over in 1664, said Charles Gehring, "the Dutch are sort of pushed into the background" - their influence on the American character forgotten.

The evidence is written in 17th century Dutch, languishing for generations in the collection of fire-scorched documents at the New York State Library.

Gehring has spent thirty five years translating these papers so the story will get told. He showed us Peter Stuyvesant's signature on a charred document.

Stuyvesant is the Dutch colonial governor with the wooden leg who handed over New Netherland to the British in 1664. His is the one name from that period most Americans recognize, other than Henry Hudson's.

Four hundred years after Hudson inadvertently changed history, Americans are remembering the voyage he thought was a failure.

Last night, Macy's huge 4th of July fireworks display took place on the Hudson River, as a tribute to Henry Hudson, who died having no idea that he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

For more info:

  • Museum of the City of New York (The Worlds of Henry Hudson exhibits)
  • or The New Netherland Project
  • The Half Moon
  • "The Island at the Center of the World"
  • "Half Moon" by Douglas Hunter
  • Hudson River Museum (Dutch New York exhibit)
  • New York Historical Society (Future exhibition: Dutch New York)
  • South Street Seaport Museum (Future exhibition: New Amsterdam)