The Story of New Netherland/Chapter 1

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The Story of New Netherland by William Elliot Griffis
Chapter I: Hudson Seeks the Sea Path to China

When, in 1567, the Spanish Duke of Alva marched with his terrible "Black Beards" towards the Netherlands to subdue the Dutch people to the ideas of Philip II, the boy that grew up to found the Dutch West India Company was born. One hundred thousand Walloons, or French-speaking inhabitants of the Low Countries, fled at once to foreign lands. Within fifty years, half a million refugees from the Belgic Netherlands were dwelling in England, Holland, Germany, or in Switzerland, and enriching those countries by their talents, character, and industry. Instead of fewer than a million people living in 1567 on four thousand square miles of poor soil, the Dutch Republic had in 1609 a population of three and a half millions, or one as large as that of England.

The Dutch end of the sea-route to Manhattan had been prepared before Columbus made landfall. William Usselinx, born in Antwerp, founder of the Dutch and Swedish East India Companies that began the settlements of New York and Delaware, became interested in American enterprises by living in the Azores. These islands had been rediscovered by Dutch sailors in 1431 and colonized, becoming a new Netherland. From this point the ships bound for the New World began their westward voyages. Lying eight hundred miles west of Portugal, these nine islands emerge from the ocean on nearly the parallels' of our Middle States. England lies in high latitudes. Cabot, Davis, and Frobisher, steering directly west, entered sub-polar regions. From the Azores to Sandy Hook is almost a straight line. In our day the German submarine cable connects Continental Europe with America, by way of the Azores and Embden.

When both Orient and Occident were opened to trade the islands rose directly in the path of commerce. Here, as to a school, one must come to learn about colonial business. For a long time the Azores were associated with America, but after the Spaniards occupied them, the Canaries became the base of supplies and point of departure across the Atlantic.

In 1591, when the triumphant Dutch Republic was twelve years old, Usselinx returned and began to agitate in favor of trade with America. He kept up the work of arousing public opinion until his death at eighty, leaving fifty printed works behind him. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was formed, but the Great Truce of 1609 compelled postponement of his schemes for a West India Company, which was not organized until 1621. Meanwhile, however, the offer of the States-General of twenty-five thousand guilders to any one who should discover the northeastern route to China and Japan was a lure. So some Amsterdam merchants fitted out the flyboat Half Moon, with a crew of sixteen men, half English and half Dutch. It was named the Half Moon, after the victorious flagship, in which, in 1602, Vice-Admiral Kant had beaten the Spaniards in a great naval battle. Five days before the signing of the truce, April 4, 1609, Hudson weighed anchor and sailed for Nova Zembla.

In Arctic seas, amid icebergs and blizzards, he had to face a mutiny. The sailors, not relishing the idea of being frozen fast among polar bears, demanded that he go back. Hudson flanked the mutineers by steering westward across the Atlantic.

Van Rensselaer and the Nijkerk worthies
Other pathfinders were then on the inland waters of America, all looking for the Chinese gate and "the needle’s eye." Champlain at the northern lake side was meddling with firearms in Indian quarrels. John Smith on the lower Susquehanna kept hunting for that open sea in which he believed. Hudson, and later La Salle, was soon to join them, searching for the same mythical water. The "China rapid" in the St. Lawrence River, called in jest La Chine, tell how La Salle also sought but found not. This idea of an inland ocean, called Verrazano's Sea, then filled men's minds. Even to the end of the nineteenth century it dominated English fiction.

Before leaving the homeland, Smith had written to Hudson telling him of this water somewhere near the fortieth parallel, and extending perhaps to the Pacific. Hudson, besides having his head full of the notion, carried Smith's letter in his pocket. Notwithstanding that entrance into America meant a virtual breaking of Holland’s truce with Spain, Hudson hoped to find the route to China.

Over the indigo blue of the Gulf Stream Hudson reached in mid-July the Maine coast, stopped to remast his ship, and then moved southward. In August he passed "the King's river in Virginia," where, he wrote, "our Englishmen" were. On the 28th, he put into Delaware Bay, but a strong current and much sand forbade the idea of an immediate route to China. On the 3d of September he doubled Sandy Hook. Here, near the fortieth parallel, so often talked about with Smith, was a great opening. What might it not lead to? Anchor was cast for the night, and the orange, white, and blue flag, with the initials O. I. C., was mirrored on the receding tide.

We must put away twentieth-century ideas and think with Hudson and his sailors. Neither he nor they were wise in modern science. "Nature-faking" of the most exaggerated kind was then in vogue. Mythical zoology was represented on maps and in books. In the Leyden Museum, among the curiosities catalogued was "the hand of a Mermaide," and Hudson's sailors had seen "mermaids" near the Russian icebergs, where we should find seals. Near the Catskills, they ate "dog," which would be "coon" to our taste and eye, for all Indian dogs were then very small. Neither the big hounds of Europe nor the white daisies, now so common in the Hudson valley and brought from beyond sea, were then known in America. The sailors enjoyed "Turkish wheat," where we relish corn in ear. Happy the release, if they, like some British tourists eating to-day, bit too far into the cob and got their teeth out safely. If they found "gold," or discovered what seemed valuable minerals, because of the colors of the rocks, they were only like other explorers. The beautiful New World was full of awe, wonder, and mystery. Nothing is more evident than the Dutchmen's delight in nature.

The Half Moon lay at anchor for a week in the lower bay. "Three great rivers" were noticed, two of them being the Passaic and the Hackensack. Though the strangers were welcomed by the red men, yet before long arrows and bullets were shot in hostile exchange. John Colman filled the first white man's grave. Then the ship moved up past Manhattan, to which it is sheer tautology to link the word "island," for the name includes the idea of a place inclosed by two rivers. Although the wild men were treated to liquor, the word Manhattan has no meaning of drink or intoxication in it. For thirteen miles they sailed along the majestic Palisade Rocks, from which the mythical "Norumbega" probably got its name. Through the broadened stream forming Haverstraw and Tappan bays, and in view of the landmarks later named Tedious, Stony, and Verplanck's points, past islands now the bases of lighthouses, and around Dunderberg, they reached the narrower and deeper river flanked by lordly mountains. They cast anchor under the splendid plateau of West Point.

Anchorages were made at night and strict watch was kept, for what could fifteen men do, if thousands of red warriors should attack? In one case, twenty-eight canoes filled with people came out to trade pumpkins and corn for kitchen ware, axes, beads, and copper kettles. More than once, native thieves climbed into or escaped from the stern windows with loot, and some of these were shot dead. There were other disturbances, and the fault was not all on one side. Gunpowder, firearms, alcohol, and iron came thus at one time into the Indian world.

The gorgeous hues of the maples and of the "American calico plant," and the splendor of the scenery, especially after their late sub-polar experiences, made this seem to the Dutchmen the fairest hand their eyes had ever feasted upon. As they emerged into a tamer foreground of flat stretches, there rose towards the western horizon the Catskills, out of which flow the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers.

Invited to dinner, Hudson was paddled ashore in an Indian canoe. He landed and partook of American refreshments with a chief who was head of a village of forty males and seventeen females. Their roundhouse was of oak bark with an arched roof. Great stores of corn and beans, provision for the winter's succotash, piled up and amounting to three shiploads, lay near the house, besides what was growing in the fields. These showed the provident habits of these agricultural Indians, who as yet knew nothing of horses and cows. Cooked food was served in "well-made red wooden bowls." With shell knives the red women skinned "a fat dog" for a further feast, for they supposed their guests would stay over night; but life in the Stone Age is a bore to a civilized man. A short visit was enough, and Hudson returned to his floating home.

The little ship beat her way northward, but the water shoaled. No open sea, or China, or any Pacific Ocean, was in sight. Juet, the mate, penetrated in a boat beyond what are now Watervliet, Waterford, and Troy. They saw not a tide-water river in lordly flood, but many rapids and shallows. Even had they reached the river's source, in the Tear-of-the-Clouds Lake at the top of Mount Marcy, they would have been no nearer, but farther off from Japan.

Back and down the Half Moon moved to the ocean, her crew killing not a few natives, and staining land and water with needless blood. The "falconet," or little cannon of two inches bore, throwing a two-pound shot, was more than once fired to sink the canoes. Evidently this was what the sailors dub "an unhappy ship," nor can the intruders be acquitted of the charges of murder and of making drunkards.

On the 4th of October the Half Moon was at sea again. Yet where should the crew go? To return to Holland might mean the gallows, for they had mutinied. The ship was pointed towards Ireland for the winter; but how or why we know not, the Half Moon cast anchor at Dartmouth on the 7th of November, 1609, and the English sailors forced Hudson to land. King James sent orders to hold the vessel. He actually forbade Hudson to leave England, hoping to get the full benefit of his discovery. The captain, however, had sent on his report to Amsterdam, asking for good sailors in place of bad ones.

The problem was solved by the Muscovy Company again impressing Hudson into its service, and the Half Moon was released. Hudson, intent on solving the world's mystery, recrossed the Atlantic. After discovering America's greatest inland sea, though not the way to China, he met lonely death in 1610 by starvation. Under the veil of apparent failure, Hudson's life was a success that shines with splendor as the ages roll on. For Holland he opened a great door of opportunity.

As Captain John Smith's name is linked with four of the United States, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York, so Hudson’s personality is preserved in American history and in legend. His name is written imperishably on a bay, a river, and a strait. His career illustrates the truth that a man often achieves his best for the race after he is dead. Hudson rests from his labors and his works do follow.[1]

Endnotes[edit]

  1. ^  Some of the greatest of the makers of New Netherland, Hudson, de Forest, Minuit, van Curler, sleep in graves unknown.