Two Cheers for Henry Hudson

By Marc Mappen

The 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River is coming up this fall, and there will be celebratory events in New Jersey and New York, states which share the lower part of the River as a boundary.  But the 400th anniversary hoopla will not be anywhere near as extravagant and extensive as it was at the 300th anniversary in 1909.  Back then, two weeks of activity were planned for New York state, including religious services, parades, school essay contests, poetry, dedication of parks and memorials, fireworks, and a “monster naval parade” of ships up and down the river.

Why has the enthusiasm faded?  Probably because the early European explorers of the New World are held in less regard these days than they once were. Americans have become more sensitive to the fate that befell the Native Americans after the European discovery.  Matter of fact the whole concept of “discovery” has fallen into disrepute, since the Americas were already populated by millions of Indians long before the Europeans arrived. To understand the Indian perspective on this, how would you feel if Martians invaders landed in a flying saucer, wiped out a major proportion of the human population by spreading disease, confiscated the land we live on, and proclaimed they had discovered planet Earth.

It is still possible to admire the boldness of Henry Hudson.  He was an experienced English sea captain who was hired by the Dutch East India Company to search for a seagoing shortcut to China.  Hudson’s ship was the Halve Maen (Dutch for Half Moon), and was manned by a crew of Dutch and English sailors.  The ship left Holland on April 4, 1609, and proceeded to the far northern reaches of Russia to search for a northeast passage.  But Hudson could find no such route, so he changed course and sailed to North America to see what he could discover. Sailing along the east coast, Captain Hudson and his crew briefly explored Delaware Bay, and then journeyed north up Jersey shore.  One of Hudson’s officers was Robert Juet, who kept a journal in which described the territory that would one day become New Jersey as “a very good Land to fall with and a pleasant Land to see.”  For those words, one 20th century historian credited Juet with being the first Jersey shore publicist.  The Half Moon then entered the vast New Jersey – New York harbor, where on September 3 the captain and his crew found a broad river heading north into the interior, which Hudson thought might lead to the long sought northwest passage.

The trip up and down this mighty river took a month.  Once again Hudson did not a find a passage to China because there was none to find.  The Half Moon did encounter Indians, with whom the crew offered beads, knives, and other kinds of cheap goods in exchange for tobacco, beans, corn, and the furry pelts of beavers and otters. But all was not well. Said Juet about the Indians:  “The people comming aboord, shewed us great friendship, but we could not trust them.”  One of Hudson’s crewmen exploring at a distance from the ship in a small boat was killed by an Indian arrow in the neck and buried on Sandy Hook.  Days later Indians in canoes and on shore fired arrows at the ship while the crew members shot back with muskets and the ship’s small cannon; about ten Indians were killed in this skirmish.  It was an early chapter in a saga of hostility that was to last for many generations to come.

When Hudson returned to Europe after more than half a year at sea, his Dutch masters were disappointed he had not discovered any shortcut to China.  But they saw an opportunity to establish a money making colony in North America fueled by the lucrative fur trade that provided hats and clothing for Europe.  Fifty-five years after Hudson’s voyage, the New Netherland colony was conquered by Great Britain and divided up into colonies, which as a result of the American Revolution of 1776 became states in the New American nation.  One of those states was our own New Jersey.

Hudson did not live to see any of this.  The year after exploring the river that bears his name he was once again sailing the ocean looking for a northwest passage, this time traveling up toward the Arctic fringe of North America.  Hudson, for all his admirable qualities had one fatal flaw — he was really mean to his crew.  This is a dangerous characteristic if you and your crew are on a small ship threading your way though icy waters with not enough food, thousands of miles away from European civilization.  They crew mutinied, seized their captain, and put him in a boat with those crew members who remained loyal to him.  Hudson was never heard from again and presumably perished of starvation or freezing.

It was a sad fate for the great seafarer Hudson, whose name is commemorated not only by the river he explored, but by a New Jersey county as well.

Dr. Marc Mappen is the executive director of the New Jersey Historical Commission and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of New Jersey.

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