Henry Hudson’s majestic view still sensed
The slice of the Hudson River visible from a bluff on Little Stony Point in Philipstown probably appears much as it did to Henry Hudson and his crew aboard the Half Moon 400 years ago.
Storm King Mountain still stands tall above the watery ribbon that rolls from the Adirondacks to the sea. Winds still rush between there and Breakneck Ridge on the river’s east side. The river Hudson explored deserved nothing but praise.
“On this river there is a great traffick in the skins of beavers, otters, foxes, minks, wild cats and the like. The land is excellent and agreeable, full of noble forest trees and grape vines, and nothing is wanting but the labor and industry of man to render it one of the finest and most fruitful lands in that part of the world …” Flemish geographer Jan de Laet published in 1625, reprinting parts of the explorer’s journal from his 1609 voyage.
Hudson signed a contract earlier that year with the Dutch East India Company to find a shortcut to the Far East. He was supposed to set sail four centuries ago this month but delayed until April.
In September 1609, he cruised up the river that would carry his name, passing an island covered with chestnut-tulip tree forests, ringed by wetlands and its waters replete with oysters, lobsters and crabs – and referred to in his first mate’s log as “Manna-hata.”
Algonquian Indians in 28 canoes paddled out to the Half Moon on its first morning anchored off Manna-hata.
“They brought with them Oysters and Beanes, whereof wee bought some. They haue great Tabacco pipes of yellow Copper, and Pots of Earth to dresse their meate in,” first mate Robert Juet wrote Sept. 12 in his journal.
Hudson continued up the river for about 10 days, thinking he found a passage to the Pacific Ocean, before turning around near Albany. He became the first European to explore the navigable length of the river, an occasion marked this year from Manhattan to Troy. His journey opened up a river both neglected and treasured during the past four centuries, and one whose face has changed in that time.
Visions of 1609
Early maps employed the explorer’s last name not as a modifier but as a possessive, as in Hudson’s River. Dan Sherman of Scarborough said the explorer comes to mind when he takes his 23-foot powerboat out of the Ossining Boat and Canoe Club. Gazing across the river, his eyes land on the brown cliffs of Hook Mountain State Park in Rockland County.
“You look out across, it’s all parkland. That’s probably one of the only areas that Henry Hudson might recognize,” said Sherman, 42, a computer consultant.
During the next few days, Hudson steered the Half Moon past where General Motors would turn out Chevrolets, past the clay pits that would give rise to Haverstraw’s bustling brick industry and past the shore of future Cold Spring where President Abraham Lincoln one day would witness the test-firing of Civil War armaments at its famous foundry.
Several thousand Indians – tribes such as the Lenape, Munsee and Mohican – lived along the river between Manhattan and Troy. They tended fields of corn, beans and squash in the river’s floodplains, said Tom Lake, a naturalist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program and an anthropology instructor. The dirty stream Pete Seeger sang about, of course, wasn’t yet.
“In September 1609, I would guess there were pumpkin fields along the river. Sprinkle in villages every so often of extended family wigwams and other structures made up of saplings, branches, bark, and animal skins. The river itself may have run clearer since the land absorbed much more precipitation [than] it does today resulting in less sedimentation,” Lake, who is also an archaeologist, wrote in an e-mail.
Hudson continued north during those late summer days. (“The Land grew very high and Mountainous,” according to Juet.) Power lines, dams, bridges, factories and the backsides of cities were, of course, nonexistent. The Half Moon ran aground several times in shallow water.
Twice in the past century, the federal government gave the go-ahead to deepen the channel south of Albany so ship traffic could get to the capital city’s port. Dredging spoils were piled in nearby shallows, creating uplands and turning shoals into islands.
For John Lipscomb, captain of the environmental organization Riverkeeper’s patrol boat, a glimpse through Hudson’s eyes comes when a misty day blots out the 21st century or at dusk, when homes are dark before their owners return from work. But even that, he said, doesn’t give a sense of the natural magnitude Hudson and his crew of 20 Dutch and English sailors witnessed.
“I feel when I’m on the water, when I see a school of fish and I see a fisherman and I see the pressure of herring up against the dam, trying to spawn, I feel what must have been,” Lipscomb said. “It must have been something we cannot even scale today.”
‘A land of Eden’
Indeed, it probably was. Juet on Sept. 14 wrote the river was “full of fish.” Crewmen hauled in 10 foot-and-a-half-long mullets, a ray big enough so four men had to pull it aboard and 25 fish within an hour. Shad, sturgeon and river herring, among others, filled the waterway.
“The river was full of fish to levels that are just about unimaginable today,” said Fran Dunwell, director of the state’s Hudson River Estuary Program. “It was a very rich natural environment.”
Dunwell recently wrote “The Hudson America’s River.” Waterfowl and other birds, she said, darkened the sky where they flew. Oak trees grew 70 feet tall without knots, perfect for shipbuilding. The banks, according to Juet, contained a “great store of goodly Oakes and Wal-nut trees and Chest-nut trees. Ewe trees and trees of sweet wood in great abundance, and great store of slate for houses, and other good stones.”
Marshes lined most of the river, not just at Piermont, Iona Island and a few other places as they do today. Chairmaker’s rush, horned pondweeds and umbrella sedge are gone, replaced by cattails and Phragmites (aka common reed).
But seeds from the original plants are found in sediment cores pulled from the existing marshes, said Dorothy Peteet, a NASA senior researcher and an adjunct scientist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in Palisades.
“We can see back in time,” Peteet said. “I think it was vastly different. You had this diversity which would have gone up the food chain.”
Hudson and his men sailed from the river Oct. 4, 1609. Thirty-two years after Hudson’s journey, Adriaen Van der Donck, for whom Yonkers was named, arrived on the river. In his 1653 book, “A Description of the New Netherlands,” he wrote of the river valley’s abundant game (a friend, he said, killed 16 geese with one shot), plentiful supplies of lumber, clay and stone and waters overflowing with fish and shellfish. Lobsters, he wrote, were 5 to 6 feet long.
“It really was thought to be a land of Eden,” Dunwell said. “It still supports millions of people. That’s what the early settlers noticed, too, it’s a great place to live.”
By Michael Risinit
Entry filed under: Get Wet, Maritime, Natural Waterfront, Region. Tags: Breakneck Ridge, Dutch East India Company, Half Moon, Henry Hudson, Hudson River, Jan de Laet, Manna-hatta, Phillipstown, Storm King.