Discovery and Early Occupation of New York City

Native Americans watch as Sir Henry Hudson arrives in New York

Native Americans watch as Sir Henry Hudson arrives in New York

By Daniel Curry in 1853

On September 3, 1609, a strange and unaccountable phenomenon was witnessed by the wandering Indians who happened to be in the neighborhood of Sandy Hook, and insight of the place where the waters of the Lower Bay unite with the ocean. A creature of a size and proportions that quite surpassed their conceptions, came moving, as if self-impelled, upon the face of the water. Passing through the entrance that leads from the untamed wastes of the wide ocean into the sleeping or sporting ripples of the inland bay, the wonderful stranger advanced to a considerable distance onward, and then stopped suddenly, and remained unmoved.

The wondering Indians gazed upon the sight with superstitious awe. The strange visitor, they thought must be an inhabitant of another world, or of the scarcely less mysterious far-off regions beyond the seas, of which confused and uncertain rumors had reached them; or, perhaps, the Great Spirit himself had come in this manner to visit his children in the wilderness.

The vessel that then entered the unknown waters of New York Bay was the Half Moon, commanded by Henry Hudson, who, though himself an Englishman, was sailing for the Dutch East India Company.

Three years before, under the flag of his own country, he had coasted the western shores of Greenland, and pierced the Northern Ocean, while searching for a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Two years later, the attempt to reach India by the northwest passage was renewed and again failed. The want of success in these two enterprises disheartened the London merchants under whose patronage they had been undertaken. But, this was not the case with the Dutch.

The Half Moon vessell of Henry Hudson on the Hudson River in 1609

The Half Moon vessel of Henry Hudson on the Hudson River in 1609

He set sail on this memorable voyage on April 4, 1609, and keeping farther southward than before, he left Newfoundland and ran down the southern coast of Nova Scotia and anchored near the mouth of the Penobscot River. He then passed still farther to the south, discovering Cape Cod, Massachusetts, of which he took possession and named it New Holland.

Finding, as he proceeded yet farther to the southwest, that he was approaching the settlements of his countrymen in Virginia, he turned to the northwest to explore those unknown waters, hoping to find some opening that might conduct him to the vast expanse of the South Sea. It was here that, after a voyage of five months, Hudson entered the inland waters of the middle region of the North American coast, and began the discoveries that have given to his name imperishable renown.

The Native American inhabitants of the shores, though overawed by the first appearance of the Half Moon, soon recovered from their consternation, and after a short time, communications opened freely between the vessel and the shore. A week was spent at the first anchorage, after which, passing through the Narrows, he came upon the strait that connects the lower and upper bays on September 11th. Hudson was the first European to explore this sequestered region and the river that now perpetuates his name. After ten days exploring the river, he cautiously made his way across the broad waters of Tappan Bay, and through the narrow passage of the Highlands, until he came to the spot where Hudson, New York would later be established. He then turned back to the ocean.

Henry Hudson

Henry Hudson

Later, the question would be raised as to whether Hudson and his companions were the first Europeans that ever entered the waters of New York Bay. Folklore has also brought the wandering Welsh Prince Madoc to this coast and within these quiet waters. It has been more confidently asserted that Italian-born navigator Giovanni da Verrazano, employed by France, nearly a hundred years before the date of Hudson’s discovery, actually entered this harbor, and spent some time in its examination. It was also declared that persons in the employ of the Dutch Greenland Company resorted to this place in about 1598, to find a shelter for themselves during the winter months.

The newly discovered landscape appears to have impressed the minds of the discoverers and the accounts they gave of the lands were favorable:

“The island of Manhattan spread wide before them, like some sweet vision of fancy, or some fair creation of industrious magic. Its hills of smiling green swelled gently one above another, crowned with lofty trees of luxuriant growth, some pointing their tapering foliage toward the clouds, which were gloriously transparent, and others loaded with a verdant burden of clambering vines, bowing their branches to the earth, that was covered with flowers. On the gentle declivities of the hills were scattered in gay profusion, the dogwood, the sumac, and the wild briar, whose scarlet berries and white blossoms glowed brightly among the deep green of the surrounding foliage; and here and there a circling column of smoke rising from the little glens that opened along the shore, seemed to promise the weary voyagers a welcome at the hands of their fellow-creatures.”

The land they discovered was populated with scattered bands of Mohegan along the banks of the Hudson River and the Manhattan, a small tribe, were found on the eastern bank near the river’s mouth. These wandering natives were not formidable warriors; but, were in harmony with the wild nature around them and did not work the soil. Their architecture was the basic and their food consisted of roots and wild fruits, and small game.

The Narrows, New York

The Narrows, New York

The entrance to Lower Bay and the Narrows lies through a broad passage of more than four fathoms depth at low tide, with the drifting sands of Coney Island on the east, and a long sand-bar projecting far out from the mainland, now called Sandy Hook on the west. Immediately within the bar, the waters spread out far to the west, forming a capacious inland bay, and insinuating far into the country. The ground in front, though apparently a portion of the continent, is, in fact, an island, being separated from the mainland by a narrow belt of water — the well known Staten Island. On the east of this is a long channel separating it from Long Island, and uniting the Lower Bay with the harbor, or Upper Bay. This channel is called the Narrows and is the only and sufficient medium of communication in this direction with the ocean from New York Bay. Along its eastern border runs the shore of Long Island, at the south a low sandy beach, but farther north a beautiful and fertile tract elevated more than a hundred feet from the water.

As seen by one approaching it from the Narrows, the Bay of New York presents one of the finest land and water views on the face of the earth. A beautiful sheet of water expands on every side, with its jutting shores and frowning headlands in the dim distance — yet not so remote but that their waving outlines may be readily traced. On the left the upper side of Staten Island stretches away to the west, forming the base of the picture, while in front, slightly to the left, rise the blue shores of New Jersey, with the hills of Hoboken in the distance. Directly to the westward, the waters open a passage into a deep inland bay, now known as Newark Bay, which is separated from the Bay of New York by a low and broad peninsula, called Elizabethtown Point. Two small islands — Bedlow (now Liberty) and Ellis are seen in this direction — green specks, rising out of the water and giving increased beauty to the fair scenery. Immediately in front, the noble Hudson River spreads out its broad surface, extending far into the interior — itself an arm of the sea, capable of bearing the united navies of the world. On the right, after passing Long Island, which here rises in a precipitous headland, is, first, Governor’s Island, a verdant spot of earth covering a continuation of the long ledge of rocks that underlies Manhattan Island. This island is less than a mile in circuit, and but a few feet above the level of high-water; and, lying at the mouth of the channel that here enters from the east, divides it into two parts. A little farther onward rises the rocky projection of Manhattan Island, once a desolate region already described, but now the seat of commerce and the dwelling place of the multitudes that make up the Empire City of America.

Hell Gate Channel on the East River, 1775

Hell Gate Channel on the East River, 1775

The East River and Hurlgate Channel that opens to the right, separating Long Island and Manhattan Island, leads from the Bay of New York into another smaller bay, called Wallabout, and still farther onward it winds northward through a cluster of rocky islands — four of the largest of which are called, after early proprietors, Blackwell’s, Randall’s, Ward’s, and Berrian’s — to the celebrated eddy and whirlpool called by the Dutch settlers Helder-gaat, or HelU-gaat, meaning the bright passage. Later, the English corrupted into Hellgate, a name was later softened into Hurlgate. This renowned pass, the terror of early navigators, and the scene of many a thrilling legend demands a more circumstantial description than most other localities here enumerated.

To the west of Hurlgate, a deep bay, full of low reedy islands, indents the shore, and, narrowing to a diminutive channel, reaches quite over to the Hudson, and forms the northern boundary of Manhattan Island. Located at the southeastern end it is called Harlem River; but, at its junction with the Hudson, where it is a diminutive water-course, it is called Spuytendevil Creek. The direction of this channel, from river to river, is nearly north and south, cutting the narrow belt of land transversely, and making a distance of four times its width.

Hudson Trading With Indians On Manhattan Island

Hudson Trading With Indians On Manhattan Island

Manhattan Island is a narrow tongue of land lying between the Hudson River, on the west, and on the east that part of Long Island Sound commonly known as the East River. The same body of water forms its southern boundary, while the Harlem River lies on the north. Its greatest length, along the Hudson River, is a little more than thirteen miles. Its breadth varies from 1-2 1/3 miles. Its aggregate area amounts to about 14,000 acres. The entire island is under-laid by a ledge of stratified granitic rock, extending from north to south, and rising in some places to the height of nearly 200 feet, and in others sinking to a considerable depth below the surface. The geological character of the island determines at once its figure and its surface, both of which are rough and irregular. Sudden acclivities and projecting crags were originally intermingled with ponds and marshes. In some parts, the tide penetrated nearly to the middle of the island, and in others were fresh-water ponds, elevated considerably above tide-water. Toward the southern part of the island was a large extent of diluvial earth overlying the sunken rock, that came to the surface again southeastern point, and there, only about at the level of the water. This tract extended nearly a mile up the Hudson River and more than half a mile along the East River. Beyond this, and about midway between the two rivers, was a pond of freshwater, which was discharged by a brook running south-eastwardly to the East River, through a vast swamp, or estuary — the tract now reaching from Pearl Street on the west to Catharine Street on the east, and extending up nearly to Chatham Street.

To the west of this swamp was another of less extent, separated from the former by a ridge, upon which Pearl Street runs. This was long known as Beekman’s swamp, and the portion of the city erected upon the spot is still called “the Swamp.” The west of the Fresh Pond was a valley of wetland reaching down to the Hudson, and ending in a marsh, a region now traversed by Canal Street. Beyond this belt of freshwater and marshes, that almost insulated the part below them, there lay to the northeastward, a fine tract of arable land and extensive meadows, the southeastern angle of which was known for many years as Corlaer’s Hook, so-called after an early proprietor. The upland portions of this side of Manhattan Island were early appropriated by the Dutch colonists for farms, or “boweries,” from which circumstance the neighborhood came to be called — a name still borne by a principal avenue of this part of the city, and perhaps destined to live while New York shall continue to be a city. Farther up, on the eastern side, the land was more broken and rocky, swelling into eminences, with intervening swamps and morasses.

Manhattan Island Village

Manhattan Island Village

The west side of the island was less varied in its natural features than the other. The shore presented an almost straight line from end to end. The region extending northward from the Fresh Pond along the Hudson consisted of irregular hills and valleys, generally without fast rocks, although full of large and small loose stones and rocks, with springs of pure water, and with rivulets and marshes. The shore of the Hudson River for a distance of 3-4 miles was low, and intersected by bays and estuaries; farther up it rises in high rocky hills of a most rugged and forbidding aspect. The whole of the upper part of Manhattan Island, embracing more than half of its entire area, was always ill-adapted to agricultural purposes. A more forbidding spot of earth on which to erect a great city has seldom been seen that was presented in the original ground plan of the city of New York; and in rearing a city on such a foundation the builders have combined the arts of the stone-cutters of ancient Petraea and the amphibious labors of the founders of Venice and St. Petersburgh.

As seen by the early navigators, this rugged fragment of creation was clothed in its primeval forests. Upon its knolls and hilltops grew the hickory, the chestnut, the white and yellow oaks, and the white ash, with underwoods of sumac, dogwood, and hazel. Along the hillsides and by the water’s edge were the beach, the sycamore, and the stately whitewood; and in the swamps, the elm, the white maple, the gum, and the black ash, with a countless undergrowth of shrubs and brambles, and clambering vines.

Manhattan Island Indian

Manhattan Island Indian

Its animal productions were those common to this part of the world. The sluggish bear straggled through these forests, while droves of gaunt wolves howled from the hilltops, and occasionally the shrill scream of the panther awoke the echoes along the valleys, and herds of timid deer cropped the green herbage in quiet security or fled in dismay at the approach of their voracious enemies. The feathered tribes too were there in great abundance. Among the upland trees were heard the notes of the robin and blackbird, mingled with the screams of the garrulous blue jay, and the cooing of the wood-pigeons, that swept over the forests in innumerable companies. In the thickets were the thrush, the catbird, and the sparrow; and along the water’s edge were found vast numbers of geese, ducks, and snipes. Along the streams and at the watersides were colonies of beavers, or more solitary otters, muskrats, and minks; the forests were animated with vast numbers of squirrels, while in the deep waters were porpoises, tortoises, and sharks.

The homeward voyage of the Half Moon was prosperous, and in due time the gallant ship entered Partmouth harbor in safety. Henry Hudson immediately forwarded to his patrons a glowing account of his discoveries; and as they had been made by a party sailing under the flag of the Provinces, the rights of proprietorship belonged to that country. Thus, from the earliest period, was the country on both sides of the Hudson River conceded to the Dutch, by right of original discovery.

Historic Hudson River, New York

Historic Hudson River, New York

The new proprietors did not permit the discovery made on their behalf to be a barren one. Possession was soon made and turned to their advantage. The very next year, while Henry Hudson, again employed by his own countrymen, was prosecuting that glorious but fatal voyage that resulted in the discovery of an immense inland sea in the northern portion of our continent, which is at once his grave and his monument — some merchants of Amsterdam fitted out a vessel with an assorted cargo, designed for traffic with the natives on Hudson River. The adventure proved successful and was annually renewed for several succeeding years. In 1613, Sir John Argall, with a semi-piratical squadron under English colors, entered the harbor at the mouth of Hudson River, where he found a few rude dwellings on the southern extremity of Manhattan Island, which served as the summer quarters for a small company of Dutch traders, who were prosecuting their gainful purposes in this unfrequented region. They acknowledged allegiance to Holland and claimed the protection of the flag of their own country. They, however, consented to hoist the English flag when commanded to do so by the British cruiser; but, they pulled it down again as soon as he had gone. In 1614, seven ships were sent to America by a joint-stock company of merchants residing in Amsterdam, under the command of Adrian Block and Hendrick Christianse; and a rude fort was erected at the lower extremity of the island. The next year a fort was established at the head of navigation on the Hudson River, near to the present site of the city of Albany.

In these early enterprises of the merchants of Amsterdam’s trade, rather than colonization, seems to have been the governing purpose. For several years, no colony was attempted, and the trade of the whole region was an individual enterprise of those who chose to engage in it. But, in 1621, the Dutch West India Company was incorporated, with a monopoly of the trade of all the Dutch foreign possessions on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and having authority to govern any unoccupied territories that they might choose to appropriate. The immense regions thus given up to this new corporation were distributed among branches of the company located in the principal cities of Holland, and the country on the Hudson River became the portion of the branch located at Amsterdam. Presently, rude cottages began to cluster about the blockhouse on Manhattan Island, and the incipient metropolis assumed the title of New Amsterdam, while the whole territory of Hudson’s River was called New Netherland. A government was soon afterward established, and for nine years, beginning in 1624, Peter Minuets filled the important post of director of the infant colony. It was during this period that the whole island of Manhattan was purchased from the Indians, for a sum about equal to twenty-four dollars.

“These,” said an eloquent historian of our colonial affairs, “were the rude beginnings of New York. Its first age was the age of hunters and Indian traders; of traffic in the skins of otters and beavers; when the native tribes were employed in the pursuit of game, and the yacht of the Dutch, in quest of furs, penetrated every bay, and bosom, and inlet, from Narraganset to the Delaware River. It was the day of straw roofs, wooden chimneys, and wind-mills.”

New York City in 1856

New York City in 1856

Daniel Curry, 1853. Compiled and Edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2019.

About the Author & Article: The Discovery of what would become New York City is excerpted from the book New York: A Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Metropolitan City of America by Daniel Curry, published by Carolton and Phillips, in 1853. However, the text as it appears here is far from verbatim, as it has been heavily edited, truncated, historical errors have been corrected, and the text has been updated for the ease of modern readers.

Also See:

The Dutch Colony of New Netherland

New York State History

Henry Hudson – Northeast Explorer

New Amsterdam & The Beginnings of New York City