Discovery and Early Occupation of New York City

By Daniel Curry in 1853

Native Americans watch as Sir Henry Hudson arrives in New York

Native Americans watch as Sir Henry Hudson arrives in New York

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 in sight 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *