The Magazine

New York's River

From Manhattan to Mount Marcy, the spine of the Empire State.

May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By PETER HANNAFORD
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The Hudson

A History

by Tom Lewis

Yale, 352 pp., $30

IT IS FAR DOWN the list of the nation's longest rivers, but the Hudson tops the entire list for the length and scope of its involvement in the nation's history. It is young as rivers go, a child of the last ice age when the climactic glacier, the Wisconsin Sheet, scoured the Hudson's course about 20,000 years ago. The Hudson begins near the highest point of the Adirondack Mountains, Mount Marcy, at a pond called Tear of the Clouds Lake, and ends where it joins the sea at the Verrazano Narrows, between Brooklyn and Staten Island. It is the 306 miles in between where much of the nation's growth got its start. And Tom Lewis has given us an absorbing biography of what is probably the only river to spawn an entire school of painting. The 19th-century historian Benson Lossing, in an 1866 book about the Hudson, asserted that "it is by far the most interesting river in America." With this book, Professor Lewis underscores the point.

He tells us of 18th-and 19th-century proto-scientists who, fascinated by the river's beauty, explored and studied and recorded its geology, flora and fauna. It was an earlier event, however, that was to put the river on the world stage: Henry Hudson's voyage into New York harbor on September 2, 1609. Like Columbus and others, Hudson, a Londoner, was searching for a shortcut to China and India, a northern passage. He had explored the shores of Greenland on two earlier voyages. In 1609, he took up the challenge of a prize offered by the Dutch East India Company to find a northern route to the lands of the east. Portuguese, Italian, and French sailors may have gotten to the river first, but Hudson was the first to record it. Probably thinking he was at the beginning of the northern passage, Hudson sailed north until he encountered the shoals above Albany. Hudson's written account and others that followed described shores of fertile fields and forests.

His voyage occurred at a time when there was a large European market for beaver pelts, fur coats, hats, and felt. The French controlled the beaver-trapping trade in Canada. Dutch merchants saw an opportunity for taking over the lands south of it by using Hudson's charts to settle the land he had found. During 1612-18 rival Dutch trading syndicates vied for dominance along the river. In 1621, the Dutch West India Company was chartered to take over the fur trade and settled a small colony at Fort Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan Island. Peter Minuit, who traded $24 worth of trinkets for Manhattan in 1624, was the first (and usually considered the best) of the colony's directors-general. Most were feckless or corrupt, or both. Four years later, the company granted a vast stretch of land upriver to a patroon named Kiliaen van Rensselaer. (Rensselaerwyck remained in the family more or less intact until the mid-19th century, when its tenant farmers rebelled and brought enough pressure to be given title to their farms.) The first Rensselaer, who never set foot in the New World, contracted with colonists to settle the land. Some brought slaves with them, the first from Curaçao and, later, arrivals from West Africa.

Lewis gives us a gripping narrative of the history of Nieuw Amsterdam, as New York City was first called, and the difficult life of planter-settlers upriver. As farms were established, there followed several years of clashes with native tribes, which finally ended in a peace agreement in 1645. In 1647, Peter Stuyvesant arrived to take over as director-general. Even then, the 500-person colony on Manhattan was cosmopolitan. In addition to the Dutch, there were English, French, German, Swedish, and Polish speakers. And during Stuyvesant's tenure he settled boundary disputes with the English (who claimed everything from Jamestown, Virginia, north) and took over, in a bloodless military expedition, the New Sweden colony that is now Delaware and part of southern New Jersey.

By the time Stuyvesant's 17-year reign ended, the entire New Netherland colony had approximately 9,000 people. He had also driven the last of the native tribes from the Hudson Valley. It was all Dutch land--but only for a short time. In 1664 a British colonel named Richard Nicolls brought 400 soldiers on four ships into New York harbor. They outnumbered the Dutch troops three-to-one, and the defenders had little ammunition. Stuyvesant agreed to turn over the colony to the British. Thus, New Netherland and New Amsterdam became New York, and the river got its present name, the Hudson.