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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.


Discovery and First Settlement. 1609–1626

EARLY in September, 1609, the ship Half-Moon, restlessly skirting the American coast, in the vain quest for a strait or other water route leading to India, came to the mouth of a great lonely river, flowing silently out from the heart of the unknown continent. The Half-Moon was a small, clumsy, high-pooped yacht, manned by a score of Dutch and English sea-dogs, and commanded by an English adventurer then in Dutch pay, and known to his employers as Hendrik Hudson. He, his craft, and his crew were all typical of the age,—an age fertile in adventure-loving explorers, eager to sail under any flag that promised glory and profit, at no matter what cost of hardship and danger; an age fertile also beyond measure in hardy seamen, of whom the hardiest and bravest came from England and the Netherlands. It was a period when the greatest deeds were done on the ocean by these rough heroes of cutlass and compass. They won honor by exploring unknown seas and taking possession of and subjugating unknown lands, no less than by their prowess in the grim water-fights which have made their names immortal. Their small ships dared the dangers of the most distant oceans, and shattered the sea-might of every rival naval power; and they themselves led lives of stormy peril and strong pleasure, and looked forward unmoved to inevitable death in some one of their countless contests with man or with the elements.

For a century and a quarter Spain and Portugal had not only taken the lead in, but had almost monopolized all ocean exploration and transoceanic settlement and conquest, while the most daring navigators were to be found in their ranks, or among the Italians who served both them and their rivals. Even at the beginning of the seventeenth century they were still the only peoples who had permanently occupied any portion of the New World; and their vast possessions included all of tropical, sub-tropical, and south-temperate America. But by this time, in a hundred fights the sea-beggars and sea-rovers of Holland and England had destroyed the cumbrous navies of the Spanish king, and won from those who fought for his flag the mastery of the ocean. Spain was still a great power; but it was a power whose might was waning. From the time when the races of middle and northern Europe first planted their standards in the New World they have stood toward the Spaniards and Spanish Americans as aggressors. Their blows had to be parried and returned; sometimes they have been returned with good effect, but as a whole the Spanish people have always been on the defensive, fearing, not threatening, conquest.

Yet, though the career of Spain as a conquering power was thus cut short, two pregnant centuries passed by before her children lost any considerable portion of the land which she held when the ships of the English colonists first sighted the shores of America. During the early part of the seventeenth century the Atlantic coast from Acadia to Florida became dotted with the settlements of half a dozen different European nations. At irregular intervals along this extended seaboard the French, the English, the Dutch, the Swedes, as well as the Spaniards, built little forts and established small trading-towns. When the English had fairly begun to take root in New England and Virginia, the Dutch still held the Hudson, and the Swedes the mouth of the Delaware; Acadia was still French, and Florida Spanish. It was altogether uncertain which one of these races would prove victor over the others, or whether any one would. There was at least a good chance that even the Spaniards would hold their own, and that temperate North America, like temperate Europe, would be held by many nations, differing one from the other in speech, in religion, and in blood. We have grown so accustomed to regarding America north of the Rio Grande as the natural heritage of the English-speaking peoples that we find it hard to realize how uncertain seemed the prospect at the period when colonization began. None could foretell which power would win in the struggle; and the fate of America was bound up in wars in which her future was hardly, if at all, considered. If Gustavus Adolphus had not fallen on the field of Lützen, and had he founded, as he hoped, a great Scandinavian kingdom encircling the Baltic, and with fleets as powerful as her armies, it may well be that the fame and terror of the Swedish name would have insured peace and prosperity to the transatlantic Swedish colonists. Had the Dutch fleets been but a trifle stronger, and had the Dutch diplomats prized Manhattan as they prized Java, the New Netherlands might never have become New York. It seemed, and was, perfectly possible in the seventeenth century, that the nineteenth would see flourishing Dutch and Swedish states firmly seated along the Hudson and the Delaware, exactly as a thriving French commonwealth actually is seated along the lower St. Lawrence.

Thus it came about that the English colonists and their American descendants not only had to tame a wild and stubborn continent, and ever to drive back from before their advance the doomed tribesmen of the forest and prairie, but also had to wrest many of the fairest portions of the domain which the English-speaking Americans inherit, from the hands of other intruders of European blood. Many of the cities of the Union bear testimony by their early history to this fact. Albany, Detroit, and Santa Fé are but three out of many towns wherein the English reaped what the Dutch, the French, or the Spaniards had sown.

The history of New York deserves to be studied for more than one reason. It is the history of the largest English-speaking city which the English conquered but did not found, and in which though the English law and governmental system have ever been supreme, yet the bulk of the population, composed as it is and ever has been of many shifting strains, has never been English. Again, for the past hundred years, it is the history of a wonderfully prosperous trading-city, the largest in the world in which the democratic plan has ever been faithfully tried for so long a time; and the trial, made under some exceptional advantages and some equally exceptional disadvantages, is of immense interest, alike for the measure in which it has succeeded and for the measure in which it has failed.

Hudson, on coming to the river to which his name was afterward given, did not at first know that it was a river at all; he believed and hoped that it was some great arm of the sea, that in fact it was the Northwest Passage to India, which he and so many other brave men died in vainly trying to discover. For a week he lay in the lower bay, and then for a day shifted his anchorage into what is now New York Harbor; his boats explored the surrounding shore-line, and found many Indian villages, for the neighborhood seemed well peopled. The savages flocked to see the white strangers, and eagerly traded off their tobacco for the knives and beads of the Europeans. Of course occasions of quarrel were certain to arise between the rough, brutal sailors and the fickle, suspicious, treacherous red men; and once a boat’s crew was attacked by two canoes, laden with warriors, and a sailor was killed by an arrow which pierced his throat. Yet on the whole their relations were friendly, and the trading and bartering went on unchecked.

Hudson soon found that he was off the mouth of a river, not a strait; and he spent three weeks in exploring it, sailing up till the shoaling water warned him that he was at the head of navigation, near the present site of Albany. He found many small Indian tribes scattered along the banks, and usually kept on good terms with them, presenting their chiefs with trinkets of various kinds, and treating them for the first time to a taste of “fire-water,” the terrible curse of their race ever since. In return he was well received when he visited the bark wigwams, his hosts holding feasts for him, where the dishes included not only wild fowl, but also fat dogs, killed by the squaws, and skinned with mussel shells. The Indians, who had made some progress in the ruder arts of agriculture, brought to the ship quantities of corn, beans, and pumpkins from the great heaps drying beside their villages; and their fields, yielding so freely to even their poor tillage, bore witness to the fertility of the soil. Hudson had to be constantly on his guard against his new-found friends; and once he was attacked by a party of hostile warriors whom he beat off, killing several of their number. However, what far outweighed such danger in the gain-greedy eyes of the trade-loving adventurers, was the fact that they saw in the possession of the Indians great stores of rich furs; for the merchants of Europe prized furs as they did silks, spices, ivory, and precious metals.

Having reached the head of navigation the Half-Moon turned her bluff bows southward, and drifted down stream with the rapid current until she once more reached the bay. The brilliant fall weather had been varied at times with misty days and nights; and during the Half-Moon’s inland voyage her course had lain through scenery singularly wild, grand, and lonely. She had passed the long line of frowning, battlemented rock-walls that we know by the name of the Palisades; she had threaded her way round the bends where the curving river sweeps in and out among bold peaks,—Storm King, Crow’s Nest, and their brethren; she had sailed in front of the Catskill Mountains, perhaps even thus early in the season crowned with shining snow. From her decks the lookouts scanned with their watchful eyes dim shadowy wastes, stretching for countless leagues on every hand; for all the land was shrouded in one vast forest, where red hunters who had never seen a white face followed wild beasts, upon whose kind no white man had ever gazed.

Early in October, Hudson set out on his homeward voyage to Holland, where the news of his discovery excited much interest among the daring merchants, especially among those whose minds were bent on the fur-trade. Several of the latter sent small ships across to the newly found bay and river, both to barter with the savages and to explore and report further upon the country.

The most noted of these sea-captains who followed Hudson, was Adrian Block, who while at anchor off Manhattan Island lost his vessel by fire. He at once set about building another, and being a man of great resource and resolution, succeeded. Creating everything for himself, and working in the heart of the primeval forest, he built and launched a forty-five-foot yacht which he christened the Onrest (the Restless), fit name for the bark of one of these daring, ever-roaming adventurers. This primitive pioneer vessel was the first ever launched in our waters, and her keel was the first which ever furrowed the waters of the Sound.

The first trading and exploring ships did well, and the merchants saw that great profits could be made from the Manhattan fur-trade. Accordingly, they determined to establish permanent posts at the head of the river and at its mouth. The main fort was near the mouth of the Mohawk, but they also built a few cabins at the south end of Manhattan Island, and left therein half a dozen of their employees, with Hendrik Christiansen as head man over both posts. The great commercial city of New York thus had its origin, not unfittingly, in a cluster of traders’ huts. From this obscure beginning was to spring one of the mightiest cities of any age, marvelous alike for its wonderfully rapid growth and its splendid material prosperity. From the outset the new town, destined to be the largest in the New World, mayhap even the largest in all the world, took its place among those communities which owe their existence and growth primarily to commerce, their whole character and development for good and evil being more profoundly affected by commercial than by any other influences. Even in its very founding, the direction in which the great city on Manhattan Island should develop was foreshadowed, and its course outlined in advance.

Christiansen was soon killed by an Indian. For two or three years his fellow-traders lived on Manhattan Island much in the same way as men now live at the remoter outposts of the fur-trade in the far northwest of this continent. Some kept decent and straight; others grew almost as squalid and savage as the red men in whose midst they lived. They hunted, fished, and idled; sometimes they killed their own game, sometimes they got it by barter from the Indians, together with tobacco and corn. Now and then they quarreled with the surrounding savages, but generally they kept on good terms with them; and in exchange for rum and trinkets they gathered innumerable bales of valuable furs,—mostly of the beaver, which swarmed in all the streams, but also of otter, and of the many more northern kinds, such as the sable and the fisher. At long intervals these furs were piled in the holds of the three or four small vessels whose yearly or half yearly arrival from Holland formed the chief relief to the monotony of the fur-traders’ existence.

The merchants who first sent over vessels and built a trading-post, joined with others to form the “New Netherland Company”; for it was a time when settlement and conquest were undertaken more often by great trading companies than by either the national government or by individuals. The Netherlands government granted this company the monopoly of the fur-trade with the newly discovered territory for three years from 1615, and renewed the grant for a year at a time until 1621, when it was allowed to lapse, a more powerful competitor being in the field. The company was a mere trading corporation, and made no effort to really settle the land; but the fur-trade proved profitable, and the post on Manhattan Island was continued, while another was built near the head of the Hudson, close to the present site of Albany.

In 1621, the great West India Company was chartered by the States-general, and given the monopoly of the American trade; and it was by this company that the city was really founded, the first settlement being made which was intended to be permanent. All the magnificent territory discovered by Hudson was granted it under the name of the New Netherlands. The company was one of the three or four huge commercial corporations of imperial power that played no small part in shaping the world’s destiny during the two centuries immediately preceding the present. It was in its constitution and history archetypical of the time. The great trading-city of America was really founded by no one individual, nor yet by any national government, but by a great trading corporation, created however to fight and to bear rule no less than to carry on commerce. The merchants who formed the West India Company were granted the right to exercise powers such as belong to sovereign States, because the task to which they set themselves was one of such incredible magnitude and danger that it could be done only on such terms. They were soldiers and sailors no less than traders; it was only merchants of iron will and restless daring who could reap the golden harvests in those perilous sea-fields, where all save the strongest surely perished. The paths of commerce were no less dangerous than those of war.

The West India Company was formed for trade, and for peopling the world’s waste spaces: and it was also formed to carry on fierce war against the public enemy, the King of Spain. It made war or peace as best suited it; it gave governors and judges to colonies and to conquered lands; it founded cities, and built forts; and it hired mighty admirals to lead to battle and plunder, the ships of its many fleets. Some of the most successful and heroic feats of arms in the history of the Netherlands were performed by the sailors in the pay of this company; steel in their hands brought greater profit than gold; and the fortunate stockholders of Amsterdam and Zealand received enormous dividends from the sale of the spoil of the sacked cities of Brazil, and of the captured treasure-ships which had once formed part of the Spanish “silver fleet.”

In the midst of this turmoil of fighting and trading, the company had little time to think of colonizing. Nevertheless, in 1624 some families of protestant Walloons were sent to the Hudson in the ship New Netherland a few of them staying on Manhattan Island. The following summer several more families arrived, and the city may be said to have been really founded, the dwellers on Manhattan Island after that date including permanent settlers besides the mere transient furtraders. Finally in May, 1626, the director, Peter Minuit, a Westphalian, appointed by the company as first governor of the colony, arrived in the harbor in his ship the Sea-Mew, leading a band of true colonists,—men who brought with them their wives and little ones, their cattle and their house-hold goods, and who settled down in the land with the purpose of holding it for themselves and for their children’s children.