In the same Inwood Park at the northwestern tip of Manhattan where the American Indians seek a reasonably durable shrine in a changing world, stands a tulip tree some three hundred years oldthe oldest living thing on the island. If this estimate of its age is correct, it was a seedling when the island was purchased in 1626 by the Dutch West India Company. But the first of the conquering whites appeared in the waters of New York Bay in 1524, a century before the birth of this veteran survivor of the primeval forest.
Never has the destiny of the world trembled as fitfully in the balance, awaiting the decision of a single man, as on that summer day in 1524 when Giovanni da Verrazzano, Italian captain voyaging on discovery to find the Northwest Passage to the East Indies for Francis I, King of France, brought his ship, the Dauphine, into the Lower Bay, and then sailed away north-eastward without ever seeing the mighty tidal stream stretching inland to the north.
Verrazzano had sailed from a deserted rock near the island of Madeira on January 17th to land on the shore of present North Carolina in latitude 34° north on March 7th. The fabled Northwest Passage seemed to be his when he found Pamlico Sound and thought him-self barred from his fancied Pacific only by a sandbar isthmus. Thence he sailed northward, disregarding the inlet to Chesapeake Bay between the Virginia capes, and also the estuary of the Delaware. Between these he landed on the Maryland shore for a three days’ stay, and then, as he reported to his sovereign, a “hundred leagues” to the north we found a very agreeable situation located within two small prominent hills, in the midst of which flowed to the sea a very great river, which was deep within the mouth and from the sea to the hills of that [place] a laden ship might have passed. On account of being anchored off the coast in good shelter, we did not wish to adventure in without knowledge of the entrances. We were with the small boat, entering the said river to the land, which we found much populated. The people, almost like the others, clothed with the feathers of birds of various colors, came towards us joyfully, uttering very great exclamations of admiration, showing us where we could land with the boats more safely. We entered said river,’ within the land, about half a league, where we saw it made a very beautiful lake with a circuit of about three leagues; Through which they [the Indians] went, going from one end and another part to the number of XXX of their little barges, with innumerable people who passed from one shore and the other in order to see us. In an instant as is wont to happen in navigation, a gale of unfavorable wind blowing in from the sea, we were forced to return to the ship, leaving the said land with much regret because of its commodiousness and beauty, thinking it was not without some properties of value, all of its hills showing indications of minerals.
The land was “called Angoleme from the principality which thou attainedst in lesser fortune, and the bay which that land makes, Santa Margarita from the name of thy sister who vanquishes the other matrons of modesty and art.” To the river, or rather to that part of the waterway which he identified as the river, Verrazzano gave the name Vendome.
Verrazzano and his men took the Dauphine back to the open sea, and sailed northeastward along the New England coast, where they encountered Indians less hospitable than those on “the beautiful lake” off Manhattan. Quite correctly, but rather cavalierly, on in-sufficient evidence, he had identified the Hudson as a river and not a strait. Discovery of a strait into the Pacific being what he sought, Verrazzano continued on in search of the nonexistent, and so comes down in history as an example of the non-adaptable explorer who misses greatness by clinging dutifully to a program.
Even at this distance one feels a little irritated with this early navigator, since his haste to be off held back the development of America nearly a century. If he had been as curious as Henry Hudson, he would have risked something to get his ship through the Narrows into safe anchorage and would have gone north, as Hudson did, to the upper reaches of the majestic river which the latter followed to shoal water at present Albany. The Hudson, indeed, has every appearance of a strait for fifty miles above Manhattan. In that case the French instead of the Dutch might have established the first trading post on the Hudson, might have bought Manhattan, might have colonized the Hudson Valley instead of the St. Lawrence, and might have established a claim to the entire area from the Hudson to the St. Lawrence so solidly that the Pilgrims would have gone elsewhere with their Mayflower. Had Verrazzano explored the river in 1524, French settlers would surely have preferred its climate to the rigors of the St. Lawrence. Whosoever possessed the Hudson would dominate the easy route to the interior of America and so eventually come to the control of the richest part of the continent. The northeastern part of North America might be predominantly French in blood and language today if Giovanni da Verrazzano had not become impatient in that “unfavorable wind” of 1524. Or, if he had been as tenacious as Columbus, he would have returned to that land of “commodiousness and beauty” after riding out the storm at sea.
Another voyager, one Estevan Gomez, a Portuguese of tricky reputation, on discoveries bent for Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, may have seen the lovely, enclosed waters a year later, in 1525; but he, too, sailed away without comprehending what lay beyond the gates, little dreaming that he had beheld, in the “island of hills, Manhatin,” 8 the seat of future empire. The harbor and the river had to wait another eighty-four years for the conquering white man in the person of Henry Hudson, intrepid English explorer in Dutch pay, who spent his life hunting for the mythical Northwest Passage and perished in sub-arctic seas after discovering Hudson Bay! All through the seventeenth and well toward the close of the eighteenth century the river flowing by New York City was Hudson’s River, not merely the Hudson River.
On March 25 (Old Style; April 4, New Style), 1609, Master Henry Hudson sailed his vessel Half Moon from Holland on his historically fateful voyage and, having first gone up the Scandinavian coast, abandoned that route and crossed the North Atlantic to make haven, after five months at sea, inside Sandy Hook, on the south side of what is now Lower New York Bay. Robert Juet of Limehouse, scribe of the voyage and English like his master, recorded in his journal of September 3rd that “the land is very pleas-ant and high and bold to fall withal.” The ship’s company spent a week exploring the country round the Lower Bay.
“Sent our Boate,” wrote Juet, “to sound the Bay, and we found that there were three fathoms hard by the Souther shore. Our men went on shore there and saw great store of Men, Women and Children, who gave them Tobacco at their coming on Land. So they went up into the woods, and saw great store of very goodly Oakes, and some Currants. For one of them came aboard and brought some dryed and gave me some which were sweet and good.”
A separate account of the voyage by De Laet describes more fully the flora on this first visit to the metropolitan area. They found “an abundance of blue plums and the finest oaks for height and thickness that one could ever see, together with poplars, Linden trees.”
Meteren’s account tells of their passing the Narrows:
“Where they found a good entrance between two headlands and thus entered on the twelfth September into as fine a river as can be found.”
Yea, verily; the Hudson is still a noble river even in these days of soil erosion and municipal sewage; then it must have been entrancingly beautiful, a broad clear stream flowing between green and brown banks where magnificent trees contested with the rock down to the water’s edge.
De Laet quotes Hudson himself as describing Manhattan in these words as seen from the river in latitude 40 ° 48′, which is opposite the present One Hundredth Street :
“It is as pleasant a land as one need trod upon; very abundant in all kinds of timber suitable for shipbuilding and making large casks.”
And so, expecting at every turn and moment to catch sight of the blue Pacific, Hudson sailed the Half Moon over the reaches of this “streight” for more than 150 miles, until, on September 19th, rapidly shoaling water warned him to stop at an island opposite the northern end of the present city of Albany, almost the present limit of navigation for sizeable vessels. A small boat went on far enough to demonstrate that the supposed strait was in fact a river, before Hudson retreated downstream on September 23rd, fleeing from the frosts of autumn. He lingered for a few days in the harbor off the beautiful isle of Manhatin, the Jersey side being known as Manhata, and then continued northeastward along the coast before returning to make his report to his employers, the Dutch East India Companya report which led to the establishment of a Dutch fur-trading post at Albany five years later and the creation of the Dutch West India Company. Never again would Henry Hudson behold the lordly river to which his name has clung, or the pleasant timbered land which has since become Golden Earth.
After Hudson departed Manhattan, a seed from a tulip treenot suitable for casksfell from its parent, drifted with the wind, found haven in this soil between two rocky ridges, took root and began to grow. Somehow it escaped destruction by storm and drought, by wild animals, the feet of hunters, the fire of the aboriginal Lenni Lenapes and the lumberman’s axe which took better timber, especially the “noble oakes good for shipbuilding.” All its contemporarieshuman, animal and vegetablewent back to the earth which bore them. Generation succeeded generation, bringing kaleidoscopic changes new races, new forms of government which flourished for a while and then decayed, giving way in turn to new. It, too, would have gone its way to destruction before the axe of the land clearers except for the accident of its location in a scene unfit for either habitation or agriculture. The land it stood on was not worth the work of an axe, but elsewhere on the island, during the lifetime of this venerable vegetable, land has become progressively too valuable for trees except as embellishment for real estate.