In September 1609, the Englishman Henry Hudson sails up a North-American river known to the native tribes as the Muhheakantuck, ‘the river that flows both ways,’ in the ship the Half Moon.
Hudson was sailing for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to search for the northeastern passage to Asia. Impenetrable pack ice near Nova Zembla makes him realize this mission cannot succeed. Rather than returning to Holland empty handed, he decides to sail to the west, to investigate what is true of the rumors of a passage through North America to the Pacific Ocean.
In 1609, Muhheakantuck River, is also known as Rivière Montagne (River of the Mountains), the name given by Giovanni da Verazzano, the Italian explorer who discovered the waterway 85 years earlier while sailing under the French flag. It is a tidal river, which initially leads Hudson to believe he has indeed found the northwestern passage. Only after sailing some 200 miles further upriver into unnavigable water does he note the current beneath his ship is fresh water and that his initial assumption is false.
The Muhheakantuck Valley lies between France’s territory Nova Francia in the northeast, and England’s territory Virginia in the southeast. Because neither have built a settlement, the valley between is a sort of no man’s land. In spite of being commissioned by a Dutch company, Hudson remains in heart and mind an Englishman, preferring to proclaim this unknown and as yet unclaimed part of the New World for his fatherland. He also realizes that, in all decency, he cannot stand before the VOC – Not only has he ignored the orders of the most powerful company in the world, but he also has to return empty-handed. Therefore, at the end of 1609, he does not set sail for Amsterdam, but instead guides his ship The Half Moon to the port of Dartmouth in England.
Breach of contract
English history books state that Hudson, shortly after his arrival at Dartmouth, was put under house arrest by the English authorities barring him from informing his Dutch (VOC) employers about his findings in the New World. Sources to support this have never been found though, which raises the suggestion that the ‘arrest’ was pro forma, and was merely meant to save Hudson from embarrassment. The fact that only three months later he would sail under the English flag and succeed in finding a northern passage – one which England actually wasn’t even interested in finding it – can only really be seen as a reward, on the one hand for not returning to the Dutch Republic, on the other hand for informing his home country about his discovery.
That the English were very grateful to Hudson for breaking his contract with the VOC is shown half a century later, when they lay claim on and take over New Netherland “because it was discovered by an Englishman.” Hudson, in fact, sailed under orders of the Dutch flag. It is as this moment in 1664, long after his presumed death, in 1611, at the hands of his own crew who cast him overboard with his son and seven others, that Hudson’s status as an Anglo-American historical icon is solidified.
Golden trade opportunities
The history books tell us that it was soon known throughout the Dutch Republic that Hudson had been in a place in the New World where there was an abundance of fur animals, and where the native tribe members were not hostile to the newcomers – and, indeed, even willing to trade. Amsterdam fur merchants saw good opportunities for trade, all the more so because the region was in a previously unclaimed no man’s land, between the territories claimed by the French and the English.
In 1611, captain/trader Hendrick Christiaensen sails to the Muhheakantuck Valley, where he ‘rediscovers’ the northwestern route of Hudson up the Muhheakantuck River. It is commonly assumed that the captain/trader Adriaen Block is also present on this journey as supercargo (the man responsible for taking care of the goods and engaging in the trading). It is possible they make the trip under the auspices of the Amsterdam fur traders Vogels, Pelgrom, and Eelkens, men from fur trading families from the Southern Netherlands, who fled to Amsterdam in the late 16th century to escape the Spanish occupation.
This first journey seems promising enough to warrant making a second trip to the area. This time Christiaensen and Block also sail on behalf of the eminent Amsterdam merchant Lambert van Tweenhuysen to the new region, aboard the ship Fortune. Although there is no direct evidence, we can assume that 19 year-old Jacob Eelkens is also aboard Fortune on this trip. Eelkens, from a fur trading family, is an intelligent young man and speaks French fluently. In the New World, where the French language is – literally – the lingua franca, he is a valuable asset.
Fur and Indians
Christiaensen, Block and Eelkens do good business with the locals, members of several native tribes. When they return to Holland in early 1613, Fortune is fully laden with beaver and other furs. In addition, Christiaensen and Block have taken two sons of native tribe chiefs, Orson and Valentine with them. We can assume that Eelkens remained behind in the New World with the native people, learning to speak their languages – Algonquin and Iroquois – and making important contributions to securing and easing the (trade) relationships.
One theory holds that the young native tribesmen represent the two largest native tribes who live on the shores of the upper Muhheakantuck, the Mohicans and the Mohawks, who are the greatest providers of the furs. These men are presented to Prince Maurits as proof that the lucrative trade is based on a solid relationship with the local providers. Based on this evidence, Prince Maurits gives the fur traders Vogels, Pelgrom and Van Tweenhuysen the first license for the exclusive right to trade in the valley.
Trouble in the valley
Competing fur traders meanwhile are also organizing journeys to the valley of the Rivière Montagne. They do not recognize the authority of Prince Maurits, and certainly not his exclusive license for Christiaensen and Block. The right of granting of licenses, they believe, is the right of to the city of Amsterdam and the States General. The presence of competitors in the valley leads to unrest, bitter struggles, difficult negotiations, damage claims, and lawsuits.
In the autumn of 1613, Christiaensen sets sail for his third journey to the Muhheakantuck River valley in North America. Block follows him a few weeks later with the ship, Tiger. At the same time Thijs Mossel and Hans Joris Honthom are leaving for the region, aboard the Nightingale, commisioned by the fur trader Hans Claesz. Christiaensen and Block meet at the mouth of the river, which, in honor of Prince Maurits, they have named the Mauritius River. This year there is much ice and they cannot sail upriver to meet Eelkens who had remained behind with the tribes.
In early 1614, Block watches with dismay as the Tiger burns near the island of Manhattan. While he begins building a new ship– later to be named the Unrest – Christiaensen judges that the river is free enough of ice, allowing him to sail upriver. He is anxious to see Eelkens again, who has been exploring the possibility of establishing a trading post, where the native tribes could sell their goods year round, and from where shipments to Europe could be consolidated. Additionally, it would be the first European settlement in the valley giving the Dutch Republic legal claim to the area.
Block, meanwhile, has to deal with a mutiny of his crew. For reasons that remain unclear, they hijack Nightingale, the ship of rival captain Mossel. Block sends a sloop upriver to fetch Christiaensen, who has not yet gone far. When Christiaensen hears about the skirmishes, he immediately turns around, and sails downriver as fast as he can with Fortune, through the ice floes. When the mutinous crew see Christiaensen coming, they quickly leave, but he picks up Block and chases them. Their crew, sensing risk, demand they be paid a danger allowance and Block and Christiaensen decide not to follow and attempt try to capture the mutineers. Later, it appears that Nightingale would get a new life as a pirate ship in the Caribbean.
Block’s problems now appear to be solved, and he can concentrate again on building his new ship. Christiaensen sails upriver, reunites with Eelkens, and together they start negotiating an agreement with the Mohawks and the Mohicans. Shortly after Christiaensen’s departure, new problems arise when two Dutch ships arrive in the area. Block must summon all of his powers to prevent additional skirmishes.
Upriver, Christiaensen and Eelkens have managed to negotiate a treaty with the Mohawks and the Mohicans. The Mohawks, to this day, commemorate this agreement, based on mutual respect, equality, and fraternity. According to their oral history, that 1613 agreement is sealed by the exchanging of a silver chain (the Covenant Chain), a written document, and a belt of wampum beads (the Two Row Wampum Belt), made from a type of shell that both tribes regard as sacred. For both the Mohawks and the Mohicans, the agreement is more than a trade deal. It is an inviolable covenant for eternal friendship between sovereign nations. The treaty also includes the establishment of a trading post. In the spring of 1614, Fort Nassau is built on Castle Island, a little island in the Hudson River, not far from where the city of Albany is now situated.
By creating a treaty with two native tribes who have a strong dislike for each other, Christiaensen and Eelkens accomplish a diplomatic feat. Eelkens plays the key role. He speaks Algonquin and Iroquois, and because of his long stay, he can well understand the tribe’s traditions, habits and morals. This treaty results in a notable improvement in the relations between the Mohawks and the Mohicans; the Mohawks get the right of passage through Mohican territory to deliver their furs to the new trading post, Fort Nassau.
As a result, the Dutch urge to trade, coupled with their ability to create respectful and sustainable relationships that ensure a steady trade, lead to peace and stability in the region of North America known as New Netherland.
Note: This is a simplified synopsis of Hubert de Leeuw’s investigation into and interpretation of the primary sources. Work is ongoing and the complexities and depth of this history will be told in a series of works to be published that investigate the details through a more academic approach.