Days of the Discoverers Part 27

In the next few years things were not so well with English mariners as they had been. Cecil and Howard, picking a quarrel with Ralegh, had him shut up in the Tower. The Dutch were trading everywhere, seizing the chances King James missed. But Hudson was in the employ of the Muscovy Company like his father and grandfather, and the Russian fur trade was making that Company rich.

Captain John Smith, a shrewd-faced soldier with merry eyes, appeared at the house one day and told entertaining stories of his campaigns under Prince Sigismund of Bohemia. He and the boy John drove the neighbors nearly distracted with curiosity, one winter evening, signalling with torches from the house to the river.[2] To anxious souls who surmised a new Guy Fawkes conspiracy Captain Smith showed how he had once conveyed a message to the garrison of a beleaguered city in this way. Here was the code. The first half of the alphabet was represented by single lights, the second half by pairs. To secure attention three torches were shown at equal distances from one another, until a single light flashed in response to show that the signal was understood. For any letter from A to L a single light was shown and hidden one or more times according to the number of the letter from the beginning; thus, three flashes meant C; four meant D, and so on. For a letter between M and Z the same plan was followed using two torches. The end of a word was signified by three lights. In this way Smith had spelled out the message, "On Thursday night I will charge on the east; at the alarum, sally you." He had, however, translated it into Latin, to make it short.

John Hudson found new interest in Latin.

When Captain Smith began to talk of joining a new colony to go to Virginia the boy begged hard to be allowed to go. But just at this time the Muscovy Company was sending Henry Hudson to look for a way round through northern seas to the Spice Islands. The Dutch were already trading in the Portuguese Indies. If England could reach them by a shorter route, it would be a very pleasant discovery for the Muscovy Company.

Even in 1607 geographers believed in an open polar sea north of Asia.

Hudson tried the Greenland route. Sailing east of Greenland he found himself between that country and the islands named "Nieuwland" by William Barents the Dutch navigator in 1596. Their pointed icy mountains seemed to push up through the sea. Icebergs crowded the waters like miniature peaks of a submerged range. Hudson returned to report to the company "no open sea."

In 1608 he was again sent out on the same errand. This time he steered further east, between those islands and another group named by Barents Nova Zembla. He sailed nearer to the pole than any man had been before him, and found whales bigger, finer and more numerous than anywhere else. Rounding the North Cape on his way home he made the first recorded observation of a sun-spot. In August, when he returned and made his report, there was a sensation in the seafaring world.

The Dutch promptly sent whaling ships into the arctic seas, and suggested, through Van Meteren the Dutch consul in London, a friend of Hudson, that the English navigator should come to Amsterdam and talk of entering their service. While there, he received an offer from the French Ambassador, suggesting that his services would be welcome to a proposed French East India Company. Hearing this, the Dutch hastened to secure him, and on April 4, 1609, he sailed from Amsterdam in a yacht of eighty tons called the _Half Moon_ and shaped rather like one, manned by a crew of twenty, half English and half Netherlanders, and John as cabin-boy.

John was in such a state of bliss as a boy can know when sailing on the venture of his dreams. His father had told him in confidence that as his sailing orders were almost the same as the year before, he did not expect to find the northern route to India in that direction. Failing this the _Half Moon_ would look for it in the western seas. Of this plan he had said nothing in Holland.

He found, as he had expected, that the arctic waters were choked with ice, and turning southward he headed for the Faroe Isles. While in Holland he had had a letter from Captain John Smith, who had explored the regions about Chesapeake Bay. No straits leading to the western ocean had been discovered there, and no Sea of Verrazzano. Captain Smith's opinion was that if such a passage existed it would be somewhere about the fortieth parallel. Explorations had already been made farther north. Davis Strait had been discovered some years before by John Davis, now dead. Martin Frobisher had found another strait leading northwest.

Both of these were so far north that they were likely to be ice-bound by the time the little _Half Moon_ could reach them. Hudson meant to look along the coast further south, and see what could be found there.

The _Half Moon_ took in water at the Faroes and anchored some seven weeks later, on July 18, in Penobscot Bay. Her foremast was gone and her sails ripped and rent by the gales of the North Atlantic, and the carpenter with a selected crew rowed ashore and chose a pine tree for a new mast. While this was a-making and the sails were patched up, the crew not otherwise engaged went fishing.

"I say," presently observed John Hudson, who knew Brereton's Relacion by heart, "this must ha' been the place where they caught so many fish that they were 'pestered with Cod' and threw numbers of 'em overboard.

This makes twenty-seven, Dad, so far."

During that week they caught fifty cod, a hundred lobsters and a halibut which John declared to be half as big as the ship. Two French boats appeared, full of Indians ready to trade beaver skins for red cloth. The strawberry season was past, but John found wild cherries, small, deep red, in heavy bunches. When he tried to eat them, however, they were so sour that he nearly choked. Cautiously he tasted the big blue whortleberries that grew on high bushes; near water, and found them delicious. He had been eating them by the handful for some time when he became aware that there was a feaster on the other side of the thicket.

Receiving no reply to his challenge he went to investigate and saw a brown bear standing on his hind legs and raking the berries off the twigs with both forepaws, into his mouth. At sight of John he dropped on all fours and cantered off.

Leaving the bay they cruised along the coast past Cape Cod, and then steered southwest for the fortieth parallel. Wind and rain came on in the middle of August, and they were blown toward an inlet which Hudson decided to be the James. Not knowing how the English governor of Jamestown might regard an intrusion by a Dutch ship, he turned north again, and on the twenty-eighth of August entered a large bay and took soundings. More than once the _Half Moon_, light as she rode, grounded on sand-banks, and Hudson shook his head in rueful doubt.

"D' you think the straits are here, Dad?" asked John when he had a chance to speak with his father alone.

"Hardly. This is fresh water. It's the mouth of a river."[3]

"Yes, but might there be an isthmus--or the like?"

"A big river with as strong a current as this would not rise on a narrow, level strip of land, son. It's bringing down tons of sand to make these banks we run into. There's a great wide country inland there."

The chanteys of the sailors were heard at daybreak in the lonely sea, as the _Half Moon_ went on her way northward. On September 3 the little ship edged into another and bigger bay to the north. Whether it was a bay or a lake Hudson was at first rather doubtful. The shores were inhabited, for little plumes of smoke arose everywhere, and soon from all sides log canoes came paddling toward the ship. These Indians were evidently not unused to trading, for they brought green tobacco, hemp, corn and furs to sell, and some of them knew a few words of French. By this, and by signs, they gave Hudson to understand that three rivers, or inlets, came into this island-encircled sea, the largest being toward the north. Hudson determined to follow this north river and see where it led.

As he sailed cautiously into the channel, taking soundings and observing the shores, he was puzzled. The tide rose and fell as if this were an inlet of the sea, and it was far deeper than an ordinary river. In fact it was more like a Norwegian fiord.[4] It might possibly lead to a lake, and this lake might have an outlet to the western ocean. That it was a strait he did not believe. Even in the English Channel the meeting tides of the North Sea and the Atlantic made rough water, and the _Half Moon_ was drifting as easily as if she were slipping down stream. In any event, nothing else had been found, either north or south of this point, which could possibly be a strait, and Hudson meant to discover exactly what this was before he set sail for Amsterdam.

They passed an Indian village in the woods to the right, and according to the Indians who had come on board the place was called Sapokanican,[5] and was famous for the making of wampum or shell beads.

A brook of clear sweet water flowed close by. Presently Hudson anchored and sent five men ashore in a boat to explore the right-hand bank of the channel. Night came on, and it began to rain, but the boat had not returned. Hudson slept but little. In the morning the missing men appeared with a tale of disaster. After about two leagues' travel they had come to a bay full of islands. Here they had been attacked by two canoes carrying twenty-six Indians, and their arrows had killed John Colman and wounded two other men. It grew so dark when the rain began that they dared not seek the ship, and the current was so strong that their grapnel would not hold, so that they had had to row all night.

Sailing only in the day time and anchoring at night the little Dutch ship went on to the north, looking between the steep rocky banks like a boat carved out of a walnut-shell, in the wooden jaws of a nutcracker.

After dark, fires twinkled upon the heights, and the lapping waters about the quiet keel were all shining with broken stars. The flame appeared and vanished like a signal, and John Hudson wondered if the Indians knew John Smith's trick of sending a message as far as a beacon light could be seen.

One night he climbed up on the poop with the ship's great lantern and tried the flashing signals he remembered. Before many minutes two of the wild men had drawn near to watch, and although John could not make out the meaning of the light that came and went upon the cliffs, it was quite clear that they could. One of them waved his mantle in front of the lantern, and turning to the boy nodded and grinned good-naturedly.

The signal fires must have talked to some purpose, for the next day a delegation paddled out from the shore to invite the great captain, his son and his chief officers to a feast.

When the party arrived at the house of the chief, which was a round building, or pavilion, of saplings sheathed with oak bark, mats were spread for them to sit upon, and food was served in polished red wooden bowls. Two hunters were sent out to bring in game, and returned almost at once with pigeons which were immediately dressed and cooked by the women. One of the hunters gave John one of the arrowheads used for shooting small birds; it was no bigger than his least fingernail and made of a red stone like jasper. A fat dog had also been killed, skinned and dressed with shell knives, and served as the dish of honor. Hudson hastily explained in English to his companions that whether they relished dog or not, it would never do to refuse it, as this was a special dish for great occasions.

"Dad," said John that night, "do you think any ship with white men ever came up here before?"

"No," said Hudson.

"I hope they'll call this the Hudson."

The water was now hardly more than seven feet deep, and the tide rose only a few inches. Hudson came reluctantly to the conclusion that there was no proceeding further in a ship. He sent a boatload of men several leagues up-stream, but they came back with the report that the river was much the same so far as they had gone.

During the voyage they had often seen parties of the savages, usually friendly but sometimes hostile. Flights of arrows occasionally were aimed at the _Half Moon_, and the crew replied with musket-shots which sometimes but not always hit the mark. The painted warriors had a way of disappearing into the woods like elves. Once, in spite of all endeavors to shake him off, a solitary Indian in a small canoe followed along under the stern till he saw the chance of climbing up the rudder to the cabin window. He stole the pillow off the commander's bed, two shirts, and two bandoliers (ammunition-belts), the tinkle of which betrayed him.

The mate saw him making off with his plunder and shot him, whereupon the other Indians paddled off at top speed, some even leaping from their canoes to swim ashore. A boat put out and recovered the stolen property, and when a swimming Indian caught the side of it to overturn it the cook valiantly beat him off with a sword. These with many other adventures were duly written down by Robert Juet the mate.

To John Hudson the voyage was a journey of enchantment. Nothing he had ever seen was in the least like the glory of the autumn forests, mantling the mountains in scarlet, gold, malachite, russet, orange and purple. He had been in the gardens at Lambeth where Tradescant the famous gardener ruled, but there was more color in a single vivid maple standing blood-red in a bit of lowland than in all his Lancaster roses.

And the great river had its flowers as well. A tall plant like an elfin elm covered with thick-set tiny blossoms yellow as broom, grew wild over the pastures, and interspersed with this fairy forest were thickets of deep lavender daisies with golden centers. In lowland glades were tall spikes of cardinal blossoms, and clusters of deep blue flowers like buds that never opened. Vines loaded with bunches of scarlet and orange berries like waxwork, and others bearing fluffy bunches of silky gray down curly as an old man's beard, climbed the trees that overhung the stream. The mountains in the upper river came right down to the water like the glacis of a giant fort, and fitful winds pounced upon the _Half Moon_ and rocked her like a cradle. Once there was a late thunder-shower, and the noise of the thunder among the humped ranges was for all the world like balls rolling in a great game of bowls played by goblins of the mountains.

On the fourth of October, the _Half Moon_ left the island which the Indians called Manahatta, passed through the Narrows and sailed for Europe. Looking back at those green shores with their bronze feather-crowned people watching to see the flight of their strange guest, John Hudson felt that when he was a man, he would like nothing better than to have an estate on the shores of the noble river, which no white boy had ever before set eyes on. Where a great terrace rose, some fifty miles above Manahatta, walled around by mountains and almost two hundred feet above the river, there should be a fort, of which Captain John Smith should be the commander; and in the broadening of the river below to form an inland sea, his father's squadron should ride, while the Indians of all the upper reaches of the river should come to pay tribute and bring wampum, furs and tobacco in exchange for trinkets. And on the island at the mouth of the river there would be a great city, greater than Antwerp, to which all the ships of the world should come as they came now to Antwerp and to London. So dreaming, John Hudson saw the shores of this new world vanish in the blue line, where earth and sky are one.


[1] The kindling of bonfires and beacon lights on the accession of a sovereign or any other occasion of national rejoicing is a very old custom in Britain and is still kept up. At the time of Queen Victoria's jubilee trees were planted closely to form a great V on the side of the Downs, and when the fires were lighted on Ditchling Beacon and other heights the letter stood out black against the close turf of the hillside.

[2] The account of Smith's campaigns and signalling code is given in his autobiography.

[3] The Delaware.

[4] Some authorities consider the Hudson River to be actually a fiord or fjord and not a true river.

[5] Greenwich Village.


The Tailor sat with his goose on the table-- (Table of Laws it was, he said) Fashioning uniforms dyed in sable, Picked out with gold and sanguine red.

"This," he said as he snipped and drafted, "Sublimely foreshadowing cosmic Fate With world-dominion august, resplendent, Will wear, as nothing can wear but Hate!

"Chimerical dreams of souls romantic Are out of date as an old wife's rune.

Britain is doomed as Plato's Republic--"

When in at the door came a lilting tune!

_"Here to-day and gone to-morrow-- All in the luck of the road!

Didn't come to stay forever, But we'll take our share of the load!"_

Highlanders, Irish, Danes, Egyptians, Norman or Slav the dialects ran; Something more than a board-school shaped them-- Drill and discipline never made man!

Chapter end

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