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First Encounters

June 2024
3min read

The journeys 400 years ago of a French and Dutch explorer would forever alter the history of North America

Four hundred years ago, at almost exactly the same historical moment, two intrepid European explorers came near to meeting in the wilderness of today’s New York State. Each left his name on the waters he visited, but the impact of their journeys left a far larger shadow on America’s history. This year, from New York City up the Hudson and along the shores of Lake Champlain, dozens of towns, cities, and museums will celebrate the quadricentennial of the arrival of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain.

European explorations of the New World started in earnest within a half century of the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when importing merchants felt the squeeze of high tariffs on the flow of trade goods coming westward on long caravans. The Portuguese charted a route around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, but bad weather, pirates, and long months at sea hampered the efficient flow of goods. Any nation that could discover a far shorter route to the East with a Northeast or Northwest Passage over the top of the world could claim a monopoly and reap enormous fortunes.

Late in the 15th century, Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the Caribbean kicked the race into high gear. Various Spanish expeditions soon claimed most of Latin America and vast stretches of land in the southern and western regions of what much later would become the United States. In 1534, on a quest to find the Northwest Passage, the French navigator Jacques Cartier launched the first of three voyages to the northern wilderness he misnamed “Canada,” the Mohawk word for “village.” He returned with kidnapped Indians, a shipload of fool’s gold, and tantalizing stories of the New World. His voyages gave France its claim on the vast northern country, where each year the French now came to fish the Grand Banks and trade for pelts.

By the time Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1603 for the first time at Tadoussac, the rendezvous place at the mouth of the Saguenay River, for the annual exchange of furs for European goods, both the French and the Indians were hooked on trade. As the European economy rapidly expanded and monarchies thrived, courtiers clamored for furs that would proclaim their ranks. To accommodate them, oceangoing merchants from Sweden, England, and France began competing for control of the fur trade with the Indians. By Champlain’s time, the French were importing an average of 15,000 beaver pelts a year.

In this special section, historian David Hackett Fischer writes about Champlain, the master mapmaker, whose first commission lay in charting the Caribbean conquests of Spain. Later he would become the first to map the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Cape Cod. Intending to establish permanent French settlements by making peace to facilitate trade with the Indians, he founded Quebec and forged alliances with the northern Algonquians that lasted for 150 years, the entire French experience in North America. He crossed the Atlantic 29 times, gliding thousands of miles in open boats and frail canoes, yet he never learned to swim.

France’s colonizing efforts came under pressure after the belated entry of England in the race for water routes and permanent bases for trade. Because the Venetian mariner Giovanni Caboto, who sailed under the English flag, had spent a summer in Canada in 1497, the English also laid claim to the region.

As Champlain mapped the Atlantic coast, the English sent Henry Hudson to seek the shortcut to Asia. Twice he turned back from the ice pack above Europe. His third voyage was commissioned by the newly formed Dutch East India Company, which historian Peter C. Mancall describes in this section.

Hudson brought his Halve Maen into New York Harbor in the summer of 1609, exactly five weeks after Champlain paddled out onto the lake he had named for himself and into a firefight with the Mohawk. Hudson sailed into the lands of the Mahican and Lenape Indians at a place the Lenape called Mannahatta. What the Indians saw and thought, described in this issue in an excerpt from an 18th-century Moravian minister and introduced by historian Colin Calloway, did not prepare them either for what happened immediately or for the long-term consequences for their ancient way of life. Within one day of his arrival on the river that bears his name, Hudson’s crew drew fire from suspicious Indians. John Coleman was the first of thousands of English men and women to perish in the contest for control of this “new” territory.

Within five weeks in that epic summer of 1609, two explorers and their crews, seeking customers for their nations’ goods, managed to light a fuse at both ends that would only die after 150 years of colonizing and conflict.


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