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Greene History Notes: Hudson’s accidental discovery

Replica of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon.
August 13, 2019 11:34 am Updated: August 13, 2019 11:38 am


My family vacations in Victorian Cape May every year. It has become our August tradition.

Cape May is one of the earliest seaside resorts in America. Ten years ago while I was there I discovered the town was celebrating the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage and discovery, just as we in the Hudson River were commemorating his trip up the Hudson River in 1609.

Henry Hudson, an Englishman, actually made four voyages of discovery. His third and fourth are most noteworthy. For his third voyage he could no longer get financing from England and turned to the Dutch for backing. That move turned out to be good for the Dutch, but not so good for Henry Hudson. As in the first two voyages, Hudson’s plan was to travel north to find a Northeast Passage over Russia to China and Japan. Of course we know that was not possible.

This time, as in the past, he was hampered by weather conditions and near mutiny by the crew. Instead of turning back he decided to turn west, toward warmer waters. By July, about three months into his voyage, he had reached Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and began a trip down the coast. By August, his ship, the Half Moon, reached as far south as Jamestown, Virginia, at which point he turned north again.

Reaching Delaware Bay, the ship ran aground several times — once just inside the bay south of Cape May, New Jersey. This is the reason Cape May commemorates Hudson’s voyage. The Half Moon continued north from there and on Sept. 3, 1609, the crew reached the mouth of what is now called the Hudson River. The surrounding land was claimed for Holland.

A week after arriving in New York harbor, the Half Moon set sail up the river, hoping a Northwest Passage could be found. The trip culminated near the site of present day Albany, when it became obvious they could go no further. By Oct. 4, sitting in the harbor at the mouth of the river, Hudson decided to take the Half Moon home. He arrived in Dartmouth, England, on Nov. 7, 1609.

Before Hudson could return to Holland, he was arrested for sailing as an Englishman under a Dutch flag. He was required to appear before King James I and was forbidden to sail again for another country.

The Half Moon was returned to Holland, along with the ship’s logs and records of the voyage. Hudson never returned to Holland, but as a result of his voyage the Dutch sent further ships and settlers to colonize the Hudson Valley and the surrounding area as far south as Cape May, New Jersey, and the Delmarva Peninsula.

This is not the end of Hudson’s story. In 1610 he once again got financial backing from the English to find a Northwest Passage to the Orient. This would be his fourth and last exploration. In April he sailed from London in a ship called the Discovery. By August he and his crew had sailed into what we now know as Hudson Bay in Canada. While in the bay, Hudson and his crew gained the distinction of being the first Europeans to winter in the Canadian artic because their ship became frozen fast in the ice.

When spring came and the ship was free of the ice, the crew wanted to return home. Hudson wanted to continue his quest to find the Northwest Passage. Eventually the crew mutinied. Hudson, his son John, and eight loyal crew members were set adrift in Hudson Bay on June 22, 1611. None were ever heard from again. The remaining crew returned to London in October 1611 — a year and a half after beginning their voyage.

In 1618 the surviving members of the crew of the Discovery were tried by the Admiralty Court and found not guilty. Public sentiment was mixed; some thought the mutineers should have been hung.

In the end, we have: An accidental discovery and a windfall for the Dutch for a time until the English took over New Netherlands 55 years later. We in the Hudson Valley gained a Dutch heritage that continues to this day.

Reach columnist David Dorpfeld at or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.