Henry Hudson's View of New York: When Trees Tipped the Sky
By Sam Roberts
What F. Scott Fitzgerald called the “fresh, green breast of the New World” that greeted Henry Hudson 400 years ago has been reimagined by a senior ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Drawing on 18th-century British military maps, the ecologist, Eric W. Sanderson, has painstakingly recreated Manhattan's rolling landscape — Mannahatta in an American Indian dialect meant “island of many hills,” many of which were all but leveled when the street grid was imposed in the 19th century — that Hudson encountered.
In his coming book, “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City,” Mr. Sanderson evocatively describes “the old-growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife and mysterious people.” All in all, a scene hard to reconcile with the contemporary landscape dominated by glass, concrete and asphalt.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is to join Mayor Job Cohen of Amsterdam and other Dutch officials this week in heralding the quadricentennial of Hudson's voyage of discovery up his eponymous river.
It was 400 years ago this month that Hudson and Dutch merchants negotiated a contract that, it could be argued, would change the face of New York and point America toward the ethnic and racial diversity now personified by President Obama.
On Jan. 8, 1609, the Dutch merchants enlisted Hudson, an English navigator, to find a western sea route to the Far East. Had Hudson sailed on behalf of England, the nation and New York might look very different today.
Unlike other Europeans who were fleeing religious persecution or were intent on imposing — through violence when necessary — their own beliefs, the Dutch came to America to make money. Those who enlisted in that endeavor and did not disturb the peace of New Amsterdam, the name the Dutch gave their colony, were welcome.
Whether the motivation was tolerance or indifference, it largely worked, which is why New York developed so differently from most of the other American colonies.
Hudson's contract with the Dutch East India Company provided for a payment of 800 guilders (or a guarantee to his wife of 200 guilders if he failed to return to the Old World from his voyage). Since Hudson apparently never returned to Holland, it is unclear whether he ever collected. As a result, the contract may have been an even better bargain for the Dutch than the totemic 60 guilders paid for Manhattan 17 years later.
Charles T. Gehring, director of New York State's New Netherland Project (started by the New York State Library and the Holland Society, which researches early Dutch settlements), calls 800 guilders a sizable amount of money.
“A laborer earned about one guilder a day,” Mr. Gehring said. “A cow cost about 40 guilders, a horse — like owning a Buick — about 150 guilders.”
The Mannahatta that Hudson encountered in 1609 evokes a lost world, a mirror image of Alan Weisman's vision of nature's resurgence after humans vanish in his 2007 book, “The World Without Us.” Per acre, Mr. Sanderson writes, Mannahatta had more ecological diversity than Yellowstone, more native plant species than Yosemite, more species of birds than the Great Smoky Mountains.
“If Mannahatta existed today as it did then, it would be a national park,” Mr. Sanderson writes. “It would be the crowning glory of American national parks.”
Mr. Sanderson not only reimagines Manhattan, he also offers a vision of what New York may look like 400 years from now.
“New Yorkers in 2409 will still be loud, direct and pushy,” he predicts, but also “warm and generous and involved in what happens in the world.” He envisions a city where fossil fuels will have long since been exhausted and where humans and nature coexist.
Mr. Sanderson's book is being published this spring. A companion exhibit will open at the Museum of the City of New York in May.
New York was built on what Kenneth T. Jackson, the Columbia University historian, calls Hudson's “river of empire.” On its banks, the global financial capital was eventually transplanted from 17th-century Amsterdam, according to a new booklet, “1609: The Forgotten History of Hudson, Amsterdam and New York,” by the journalists Geert Mak and Russell Shorto.
“That is what began in 1609,” they write, “with the unlikely, brooding, mist-shrouded figure of Henry Hudson, and the development shortly after he passed from the scene of a brashly multiethnic and free-trading city on a blank slate of an island.”
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company