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The Northwest Passage

by Michael Begun

The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602 for the purposes of international trade in the East. In 1609, it took on the initiative of finding a Northwest Passage, when the Company hired the English navigator Henry Hudson, a man who was already a veteran of two unsuccessful voyages in search of this fabled route1 Hudson's earlier voyages sought a Northern Artic route to the Orient using a faulty map similar to the replication below.

By contrast, new rumors in Amsterdam were focused on two other passages: one north of modern-day Labrador through the body of water now known as the Hudson Strait, and the other through a deep river leading vaguely north through the American continent itself.2 Hudson's decision to follow the vague second route was influenced by John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) who sent Hudson maps that seemed to conform to the idea that there was a sea or river somewhere north of Virginia that led to the Sea of Cathay in the Orient; Hudson was positive that this was the fabled Northwest Passage.3 After sailing along the Eastern coast past England's Jamestown colony in the Chesapeake Bay, Hudson discovered the Delaware Bay, which he quickly dismissed as a route as too narrow to be the correct way. He continued north along the coast of modern-day New Jersey before gaining first sight of a forested Manhattan Island. In September 1609, Hudson sailed along the western coast of Manhattan down the river that now bares his name, full of hope that his dreams would be realized. Unfortunately, Hudson would sail as far north as modern-day Albany before turning back with the realization that he had failed yet again; the river led nowhere.4

A misleading map published by John Smith in 1612.
A misleading map published by John Smith in 1612.

Henry Hudson's life ended in tragedy, when the crew of a subsequent voyage mutinied and set Hudson adrift on a small open boat in the icy James Bay. However, Hudson became vindicated after his death when Dutch settlers established a trading post at the mouth of the Hudson River in 1624 using Hudson's earlier claim of the land for the Dutch as giving them the right to settle there.5 This trading post would of course grow into New Amsterdam, a place that would never have existed were it not for the allure of an easier passage to the exotic goods of China.6 Thus, New Amsterdam (and the South Street Seaport) truly owes its existence to China and those who sought to trade with her. Though the demand for Oriental goods would wane during the next century, the colony would eventually return to its Eastern roots during the beginning of its rise to glory.

[Jack Putnam discusses the Northwest Passage.]


1.Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society. 1984. Ibid p. 20

2. Ibid. p. 20

3. Shorto, R. The Island at the Center of the World. First Vintage Books Edition, April 2005.

4. Ibid. 31-32

5. Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society. 1984.P. 20

6. Ibid. p. 18

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