So you’ve probably been hearing an awful lot about this Quadricentennial celebration lately. You may know that all year long, from Montreal to Manhattan, parties are planned, exhibits are opening, and more than two dozen traditional Dutch ships are scheduled to sail up the Hudson this summer in what promises to be an international extravaganza. In fact, dozens of events are on tap — even the Crown Prince of the Netherlands plans to be on hand for what’s gearing up to be the Hudson Valley’s biggest party ever.
But what exactly are we celebrating? The names Hudson, Fulton, and Champlain — you may recall them from your grade school textbooks — are being thrown around nearly as much as Britney and Paris. You know that a drive into Manhattan takes you on the Henry Hudson Parkway, and of course you realize that the river we all love is named after the same man. But after that — well, maybe you’re a bit foggy on all the details.
Relax, we’re here to help. The short answer is that we’re celebrating 400 years since Henry Hudson and Samuel Champlain first voyaged along the river and the lake that now bear their names. It’s also the 200th anniversary of the maiden voyage — on the Hudson — of the first steamboat, which Robert Fulton created. And for the rest of the relevant details, just refer to these handy Quad Cheat Sheets. They’ll ensure that you’re up-to-speed on your basic, need-to-know Quadricentennial facts.
Then, stay tuned to our magazine. All year long we’ll be highlighting Quadricentennial history and the monthly events you won’t want to miss. To start, click here to learn about the official launch of the celebrations this month: the Knickerbocker Ice Festival in Rockland County.
Cause to celebrate: First European to explore what he called the “River of Mountains” — today’s Hudson River.
The basics: Sailing for the Dutch East India Company, Hudson and his Dutch and English crew (a dozen or so men) aboard the 85-foot Half Moon set out from Amsterdam on April 4, 1609, to locate a northern route to the Orient. Encountering ice, he turned westward, winding up on North America’s East Coast. The ship reached Cape Henry (near the Jamestown colony established by Hudson’s seafaring pal, John Smith) before backtracking north. On September 11, 1609, the Half Moon sailed into New York Harbor. Hoping the waterway led through the continent, Hudson ventured as far as Albany, where the river became too shallow to proceed. By early October, the ship was back at the river’s mouth, headed for Europe.
Vital statistics: Born in Great Britain, birth date and place unknown. Presumably died in June 1611, after mutinous crewmen set him adrift in a small open boat in Hudson Bay, off northeastern Canada (see below). His contract with the Dutch East India Company notes he had a wife and children; their names are unknown. A John Hudson set adrift with him in 1611 may have been a son.
Life before: Made two voyages of discovery for the London-based Muscovy Company in 1607 and 1608, both in search of a northern passage to the Far East. On the first he came within 600 miles of the North Pole and survived a whale attack.
Life after: On his last voyage, begun in 1610 for the British, Hudson’s ship Discovery sailed past Iceland, Greenland, and Labrador, again in quest of a northerly route to the Orient. After being stuck in ice for the winter, Hudson wanted to explore further; his crew was desperate to go home. They won out.
Lasting importance: During Hudson’s three-week exploration of the river that now bears his name, he claimed the fertile surrounding valley and its riches of timber and beaver for the Netherlands. Within 20 years, a thriving colony and cosmopolitan city (New Amsterdam, now Manhattan) had been established. Though ceded to the British in 1664, strong ties to Dutch culture remain throughout the Hudson Valley today.
Quote: “His is the unique fame of one known only by his deeds, perishing pitiably with the stamp of failure upon him, yet afterward to be recorded as one of the world’s most notable discoverers.” — New York Times, 1908
Cause to celebrate: First European to set eyes on the 120-mile-long lake bordering present-day New York, Vermont, and Canada.
The basics: Joining a force of Montagnais, Huron, and Algonquin Indians on an expedition against the Iroquois in July 1609, Champlain ascended Canada’s Richelieu River via canoe until it ran into the lake, which he named after himself. Encountering a large force of Iroquois (historians surmise either near present-day Crown Point or Ticonderoga), Champlain and his allies hastily felled trees to erect a barricade. The following day they defeated the Iroquois, Champlain killing three chiefs with a single shot. (According to Champlain’s own account, his gun was loaded with four balls.)
Vital statistics: Born circa-1567 in Brouage, France; died December 25, 1635, in Quebec City. His wife, Hélène Boullé, was 12 years old when they married in 1610. (He named St. Helen’s Island, in the St. Lawrence River near Montreal, after her.) Following his death, she became a nun. Amazingly, despite making some two dozen transatlantic voyages, Champlain could not swim.
Life before: Honored as the “Father of New France,” Champlain founded Quebec City in 1608. Despite his zeal and skill, his less-than-noble birth prevented him from ever becoming the colony’s official leader. An accomplished navigator, cartographer, and writer, he conceived the plan for a canal across the Isthmus of Panama after traveling there in 1600.
Life after: Champlain’s expeditions took him into six future Canadian provinces and five American states, making him among the first Europeans to view Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls, and Lake Huron. His detailed maps were invaluable to future colonizers, while the voluminous accounts of his journeys have greatly aided historians.
Lasting importance: Champlain’s skirmish with the Iroquois on Lake Champlain forged an enmity between the powerful Indian nation and the French that lasted 150 years. Possession of the lake became of crucial importance during subsequent wars between the French, English, and Americans. On a lighter note, Champlain was the first to record seeing a large serpent in the lake. Purported sightings of the creature (dubbed “Champ” in the 20th century) persist to this day.
Quote: “By instinct and temperament he was more impelled to the adventurous toils of exploration than to the duller task of building colonies. The profits of trade had value in his eyes only as means to these ends, and settlements were important chiefly as a base of discovery.” — Historian Francis Parkman
(Celebrating a 200th anniversary, albeit a year late)
Cause to celebrate: First person to create a commercially successful steamboat on the Hudson River.
The basics: Derided as “Fulton’s folly” and a “tea kettle on a raft,” Fulton’s North River Steamboat (later dubbed the Clermont) began its maiden voyage from Manhattan to Albany on August 17, 1807. Chugging four-and-a-half miles an hour, the 146-foot boat completed the trip in 32 hours. Amid rampant fears the craft’s copper boiler would explode, the return trip attracted just two paying passengers.
Vital statistics: Born 1765 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; died February 23, 1815, of pneumonia, contracted saving a friend who fell through the ice while walking across the Hudson River. Wife Harriet Livingston, niece of Fulton’s business partner, Chancellor Robert Livingston. (Their engagement was announced at a party celebrating the North River’s maiden voyage.) Three daughters, one son.
Life before: Fulton gave up a promising career as a portrait painter, first in Philadelphia and then London, to focus on engineering. His work in England included drafting canal and bridge improvements and plans for a torpedo-firing submarine. (An 1805 demonstration of his underwater bombs was a spectacular success.)
Life after: Wisely, Robert Livingston had secured the partners a 20-year monopoly for steam traffic on New York waters, so Fulton superintended construction of bigger and faster boats, including the Car of Neptune, the Paragon, the Firefly, the Richmond, the Washington, and the Olive Branch. Thanks to continued litigation over the monopoly (finally ended by an 1824 U.S. Supreme Court decision), Fulton never became fabulously wealthy. A year before his death, he designed the first steam-propelled warship.
Lasting importance: Vastly reducing the time and expense of transportation, steamboats quickly became commonplace on all navigable American rivers, and in 1819 began crossing the Atlantic. By 1850, more than 150 steamers plied the Hudson alone, carrying a million passengers annually and turning the river into one of the nation’s busiest thoroughfares.
Quote: “We celebrate in Hudson the great race of men who made the age of discovery. We celebrate in Fulton the great race of men whose inventive genius has laid the foundation for a broader, nobler and more permanent civilization the world over.”— from official account of 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration