The Twin Mysteries of Henry Hudson—His 1609 Voyage

Hudson River Valley Review Vol. 25, No. 2


On September 2, 1609, the Dutch ship Half Moon sailed into what is now New York Harbor and anchored near Staten Island. For the next five weeks, the Englishman Henry Hudson and his crew of sixteen men explored the river that now bears his name. They traveled approximately 150 miles northward making contact with Native Americans and recording the observations that would eventually lead to the colonization of New Netherland. Then they returned to Europe, stopping first in England and continuing on to the Netherlands. End of story? Not quite, for two aspects of this voyage have puzzled historians and others for centuries.

The first mystery is why the Half Moon was in North American waters. The orders given to Hudson by his employer, the Dutch East India Company, were quite explicit: find a route to the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) by sailing northeast past the northern tip of the Scandinavian peninsula, sail along the northern coast of Russia, and eventually enter the North Pacific Ocean via the Bering Strait.

The second puzzlement is that Hudson departed from Amsterdam and was expected by his sponsors to return directly there. In fact, part of his contract stipulated that Hudson’s family actually move to Holland and remain there until his return. Why did he stop in England first?

The Age of Discovery

Before exploring the rationale for Hudson’s actions, a quick review of certain aspects of early seventeenth-century geopolitics is in order. Since the days of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese had a virtual monopoly on the southern trade routes linking the Far East with Europe. It was this trade that brought tropical goods, especially spices, silks, and cotton to European markets through Portuguese ports. The newly independent Dutch, seeking to avoid conflict with the Portuguese, decided to investigate the northeastern route to the Orient. The year 1609 also marked two important events: first, it was the year that the Bank of Amsterdam was established, an important part of the system of commerce then developing. This year also marked the beginnings of a twelve-year truce between Holland and Spain, thus freeing the smaller nation to concentrate on trade and exploration. In addition, in response to French explorations of North America, especially by Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, traders and men of commerce in England were also interested in alternate routes to the Orient. Indeed, John Cabot was sent to explore the North Atlantic shortly after the news of Columbus’ discoveries. Cabot was interested in the mythical Northwest Passage to the Orient. Although he was unsuccessful in finding such a route, it was suspected that traveling north or northeast past the northern tip of Norway might be ice-free for at least two or three summer months. Finally, it should be noted that this era was in the middle of what was known in the northern hemisphere as the Little Ice Age, a time when cold winters caused the canals of Holland to freeze for months at a time. (Remember Hans Brinker and his silver skates?) It is evident that this period of the mid-sixteenth century appealed to the adventurous spirit of those looking to the New World to satisfy their ambition. And Hudson was definitely one of these ambitious and courageous men.

Hudson’s Qualifications

Almost nothing is known regarding Hudson’s education. He must have known how to read and write, analyze charts, and perform accurate readings of celestial navigation. His expertise in ship-handling in foul weather and unknown waters, and his leadership as a ship’s captain, are evidenced by the four voyages of exploration that he undertook. Hudson is known to have had direct contact with the foremost cartographers of his day1 as well as corresponding with John Smith, the leader of the Virginia Company’s colony at Jamestown.2 There is little known about how Hudson was able to secure the position as Captain of his first two voyages to the northeast; only conjecture provides any insight. Although no record of previous leadership has emerged, he was a seafaring man in his mid- to late-thirties; no one would have been named to lead such a perilous journey without either prior experience of command at sea or the influence of men of high standing in the circles of commerce or government. There is some evidence that Hudson’s older brother was at the Muscovy Company, which had been established in London in 1553. One co-founder of the Muscovy Company was Sebastian Cabot, the son of John Cabot, the explorer. Interestingly, another co-founder was one Henry Heardson. As the spellings of names were not exact at this time, it is possible that one of Heardson’s eight sons might have been Henry Hudson’s father.

From documents of the time, it is clear that Hudson was the captain of four voyages of discovery, two of which were prior to the voyage of 1609 and the last in 1610. His first two voyages on behalf of the English were unsuccessful, in that his ship was unable to penetrate the Arctic ice, or proceed further than the twin islands of Novaya Zemlya, in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia. Even though both voyages found his ship in these waters in mid-June, sea ice as well as ice in the riggings prevented further progress. The Muscovy Company, a private stock company looking for a route to the East, had sent Hudson on these trips. But after the second unsuccessful voyage, which may have included a mutiny by the ship’s crew in late 1608, Hudson found himself ashore with no immediate prospects for a ship or voyage.

The Half Moon

Early seventeenth-century ships the Dutch used for ocean trade were built with a hold designed to carry approximately thirty to 100 tons of cargo and supplies, much of which was food and water for the crew. In size, a ship like the one Hudson used on his third voyage would not have been much larger than four inter-city buses parked two abreast. It would have had three masts and been capable of no more than ten knots of speed in optimum conditions. A minimum safe depth of water for such a vessel would have been two fathoms (approximately twelve feet). A typical crew would have been fifteen to twenty men. These ships did have a high stern and considerable freeboard along each side which made for safer sailing, even in stormy weather. And as demonstrated by the survivors of Hudson’s fourth voyage, a crew of six or seven sailors would have been able to keep her afloat. After this voyage, little is known of the Half Moon, except that five years later it ran aground and sank off the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, suggesting it was used for trade with the Orient.

The Dutch Connection

Seeing no likelihood of a third posting as a ship’s captain in England, Hudson began to look to the Continent, specifically France, and then Holland for more opportunity. France was an early entry into the utilization of the resources of the New World, as evidenced by the explorations of Jacques Cartier in the first half of the sixteenth century. Hudson was able to use James LeMaire,3 a Dutch navigator living in France, as his agent to secure another voyage. And through Hudson’s acquaintance with Flemish mapmaker Jodocus Hondius,4 discussions with the Dutch had begun. These discussions were the first to bear fruit. With Hondius acting as interpreter, the contract for the Half Moon’s exploration via the northeast route to the Orient was signed in Amsterdam with two representatives of the Dutch East India Company on January 8, 1609.

The contract stated that Hudson would be provided with a vessel of about thirty tons (rather small for a voyage to the Arctic region) to depart on or about April 1, proceeding north and then east past Novaya Zemlya until he was able to sail south to about latitude sixty degrees. This location would have demonstrated that Hudson had entered the Pacific Ocean. Upon returning directly, he was to report to the Dutch East India Company’s director, and furnish all journals, logs, and charts.5 In addition, the contract stated that neither Hudson nor his crew was to enter into any other arrangement or employment agreement, and the captain’s wife and children were to remain as virtual hostages in Holland until his return. Hudson began to equip his ship for the voyage.

Juet’s Journal

Robert Juet was an English sailor of considerable skill and experience. In addition to his seamanship, he could write. He kept the only firsthand and complete account of the 1609 voyage that has survived.6 He had accompanied Hudson on the 1608 voyage, which was unable to pass further than Novaya Zemlya.

Juet’s journal is a daily account of all manner of navigational, ship-handling, and other events, including position statements from which we are able to approximate the location of the ship at any time.7 Included in it are items such as sightings of quantities of fish and marine mammals, storms and fogs, birds (which indicate the ship’s proximity to land), as well as notations regarding the injury or death of crew members, sightings of land, etc. Because most of Hudson’s papers have not survived, Juet’s journal gives the most complete picture of the voyage.

The Voyage

On March 25, 1609, Hudson and his crew of sixteen sailed the Half Moon away from Amsterdam into the North Sea. For almost the next two months, the ship sailed further north and east, only to encounter cold, ice, and storms. Quarrels and fighting broke out among the crew, and perhaps a mutiny ensued. The mixed crew of English and Dutch may have had different expectations regarding the voyage. The Dutch were experienced in warmer-weather sailing; the English, especially those who had accompanied Hudson on the previous voyages, may have been more accustomed to the cold. In any event, by May 19, the ship seems to have progressed as Far East as ice would permit. Juet’s log conveniently skips most of the first part of the voyage with the notation “because it is a journey usually known,”8 and so, if a mutiny was instrumental in Hudson changing course to the west, it cannot be confirmed. What is confirmed by Thomas Janvier’s work in the nineteenth century is that Hudson sought out Emanuel Van Meteren, the former Dutch consul in London, upon his return to England following the voyage to show him the charts and logs.9 Relying on information from Van Meteren, Janvier’s work states that upon encountering pack ice, Hudson presented two choices to his crew: either go to North America to explore an area north of Virginia, or proceed due west to explore the Davis Strait, the entrance to Hudson’s Bay. The crew agreed to the latter proposal, and after a watering stop in the Faeroe Islands, proceeded westward. At this point, it is important to note that if the above is true, namely that Hudson would allow the crew to set the sailing direction, he must either have lost control of the crew (as in a mutiny), or he had intended all along to ignore the Dutch East India Company’s directions.

Into North American Waters

With the decision made to sail toward Davis Strait, the ship sailed slowly westward, losing its foremast in a storm on June 15. Gradually moving southwestward, the first landfall was Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia. By mid-July, the ship was off the coast of central Maine, where Hudson took the opportunity to get freshwater, lobsters and fish from the local waters. By August 24, the ship, having skirted Cape Cod, was in the vicinity of Cape Hatteras. Interestingly, although Hudson was aware of his proximity to Jamestown and his friend John Smith, he made no attempt to enter the Chesapeake area. Four days later, Hudson entered Delaware Bay, but soon found the river too shallow to be a possible northwest passage to the Orient. On September 2, the Half Moon passed Sandy Hook on its port side and entered lower New York Harbor.

Exploring the River

The Half Moon was to spend almost five weeks in the river. On the second day in the harbor, three rivers were sighted (possibly the East River, the Hudson, and a body of water separating Staten Island from Bayonne, New Jersey, which is still called the Kill Van Kull). The latter river was determined to be too shallow to explore, and Hudson used these first few days to send a small ship’s boat to take soundings to determine the depth of the waterways. On one of these trips on September 6, the Europeans were attacked by hostile natives and one crew member, John Colman, was struck in the throat with an arrow and killed. The men had to spend a stormy night in the bay; the next morning they were able to return to the ship. Later, Hudson led another party ashore, and John Colman was buried on a point of land, probably in Brooklyn.10

By September 14, the Half Moon had proceeded north into the Tappan Zee (the term zee meaning sea in Dutch), and Hudson was encouraged by the fact that here the river is more than a mile wide, giving all indications of being a channel or strait between two oceans. Also, the water was still salty, adding to this possibility. By September 18, the ship was near the present village of Catskill, and here Hudson went ashore. An old chief and sixty members of his clan prepared a meal for the Europeans. In a fragment of Hudson’s log that does survive, he describes them “as a very good people...and when they supposed that I would not stay overnight with them for fear of their bows, they broke the bows and arrows and threw them into the fire”11. On September 22, Hudson anchored and directed the small boat to proceed further upriver to take more soundings. It returned in the early evening, with Juet reporting that some twenty miles further the water was but seven feet deep. The search for the Northwest Passage in this region had ended.

The return trip, taking advantage of the river’s flow and the ebbing tide, was concluded in ten days. Some of the same natives the crew had met on the way north now wanted Hudson to come ashore again. The old chief and another older native, along with four women, did have a meal with Hudson on board the ship. Through signs and gift exchanges, the natives made the point that they wished Hudson to again have a meal with them on shore. He refused, wishing to take advantage of a favorable wind. By September 30, the ship anchored near present-day Newburgh, which Juet in his log called “a very pleasant place to build a town…”12 By October 2, the Half Moon was near its original anchorage, where Colman had been killed. This time, the ship was attacked over a period of several hours. Using muskets and a light cannon, the crew was able to disperse the attackers, killing about a dozen.

The following day, a storm arose which caused the ship to go aground on a soft, sandy beach, but the crew was able to refloat her at high tide. By midday on October 4, the Half Moon had cleared the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn and turned toward Europe. Juet’s entry for October 5 is telling, for he writes:

“We continued our way to England….”13 Clearly, upon their departure, the first mate was well aware that they would again break contract with the [Dutch East India Company] and not return directly to Amsterdam. The ship arrived at the English port of Dartmouth on the south coast on November 7.

Here, therefore, is the second mystery. What was the reasoning for Hudson, with his family in Holland, to ignore a very important stipulation of the agreement he had signed in January? Unfortunately, there is scant evidence upon which to make a determination of intent. But there are a few potential reasons Hudson might want to break his contract.


The first mystery has at least three possible answers as to why Hudson ultimately sailed westward, in direct contradiction of his orders. He had two recent prior voyages into Arctic waters north and east of Scandinavia; both had encountered pack ice in May or June, theoretically the warmest season of the year. Knowing this, Hudson may have agreed to his contract with the Dutch East India Company while secretly planning that if conditions were similar to his prior experiences, he would turn westward and search for the mythical Northwest Passage. Another possibility is that his crew may have been near mutiny as they struggled with the ice and cold in the northern latitudes, with little prospect for continuing further east. Handling rigging and sail in severe conditions is dangerous, especially when considering the primitive clothing and living conditions onboard such a small ship. Turning away from the ice may have enabled Hudson to continue his voyage in better conditions. Finally, Hudson was English, and the Dutch were rivals on the world stage of trade and commerce. Hudson is known to have corresponded with Captain John Smith, leader of the English colony in Virginia. It is possible that Hudson and Smith had a previous agreement to share navigational information in support of the English colonies. Unfortunately, there is little beyond circumstantial evidence to provide clues to attempt to solve this mystery. One letter of Smith’s to Hudson does survive, but nothing of a reply from Hudson. The reader is left to her choice in deciding on a solution.

Regarding the second mystery, as to why the ship returned to England first, speculation provides the only avenue of analysis. Here are the known facts: the ship arrived in an English port, the English crew was allowed to leave, Hudson and the remaining Dutch crew were held in virtual house arrest. During the course of his forced delay in England, Hudson was able to show at least some of his logs, charts, and other information to Emanuel Van Meteren. By April 1610, Hudson again was captain of a voyage of discovery, backed by private English investors, on a ship called Discovery. In that interval, Hudson and the Half Moon’s Dutch crewmen were released and allowed to return to Amsterdam. Juet’s log makes no reference to the return voyage at all after October 5, only noting the fact that they made no landfalls until arriving at Dartmouth about five weeks later.

So, as to why Hudson detoured to England, the answer seems lost to history. He may have been moved by his allegiance to his native England, or it could have been that his crew had turned on Hudson and forced him to return to England so they could see their families sooner.

If his final voyage in 1610-1611 had ended with Hudson’s return, there might have been more incentive to retain the records of the 1609 voyage. Because his fourth trip ended in mutiny, abandonment, the death of several remaining crew members, and official inquiries as to the circumstances of the end of the voyage, it probably made more sense to suppress his logs and charts so as not to stir up more controversy. The Dutch East India Company now concentrated on direct sailings to the Orient. It was left to a new company, the Dutch West India Company, founded in 1624, to look westward and begin to colonize New Netherland.

There seems to be no one logical reason for the Half Moon to have deviated from its final destination. The only thing that can shed more light on this final mystery of the 1609 voyage is new documentary discovery.


1. Sandler, Corey Henry Hudson, Dreams and Obsession (Citadel Press, New York, 2007), p. 146. Hondius had lived and worked in London and was acquainted with Hudson.

2. Ibid, p. 42. Hudson and Smith were both acquainted with Richard Hakluyt, a director of the Muscovy Company.

3. Ibid, p. 142. LeMaire recommended Hudson to the French king, Henry IV.

4. Ibid, p. 146.

5. Ibid, p. 145.

6. Juet’s log of this voyage was published in London in 1625 by Samuel Purchas, in Part Three, Purchas, His Pilgrimes. The practice of a ship’s log as a formal, running account of a vessel’s daily activities continues to this day in all the navies of the world. It is usually written in the wheelhouse, signed by the officer of the watch, and preserved for future reference.

7. Sandler, p. 149.

8. Ibid, p. 149.

9. Ibid, p. 150.

10. “Legacy: A Hudson Crewman is killed”, by S. Wick New York Newsday, copyright. 2007.

11. Sandler, p. 164.

12. Ibid, p. 167.

13. Ibid, p. 169.