Sunday, January 18, 2009

Marooned on Manhattan Island

“Captain! Captain Block! Wake up! The ship is on fire!”
Captain Adriaen Block and his crew were spending their last night on the island the friendly Lenape called “Mana-hata”, camping out in the rude huts they’d constructed on a bluff (at the site of present-day 45 Broadway) looking out over the mouth of the river that the English captain Henry Hudson had explored four years earlier. Riding at anchor in the river, their little ship the Tyjger, or Tiger, was loaded to the gunwales with valuable beaver and mink pelts, ready for her voyage back to Amsterdam. The Dutchmen scrambled down the bluff to the riverbank and pushed out into the river in the longboats beached there. The fire was spreading to the furled sails as they neared the little ship-their only way home to Amsterdam was burning before their eyes. Some of the men boarded the burning ship to salvage what they could while the others lashed the bow to their longboats to tow her ashore. They finally managed to beach the Tyjger and salvage some tools, canvas and fittings, but she had burned to the waterline. It was early November of 1613 and they were facing a harsh winter in this strange land without a ship-their ticket home. The expedition’s other vessel, the Fortuyn, or Fortune, was far up the river, her crew establishing a trading post 100 miles to the north. Her Captain Hendrick Christiaensen, would be waiting until spring, when the river ice cleared, to return to Amsterdam.

When the sun rose behind the autumn-bronzed leaves of the huge oak and chestnut trees behind their little camp the anxious men gathered around Captain Block to hear his plan. There was no hope that Captain Christiaensen would return before spring-if he returned at all. The men had managed to salvage enough shipwright’s tools, spare sails, ropes and fittings to build a new ship from the abundance of wood in the forest. Among the crew were carpenters and a blacksmith. The Indians offered to help winterize the four little huts and provide cornmeal, dried berries, fish and venison to feed them. Now the Captain announced an audacious plan. They would build a new ship to sail back across the Atlantic and they would build it right here, from the trees surrounding their camp. They would cut down great oaks and plane them into a keel and ribs, then saw hickory into planks to fit on the sides. The tall pine on the hilltop would make a fine mast and chestnut would serve for the decking. They would construct the ship near the beach even though they would have to spend much of the time working next to an ice-choked river. They had no choice. This would become, if only briefly, the first European settlement on Manhattan Island.

In the spring of 1614 they launched their 44-foot long ship into the river and christened her Onrust or Restless-perhaps reflecting the mood of men who had toiled in the freezing wind from the north during that long winter, fashioning an ocean-going vessel from the forest around them. Block kept a detailed journal of his adventures. We know this because the seventeenth century Dutch historian, Johannes DeLaet mentions that he read it while compiling his 1625 bestseller, The New World. Perhaps one day someone will find the now lost journal in a dusty archive in Holland. Until then we can only speculate about the feelings of Block and his men during those hard, cold months marooned on Manhattan.

Block didn’t wait for Christiaensen to come sailing past on the river. They left the island of “Mana-hatta” as soon as spring arrived and went exploring. They didn’t name their little craft Restless for naught. First they sailed up the East River and right into the churning whirlpools and foaming waters that Block appropriately named Hell Gate. The name is still in place today. It rang true to three centuries of mariners who often lost their ships, smashed on the treacherous hidden rocks in the channel linking the waters of the harbor with Long Island Sound. The Onrust continued along the Connecticut coast and sailed up the Connecticut River (the Dutch called it de Versche Rivier) as far as the present day site of Hartford. They mapped rivers and bays and on to present-day Rhode Island (which Block named Roode Eylandt for its red clay cliffs), passing the island later named for the intrepid captain, Block Island. On they sailed, into Buzzards Bay and past the brightly colored clay cliffs of Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, past Nantucket and around Mononomy Point. Then north, along the coast, around Cape Cod and into its bay, they stopped briefly at the natural harbor that would later become Plymouth, six years before the English Puritans landed there. Then the unimaginable happened. Returning to the open sea, the little ship rounded the tip of Cape Cod and a sailor manning the crow’s nest sighted another ship! Perhaps the only other ship sailing on the Atlantic Seaboard in the late spring of 1614-and it was the Fortuyn. Block’s luck had clearly changed.

When the ships met, off present-day Provincetown, Block boarded the Fortuyn and discovered that Cornelius Hendrickson, a member of her crew, was the de facto captain. Captain Christiaensen had been murdered. His assassin was “Orsen”, one of two Naragansett Indian brothers who had traveled from Amsterdam on the Fortuyn. On an earlier trip to New Netherland Christiansen and Block had persuaded a sachem of the Naragansetts to send his two sons back to Amsterdam with the trading expedition of 1611. The Dutch captains named the two brothers Orson and Valentine and, along with a boatload of beaver skins, they were paraded as spectacle before the Dutch burgers as evidence of the savages inhabiting the New World. Somehow these men survived for almost a year in Amsterdam without contracting one of the many western illnesses to which they would have had no immunity. What a story they would have told. We do know that Christiaensen treated them like the savages he thought them to be and the elder brother, “Orsen”, was described by the captain as being “exceedingly wicked”. At some point during the winter of 1613, near present-day Albany, Orsen had enough of Captain Christiansen’s cruel treatment and killed him. Orsen was immediately shot dead by one of the Dutch crew and his brother “Valentine” escaped into the forest and vanished into the mists of history.

Block was now in sole charge of the expedition, so he placed Cornelius Hendrickson in command of the Onrust and charged him with exploration of the coast south of the Hudson. Hendricksen was to sail the crude little ship down the coast, then return to Amsterdam to report his discoveries.

In late July, 1614 Adriaen Block arrived in Amsterdam on the Fortuyn, loaded with furs and all the makings for the first definitive map of New Netherland. A few months earlier a group of thirteen merchants of Amsterdam and Hoorn, including the investors who had backed the Tiger and the Fortuyn, had formed the United New Netherland Company. Excited by Block’s report of his discoveries, they hired the best cartographers money could buy and, under Block’s supervision, translated his charts and data into a surprisingly accurate map of the new Dutch empire across the Atlantic. In October Block and his investors presented the new map and its significance to Their High Mightinesses, the States-General of the Dutch Republic at the Hague. At the same time they petitioned for a charter for exclusive trading privileges for all of the territory covered on the map, stretching from the French colonies in Canada to the present-day Delaware River. Permission granted-at least for a few years.

Two years later, in the late summer of 1616, Cornelius Hendricksen arrived in Amsterdam. Evidently he didn’t trust his crude little 44-foot ship to cross the Atlantic, so he left the Onrust behind and her fate is lost in time. He had prudently hitched a ride home on another Dutch trading ship loaded with beaver pelts from the South River (today’s Delaware River). On behalf of his sponsors he presented his discoveries the States-General. While sailing the Onrust for two years he had explored the Delaware River valley and the coast of present-day Maryland and Delaware all the way down to the opening of the Chesapeake Bay. He petitioned for exclusive trading privileges for his discoveries. They turned him down. The powerful Dutch East India Company had other plans and a much louder voice in the affairs of the Dutch Republic. In 1621 they would form the Dutch West India Company that would establish a permanent colony and run New Netherland as its private trading monopoly until an English squadron arrived in New Amsterdam’s harbor in 1664, accepted the surrender of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Netherland, and assumed control of New Amsterdam and the entire enterprise. King Charles gave the little town to his younger brother, the Duke of York, who promptly named it after himself.

There is still another remarkable twist to this tale. 300 years pass. In 1916 the IRT subway line was being extended to the Battery and sandhogs were digging a twenty-foot deep trench along Greenwich Street, at the eastern edge of the present-day World Trade Center site. At Dey Street their shovels struck something more solid than sand and mud. A bit more digging revealed some sort of wooden structure that shouldn’t be there, under eleven feet of river silt, topped by another nine feet of fill that had been there for at least 150 years. Luck had it that someone on the crew thought to call in James A Kelly, a former IRT supervising foreman and an enthusiastic amateur historian. Jim was always finding old stuff in the trenches when they dug the earlier excavations and tunnels for the first sections of the subway 12 years earlier-he’d know what to do. Kelly rushed downtown and when he climbed down into the hole and saw what the men had found he was dumbstruck. The wooden structure protruding into the excavation twenty feet below the surface was the charred keel and framing of a ship! And it could only be one ship-Adriaen Block’s Tiger. It was exactly where all of the old accounts said it would be, this was a beach on the riverbank in 1613 and the keel was sitting in a bed of charcoal, exactly as it should be. He grabbed a shovel and began digging around the keel and quickly uncovered a Dutch broad-headed axe, some blue and white Delftware pottery shards, a small canon ball and some trade beads. He found a photographer and even a fellow with a motion picture camera to come down and documented the find in situ. The impatient foreman was eager to get on with the job of completing the trench on schedule and finally Kelly agreed to saw off the protruding 8-foot section of the keel and ribs and take it away along with the other artifacts found in the hole. Kelly knew that, exposed to the air for any length of time, the ancient oak would crumble into dust. If he could just keep it immersed in water it would remain stable. He had a friend at the New York Aquarium in Castle Clinton a few blocks away in Battery Park and Kelly prevailed on him to let this precious fragment of the city’s history be submerged in the seal tank. The 8-foot section of the Tiger’s keel and framing timbers rested in the seal tank for the next 27 years until the old aquarium was demolished in 1943. Next the NYC Parks Department presented this damp relic to the Museum of the City of New York. The skilled technicians at the museum were able to stabilize the wood so that it no longer needed to be submerged in water and they performed a series of tests that confirmed the date of 1613. This was indeed what James Kelly knew it to be. Kelly went on to become Brooklyn’s official borough historian and this genuine relic of the Tiger could, at one time, be seen at the Museum of The City of New York at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street. Its present location and its fate are unsure.

In the late 1960’s, when excavations were started for the new World Trade Center, archeologists hoped to find the rest of the ship’s bones under Greenwich Street. Not a trace was found. Recently, as construction crews dug again at this site for the new transportation hub, hopes were dashed when nothing was found. On the other hand, since there was no Jim Kelly around to intervene, perhaps nobody bothered to look.

It would seem astonishing to the modern observer that a group of 17th century Dutch sailors, marooned on a remote island at the edge of the known world, could fashion an ocean going ship from the primeval forest around them – and in the winter. But soon the Onrust, built of New York oak, may again sail through the Hell Gate. Since 2005 a group of intrepid volunteers in upstate New York have been building a replica of the Onrust, using original 17th century Dutch ship building techniques, on the grounds of the Mabee Farm Historic Site of the Schenectady Historical Society in Rotterdam Junction, New York. The group is the non-profit Netherland Routes and they have completed the ship in time for the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage of discovery up the river that bears his name.

No comments: