During the 1700s, the colonists realized that the river was essential for the transport of troops and supplies and that if the British gained control of it, they would be able to divide and conquer the American forces. West Point, Fort Montgomery, Fort Clinton and Fort Constitution had all been built in the Bear Mountain region to prevent the British from advancing up the river. In 1778, colonists created the Great Chain, two-foot long iron links which stretched across the river between West Point and Constitution Island to prevent the British from sailing upriver from New York City. The British, however, never came that far up the river so the chain was never put to the test. General Benedict Arnold, in command of West Point, was offered 20,000 pounds sterling by the British if he would help them take control of the Hudson and in 1780, he attempted to surrender the fort to the British. Fortunately for the colonists, the plot was discovered when the American forces captured Major John André, the British officer to whom Arnold had passed plans for West Point. Arnold narrowly escaped to a British war ship.
Henry Hudson first came upon the Hudson River by accident in 1609. Hired by the Dutch East India Company to find a short passage to India, the Englishman sailed his ship Half Moon 150 miles up the Hudson to Albany before realizing that it was not the route he was seeking. At that time, there were approximately 10,000 natives living on both sides of the river. The tribes were part of the Algonquin Confederacy which included the Delaware, Mohican (aka Mohegan) and Wappinger tribes. The Mohican tribe was friendly and peaceful, but Hudson’s crew distrusted them and fighting followed. As Dutch and other European settlers arrived in the Hudson Valley, they struggled with the natives for land. By the end of the century, most of the native tribes had been forced west or were destroyed by war and small pox brought in by the Europeans.
More than 10,000 years ago, when much of the earth’s water was locked up in glaciers, the coast of what we now call New York extended miles farther out to sea, and on its frozen shores, humans hunted walrus. They dressed in furs and carried spears and sharpened rocks. On a boulder in what we now call the Bronx, they chipped the outline of a turtle; on another, in what we now call Westchester, the outline of a bear. They lived in a wilderness – absolute attention to nature necessary if they were going to survive. In the thousands of years since, as melting glaciers cut the river’s present channel, people continued to live by its shores – and continued to depend on its abundance. Bands of Lenape, speaking a dialect of the Eastern Algonquian Delaware language, spent spring to fall along the estuary. They harpooned whale and porpoise in New York’s deep water harbor. They wove nets out of tree fiber and strung them in the river’s bays. They felled tulip trees with controlled fires, hollowed them with sharpened rocks, and paddled them – 20 men and women per long canoe – from shore to shore.
By the year 1 A.D., the Lenape were making pottery with elaborate designs. During each spring’s massive run of shad, sturgeon, and striped bass, men would bring their catch to the shore, and women would dry the surplus on heated stones, then store the fish in clay pots: provisions against the coming winter. In the river’s floodplains, where spring melt-off deposited rich black soil, the Lenape had learned to clear the young saplings and plant fields of maize. The crop ripened during the hot valley summers, while children swam in the shallows, and families feasted on fresh-water clams and oysters “the size of dinner plates.” Along with preserved fish and deer meat, the maize helped the Lenape survive the harsh winter. They’d travel inland then, behind the mountains, where the wind didn’t bite quite as hard. In 60-foot longhouses, a dozen families might live together in the smoky, half-dark. It wasn’t an easy life: infant mortality was high, and most Lenape didn’t live more than 35 or 40 years. An estimated 6,000 to 12,000 inhabited the valley. There was no formal government, but the indussmall communities of 300 or so respected each other’s fishing and hunting grounds and traded amongst themselves and with outside tribes. Lenape religion declared that all forms of life – animal, plant, and human – had spirits.
The natives of the valley didn’t hunt or fish for sport. Their homes made of wood and bark eventually dissolved back into the forest floor. During an annual, 12-day festival, they danced, sang, played flutes made of heron bones, and offered the first fruits of the hunt and harvest as a tribute to thisspirit world. One of their gods, Mësingw, was their Keeper of the Game. With his face half black, half red, he balanced the human being’s need for food with the fish and animal’s need to survive. In 1609, when the Lenape spotted the sails of The Half Moon, thousands of years in the region had taught them how to live in harmony with the river: dependent on its natural cycles, thankful for its bounty. Now, the new stewards had arrived, and all that was about to change.
At the end of the 19th century, a struggle to preserve the Hudson Valley’s natural beauty and environment began. Industry and railroad lines had sprung up along the river and much of the valley had been clear cut. The federal government established the Division of Forestry and created the first national parks. The Palisades Interstate Park Commission bought up land from Fort Lee, NJ to Piermont, NY in order to preserve the high cliffs along the Hudson known as the Palisades which were being eaten away by the quarry mines. And in 1910, E.W. Harriman and other businessmen donated land to create Bear Mountain-Harriman State Park. With the entry of the U.S. into World War II, however, all conservation efforts came to a halt.
In 1962, the modern environmental movement was forged in the battle for Storm King Mountain near Cornwall. Con Edison was planning to build a huge hydro-electric plant at Storm King, the beautiful high ridge that sits at the mouth of the Hudson Highlands. Local activists, determined to protect this natural resource, formed the Scenic Hudson Preservation Coalition and brought suit against the utility giant. After much legal wrangling, the court decided, for the first time in U. S. history, that environmental impacts had to be considered in such projects. Congress then passed the National Environmental Policy Act which mandated that all major projects needing federal approval had to have an environmental impact study done. The battle between Con Ed and the activists dragged on until 1979 when Con Edison finally abandoned the project and donated the land for a park.
After the invention of the steamboat in 1807, the Hudson River became a destination for leisure travelers. By 1850, there were approximately 150 steamboats used for commerce, industry, and leisure, carrying a million passengers up and down the Hudson. Once the Erie Canal opened in 1825, linking Lake Erie to the Hudson River, the Hudson became a trade channel, which fostered much economic and industrial development along the river. During this period, artists and writers flocked to the area. Painters such as Thomas Cole, John Casilear, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Gifford, Thomas Doughty, George Inness, David Johnson, Thomas Rossiter, Jasper Cropsey, Robert Weir and Frederic E. Church, became known as the Hudson River School of Painting. On the literary side, writers Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant found inspiration for their works in the Hudson River Valley as well.
In the 1840’s, German and Irish immigrants flooded into New York City, driven from their home countries by famine and revolution. Meanwhile, industry developed to meet the military’s needs, aided by the advent of railroads into the region. As the crowded city became a breeding ground for tuberculosis and other diseases, city dwellers sought out the Hudson Valley as a health retreat. Wealthy industrialists also began buying land and building magnificent weekend retreats along the river. “Millionaires Row” in the mid-Hudson region includes the Vanderbilt Mansion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home and Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, in Hyde Park, and Boscobel in Cold Spring.