When New York Was New: Chapter 3, The First Europeans


It’s not clear who the first Europeans were to see the land that is now New York State.

We know that Columbus never came this far north.

And there were some Norsemen who lived for a brief time in Canada several hundred years before Columbus, but historians are pretty sure that they never came quite this far south.

There are also stories of other people from Europe and Africa who came to the Americas even before that, but nobody can prove those stories are even true, much less exactly where they visited.

What we do know is that, once Columbus and other explorers of that time figured out that this was not Asia, some of them wanted to find out what was here, and others just wanted to find a way to get past the Americas to Asia.

The first Europeans to visit New York were searching for that passage, not only because it would be shorter but because a treaty signed in 1494 gave Portugal the rights to use the trade routes that went around Africa to India and China.

That treaty would not last long, but it caused several nations to search for another route.

In 1524, an Italian explorer, Giovanni da Verrazzano, who was sailing for the French king, sailed up the coast from what is now North Carolina to Newfoundland. Along the way, he reached the mouth of what would later be called the Hudson River.

Verrazzano wrote that he anchored the ship and took one of its boats up the river, along which the Lenape, an Algonquin people, gathered in large numbers, welcoming him and his crew and showing them safe places they could land their boat and come ashore.

The boat went upriver, he reported, to a wide area he called a lake, with many Lenape people following along in canoes to see the strange visitors.

However, before he could land and explore the area, a strong wind came up and Verrazzano, not wanting to put his ship in danger, sailed away from a land he said was very pleasant and could turn out to be valuable.

The “lake” Giovanni Verrazzano had found was, in fact, Upper New York Bay, and, today, the mouth of that bay is where the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (spelled with only one “Z”) connects Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Two years later, another explorer reached the mouth of the Hudson, but, like Verrazzano, he didn’t stay long.

Estêvão Gomes, a Portuguese explorer working for the King of Spain, was also looking for a way through to Asia.

In fact, Gomes had sailed with Ferdinand Magellan in 1519 on the first trip to go all the way around the world, but had turned his ship around and returned to Spain before Magellan’s fleet went around the tip of South America.

Now he was looking for a shorter, easier passage at the northern end of the New World.

Gomes started at Cuba and worked his way up the coast of North America to Nova Scotia before giving up, but not before seeing what he named the San Antonio River, the same river Verrazzano had found so pleasant.

The search for a passage to Asia continued, but Spain had brought gold and silver back from Mexico and the Caribbean, and the idea that Europeans could make money right there in the New World itself began to become popular.

In 1534, France sent Jacques Cartier in search of the passage, but, by his second trip the next year, he was also paying more attention to the possibilities of doing business in this new land.

Cartier became the first European to meet with Iroquois people, relatives of the People of the Longhouse, though not part of the Iroquois League that lived in our region. But on this second trip, he only traveled up the St. Lawrence River as far as Hochelaga, a native city of 1,000 people where Montreal now stands.

There he found a set of rapids that his ship could not get through, or Cartier might have gone a bit farther and become the first European to visit what is now Northern New York.

He named the place “La Chine,” after the French word for “China,” because he thought surely this mighty river would one day take French traders through to the Pacific.

What was more important, however, is that, on his first trip, Cartier had claimed the land that the St. Lawrence River flowed through, so that only France was supposed to trade or settle there.

In those days, when maps of the New World were not very accurate and it was not certain exactly what the interior of North America looked like, France had become the first European nation to make a claim that would include at least a part of what today we know as New York.

It would be nearly three-quarters of a century before Europeans walked the ground of New York, but then, in 1609, it was only a few months between the day in June that the Frenchman, Samuel de Champlain, came to the Champlain Valley in the north, and the day in September that the Englishman, Henry Hudson, established the first Dutch presence in the valley to the south whose river bears his name.

Now, for the nation that had been here all along, a new era in their history was beginning.

Click here to read, Chapter One: Where did New York come from?

And here to read, Chapter Two: The People of the Longhouse

Return next week for Chapter Four: The French

Text copyright 2016, Mike Peterson – Illustrations copyright 2016 – Christopher Baldwin

This project was made possible with the support of the New York Newspapers Foundation with funding from the New York State United Teachers.


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