Posted by: Ed Darrell | November 25, 2008

400 years of Hudson River history: Hudson, Champlain, and Fulton

Cross posted with permission from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.

Okay, it’s the 202nd anniversary of Robert Fulton’s historic, 32-hour steamboat trip from New York City to Albany, demonstrating the viability of steamboat travel for commerce on the Hudson.  But for such a historic river, why not delay that fete for a couple of years and roll it into the 400th anniversary of Champlain’s exploration of the lake that now bears his name, and Henry Hudson’s discover of the mouth of the river to the south, the Hudson, whose mouth is home to New York City.

400 years of Hudson River history in 2009 - Hudson, Champlain, Fulton

400 years of Hudson River history in 2009 - Hudson, Champlain, Fulton

And so 2009 marks the Quadricentennial Celebration on the Hudson, honoring Hudson, Fulton and Champlain.

Alas, the committee to coordinate the celebration along the length of the river was not put in place until February, so there is a scramble.  Local celebrations will proceed, but the overall effort may fall short of the 1909 tricentennial, with replicas of Hudson’s ship, Half Moon, and Champlain’s boats, and Fulton’s steamer, and parades, and festivals, and . . .

Still, the history is notable, and the stories worth telling.

Most of my students in U.S. and world history over the past five years have been almost completely unaware of any of these stories.  One kid was familiar with the Sons of Champlin, the rock band of Bill Champlin, because his father played the old vinyl records.  Most students know nothing of the lore of Hudson, the mutiny and the old Dutch stories that have thunder caused by Hudson and his loyal crewman bowling in the clouds over the Catskills.  They don’t even know the story of Rip van Winkle, since it’s not in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) list and so gets left out of even elementary school curricula.  Is this an essential piece of culture that American children should know?  American adults won’t know it, if we don’t teach it.

Henry Hudson, from a woodcut

Henry Hudson, from a woodcut

Explorations and settlement of Quebec by Samuel de Champlain get overlooked in post-NCLB texts.  Texts tend to make mention of the French settlement of Canada, but placing these explorations in the larger frame of the drive to find a route through or around North America to get to China, or the often-bitter contests between French, English, Spanish, Dutch and other European explorers and settlers gets lost.  French-speaking Cajuns just show up in histories of Texas and the Southwest, with little acknowledgment given to the once-great French holdings in North America, nor the incredible migration of French from Acadia to Louisiana that gives the State of Louisiana such a distinctive culture today.

French explorer and settler Samuel de Champlain

French explorer and settler Samuel de Champlain

Champlain’s explorations and settlement set up the conflict between England and France that would result in the French and Indian War in the U.S., and would not play out completely until after the Louisiana Purchase and War of 1812.

Fulton’s steamboat success ushered in the age of the modern, non-sail powered navies, and also highlights the role geography plays in the development of technology. The Hudson River is ideally suited for navigation from its mouth, north to present-day Albany.  This is such a distance over essentially calm waters that sail would have been preferred, except that the winds on the Hudson were not so reliable as ocean winds.  Steam solved the problem.  Few other rivers in America would have offered such an opportunity for commercial development — so the Hudson River helped drive the age of steam.

New York City remains an economic powerhouse.  New York Harbor remains one of the most active trading areas in the world.  Robert Fulton helped propel New York ahead of Charleston, Baltimore and Boston — a role in New York history that earned him a place in for New York in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.  The steamboat monopoly Fulton helped establish was a key player in Gibbons v. Ogden, the landmark Supreme Court case in which the Court held that Congress has the power to regulate commerce between states — an upholding of the Commerce Clause against the old structures created under colonial rule and the Articles of Confederation.

Robert Fultons statute in the U.S. Capitol - photo by Robert Lienhard

Robert Fulton's statute in the U.S. Capitol - photo by Robert Lienhard

400 years of history along the Hudson, a river of great prominence in world history.  History teachers should watch those festivities for new sources of information, new ideas for classroom exercises.


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