Rupert Cornwell: Hudson at bay and tales of the wild east

Out of America: Even after 400 years, the blood and death that stain America's history are clearly visible

Related Topics

Sometimes, even in this most modern of countries, you can see America as it was in the beginning. Well, not the very beginning perhaps, but as those first Europeans saw it when they first came to the New World: vast and majestic, seemingly untouched by man.

It happened to me once in New York state, in the broad green valley of the Hudson River – arguably the most splendid such landscape on the face of the earth – which the explorer Henry Hudson, sailing in his vessel, the Half Moon, under a Dutch flag, first set eyes upon exactly 400 years ago.

And it happened again a few days ago, just after dawn in south-western Pennsylvania, before the sun had burnt away the mists from the folds of the Appalachian mountains, whose low crests seem to stretch away for ever.

This was the country through which Major-General Edward Braddock marched in 1755, on his way to one of the most comprehensive, if relatively obscure, defeats suffered by British arms. Today cars and trucks roar past the monument which houses his remains, a tiny patch of imperial England next to US Highway 40. Turn towards the hills, however, and you are transported back to pre-colonial times.

Both Hudson and Braddock had their faults. Hudson was a brilliant navigator but a brutal taskmaster, a man who allowed nothing – least of all the normal human emotions of his crew – to stand in his way. Braddock, by all accounts, was a brave soldier, but a commander blind to the reality that the local Indians, who were allied with the French enemy, might be more than a match for his well-ordered redcoats, unfamiliar with guerrilla warfare in the forest. And both of them came to very unpleasant ends.

Yes, Henry Hudson had a hand in the foundation of a city that shaped world history when he came upon the place the Indians called Mannahatta, or "island of hills". Quickly, Dutch fur traders set up in the Hudson Valley, and by 1621, the colony of New Netherland had been established, followed in 1625 by the village of New Amsterdam that one day would become New York City. But Hudson considered the journey a failure, in that he had not discovered the fabled Northwest Passage to the Dutch spice islands of the Orient.

So just a year after staking a claim to Manhattan island, he was back in North America in another attempt to find a maritime shortcut to the Pacific. What proved to be his final voyage in 1610 took him even further north, into what is now Hudson Bay in northern Canada. Sooner than expected, the ice closed in and Hudson's ship was trapped and forced to winter there. The following spring, his crew wanted to return to England, but the unrelenting captain would have none of it. In June 1611, they seized him and the handful of men still loyal to him, and set them adrift in a small boat, never to be heard of again. At least, that was the version of events given by the survivors when they were tried for Hudson's murder, although there is some evidence that he was killed on the spot. However, no one was convicted or punished in any way for the mutiny.

As for Braddock, he was dead less than five months after arriving in North America. On 9 July 1755, Braddock's army of British and American colonialist troops was taken by surprise by a smaller French and Indian force as it marched to recapture Fort Duquesne (now modern Pittsburgh) and routed at the Battle of Monongahela. Some 900 of his 1,400 men were killed. Braddock himself was mortally wounded and died four days later. To avoid desecration by the Indians, his body was first buried under the road in an unmarked grave, a few yards from where the monument now stands. In charge of the burial party was a 23-year-old Virginian with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, named George Washington.

Today both Hudson and Braddock are remembered everywhere. The majestic river, the vast bay and various towns and townships that bear Hudson's name are eternal consolation for his miserable end in Canada's icy wastes. This year, New York is celebrating the quadricentennial of his arrival, and for eight days last month, a flotilla of small ships retraced the 120-mile journey from Manhattan island upstream to Albany, the site of the state's capital where the river became too shallow for the Half Moon to continue. The city's 4 July fireworks display last weekend was held on the Hudson, instead of the customary East River, while state wineries are issuing a special 2009 vintage.

The reminders of Braddock are less imposing, but no less numerous: the monument itself, of course, with a plaque from his old regiment, the Coldstream Guards, and a host of inns, restaurants and motels in Pennyslvania and Maryland, scattered along the fateful route travelled by his men. Various stretches of highway are named after him, as well as the river town of Braddock, the actual site of the battle, a few miles south of what is now Pittsburgh. In the late 20th century, this Braddock has suffered a second, slow-motion catastrophe, ravaged by the decline of the local steel industry that has cost it 90 per cent of its one-time population.

But in these parts of New York and Pennsylvania, the recent past soon yields to a more distant, epic past. That verdant landscape where Braddock fought and died may not be quite what it seems. The original forests were largely cut down in the 19th century for logging and fuel for the old iron smelters and to clear land for farming. But now the thick woods have returned. In the cool stillness of a summer morning, the place must look much as it did on that bloody July day in 1755 – just as the Hudson Valley, mist-shrouded and primeval, can have barely changed in the four history-crammed centuries since Henry Hudson first set foot there.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...


£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice