Henry Hudson made his first voyage west from England in 1607, when he was hired to find a shorter route to Asia from Europe through the Arctic Ocean. After twice being turned back by ice, Hudson embarked on a third voyage in 1609. This time, he chose a southern route, drawn by reports of a channel across the North American continent to the Pacific. After navigating the Atlantic coast, Hudson’s ships sailed up a great river (today’s Hudson River) but turned back when they determined it was not the channel they sought. On a fourth and final voyage in 1610-11, Hudson spent months in the vast Hudson Bay before he fell victim to a mutiny by his crew. Hudson’s discoveries laid the groundwork for Dutch colonization of the Hudson River Valley, as well as English land claims in Canada.
Birth and Early Life
Though little is known about Hudson’s early life, most historians agree that he was born around 1565 in England, and later lived in London. It’s known that he received a better education than many, because he could read, write, and do mathematics. He also studied navigation and earned widespread renown for his skills, as well as his knowledge of Arctic geography.
Hudson married a woman named Katherine, and together they had three sons: Oliver, John and Richard. John would later accompany his father on his expeditions.
In 1607, the Muscovy Company of London provided Hudson financial backing based on his claims that he could find an ice-free passage past the North Pole that would provide a shorter route to the rich markets and resources of Asia. Hudson sailed that spring with his son John and 10 companions. They traveled east along the edge of the polar ice pack until they reached the Svalbard archipelago, well north of the Arctic Circle, before hitting ice and being forced to turn back.
Did you know? Knowledge gained during Henry Hudson's four voyages significantly expanded on that from previous explorations made in the 16th century by Giovanni da Verrazano of Italy, John Davis of England and Willem Barents of Holland.
The following year, Hudson made a second Muscovy-funded voyage between Svalbard and the islands of Novaya Zemlya, to the east of the Barents Sea, but again found his way blocked by ice fields. Though English companies were reluctant to back him after two failed voyages, Hudson was able to gain a commission from the Dutch East India Company to lead a third expedition in 1609.
READ MORE: How the East India Company Became the World's Most Powerful Monopoly
The Half Moon
While in Amsterdam gathering supplies, Hudson heard reports of two possible channels running across North America to the Pacific. One was located around latitude 62° N (based on English explorer Captain George Weymouth’s 1602 voyage); the second, around latitude 40° N, had been recently reported by Captain John Smith.
Hudson departed from Holland on the ship Halve Maen (Half Moon) in April 1609, but when adverse conditions again blocked his route northeast, he ignored his agreement with his employers to return directly and decided to sail to the New World in search of the so-called “northwest passage.”
After landing in Newfoundland, Canada, Hudson’s expedition traveled south along the Atlantic coast and put into the great river discovered by Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524. They traveled up the river about 150 miles, to what is now Albany, before deciding that it would not lead all the way to the Pacific and turning back. From that time on, the river would be known as the Hudson River.
On the return voyage, Hudson docked at Dartmouth, England, where English authorities acted to prevent him and his other English crew members from making voyages on behalf of other nations. The ship’s log and records were sent to Holland, where news of Hudson’s discoveries spread quickly.
Hudson’s Final Voyage
The British East India Company and the Muscovy Company, along with private sponsors, jointly funded Hudson’s fourth voyage, on which he sought the possible Pacific-bound channel identified by Weymouth. Hudson sailed from London in April 1610 in the 55-ton ship Discovery, stopped briefly in Iceland, then continued west.
After traversing the coast again, he passed through the inlet Weymouth had described as a potential entry point to a northwest passage. (Now called Hudson Strait, it runs between Baffin Island and northern Quebec.) When the coastline suddenly opened up towards the south, Hudson believed he might have found the Pacific, but he soon realized he had sailed into a gigantic bay, now known as Hudson Bay.
Hudson continued sailing southward along the bay’s eastern coast until he reached its southernmost extremity at James Bay, between northern Ontario and Quebec. While enduring harsh winter conditions with no outlet to the Pacific in sight, some crew members grew restless and hostile, suspecting Hudson of hoarding rations to give to his favorites.
Last Days of Henry Hudson
In June 1611, as the expedition began heading back to England, sailors Henry Green and Robert Juet (who had been demoted as mate) led a mutiny. Seizing Hudson and his son, they cast them adrift on Hudson Bay with a few supplies in a small open lifeboat, along with seven other men who were suffering from scurvy.
Hudson, his 17-year-old son John, and his men were never heard from again. After further troubles on their return trip to England, by the time Discovery encountered a fleet of fishermen off the coast of Ireland in September 1611, the original crew of 23 was down to just eight survivors. They were arrested for mutiny, but never punished.
Henry Hudson. The Mariner’s Museum and Park.
Henry Hudson. The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Henry Hudson. PBS.
Strangers In A New Land. American Heritage.