Many of us think that Massachusetts history began in 1620 when the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Actually between 1500 and 1620, at least 50 Europeans had died while exploring the New England area and countless fisherman had anchored on Georges Bank to fill their holds with fish to be eaten during Lent in Catholic Europe. Occasionally a ship's captain would kidnap some Native Americans. For example, Squanto, whom we know as the interpreter for the Plymouth Colony, was captured in 1614 and taken to Europe and sold as a slave. Somehow he was freed from slavery and made his way to England. He signed on as a pilot for a voyage of exploration to Newfoundland sometime between 1618-1620. From Newfoundland he made his way back to his home and was present at Plymouth in 1620 when the Mayflower landed.

Who were some of these explorers who sailed to the northeast coast of North America? John Cabot (1497) sailed for England, Giovanni da Verrazano (1524) for France, Estevan Gomez (1525) for Spain, Jehan Allefonsce (1542) for France, Sir John Hawkins (1562) for England, Samuel de Champlain (1605) for France, Henry Hudson (1609) for England and in 1613 Adriaen Block for Holland.

The Dutch were interested in establishing trading posts in the Hudson River area. Adriaen Block was hired to investigate and trade for furs. In 1613 he and another Dutch fur trader were on their way back to Holland with a cargo of furs when Block's ship, the Tiger, caught fire and was destroyed at the mouth of the Hudson River.

The two captains and their crews constructed huts in which to overwinter on Manhattan Island while they built a new ship for Block (much like the one pictured here), a 45 foot, 16-ton vessel, the Onrust (the Restless). The trial voyage of this new ship was in the spring of 1614 when Block sailed through the East River and the whirlpools he so aptly named Hellegat (Hell Gate) and into Long Island Sound. It is here, in Long Island Sound, that the only reminder of this explorer remains -- Block Island. In the course of this voyage, Block became the first recorded European to explore the Connecticut River, sailing 60 miles up the river, past present day Hartford, probably as far as the rapids at Enfield.

According to Howe (1969) , Block wrote, "Next, on the same south coast, succeeds a river named by our countrymen Fresh River, which is shallow at its mouth ... . In some places it is very shallow, so that at about fifteen leagues [between 30-60 miles] up the river there is not much more than five feet of water. There are few inhabitants near the mouth of the river, but at the distance of fifteen leagues above they become more numerous ... . The depth of water varies from eight to twelve feet, is sometimes four and five fathoms [24-30 feet], but mostly eight and nine feet. The natives there [South Windsor] plant maize, and in the year 1614 they had a village resembling a fort for protection against the attacks of their enemies. ... The river is not navigable with yachts for more than two leagues farther, as it is very shallow and has a rocky bottom. ... This river has always a downward current so that no assistance is derived from it in going up, but a favorable wind is necessary." (pp 221-22). Block sailed up the Connecticut River in the Spring. Was he fighting against the Spring freshet?

Captain Block returned to Holland with the good news that fur trading was a very real possibility. Over the next few years, trading between the Dutch and the Indians was established. In 1624 the Dutch built a settlement in New Amsterdam (New York) and a trading post on the Connecticut River, calling it Kievits Hoek (soon to be abandoned). By 1633 the Dutch had acquired land from the Indians in present day Hartford on which they built a fort and a trading post (the House of Hope).

Suggested Reading:

Henry F. Howe. 1969. Prologue to New England. Kennikat Press, Inc., Port Washington, N.Y.

Edmund Delaney. 1983. The Connecticut River. The Globe Pequot Press, Chester, Connecticut.

Edwin M. Bacon. 1907. The Connecticut River. G. P. Putnam's Sons, N. Y. and London.