Early in the 16th Century, European explorers began to sail west across the mysterious vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, drawn by stories of virgin lands overflowing with riches, and schools of fish so thick they could thwart a ship’s passage.
One of the many men who ventured west from Europe at that time was an Italian explorer named Giovanni da Verrazzano, who was in the service of the French king, Francis I. Unlike other explorers who sailed into northern waters off what is today the coast of Canada, or Spanish explorers who traveled far to the south, Verrazzano hit the mainland almost dead center, at the wide hip of sandy beach at present-day Cape Hatteras, N.C. From there, he began to slowly move north, marveling at everything he saw.
It was April 1524, and Verrazzano’s boat, the Dauphine, was all alone in what to Europeans was a sparkling New World. He had left France in the company of three other ships, but storms claimed two and the third had turned around. On the 17th of that month, three decades after Columbus’ monumental journey into Caribbean waters, Verrazzano piloted the Dauphine through a narrow cut between two land masses he did not know were islands and entered a wide, deep bay sheltered by thickly forested lands. On that day, he wrote in his journal:
“We found a very pleasant place, situated amongst certain little steep hills; from amidst the hills there ran down into the sea a great stream of water, which within the mouth was very deep, and from the sea to the mouth of same, with the tide, which we found to rise 8 foot, any great vessel laden may pass up.”
Verrazzano was in what would more than a century later be called New York Harbor -- the first European to sail there, and the first European to see the wooded western end of Long Island on the harbor’s eastern shore. The “great stream of water’’ at the top of the harbor would later be named for the explorer who sailed far up it -- Henry Hudson. Before he left, Verrazzano came up with his own names, which were later inked onto his brother’s map -- the huge landmass to his east was christened “Flora,’’ and the fingers of land that were split by the freshwater river he called “Angouleme,’’ the family name of Francis I. Long Island and Manhattan Island now had European names.
That month, that year, in that place, Verrazzano was a stranger in a land seen fresh by Europeans, but populated by hundreds of thousands of Indians who had lived along this coastline for thousands of years. He was a discoverer of an occupied land, but for his countrymen across the ocean, his discovery of new lands on their behalf was momentous. And it remains momentous today.
“What makes Verrazzano unique is that he wrote about what he saw, and his brother, who was a mapmaker, drew maps of what they saw,’’ said Charles Gehring, the director of the New Netherlands Project, in Albany.
His letter to Francis I, written in July when he was safely back in France, is the earliest description known to exist of the American coastline. The letter was written in an almost breathless tone -- Verrazzano had seen the Promised Land, and he wanted his king to know it.
“On the 24th of February we encountered as violent a hurricane as any ship ever weathered ... Pursuing our voyage towards the West, a little northwardly ... we reached a new country, which had never before been seen by any one, either in ancient or modern times ... Many people who were seen coming to the sea-side fled at our approach, but occasionally stopping, they looked back upon us in astonishment ... They showed the greatest delight on beholding us, wondering at our dress, countenances, and complexion.”
Describing his trip north along the coastline as he sailed toward New York Harbor, Verrazzano spoke of an “outstretched country’’ with “beautiful fields and broad plains, covered with immense forests of trees, more or less dense, various in colors and delightful and charming in appearance.’’ The land was so filled with forests of plants and flowers that its rich perfume wafted out to sea at “great distance’’ -- the sweet fragrance of the American continent greeted Verrazano and tickled his imagination long before he actually saw it. He gushed over the plant life, and the abundance of animals and birds.
And he wrote about the people on the shore somewhere south of New York, where an incredible thing happened.
“A young sailor was attempting to swim ashore through the surf to carry them some knick-knacks ... When he came near three or four of them he tossed the things to them, and turned about to get back to the boat, but he was thrown over by the waves, and so dashed by them that he lay as it were dead upon the beach. When these people saw him in this situation, they ran and took him up by the head, legs and arms, and carried him to a distance from the surf; the young man, finding himself borne off in this way, uttered very loud shrieks in fear and dismay, while they answered as they could in their language ... Afterwards they laid him down at the foot of a little hill, when they took off his shirt and trowsers, and examined him, expressing the greatest astonishment at the whiteness of his skin. Our sailors in the boat, seeing a great fire made up, and their companion placed very near it ... imagined that the natives were about to roast him for food.
But as soon as he had recovered his strength ... they hugged him with great affection and accompanied him to the shore; then leaving him ... they withdrew to a little hill, from which they watched him until he was safe in the boat.”
Proceeding north again, Verrazano wrote that they went ashore and kidnapped an Indian boy to take back to France, and tried to grab a young girl -- “who was very beautiful and very tall’’ -- but she screamed and they left her behind.
In April, the Dauphine entered New York Harbor, first passing through the deep, narrow cut between modern-day Staten Island and Long Island. After briefly putting ashore on the Staten Island side, Verrazano slipped farther into the harbor, which he named the Bay of St. Marguerite, after the French king’s elder sister. He dropped anchor south of where the Hudson River flooded into the bay.
In a smaller boat, Verrazzano ventured up the river “and found the country on its banks well peopled ... dressed out with the feathers of birds of various colours.’’ Farther up the river, they encountered a group of Indians in dugout canoes. After returning to the Dauphine, they pulled up anchor and proceeded along the South Shore of Long Island, the first leg on the trip back to France, which they reached in early July.
But now, Long Island was on the map.
Ten months later, in May 1525, the second European known to have sailed into -- or, perhaps, only near -- New York waters arrived on the scene. He was Estevan Gomez, who had left Portugal the previous August, a month after Verrazzano had returned to France. Because his journal was lost, it is not known today just what Gomez saw or where, exactly, he visited.
It would be more than 80 years before a new wave of explorers arrived to explore New York Harbor, the rivers around it, and Long Island. They were the Dutch, and they were here to look for profits in this newfound land.
One of them would be the first to set foot on the Long Island landmass, and a second Dutchman would be the first to discover that it was an island.