Hudson’s arrival depicted in public places: historically, a purely European perspective

By Bill Jeffway

As you know, the September 1609 arrival of Henry Hudson on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, was the commencement of a very different experience for the Dutch, than it was for the indigenous people.

The depictions of the event by artists in public spaces in the US are clearly from the European perspective. An important function of the thrusting of the narrative into public view was to show that those of Dutch ancestry had an equal claim to the founding of the US as did the larger, English Protestant establishment settlers. 


Hudson’s “first contact” is depicted in the the 1939 and 1940 Post Office murals of the Rhinebeck and Hyde Park Post Offices. In adjacent towns, they are the work of the Rhinebeck artist Olin Dows, a neighbor and trusted friend of Hyde Park’s FDR, US President at the time. Dows was among a handful of Dutchess Couty friends who supported FDR’s interest in local history.

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The two post offices, based on two, local, Dutch stone houses, were designed to be educational

Rhinebeck Post Office
Embracing his commission on the Rhinebeck Post Office with confidence, Dows persuaded FDR to abandon the idea of having individual, personal framed portraits in favor of a historical mural that ran from “first contact” to the dedication of the post office building.  Among several depictions of Native Americans, just above the front door, the mural starts with the event referred to as the “first contact.” The scene is a happy exchange between the Dutch and indigenous people. Dows wrote of  the scene, “A sailor chopping a tree is watched by Indians. The Aborigines burned a tree around its base.”
Hyde Park Post Office

In the Hyde Park Post Office, shown here at its dedication with President Roosevelt, the mural commences in the same way, with the depiction of “first contact.” The difference is that the Native American stands alone, not among a varied group of his people. In the Hyde Park Post Office, shown here at its dedication with President Roosevelt, the mural commences in the same way, with the depiction of “first contact.” The difference is that the Native American stands alone, not among a varied group of his people.

Verplanck and Roosevelt, two politicians of Dutch heritage, were eager to elevate the Dutch story

Gulian Crommelin Verplanck, of New York City and Fishkill, was a congressman in the early 1830s when the country was forming its ideas about what art would be celebrated in public spaces. Verplanck was chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Buildings and oversaw the commissions that went out to artists for works that would be a central feature of the US Capitol Building .

Verplanck’s ancestral family included the Van Cortlands, who collectively owned swaths of land from Westchester to Dutchess County. Verplanck’s Point is in Westchester County. The Verplanck family home is known as Mount Gulian in Fishkill …and still stands and is open to the public.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Hyde Park started his political career in 1910 as a NY State senator, and culminated in an unprecedented four term US President wins, ending upon his death in 1945. It was FDR who was responsible for the concept design of the post offices in Rhinebeck and Hyde Park. They were modeled on authentic, earlier Dutch stone houses. They reflected his priorities in preserving Dutch history, architecture and culture, and the stories of Dutch influence in founding the nation. In 1929, FDR wrote the forward to “Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley before 1776” working with DCHS founders Helen Wilkinson Reynolds and photographer Margaret DeMott Brown, both of whom FDR involved in this post office projects.

Weir, artisit with an eye on the US Capitol

The artist we can credit with kicking Hudson’s arrival as a subject deserving public display and endorsement, is Robert Walter Weir. Weir was angling to get a commission for the new US Capitol building in the 1830s.Weir shamelessly created a painting specifically for Congressman Verplank that put Verplanck’s Dutch ancestors in the most positive light, stopping at a point along the Hudson known then, and  known now, as Verplanck’s point in Westchester County. The scene is one of joy. The land is lush. The Native population is robust, equal in scale and enthusiasm and physical stature. Weir painted this in 1835. He soon became head of Art at the military academy West Point, however. The influence of several years of schooling young men in military matters, as the second wave of the Seminole Wars in Florida were ramping up, prompted Weir to re-do this ‘first contact” in a different light.

Weir depicts not only Verplanck’s ancestors, but shows them landing at Verplanck’s Point

Weir, ensconced at the Military Academy West Point, starts to see things differently

What a difference a few years makes. From the same artist’s hand, the land is barren and unfruitful. The Native Americans are small in scale, recessive in their presence. The burnt orange color creates a feeling of foreboding. 

Success. The lobbying seemed to work. Weir got a commission to paint for the Capitol. It is not of Hudson’s arrival but that is less important to him. His painting is of the Embarkation of the Pilgrims, and remains in the Capitol today. From then on, Weir had set this dichotomy of message, where the arriving Europeans found a rich land, of abundant and strong people, or they found a unkempt and declining land, among people who were not their equals.

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The US Capitol finally has a scene depicting Hudson’s arrival

The first depiction of Hudson’s arrival at the US Capitol ends up being years later, when Albert Bierstadt gets a commission and paints this rather optimistic picture in 1872. To remove any doubt about the message, a rainbow arcs across the entire canvass. Or is it a nod to Weir, whose Embarkation of Pilgrims has a more modest, but clearly depicted rainbow?

Twenty years later in 1892, Edward Moran painted a more ambivalent and foreboding picture. It is one of the paintings he did for his landmark “Thirteen Historical Marine Paintings.”  Edward Moran’s brother, Thomas Moran, sold two paintings to the US Government in the early 1870s, on a western theme. They are maintained by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

The new century brings a new generation. The approach of the 300th anniversary of Hudson’s arrival is coming into view, especially among political leaders of the Hudson Valley and Dutchess County with Dutch ancestry. With a sleight of hand to accommodate a two year gap, a celebration was created that included Robert Fulton’s 1807 invention of the steamboat. The 714 page official book of the 1909 the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, was given out liberally as a gift from then NY State Senator from Dutchess County, Franklin Roosevelt, who served on the celebration commission. DCHS Collections.

The Society of Daughters of Holland, Dames of New York, gave a gift of a stained glass window to the New York Historical Society which was recently restored. Native Americans are shown going out to the Half Moon.

The new Poughkeepsie Savings Bank building going up in 1912 would have as its main feature (and it remains in the building today) the depiction of Hudson’s arrival. Coincidentally, the Half Moon depiction is based on a photo taken by Tracy Dows, the father of Olin Dows the artist, during the 1909 celebration. Contemporary photo by Julia Whitney Barnes.

Some refer the period as ‘Holland mania.” The Poughkeepsie mayor, John K. Sague, ensured that the official, City commemorative medal included images of Hudson, Fulton and Mayor Sague. Sague was descended from French Huguenots. DCHS Collections.

Hudson’s arrival was seeping into a greater national consciousness and was reproduced in an increasing number of ways, including postcards (below). Today we find a recent mural in the Town of Red Hook depicting the scene.

The story from the perspective of the Native American is absent. It is a void we hope to fill with the voices and perspectives of Native Americans.