We were promised time and again a wall across our southern border, a wall to be paid for by Mexico. While you may be thinking about that and whether it should be constructed, I have been thinking about America’s first border wall and trying to figure out whether we can learn anything from its history.
We begin with a man who went looking for spices and found beaver. Englishman Henry Hudson, bankrolled by British merchants, had made a couple of failed attempts at finding a sailing route from Europe to the Far East. Hudson could not smooth talk these businessmen into funding yet another voyage, so he jumped across the English Channel and convinced the Dutch East Indies Company to underwrite one more attempt. (I don’t think that the Dutch called it the Dutch East Indies Company. I think to them it was just the East Indies Company.)
The story goes that Hudson was ordered to sail east, north of Russia to see if he could reach China. Apparently, Hudson was not enamored of the charms or likely success of such a route. He had heard rumors of a Northwest Passage through North America, so Hudson disregarded his bosses’ orders and went west. This is why in 1609 he found himself sailing up the Hudson River. (What are the odds that he would go across the Atlantic and then proceed up a river that bore his name?) He found that the Hudson petered out. This was not the Northwest passage, and he was not going to be bringing back cinnamon, cardamom, or nutmeg. But in the land around the northern reaches of the Hudson River, he found beaver, boatloads of beavers. (All these beavers building dams no doubt made this a much more exciting place than the Albany area has ever been since.)
Europeans then were in love with beaver fur. (Ever hear anyone talk about beaver meat? Ever see a beaver recipe? Europeans may have salted cod caught off North America and brought it back, but I never heard of salted beaver.) When Hudson returned to Holland, I do not how he explained his wrong turn that had him going towards the setting sun instead of away from it, but his company overseers took consolation in the beaver sightings and saw a moneymaking opportunity. Hudson also told them about this island with a great natural harbor at the mouth of his river. It was a marvelous place for a trading post for all the beaver skins that could be taken from the luckless animals and shipped to the fur-mad Europeans. The Dutch then laid claim to the land from what is now Delaware north up the Hudson and to what is now western Connecticut and began a settlement in 1625 on the southern tip of Manhattan. It was called New Amsterdam.
(Hudson did not last as long as New Amsterdam. A few years later he was up in those cold waters exploring Hudson Bay—again, what are the odds? He wanted to press on after some significant difficulties. His crew did not. You know those stories about how the Inuit set adrift their aged parents for the parental last voyage. I don’t know if the indigenous people learned from Hudson’s shipmates, or the Europeans learned from the natives, or it was merely coincidence. Having had enough of Henry Hudson, his ship fellows set him adrift near the arctic circle, and–surprise, surprise–he was never heard from again.)
The Dutch thus began a New World settlement. It was a commercial place, and it was run by a commercial enterprise. Not long on imagination on this front, the Dutch named it the West Indies Company. And beaver was the moneymaker, which explains why a beaver is on the seal of the City of New York. (I have never seen a beaver in New York City, not even in a zoo. I have only seen a few beavers anywhere. Perhaps my first sighting was as a boy with the family in a car driving to northern Wisconsin. A beaver was waddling across the road. The father came to an abrupt halt. Beaver do not move quickly on asphalt, and we waited for quite a while. The father looked in the rearview mirror and saw nothing. Assuming that the beaver had finally made it to the ditch next to the car, he inched on. Thump. The left rear wheel clearly drove over something. The father drove a little further and stole a glance in the mirror. He looked as if he were going be sick. I glanced back and saw the beaver’s tail wave feebly once, twice and then stop. Total silence in the car. I never heard any of us ever mention this incident. We certainly did not try to collect its fur.)
(To be continued.)