Between 1611 and 1614 about a dozen Dutch ships had sailed to the New World to exploit the abundant furs reported by Henry Hudson after his trip in 1609 up the river later named for him. On this voyage Hudson was searching for a northwest passage to the Orient. But instead of a route to the riches of the east, he found Indians who were eager to exchange beaver and otter pelts for necklaces, knives, and other small items.
Throughout the shadowy accounts of Dutch trade and voyages of the early seventeenth century, the names Adriaen Block and Hendrick Christiaensen occur frequently. Both men were traders and ship captains employed by the Van Tweenhuysen Company of Amsterdam, which dealt in pearls, wine, tar, and textiles. Sailing for the company in 1611, Christiaensen is thought to have been the first to follow Hudson to what is now Manhattan.
In the fall of 1613, the Van Tweenhuysen Company sent two ships to purchase furs—the Fortuyn under Christiaensen and the Tijger under Block. At the same time, a competing Amsterdam trading firm sent the Nachtagael, under Thijs Mossel, also to purchase furs. The Tijger was small compared to other Dutch ships of the time (it was 80 feet long and weighed some 130 tons), but typical in many ways. Square rigged, she had a broad bow, called an “apple bow,” which, although not conducive to speed, gave her stability in heavy ocean swells. From her long bowsprit, her lines curved gradually back to the great beam amidships and a square stern dominated by a high poop deck. In addition to a crew of about eighteen men, she carried six or possibly eight 1,500- to 1,600-pound cannons loaned by the Admiralty of Amsterdam. Although there is no record of other ships being so armed, Block probably carried the cannons for protection against pirates and French and English privateers.
Throughout the last months of 1613 and into 1614, Block and his men bought furs from the Indians on Manhattan, gradually filling the roomy holds of the Tijger. The southern end of the island bustled with activity, as Indians and Europeans haggled over prices. Every day more Indians arrived, having paddled or walked for miles carrying their furs for Block and his men to view. As Block ran his eye over each skin and felt it to test its quality, his men stood by in case an Indian should feel cheated by the exchange of cheap trinkets for a prime beaver pelt.
By the end of January, 1614, the Tijger was fully loaded and ready to depart for Holland. Just as she was about to weigh anchor, a fire started on board, sweeping through the ship in minutes. Her crew scrambled to safety in dinghies before the ship burned to the waterline and sank
From the city’s appearance today, it is difficult to visualize Manhattan’s buildings resting on actual earth and rock. With few exceptions, such as Central and Inwood parks, most of Manhattan has been graded, leveled, and covered with asphalt, concrete, and steel. But in the early seventeenth century, it was open fields, with some scattered forests, especially in its northern section. South of what is now Times Square, many swampy areas were drained by streams that flowed into the Hudson and East rivers, while toward the southern tip of the island, there were ravines and steep ridges.
From the scant evidence available, archeologists have learned that the Indians inhabited the northern part of Manhattan, where they cultivated maize, potatoes, and other vegetables. During the summers they lived in temporary camps along the shores of the rivers, where they netted fish and gathered clams and oysters.
Stranded after the burning of the Tijger in January, Block and his crew were befriended by the Indians, who helped them build shelters and provided them with game. Certain historical accounts state that after the traders had settled into their new life-style, they built a small boat, the Onrust, to enable them to explore the surrounding area. Some New York historians believe the Onrust was the first seagoing vessel built in New York Harbor from native timber. But if the fire on the Tijger was as sudden as the records indicate, there was probably not enough time to get vital shipbuilding equipment off the burning ship. The few axes that the crew might have been able to save would hardly have been sufficient to build a new ship from scratch.
The remains of the Tijger, however, may have been used to form part of a new vessel. Block and his men could have saved themselves a great deal of labor if they had been able to beach the charred hull and use some of it for the Onrust’s frame. Since a stream used to empty into the Hudson at the location where the subway construction crew found the Tijger’s bow, the stream’s mouth may have formed a shallow inlet in which the crew could have worked on the new boat.