Jeremy “Jarhead” Jones and his buddies were tooling down interstate 10 headed for Sturgis, South Dakota – looking forward to the annual motorcycle meet in July. Jarhead had a Semper Fi tattoo on his right forearm, a marine bandana on his head, a leather vest and pants, a WWII German style helmet, and an American flag fluttering above the rear seat. In real life he was a lawyer in Minneapolis, (Jeremy Jones with Badger, Burton and Bills) but he had been in the marines some twenty years ago and loved to ride his hog whenever he had a chance. This was his first time for Sturgis. He and two friends decided to stop in Fargo, North Dakota at a beer joint and have a couple of “cool ones”. They had just crossed the bridge over the Red River.
The only Red River he had heard of was in Texas, North of the Brazos – 1300 miles long. You may have seen the film of the same name starring John Wayne, Montgomery Cliff and Walter Brennan – one of the Duke’s all time greats.
With his third long neck in hand, Jeremy wandered over to have a look at the muddy river below. Impulsively he took out a business card – writing on the back – telling the finder to call if the card was found. Then he dropped the card in, twisted the cap back on the bottle of Budweiser and tossed it in. The bottle bobbed up and down a few times then passed out of sight. Jeremy started his Harley with that familiar roar, and moved on down the highway and out of our story.
His bottle floated slowly north, touching Western Minnesota before crossing into Canada. After 145 miles it arrived at Lake Winnipeg. Then it was swept by the current across the lake and into the river again. After another 300 miles eastward the brown bottle dropped into Hudson Bay – a total journey of close to 1000 miles since Jeremy tossed it off the bridge. Once it entered the salt water of the Bay it might bob around for years before drifting northeast and out into the Atlantic proper. Or it might float in the bay forever.
But this particular bottle swirled around for a couple of years until winds and currents carried it to the extreme south, into St. James Bay close to the mouth of the Rupert River. It bumped up against an old water-logged worm-eaten plank (half in the water but preserved by pitch) and was trapped there. No one around to fish it out or read the message.
Hudson Bay is a huge inland body of water. It is about 900 miles long and around 425 wide, draining one-third of Canada’s watershed. It averages 330 feet in depth, has a shoreline of 5800 miles, is fed by 60 rivers, and has, even today, only 12 villages. Ice forms in the fall and doesn’t melt until June. It outflows to the Arctic Ocean on the North and the Atlantic on the Northeast. Eventually it became the namesake of the Hudson Bay Company who had the right to exclusively import furs to Europe. The company became the largest landowner in North America, reaching all the way to Oregon – some 1.5 million square miles.
Dutchman Henry Hudson discovered the Bay in 1610. He had sailed above Norway, Finland, and Russia, and around Greenland looking for the Northwest Passage – all in past years. He had also previously explored and mapped some of the east coast of the United States. In fact he sailed ninety miles past Manhattan up to what is modern-day Albany – the Hudson River eventually named for him.
This voyage he was in the Discovery, a small 38-foot ship with two masts – more like a large sloop. His goal, like many others, was to find a passage to the Orient. He had previously tried earlier in the year to go north and west of Greenland, above Labrador. Again this attempt was stopped by gigantic ice fields. As he came down the coast he dropped into Hudson Bay – thinking it might finally be the route to the northern pacific. But being cautious he crept along the eastern shore finally ending up at the southern point of the Bay in late fall, called St. James Bay.
Ice trapped the ship in November and he spent much of 1611 bound in the ice, buffeted by a terrible winter. The crew barely survived the cold and lack of food – polar bears came slashing at the ship and were killed for their meat. The Indians they met were hostile and refused to trade.
Warmer temperatures finally arrived in June, and the ice began to break up. Hudson wanted to go Northwest to see if he could still find a passage to China. The thought of being the first to find the Northwest Passage clouded his reason much like a mountaineer going for the summit when he knows its too late in the day, and that he is risking death.
Captain Hudson was a hard taskmaster and saw his crew as inferiors. He had worked his way up from cabin boy to captain and believed all should suffer the hardships he himself had borne. Most of his crew of 22 were experienced, but many were ill and exhausted from the difficulties of the voyage – and frightened of the dangers that might be waiting them – maybe never seeing England again. A dispute over the future ended in yelling and threats and finally a separation of the crew into two factions. The tension grew day after day.
Eventually the Discovery started Northwest to do further exploration, but after a few miles, thirteen of the crew mutinied, including Robert Juet, Hudson’s best friend and companion on his other three voyages. They put he, his 15-year-old blond son, Peter, and seven crew members in a small boat. The sloop then headed northeast to meet the Atlantic at the entrance to the Bay, 700 miles to the north – their plan was to sail for England.
The marooned sailors were so desperate that they rowed after the ship trying to catch it – pleading to be taken aboard – Henry begging that at least his son be rescued – but to no avail. In the year and a half that it took the mutineers to get back to England, the two ringleaders had died and only eight were finally put on trial. Eventually they were found guilty of murder but never punished. And no one came to explore Hudson Bay again for two generations – 54 years later. Most
historians believe that Captain Hudson and the others died of exposure on the banks of the Bay. But we know there is a different ending to the story.
So what really happened to Hudson, his teenage son and the other seven crew members? Seated in the small rowboat with a few supplies and provisions – some flint muskets, fishing tackle, the clothes on their back, and a compass. Think of how they must have felt? They didn’t know where they were – no idea what surrounded them except the expanse of the Bay to the North. They knew the mutineers would never come back and they could not expect any type of rescue. Most historians think that Captain Hudson, his son and crew-members all died of exposure. But we know there is a different ending to the story.
The rest of their lives was to be lived out on the banks of St. James Bay unless they could somehow to reach civilization. Hudson was racked with misery and helplessness, especially knowing that his son would die out in this God forsaken wilderness on the shore of an inland sea.
They rowed back to their winter bivouac and set up a rough camp on shore. Captain Hudson looked at his alternatives. They could row north along the shoreline and eventually out into the Atlantic, stopping along the way to hunt and find food, but the wind would be against them. And, the small boat would never survive in the open ocean at the mouth of the Bay. And it would take a very long time to creep along the top of the Bay, and then start down the western shore of eastern Canada and eventually to Nova Scotia, a journey of around 1800 miles.
Going west was into unknown territory, and no one knew what obstacles or hostile Indians they might meet – it was the great unknown. Going south brought the same problems.
But going east and a bit south looked like the best chance. Hudson (who was a very good navigator, becoming a commander at age 26) thought that it might be a 300 Mile march before they crossed the St. Lawrence River into New Brunswick where there might be settlements. Captain Hudson counseled with his men and son, but made the decision alone that they would start moving immediately, passing through what is Quebec today – populated by the Micmac, Algonquian, Cree and other Indian tribes. They smashed and sunk the boat so the Indians wouldn’t have use of it and to make the Eastern decision a final one. Four hundred years later Jeremy Jone’s note and beer bottle bumped up against the pitch covered wormwood plank – all that was left from the rowboat.
The first problem that faced Hudson was the health of three crewmen – everyone suffered from severe malnourishment – the hard tack biscuits and salted beef had long run out. Their only food was what they could kill and plants they might eat. One crewman had gangrene in both feet from frostbite and could not walk. Another had come down with scurvy – hair, teeth and fingernails falling out, and in addition he was vomiting blood, yet another had broken a bone in his left leg.
The crew rigged a stretcher for the man with frostbite – the supplicating wounds smelled terrible and the men at the leg end of the stretcher had to be replaced often. Hudson did not expect the man to live long since there were black streaks on both legs moving up to his knees. The sailor with a broken leg was fitted with a splint and used a musket for a crutch. They moved away from the lake at a slow pace – about a half-mile an hour –blanket sacks containing all they could carry.
Hudson had calculated that they could reach the coast in two months, by the end of August. It looked like rough country to cross and it was – tundra with pools of water and bogs everywhere, large rivers to ford or build rafts to cross. And dense forests with tremendous undergrowth that required lots of detours. There were no trails except for those made by animals.
Exhausted that first night they slumped down on pine needles in the deep forest, eating some dried Arctic Cod – collapsing into a deep sleep with no watch posted – not even a fire was made. They put Gerd downwind so they wouldn’t have to smell the stench of his legs.
About two in the morning they heard a terrible scream. They jumped up to see an immense Brown Bear drag Gerd by his putrid legs into the forest. They got their guns and followed the screams. All of a sudden the screaming faded and then ceased. There was no moon and the darkness made them wonder if the bear was lying in wait for them. They hurried back to camp, made a fire and set watches for the rest of the night.
The were all shaken the next morning, and Henry wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to take their chances in the boat. But they had actually made more than five miles the first day. For two more days they staggered on, making, accounting to Hudson’s calculations about eight miles a day. But they were quickly wearing down and part of each day was needed for rest, trying to find some game, then preparing it to eat.
On fourth morning, Hein, the able seaman who had scurvy disappeared during his night watch – just a note scratched in the dirt that said he couldn’t go on, was dying, holding them back, and not to look for him. They spent a half-day trying to find him, but then gave up.
Now they were down to seven after just four days. Captain Hudson wondered if it might be better to just go back to the edge of the Bay and rest, maybe think about another alternative such as hiking North along the east side of the Bay, but he remembered the gigantic, unprovable rivers that they had seem from the ship on the way down. And in talking with the remaining men, he decided that they were still on the best route. They took the next day to rest – but bothered by mosquitoes and black flies that attacked despite their long hair and beards.
Over the next two days, they made better time, ten miles a day, built fires at night, and posted a watch. Then they started to move on to higher ground. Little did they know that they had three mountain ranges to climb and descend, including the Laurentains, which were 4000 feet high.
After a month, as they began to view the coming mountain range, Frans, with his broken leg, began to have real difficulty. The splint on his leg would loosen because of his exertions – and the leg was obviously not healing. He was also becoming weaker – falling several times each day. But he survived several large river fords with the help of his companions. Then they came to a roaring gorge that was ferocious both in volume and speed of the water. They went downstream about half mile looking for a ford with no luck and then turned upstream. They ran into a 50-foot waterfall, but climbed around it since upriver was in the general direction they were moving. Above the falls they found a two-foot log that had fallen 30-feet across a deep abyss. Hein volunteered to help Frans. The others crossed with some difficulty, and anxiously awaited to make sure the last two got to safety.
As they started across everything was fine until the midpoint of the log. It shifted ever so slightly just as Frans was moving his rifle crutch ahead. As the musket slipped off the side, he reached out for Hein and in a second they had both fallen, hanging precariously from the log’s branches. The others started out on hands and knees, but watched in horror as two finally lost their grip and fell into the ragging stream, bouncing against the rocks before being quickly sucked under and over the falls.
The remaining five men sat, tears streaming down, crushed by the loss of their friends and the hopelessness of their situation. Captain Hudson figured that in a month they had covered about 110 miles. “We have no other choice but to go on”, he said, even though he expected they would all be dead in another month.
For another 25 days they staggered on, continuing to live off the land by killing game and eating plants and leaves – they used the stinking skins of the animals they killed for clothing and blankets. All this time they had not seen another person. The shrieking of the wind was often joined by the howling of wolves at night. It rained and snowed and hailed and froze daily, the sun rarely shown and they were wet most of the time. Their situation was so bleak that they often thought that death would be a reward.
One of remaining crewman, Jan, had large open sores on his feet and legs – many times asking Hudson to just leave him. They slowed their pace so he could keep up, and finally they got over the first mountain range. Now they looked like scarecrows – skeletal, showing the effects of long-term exposure and malnutrition – filthy, clothes in tatters – feet bound in animal skins, matted hair and beards.
Bad luck continued to befall them as were climbing over an escarpment one day – jagged rocks the size of a row boat. Jan suddenly gave out a cry and jumped back. He had fang marks on his leg and another set on his cheek. An eight-foot diamond-back rattler slithered away beneath a rock.
No one knew what to do – just watched as he screamed in pain, his leg and face eventually darkening as the venom spread. The infection in his feet adding to the poison. It took a day and a half for him to die, and crushed any hope that Hudson and Peter and the two crewmen had left. But there was no other choice, either lie down and die or push on – and so they did, at a fairly rapid pace of 10 miles a day – actually praying that death would come quickly.
They saw more game, and between the Mt. ranges there were streams and grasslands – even some berries. They were making very good time and there was enough to eat and drink. They started to believe again that they might just make it.
Then their luck ran out. As they came over a knoll, there was a hunting party of Abenaki Indians below. The two remaining crew members immediately turned and ran back the way they had come. Captain Hudson dropped to his knees, held his hands out, palms up, and motioned Peter to do the same. Both men were knocked flat by clubs that smashed into their backs. In the meantime the Indian warriors were whooping and yelling as they chased Samuel and George, the final two crewmen. The uproar increased, then there were a couple of shots and all was quiet.
Henry Hudson thought, as he lay there, his face in the dirt, that he had brought death to all who had followed him, and was about to lose his son. If he could only barter his life to preserve Peter’s. The two were jerked up and roughly pushed forward. The Indians looked in their eyes and pulled on their hair. They both realized what had saved them for now – their blond hair and blue eyes. They traveled about three miles, all the time subjected to threatening gestures from the Indians.
They were tied and left in the open that afternoon and night. No food, no water, no way to relieve themselves. They were both stiff and half frozen in the morning. Their conversation during the night was about dying gracefully – and praying for God to receive them. They had given up hope of any future life, praying that death would come quickly without torture.
Henry was lifted bodily to his feet the third day and marched away – down to the river, put in a birch bark canoe and was just able to turn his head to shout goodbye to his son as the canoe slipped downriver. And that was the last anyone ever heard of Captain Henry Hudson.
Peter was given food and drink, but tied up at night. The Indians seem to have lost interest in harming him, leaving his care to the squaws. He thought about all that had happened since they left England – wondering if anyone would ever know the fate of his father, himself and the crew. And he thought if he had a chance he would try to take his own life – better that than to live out his existence among these savages.
And that is where we leave Peter, 15 years old, in the hands of the Abenaki Indians, in a remote area of what eventually became Quebec, still 120 miles from the eastern coast. Not sure if he and his father were killed or kept as slaves. Their remains were never found.
But just one footnote. When Mountain Men and Explorers finally fought their way up through central Quebec seventy-five years later, they ran into fierce Indians – but remarkably there were a few who had a golden hair and some with blue eyes.
Hudson’s Bay today is pretty much like it was in 1611 when Captain Hudson first saw it. Almost no people live on its perimeter, and it is still a wild, cold, windy and savage country.