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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 15, 2009

Henry Hudson comes to life for students at Farnsworth Middle School

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Zoe Elwell, along with her seventh-grade classmates at Farnsworth Middle School, has been studying exploration.

“We’ve learned about Bartholomew Diaz and Christopher Columbus and Henry Hudson,” she said. “It’s very interesting how they had the courage and a little bit of craziness to go out and find new things.”

Zoe finds the explorers she’s been studying inspiring.

Her classmate Jacob Rosenberg is more pragmatic. “There’s nothing left to explore,” he said. “There are satellites now so we can see everything.”

Undaunted, Zoe responds, “There might be things to explore that you can’t see.”

The two conversed in the hallway outside the library last Friday as they and their classmates worked to make a video that will be aired at the school.

Next to them was a mural painted by art teachers and their students, depicting the Hudson River and the counties that surround it.

Several boys struggled to get a stuffed mannequin of Hudson to sit on a chair, and, finally, one of them, Nathan Bierman, volunteered to stand, hidden, behind the mannequin to hold it up as it was filmed for a school-wide contest this week.

Four-hundred years after Hudson sailed the river that now bears his name, the Farnsworth students will be answering questions about his life and times; the winner will get an Albany Aqua Ducks tour for four.

On Friday, the students made their way down the Henry Hudson Highway where display cases are filled with objects reminiscent of the 1600s, many of them on loan from the Fort Crailo Historic Site. An early Dutch flag, handmade wooden shoes, pictures of Dutch life in New Netherlands, and raw wool to be spun are all part of the exhibit.

The objects are interspersed with thoughts penned in the 17th Century. “They think that there are more worlds than one, and that we came from another world,” wrote Rev. Johannes Megapolensis in his 1644 account of the Mohawk Indians.

Several decades earlier, in 1611, Emmanuel Van Meteren had given a less philosophical, more practical account: “In the lower part of the river,” he wrote of the early explorers, “they found strong and warlike people; but in the upper part they found friendly and polite people, who had an abundance of provisions, skins, and furs, of martens and foxes, and many other commodities and they traded amicably.”

Librarian Sheila DiMaggio, who organized the exhibit in collaboration with teachers in several different disciplines, said she was inspired reading Russell Shorto’s book, The Island at the Center of the World, which details the early history of Manhattan. Parents and staff alike have contributed to the school-wide exhibit.

Michelle Romano, whose mother grew up in Holland — her mother’s maiden name was Lustenhouwer and her grandmother’s was Van Dan Heuver — created a display that includes steel-bladed wooden skates, a handmade knitting needle case, delicate teacups, and a guilder, which was equivalent to an American dollar.

One parent of a seventh-grader, Jim Schermerhorn, is an 11th generation Dutch descendent, said DiMaggio. “His ancestor is like a Paul Revere,” said DiMaggio. Symon Schermerhorn is famous for riding from the Schenectady Stockade, on the banks of the Mohawk River, in 1690 when Indian and French-Canadian marauders burned the village to the ground and massacred most who lived there. Symon Schermerhorn rode to Albany to warn the settlers there and in the outlying areas of the marauders.

“It’s important for our kids to know this history,” said DiMaggio.

Hudson — in person

DiMaggio helped history come to life last Friday when she invited Carl Bensi, dressed as Henry Hudson, to tell a room full of rapt middle-schoolers about the explorer’s life.

Bensi, who taught history to Albany High School students in the 1970s before working for 35 years on a computer project for the state, is now retired. He met DiMaggio when she took an Aqua Ducks tour of Albany. Bensi, retired from full-time work, leads tours on a vehicle that rides through the streets of Albany and plunges into the Hudson River as a boat.

Bensi never broke out of his character Friday, even as the middle-school students asked where he had been for the last 400 years.

“Just kicking back,” he said.

“How did you stay alive?” persisted another student.

“Clean living,” Bensi responded.

“Can I have your autograph?” asked a third student.

“As long as it’s not on a blank check,” replied Bensi.

But the story Bensi told of exploration was laced with more drama than humor.

“When you get to be 439 years old like I am, you forget some of the details,” he said of why he wasn’t sure of his birth date — about 1570.

He also explained there were no portraits of Hudson painted in his lifetime, so no one really knows what he looked like. Bensi sketched Hudson’s early life in England rapidly. “I had a wife named Catherine, and three sons — John, Richard, Oliver,” he said. “As a journeyman, I worked on sailing ships.”

He was philosophical about his personality: “I made some mistakes in my life…I was a very stubborn person,” Bensi, as Hudson, told the kids. “People in history books are real people.”

Pointing to a modern-day map projected on the wall, Bensi went on, “Let me tell you about the age of exploration.” Europeans wanted to trade with the Spice Islands, known today as Asia, he said. There were three ways — all long and arduous: traveling across what is now Russia, rife with bandits, which could take years; sailing a ship around Africa into the Indian Ocean; or sailing around America to the Pacific Ocean.

“What spurred Europeans on is they desperately wanted the spices and riches in those Asian countries,” said Bensi. “Myself and many other explorers risked our lives” to find a northeast passage to the Pacific coast of Asia.

Hudson was hired by an English company to find an all-water route, heading towards the Arctic Circle in 1607 on the Hopewell. He turned back, stymied by the ice.

“In 1608, I was given another chance,” said Bensi as Hudson. “I made it to the northern top of what is called Norway now. I wanted to try a third time. The English company said, ‘No more.’”

In 1609, Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company to find an easterly passage to the Spice Islands. “They gave me a ship, the Half Moon, and a crew of 20…I left Amsterdam and sailed north…and ran into the same problems with ice. This time, members of my crew threatened to mutiny,” said Bensi, asking the students for a definition of mutiny.

“Where your crew turns against you,” answered a girl in the front row.

“I said I’d sail to what was called the New World,” said Bensi. Having heard by way of John Smith about a passage through the continent — perhaps the Native Americans had told Smith about what are now known as the Great Lakes — Hudson sailed west.

“I came to the area you call New York City — a fine, wide harbor. I sailed up what I called the River of Mountains,” said Bensi as Hudson. “The river is very wide and salty. I thought I had made it to the Pacific Ocean…I was a happy guy.”

Hudson’s happiness was short-lived. “As I went north, I realized I made a mistake,” he said. “I sailed to what you call Albany. There, I had to turn around my ship. The river became very narrow and shallow. I did send word back to the Dutch East India Company that this area — including where Guilderland is today — looked prosperous. The Dutch East India Company sent fur trappers.”

At this point, Bensi passed around a thick pelt of a beaver for the Farnsworth students to see and feel. “They trapped so many beavers, they almost caused their extinction,” he said. “In 1624, the first permanent settlers started Fort Nassau, later Fort Orange, which became Albany. The Dutch ruled this part of America — from New Amsterdam, now New York City, to Fort Orange — for about 40 years.”

Bensi went on, speaking as Hudson, “I made one more voyage, in 1610. I went back to work for an English company.” Still looking for a passage, backed by the Virginia Company and the British East India Company, Hudson sailed the Discovery, reaching Iceland and then the south of Greenland, rounding Greenland’s southern tip to today’s Hudson Strait, and sailing into what is now called Canada’s Hudson Bay.

Hudson explored the area until his ship became trapped in November ice. “My crew and I spent the winter of 1610 in James Bay. We suffered terribly,” said Bensi as Hudson. “It was cold we were starving…. When the ice melted in 1611, we got back on the ship.

“I was so stubborn, I wanted to continue exploring. My crew had had enough,” he said.

The mutineers set Hudson, his son John, and eight crewmen adrift in a small open boat.

“I was never seen again — until today,” said Bensi.

He said there were three legends about what might have happened to Hudson. “The Inuits adopted us and we lived with them,” he said. “The Crees killed us all.”

Or, finally, “I put on this silly costume and come to middle schools and tell people about Henry Hudson.”

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