From bridges and towns to an entire bay in northeast Canada, Henry Hudson’s name is everywhere. But though the explorer crops up in school books the world over, we know surprisingly little about the man himself. And just as his early years are shrouded in mystery, his eventual disappearance remains unsolved to this day. So what really happened to the man who changed how we see the world?
At the height of his fame, Hudson was a renowned explorer, determined to find the Northwest Passage through the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
But as time passed, he grew obsessed with success, dragging his men through lengthy and unwarranted ordeals. Is it any wonder, then, that they apparently turned against him in the end?
In June 1611, the history books tell us, Hudson’s crew mutinied while locked in pursuit of the elusive Northwest Passage. After that, the explorer was never heard from again. Did he live out the rest of his life as an honorary member of some far-flung indigenous tribe?
Or did he perish adrift at sea, a victim of the harsh landscape that he had fought so long to conquer?
To this day, nobody is totally sure what happened to Hudson during his final voyage. But over the years, scattered clues have turned up that hint at his ultimate fate.
Yes, thanks to everything from a mysterious rock found at an Ontario roadside to the findings of a modern explorer, the riddle has finally begun to unravel.
Strangely, we can’t even pin down Hudson’s life before he made history in the early 17th century. According to some, he was born in 1565, although others have suggested that he entered the world in the 1570s.
What most historians agree on, though, is that he grew up in England. And he soon developed a passion for the sea.
Hudson may even have been inspired by one of his forebears, who was also named Henry and whose name appears in the Royal Charter granted to the Muscovy Company in 1555.
Founded by Sebastian Cabot, the son of the explorer John Cabot, this enterprise soon grew to dominate the sea trade between English and Russian shores.
Again, there are no records of Hudson’s education, although he was probably at least literate and versed in math. But, of course, he wasn’t destined to be a scholar.
While still young, Hudson supposedly took a position as a cabin boy, learning to be a seafarer from the bottom up. And eventually, it’s said, he secured his dream job as a ship’s captain.
At the time, the Muscovy Company and the Dutch East India Company were arch rivals, with both vying to take control of the world’s oceans.
And each was desperate to discover a passage through the frozen northern territories, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific and opening up a convenient trade route to Asia. It could be worth millions.
In 1607 Hudson was hired by the Muscovy Company to lead an expedition — perhaps because of his family connections to the organization.
And on May 1 he headed north with ten men in search of a northerly passage to Asia’s Pacific coast. Eventually, they got to what is now Svalbard before thick ice compelled them to turn around.
More than four months after his departure, Hudson ultimately returned to England empty-handed.
And while his reports of great mammals in the northern oceans are said to have helped kickstart the whaling industry, he was sadly no closer to finding a route to the Pacific. The following year, however, he was given yet another chance at glory.
This time, Hudson planned to head east, hoping to find a route along the Russian coast to the Pacific Ocean. On April 22 he departed with a crew of 14, covering some 2,500 miles before hitting a wall of impassable ice.
But legend has it that the explorer refused to return home a failure. Instead, he set a course for the New World.
As the story goes, Hudson’s crew were horrified at the thought of such a prolonged mission and nearly resorted to mutiny. Ultimately, though, the captain backed down, returning to the English port of Gravesend in August 1608.
There, he was met with disappointment from his superiors, having failed once more to track down the elusive passage.
Rather than admit defeat, Hudson turned to his employer’s rivals instead. And in 1609 he was commissioned by the Dutch East India Company to find a route east into the Pacific.
But it was while preparing for this mission that he first came across whispers of another passage, heading westward through North America. Those rumors seem to have played on his mind.
Although his interest was piqued, Hudson duly followed orders and sailed northeast from Amsterdam. When ice obstructed his path somewhere off the Norwegian coast, however, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Instead of searching for a passage through the Arctic Ocean, he declared, he would attempt to find a western route to the Pacific instead.
This time, we’re told, Hudson carried documents that supported the notion of a Northwest Passage. With these, he convinced his crew to comply.
And after several months of sailing, they spotted the coast of what is now Newfoundland and stepped out onto the Canadian mainland. From there, they headed south, eventually coming to the mouth of a great river.
Hundreds of years later, that river is famously known as the Hudson, and the explorer is said to be one of the first Europeans to venture to what is now New York.
In fact, it was his journey that eventually enabled the Dutch to lay claim to Manhattan Island, where they ultimately established the city of New Amsterdam.
When Hudson eventually returned to England, it’s said, he found himself on the wrong side of the authorities, who were angry that the Dutch had benefited from his achievements. And when it came time for his next expedition, they were determined not to miss out.
With support from both the British East India Company and the Virginia Company, Hudson planned a second mission to the New World.
Accompanied by his son John, also an accomplished sailor, Hudson acquired a ship — the Discovery — and headed north in the spring of 1610.
On June 4, he reached Greenland, skirting the country’s southern coast and heading west, where he hoped to find the fabled passage. A few weeks later, he arrived in the region now known as the Hudson Strait.
Passing through the strait, Hudson spotted the mouth of a great bay — a sight that caused a lot of buzz among the crew. Surely, they reasoned, this vast body of water was the passage they had been searching for.
In reality, what they had discovered was an enclosed inland sea, but they did not realize that at the time.
After spending months mapping the shoreline of what is now Hudson Bay, the crew of the Discovery were no closer to discovering the Northwest Passage.
And when the ship became locked in ice, they were forced to spend a long winter sheltering on the nearby land. Eventually, when spring arrived, the men were ready to go back home.
But Hudson had other ideas. Still convinced that the Northwest Passage was nearby, he intended to take the Discovery west into Hudson Bay.
Fed up with their captain’s tricks, the story goes, the men decided to mutiny, turning the ship around and setting a course for home. But the exact series of events have always been the cause of much debate.
Generally speaking, many historians accept that Hudson, John, and a few faithful followers were cast adrift from the Discovery in a type of small boat known as a shallop.
According to the ship’s navigator, the men were given supplies such as clothing and food before being abandoned to the elements. As he was one of the mutineers, though, his testimony should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
But what happened to Hudson after he was cast out to sea? According to one report, the banished sailors attempted to follow the Discovery at first.
When the mutineers unfurled the bigger ship’s sails, however, the shallop was soon outpaced. Its occupants, meanwhile, simply disappeared into the vastness of the Hudson Bay, never to be seen again.
Over the years, several expeditions have set out to find the truth about what happened to Hudson, although none have been successful.
In 1612, for example, the British naval officer Sir Thomas Button sailed the Discovery back to the New World in search of the Northwest Passage — and the missing explorer. Sadly, he failed to locate either.
Today, there are many different theories about Hudson’s fate after the mutiny on board the Discovery. Did the men simply succumb to the elements after drifting aimlessly with limited food and supplies?
Or did they reach land and set up a rudimentary camp — only to meet with an unfortunate fate at the hands of hostile indigenous tribes?
Although the men had little to sustain themselves at sea, the first explanation seems unlikely. After all, Hudson was a talented sailor with years of experience under his belt.
And thanks to his admirable cartography skills, he was familiar with much of the landscape surrounding the bay that bears his name. He should have been able to navigate the area well.
On top of that, the shallop was hardly floating in the middle of nowhere. It could not have been more than 50 miles from land when the crew of the Discovery first abandoned the men to their fate.
Surely, then, Hudson could have helped even the most inexperienced of oarsmen to navigate the vessel safely to shore?
But if Hudson and his men did make it to land, what happened next? According to records, one of the men cast adrift during the mutiny was a carpenter who could easily have constructed shelters for the marooned party.
And given that summer was just getting started, it seems implausible that they would have perished due to exposure or lack of supplies.
Might the men have set up camp somewhere, planning to wait for a rescue party to arrive?
On Danby Island, a tiny outcrop in the far south of Hudson Bay, ax marks have been discovered that suggest an attempt to build a rudimentary structure. But there is no further evidence Hudson settled there — or anywhere else in the region.
Perhaps the most fascinating clue was discovered in 1959 in the Canadian town of Chalk River — around 500 miles south or so of Hudson Bay.
While repaving a local highway, a worker apparently stumbled upon a rock that had been etched with some mysterious markings. And the remarkable find reignited the debate over Hudson’s ultimate fate.
You see, the rock bears the legend “HH Captive 1612.” Could it be a desperate note to any would-be rescuers that Hudson was being held prisoner against his will?
Certainly, some seem to think so — despite the great distance between the location of the stone and the spot where the explorer had last been seen.
Amazingly, there is some evidence to support this theory.
According to Douglas Hunter’s 2007 book God’s Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery, French explorer Samuel de Champlain was in the Ottawa region just a few years after Hudson’s disappearance. And there, he heard a strange story about the local Algonquin people.
Apparently, Champlain was informed, a group of Algonquins had recently captured a young white man in the area.
Of course, the Frenchman would probably have been aware of Hudson’s disappearance at the time — but could the explorer and his men really have made it so far south? Or was this prisoner simply another unfortunate westerner who had fallen foul of indigenous tribes?
In a 2014 post on his blog Ottawa Rewind, history enthusiast Andrew King theorized that Hudson may have encountered a roaming band of Algonquins while traveling south along the Harricana River from Hudson Bay.
As their prisoner, he could have been taken overland to the Ottawa River, eventually reaching Chalk River where he carved out his desperate message.
If the rock was an S.O.S. plea from Hudson, though, then it sadly went unheeded. In fact, nobody even discovered it until almost 350 years after his disappearance, by which time his fate had long been sealed.
So did the explorer die while held captive by the Algonquins — either at their hand or through disease or old age?
Like many things in this story, the so-called Hudson Stone may not be quite what it seems. According to some reports, tests conducted on the rock suggest that it was actually carved long after the explorer had disappeared.
Nevertheless, there are those who believe that the answer to this mystery lies somewhere in the wilds of Ontario.
Several decades after the discovery of the Hudson Stone, writer Lawrence Millman attempted to retrace the explorer’s route. And in the James Bay area, close to where the sailors were first marooned, he encountered a story told by the local Cree people.
Passed down through the generations, the tale spoke of a group of white men who had once come ashore by boat.
Reportedly, the leader of this group — who was dubbed Firebeard by the Cree — married a local woman and settled down, living out his days on the shores of Hudson Bay.
But when Millman dug at a spot known locally as Young Englishman’s Grave, he found no trace of human remains. And despite his investigations, he was unable to find any evidence to corroborate these rumors.
So what happened to Hudson and his men after they were cast adrift from the Discovery? Well, they may never have reached land at all. After all, the deck of the ship was found to be covered with blood once it returned to England.
Did the mutineers turn murderous in their desperate attempt to be rid of a captain who would not let them return home?
Or perhaps the explorer died somewhere else altogether, continuing his pioneering adventures around the world? In 1823, it’s said, a grave marked Henry Hudson was allegedly discovered on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle.
And although this rumor is not readily accepted by historians, it offers a tantalizing glimpse into what may have been.