FOUR HUNDRED years ago, at most exactly the same historical moment., two intrepid European explorers came near meeting in the wilderness of today's New York State. Each left his name on the waters he visited, but the impact of their journeys left a far larger shadow on America's history. This year, from New York City up the Hudson and along the shores of Lake Champlain, dozens of towns, cities, and museums will celebrate the quadricentennial of the arrival of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain:
European explorations of the New World started in earnest within a half century of the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when importing merchants felt the squeeze of high tariffs on the flow of trade goods coming westward on long caravans. The Portuguese charted a route around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, but bad weather, pirates, and long months at sea hampered the efficient flow of goods. Any nation that could discover a far shorter route to the East with a Northeast or Northwest Passage over the top of the world could claim a monopoly and reap enormous fortunes.
Late in the 15th century, Christopher Columbus's four voyages to the Caribbean kicked the race into high gear. Various Spanish expeditions soon claimed most of Latin America and vast stretches of land in the southern and western regions of what much later would become the United States. In 1534, on a quest to find the Northwest Passage, the French navigator Jacques Cartier launched the first of three voyages to the northern wilderness he misnamed "Canada," the Mohawk word for "village." He returned with kidnapped Indians, a shipload of fool's gold, and tantalizing stories of the New World. His voyages gave France its claim on the vast northern country, where each year the French now came to fish the Grand Banks and trade for pelts.
By the time Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1603 for the first time at Tadoussac, the rendezvous place at the mouth of the Saguenay River, for the annual exchange of furs for European goods, both the French and the Indians were hooked on trade. As the European economy rapidly expanded and monarchies thrived, courtiers clamored for furs that would proclaim their ranks. To accommodate them, oceangoing merchants from Sweden, England, and Frame began competing for control of the fur trade with the Indians. By Champlain's time, the French were importing an average of 15,000 beaver pelts a year. …