An Amazing Journey: How Adriaen Block ‘Discovered’ Montauk for Europe

Long Island on Adriaen Block's map of the Northeast
Long Island on Adriaen Block's map of the Northeast, Courtesy New York Public Library

It’s always been claimed that the first English settler to set foot on eastern Long Island was Lion Gardiner, a fort builder who had come from Europe to design a fort at Old Saybrook, Connecticut. He sailed across Long Island Sound from that community and came ashore at a small island off the coast of Amagansett in 1639. It is upon the fact of this landing that this claim lies. He named the place Gardiner’s Island.

However, Gardiner was not the first European to come to eastern Long Island. In 1614, 25 years earlier, a Dutch trader named Adriaen Block and some of his men anchored their ship off the north shore of Montauk and rowed through the Long Island Sound surf to a beach. There they encountered native Montaukett Indians fishing, and so, when Block returned to Holland 15 weeks later, he reported his findings in a diary he wrote during his journey and, with a Dutch cartographer, drew a map of where they had been, naming that beach where they landed—actually Montauk Point—“Fisher’s Hook.”

The map survives. The diary, however, was lost in subsequent years, so we do not know if there were trades done at Montauk or attempts at communication. But Block was there.

Adriaen Block was in his late 40s when he captained his ship Tyger to the New World. Preparing to return to Holland after his various encounters, he lost his ship. Tyger, loaded with furs and pelts, was anchored just offshore what today would be the Wall Street section of Manhattan Island when it caught fire and burned to the waterline while Block and his crew watched in horror from their encampment on shore.

They were the only Europeans on this remote island in the New World. And there was no way to go the 3,400 miles across the Atlantic to home. Furthermore, it was November. A brutal winter was beginning. Their only hope was to engage with the Lenape Indians on that island and build a new ship themselves, made from trees they would have to cut down near their camp. How they did this—none of the Dutchmen had ever built a ship before—and how, on their attempt to get home, they arrived off Montauk in a 45-foot-long rough-hewn sail boat they named Restless is one of the great sea stories of all time.

Adrian Block was born in Amsterdam in 1567. Before 1600, he had become a businessman. As a member of a Dutch trading company, he had become captain of a ship that, with other Dutch ships, sailed around Africa to the Dutch West Indies to buy goods and transport them back home for profit. On one of these trips home in 1601, after a purchase fell through, Block encountered a trader’s ship from Lubeck, Germany, boarded it and seized the ship and its cargo. Bringing it in to Amsterdam, he sold the cargo he had seized—nuts and fruits and pelts—and made himself a rich man. At that time, the Dutch government had authorized all Dutch ship’s captains to capture foreign ships like that.

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Thus he became a hero in Holland in those years as a businessman, a trader and a privateer. In 1608, he married Neeltje Hendricks van Gelder, then bought a house he and his wife called “The Two Hooded Crows” on Amsterdam’s Oude Waal Street, and fathered the first of six children the next year. By the time he left for the New World to make a further fortune buying pelts from the Indians in the New World, four of those six children had been born.

His trip across the ocean where his ship burned to the ground was his fourth and last. He had been preceded by the trader Henry Hudson. Hudson had gotten rich coming home with beaver pelts, but that was four years earlier. Now it was Block’s turn.

Block also intended to take advantage of the Dutch government’s patent. Any adventurer who could bring back goods to the government would get a patent awarding them the exclusive right to trade, for three years and four round trips, on the new land they had encountered. He got those rights. There would be three more years ahead when Block could have these exclusive rights here. He never, after what happened, had the nerve to take advantage of it.

However, he did discover Long Island. He was carefully keeping track of everywhere he went. The rough maps he had with him from the Hudson expedition showed Long Island’s south shore but had it as part of New England. There was no Long Island Sound. It was all of one land mass.

Hudson had approached the island that became Manhattan from the south and proceeded up the Hudson River four years earlier. Block approached from the north. Crossing down from what is now Rhode Island, he probably considered that Long Island Sound must be the mouth of a great river that might be a tributary of the Hudson. He went past it in order to go to Manhattan, a place he’d been told about, made camp down at the foot of Manhattan, got supplies, then went north up the Hudson River and made his transactions with the Indians for his fortune’s worth of beaver pelts. Returning to Manhattan, Block’s ship burned at anchor.

There is no record of how he and his crew, without construction tools, built the Restless that winter. There is also no record of why, once the ship was built, Block chose to head north up the East River to the headwaters of Long Island Sound, which he knew nothing about, except to assume that Restless was so rickety they might do better in what they were told by the Indians were calmer waters than going back down south into the ocean.

In any case, they passed north through Hell’s Gate—the narrow and dangerous watery passage between Randall’s Island and Queens today—and proceeded east. When they got to Montauk, and saw to the south only the angry ocean, they had to know that what they had sailed on was a hundred-mile-long body of water north of a very large island. Back in Holland, the maps that were made from Block’s journey show Long Island for the very first time.

A copy of that map is in the New York Public Library Archives, and we present it here. As you see, it does not yet show the barrier beach and the bays along the south shore of Long Island. (No Europeans had yet been there!) It also doesn’t show the North Fork. Where the North Fork is, it is shown as a series of small islands. One might have been Shelter Island. There is no Shelter Island on this map otherwise. It is pretty crude. But what an accomplishment.

Block was in no hurry now to get out into the Atlantic waves. He left Montauk and headed north to discover the mouth of the Connecticut River, which he named “Fresh River,” and explored to where Hartford would someday rise. Then he turned around and came back down to discover what he called “Fisher’s Island” (the name stuck) and then, further along, discovered this potato-shaped island off Montauk, which on his map at home is noted as “Adriaen Block’s Island.” He also named a large island “Roode Eylandt” translated as Rhode Island.

Long Island on Block’s map is not called that. It’s named “Matouwacks,” an Algonquin Indian word that defies translation. That name didn’t stick. It’s Long Island. Also on Adriaen Block’s map he names Matouwacks and all the lands to the north of Long Island—Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts—as New Netherlands. A sweeping gesture for the homeland. And that name didn’t stick either.

Before heading out into the rough Atlantic in the Restless after this, something wonderful happened. They encountered a well-built oceangoing Dutch ship, all boarded it, abandoned Restless and eventually got taken home.

On October 11, 1614, Block and others presented a petition to the States General to receive exclusive trading privileges and were granted exclusive rights for three years between parallel 40 and parallel 45. But Block never went back.

Adriaen Block lived at “The Two Hooded Crows” until he died in 1627 at the age of 60. He is buried in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk in a grave next to his wife.

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