While Henry Hudson is often credited as the first European to explore the New York area, and Juan Rodriguez has recently gotten recognition as New York’s first resident of European descent, it was Giovanni da Verrazzano who first set caucasian eyes on the New York harbor, on April 17, 1524.
Verrazzano was born in Florence and had been adventuring for two decades when he was given a commission by King Francis I of France to find that trade passage to China and India that had eluded Columbus and others. During this age of seafaring, mapping, global trade, and imperialism, European governments were too competitive to blink at enlisting foreigners. Hence Henry Hudson (British) sailing for the Netherlands, Christopher Columbus (Italian) and Esteban Gomez (Portuguese) for Spain, and in this case, Giovanni da Verrazzano, from Florence, for the French flag. Such explorations were often collaborative investments from both royal governments and commercial interests, and many of Verrazzano’s private sector backers were Italian.
Verrazzano left Europe with four boats in 1523, but after a series of bad storms and false starts, only one, La Dauphine, made it to the New World during the winter of 1524. He reached the Carolinas first, where his erroneous belief that he had found a potential passage to China confused map-makers for years. La Dauphine then steadily sailed up the coast, bringing Europeans in view of the north Atlantic coast for the first time since the Vikings.
On April 17, 1524, Verrazzano sailed into the New York harbor, the first European to lay eyes on it. Verrazzano described his first and only encounter with the Lenape, who lived in much of present-day New York City before Dutch colonization:
“The people are almost like unto the others, and clad with feather of fowls of diverse colors. They came towards us very cheerfully, making great shouts of admiration, showing us where we might come to land most safely with our boat. We entered up the said river into the land about half a league, where it made a most pleasant lake [the Upper bay] about 3 leagues in compass; on the which they rowed from the one side to the other, to the number of 30 in their small boats, wherein were many people, which passed from one shore to the other to come and see us. And behold, upon the sudden (as it is wont to fall out in sailing) a contrary flow of wind coming from the sea, we were enforced to return to our ship, leaving this land, to our great discontentment for the great commodity and pleasantness thereof, which we suppose is not without some riches, all the hills showing mineral matters in them.”
The ship didn’t stick around, heading up towards Long Island and Massachusetts before leaving the region behind for good.
There are a number of reasons that Verrazzano didn’t initially get the credit of his colleagues in the “Age of Exploration.” Most obviously, the lands he explored, especially on this first voyage, were not held by the French, and so lacked the natural connection between Henry Hudson and New Amsterdam, for example. Second, he may have been overshadowed by his splashier, more vicious contemporaries, the Conquistadors. Finally, he didn’t last that long; on his third trip to the New World, in 1528, he was likely killed and eaten by Native Americans in Guadalupe.
Though his name was hardly part of New York lore, during the early 1950s the Italian History Society of America pushed for the new Robert Moses bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island over the Narrows to be named for Verrazzano. Moses, working on his last major bridge, curtly replied that he didn’t know who the man was. Part of Verrazzano’s rehabilitation involved a lobbying effort to get April 17 renamed “Verrazzano Day” in 1954, and the date remains a (very) unofficial holiday. In 1960, the Italian-American community won the bridge naming campaign, only to almost lose it after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Only after Robert Kennedy declined the tribute did “Verrazano” stick, albeit with a missing “z.” It took years for the name to sink in, with news outlets originally calling it the “Narrows Bridge” or the quite literal “Brooklyn-Staten Island Bridge.”
From 1964-1981 Verrazano-Narrows was the longest suspension bridge in the world, and though it is now only the 11th longest in the world, it remains the longest in the U.S. It is also the most expensive, setting you back $16 if you’re heading into BK. Maybe they should offer a discount on Verrazzano Day!