The Rattle Watch in Beverwyck and Nepotism – an Albany Civil Service Tradition

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By the 1650s there were enough people in the New Netherlands for there to be public safety concerns and with those came public safety officers. Initially there was the equivalent of neighborhood watch in New Amsterdam (NYC), but that didn’t work out especially well, and so the first Rattle Watch (a group of 8 men) was appointed in 1658. Beverwyck followed in summer 1659; two men, Lambert Van Valkenburgh and Peter Winnie, were appointed on an annual basis and paid in wampum and beaver skins.

The Rattle Watch was established in Beverwyck because the local burghers, who had been assuming the responsibility – on a voluntary basis, wanted out. (There appears to have been a dispute about fire wood they were owed for stepping up, that was never provided.)

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10The Rattle Watch was a combination of police officer, firefighter & hourly time caller who carried the equivalent of a wood New Year’s Eve noisemaker that made a clacking racket.

Here’s the job description of the Rattle Watch from the Fort Orange court records in 1659:

1) First, the said rattle watch shall be held to appear at the burghers’ guard house after the ringing of the nine o’clock bell and together at ten o’clock shall begin making their rounds, giving notice of their presence in all the streets of the village of Beverwyck by sounding their rattle and calling [out the hour], and this every hour of the night, until 4 o’clock in the morning.

2) Secondly, they shall pay especial attention to fire and upon the first sign of smoke, extraordinary light or otherwise warn the people by knocking at their houses. And if they see any likelihood of fire, they shall give warning by rattling and calling, and run to the church, of which they are to have a key, and ring the bell

3) Thirdly, in case they find any thieves breaking into any houses or gardens, they shall to the best of their ability try to prevent it, arrest the thieves and bring them into the fort. And in case they are not strong enough to do so, they are to call the burghers of the vicinity to their aid, who are in duty bound to lend the helping hand, as this is tending to the common welfare.

4) Fourthly, in case of opposition, they are hereby authorized to offer resistance, the honorable commissary and magistrates declaring that they release them from all liability for any accident which may happen or result from such resistance if offered in the rightful performance of their official duties.

There’s a general consensus that Lambert (as we shall call him) was selected because he had some previous military experience working for the Dutch West Indies Company (DWIC) – the owners of the New Netherlands colony. He had originally settled in New Amsterdam, but sold his property (factoid – the Empire State Building stands on the land he owned) and migrated to Beverwyck.

The role of the Rattle Watch seems to have evolved over time – with the acquisition of New Netherlands by the English in 1664, growth of population and increasing tensions with the Native American population. But the job stays in the Van Valkenburgh family. In the 1670s, Lambert’s son-in-law, Zacharias Sickles, who’d also been a DWIC soldier and married to Lambert’s daughter Anna – becomes a Rattle Watch.

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In 1686 the Royal Governor, Thomas Dongan, issued a city charter to Albany (it’s the oldest chartered city in the country). The Dongan Charter made some changes to how the government worked and created the position of a High Constable and 7 sub-constables, one for each wards. But the tradition of the Rattle Watch continued.

In the 1699, another son-in-law of Lambert Van Valkenburgh, John Radcliff. gets the appointment. John had come to Albany to be a soldier at the English fort, and married Lambert’s daughter Rachel. They lived on the “southside” near Beaver and Green. We think that his job transcended the traditional Rattle Watch role and he was more constable-like, with a job description that was more like what we know of the police today. In 1727 we find Rachel a widow, with grown children. But in 1732 the Common Council names Rachel to the position of Rattle Watch. Hmmm.

While women in this role were not unheard of it, her appointment was a rarity. (The Dutch in the New Netherlands granted women more rights on an equal par with men – when the English took over, women were relegated to second class citizens, but in very Dutch Albany, old habits died hard.)

6At the time of her appointment Rachel would have been probably in her 70’s. Because Rachel was my 9th great grandmother sometimes I think about her. Did one or more of her 10 kids do the job for her? Or did she trudge the rutted snowy and icy streets of Albany on cold winter nights in a long cloak, possibly made of beaver, and a wide brim beaver hat over her white cap tied beneath her chin. She would have carried her Rattle and a lantern, patrolling the streets of Albany from 10pm to daylight. The entry in City Record says she was to “Go all night and call hours from ten to 4, time and weather”.

5The route began at the main guard house (the city was still enclosed in a stockade fence at this time) near the south gate, up Brower (Broadway) St., over the Rutten Kill bridge (one of the 3 creeks that ran through Albany – filled in the 1800s) at Col Schuyler’s house, then to Jonker St.(State St.) to the corner where Johannes de Wandelaer lived on the hill near the fort, then to the house of Johannes Roseboom, on the east side of Parel (Pearl) St. north of Rom St. (Maiden Lane) to Gysbert Merselis’ house (northeast corner of Parrel and Rom) to the house of Hendrick Bries, and thence to the Guard House.

For this, she received 5 pounds and 10 shillings and 5 pounds of candles.

We don’t know how long Rachel had the job, or how long the Rattle Watch continued or whether the job passed to other Van Valkenburgh kin IF the Rattle Watch continued. (She died in the mid-1700s and was buried in the Dutch Reformed Church cemetery. )

At least 75 years of the Rattle Watch in one family?? So very Albany.

11There is lasting evidence of the Radcliffe family in Albany. Johannes Radcliffe, grandson of Rachel Van Valkenburgh and John Radcliffe, was the second owner of the Van Ostrand Radcliffe house in Albany, the oldest structure in the city. It was constructed on Hudson St. just outside the city stockade when it was built in the 1720s. As we go farther down her family line, James Eights, the painter of the wonderful watercolors that let us know what Albany looked like in the early 1800s was Rachel’s great great grandson (through her oldest daughter Elizabeth.)

The Rattle Watch gig may explain why generations of my family have cursed the State St. hill climb – it’s genetic.

Thanks to Stefan Bielinski and Colonial Albany Project for some of the material in this post http://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov//albany/welcome.html .

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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