Slavery in Old Albany

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Slavery has been called “America’s Original Sin”. Sadly, many people think it was a southern thing. It was very much a northern institution as well. Especially in Albany NY.
The first enslaved men were brought to Albany in 1626, only 2 years after it was first settled. Females arrived in what was then Fort Orange in 1630. They were the property of the Dutch West Indies Co., owner of the New Netherland Colony. Soon use of enslaved labor was seen a way to build the Colony since settlers were in short supply.
Rapidly slavery became a source of not only cheap labor, but as a source of capital itself. By the mid 1600s Dutch ships, which ruled the seas, were bringing thousands of men, women and children in chains to New Amsterdam from their colonies in Africa, and the West Indies. Many of enslaved were sold into the South, others were put to work building the cities of Beverwyck, Kingston (Wildwyck) and New York, and many ended up on the huge farms that came to dominate the Hudson Valley from Albany to the Atlantic.
When the British took the Colony in the 1660s the slave trade increased exponentially, and the English began developing more stringent rules governing those they had enslaved- forbidding gatherings of Africans, limits on how far they could travel, etc.
In 1714 the population of Albany was 1,128; of those about 10% (113) were enslaved.
And so it remained in New York until the Revolutionary War and beyond. Slaves were the economic engine of the State. There were thousands. And they were valuable. They were listed in household inventories on the death of their owners, along with horses, feather beds and the good silver. They were chattel. They were part of inheritances. If the second son didn’t inherit the land, he would often be left some enslaved people he could sell to raise money.
As in the South families were separated; husbands from wives and their families; mothers from children. And it’s clear from what little data that does exist, the fathers of many of these children were the slave owners.
The Federal census of 1790 identifies Albany County having 3,722 slaves (and 171 free blacks). That’s the largest number of slaves in any county in any state in the North. (There were were about 21,000 slaves in New York State.)
In 1799 NYS enacted gradual abolition, which emancipated some of those held in slavery, but full freedom for almost all would not come until 1827.
So in the 1800 census there were still 1,800 enslaved and about 350 free people of color in Albany County. In the city, there 5,349 residents; 526 enslaved and 157 free people of color.
Over the years more of those enslaved were freed, but that could be meaningless. Children could be freed, turned over to the town or county by their owners, and then the municipality might very well send the children back to the owner, paying the owner for their room and board in some bizarre foster care system. Adults once freed might have no where to go, so they stayed working for their owners for housing and less than subsistence wages.
I’ve come to think of the early part of the 19th century in Albany, before outright abolition in 1827, as utter chaos for African Americans in the city. Some free Black men were trying to establish a school for their children, while other men were enslaved. Families were still separated, with free men trying to earn enough to buy those members who were still enslaved. Free men sometimes married enslaved women if owners approved.
Stephen Van Rensselaer III, known as “the Good Patroon”, didn’t free Adam Blake Sr., who ran his household, until after after the War of 1812. (Blake was known as the “Beau Brummel” of Albany and for decades the master of ceremonies of Albany’s legendary Pinksterfest.)
I hear people sometimes say, well .. slavery wasn’t that bad in the North. Perhaps the whippings weren’t as bad, maybe you got better food, maybe the mistress of the house made sure your children learned to read the Bible.
But you were property, deprived of freedom and liberty. If you were a slave you were a commodity, as much as a cash crop of wheat or the horse that pulled the plow that planted the wheat.
Women had no agency over their bodies; they were routinely raped. By the 1850 Albany census, more often than not you can find the word “mulatto” (not Black) next to the names of persons of color -the legacy of unwilling unions.

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Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

1626: The Massacre in Albany’s Lincoln Park

The City of Albany is proposing to put a sewage treatment facility in the upper section of Lincoln Park. It’s needed to address several long standing problems related in part to the Beaver Creek that runs under the Park; other changes will made be to the Park’s landscape. We thought this was an opportunity to tell you about an incident in that area almost 400 years ago that had a major impact on our history and could have changed the fate of our city.

First you have to imagine how the Park looked in the early 1600s. Today we see mostly manicured lawns, pretty shrubbery and trees and gentle rolling hills. When the Dutch first came here it was a wilderness of fierce and awesome beauty. It was a heavily forested, with a deep ravine running much of the length of the Park, a rapid flowing creek (known alternatively as Buttermilk Creek, then the Beaverkill and today, Beaver Creek) and Buttermilk Falls. (The Falls were described in 1828* as a charming spot with a foaming cascade that plunged 30 feet into a deep gorge.)

Fort Orange, the trading outpost of the Dutch West Indies Co., was established on Broadway (near the existing Holiday Inn Express) in 1624. In late summer 1626 the soldiers from the Fort set out on an expedition to the west, following the creek up to the Falls, into the area of the Park known today as the “Ravine” (in the northwest corner of the Park – near Delaware and Park Avenues), about a mile from the Fort.

It was here they were ambushed by a party of Mohawks (part of the Iroquois Confederacy). The group from the Fort included Daniel Van Crieckenbeek (there are several variant spellings), a number of soldiers (2 of whom were Portuguese) and Mahican Indians (Algonquin tribe). (There’s no indication of the number of Mohawks or Mahicans killed.)

The ambush was revenge against the colonists for siding with the Mahicans and helping them attack the Mohawks. Van Criekenbeek’s decision to join with the Mahicans was a departure from the previous neutrality of the Dutch in Fort Orange that had insured good relations with the Iroquois.

A contemporary account says that the Dutch force was met with a “barrage of arrows”. Van Criekenbeek and several men were killed. 3 men escaped; one man was wounded, but survived by swimming to safety. The most horrific reports of the ambush focus on Tymen Bouwenz. He was said to have been roasted alive and then eaten, with the Mohawks carrying some of his limbs back to their camps as symbols of their victory. (Legend has it that he was singled out by the Mohawk for the great courage he demonstrated as a brave warrior during the ambush.) The 4 men killed were buried near where they fell.

Most settlers (there were about 8 families) in the Fort fled to Manhattan fearing further retribution by the Mohawks; about a dozen soldiers remained behind. When reports of the massacre reached Manhattan Peter Minuit, recently appointed Director of the New Netherland Colony, dispatched Peter Barentsen (a sloop captain with experience among the various tribes in the Colony) to the Fort. The Mohawks explained the massacre was retribution for Dutch interference in the inter-tribal dispute and provided beaver skins as a peace offering, Amity was restored between the Dutch and both tribes. However, it would about another 4 years, in 1630, before re-settlement of families would begin. In the absence of the Barentsen’s intervention, the consequences of the massacre might have been quite different, as well as the history of Albany.

Although Buttermilk Falls is long gone and the wilderness tamed over centuries, a small part of the Ravine remains – the area where the massacre occurred in 1626, near the Falls. Despite significant changes in the 19th century and the building of the Park (it was originally called Beaver Park) in the 1890s it is the last area that remains in a natural state (perhaps kismet). The early Park planners were careful to maintain the Ravine in a natural state.** It’s remained un-marked and forgotten, although it’s the last remaining patch of Albany’s earliest history, and the location of an event that could have forever changed the fate of our city. A path has been beaten through rock outcroppings; there’s a dense cluster of trees and tangled vegetation. The rocky walls mark the Creek’s course; there’s a deep, grated culvert through which you can sometimes here the last surviving sounds of the waterfall.

The current master plan for the upper part of the Park calls for the creation of all sorts of man- made amenities, including improvement of “unusable lands in the ravine by creating the new Reflection and Learning Garden at Lincoln Park”. We’re not quite sure what that means, and clear answer from city officials about the intent for the Ravine has not been forthcoming so far.

Whatever is planned it must include preservation of the Ravine area in which the massacre occurred in a natural state, with appropriate historic maker/signs that tell its history.

Preservation of historic spaces is just as important as preservation of historic buildings. When you know the story of the massacre and walk through the Ravine you feel a visceral connection to our earliest history. It comes alive. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger said, “… history requires atmosphere and context as well as facts”.

The site in the Ravine is an historic battlefield– as much as Gettysburg or Yorktown. It’s part of our Albany history and a cultural resource that requires conservation and a commitment to remembering our past. It’s as important as to our history as the Schuyler Mansion; it’s the earliest evidence of our deep Dutch roots, and the first Dutch settlers in the New World. With a little TLC the Ravine could be maintained its natural state and this small, but critical piece of our history, preserved and marked for future generations. So few remnants of our past remain; this one is a keeper.

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*”The Runaway, Or, The Adventures of Rodney Roverton”, New England Sabbath School Union, 1842

** Indeed, when the Lincoln Park was originally envisioned the idea was to leave the area of the Ravine as a “ramble” (“The Public Parks of the City of Albany”, 1892). We suspect that the intent was to create something similar to the “The Ramble” designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in Central Park in NYC. It’s an area of winding paths a rustic setting, within a natural landscape of rocky outcrops that, although man-made, offers a needed contrast to the rest of the Park.

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Thanks to Paula Lemire and the “Battle of Lincoln Park” in her Albany History Blogspot http://albanynyhistory.blogspot.com for much of the material used for this post.