On May 4, 1626 Peter Minuit, the 3rd director of the Dutch West India (DWI) Co., set foot on Manhattan Island. But Minuit was not Dutch – he was a Walloon.
The first settlers in the New Netherland Colony weren’t Dutch. They were Walloons – Belgian and French Protestants.
They were the people the DWI could convince to move to the New Netherland Colony, where there was nothing. Zip, zero, nada. They would have to hack their way through the wilderness, build shelter, clear land, grow crops, all while abiding to the Company’s rules.
But the financial upside was enormous. They stood to make fortunes (the Company would take a cut) from the riches of the New World they sent back to Holland -mostly furs in the beginning, and to the rest of Europe. If they could survive and thrive.
24 families and soldiers came to the Colony in 1624. About 18 families and soldiers came to Albany and established Fort Orange. A small contingent stayed down river, not in Manhattan, but on Governors Island (then known as Nut Island). There was a small outpost of soldiers on Manhattan Island.
Minuit, was sent to New Netherland in 1626. He promptly made a deal with the native tribe, the Lenape, and purchased land on Manhattan for 60 guilders worth of trade goods. Which was a good thing.
Because later that year a deadly skirmish happened in Albany between soldiers and a local tribe in what is now Lincoln Park, at the ravine. Minuit sent a ship up the Hudson, and the Albany families fled south to the newly purchased settlement of New Amsterdam.
Some of the original settlers returned to Albany, but some decided to remain in the Big Apple.
So, to recap. Peter Minuit – not Dutch. First New Netherland settlers – not Dutch. The New Netherland Colony was a venture capitalist enterprise.. in today’s parlance, the Colony was a “start up”. It was one of several Dutch colonies in the New World including the Caribbean and on the coast of South America, and in Asia, and in Africa where the DWI had its slave trade in Ghana and Benin.
The DWI was licensed by the Dutch government, which took a cut too. There was a board of directors and other investors, including foreign shareholders. The first settlers were “early adopters”; the “the beta testers” of New York.
And, according to historians, this explains, in part, why New York State has always been just a bit different. If your goal is make $, you don’t really care about peoples’ religion and ethnicity. It’s divisive and detracts from the ability to accumulate wealth.
So, when Peter Stuyvesant became the Colony’s director the DWI smacked him down when he didn’t want Jews to settle here, and tried to stop Quakers from practicing their religion in peace. They even allowed Catholics, despite the long standing religious wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics.
Sadly, the DWI’s race for wealth resulted in its aggressive involvement in the slave trade, including the importation of Africans into the Colony (and Albany) as early as 1628. And that legacy remained for centuries, even under English control (which happened when Stuyvesant surrendered the Colony in 1664). The owning of enslaved people became the norm .. if you were Dutch, English, French, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish for almost 2 centuries in New York State.
Enslaved labor became the economic engine for capital formation in New York until slavery was abolished in 1827 in the state.
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.
The first settlers of Albany weren’t Dutch. (I know – makes your head spin, right?)The first settlers in 1624 were French Protestants. The Walloons (a/k/a Huguenots) were driven out of France in 1572 following a wholesale slaughter of Protestants in Paris and other French cities. They migrated to Belgium then to Holland*. In Holland many lived in Leiden and attended the same church, the Vrouwekerk (Lady Church) as the Pilgrims. (The communities were so intertwined that Francis Cooke, one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact, married a Walloon, Hester Mahieu**.)
In 1622 a leader of the Walloon community, Jesse DeForest, secured permission from the Dutch West Indies Co. (DWIC) to send a contingent of families to New Netherland, so that they, like the Puritans, could practice their religion in peace. In exchange they were establish a trading colony, shipping goods to the DWIC in Holland.
In late spring, 1624 about 3 dozen mostly Walloon families arrived in what today is New York City aboard the “Nieu Nederlandt”. Some of the families remained in what is now NYC, other went New Jersey and Connecticut, but the bulk of the group sailed up the Hudson to Albany. There they established Fort Orange, a rude stockade, threw up some huts, and began the work of establishing a settlement. Within 6 months they’d collected thousands of beaver and otter furs to send back to Holland. In June 1625 Sarah Rapalie was born in Fort Orange, daughter of Joris Jansen and Catalina Trico Rapalje, French speaking Walloons – she was the first girl and the second child born in New Netherland.
It’s not clear how long families remained at the Fort, but we do know that after a brutal and fatal skirmish with a local Native American tribe in 1626 (in what we know as Lincoln Park) all women and children were sent down to New Amsterdam. By then, the colony was governed by Peter Minuit (the guy who bought Manhattan, and who was, yes … a Walloon! )
In the years immediately following 1624 additional Walloons migrated to New Netherland, but by about 1630 the Dutch migration began in earnest.
Today there’s almost no vestige of the Walloon presence in Albany, except Peyster and Bancker Streets, named after the Walloon-descended Johannes de Peyster and his wife Anne Bancker .
There’s Defreestville, named after the Walloon De Forests, children of Jesse. In NYC in Battery Park there’s a Walloon Settler’s Monument, dedicated in 1924, the 300th anniversary of the Walloon settlers’ arrival in New York. The most visible commemoration of the Walloon preserved in New York can be found in New Paltz at Historic Huguenot Street, generally considered the oldest continuously inhabited street in America. It includes 7 historic stone houses, a reconstructed 1717 Huguenot church, and a burial ground that dates to the very first settlers.And if you are a stamp collector there were 3 stamps issued in 1924 on the 300th anniversary of the Walloons arriving in America. One shows them landing in Fort Orange.
*National boundaries were very fluid.
**Her Walloon nephew, Philiipe de la Noye (Delano), would emigrate to Plymouth 2 years later in 1622 and become the first ancestor of FDR in America.
If you were living in colonial Albany today in the early 1700s you and your family would probably be preparing for the arrival of St. Nicholas on December 6th.
St. Nicholas was a real person – a 4th century bishop who lived in what’s now Turkey. He provided for the poor and the sick, and became the patron saint of children (he’s also the patron saint of pawnbrokers – go figure). He was much admired and loved throughout Europe.
Over time the legend of St. Nicholas grew and his religious feast day became a celebration that extended beyond the church walls and incorporated regional pagan myths. Each country (and regions within countries) developed their own St. Nicholas traditions, but there are 2 commonalities – St. Nicholas arriving the night before before his feast day, leaving presents for the children (usually left in their shoes) and the women of the house in a baking frenzy- special treats for this festive and special day.
In some areas St. Nicholas arrived by boat from Spain (much of the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany was under Spanish rule in the 16th and 17th centuries). In other mostly Germanic regions he flies on a white horse; in some places he comes into town riding a horse or walking beside a donkey carrying a load of gifts. Scandinavians had mythical little creatures “tomte” or “nisse” (suspiciously like elves) that assisted with December festivities. (And in pagan tradition, there’s often a creature called a Krampus – part Devil/part goat – that punishes bad children and sometimes leaves coal instead of gifts.)
There’s no documentation of exactly how the Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated in colonial Albany (although cookbooks yield some interesting info), but there is historical documentation for the same time period for the countries from which the citizens of Albany emigrated. Some scholars think the people who came here abandoned their traditions in the New World. We know that in the earliest days of the New Netherlands Colony, Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor, was quite straight laced and adhered to his own sense of the Dutch Reformed dogma – basically old peg leg was a bit of a religious fanatic. But after the early 1670s, when the colony was finally in the hands of the British, people were free to celebrate as they wished (more or less).
So we theorize the traditions would have been more important for people so far from “home”, but what did happen was probably a mixing of cultural traditions. There were Germans, Scots, Swedes, and Walloons and Huguenots (French Protestants), English and Norwegians. They lived next to one another and they intermarried * and traditions melded as cultures blended.
But Albany was still predominantly Dutch in the early 1700s. So most of the children would be waiting for “Sinterklaas” (the Dutch name for St. Nicholas) on St. Nicholas eve called “Sinterklaasavond”. Then all the children, giddy with excitement, would put out their wooden shoes (wooden shoes, except for the very rich – were a cultural thing in most of western Europe and Scandinavia – sabots among the French, clogs in the Norse countries land, klomp and Klompen among the Dutch and Germans.
The toys would be homemade in anticipation of just this night – wood or cornhusk dolls, tops, hockey sticks, whistles, stick horses, ninepin and balls, ice skates – lovingly crafted by parents. In addition to the toys, there would sweets and chocolate and maybe a coin. And probably an orange – the global trade of the Dutch had made exotic fruits like oranges high prized special delicacies (orange is the color of the Royal Dutch family – the House of Orange). An old Dutch poem about St. Nicholas even mentions oranges specifically.
“Saint Nicholas, good holy man!
Put on the Tabard, best you can,
Go, therewith, to Amsterdam,
From Amsterdam to Spain,
Where apples bright of Orange,
And likewise those granate surnam’d,
Roll through the streets, all free unclaim’d”
The women of the families in each ethnic group would bake their specialties. For the Dutch that meant a cookie call a Speculaas – a highly spiced shortbread (it’s still probably the national cookie of the Netherlands), crunchy little cookies called Kruidnuten (sometimes called Ginger Nuts – mini-speculaas)** and Peppernoten (Pepper Nuts) – small, chewy and also made with exotic spices. The lucrative East Indies spice trade had a dramatic impact on Dutch (and other European baking and cooking) and used spices that could only come from Southeast Asia in the “Spice islands”. The cookies would be rolled and dough placed in special forms.***The forms were usually made of wood, intricately carved and passed down through generations.
Fast running sloops would bring the spices, sugar, cacao, molasses and oranges up the Hudson to Albany to the docks about where Madison Ave. meets Quay St. today. They would have been off-loaded from larger ships in New York harbor, bringing the cargo from Asia, the British and Dutch Islands in the Caribbean and the colonies of British Honduras (now Belize) and Surinam, which was owned by the Dutch, in Central America.
German women would have made Stutenkerl (also called Nikolaus) – sweetened dough shaped into the form of St. Nicholas (with the Reformation, the dough men looked less bishop- like). And Scandinavian women would have made Pepparkakor – crisp ginger cookies cut in shapes of stars and hearts.
(I’m of the opinion that a German Haufrau was visiting a Swedish Hemmafrau and decided she would make a ginger cookie St. Nicholas (or visa versa) and that was the origin of the gingerbread man.)
Meanwhile Brits and the Scots brought little to the table. The religious wars in Scotland and England for over a century ended with a Protestant ban on saint day celebrations. And Christmas (save for a church service) was a no no. Except for religious services, Holiday traditions had taken a huge nose dive. So, they took to it like duck to water and by the early 1770s Sinterklaas is now Santa Claus and associated with Christmas.
As you’ve been reading along you can see how the Feast of St. Nicholas evolved into American Christmas, but that’s a whole other story we’ll save for another time.
*My Dutch 10th great grandmother married an English soldier and her daughter married a Swede (by way of Holland) who was a ship captain – all within 40 years of the family settling in New Netherlands in the 1650s. And my Walloon ancestors quickly married Germans and Dutch.
** Ginger nuts are still featured in Albany bakery ads of the 1850s.
***Speculaas are still made (in the Nertherlands you buy a Speculaas spice mix – rather than the individual spices) and the windmill cookies you like are actually speculaas.
November 16, is National Dutch-American Heritage Day when we celebrate our Dutch roots. Without the Dutch there would probably be no Albany.
We were discovered in 1609 by Henry Hudson, exploring for the Dutch East India Co. By 1624 there was a settlement surrounding Fort Orange.
The village came to be known as Beverwyck (basically Beaverville). In 1664 the English came into possession of the entire New Netherlands colony and Beverwyck became Albany, but the streets of Albany retained their Dutch names for many years.
When Martin Van Buren was elected our 8th president in 1837 his primary language was Dutch, although he’d been born in 1782, after the American Revolution. It was common in the early 1800s for there to be “English” schools in Albany where kids from Dutch speaking families could learn English. Into the 1880s there were still members of old Albany Dutch families who spoke Dutch at home (old habits die hard).
We are surrounded by our Dutch heritage in our place names, from Guilderland, to the Krumkill and Normanskill Creeks, to Feura Bush and Watervliet.
Few vestiges of our original Dutch architecture exist – the oldest is the Van Ostrand- Radcliffe house at 48 Hudson Ave. that dates back to the 1720s. (Johannes Van Ostrand came to Albany from a Dutch family outside Kingston and Johannes Radcliffe was the grandson of one of the original Dutch settler families and a British soldier who arrived to garrison the Fort.) Another is the Quackenbush House on Broadway, built in the 1730s – currently home of the Old English Pub. The Dutch style of building remained popular long Dutch officials left the Colony. Fort Crailo across the river was built in the Dutch style in 1707. There’s also the Ariaanje Coeymans House, Coeymans, built in the Dutch style circa 1700, the Peter Winne house in Bethlehem, the Yates House in Schenectady and the Van Loon house in Athens – all examples of original Dutch buildings.
We pay homage to our history through our more current architecture. – the fire House on Delaware Ave and the old AFD fire signal building are the best known examples of our Dutch heritage, although built in the 20th century.
Today, Albany pays tribute to its Dutch Heritage during the Tulip Festival every May when the streets are scrubbed in the old Dutch manner and we crown the Queen of the Dutch flowers.
While the official presence of the Dutch in America ended over 300 years ago, they brought us food, traditions and words we use in everyday life. Santa Claus was originally the Dutch Sinterklaus (a/k/a St. Nicholas). We eat yummy Dutch foods: waffles, donuts and cookies, and use Dutch ovens to cook. Where would we be without the words: aardvark, bazooka, brandy, caboose, coleslaw, cruller, dollar. hooky, iceberg, pickle and smuggle? And there’s “Dutch courage” (alcohol aided bravery), a stern “Dutch Uncle” and “Going Dutch” (homage to legendery Dutch parsimony).
You might be surprised how strong and pervasive Dutch roots are in America and how many people have Dutch ancestors despite the relatively few original Dutch settlers. Famous Americans with Dutch roots include FDR, Tiger Woods, Dick Van Dyke, Marlon Brando, Robert DiNiro, Christine Aguilera, Anderson Cooper, Walter Cronkite, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Diane Keaton,Jane Fonda, Taylor Swift , the Kardashians and the Boss.
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.
*”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.
Most of you know that the “Patroon” originally owned the vast area around Albany called Rensselaerwyck. (Basically, Patroon means “land owner” in Dutch.) The first Patroon was Killian Van Rensselaer, a pearl and diamond merchant, who acquired the land from the Dutch West India Co. (DWIC) in 1630. Think of the DWIC as a group of venture capitalists and speculators.. betting on the New World, using a traditional form of Dutch land ownership for revenue generation and capital formation.
Rensselaerwyck was one of several patroonships in the New Netherlands, but the only one that proved successful*. The original grant that encompassed land on both sides of the River was soon expanded by acquisition of additional lands from the Indians. In exchange for the land the Patroon had to establish a functioning colony (over which he had almost total power). (Much like IDA grants today, the Patroon got a tax break for the first decade.) Rensselaerwyck was a feudal manor and the Patroon was literally Lord of the Manor, except for Albany, which was at the time Fort Orange, a wholly owned subsidiary of the DWIC.
There’s no evidence that the first Patroon ever visited his fiefdom. Business was conducted in his name by agents, from a large house and cluster of buildings north of the Fort on Broadway, near the Patroon Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River. In 1666 the compound was destroyed by a flood and rebuilt by Jeremias Van Rensselaer. (Jeremias was the third son of Killian and the first Patroon to establish permanent residence in Rensselaerwyck.)
According to Steve Belinski (the “Colonial Albany Social History Project”) the new building was constructed in the “Country Style” with the entrance on the long side and attached outbuildings. (Think a Patroon “compound” and the seat of government for the Manor.) A century later in 1765 a new and grand Manor House would be built on the same grounds by Stephen Van Rensselaer II, the Patroon and 3rd Lord of the Manor for his new wife, Catherine Livingston, daughter of Philip Livingston (signer of the Declaration of Independence). It was a large Georgian Mansion – one of the grandest homes in the country at the time – nestled amid a forest setting and lush, well-tended gardens. It was a thriving, mostly self-sufficient plantation, including slaves.
There were changes made to this Manor House around 1820 and again in the early 1840’s the existing structure underwent major renovation by architect Richard Upjohn (he designed the existing St. Peter’s Church on State St.), preserving the Georgian features of the original Manor House. It was still a gracious baronial manse – but it would be the home of the Last Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV.
The days of the Patroon were coming to an end. The Anti-Rent Wars had already started in the late 1830s. The Patroon’s thousands of tenants were protesting what was still a feudal system of land ownership in which the Patroon held all the cards. The Wars would continue until 1846** when the NYS Constitution was amended to abolish the Patroon system and Van Rensselaer would start selling off his property – in Albany and across the Manor. ***
The Last Patroon died in 1868. By then the Manor House was hemmed in by the Erie Canal and the railroads on the east and the growing city and its factories on the west. By the 1870s the great Manor House was abandoned. There were attempts by the family to have the structure declared a New York State landmark of sorts. There were efforts made by some citizens to move the building to Washington Park. These failed.
Finally, in the early 1890s Albany’s great architect, Marcus Reynolds (Banker’s Trust, the D&H Building and the Delaware Ave. fire house) and young Van Rensselaer cousin, convinced the family to agree to have the Manor disassembled. He transported the exteriors and the Manor House was “re-built” as the Sigma Phi fraternity house (Van Rensselaer Hall) at Williams College. (Reynolds was an 1890 graduate of Williams.) The interiors were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and are currently on display in Gallery 752 in the American Wing.
Van Rensselaer Hall survived until 1973 when it was demolished for a new Williams College library.
The last evidence of the Patroons in Albany survived into the 20th century on Broadway near Tivoli St. Alas, circa 1918 the Patroon’s Office (where the Patroon’s agents conducted business for almost 200 years) was demolished to accommodate the expansion of the International Harvester franchise.
Today there’s no trace the Patroons were ever here, except for an historical marker on Clinton Ave. that identifies it as the former Patroon St., the original dividing line between the Patroon’s land and Albany. There’s no historic marker … nothing, nada, zip, zilch ….at 950 Broadway, near Manor St., the address of the Manor House. (This was one of the pet peeves of the late Warren Roberts, History Prof. at U Albany and author of the great book, “A Place in History; Albany in the Age of Revolution 1775-1825”. )
And that’s how the Van Rensselaer Manor House vanished.
* A 10th G Grandfather, Cornelius Melyn, was the Patroon of Staten Island. It didn’t work out. There were wars with several Indian tribes, and battles with the DWIC and the successive Director Generals of the colony, including Peter Stuyvesant, over the dictatorial nature of the DWIC. He was a cranky rebel and a thorn in the side. Great Grandpa Corny ended up in the English New Haven Colony, took an oath of loyalty to the Crown and relinquished his right to the Patroonship of Staten Island. The last vestige of Corny is a mural in the Staten Island Borough Hall.
**The Anti-Rent Wars are fictionalized in the novel, “Dragonwyck” by Anya Seton (1944) and in a movie of the same name (1946) with Gene Tierney, Vincent Price and Walter Huston. Vincent Price is the perfect arrogant Dutch Patroon villain.. “You must pay the rent.”
*** A GG grandfather purchased land in the 200 block of Livingston Ave. (then Lumber St.) in 1850 as part of the Patroon’s property sell-off.
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.)
The 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.
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.)
At 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”.
The 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.
There 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.
These short biographies come from calendar prepared by Stefan Bielinski of the Colonial Albany Project for Albany’s 1986 Tricentennial. ( You should take a look at his Colonial Albany Social History Project )
Most of the women discussed here were the matriarchs of our city:
Alida Schuyler Van Rensselaer Livingston
Anna De Ridder Yates
Anna Von Rotmers Bradt
Anna Cuyler Van Schaick
Cathaline Schuyler Cuyler
Elizabeth Staats Wendell Schuyler
Elsie Wendell Schuyler
Engeltie Wendell Lansing
Magdelena Douw Lansing
Maria – enslaved
Rachel Lambert Van Valkenburgh Radcliff
I have to admit I’m partial to Rachel Van Valkenburgh Radcliff, one of my 9th great grandmothers; a tough old bird and a workhorse.
Talk about Albany History – Rachel was the grandmother of Johannes Radcliff in – who was the second owner of the historic Van Ostrand- Radcliff House at 48 Hudson Ave. , the oldest structure Albany. And a little known fact, she was also a great grandmother (through her daughter Elizabeth) of James Eights who painted all those wonderful watercolors of Albany in the early 1800s.
This was the mansion at The Flatts , after the Dutch “DeVlackte,” later called Schuyler Flats and Schuyler Farm. It was situated on the west bank of the Hudson in what is now Menands (then West Troy), opposite Breaker Island (formerly two islands called Culyer and Hillhouse). For a century, from about 1711-1806, the main public road from Albany to Saratoga ran between the mansion and the river.
The Flatts was (were?) owned and occupied by the Schuyler family for 250 years.
Because its history is so complex, and the Schuyler family history so confusing (how many of them were named Peter and Philip?!), I’ve broken it down into a chronology. Info gleaned from many sources. Please excuse the lack of annotation, I didn’t set out to write a term paper.
1630 – Arent Van Curler, a cousin of the first Patroon Van Rensselaer, arrives with the first colonists of the manor, and is soon after made superintendent. He marries in 1643, and after a brief honeymoon in Holland, returns to work the farm. He establishes the Flatts as the heart of the area’s fur trade.
1660 – Richard Van Rensselaer, a son of the Patroon, occupies the property.
1666 – He builds the main house.
1668 -The house’s roof caves in.
1670- Richard VanRensselaer returns to Holland. The Flatts is sold to Col. Philip Pieterse Schuyler. Schuyler repairs the old house and cellar, and builds an additional structure to the north. This begins a long Schuyler lineage in the area.
1683 – Upon the elder Schuyler’s death, his son, Col. Pieter Schuyler (later the first mayor of Albany), inherits The Flatts.
1690 – General Fitz John Winthrop sends the first detachment of his army from Albany for the invasion of Canada to the Flatts. The Flats become a staging ground for troops engaged in the French and Indian War, and many of their officers find entertainment. Here the gallant Lord Howe spends the night, and eating his breakfast on the march under Abercrombie to attack Ticonderoga. Here, the the barns are turned into hospitals for the defeated forces of Abercrombie.
1695 – Pieter leases it to his son Philip.
1711 – Col. Peter Schuyler, now married to Maria Van Rensselaer, the sister of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, moves to The Flatts.
1720 – Philip Schuyler marries Margarita Schuyler, his cousin, whose father had for a number of years been the mayor of the City of Albany. Margarita is known during the latter part of her life as “Madame Schuyler.”
1724 – Upon the death of Col. Peter Schuyler, his eldest son Philip P. Schuyler becomes the owner of the Flats and the mansion.
1752- A serious fire nearly demolishes the mansion, which is then rebuilt by British soldiers.
1758 – Col. Philip Schuyler dies, survived by his kindhearted widow, by now known as “Madame Schuyler” or “Aunt Schuyler.” The property is willed to her until her death when it is supposed to be passed on to her nephew, Peter Schuyler.
Aunt Schuyler’s home becomes the place of gathering both men and supplies because it’s at the head of deep navigation of the Hudson and is convenient for those coming from New England either by way of Bennington or Kinderhook.
During this period, a large (100′ x 60′) barn that had been used for troop lodging and staging is torn down.
1771 – Peter Schuyler dies, his will naming his grandson, Stephen Schuyler, as eventual heir to The Flatts.
1774 – At The Flatts, Major Peter Schuyler forms his plans for the Revolutionary War invasion of Canada.
1782 – With the passing of Margarita “Madame” Schuyler, The Flatts becomes the property of Stephen Schuyler, who has lived here since the 1740’s.
1808 – Philip P. Schuyler dies and is buried in the family plot.
1820 – The death of Stephen Schuyler leaves the property to Peter S. Schuyler , husband of Catherine Cuyler.
Peter S. Schuyler leaves it to Stephen R. Schuyler. I’m not certain Stephen Schuyler lives in the mansion. In fact, this 1839 newspaper ad offers the place for lease. Not sure if there were takers.
(Year?) Stephen R. Schuyler leaves it to Richard Philip Schuyler.
1898 – Richard P. Schuyler dies. His widow, the former Susan Drake, remains in the house twelve more years.
1910 – Drake vacates The Flatts, ending the Schuyler era. She rents the place to Guy Beattie, a farmer who had been working the land for a while. Over the years, various parcels of the estate have been leased to farmers and loggers.
1910-1948 The land is leased for farming and carnivals (Beattie’s Field”).
1948 – The Beatties sell the contents of their home and retire to Florida. Rivenberg opens the mansion as Sunny Crest Nursing Home.
1949 – Carnival operator James E. Strates buys Beattie’s 30-acre farm for $60,000. Schuyler Flats become the area’s home for the Strates Shows.
1957 – The State Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of Founders and Patriots of America, and Albany County Historical Society team up to recognize the historic site with a plaque. It’s affixed to the house, now painted white. Present at the unveiling are Susan Schuyler Cornthwait, 11, daughter of Mr & Mrs Schuyler Cornthwait, Hyde Park, Vermont, and Catherine Rhodes, 11, daughter of the Rev. James R. Rhodes and Mrs Rhodes of Slingerlands, both descendants of Richard P. Schuyler, last of the direct family line to occupy the house. The historical societies express hope that James E. Strates, who owns the property, might donate the house to the state. They neglect to ask him, though, and when interviewed, Strates admits no one even told him about the plaque.
1967 -When Cohen Construction fails to deliver its part of the deal, Murray-Simon sues. Development plans go on hold, and the land is put up for auction.
1968- William A. Wells of Buffalo purchases the 50-acre plot for $600,000, the only bidder at a public auction for the land. He expresses a desire to build an office complex, apartment houses and commercial buildings.
1968 – In drawing up plans for the I-787/NY-378 interchange, the Department of Transportation makes accommodations to avoid the historic Schuyler site. It opens in 1970.
1970 – Colonie Town Board hearings proposes rezoning from business E to commercial-multiple housing. The potential developer wants to integrate apartment housing and a shopping center. Archeological surveys conducted on a proposed sewer line result in a more thorough excavation of the Schuyler House by Paul Huey, historical archaeologist for the Office of Historical Preservation. His discoveries cause a flurry of local media attention, and Colonie’s Town Historian, Jean Olten, lobbies for its purchase.
1975 – The Town of Colonie buys 2.5 acres to preserve for an historic park.
1990 – Albany County transfers an additional nine acres.
1992 – The National Park Service designates the site a National Historic Landmark.
1992-2002 -Spearheaded by Paul Russell, Conservation Officer with the Town of Colonie, the idea for a park moves from a concept to reality, The Open Space Institute funds acquisition of another twenty-odd acres. The Town and the Hudson River Greenway contribute additional funds.
2002 -Schuyler Flatts Cultural Park opens. The plaque, rescued from the 1962 fire, is rededicated.
2016 – The remains of 14 unidentified Schuyler slaves found on Flatts land were re-interred in St. Agnes Cemetery.
The channel that formed Breaker Island was filled in by the construction of exit 7 of Interstate 787 with NY Route 378. The Hudson River remains on its east bank, with various creeks, ponds, small lakes, and marshes on the west side.
The Schuyler house was the prototype of the Vancour Mansion in Paulding’s “The Dutchman’s Fireside.”
Some think the arsenal was built at Watervliet because Troy was an important iron-producing city, but it’s quite possible that location was chosen because of Schuyler Flatts’ history as a strategically-situated arsenal.
Mrs. Anne Grant wrote a book about Madame Schuyler, called “Memoirs of an American Lady.”
In this passage she describes the interior of the mansion:
“It was a large brick house of two, or rather three stories (for there were excellent attics), besides a sunk story, finished with exactest neatness. The lower floor had two spacious rooms, with large, light closets; on the first there were three rooms, and in the upper one four. Through the middle of the house was a wide passage, with opposite front and back doors, which in summer admitted a stream of air peculiarly grateful to the languid senses. It was furnished with chairs and pictures like a summer parlor. Here the family usually sat in hot weather, when there were no ceremonious strangers.
“ One room, I should have said, in the greater house only, was opened for the reception of company; all the rest were bedchambers for their accommodation, while the domestic friends of the family occupied neat little bedrooms in the attics or the winter-house. This house contained no drawing-room — that was an unheard-of luxury; the winter rooms had carpets; the lobby had oilcloth painted in lozenges, to imitate blue and white marble. The best bedroom was hung with family portraits, some of which were admirably executed; and in the eating-room, which, by the by, was rarely used for that purpose, were some Scriptural paintings.
“ The house fronted the river, on the brink of which, under shades of elm and sycamore, ran the great road toward Saratoga, Stillwater, and the northern lakes; a little simple avenue of morella cherry trees, enclosed with a white rail, led to the road and river, not three hundred yards distant.”
[Note: All corrections are welcome. I am not a historian, just a curious researcher. Most of this information was completely new to me, so forgive me any lapses or errors.]