Albany in the 1750s

In the middle of the 18th century Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm made a trip to America; in June 1749 he stayed at Albany, and wrote of his visit.

At this time Albany, although chartered as a city, was really just a large village of about 1,300 and perhaps 250 homes. It was an odd combination of sleepy rural village and frontier town; proper Dutch burghers, Indians and buckskin clad traders. Churches, taverns and trading posts seemed to have equal importance. Someone once said that when the Dutch of Albany weren’t in church, they worshipped the God of Commerce.

(Don’t be shocked. Albany was founded by a corporation, and then one man, The first Patroon – a diamond merchant – for the sole purpose of making money. Individual settlers may have come for other reasons, but it was established as an investment.)

Sweep away, if you can, every image of Albany you have today and try to imagine the Albany of over two centuries ago,

The City
Most of the inhabitants still lived within the stockade, although the population had begun to expand (mostly south) outside the fort’s walls about 20 years before. There were still block houses on the corners of the stockade.

The inhabited part of the city extended only a bit farther west than South Pearl St; beyond there was nothing except hills and deep forest. To the north lay the Patroon’s Manor (about where Tivoli St. is today), and then the Patroon’s Creek that cut through the deep gorge of Tivoli Hollow. Below that was the Foxenkill just inside the fort walls, slicing another gorge (which is Sheridan Hollow today). It was crossed by a bridge at North Pearl St.

The Ruttenkill flowed down from Lark St. between Hudson Ave. and State St. It created another deep ravine (filled in the 1800s) and in 1749 it was crossed by several bridges. To the south of the fort stockade were several new streets, extending to about Division St. Then came the Beaver Kill – it twisted south from what is now Western Ave. down through today’s Lincoln Park (creating the roiling and foamy Buttermilk Falls), then flowing into the river. Just above the Beaverkill was “the Pastures”, a communal grazing spot and an area with some small farms and gardens.

As Kalm sailed up the Hudson he noted many ships of all kinds and sizes sailing south to NYC loaded with wood, furs and grain.

The Cityscape
He found the houses within the stockade built close together, in the Dutch tradition, with large deep back gardens, cow sheds, chicken coops and fruit trees. “The houses are very neat.. some are slated with tiles from Holland.. most are built in the old way., with the gable-ends towards the street. The street doors are generally in the middle of the houses; and on both sides are seats.. In the evening these seats are covered by people of both sexes. but that’s rather troublesome, as those who pass by are obliged to greet everyone, unless they will shock the inhabitants with their impoliteness”.

Most house had wells, (there were public wells installed in each of the city’s 3 wards in the early 1700s), but water was taken from the Hudson for brewing and washing. It was placed in the cellar until the muddy “slime” sunk to the bottom.
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Kalm notes the streets were broad and some are paved; in some parts they’re lined with trees, but he says they’re very dirty because the people leave their cattle in them on summer nights.

Kalm says: “There are two churches in Albany, an English one and a Dutch one.” (Note: there was also a Lutheran Church in the southwest corner of the city.) “The Dutch Church stands some distance from the river on the east side of the market, and it has a small steeple with a bell… The English Church (St. Peter’s Church) is situated on the hill, at the west end of the market, directly under the fort… The Town Hall (called the Stadt Huys) lies to the southward of the Dutch Church, close by the river side. It is a fine building of stone, three stories high. It has a small tower.. with a bell and a gilt ball and a vane.” The street that goes between the 2 churches is five times broader than the others and serves as a market place “to which country people resort twice a week.

(Five years later Ben Franklin would come to the Stadt Huys and propose his “Albany Plan of Union”. In 1775 his Plan would form the basis for establishment of the Continental Congress, and later the Articles of Confederation, precursor to the US Constitution. Albany has some mighty fine history!!)

“The fort on a step hill is a building of stone surrounded with high thick walls. Its situation is very bad, as it can only serve to keep away of plundering parties” . (Given the high hills that surrounded it, they could be used for offensive purposes).

Although Kalm doesn’t describe other buildings in the city, but we know there was the Staats House on the southeast corner of State and South Pearl Streets, dating back to the 1660s. It was the Schuyler family manse where Philip Schuyler and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton were born. Across the street was the “Vanderhuyden Palace”, built in 1725, on the corner of State and North Pearl Streets. On the corner of N. Pearl and Steuben, close to the stockade was a building known in the mid-1700s as a trading post and lodging house for Indians who came to trade.

Domestic Life
“The inhabitants of Albany are Dutch, they speak Dutch and their manners are Dutch”.

“The women are perfectly well acquainted with economy; they rise early, go to sleep late and are almost over nice and cleanly with regard to the floor, which is frequently scoured several times in the week. The servants in the town are chiefly Negroes.” *

The kitchens were the gathering places in most homes. The fire places were enormous; large enough to roast a whole cow. Larger homes had a “front room”. They drank mostly beer and water, sometimes tea; coffee not at home. We know every day meals were modest, but in great abundance – bread, cheese and butter, with salads and vegetables, and fowl and fish (Albany was known for its sturgeon – called “Albany Beef” – it fairly leaped out of the Hudson into fishing nets.)

Trade
Kalm noted the city was advantageous for trade. The quay (dock) was made sturdily to withstand winter ice and spring flooding, and the river was so deep ships could come close to shore.

Kalm notes “there is not a place in all the British colonies where such quantities of furs and skins are brought of the Indians, as at Albany”. He says most of the Albany’s merchants or their clerks traded with tribes at Oswego in the summer. “Indians are frequently cheated especially when they are in liquor” and received as little as 1/10 of the value of their goods. “The merchants of Albany glory in these tricks.”

Besides the trade at Oswego, Indians came to Albany, especially from Canada, since Canadian merchants used the Indians to smuggle the furs to Albany. They returned with goods that were cheaper in Albany- like wool and other cloth (flax) made on the estates of Albany merchants outside of the city. He noted many residents of Albany engaged in making wampum to trade with the Indians. And thus, Kalm concluded that that the devotion to making money, coupled with their innate frugality served to make many Albany residents very wealthy.

*Albany County had one of the largest enslaved population outside of the South. Slaves were first brought to Beverwyck in its earliest days- over a century before 1749. The labor of the enslaved was part of Albany’s economic engine that contributed to its wealth. In the city most of the enslaved were women and young boys and girls – at least 10% of the population in the mid-1700s. The estates and farms outside of the city owned by city merchants and burghers depended on adult male labor. As far as we know, unlike NYC, Albany had no central “slave market”. It’s likely there were mostly private sales and public sales took place in taverns or coffee houses.

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.