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

How Albany Celebrates its Birthday – the Dongan Charter, July 22 1686

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77 years after Henry Hudson landed on our shores in 1609 Albany became a city. On July 22, 1686, the Royal Governor of the New York colony, Thomas Dongan (BTW..much has been made of the fact that he was an Irishman and a Catholic), granted the city of Albany a royal charter. The charter was crucial because it separated the City of Albany from the rest of the Patroon’s holdings (a/k/a Rensselaerwyck) and created its own identity. Charter provisions also fixed Albany’s boundaries, created a city government structure, and identified trading rights.

The first meeting of the new government was held on July 26, 1686 and Pieter Schuyler.. yes of the venerable Schuyler family, was the first mayor. Some historians say the fee for the Charter was $1,500 for Dongan and $120 for his Secretary – with payment of one beaver pelt per year to the English monarch. (We assume that debt was cancelled in 1776.)

We don’t know if the 100th birthday of Albany was celebrated in 1786 – our guess is yes.. and with more than a tipple or two. (Ben Franklin collected more than 200 words/phrases to describe having over indulged- colonial Americans drank all day, every day – from early in the morning until they went to bed.)

4But by 1886, for our 200th birthday, we do know there was a citywide bicentennial bash that lasted an entire week. Public events included an immense illuminated parade with floats depicting the history of the City, Scottish games and a boat regatta, public concerts, grand orations, a military parade and fireworks. Visitors swarmed the City.

 

 

 

19By 1936, there was a sense that Albany needed to do something to celebrate her 250th birthday. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and everyone needed a lift. Again there were massive citywide celebrations – a parade, a ball, concerts, church celebrations and a regatta. John Boyd Thacher, Mayor at the time, was the master of ceremonies, welcoming residents and visitors to the citywide festivities; he was everywhere and everyplace, it seems at the same time. His great uncle, John Boyd Thacher, had done the same when he was Mayor 100 years before during Albany’s Bicentennial. (We do like tradition in Albany.)

26In 1986 when the City’s 300th birthday rolled around, we partied on and off for a year -had a parade, a regatta, a celebratory ball, tall ships, historical exhibits, a balloon fest in Washington Park and a riverfront festival with Mayor Tom Whalen at the helm.

Since this is the Big 330, enjoy these images from past celebrations and we suggest you lift a glass to the oldest continuously chartered in the United States. The Dongan Charter still rules.

The Un-Dutching of Albany

“Albany was indeed Dutch, in all its moods and tenses; thoroughly and inveterately Dutch.”

But even the dogs changed their accents.

The following is from “Random Recollections of Albany: From 1800 to 1808” (published in 1866).. It was written by Gorham A. Worth, a banker who had lived here during his 20s and then went on to make a lot of money and impart upon the world his recollections of multiple places, including Hudson and Cincinnati.

Anyway, there’s an interesting section early in Worth’s book that recalls a significant change in Albany: the shift from Dutch culture to a more English/American/Yankee culture. Spoiler: Albany wasn’t a fan of change
“The Yankees were creeping in. Every day added to their number; and the unhallowed hand of innovation was seen pointing its impertinent finger at the cherished habits and venerated customs of the ancient burgers.”
It’s a fun and interesting read, so we clipped it…
Worth’s recollection of Albany in 1800 is of a city that he regarded as a kind of backwater — but, um, in a good way. “Nothing could be more unique or picturesque to the eye, than Albany in its primitive days. Even at the period above mentioned, it struck me as peculiarly naive and beautiful. All was antique, clean and quiet.”
He continues a little later on…””Pearl street, it must be remembered, was, in those days, the west end for the town; for there the town ended, and there resided some of the most aristocratic of the ancient burgers. There, a little after sunrise, in a mild spring morning, might be seen, sitting by the side of their doors, the ancient and venerable Mynheers with their little sharp cocked hats, or red-ringed worsted caps (as the case might be), drawn tight over their heads. There they sat, like monuments of a former age, still lingering on the verge of time; or like mile-stones upon a turnpike road, solus in solo! or, in simple English, unlike anything I had ever seen before. But there they sat, smoking their pipes in that dignified silence, and with that phlegmatic gravity, which would have done honor to Sir Wonter Van Twiller, or even to Puffendorf himself. The whole line of the street, on either side, was dotted by the little clouds of smoke, that, issuing from their pipes, and, curling around their noddles, rose slowly up the antique gables, and mingled with the morning air; giving beauty to the scene, and adding an air of life to the picture. But the great charm was in the novelty of the thing. I had seen a Dutch house before, but never till then had I seen a row of Dutchmen smoking in a Dutch city.

Albany was indeed Dutch, in all its moods and tenses; thoroughly and inveterately Dutch. The buildings were Dutch–Dutch in style, in position, attitude and aspect. The people were Dutch, the horses were Dutch, and even the dogs were Dutch. If any confirmation were wanting, as to the origin and character of the place, it might be found in the old Dutch church, which was itself always to be found in the middle of State street, looking as if it had been wheeled out of line by the giants of old, and there left; or had dropped down from the clouds in a dark night, and had stuck fast where it fell.

All the old buildings in the city — and they constituted a large majority — were but one story high, with sharp peaked roofs, surmounted by a rooster, vulgarly called a weathercock. Every house, having any pretensions to dignity, was placed with its gable end to the street, and was ornamented with huge iron numericals, announcing the date of its erection; while from its eaves long wooden gutters, or spouts, projected in front some six or seven feet, so as to discharge the water from the roof, when it rained, directly over the centre of the sidewalls. This was probably contrived for the benefit of those who were compelled to be out in wet weather, as it furnished them with an extra shower-bath free of expense.
But the destined hour was drawing near. The Yankees were creeping in. Every day added to their number; and the unhallowed hand of innovation was seen pointing its impertinent finger at the cherished habits and venerated customs of the ancient burgers. These meddling eastern Saxons at length obtained a majority in the city councils; and then came an order, with a handsaw, to “cut off those spouts.” Nothing could exceed the consternation of the aforesaid burgers, upon the announcement of this order. Had it been a decree abolishing their mother tongue, it could hardly have excited greater astonishment, or greater indignation. “What!” said they, “are our own spouts, then, to be measured and graduated by a corporation standard! Are they to be cut off or foreshortened, without our knowledge or consent!” But the Dutch still retained the obstinacy, if not the valor, of their ancestors. They rallied their forces and at the next election, the principal author of the obnoxious order (my old friend Elkanah Watson), was elected a constable of the ward in which he lived! This done, they went to sleep again; and before they awoke, new swarms had arrived, and a complete and thorough revolution had taken place. The Yankees were in possession of the city! and the fate of the Dutch was sealed.

A restless, leveling, innovating spirit, now prevailed throughout the city. The detested word improvement was in every mouth, and resistance was unavailing. The stinted pines became alarmed, and gradually receded. The hills themselves gave way. New streets opened their extended lines, and the old ones grew wider. The roosters on the gable heads, that for more than a century had braved the Indians and the breeze; that had even flapped their wings and crowed in the face of Burgoyne himself, now gave it up, and came quietly down. The gables in despair soon followed, and more imposing fronts soon reared their corniced heads. The old Dutch Church itself, thought to be immortal, submitted to its fate and fell! not at the foot of Pompey’s statute, exactly, but at the foot of State street, which freed from the obstruction thenceforward became the Rialto of the city, where peddlers of stale sea-cod, and country hucksters, now do congregate.

Even the dogs now began to bark in broken English; many of them, indeed, had already caught the Yankee twang, so rapid was the progress of refinement. In the process of a few brief years, all that was venerable in the eyes of the ancient burgers disappeared. Then came the great eclipse of 1806, which clearly announced the fall and final end of the Dutch dynasty. It is hardly necessary to say, that not an iron rooster has crowed upon the gable heads, nor a civil cocked hat been seen in the ancient city of Albany, from that day to this.”

Worth then goes on to discuss the famous local families of the time, many of them with names that still echo today: Van Rensselaer, Ten Broeck, Gansevoort, Lansing, Van Schaick, Ten Eyck, Pruyn, and so on.

Excerpted from 8/24/17 All Over Albany

When Beverwyck Became Albany

21368835_1420857011295890_3185812859761615391_oOn  September 8, 1664 the Dutch peacefully surrender New Netherlands to the English.

On September 10, the new British Governor Nicholls sent troops up the Hudson to Beverwyck to demand the peaceful surrender of the “Fort Aurania”, aurania being the Latin name for “orange” that the English used when referring to Fort Orange.

It was not until September 24, 1664 that vice-director of New Netherland Dutch West India Co., Johannes de Montagne, surrendered the fort to the English, and Colonel George Cartwright took command. On the 25th, Captain John Manning was given control of the fort. Beverwyck was re-named Albany and the fort became Fort Albany;

New York, the state and city, were named after James I, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II, to whom Charles had awarded the land. James also held the title Duke of Albany, a Scottish peerage. (Albany is a corruption of Albia or Alba, an ancient Scots Gaelic name for part of Scotland.)