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.

Julie O’Connor