In 1756 Britain officially declared war on France. The hostilities in North America are generally known as the French and Indian War (since most Native Americans sided with the French).
Before the official declaration there had been major military actions in New York State including an expedition to Crown Point that ended with the Battle of Lake George. With the declaration more British regular troops were sent to the colonies. Many of those ended up in Albany, as did militia men from surrounding states, like Connecticut and Massachusetts since Albany was a “jumping off” point for expeditions north to Canada and west to Niagara held by the French.
As a result Fort Frederick at the top of State St. hill was re-fortified by the British. Albany became one of the 2 major supply depots (the other was in Halifax, NS). The Army built storehouses, warehouses and powder houses,as well as an armory, a hospital and barracks.
The occupation of Albany by the British became a constant source of friction. They took city land and billeted soldiers in citizen’s houses. (This is why there is an amendment in the U.S. Constitution against quartering, since it happened not only in Albany , but in Boston and other cities.) Albany’s response seems to have been especially angry, and near riots broke out.
Lord Loudon, who became the second British commander in North America, commissioned an inventory in late 1756 of the householders, and the number of rooms and fireplaces in each residence within the stockade. There were 329 homes. (Two of the houses remain – the Quackenbush House on Broadway and the Van Ostrande-Ratliffe House on Hudson Ave.)
It’s been estimated that at peak military strength in 1758 British Army regulars and militia men numbered 42,000. Heaven only knows how many funneled through Albany.
Abraham Yates, a member of the Common Council at the time would become head of the Albany Committee on Correspondence in the Revolutionary War (the de facto government). In his journal he complains bitterly about the military presence in the City in the Seven Years War. There is speculation that his experience, as with others, made him especially desirous of throwing off the British yoke of oppression.
In the mid 1750s Albany was mostly a town of Dutch Burghers. So our sleepy little town came alive. Perhaps no other event changed Albany so much, in so many ways. And despite the hostilities with the British command there was money to be made.
There are only few accounts of the time, but it’s clear the War was a boon to merchants and tavern owners. Albany became a boom town, not dissimilar from the gold rush towns of the Old West. The narrow streets were clogged with British regiments, including Scots Highlanders, the guerrilla fighters of Rogers Rangers, Iroquois warriors who sided with the British, and businessman eager to secure military contracts.
Taverns overflowed and drunks spilled into the streets. Dice games became the norm. Charlatans, hucksters, con men and grifters made their way up the River.
Local farmers brought in goods by the wagon load everyday, and the Riverfront was full of ships and barges moving men and supplies (including rum from the British West Indies). The wharves and docks thrummed with activity. Coopers making barrels worked at warp speed, cordwinders (rope makers) were in short supply. Blacksmith forges clanged constantly. Bakeries churned out loaf after loaf, breweries produced prodigious quantities of ale. Industrious Dutch housewives developed side hustles – making cheese, selling eggs, planting larger vegetable gardens.
Along with the soldiers came the women who the British army had hired to cook, and wash and nurse the men. Charlotte Browne was the matron who came to Albany in the early days of the War. Her journal describes a hospital that was little more than “a shed”. When she first arrived the local Dutch women had a low opinion of her, and thought her to be General Braddock’s mistress. (Braddock was the first British commander in the North American theatre of operations.)
On the hill around the Fort you would see small lean-tos and shanty towns,full of women like Ms. Browne paid by the army, as well as camp followers often married to ordinary soldiers. These women supported themselves (and sometimes their children who traveled with them) as domestic servants for the British officers. It’s quite clear from the writings left by General Braddock that these women were considered to be as much a part of the army, and subject to similar discipline, as the soldiers.
But it was against a back drop of war the scenes on the Albany streets played out. In the early days there must have been much fear as initially British losses mounted; a brutal massacre at Fort William Henry, a loss in Oswego, another at Ticonderoga, and the noose around Albany seemed to tighten. However in 1758 a new British prime minister deployed more troops and the tide turned. The decisive victory was in 1759 in Quebec when British General Wolfe defeated General Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham.
According to Stefan Bielinski in his Colonial Albany Project Albany said Albany was never the same after the War. Some of the newcomers stayed in the city, and it began to change for the first time in about 140 years. But not a lot. Because that’s not the Albany way, and never has been.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor