Frederick Douglass on the Albany of 1847

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The remarkable and legendary Abolitionist was a frequent visitor to Albany. In 1845 he placed his oldest daughter, Rosetta, with 2 Quaker sisters, Abigail and Lydia Mott, who lived on Maiden Lane near Broadway; she lived quite comfortably for about 5 years under their care and tutelage. (They were cousins of Lucretia Mott, the women’s rights activist and abolitionist; they too were politically active and were conductors in Albany’s Underground Railroad.)

In 1847 Douglass wrote a description of Albany to a friend. (In 1845 he had become world famous after publication of his memoir about his life as a slave and flight to freedom in 1838.)

By way of background: at the time he wrote the letter Albany was the 10th largest city in the U.S., with a population of about 50,000. In the period between 1820 and 1850 the population of Albany exploded. Between 1820 and 1830, it doubled, due to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Between 1830 and 1850 the population doubled again.

There were signs of growing pains all over the City that was bursting at the seams in 1847.

The staid Old Dutch village has been overrun by businessman and politicians. Its geography worked for and against it. The Canal had been the catalyst for a manufacturing hub in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. The last slaves in New York State had been freed 20 years before; Albany has been the largest slave holding county in the State for at least 100 years previous. There were many free persons of color struggling to get a foothold in the middle class, while simultaneously advancing the cause of Abolition elsewhere in the country and providing a path to freedom in Canada for those poor souls in slave states. Immigrant populations (mostly German and Jewish) had begun pouring into country through the harbors of New York and Boston. Many made their way to Albany, as a gateway to the vast lands of the west; some stayed here. Like any Boomtown, It became a mecca for hucksters, grifters and speculators.

In the fall of 1847 Douglass had traveled to Albany (and Troy) for a series of meetings and speeches. And while Douglass found a few things here to praise — it’s fair to say he came away rather unimpressed by the city of Albany, which at the time was a key center for politics and transportation.

From a letter Douglass wrote to the abolitionist Sydney Gay in October of that year after leaving the city:

“Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal, and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.”

Douglass touches on the history of slavery in Albany and the city’s apparent inertia in the face of reform.

“Like most other metropolitan towns and cities, Albany is by no means remarkable for either the depth or intensity of its interest in reform. No great cause was ever much indebted to Albany for assistance. Many reasons might be given, accounting for the tardiness of its people in matters of reform in general, and Anti-Slavery reform in particular. I believe that many of its wealthiest and most influential families have either been slaveholders, or are connected with slaveholders by family ties, and it is not too much to presume that they have not been entirely purified and cleansed of the old leaven. Their influence is yet visible on the face of this community.”

“The evil that men do lives after them.” Thirty years ago, and slaves were held, bought and sold, in this same goodly city; and in the darkness of midnight, the panting fugitive, running from steeples and [d]omes, swam the cold waters of the Hudson, and sought a refuge from Albany man-hunters, in the old Bay State. The beautiful Hudson as then to the slaves of this State, what the Ohio is to slaves in Virginia and Kentucky. The foul upas has been cut down for nearly thirty years, and yet its roots of poison and bitterness may be felt in the moral soil of this community, obstructing the plough of reform, and disheartening the humble labourer. Many efforts have been made to awaken the sympathies, quicken the moral sense, and rouse the energies of this community in the Anti-Slavery cause — but to very little purpose. many of the best and ablest advocates of the slave, including George Thompson, of London, have wrought here, but apparently in vain. So hard and so dead are its community considered to be, our lecturers pass through it from year to year without dreaming of the utility of holding a meeting in it; all are disposed to think Slavery may be abolished in the United States without aid of Albany. Like Webster, of New Hampshire, they think this a good place to emigrate from.

Situated on the banks of the noble Hudson, near the head of navigation, Albany is the grand junction of eastern and western travel. Its people have a restless, unstable, and irresponsible appearance, altogether unfavourable to reform. A flood of immorality and disgusting brutality is poured into the city through the great Erie Canal, and the very cheap travel on the Hudson facilitates the egress of a swarm of loafers and rum-suckers from New York. I have received more of insult, and encountered more of low black-guardism in the streets of this city in one day than I should meet with in Boston during a whole month.

Excerpted in part from a February 2, 2016 post in All Over Albany.com

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Why is the twin bridge on the Northway over the Mohawk River named after a Polish guy?

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Great question: The Polish guy is Thaddeus Kościuszko a Polish/Lithuanian immigrant and a largely unsung hero of the American Revolution. The Bridge, connecting Albany and Saratoga Counties, commemorates a remarkable man who played a critical role, serving as an engineer, in the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga, the “turning point” of the Revolution.

He was an extraordinary man, a citizen of the world, who fought for the rights and liberty of all men and women against the tyranny of oppressive governments and institutions. (He found slavery of any kind, from African-Americans to feudal peasants in Europe, a particularly malignant evil.)

Act I – Early Life
Kosciuszko was born in 1746 in a small village, the youngest son of a poor noble family. He received training at the royal military academy and became an Army captain. Shortly thereafter a civil war arose in his country – his brother fought for insurgents; rather than take sides, Kosciuszko emigrated to France. He wanted to join the French Army, but couldn’t because he wasn’t French, so he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Sculpture in Paris. In his spare time he studied in the libraries of the French military academies, learning economics, engineering, and military science. After 5 years he returned to home, but found there was no place in the Army for him. Ultimately he returned to Paris, where he learned about the nascent American Revolution.

Act 2 -The American Revolution
In 1776 Kosciuszko appeared one day at the print shop of Ben Franklin in Philadelphia (everyone, even the French, knew about Franklin). Franklin spent time with the young man, assessing his abilities and sent him off with a letter of introduction to the Continental Congress. Congress gave him an appointment as a colonel in the Continental Army and his work began – building fortifications around and near Philadelphia and along the Delaware River.

In summer 1777 he went north with General Horatio Gates, Commander of the Northern Department of the Continental Army, to Albany and then on to Fort Ticonderoga. Kosciuszko proposed placement of a battery on higher ground, on Sugar Loaf Mt. (now Mt. Defiance), overlooking the Fort; his recommendation was ignored. Subsequently the Fort was lost to General Burgoyne and the British army who laid siege, using the higher ground to their advantage. The Americans abandoned the Fort, slipping away using a flotilla of small boats and an ingenious floating log bridge of Kosciuszko’s design.

As the Americans fled, Albany’s own General Philip Schuyler adopted a “scorched earth” policy to cover the American escape and delay Burgoyne’s Army. Kosciuszko led the effort to destroy bridges and causeways, dam streams to cause flooding and fell trees. He was then ordered to survey the area north of Albany to find the best site to build defensible fortifications against the British. He selected Saratoga and began construction of defenses that proved impenetrable. Burgoyne was forced to surrender. General Gates, said after the battle “…the great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampment.”

After Saratoga, Kosciuszko was dispatched to improve fortifications at West Point. (Benedict Arnold was going to pass Kosciuszko’s plans to Major Andre.) He remained at West Point until he requested a transfer to the Southern Army in 1780 where the battle for the country had moved. Again, Kosciuszko distinguished himself through his brilliant engineering skills and his bravery.

In 1783 he was appointed Brigadier General, granted American citizenship and given property. By now he was 37, a man of middle age at the time. But the remarkable life of Thaddeus Kosciuszko had only just begun. The next year he returned home to Poland.

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Act 3 – Back to Poland and the Kościuszko Uprising
In the late 1780s he was appointed a Major General in the Army. Kosciuszko joined his country’s reform movement that produced the first Constitution in Europe. But the democratic ideals were viewed as a threat to the surrounding feudal countries. In 1792, the Russian army (with help from the Prussians) invaded. Kosciuszko proved a brilliant military strategist, winning several great battles against formidable Russians troops. But ultimately the king surrendered to the army of Catherine the Great and Kosciuszko and other members of the Resistance fled.

Biding his time, Kosciuszko planned how to free his country. Several years later Kosciuszko led troops determined to oust the Russians. After a number of great victories Kosciuszko was wounded, captured by the Russians and taken to St. Petersburg. (The uprising was soon over.) Ultimately he was pardoned by Tsar Paul, who also agreed to release 20,000 Polish freedom fighters (and gave him some money) if he took a loyalty oath and agreed never to return to Poland. (Later Kosciuszko tried to return the money when he renounced the oath; the Tsar refused to accept it.)

Act 4 – Back to America
After his release Kosciuszko returned to Philadelphia, catching up with old friends, collecting his back military pay and forming a lasting friendship with then Vice-President Thomas Jefferson*. It appears he meant to remain in America, but events on the other side of the Atlantic intervened. He learned his nephews and other Poles were fighting in France under Napoleon and the new French government of the Revolution was seeking his support in taking the fight to the Prussians occupying his beloved Poland. He was eager to go to Europe, but concerned he could be a target of the new Alien and Sedition Act (1798) which could be used strip him of his American citizenship and prevent his re-entry into the U.S. (This was an era of un-declared hostilities between America and France.) Jefferson secured Kosciuszko a false passport and he left for France as a secret envoy. He later wrote: “Jefferson considered that I would be the most effective intermediary in bringing an accord with France, so I accepted the mission even if without any official authorization.”

Act V -Return to Europe
By the time Kościuszko arrived in June 1798, plans had changed. While involved in Polish émigré circles in France, he refused command of Polish troops serving with the French. He had several testy meetings with Napoleon; there was mutual dislike. Kościuszko withdrew from political and military life to the French countryside, not being permitted to leave France.

Years later when Napoleon did reach Poland Kosciuszko mistrusted his intentions and refused an alliance. After Napoleon was deposed Tsar Alexander I approached him, trying to broker a political deal involving Russian control of part of Poland. Kosciusko demanded political and social reforms which the Tsar was not willing to grant. Kosciuszko finally went to live in free Switzerland where he remained until his death in 1817. (Just before his death he freed the serfs on his remaining Polish land; the Tsar undid the emancipation.)

A great life well-lived in the defense of ideals freedom and equality for all.

*Upon leaving America, Kosciuszko wrote a will leaving his American property to Jefferson in order to purchase the freedom of slaves and to educate them. After Kosciuszko’s death in 1817, Jefferson said he was unable to act as executor. The case of Kościuszko’s American estate went three times to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court eventually ruled that the property belonged to Kosciuszko’s heirs in the 1850s.

“I Thaddeus Kosciuszko being just in my departure from America do hereby declare and direct that should I make no other testamentary disposition of my property in the United States I hereby authorise my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing Negroes from among his own or any others and giving them liberty in my name, in giving them an education in trades or otherwise and in having them instructed for their new condition in the duties of morality which may make them good neighbours, good fathers or mothers, husbands or wives and in their duties as citizens teaching them to be defenders of their liberty and Country and of the good order of society and in whatsoever may make them happy and useful and I make the said Thomas Jefferson my executor of this. T. Kosciuszko 5th day of May 1798”
~ Last Will and Testament

The French Revolution, Aristocrats, the Schuylers and Delatour Rd.

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Jean-Frédéric de La Tour-du-Pin Gouvernet was a French nobleman and politician. He defended Marie-Antoinette during her trial before the prosecutor. Consequently, he was guillotined in April 1794 (as was his elder brother) during the Reign of Terror during the really nasty years of the French Revoluton. Paris was awash in aristocratic blood.

His son Frederic, a Marquis as well and his young wife, Henriette-Lucy Dillon, age 24- (whose father was also executed during the Reign) fled for their lives to America. Henriette was especially vulnerable – she had been a lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette (as had her mother). The Queen liked to be surrounded by young, beautiful and stylish women.

The Marquis and Marquise first arrived at Boston in 1794, without “a single letter of introduction.” The owner of the ship they crossed on offered them the use of a farm he owned 18 miles from Boston, but the Marquis wanted to be “as near as possible to Canada, where he would have liked to settle.” From another exile in England came word of an American connection, a Mrs. Church, who made a recommendation to a family residing at Albany. “She was a daughter of General Schuyler who had gained a great reputation during the War of Independence … His eldest daughter had married the head of the Van Rensselaer family which was settled at Albany and possessed a large fortune in the county.” The connection made, they soon received “very pressing letters from General Schuyler in which he urged us to come without delay to Albany, where he assured us we would easily be able to establish ourselves.”

“At Boston I sold everything among the effects which we had brought with us which could bring us in a little money. As the ‘Diane’ had made the voyage without cargo, our baggage, which had cost us nothing to transport, was very considerable. We disposed of more than half of it; clothing, cloth, laces, a piano, music, porcelains – everything which would be superfluous in our little household was converted into money and then into drafts upon persons of responsibility at Albany. After remaining a month at Boston we set out with our two children, Humbert and Séraphine, the first of June, and fifteen days later we arrived at Albany. We traversed the whole state of Massachusetts, of which we admired the fertility and the air of prosperity. But a sad piece of news had made me so melancholy that I did not enjoy anything. Before leaving Boston my husband had heard of the death of my father who perished on the scaffold the thirteenth of April.”

They stayed with General Schuyler briefly, and he arranged for them to live for three months with the Jan Van Buren family, who lived not far from his brother, Col. Schuyler’s farm, and very close by the new village of Troy. They went to live “with Mr. Van Buren to learn American manners, as we had made it a condition of living with this family that they were not to change in any way the customs of the house. It was also arranged that Mrs. Van Buren should employ me in the housework the same as if I were one of her daughters.” Another Frenchman accompanying them, M. de Chambeau, “began an apprenticeship with a carpenter of the little growing city of Troy situated at a quarter of a mile from the Van Buren farm.” When news of the executions of the fathers of the Marquis and M. de Chambeau came:

“As I was a very good seamstress, I fashioned for myself my mourning costume, and my good hostess, having thus learned to appreciate the skill of my needle, found it very pleasant to have a seamstress at her command without cost, when she would have been obliged to pay a dollar a day and board if she had hired one from Albany.”

They were awaiting the arrival of funds from Holland so they could purchase a farm, and their plans in that regard, to do things the American way, tell some of the shameful hidden history of the Albany area:

“General Schuyler and Mr. Van Rensselaer advised my husband to divide his funds into three equal parts: A third for the purchase; a third for the management, the purchase of negroes, horses, cows, agricultural implements and household furniture, and a third part, added to what remained of the 12,000 francs brought by us from Bordeaux, for a reserve fund to meet unexpected circumstances, such as the loss of negroes or cattle and also for living expenses the first year. This arrangement became our rule of conduct.”

New York would not pass its first gradual emancipation law until 1799. At this time, by the evidence of the Marquise, it was simply presumed that if you were going to launch a prosperous farm, you would do so with slaves. By way of comparison, Vermont abolished adult slavery when it broke from New York with its own constitution in 1777, though there were apparently violations of the law. That was 22 years before New York’s first step toward abolition, which didn’t take on the first try.

In September 1794, the Marquis entered negotiations with a farmer “situated on the other side of the river, upon the road from Troy to Schenectady, a distance of two miles in the interior … The house was new, pretty and in very good condition. The land was only partially under cultivation. There were one hundred and fifty acres sown down, as many in woods and pasturage, a small kitchen garden of a quarter of an acre full of vegetables, and finally a handsome orchard sown with red clover and plated with cider apples. They asked us 12,000 francs. General Schuyler did not think the price exorbitant. The property was situated at four miles from Albany, upon a route which they were going to open up to communicate with the city of Schenectady, which was in a thriving situation.”

While no longer a farm, the house still stands today – on the land of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, just up from where Watervliet-Shaker Road intersects with … Delatour Road. Delatour. De La Tour. As in the name of the Marquis and Marquise. (That’s the “oh, duh!” moment.)

“The girl who attended mass at Louis XVI’s Versailles in a pink dress and six million francs’ worth of diamonds, within a decade was milking her own cow in upstate New York.”

She is said to have stamped her family crest on the butter she churned and sent to market.

By Carl Johnson

The Women of Colonial Albany

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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 – a slave
Sara Gansevoort
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. alioda.jpg

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