Willett Rock in Washington Park

 

4Recently we were asked, “Hey, what’s the deal with the boulder in Washington Park?”

A great question and timely too. The boulder is known as “Willett Rock” and commemorates Lt. Colonel Marinus Willett, a soldier who played a pivotal role in the American Revolution and went on to be mayor of New York City in the early 1800s.

But what does that have to do with Albany? A LOT!!

In summer 1777 British forces under Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger were making their way east along the Mohawk Valley to join General Burgoyne coming down from the north – objective Albany. The British were making their way up the Hudson as well and there was no doubt Albany would be occupied by the British. It was only a matter of time. Albany was a strategic and tactical target. Albany, as the epicenter of the Northern Department of the Continental Army, was the site of military storehouses, warehouses, a powder house and armory. It was the staging area for all American troops in the Northern Department as well as the site of the military hospital (at Pine and Lodge). More importantly, occupation of the Hudson from Albany to New york City would give British control of New York State and separate New England (thought to be the heart of the resistance) from the other colonies – dividing the burgeoning Union.

Albany in Peril
The city was faced with the prospect of “savage butchery and unscrupulously soldiery” under the British and their Indian allies. It was a long hot summer of terror. The city was over-crowded, filled with people who had fled to Albany in the face of Burgoyne’s march south. Extra supplies were being stockpiled in the Fort at the top of the hill. Those planning to stay were prepared to defend the city (People were ready to bury their silver and hide their daughters.) Others were getting ready to flee. Albany would be trapped by the approaching British from the south, west, north and by the River on the east.

3The Best Laid Plans
But the British plans fell apart west of Albany at Fort Stanwix* and the Battle of Oriskany. Fort Stanwix (known then as Fort Schuyler) was first surrounded by the British, Indians (lead by Joseph Brant) and Tory and Hessian contingents on August 3, 1777, when the Fort refused to surrender. Inside the Fort were American troops under Colonel Peter Gansevoort**. His second in command was Marinus Willett.

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Old Glory
But let’s stop here for a moment – on the second day of the siege legend has it that the American flag was flown in battle for the first time. Willett recalled, “…………..a respectable one was formed the white stripes were cut…the blue strips out of a Cloak…The red stripes out of different pieces of stuff collected from sundry persons. The Flagg was sufficiently large and a general Exhilaration of spirits appeared on beholding it Wave the morning after the arrival of the enemy.”

Battle of Oriskany
On August 4 part of the British force (primarily the Indians) ambushed American forces at Oriskany, east of the Fort. The Americans were routed in one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the War. But a party of about 250 soldiers in the Fort, under the command of Colonel Willett, took the opportunity to raid and loot the British camp, making away with dozens of wagons of supplies. 38975452_242333083283004_566993364482785280_n

The British Bluff
St Leger’s command was demoralized, but banking on the victory at Oriskany he sent yet another surrender demand to the Fort. It included news (fake) that Burgoyne was in Albany, and threats Indians would be permitted to massacre the garrison and destroy the surrounding farms and communities. Willett replied, basically saying .. for a British officer you are sooooo ungentlemanly (and by the way, our answer is no).

The General’s Ruse
On the night of August 8th, Gansevoort sent Willett and another officer east, through British lines, to notify General Philip Schuyler (commander of the Northern Department) of their situation. In route they met General Benedict Arnold on his way to relieve the Fort. Although he only had a force of about 700 -800, Arnold crafted a genius disinformation campaign (involving a captured local Loyalist) to spread the word he had 3,000 troops. St. Leger’s force by that time was dwindling, through defections from the annoyed Indians (after all, Willett had stolen all their stuff and the siege was dragging on) and Hessian desertions.*** He was faced with seemingly overwhelming odds. St. Leger broke off the siege on August 22nd, and headed back west.

Victory!
So, the failure of St. Leger to bring additional troops to an already beleaguered Burgoyne led to his defeat less than 2 months later at the Battle of Saratoga (which saved Albany and changed the course of the Revolutionary War). Way to go Martinus!
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And that is story of why we wanted to honor Col. Willett – his bravery was instrumental in saving Albany.

The granite boulder was placed in Washington Park at the corner of Willett and State streets to honor Willett in 1907 by the Sons of the Revolution. ****

We have never been able to figure why a rock as a monument (rocks are cheap?). We know there was a multi-year search across upstate for just the right rock, but we’re not sure why this particular rock was selected. (It may have come from the Oriskany battlefield, but we’re not sure.)

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The plaque on the rock features a profile of Willett and the following inscription:

In Grateful Memory of General Marinus Willett 1740 – 1836
“For His Gallant and Patriotic Services In
Defense of Albany And The People of
The Mohawk Valley Against Tory And Indian
Foes During The Years of The War For
Independence, This Stone, Brought From The
Scenes of Conflict And Typical of His Rugged Character,
Has Been Placed Here Under The Auspices of The
Sons of The Revolution
In The State of New York
By The Philip Livingston Chapter
A.D. 1907”

*Fort Stanwix is a national historic site in Rome NY, north of the NYS Thruway – it’s open 7 days a week, from 9 am to 5 pm, April 1 – December 31.
**Gansevoort would later be promoted to General and was the grandfather of author Herman Melville (“Moby Dick”). He’s buried in Albany Rural Cemetery – Section 55, Plot 1.
*** The Hessian troops were the Hanau–Hesse Chasseurs. During the siege and battle they discovered they were in the middle of verdant and fertile farmland, much of the local population spoke German as their primary language and there were many pretty girls. Genealogies of the area are filled with Hessian soldiers who deserted the British army and ended up in the small villages of the Mohawk Valley populated by German Americans. They could blend in and no one would be the wiser.
**** This memorial was originally located elsewhere in the park, but was moved to its present location several years ago (we believe after having been struck several times by cars missing a sharp turn).

 

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What was there? Sunnymede Cottage

In the mid-1880s after completion of the Washington Park the Commissioners of the Park determined there needed to place for the Superintendent of the Park to live to be able to oversee the Park. They decided it couldn’t be in the Park itself (a residence would mar the grand vistas), but needed to be close. They purchased a piece of land a couple of blocks away on what was called the “Alms House Road”, to the rear of the Albany Penitentiary, (that’s what we know as Holland Ave. today), just on the corner of the New Scotland Plank Rd.

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At that time there was almost nothing there, except the Almshouse (about where the College of Pharmacy is today), a cluster of buildings (including an industrial school and a smallpox hospital) and a small farm surrounding the Almshouse. and the Penitentiary.

5An adorable fairy tale cottage was built with an almost fairy tale name, “Sunnymede”. Land was set aside for greenhouses, a nursery garden, storage buildings and barns. The Commissioners of Washington Park were given authority over all parks in the city; the cottage became the home of the City’s Superintendent of Parks and the Parks Dept.

Soon, the early 1890s, the Dudley Observatory was constructed down the road on So.Lake Ave. (demolished in the early 1970s for the Capital District Psych Center). Then came the Albany Orphan Asylum* on Academy Rd. (then Highland Ave.), Albany Hospital across the way and the New Scotland Ave. Armory* in the early 1900s. In the 1920s the Medical College re-located from Eagle St. to the Hospital. In the 1930s the Penitentiary behind Sunnymede was demolished. Albany Law School, the College of Pharmacy and Christian Brothers Academy (now used by the Pharmacy College) moved from downtown at about the same time and they were joined by a NYS Health Dept. lab. on New Scotland Ave.

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Even after the construction of the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in 1951 behind it (on what had been the Penitentiary grounds), the Parks Dept. remained snugged into that little corner.

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14Finally in 1964, after almost 80 years, the City sold land to the Hospital for??? A parking lot of course! With the money from the sale it built a new Parks Dept. in Hoffman Park just off Second Ave. Today, there’s a Hilton Garden Inn and, yes.. a parking garage in that location.

*Orphan Asylum buildings and the Armory are now part of the Sage College of Albany campus.

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Albany: Cradle of the Union (a/k/a/ Ben Franklin Slept Here)

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ben 3On July 14, 1754, many of the delegates from seven colonies (New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maryland) who attended the Albany Congress were still on their way home. The Congress was convened by NYS Lt. Gov. James Delancey for the purpose of discussing alignment of the 6 Indian Nations who attended the Congress, should there be a war with the French. But Ben Franklin had his own agenda. He wanted to discuss the “Albany Plan of Union” which would have been the first confederation of the colonies. Prior to the Congress, in May 1754 he published what is considered to be the first political cartoon in America, “Join or Die”. Ben and Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson presented the Albany “Plan of Union” which was adopted on the last day of the Congress, July 10, 1754. It was, in part, modeled after the Iroquois Confederacy. Members of the Confederacy attended and were an integral part of the Congress.

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The Congress was held in the Stadt Huys (City Hall)* at the intersection of State and Broadway, about where the SUNY Central Building (a/k/a the D&H Building) is today and there is a plaque, commemorating the Congress and Ben’s Plan.

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Ben was persuasive enough to convince the delegates, but not a single colonial assembly approved the plan to unite “under one government as far as might be necessary for defense and other general important purposes”. Most historians agree that even if the Colonies had approved the Union, the British government would have quashed.

20 years later or so the Albany Plan of Union would become the basis for the Articles of Confederation which would bind the Colonies together throughout the Revolution and until 1789 when the Constitution was ratified. During the Revolution, the slogan became “Unite or Die”.

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ben 16A Resolution of 83rd US Congress, August 1953 officially named Albany as “Birthplace of American Union” and official medals were authorized, created by the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.

 

ben 22There was a HUGE Citywide Cradle of the Union celebration in June 1954 involving a parade, other festivities and participation by children in all city schools, public, private and parochial. ( We don’t party for our history the way we used to.)

In 1988 a portion of a road in Washington Park was named Albany Plan of Union Avenue and there is a commemorative plaque on a boulder just off the Avenue.

 

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*The Stadt Huys was demolished circa 1836 when a new City Hall was erected in the current location – alas that was destroyed by fire in 1880, and the one that currently exists was constructed.

Summer Fun and Beating the Heat Albany Style

14As summer draws to a close, we thought we would provide a glimpse of what summer was like in Albany throughout the last part of the 19th century and into the 1960s. Summer fun hasn’t changed a lot- swimming, amusement parks, carnivals, outdoor movies, baseball, camp, day trips, playgrounds, ice cream, race tracks, concerts, fireworks, golf and the lure of air conditioning. Except for croquet. We don’t have croquet any more. Albany needs more croquet.

If you would like to see more fabulous pictures to Albany, please go to our Flickr site AlbanyGroup Archive

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The State Street Burial Grounds; Making Way for Albany’s Washington Park

New discovery by Paula Lemire that puts to rest long held and oft repeated myth about how many of the dear departed were disinterred from old State Street Burial Ground to create Washington Park and transferred to Albany Rural Cemetery.

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State St. Burying Grounds

In 1868, the City of Albany removed “the neglected dead” from the State Street Burying Ground. The mass disinterment was a step towards the creation of Washington Park. The old Burying Ground had been in use from around 1800 until it was closed by law in 1867 “for the keeping, burial or deposit of human remains.” Prior to the closure, new burials there had dramatically declined with most new interments now taking place at newer cemeteries like the Rural and its later neighbor, St. Agnes.


Before the Common Council contracted one A.J. Phillips to exhume and relocate the remains from the Burying Grounds, some families had privately removed the graves of loved ones to new plots at Albany Rural Cemetery.
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Present-day Washington Park looking towards the area of the old Burying Grounds

But just how many graves were removed to make way for Washington Park?

Almost all modern accounts of the Park’s sepulchral past cite a figure of 40,000 bodies, but I have long suspected that total was far too high.

What might be the first reference to a total of 40,000 comes from the Albany Chronicles compiled by city historian Cuyler Reynolds. The Chronicles were published in 1906, nearly forty years after the mass disinterment. The total appears twice in the volume, once in a photograph caption and once in an entry which reads, “Rural cemetery interments number 78,081 (40,000 of which were brought from burial-ground, site of Washington park).”
The source Reynolds used for this figure is unknown. Reynolds’ Chronicles is a valuable resource, but it is not without errors. It’s possible that the figure “40,000” was the result of a mistake in transcribing an older, handwritten source.
Whatever the origin of the number, the figure has been repeated many times over the years. A 1951 “pictorial review” on the history of Washington Park by C.R. Roseberry mentions “in order for Washington Park to serve the living, 40,000 dead people had to be moved elsewhere.” Presumably, such articles were written using Reynolds’ Chronicles as a source.

In more recent times, various mainstream media, official sites, blogs have referenced the 40,000 graves that once occupied the popular park.

A few examples:

albany.orgWashington Park was originally a cemetery, the State Street burial grounds. When Washington Park was designed, approximately 40,000 bodies had to be transferred to the Albany Rural Cemetery in the 1840’s.

wgna.comThat’s right, our beloved Washington Park used to be a cemetery. In fact, it was a HUGE cemetery….After decades of decline, the State Street Burying Ground was officially deemed an unacceptable space for a cemetery. Soon after, as many as 40,000 graves were exhumed and displaced to the Albany Rural Cemetery.

bellamorte.netFollowing the establishment of the cemetery, over 40,000 bodies were transferred from the State Street Burial Ground – the site of modern-day Albany’s Washington Park.

However, I recently had a chance to read and transcribe a very interesting document in the library at the Albany Institute of History and Art which finally contradicts the 40,000 figure.

The Report of The Committee On Removal of Old Cemeteries In Albany – 1868 contains some very interesting contemporary details on the special committee tasked “to disinter, remove, and reinter the remains of the neglected dead.”

Mostly notably, it includes the following observation on the number of graves to be removed:

Your committee, from what they believe to be accurate information, and from their own observation, estimate that the number to be removed will be from 11,000 to 14,000. Basing their calculations on that estimate, your committee have ordered 8,000 boxes in which to deposit the remains to be made. They deemed it advisable not to order a large number than that at present, thinking it safer to be largely under their estimate than to be anything over. The price of each box is one dollar, which your committee think is very reasonable.

In the end, nearly 950 additional boxes must have been ordered as the final cost for boxes was $8947.00 Even allowing for multiple remains in some boxes (it was not unheard of to occasionally place remains together such as a mother and infant or several young siblings), it still would be very unlikely the total could approach 40,000.

Also, the Report specifies the dimensions of the new graves to be opened in the newly purchased “Church Grounds” lot as 2 feet 6 inches by 4 feet or 10 square feet. To accommodate 40,000 graves of this size, a lot of 400,000 square feet or over 9 acres. Yet the Church Ground lot purchased to receive the “neglected dead” measures only an acre and a half.

There is also the issue of time. The committee noted that the contractor, A.J. Philips, was averaging removals of 100 to 150 bodies a day. At that rate, it would have taken between 266 and 400 days to complete the transfer. A.J. Philips had begun the process around August 1868 and, by late October, had completed the work. That time frame is much more in keeping with 10,000 to 14,000 graves.

Even if we allow a extremely generous estimate of unmarked graves encountered after the work was begun and include graves we know were removed by families to double the amount of transferred graves, it would only account for a little over half of the supposed 40,000.

The idea of 40,000 bodies formerly occupying what’s now one of Albany’s most popular public green spaces does have a certain grim flair to it and certainly makes for good copy, but it isn’t supported by historical evidence.

See also:

The State Street Burying Grounds, the Church Grounds, and other early cemeteries

The Burying Places

The Garden Gravestone

Jeremiah Field and The Headstone That Was Not Lost

Albany Rural Cemetery – Beyond The Graves on Facebook