New England born newcomer Elkanah Watson is perhaps the most often-referenced outside observer of life in the new American city. His observations on the physical setting and social mores of Albany people (as recalled by his son many years later) coupled with a dramatic series of historical paintings depicting the cityscape also created many years later by James Eights are at the center of what is still the prevailing impression of Albany's history from its founding to the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
[p. 267] On this tour he left Providence 12th of August, 1788; he described the country in traversing Connecticut, to Springfield, as rough, but containing some small villages and pleasant localities highly improved. Springfield contained about two hundred buildings, many of superior quality, and a refined society. The high culture and fertility of the Connecticut valley, excited his admiration. The roads from Springfield to Great Barrington were intolerable; passing over acclivities of mountains, and through gorges that appeared nearly inaccessible to carriages.The country was sparsely inhabited by a rude population. Great Barrington was then a pleasant inland village, surrounded by a rich, romantic, and mountainous scenery. He visited the "new City of Hudson"; first then starting into being, through the energy and enterprise of New-England emigrants, and exhibiting a progress at that period almost without a parallel in American history. It had emerged from a Dutch farm, into the position of a commercial city, with a considerable population, warehouses, wharves, and docks, rope-walks, shipping, and the din of industry. All these remarkable results [p. 267] had been accomplished in the brief term of four years. The streets were broad and spacious.
Curiosity conducted him to the "old Dutch City of Albany" that he might compare their habits and manners with those of the cities of Holland, from whence their ancestors had emigrated more than one hundred and fifty years before; the one Surrounded by the progress ard refinement of Europe, and the other in contact with savage barbarism. At that period Albany was the second city in the State, containing about six hundred dwellings, generally constructed on the old Dutch model, but was rapidly modernizing, as well in its architecture as customs. The city he regarded as awkwardly situated upon the declivity of a hill. The houses were principally of brick, and many of them elegant. Vessels of eight feet draught plied constantly and in great numbers between the city and New-York. The trade was immense, and rapidly increasing. A branch of this trade, formerly of great value, had then become nearly extinct the traffic in furs, which the British had found means to avert from this avenue, chiefly by the ascendency they derived from their forts, within our own territory.
The inhabitants were mostly Dutch, attached to their own customs, and cherishing their national prejudices. As foreigners intermixed with them, these peculiarities were relaxing, and insensibly softening. They had generally adopted in the instruction of their children the English tongue, by the establishment of English schools. Mr. Watson expressed in his journal, the prediction that the Dutch language, in half a century, would be unknown in that city as a spoken language.
He proceeded eight miles from Albany to the new glass house, erected by John De Neuville, a former correspondent of Mr. Watson, and an inhabitant of Amsterdam. Mr. De Neuville was the negotiator of the treaty made by Holland with the American Congress, which essentially produced the war between the former and England in 1781. He commenced business with an hereditary capital of half a million sterling, and lived in Amsterdam and at his country-seat in the highest affluence and splendor. He sacrificed his fortune by [p. 268] his attachment to the cause of American Independence, and in his efforts to sustain it. The fragments of his estate he had invested in the hopeless enterprise of establishing this glass factory. Mr. Watson found this gentleman, born to affluence, in a solitary seclusion, occupying a miserable log cabin furnished with a single deal table and two common chairs destitute of the ordinary comforts of life.
Mr. Watson visited Schenectady. Here an academy had been founded, which he then regarded with interest, as an important step in advancing the cause of education. In subsequent years, when this feeble embryo had expanded into a college, he became warmly and actively enlisted in the promotion of its prosperity and usefulness. He continued from Schenectady to Johnson Hall, the former seat of Sir William Johnson, then owned by Col. Silas Talbot, an officer of great revolutionary distinction, whom, it will be remembered, Mr. Watson aided in his escape from Mill Prison in England. Johnson Hall was a stately mansion occupying an eminence, which looked over the village of Johnstown, and a wide expanse of beautiful country.
country, "he writes," between Schenectady and Johnstown, was well settled by a Dutch population, generally in a prosperous condition ; but behind New-England in affluence
and progress. I have had frequent occasion to remark, from all I have observed and collected in my intercourse with various nations, that no agricultural people are in equal
enjoyment of the comforts of life, afforded by good dwellings, and the abandance of food and raiment, as the farmers of New-England. Yet they complain of hard times. Let any
of them visit foreign countries, and witness the destitution, the suffering and persecution of the agricultural class, which everywhere prevail, and their lips would be ever after sealed against any complaint. He learned from Col. Talbot the occurrence of an Indian treaty at Fort Stanwix, and was induced by this circumstance, to extend his tour to that point.
In the ensuing year, 1789, Mr. Watson removed from Providence to Albany. Among the curiosities in his common-place book, I find a singular document which I deem worthy of being perpetuated. It affords evidence that our country at that epoch was not wholly enfranchised from the influence of European usages, but that many of their restrictions and exactions still lingered. I refer to a certificate of the freedom of the city, which it seems each emigrant was required to possess, to be secured in the enjoyment and protection of his municipal rights. The following is a copy of the printed document :
Know all men by these presents that I, JOHN LANSING, Jr. Esquire, Mayor of the city of Albany, have admitted and received, and do hereby admit and receive, ELKANAH WATSON to be a freeman of said city. In witness whereof, I have here unto set my hand, and caused the seal of the said city to be hereunto annexed, the 28th day of May, 1790, &c.
And for this certificate, Mr. W. adds, I was compelled to pay five pounds. This abuse was early and vigorously assailed by him in the press, and was soon after abolished. I am now approaching an epoch in the life of my father, which to myself is surrounded with embarrassment and difficulties. At this period commenced his efforts and labors in projecting or advocating various subjects of local and general improve- [p. 285] ments of the most diversified character and objects, and which were continued to the close of his life. The silence which delicacy might prescribe to a son, it appears to me, should yield to the paramount obligations imposed by the relation of the biographer and historian.
The circumstance, that these efforts gave existence to and are connected with much of the valuable correspondence of distinguished men, which I design to introduce, appears to render the propriety of the course I intend to adopt still more obvious. I propose to record the facts connected with these subjects, where I esteem them of public interest, or calculated to elucidate the progress and history of the country, without comment or eulogium, and with only such remarks as may be necessary to explain or illustrate them.
At the time of Mr. Watson's settlement in Albany, not more than five New-England families were residents of that city. It was without any foreign commerce; the city was unimproved. State-street, now one of the most spacious and beautiful avenues in America, was then not only without pavements and ungraded, but even broken and in some parts precipitous. The streets were without lamps. A singular deformity and inconvenience prevailed in some sections of the city. A custom had been introduced, which existed in the provincial towns of Holland, of discharging the water from the roofs of smaller buildings by long spouts. In Holland the spouts were projected over the canals; but by the adoption of this practice in Albany the water was poured upon the head of the unwary passenger. The mind of Mr. Watson, familiar with the elegancies and advancement of European cities, at once saw and appreciated the various defective arrangements in the city of his adoption; and soon after becoming a resident, he engaged earnestly, through the press and by personal efforts, in suggesting and urging various local improvements connected with these subjects. His exertions, in connection with the labors of others, generally secured their adoption; but as they necessarily entailed inconvenience and expense, the schemes excited strong hostility [p. 286] in the feelings of those who were opposed to all innovating projects. In subsequent years he received many generous tributes of acknowledgments and thanks from those who, in their progress, had opposed these efforts. His Journal contains a notice of an amusing incident, which exhibits the state of feeling he had excited.
Just after State-street had been paved at a heavy expense, I sauntered into it immediately succeeding a heavy thunder storm, and whilst regretting the disturbance in the sidewalk, and to observe the cellars filled with water, (for in that section, which was near the present locality of the State Bank, the street in grading had been elevated some feet,) I heard two women, in the act of clearing their invaded premises from the accumulation of mud and water, cry out Here comes that infernal paving Yankee! They approached me in a menacing attitude broomsticks erect. Prudence dictated a retreat to avoid being broomsticked by the infuriated Amazons, although I did not run, as some of my friends insisted, but walked off at a quick pace.
The common-place book in which are preserved copies of his publications on these and kindred subjects of local and general improvement, attest the zeal and ardor, as well as the extent and industry, of his labors. Among these projects, the charter of the Bank of Albany, the first banking institution incorporated north of New- York, was agitated, and I have before me the declaration of eminent men of that period, who ascribed to his efforts its successful accomplishment.
"The memoir continued later (printed on pp.387-88) and weighed in on the French refugee enclave living north of the Albany city limits. [ 387 ] "In the years 1794 and '95, I resided in the northern suburbs of Albany, then known as the Colonie. Mons. Le Contaulx, formerly of Paris, a very amiable man, was my opposite neighbor. His residence was the resort of the French emigrants. During that period, Count Le Tour du Pin, a distinguished French noble, made a hair-breadth escape from Bordeaux, with his elegant and accomplished wife, the daughter of Count Dillon. They were concealed in that city for six terrible weeks, during the sanguinary atrocities of Tallien, and arrived at Boston with two trunks of fine towels, containing several hundred in each; the only property they had been able to save from the wreck of an immense estate. They came to Albany and brought me a letter of introduction from Thomas Russell, an eminent merchant of Boston. Soon after they purchased a little farm, upon an eminence nearly opposite Troy.
Here they were joined by Talleyrand, who had arrived about the same time in Albany; also, an exile, and in want. I became intimate with them, from these circumstances, from my familiarity with their country and knowledge of the French language. They avowed their poverty, and resided together on the little farm, suffering severe privations, bringing to Albany the surplus produce of their land, and habitually stop-ping with their butter and eggs at my door. They yielded with a good grace to their humiliating condition.
In the winter following, I was surrounded in my office by a group of distinguished Frenchmen: the Count, Talleyrand, Volney, the philosophical writer and traveller, Mons. Pharoux, a very learned man, and Des Jardin, a former Chamberlain of Louis XVI. They considered me a Frenchman at heart, and appeared to forget that I was an American, jealous of the rights, liberties and honor of my country. Their remarks were often revolting to my sentiments and national pride. Sympathy and compassion for their fallen estate, constrained me to endure this language, although they did not hesitate to avow their detestation of American institutions, and their disgust at our manners and habits.
On the occasion referred to, after having indulged in this train of remark, and speculating upon the posture of European affairs, Des Jardin at length turning to me, exclaimed, 'Yes,
my friend, before this war (the war waged by despotism against republican principles) shall end, your frontier will be lined with French bayonets. To this sentiment they all seemed to
respond in acquiescence. My American blood was excited beyond forbearance, and I replied, God grant, if so, that the invaders may be repelled at the threshold, or exterminated to a
man. Here we were at issue, and our social intercourse terminated."
These passages relating to Albany have been adapted from Men and times of the Revolution; or, Memoirs of Elkanah Watson, including journals of travels in Europe and America, from 1777 to 1842, with his correspondence with public men and reminiscences and incidents of the Revolution as published in 1856. Elkanah Watson's observations were edited and supplemented by his son, the historian, Winslow C. Watson. Historians often have called on this source as an eyewitness account of life in Albany and elsewhere. However, Winslow Watson was born in 1803 (admittedly in Albany) but he began working with the manuscripts, letters, and notes that comprise this work much later and without benefit of his deceased father's clarifying comments.
Albany-related excerpts are presented here in roughly chronological order. We have made a number of editorial and management adjustments but have tried to take as few liberties as possible with the printed and published manuscript. Bracketed page references may help depending on the edition you can retieve.
Link to Visitors to Albany.