Brief History of the City of Albany - 1831

[printed in The Annals of Albany]

Transformed From "Child &, Shiffer's Directory, 1831." It is presented here at some length chiefly for its descriptive commentary on the city from about 1750 to 1830. Reading through the following passages (particularly beginning with the paragraph on astonishing alterations) conjures up "interesting" images of the early city even though they are obstructed by the obviously incorrect iconographic impressions that have plagued many other observers. So, you might read these passages "for what they're worth" and take in the "facts" given "with a grain of salt." In other words, bon appetit. The links help explain some of the references.

The city of Albany is the oldest settlement but one in the United States. Jamestown, in Virginia, has precedence, having heen settled in 1607, while our own town dates its origin in 1610. Hudson sailed up the North river in 1609, and is supposed to have gone up nearly as high as the sprouts of the Mohawk. This is yet, however, a moot point. At that time the Mohegans had their residence at the very place where the city now stands.

The first fort was built on an island below, but was abandoned in consequence of the frequency and height of the river floods. Fort Orange was erected in 1617, and a person by the name of Sebastian Croll was the first commissary at the fort.

In 1629, a charter of liberties and exemptions for patroons, masters, and private individuals, who should plant colonies in New Netherlands, was granted by the States General of Holland. Under this charter a purchase of lands was made in August, of the same year, for Kilian Rensselaer, a merchant of Amsterdam, the ancestor of the present patroon's family.

The consequence and power of this individual, as a patentee, may be gleaned from the Dutch records in the secretary's office. He had a small fort of his own, and on one occasion lent some cannon to the military commanders of Fort Orange. He had his sheriff, a fort at Bear island, and his commandant there was known to have fired at the sloops which passed without saluting the fort.

His residence, called the Rensselaerburg, was first at the island below the city. The commerce of Albany, was principally with the savages, for beavers, in exchange for strouds, leggings, and rum. Brokers were employed by the inhabitants to purchase the skins; and they were natives or savages, as the demand or the competition made it necessary to obtain their aid. A court was held in the fort, consisting of the commissary and associates, duly appointed in Holland; and these had the exclusive jurisdiction in matters civil and criminal.

In 1664 it was captured from the Dutch by a force under Major Cartwright. Kalm, who visited the city after the charter had been granted by the English governor, Dongan, describes its appearance as being that of a small town, with two principal streets crossing each other, in one of which was placed all the public buildings. This will account for the great width of State street. It then contained the fort, a regular though slight stockade; the English church, the guard house, the town house, the Dutch church, and the market. It had a very rural appearance; each house having its garden and shade trees. The situations on the water side were beautiful. There were three docks; the lower, middle, and upper. The lower was called the king's dock. The vessels were unloaded by the aid of canoes lashed together, and having a platform built upon them, where the goods were placed.

The alterations in the city have been astonishing; where Fox street now crosses Pearl street, was a deep ravine, crossed by a bridge, and the descent to it was quite sudden. Other ravines crossed the streets running parallel to the river; these are now no longer visible. State street was much steeper. The road to Schenectady ran round the fort to the south and west, where the state offices now stand; and where the elegant mansions of the present and the late mayor are now situated, were banks of earth reaching up as far as the third story. Chapel street was full of stores and ware houses, and there the principal business was done; then it was Barrack street. The Pasture was literally such; and now, where Lydius street is laid out, was the regular encamping ground of the British armies, commanded by Amherst and Abercrombie. Even during the revolutionary era, our city presented a singular appearance. It was stockaded; had its north and south gates; was a military post; was commanded by the gallant Lafayette, and Col. Van Schaick, a distinguished officer and native of Albany; and was considered one of the most important stations in the United States. It was the key to the north and west, the point from which our armies threatened Montreal and Quebec, or the British posts on the lakes. Among the old buildings still remaining, is that at the corner of State and North Pearl streets, known as the Lydius house. The bricks were brought from Holland, and its chronicles are very interesting. The house, corner of North Pearl and Steuben streets, has still part of its date in the brick work of its front, 1725; and we believe there are others still older which could be pointed out. General Schuyler's, General Ten Broek's, and the Patroon's mansions convey to us a good idea of the taste of the builders, and the elegance of the modes of living among the wealthy and distinguished families of the olden time. A house in North Pearl street, near General Westerlo's residence, is distinguished as having been the head quarters of Lafayette, which, on his recent visit to the United States, he recognized as he passed rapidly through the town, from the circumstance of its having a curious brass knocker, an animal hanging down by its hind legs. The population of Albany has been lately rapidly progressive. The following table is nearly correct:

1790 3,506
1800 5,349
1810 10,762
1820 12,541
1825 15,974
1830 24,216

The increase in the number of inhabitants of this city, during the last five years, has been more than one half of its whole population in 1825—to wit, eight thousand two hundred and forty-two—an increase which we think has scarcely a parallel in the United States in so short a period. In 1790, the white population of the city was less than 3000. In 1790 and 1800, the Colonie, or what is now called the fifth ward, was not attached to the city of Albany, and its inhabitants were not included in the enumeration of either of those years. In 1810, the population of the Colonie was 1,406, and is included in the census of the city for that year.

In Kalm's time there were 40 sloops trading to Albany. In 1828, there were 550 vessels, exclusive of 66 oyster and fruit boats, paying wharfage (viz: 155 by the season, and 395 by the day), including 16 steamboats that belonged to this city and the city of New York. The whole amount rated as going from and returning to the city in these vessels in 1828, was 377,914 tons.

There are also now several thousand canal boats, each carrying greater loads than the largest sloops in Kalm's time.

The city is the seventh in size in the United States, and covers an area of 8,000 acres. State street is 1,900 feet long, and ascends 130 feet from the river to the Capitol.


Observations such as this always give me pause. Whatever the actual source (who/what were the sources utilized by "Child &, Shiffer" anyway!), they seem to have some validity when compared to "community lore" or even to the actual community-based record. But without identifiable and verifiable sources, this historian remains skeptical.

Transformed and annotated from an online presentation of The Annals of Albany volume 5, pp 98-101 by SB

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first posted: 12/15/10