From Outpost to Entrepot:
The Birth of Urban Albany, 1686-1776

Stefan Bielinski

At its chartering as a city, Albany was an urban community whose wooden stockade enclosed about 150 buildings that were homes and work places for its 500 people. Those early Albanians mostly were the children of the founders of the community who forty years earlier had come together to ship out animal furs bartered from the Native American hunters who had been drawn to Albany by a variety of interesting and inexpensive trade goods. The Dutch West India Company recruited Albany's original settlers from across Europe with the Germans, Scandinavians, continental lowlanders, and émigrés from the British Isles almost equal to the number of actual natives of the Netherlands. By the 1650s, many of them had found partners in Beverwyck - Albany's ancestor, and were raising families.

Albany's native-born sons and daughters too had followed the fur trade but now were becoming collectors, processors, and shippers of farm and forest products and importers of supplies for a growing regional settler population. This commercial group had controlled the community's economy since its founding and quickly learned to manipulate the English provincial government for special privileges and patents for wilderness land. Albany's artisans and craftsmen, who formerly hammered, honed, and hemmed fur-trading items in their home workshops, now looked to supply hinterland farmers with processed and crafted products. Business, commerce, production, and a growing service economy based on river and overland transportation and on food, lodging, processing, and repair services all came together to make Albany the regional center recognized by royal governor Thomas Dongan with a municipal charter in 1686. With its court, city and county registry, regional market, fort, and churches, Albany had emerged as the administrative center of a huge Albany County established in 1683. By that time, Albany was secure as New York's second center and its people were cementing social and economic ties regionally and to Manhattan that only began with kinship.1.

While Albany County became the largest in the colony, over the next hundred years, the city of Albany grew more slowly despite a healthy natural increase of 8-10 births in a typical city household. By 1700, Albany had reached its capacity to absorb its native sons in traditional community-based activities. Most of them would find their destinies beyond the stockade. Some like Rip Van Dam, Jacob Wendell, and Philip Livingston distinguished themselves in other settings. Many became tenants of the Van Rensselaers or other regional landlords. Others farmed city land at Schaghticoke. And still others disappeared into the obscurity of the American wilderness. Their places on city streets were taken by a small but steady stream of young men whose new skills and talents made them desirable partners for the daughters of New Netherland - thus displacing brothers and cousins who relocated to new market communities like Schenectady, Kinderhook, and Catskill, or to a larger agricultural countryside beyond Rensselaerswyck. New Albany people included some New Netherland-ancestry emigres from downriver like the Cuylers and the Ten Eycks - who struggled to wring benefits from a fading fur trade; individual opportunists like Robert Livingston - whose outstanding talents made him an instant success; English and Irish garrison soldiers - including the Barrets, Hiltons, Radcliffs, and Yateses who became colonial Albany's largest immigrant group; Scottish traders and tradesmen named Glen, Henry, and Sanders; French Marselises, Pruyns, and De Garmos; German Abels, Hogstrassers, and Rubys; Spanish Van Zandts; and African-ancestry slaves who were brought in by city merchants, raised their own families within Albany households, emerged from slavery during the era of the American Revolution, and who accounted for between ten and twenty percent of Albany's population throughout the eighteenth century. These diverse peoples came together in Albany homes to further tone the social mosaic.2.

During the first half of the eighteenth-century, Albany began to move from outpost to entrepot as the business community followed an international market away from the fur trade - instead establishing trade relationships with a growing number of regional farmers and husbandmen. Prosperous city merchants brought a volume of varied commodities to Albany, which they prepared and marketed with the support of extensive networks in the city's production and service economies. Traditional tradesmen and craftsmen turned out wooden, metal, cloth, and animal products for city, countryside, and military use - as well as for Native American markets. During this time, Albany's makers and fixers resided in virtually every city family and became the largest part of the community economy. But they were beginning to be rivaled by those involved in service activities represented by a large Albany fleet of sloops and other river boats, a growing number of inns and taverns, and the rise of tanning pits, asheries, and mill sites within site of the core city.

During a three-decade respite from frontier warfare (1713-44), the Hudson-Mohawk region attracted new settlers - who mostly only briefly stopped at Albany to change transport and obtain supplies. During this time, Albany city spread out along the river as its population doubled to over 2,000 by 1750. Now in their third and fourth generations in America, the New Netherland Dutch remained an overwhelming majority - although the number of New Netherland family names on city rolls fell from 80 to 50 during that time. New brick buildings filled in State, Market, Court, and Pearl Streets, while smaller frame dwellings of tradesmen and transporters began to ring the central commercial core. Beyond that were stables, sheds, shops, and storehouses as Albany had become the loading point for lumber, grain, and other exportable goods as well as the processing and repair center for an emerging region. New public buildings - a three-story city hall/courthouse/jail, a massive Reformed Church located in the middle of the main intersection, an Anglican (Episcopal) church, an enlarged stone fort, and the development of another sixteen blocks within an expanded stockade further signified that Albany was no longer just a fortified village.3.

With the New York frontier a major arena of action, the Great War for Empire (1754-63) changed Albany forever. Frontier refugees, provincial troops, British soldiers, and an army of civilian newcomers seeking to serve them inundated the city during the 1750s - bursting traditional boundaries, setting new standards for opportunism, and placing great strain on a community economy that had been only better than self-sustaining in the past. The British built barracks, a large hospital, many supporting structures, and pushed general settlement into areas that had been avoided as too hilly or wet in the past. Except for officers, few city men served in provincial armies. Instead they were put to work transporting soldiers and supplies, procuring and preparing food and fodder, and making and fixing shoes, wagons, and kettles. The war had stimulated Albany's service and production economies but also exposed a once-closed commercial environment to external competition embodied by Scottish traders and by newcomers from New York, New England, and the other colonies. Albany's traditional merchants struggled in a post-war economy where success was based on access to imported items and external sources of credit.

The end of the war, a wave of European immigration and the flooding of America with European products brought thousands of new people to and through Albany and drove home a number of lessons learned from Albany's first, first-hand experiences with the British and their policies. Finding their handcrafted items no longer competitive with imported products, Albany artisans were driven into repair work and to other services and found themselves less able to place their sons in traditional trades than in the past. Barred from manufacturing by Imperial restrictions, would-be craftsmen either left the city or embraced the shipping, lodging, and processing activities of Albany's growing service economy. At the same time, local ambitions for land patents, contracts, and appointments - frequently attainable in the past, were increasingly diverted to newcomers and others in the region who were more closely connected with the royal government and with British policies. And finally, Albany people had suffered harsh treatment at the hands of the British army during the war leaving many of these third and fourth generation Americans to wonder who would protect them from the British once the French and Indians were no longer a threat.4.

Between 1763 and 1775, colonial Albany underwent a final transformation. Its fortified character dissolved with the dismantling of the stockade in favor of a sprawling, again-expanded settlement. The closing of the fort and disposal of most of the military buildings ended a century of reliance on a military presence in favor of an even more self-serving and still-evolving way of life that included many more important newcomers than at any time since the community's founding. Beginning in 1765, the city government underwrote construction of large docks and the development of the waterfront - thus creating landing and loading facilities that solidified Albany's role as the major upriver port. An Albany fleet of sloops and lesser watercraft emerged to dominate the regional carrying trade but also reached beyond the Hudson Valley - sailing to the other colonies and to the Caribbean. The first roads radiating from city streets connecting Albany to Schenectady and to the agrarian hinterland and blurred the city/countryside distinction more pronounced in the past. The outer bounds of the city now were defined by Schuyler Mansion, Whitehall, "the Patroon's" manor house, and other new country homes of Albany's leading families and most important newcomers. Watervliet, a new settlement area north of today's Clinton Avenue, was filling fast with newcomers whose daily toil helped fuel Albany's economy. These immigrant and migrant tenants of the Van Rensselaers spread out along the river and outnumbered the residents of the core city.

New, larger buildings began to appear on the main streets and the advertisements of new State, Court, and Market Street import merchants stood out on the pages of the Albany Gazette - the city's first newspaper founded in 1771. Intersecting the main thoroughfares, Hudson, Green, Barrack, Chapel, and Water Streets were peopled by secondary businessmen, crafts and tradesmen, innkeepers, transporters, and a growing working class - who all represented both old Albany and recently arrived backgrounds. These people were served by new Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, a new city market house, and a municipal government forced to meet new responsibilities occasioned by increased and more intensive settlement.

By the eve of the American Revolution, densely inhabited and ethnically diverse Albany had evolved into a bustling urban center. Greater Albany's 6,000 people fed a diversified community economy that served its people, an agricultural hinterland, an immense northern frontier, and a foreign market as well. Intense social and cultural changes over the past decade had created many new paradigms. Most city people struggled with these and were left feeling slighted and frustrated by their plight within the British Empire. In the Imperial scheme of things, cities were nerve centers and were located in England. The British would have preferred the colonies to have only market towns. But like a dozen other American urban centers, Albany was a city in every sense of the word. Underlying these realizations was the fact that most Albany people were not of English origins and felt no inherent kinship with a British Empire. Those who did became increasingly alienated from an Albany majority, who between 1774 and 1776, would come to understand that their destiny was no longer tied to the British.5.

- Endnotes: -

1. The outstanding work on New Netherland and on its multi-ethnic character is Oliver A. Rink, Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New York (Ithaca and London, 1986). A more sweeping, culturally based treatment is Alice P. Kenney, Stubborn for Liberty: The Dutch in New York (Syracuse, 1975). Histories of colonial Albany include: Stefan Bielinski, Government by the People: The Story of the Dongan Charter and the Birth of Participatory Democracy in the City of Albany (Albany, 1986), a social history of the city charter; Donna Merwick, Possessing Albany, 1630-1710: The Dutch and English Experiences (Cambridge, 1990), an essay on cultural transferal; Charlotte Wilcoxen, Seventeenth Century Albany: A Dutch Profile (Albany, 1981); and Roderic H. Blackburn and Ruth Piwonka, Remembrance of Patria: Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America, 1609-1776 (Albany, 1988), a comprehensive, narrative-based catalog of Dutch-American culture in early Albany.

2. For the city's early days, see Bielinski, Government by the People, a project that first brought the Colonial Albany Project and Len Tantillo together to produce the drawings and diagram that provide the only visual perspectives on Albany during its formative years. For a settlement overview, see Bielinski, "The People of Colonial Albany, 1650-1800: The Profile of a Community," in William Pencak and Conrad E. Wright, eds. Authority and Resistance in Early New York (New York, 1988), 1-26. See Bielinski, "The New Netherland Dutch: Settling In and Spreading Out in Colonial Albany," in The American Family: Historical Perspectives, ed. Jean E. Hunter and Paul T. Mason, (Pittsburgh, 1991), 1-15, 168-75, for a closer look at what happened to Albany's founding families. The only comprehensive history of the early community is Arthur J. Weise, The History of the City of Albany, New York (Albany, 1884), a traditional narrative of anecdotal information - but still worth reading. The minutes of the city council, church, family, and other local records, and a wealth of other useful information were all compiled and published by Joel Munsell in The Annals of Albany (Albany, 1850-59), 10 volumes; and Collections on the History of Albany (Albany, 1865-71), 4 volumes. Without Munsell's incredible volumes of material, a community-based history of early Albany would be much less possible.

3. For development of the post-fur trade community economy, see Stefan Bielinski, "How a City Worked: Occupations in Colonial Albany," A Beautiful and Fruitful Place: Selected Rensselaerswijck Seminar Papers, ed. Nancy Anne McClure Zeller (Albany, 1991), 119-36; Bielinski, " A Middling Sort: Artisans and Craftsmen in Colonial Albany," New York History 73:3 (July 1992), 261-90. David A. Armour, The Merchants of Albany, New York, 1686-1760 (New York, 1986), which first appeared as a doctoral dissertation in 1965, stands as the seminal resource for the early Albany commercial economy. Alice P. Kenney's The Gansevoorts of Albany: Dutch Patricians in the Upper Hudson Valley (Syracuse, 1969), relates the rise of the Albany community through the eyes of one of its leading families.

4. For the war years, see Stefan Bielinski, Abraham Yates, Jr. and the New Political Order in Revolutionary New York (Albany, 1975), 5-13; Abraham Yates, Jr.'s "Journal and Copybook, 1754-58," Abraham Yates Papers, New York Public Library, is a focused indictment of British transgressions. An edited typescript of this difficult but worthy resource resides at the Colonial Albany Project offices. Joseph F. Meany, Jr. "Merchant and Redcoat: The Papers of John Gordon Macomb, July 1757 to June 1760" (Ph.D. dissertation, Fordham University, 1989), particularly 7-227, which provides an "Imperial School" overview of wartime Albany. For the raising of Revolutionary issues and consciousness, see Edward Countryman, A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790 (Baltimore, 1981) and Stefan Bielinski, "The Other Revolutionaries: Albany People in the Era of Independence, 1763-83," (book forthcoming).

5. The final phase of colonial development is more fully described in Stefan Bielinski, "The Edge of the Frontier on the Eve of the Revolution: The Last Days of Colonial Albany," (forthcoming article, 1999). See also Alice P. Kenney, Albany: Crossroads of Liberty (Albany, 1976); David G. Hackett, The Rude Hand of Innovation: Religion and Social Order in Albany, New York, 1652-1836 (New York, 1991); Paul R. Huey, "Early Albany: Buildings before 1790," in Albany Architecture, ed. Diana S. Waite (Albany, 1993); and Robert Alexander, Albany's First Church and Its Role in the Growth of the City, 1642-1942 (Albany, 1988).

Originally published in Visions of New York State: The Historical Paintings of L.F. Tantillo (Wappinger's Falls, NY, 1996). See also the online exhibit of those paintings.

Home | Site Index | Navigation | Email | New York State Museum