River People in Early Albany
Stefan Bielinski

From its original incarnation in 1624 as a fur trading post called Fort Orange, Albany's development was closely tied to the water. Located at the head of navigation on the Hudson River - a major avenue of access into the North American interior, and situated a short overland carry from the Mohawk - a long finger reaching far onto the frontier, Albany was the place where furs, then farm and forest products were gathered together for shipment downriver and abroad. At the same time products and people from Europe and the other American colonies were landed at Albany and then reloaded on smaller watercraft or hauled overland to destinations to the north and west.

Although based on exports, this two-way trade made a number of Albany entrepreneurs quite wealthy within a decade or two of the English takeover in 1664. Their economic acumen and perceived value as diplomats with neighboring Native Peoples and the powerful Iroquois prompted royal governor Thomas Dongan to issue a municipal charter which established Albany as the sole market town in the upriver region - even though in 1686, the year of incorporation, Albany was a primitive-looking, stockaded village of about 500 residents.

From the beginning, the Albany community economy was driven by trade and commerce with local trades and crafts initiated to generate shiny, colorful, sweet, and more utilitarian items that were bartered to fur bearing Indians and then with the farmers of an emerging countryside. However, the best and most interesting trade goods for both Native peoples and settlers alike were imported from Europe. Initially, cargoes were carried to and from Albany on ships built in, owned, and manned by European crews. By the eighteenth-century, new vessels were built in North America and were owned and manned by Americans. Smaller ships and also canoes and battoes - all built in the Hudson Valley, would carry products, produce, and people cross-river and between Albany and the other regional settlements at Greenbush, Kinderhook, Coeymans, Catskill, Kingston, and points south. The most substantial of these were operated by Albany's business leaders but virtually every Euro-Albanian family kept at least some modest watercraft for crossing the Hudson and other family use.

Today, we will survey Albany's water-connected community - its skippers, mates, boatmen, ferrymen, and support network during the eighteenth century. We will look at them collectively and individually - and tell some of their stories based on the intensive biographical investigations conducted over the past two decades by the Colonial Albany Social History Project, a model community history program of the New York State Museum. The Colonial Albany Project was founded in 1981 to explain why the people of the colonial city of Albany rejected a life that had placed them in a favored position in the development of the North American wilderness and risked everything to become ardent supporters of a crusade for American liberties that led to the creation of a new society, a new state, and a new nation. To do this, the project has developed comprehensive biographies for the 16,000 people who founded and built the city of Albany before the Industrial Revolution. The project proceeds on the premise that a community's history is best understood by comprehending the contributions of each of its members. Alone or as the members of kinship and interest groups, people are the threads of the community quilt. So, as they say on "Law and Order," these are their stories!

By the dawn of the eighteenth century, Albany had evolved from a simple fur trading outpost to the center of settlement and safety in an emerging upriver region whose overall economy was based on the production of grain and livestock and the harvesting of lumber, ash, hides, and other forest products. The colonial city of Albany (one of fewer than a dozen in North America) was exhibiting urban characteristics - heterogeneity and density of population and diversity of activity across commercial, production, and service economies. The grandchildren of the New Netherland Dutch were emerging as new commercial leaders in the still small but thriving royal colony of New York. Although their immigrant forebears and American-born fathers had accumulated great wealth in the fur trade, top-shelf eighteenth-century Albany entrepreneurs like Evert Wendell found fortune in developing countryside estates and in collecting and exporting the roots and fruits of farm labor. The advantage derived from maintaining a stock of finished items and implements to outfit tenants and other countryside clients made many of these agri-businessmen import merchants - connecting them principally to Manhattan-based overseas importers - some of whose younger daughters had been installed as brides in Albany households. The convenience and potential of collecting and then moving country products at least to New York made a number of Albany merchants shipowners and skippers as well.

By the early 1700s, Albany's commerce down the Hudson and principally with New York had superseded the westward and northern orientation of the past. The Albany business community had taken control of the Hudson River carrying trade by utilizing a bountiful selection of native woods to build and maintain their own sloops for the long haul and lesser watercraft for cross river and close-by commerce. Adapting to the task of traversing a 150-mile long estuary, the now legendary Hudson River sloop evolved over the next century to become commodious, durable, and able to take heavy and bulky cargoes south and return with imported goods and implements and also with a growing number of passengers destined for new homes in and beyond Albany. These human cargoes were lodged in a sometimes-oversized ship's cabin. At the same time, Albany interests effectively discouraged the incursions of New York and New England-based skippers with what was believed to be a unique understanding of the intricacies of navigating the Hudson and with control of what proved to be less than hospitable facilities for outside vessels once they reached Albany. By that time more than a dozen Albany based sloops - each owned by a prominent businessman or a member of his kinship network, represented the only option for carrying cargoes of farm and forest products down the river to New York. The career of Pieter Winne provides us with a textbook example.

Pieter Winne was among the most visible of early Albany's river people. Eldest son of an Albany merchant and a brewer's daughter, and grandson of a Flemish ancestry, New Netherland-era fur trader and landholder, Pieter Winne started out running errands for his father - first to the Albany hinterland, and then on the river in the family sloop. Like most prominent Albany business families, the Winnes kept a boat anchored in the river that they shared with their kin and neighbors, the Gansevoort's and the Douws. During the sailing season from April thru October, the sloop ran about once a month between Albany and New York - often stopping at Livingston Manor and other landings along the way to transmit cargoes, news, and personal items. By the 1720s, young exporter Pieter Winne had taken charge of the vessel and of marketing upriver produce from the "Albany Dock" on the west side of Manhattan. His crew consisted of a couple of nephews and slaves to work the sails and load cargoes. Typically, Winne's boat spent a week or more in New York as his recently discovered receipt book for the 1730s and 40s recorded multiple transactions on each trip with Manhattan merchants for sugar, salt, rum, wine, slaves, cloth, paper, and other imported items. Winne also represented a number of Albany-based businessmen and women who sent down their caches of lumber, furs, grains, tobacco, and other food products. Over several decades, his consignment network expanded as he handled large sums of money and took great care to reconcile the various accounts.

However, Pieter Winne had another reason for frequent trips to New York. After succeeding his father on the Albany city council during the 1720s, he was elected to the provincial assembly in 1737. With a single hiatus, he represented Albany in the colonial legislature until his death in 1759. That office required a prolonged presence in New York City - during which he developed his contacts within the Manhattan-based importing community. The assemblyman lodged at an inn while the crew stayed on the boat. By the end, he had become more of a passenger on his own vessel as the lifelong bachelor had turned over operation and then ownership of the sloop to his brother-in-law, Abraham Douw, grandson of a seventeenth century Hudson River skipper.

Pieter Winne typified the successful Albany slooper of the first half of the eighteenth century. Descended from the fur trading founders of the community, adept at garnering upriver harvests, invested in frontier and agricultural land, and closely connected by marriage to the established families of the upper Hudson region, these commercial leaders understood the importance of controlling the carrying trade and of placing responsibility for marketing and procuring in the hands of a prominent and experienced kinsmen who, like Winne, navigated the Hudson - but who were much more businessmen than skippers. By mid-century all Albany business families from the Abeels to the Van Zandts either owned themselves or had special access to the services provided by Winne and a handful of others on their Hudson River sloops.

Following three decades of peace on the northern frontier, geographically huge Albany County began to fill out as its population rose from just 2,273 in 1703 to 10,634 in 1749. The descendants of Albany's founders already had established satellite settlements at the most advantageous regional locations, and the Van Rensselaers, Livingstons, and Albany-based landholders now were ready to exploit their large estates in the lands beyond Albany city. To do this, upriver developers first persuaded some overflow native sons and one-time garrison soldiers from Albany and New York that farming represented a viable first step forward. But increasingly, landholders sought out more available German and Scots-Irish immigrants to join sons and soldiers in farming fertile valley lands as tenants. Out of necessity, some newcomers were induced to pioneer the uplands beyond with actual titles to the hilly and stony woods that only Highlanders and Yankees would find attractive. By mid century, Albany County and Ulster and Dutchess as well had become agricultural dynamos as many new hands cultivated and harvested fields and forests to produce large surpluses that would be much in demand in New York and across the British empire.

The Albany business community sought to control access to and the marketing of those bounties as it had in the past. Prominent Albany merchants continued to build and operate a range of river-worthy craft. However, the increased volume of goods to be shipped necessitated an extension of that enterprise beyond the elite Albany families. Although sometimes sponsored by the Albany city fathers, new rivercraft appeared during the 1740s and 50s that were operated by members of lesser Albany families namely the Bogerts, Egbertses, Marselises, and Rosebooms. They too were the children of New Netherland. But these new skippers resided several rungs below the city fathers - leading businessmen who had owned and operated the Albany fleet in the past. The new skippers were a middling sort and used their sons to load and deliver cargoes between Albany and New York in a more proscribed arrangement than that enjoyed by commercial leaders like Pieter Winne. They were more sailors than sellers - conducting other people's property to prearranged clients on behalf of established merchants -- but, for more individual producers and collectors as well. By mid-century, the carrying trade was evolving from a business to a service enterprise although these skippers often had some leeway to carry passengers and serve multiple masters on each trip. Flexibility would be a key to their success as Captains Egbers or Marselis could compete by accommodating special scheduling, handling, and delivery requests as an alternative to the more established shippers - whose schedules revolved more around their personal agendas.

After 1750, another new group of Albany river people emerged to follow on the heels of the Hudson River transporters. Unlike traditional merchants and skippers, they did not share New Netherland roots. Even though they sometimes married into the region, they were much less able to call on established kinship networks for clients. These comparative newcomers were able to gain a toehold in the carrying trade because of the increased demand for transport and a leveling of opportunity, as colonial New York was becoming more populous and more diverse. As such, they were in the forefront of the transition between old Dutch New York and a more Anglo-American New World.

Grandson of a garrison soldier and the son of the city bell ringer and a farmer's daughter, William Pemberton grew up in Albany during the 1730s and 40s. Nurtured by a growing English speaking community and by his mother's family, the Bradts, by the 1750s he was running a small boat crossing the Hudson. A decade later, ties to St. Peter's Anglican Church and Albany's new Masonic lodge helped him connect with the advantaged newcomers who flocked to Albany after the Seven Years War. These contacts staked him to a Hudson River sloop and he entered the north-south carrying trade. Anchored by the patronage of Sir William Johnson - Albany neighbor, lodge brother, and wealthiest man in the region, Pemberton prospered during the 1760s and 70s chiefly by carrying Johnson's produce and dispatches to New York and returning with slaves, spices, and sundries which then were shipped overland to the Mohawk Valley. Although unable to penetrate Albany's commercial core, Pemberton became an Albany fixture with his new riverside home and contract for the center dock placing him literally in the middle of business on the Albany waterfront. As his dockside home became a functional clearinghouse, William Pemberton was growing in stature. He was able to establish his son on a countryside farm and was enjoying an additional perk as the city jailer when hostilities broke out between colonists and British soldiers in the spring of 1775.

Although he had signed the constitution of the Albany Sons of Liberty in 1766 and had been appointed First Lieutenant and then Captain of a grenadier company in 1775, within a year William Pemberton was in trouble with his neighbors turned revolutionaries. Like all skippers (including those roots went deep into the community), Pemberton's potential for violating non-importation agreements and for illicit contact with royal authorities and adherents was of immediate concern to the Albany Committee of Correspondence. When Pemberton refused to sign a loyalty oath in June 1776, the sailor and jailer became an inmate. His sloop was sequestered and he was sent away to confinement in Connecticut. Although eventually paroled to return to his family, his sailing career was over. Unlike most skippers who simply wanted to continue their intercourse with New York importers, Pemberton turned out to be an actual Tory who was denounced for harboring royalist fugitives and for hoarding salt pork and other proscribed items.

At the outbreak of the Revolution, William Pemberton's home was in the middle of an emerging port district on the Albany waterfront. For more than a century, Albany's role as a river port had been undeniable as it remained both the beginning and end of water-based transportation. But the port's development had been hampered by an eroded and muddy shoreline as ice, flooding, and tidal action on the deep side of the river repeatedly ruined the makeshift docks that Albany people had cobbled together at the beginning of each sailing season to facilitate the landing of cargoes and passengers. During the Seven Years War, these inadequacies had become painfully apparent as thousands of provincial and then British soldiers and tons of supplies had been given a slippery reception on the Albany waterfront. British officers and New York merchants complained often about the lack of facilities for landing and loading at Albany.

In 1766, the city fathers underwrote the building of three docks along the Albany waterfront. Set behind city hall and the town house of the Gansevoort family, these were leased to favored businessmen for further development - thus enabling ships to tie up to load and discharge cargoes. A connecting seawall was begun to provide firm ground for the development of the land between Market and Court Streets (the main north/south avenues) and the river. A few years later, the northern or Ten Broeck's dock was extended and expanded to become a wharf that also provided a break from the current. And, another wharf was established out from near the site of old Fort Orange at the southern end of the Albany basin to serve as a more public entry point. As back filling from the seawall created more useable frontage, new homes and shops were erected along the river and thus behind the main street stores, counting houses, and public buildings of Court and Market Streets. A number of these belonged to actual skippers like William Pemberton, Henry Bogert, Stewart Dean, and Abraham Bloodgood - who were willing to withstand the perils posed by the annual spring overflow to be near their boats.

Nestled in between, were the smaller homes/shops of those who earned a living from making and repairing regional river craft and the diverse riggings, fittings, and supplies needed to keep them afloat. Chief among these were Abraham Eights, who stitched and repaired sails at his riverside home and on the Albany Dock in Manhattan as well. Rope maker Neal Shaw, another recently arrived Scot, braided hemp nearby - splitting his energies between making rigging and creating rope walks to ease access up the and treacherous ravines that cut through the Albany hillside. A range of smiths, coopers, and other wood crafters like shipwright/sleighmaker Hendrick Bogert - a cousin of the skipper, were busy making and repairing river-related and other implements and items needed by Albany residents, neighboring farmers, and a steady stream of newcomers coming to and through Albany on the way to new homes on the frontier. Not so pleasant were the tanneries and butchers shops that dumped carcasses into the river - attracting flies, birds, vermin, and other scavengers to the waterfront.

The cross-river ferry, connecting Albany with Greenbush and other points East, ran from a landing at the foot of Maiden Lane and was leased (or sold in the words of the Common Council minutes) annually to deserving and/or needy Albany insiders. The ferryman had the exclusive right to charge fees for cross-river transport. By the 1760s, a second city ferry had been established south of the settlement at the mouth of the Beaverkill below Philip Schuyler's new mansion. The ferry franchise attracted many bidders as diverse Albany people petitioned for it during the second half of the century. Both the city council and the revolutionary committee of safety passed frequent laws and enacted ordinances that regulated its usage. As the most prominent Albany merchants pre-empted storage space along the central waterfront, new development spread north along the Hudson as smithies, shops, tan, brick, and ash yards, and breweries utilized the flow of Foxes Creek. New development extended even farther north, where the Van Rensselaers offered attractive terms for similar production activities in a new Albany appendage called Watervliet.

In 1774, a Scottish visitor observed that Albany employed fifty sloops of from 50 to 80 tons in the river trade carrying wheat, peas, boards, and lumber to New York. He also noted that three Albany vessels sailed to the West Indies and one to London. These ships still controlled a lion's share of the upriver carrying trade, although outside vessels fortunate enough to survive a grounding on the flats below Albany were more able to find docking or anchorage than in the past. The Albany fleet represented a range of local interests beginning with Albany's favorite native son, agri-businessmen and Assemblyman (later General) Philip Schuyler - who launched a large schooner to carry boards and grain from his upriver plantation.

Then came two dozen of Schuyler's cohorts. These traditional entrepreneurs represented Albany's commercial leadership. They included the Staats brothers - Henry, the State Street merchant and William the actual skipper; Barent and John Van Allen - who practiced a similar division of labor. Minister's son Cornelis Van Santvoort - a veteran slooper, like other natives, was able to draw from a regional network of agrarian contacts.

More straightforward transporters from diverse backgrounds accounted for almost a like number of Revolutionary-era Albany skippers. They included John Fryer, the son of an English garrison soldier turned weaver - who operated a Southside dramshop during the winter months and a sloop on the river during the sailing season. Unlike many other comparative newcomers, Fryer was able to avoid controversy during the American Revolution - as his daughter had married Matthew Visscher - an Albany revolutionary leader, and continued to sail until his death in 1784.

On the other hand, Robert Hoaksley - a recently arrived Englishman, produced and transported whiskey, wood, and wood ash until he was beached by the revolutionaries in 1776. His sloop named the Albany was stripped of its rigging and sails and used as a prison ship. Hoaksley then fled to Canada, served Burgoyne as a wagon master, was captured at Saratoga, found his way to New York City and eventually returned to England.

For a number of years, John Roff - a pillar of Albany's German-speaking community, had been marketing his neighbors' produce among their countrymen in lower New York. In 1775, he was carrying soldiers and supplies down the Hudson for the Albany committee. But after the British invasion, he was denounced for profiteering and for continuing to secretly sell staples in New York. For a time, he avoided the consequences by staying on the river. But in 1777, he finally was apprehended and jailed. Afterward, he repented and signed the loyalty oath. But Roff and his smallpox-ridden family were banished to the countryside. By war's end, they had opened a tannery on Foxes Creek.

At the outbreak of the war, fifteen year old John Bogert was drafted out of the Albany militia to escort British prisoners taken at St. Johns' to Kingston and then on to Pennsylvania. The next year, he was a sailor or a "hand" on his father's sloop, the Magdeline that transported stores and supplies on the Hudson for the Continental army. In 1777, he took over for his father as skipper. The Magdeline carried companies of soldiers between Albany and Fishkill and hauled provisions, wood, and military stores as well. Later he conducted the wife of a British officer, a French priest, and others to New York under a flag of truce. Bogert's pension application details his services, which continued on the river and on land during the winter thru the end of the war. Afterwards, he succeeded his father as alderman and city surveyor, inherited the family's dockside home near city hall, sold millstones, but continued on the river for many years. When he died in 1853 at age 92 he was the oldest man living in Albany and was called "the last of the old Dutch skippers of the Hudson River."

The complex and interesting stories of more than a dozen other early Albany skippers could occupy the rest of the day. Of the ships that sailed out of the Hudson River, the most outstanding belonged to Captain Stewart Dean - whose post war enterprise will be dealt with in more depth after dinner tonight. However, I am going to end this presentation by considering Stewart Dean as a resident of Albany during the era of the American Revolution Dean was an orphan who grew up in Maryland and was apprenticed as a seaman. By 1769, this young man had learned the seaman's trade and made his way to the Hudson Valley. Settling in Albany and marrying the daughter of a ship's carpenter, Dean's skill enabled him to enter the carrying trade and he quickly became a sloop captain. Unlike most Albany skippers, Stewart Dean welcomed the opportunity to sail out of the Hudson and on to the high seas. At the end of 1771, he took a cargo of flour and lumber to the West Indies on the sloop Beaver. Other trips south followed making him Albany's foremost oceangoing skipper. By that time, the Deans were raising a family in their new home built on the waterfront next to sailmaker Eights. The American Revolution made the private sailor into a privateer. In 1776, he joined the crusade for American liberties when the Beaver was commissioned a privateer by the New York Provincial Congress. Under Stewart Dean, the Beaver cruised American waters over the next three years and captured a number of British vessels. In 1781, he was commissioned to command the schooner Nimrod, a privateer, which took several prizes in the Caribbean. I'm going to leave the high seas to Len Tantillo and now return to Albany where Dean compiled a distinguished record for the American cause as committee of safety member and militiamen - seeing action several times on the New York frontier. After the war, Stewart Dean opened a store and a storehouse on the Albany waterfront and began investing in real estate in and beyond Albany. But soon, adventure was calling and he began to concoct the venture that led him to China in 1785 and back to Albany two years later.

Pieter Winne, William Pemberton, John Bogert, and Stewart Dean: These skippers were among the more historically visible representatives of the hundreds of people who made up eighteenth-century Albany's water-oriented community. Taking the bounties collected and packaged by Albany merchants and traders to New York and beyond, and bringing new people, products, and ideas far into the North American interior, they represented a constant and important link to an evolving, larger world. They may not have been the actual architects of change, but they certainly were the carriers. As the Colonial Albany Social History Project discovers new materials like Pieter Winne's receipt book, new dimensions of their story will come into view.


Adapted text of a paper originally presented at the International Oceanic History Conference held at Lake George, NY on May 6, 1999. This essay is presented online to service requests for it. New information and more links will be added in the future. This essay should be considered as passively in-progress!

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first posted 01/03/02