Peter Kalm on Albany*

Many observers wrote of their impressions of early Albany. Peter Kalm's Travels in North America recounted his time in the colonies from 1748 to 1751. First published in 1770 and offered in many editions since, that massive work is one of the most often-utilized descriptive resources for early American history. As with most observations made by outsiders, reconciling Kalm's impressions with the community-based record represents an ongoing challenge!
However, Kalm's Travels has great utility in helping us articulate the early Albany story! This page will present excerpts from Benson's edition of Kalm's work that relate to early Albany and its people.

earlier entries may follow


June 13, 1749

The wind favored our voyage during the whole night, so that I had no opportunity of observing the nature of the country. This morning at five o'clock we were but nine English miles from Albany. The country on both sides of the river was low and covered with woods, only here and there were a few little scattered settlements. On the banks of the river were wet meadows, covered with sword grass (Carex), and they formed several little islands. We saw no mountains and hastened towards Albany. The land on both sides of the river was chiefly low, and more carefully cultivated as we came nearer to Albany. Here we could see everywhere the type of haystacks with movable roofs which I have described before. As to the houses which we saw, some were of wood, others of stone. The river was seldom above a musketshit broad, and in several parts of it were sandbars which require great skill in navigating the boats. At eight o'clock in the morning we arrived at Albany.

Arriving at Albany. All the boats which ply between Albany and New York belong to Albany. They go up and down the Hudson River as long as it is open and free from ice. They bring from Albany boards or planks, and all sorts of timber, flour, peas, and furs, which they get from the Indians, or which are smuggled from the French. They come home almost empty, and only bring a few kinds of merchandise with them, the chief of which is rum. This is absolutely necessary to the inhabitants of Albany. They cheat the Indians in the fur trade with it; for when the Indians are drunk they are practically blind and will leave it to the Albany whites to fix the price of the furs.The boats are quite large, and have a good cabin, in which the passengers can be very commodiously lodged. They are usually built of red cedar or of white oak. Frequently the bottom consists of white oak, and the sides of red cedar, because the latter withstands decay much longer than the former. The red cedar is likewise apt to split when it hits against anything, and the Hudson is in many places full of sand and rocks, against which the keel of the boat sometimes strikes. Therefore people choose white oak  [333]  for the bottom as being the softer wood, and not splitting so easily. The bottom being continually under water, is not so much exposed to weathering and holds out longer.

Canoes: The canoes which the boats always have along with them are made of a single piece of wood, hollowed out: they are sharp on both ends, frequently three or four fathoms long, and as broad as the thickness of the wood will allow. The people in it do not row sitting, but usually a fellow stands at each end, with a short oar in his hand, with which he controls and propels the canoe. Those which are made here at Albany are commonly of white pine. They can do service for eight or twelve years, especially if they be tarred and painted. At Albany they are made of white pine since there is no other wood fit for them; at New York they are made of the tulip tree, and, in other parts of the country of red or white cedars: but both these trees are so small in the neighborhood of Albany that they are unfit for canoes. There are no seats in them, for if they had any, they would be more liable to be upset, as one could not keep one's equilibrium so well. One has to sit in the bottom of these canoes.

Battoes are another kind of boats which are much in use in Albany: they are made of boards of white pine; the bottom is flat, that they may row the better in shallow water. They are sharp at both ends, and somewhat higher towards the end than in the middle. They have seats in them, and are rowed as commonboats. They are long, yet not all alike. Usually they are three and sometimes four fathoms long. The height from the bottom to the to the top of the board (for the sides stand almost perpendicular) is from twenty inches to two feet, and the breadth in the middle about a yard and six inches. They are chiefly made use of for carrying goods along the river to the Indians, that is, when those rivers are open enough for the battoes to pass through, and when they need not be carried by land a great way. The boats made of the bark of trees break easily by knocking against a stone, and the canoes cannot carry a great cargo, and are easily upset; the battoes are therefore preferable to them both. I saw no boats here like those in Sweden or other parts of Europe.

Temperature at Albany. Frequently the cold does a great deal of damage at Albany. There is hardly a month in summer during which  [334]  a frost does not occur. Spring comes very late, and in April and May are numerous cold nights which frequently kill the flowers of trees and kitchen herbs. It was feared last May that the blossoms of the apple trees had been so severely damaged by the frost that that next autumn there would be but very few apples. Even the oak blossoms in the woods are very often killed by the cold. The autumn here is of long continuance, with warm days and nights. However, the cold nights commonly commence towards the end of September, and are frequent in October. The people are forced to keep their cattle in stables from the middle of November till March or April, and must find them hay during that time.

During summer, the wind blows mostly from the south and brings a great drought along with it. Sometimes it rains a little, and as soon as it has rained the wind veers to northwest, blowing for several days from that point and then returning to the south. I have had frequent opportunities of seeing this condition of wind happen precisely, both this year and the following.



June 21, 1749

Description of Albany. Next to New York, Albany is the principal town, or at least the most wealthy, in the province of New York. It is situated on the slope of a hill, close to the western shore of the Hudson River, about one hundred and forty-six English miles from New York. The town extends along the river, which flows here from N.N.E. to S.S.W. The high mountains in the west, above the town, bound the view on that side. There are two churches, one  [341]  English and the other Dutch. The Dutch church stands a short distance from the river on the east side of the market. It is built of stone and in the middle it has a small steeple with a bell. It has but one minister who preaches twice every Sunday. The English church is situated on the hill at the west end of the market, directly under the fort. It is likewise built of stone but has no steeple. There is no service at the church at this time because they have no minister, but all the people understand Dutch, the garrison excepted. The minister of this church has a settled income of one hundred pounds sterling, which he gets from England. The town hall lies to the south of the Dutch church, close by the riverside. It is a fine building of stone, three stories high. It has a small tower or steeple, with a bell, and a gilt ball and vane at the top of it.

The houses in this town are very neat, and partly built of stones covered with shingles of white pine. Some are slated with tile from Holland, because the clay of this neighborhood is not considered fit for tiles. Most of the houses are built in the old Frankish way, with the gable-end towards the street, except a few, which were recently built in the modern style. A great number of houses are built like those of New Brunswick, which I have described, the gable-end towards the street being of bricks and all the other walls of boards. The outside of the houses is never covered with lime or mortar, nor have I seen it pracitsed in any North American towns which I have visited; and the walls do not seem to be damaged by the weather. The eaves on the roofs reach almost to the middle of the street. This preserves the walls from being damaged by the rain, but it is extremely disagreeable in rainy weather for the people in the streets, there being hardly any means of avoiding the water from the eaves. The front doors are generally in the middle of the houses, and on both sides are porches with seats, on which during fair weather the people spend almost the whole day, especially on those porches which are in the shade. The people seem to move with the sun and the shade, always keeping in the latter. When the sun is too hot the people disappear. In the evening the verandas are full of people of both sexes; but this is rather troublesome because a gentleman has to keep his hat in constant motion, for the people here are not Quakers whose hats are as though nailed to the head. It is consider[ed] very impolite  [342]  not to lift your hat and greet everyone. The streets are broad, and some of them are paved. In some parts they are lined with trees. The long streets are almost parallel to the river, and the others intersect them at right angles. The street which goes between the two churches is five times broader than the others and serves as a marketplace. The streets upon the whole are very dirty because the people leave their cattle in them during the summer nights. There are two marketplaces in town, to which the country people come twice a week. There are no city gates here but for the most part just open holes through which people pass in and out of the town.

The fort lies higher than any other building on a high steep hill on the west side of the town. It is a great building of stone surrounded with high and thick walls. Its location is very bad, as it can serve only to keep off plundering parties without being able to sustain a siege. There are numerous high hills to the west of the fort, which command it, and from which one may see all that is done within it. There is commonly an officer and a number of soldiers quartered in it. That way the fort contains a spring of water.

Trade. The location of Albany is very advantageous in regard to trade. The Hudson River which flows close by it is from twelve to twenty feet deep. There is not yet any quay made for the better landing of the boats, because the people fear it will suffer greatly or be entirely carried away in spring by the ice which then comes down the river. The vessels which are in use here may come pretty near the shore in order to be loaded, and heavy goods are brought to them upon canoes tied together. Albany carries on a considerable commerce with New York, chiefly in furs, boards, wheat, flour, peas, several kinds of timber, etcl There is not a place in all the British colonies, the Hudson's Bay settlements excepted, where such large quantities of furs and skins are brought of the Indians as at Albany. Most of the merchants in this town send a clerk or agent to Oswego, an English trading town on Lake Ontario, to which the Indians come with their furs. I intend to give a more minute account of this place in my Journal for the year 1750. The merchants from Albany spend the whole summer at Oswego, and trade with many tribes of Indians who come with their goods. Many people have assured me that the Indians are frequently cheated in disposing of their goods, especially when they are drunk, and that sometimes they do not get one half or [ 343 ] even one tenth of the value of their goods. I have been a witness to several transaction of this kind. The merchants of Albany glory in these tricks, and are highly pleased when they have given a poor Indian, a greater portion of brandy than they can stand, and when they can, after that, get all his goods for mere trifles. The Indians often find when they are sober again, that they have for once drunk as much as they are able of a liquor which they value beyond anything else in the whole world, and they are quite insensible to their loss if they again get a draught of this nectar. Besides this trade at Oswego, a number of Indians come to Albany from several places especially from Canada; but from this latter place, they hardly bring anything but beaver skins.


The Dutch in Albany. The inhabitants of Albany and its environs are almost all Dutchmen. They speak Dutch, have Dutch preachers, and the divine service is performed in that language. Their manners are likewise Quite Dutch; their dress is however like that of the English. It is well known that the first Europeans who settled in the province of New York were Dutchmen. During the time that they   [344]   were the masters of this province, they seized New Sweden of which they were jealous. However, the pleasure of possessing this conquered land and their own was but of short duration, for towards the end of 1664 Sir Robert Carr, by order of King Charles the second, went to New York, then New Amsterdam, and took it. Soon after Colonel Nicolls went to Albany, which then bore the name of Fort Orange, and upon taking it, named it Albany, from the Duke of York's Scotch title. The Dutch inhabitants were allowed either to continue where they were, and under the protection of the English to enjoy all their former privileges, or to leave the country. The greater part of them chose to stay and from them the Dutchmen are descended who now live in the province of New York, and who possess the greatest and best estates in that province

The avarice, selfishness and immeasurable love of money of the inhabitants of Albany are very well known throughout all North America, by the French and even by the Dutch , in the lower part of New York province. If anyone ever intends to go to Albany it is said in jest that he is about to go to the land of Canaan, since Canaan and the land of the Jews mean one and the same thing, and that Albany is a fatherland and proper home for arch-Jews, since the inhabitants of Albany are even worse. If a real Jew, who understands the art of getting forward perfectly well, should settle amongst them, they would not fail to ruin him. For this reason nobody comes to this place without the most pressing necessity; and therefore I was asked in several places, both this and the following year, what induced me to make the pilgrimage to this New Canaan. I likewise found that the judgment which people formed of them was not without foundation. For though they seldom see any strangers (except those who go from the British colonies to Canada and back again) and one might there expert [sic] to find victuals and accommodation for travellers cheaper than in places where they always resort, yet I experienced the contrary. I was here obliged to pay for everything twice, thrice and four times as much as in any part of North America which I have passed through. If I wanted their assistance, I was   [345]   obliged to pay them very well for it, and when I wanted to purchase anything or be helped in some case or other, I could at once see what kind of blood ran in their veins, for they either fixed exorbitant prices for their services or were very reluctant to assist me. Such was this people in general. However, there were some among them who equalled any in North America or anywhere else, in politeness, equity, goodness, and readiness to serve and to oblige; but their number fell far short of that of the former. If I may be allowed to declare my conjectures, the origin of the inhabitants of Albany and its neighborhood seems to me to be as follows. While the Dutch possessed this country, and intended to people it, the government sent a pack of vagabonds of which they intended to clear their native country, and sent them along with a number of other settlers to this province. The vagabonds were sent far from the other colonists, upon the borders towards the Indians and other enemies, and a few honest families were persuaded to go with them, in order to keep them in bounds. I cannot in any other way account for the difference between the inhabitants of Albany and the other descendants of so respectable a nation as the Dutch, who are settled in the lower part of New York province. The latter are civil, obliging, just in prices, and sincere; and though they are not ceremonious, yet they are well meaning and honest and their promises may be relied on.

The behavior of the inhabitants of Albany during the war between England and France, which ended with the peace of Aix la Chappelle, has, among several other causes, contributed to make them the object of hatred in all the British colonies, but more especially in New England. For at the beginning of that war when the Indians of both parties had received orders to commence hostilities, the French engaged theirs to attacke the inhabitants of New England, which they faithfully executed, killing everybody they met with, and carrying off whatever they found. . . .



From The America of 1750: Peter Kalm's Travels in North America ("The English Version of 1770") translated and edited by Adolph B. Benson (first published in English in 1770; American edition, Yale University Press 1937; reprinted 1966 by Dover Publications), two volumes, consecutive pagination; beginning of edition pages shown in [brackets]. The original punctuation is variable and has been retained!

Kalm's narrative has been digitized and appears online with searchable capabilities in the American Journeys series courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.


Transformed by SB

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first posted: 09/15/02; last revised 11/1/10