James Kane


James Kane was born during the early 1770s. He was a younger son in the large family of John and Sybil Kent Kane (also O'Kane). His father was an Irish émigré, successful businessman, and a ruined loyalist. His mother was the daughter of a prominent cleric. James Kane seems to have grown up mostly in Dutchess County but may have been exiled with his family to Nova Scotia during the Revolution.

After the war, the elder Kane returned to New York from where his sons expanded on their father's earlier good fortunes.

James Kane was a bachelor whose adult family network included his parents, several brothers, and his sisters who had entered into advantageous marriages. These kin, especially his younger brother Archibald, also were his business associates.

By 1795, he and his brother had established themselves as merchants in Canajoharie. "Kane's Store" offered a range of dry goods in exchange for furs and forest products. Within a few years, they had cut a small canal to connect their store to the river.

Kane later was a partner in a glass works on the Wynantskill involving a tract at Glass Lake in Rensselaer County.

In the 1800s, he was characterized as one of the non native merchant princes who led Albany's emergence as an important American business center. Much later, James eights related an anecdote addressing the Kanes business practices.

The first city directory noted his residence at 76 State Street and his store at 45 Dock Street. He was called a merchant and the partner of Archibald Kane. Later, he built an impressive home on the site of the property first occupied by Peter W. Yates above South Pearl Street. Called "Kane Mansion" and "Ash Grove," it later served as the governor's residence.

James Kane was a well-known figure of his day. The extensive profile that follows by his younger contemporary Gorham Worth begins to do this pillar of the community some justice:

Among the merchants (I speak of the period from 1800 to 1808), Mr. Kane was perhaps the most prominent. He was, indeed, in many respects, the most prominent man in the city, prominent from his extensive operations, and business connections; prominent from his wealths, his liberality, his marked attention to strangers, his gentlemanly style of dress, and bachelor mode of living. He was distinguished, too, by an address and manner so singularly polite and courteous as seemingly to border upon excess. But let it be remembered, to his honor, that as no man in the city was more generally known, so there was no one more generally or more highly respected. The courtesy or politeness of Mr. Kane did not, however, consist in mere words or modes of expression. It had its foundation in good feeling I may say in humanity, which speaks to the heart, and is understood where words are not; which, rising superior to forms and fashions, borrows nothing from art, nothing from eloquence.

I shall venture, by way of illustration, to give an instance of this sort of politeness. There appeared at the dinner table of the Tontine Coffee House, where Mr. Kane then boarded, and at a time when the house was crowded to excess, an old gentleman and his wife. They were very plainly dressed, but still respectable in their appearance. They were, evidently, country people, "from down east;" [sic] and were probably bound on a visit to their relations in the west. The servants, always too few in number, were now altogether insufficient to attend to the wants of the company at table. The old people, therefore, being strangers, and unknown to any one, were totally neglected. It was shameful! I made one or two efforts to get a servant to attend to them, but all in vain: there were too many louder and more authoritative calls. At length, however, they were noticed by Mr. Kane, who looked round for his own servant, but finding him engaged, immediately left his seat and walked down to the lower end of the table where the old couple sat, and politely asked them what they would be helped to; took their plates to a side table, carved for them himself, helped them to vegetables, bread, &c., and then returned quietly to his seat. He was doubtless taken by the old people, and perhaps by other strangers, for the master of the house, or the head waiter! There was certainly no gentleman present who dared to run the risk of being so mistaken. But Mr. Kane could afford it. The politeness, or, more properly speaking, the humanity of the act, did him honor, and far outweighed the momentary, or rather the imaginary loss of dignity.

He was a trustee of the First and then Second Presbyterian church. In 1808, he was listed among the Court Street residents attending the funeral of Henry J. Bleecker.

In 1814, following the death of his brother, his partnership with Archibald Kane was dissolved. James was his sole heir and inherited a substantial estate that augmented his already significant wealth.

As an active businessman, his enterprises were subject to financial downturns that several times drained his resources. By 1838, he had been forced to sell off his Albany mansion. Single, he lived in Albany hotels and was a frequent guest in the homes of his many friends.

James Kane died in April 1851 at the age of eighty. He was buried in the First Presbyterian plot at the Albany Rural Cemetery.

biography in-progress


the people of colonial Albany Sources: The life of James Kane has not been assigned a CAP biography number. This sketch is derived chiefly from family and community-based resources. It appears that James Kane was the keeper of a not-so-well-documented history of his American family.

This individual (with an impeccable reputation) was prominent in a variety of business and community activities over his long and active life. A bachelor, he seems (except in one interesting incidence) to not have been elected or appointed to public office. Also, his legacy seems to be less well-represented in the online historical record than we would have expected for a person of his stature. However, he was memorable for a number of contemporary commentators who remembered him well! To be continued.

The Kane Family in America, by Michael J. O'Brien.

first posted: 9/20/09