The People of Colonial Albany

The Colonial Albany Social History Project is dedicated to understanding and interpreting the life of an important yet misunderstood early American community.

The Colonial Albany Project's guiding premise is that a community's history rests on the unique lives of every one of its diverse peoples. Portrait of Anna CuylerOur basic unit of study is an individual person's life. Our primary objective is to comprehend and integrate the stories and contributions of every man, woman, and child who lived in the city before the Industrial Revolution. All project publications and public programming are based on the stories of individual and groups of early Albany people during the first 200 years of city life.

Since 1981, the project has conducted a focused program of historical research with the goal of constructing a detailed biographical portrait of each of the 16,000 different people who lived in the city of Albany during its formative years. Guided by an overall research plan and supplemented by an almost-daily infusion of new information, many of the profiles are well-developed while others include only a few bits of defining information. These lifecourse biographies are intended to be comprehensive and to include every bit of relevant information on an individual's life that can be recovered from a broadly defined historical record. We recognize that goal may be unattainable but it has helped remind us never to give up in the search for information!

In the quest for defining information, locating a likeness of each early Albany person is among the Colonial Albany Project's primary research objectives. From an initial sweep of publications, we identified more than 300 images (formal portraits, drawings, photographs, and renderings) of individuals in our study population. At that point, research was begun on each of the images and on their creators. Since then, more than 200 additional images have come to our attention during the course of project research and through our information network. Copies of each likeness were made and stored on slides. Today, these images still exist in slide form and increasingly as digital files within the project's Graphics Archive.

Many original images such as Henrietta Dering Johnston's portrait of Anna Cuyler Van Schaick are found in well-known repositories including the Albany Institute of History and Art and the New York State Museum. Some reside in lesser-known public places. Others are in private hands. Still others that have appeared in publications or have been described in the written record have not yet been found by the Colonial Albany Project. However, a surprising number of "new" likenesses have come to our attention. Optimistic by nature, the project believes many, many others wait to be rediscovered!


This beautiful pastel portrait of Anna Cuyler Van Schaick is part of the collection of the New York State Museum and hangs in the New York Metropolis hall. It is typical of the work of Henrietta Dering Johnston and was commissioned during the 1720s when the artist was working in New York. You might have noticed that the smaller image of this portrait has been reversed for effect on the gallery page of this website!

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created in 1999; recast 12/20/10; last revised 9/10/14