Needs and Opportunities
This essay originally was presented at the Conference on New York State History held at Marist College on June 13, 2014. It was part of a panel entitled "The Hudson River Valley in the Era of the American Revolution" and was sponsored by Marist's Hudson Valley Regional Institute. This online version provides links to explanatory information on The People of Colonial Albany Live Here Website and beyond.
I'm thrilled for this opportunity to talk about New York and the American Revolution as we have come together today to consider what the era really meant in the Hudson Valley. Judging by the diversity of perspectives represented here, it appears to mean different things to different people.
For the last 40 years, I've been interested in the historical questions relating to what turned some colonists into revolutionaries while others opposed the so-called crusade for American liberties. At the same time, an even larger part of the population sought to avoid or at least evade involvement in movements that a few willful zealots employed to separate friends from enemies. These activists needed to polarize all colonists into those who believed in a free and independent America while marginalizing and then removing those who were opposed. My long-term ongoing work on the people of colonial Albany is inspired and still driven by that basic question.
Let's start by spending a few minutes setting the stage by peopling the vast landscape that was New York on the eve of the Revolution. What I'm going to say about the overall province I've found to be particularly true in the Hudson Valley.
Even after more than a decade of still booming and intense immigration and internal resettlement, by the 1770s, New Yorkers (some of whom could look back on several generations in America) seem to have experienced a sense of place - an identity. In short, a good core of people knew where they belonged - on Manhattan, up the Hudson Valley, on a long Long Island, and even out into the Mohawk country. I argue that the center of that was huge Albany County with more than twice the population of Manhattan in 1774. The extent of the colony, however, was proscribed by British imperial edicts that sought to limit expansion to the west and north and by refusing to enforce an eastern border which alienated would be settlers and developers on both sides of the official boundary of the Connecticut River.
By that time, many also had some notion of what their prospects might be going forward. Some New Yorkers were comfortable in this while an even larger proportion faced uncertainties and were restless! After the end of the Seven Years War, these people were starting to lay claim to the previously unsettled back country of the populated regions noted above while pushing north and west onto the formally forbidden New York frontier. In all these new settlement initiatives, native New Yorkers of all backgrounds and newcomers from every part of Europe were joined by New Englanders and former British soldiers. That human mix doubled the colony's population to almost 200,000 settlers by the eve of Independence.
The decade that followed (the so-called era of the American Revolution) has been a popular topic for most of the past 250 years. Some parts of the story have been well studied - specifically on the battlefield and in the political arena. The visible actors in those spheres mostly were established men - at the same time actually accounting for less than a quarter of the total population. The historical energy dedicated to things mostly military and/or political has been grossly disproportionate to what was going on in the larger society across race, class, and orientation. Most women, children, the aged and infirm, and also those newcomers and, transients -- the so-called marginal people who although numerous mostly were on the receiving end of the deeds and decisions made by actual leaders and combatants on all sides of every issue.
However, for all New Yorkers, life went on. For example, I was surprised to find that the birth rate for Albany couples hardly budged during the war years. But undeniably, everyone's experiences from 1775 to 1783, were strongly impacted by the so-called American Revolution.
In fact, everyone was touched by what was really "Three Revolutions." First, what became a long and draining war that ultimately resulted in one side giving up; second, a revolution in public life that, with the removal or at least quelling of those favored worthies associated with the royal government, opened opportunity and participation to many who previously were at the mercy of the formerly advantaged overlords. And third, an economic revolution that was inspired by the need to produce the things no longer available from the previous supplier - now the enemy. In my parents' generation, that was called the War Effort - and everyone was first invited and then compelled to participate.
The Bicentennial celebration of the 1970s represented the most recent concerted impetus for scholarship and study of the Revolutionary phenomena. A large number of new (and some really good) blood-and-guts studies of the war and of the political upheaval were based mostly on traditional resources. With a few exceptions, they were conducted from the top down - what the principal actors wrote, what they did, and what was said about these exceptional people - mostly by other leaders or other extraordinary characters. Those resources were most accessible in printed and manuscript forms and were destined to be relied on by contributing historians during the Bicentennial era.
At the same time, communities across New York State joined the celebration by taking on Bicentennial projects that among other things resulted in new or reprinted publications on the founding and settlement of the numerous people places that by 1800 would make New York among the most populated American states. I was the book review editor for the State Bicentennial Commission during most of that time and encountered literally hundreds of new works that all publishers were happy to send to us for consideration and publicity.
My glee at having received so many free books on the Revolution turned to dismay as I was troubled to find that most of the "new" Bicentennial publications were based on the same traditional (that means antiquarian) and top-down resources that informed the already preeminent still growing body of new works on the leaders of the war and the political transformation.
A few scholars sought to study the actual historical record. But mostly, they relied on the corpus of printed primary sources from the O'Callaghan-Brodhead era and from the sesquicentennial revolutionary celebration of the nineteen teens and twenties. Those who sought to synthesize the then existing body of narrative histories mostly could only perpetuate traditional patriotic mythology that extolled the virtues of noble Whigs, vilified the dirty Tories, and defamed the blood thirsty savages who set the frontiers ablaze. Left out most times was basically what the other 98% of the population was up to 128% of the time.
The local bicentennial-inspired histories merit more notice. In 1976, they hit the rack in the way they did because the compilers could whip up a catchy narrative in time for the 4th of July and mostly corroborated what most people thought was what happened - thus making them attractive and popular as well as timely. Few objected that they were all based on the point of view of men of means. Where were the experiences of the other 98% hiding? Not coincidentally, most of them were quickly discarded as America watched "Roots," "Rich Man Poor Man," and other serial dramatic histories on TV that seemed to deal with real life experiences of greater society.
In summary, with a few notable exceptions, the new stuff produced for the Bicentennial confirmed what we all had been taught in our history and civics classes and perpetuated the revolutionary notions that had all the actors (aka our great white founding fathers ) behaving heroically while articulating the ideologies of the European Enlightenment.
Of course, the revolutionary era was much more complex as the question remained what was really at stake for most of the rest of society during that time. The answer is complicated and begins to be explained by noting that the issues/stakes/conflicts were vastly divergent when one considers the disparate array of New York's people parts. Each group (if we could even define - let along comprehend, all the so-called stake holders) would have to be investigated and considered instead of letting the pro, anti, and ambivalent leadership speak for everyone as history had done for most of the past. That's a tall if not impossible order. But in my time in the library, I found that each shade of the historical perspective had many different although sometimes historically muted issues.
However, what I am advocating here is to actually study these constituent groups on their own terms. Today, we are the legatees of the social history revolution and the history-from-the-bottom-up movement of the 1970s and 80s. Thus, focus on elites (that is those advantaged historical subjects with substantial surviving documentary and material resources on their lives) or on the actual issues but based on the relatively narrow path that the rich and famous walked through the past is no longer adequate as today's historical detectives, interpreters, and consumers seek to understand the lives of their actual historical forebears (everyone but the rich and famous) and ideally also what they thought and believed. We all know that at least half of any past historical population had little inherently in common with General Washington and Samuel Adams or even with their New York counterparts - George Clinton and John Jay - to name a couple of local favorites. One reason for the focus on elites and extraordinary men in the past is the problem-bias of sources. By the late 1970s, flagship projects to identify, collect, and disseminate the papers of our revolutionary leaders were in full force. Predictably, these well-funded undertakings proved quite adept at achieving their goals of bringing to light everything about the lives of the great white founding fathers. Undeniably selective, these undertakings still represented a great step I'm going to say forward in the uncovering and addition of historical resources. Besides chronicling every breath of our revolutionary forefathers, they did tell us more than we ever knew about their supporting casts - although not intentionally. Add to them, the travel accounts of visitors to places like the Hudson Valley and a trailing trove of historical memoirs and we had a new core of historical resources - in print and now more or less online that introduced and made accessible more or less comprehensively heretofore unknown persons, places, and things.
By now, we are aware of the places where 18th century New Yorkers lived in the Hudson Valley and beyond. We also know that sustained and significant life went on in places whose name did not begin with the prefix "Fort." For New York State, the detailed index to the wartime papers of Governor George Clinton provides a menu of demographically significant places to be studied and also links to their more active and notorious personages. Add to that, the published Calendar of Historical Manuscripts for the Revolution series and published Guides to wartime collections in the New York State Library, Archives, and elsewhere, and virtually all of the visible characters stand out begging to be studied. Those at the top of local pyramids represented what we once stereotyped as Dutch, German, Scots, or Yankees. But now are beginning to understand these are amazingly diverse local constituencies - some of whom were longtime inhabitants but even more so were recent arrivals put in motion by the end of the French and Indian War and its logical conclusion - the movement for independence.
At the same time, traditional approaches to their lives would prove unfullfilling as most community members left us no personal papers, places, and things with which to gauge their lives as they reacted to events of the 1770s. The simple - too simple answer here is to study what they did. Our work on the city of Albany has yielded a comprehensive, online Guide for undertaking this endeavor with links to the types of records sets that we now know existed in all New York localities - albeit maybe not as intensively as for an official municipality like Albany city.
The formula for comprehending any of these communities is simple to say - but pretty labor intensive. Find a list of the people at risk; define them demographically and; then link them to how they interacted with the pertinent Revolutionary issues. Six online chapter heads (focusing on definable groups of Albany people) from my larger community-based initiative are a good place to start. They consider each city person in relation to the three American Revolutions that were a part of their everyday lives for more than a decade. A few quick examples help illustrate how to get started.
For the actual soldiers (males 16 to 60 are at risk here), start with relatively easy-to-find militia bounty lists for the place particular regiments. Who are these guys demographically, what did they do, and how was their participation rewarded? The new accessibility of pension resources represents a great leap forward in sources.
Second, consider the home front patriots - the other men of the community. Increasingly available printed and then manuscript war records and accounts name them and detail shades of their support of the supply side of the undertaking. Incidentally, each of these categories has generated a list of resources that I would gladly talk about in much greater depth than is possible in this paper.
Third, those who said no:- outright Tories, loyalists, and would-be neutrals - mostly males but all of them eventually got into trouble after being outed by the local committees and commissioners. Loyalist claims and the subsequent lives of those refugees in Canada yield another layer of focused personal material on the other side of the coin. Mostly Canadian, heritage organizations have been particularly adept in helping introduce the loyalist voice.
Next, are the overt women of each community - a group I call "Widows, Abandoned Wives, and Single Women." For the first time, these local ladies were forced to officially deal with the conflict in the absence of the formerly formally dominant men. Albany city (and each district in the large county as well) has two neat assessment rolls for 1779. The city lists name 71 female property owners. My draft chapter follows them individually and collectively through their wartime ordeals.
At the same time, a large group of newcomers moved into every upriver community just before and as a consequence of the conflict. Some were just immigrant opportunists (albeit a diverse group of Anglos and non-English speakers as well) from Europe. A number of them had been recently recruited by would-be developers in all parts of the colony. Many of them would be cast adrift as their patrons were eventually neutralized as they often turned out to be British supporters. Some new residents had recently relocated from other parts of New York and from the other colonies - particularly from New England and New Jersey. But still others were actual refugees - mostly fleeing danger and from downriver, but also falling back from the so-called frontier which stretched all the way out to Detroit and up into British Canada. During this short decade, these opportunistic newcomers created pressure on existing local economic and social balances. At the same time, their expectations and ambitions made traditional residents uncomfortable. Distrusted, they were watched closely by both sides whose reports tell us much about the new community dynamics that newcomers and refugees forced into creation. At the same time, a higher effective literacy level among these insurgents has yielded an unexpected trove of surviving information and observations about the local scene.
The last distinct group we will consider were those of African ancestry. Their path to New York ran the gamut from new imports to those whose direct ancestors had been in North America for several generations. Most, but not all of these people were slaves. Slaves were present in almost all wartime communities and were undergoing a transformation in status while both sides moved to utilize their energy in the war effort while their owners sought to protect their property investments in the face of impending freedom. Their numbers have been aggregated at up to 20% of the total population. However, individual study has only supported profiles of the relatively few who occasioned notice mostly when they got into trouble. With colonial Albany, we try but still struggle to comprehend Afro Albanians in distinctive sub groups.
Each locality/place/community/group in the Hudson Valley exhibited these elements, ingredients, and issues to some degree. All were undergoing change during the war years. To responsibly assess the impact of the American Revolution in the Hudson Valley, each one needs to be studied. The Hudson Valley above the Neutral Ground and east of the Indian country truly was the demographic core of the new New York State. Dozens of communities of some sort existed within those geographic parameters. Again, each one merits study to deal with questions on the impact of the historic decade on its actual people.
Those four original counties represented the most stable part of the new State - each with a relatively long history and substantial yet still emerging resource caches. Happily, ample materials exist and are accessible for us to consider the history of the rank-and-file people of [ fill in the blank with your local favorites ] during the war years. The now traditional resources outlined earlier are always a likely place to start. The online Guide to the Colonial Albany Social History Project considers old and new resources - all of which are germane to Albany's slightly younger neighbors.
A final question relates to what makes today different from the Bicentennial and the time before in terms of needs and opportunities for focused study?
In the time remaining, I will note three game changers. Obviously, at the top of the list is the Internet - which in the time since I began switching to that medium for my own work in 1998 or '99 has exploded and evolved to, in my view, make conventional research in paper products, libraries, and repositories - virtually obsolete. We are no longer constrained by accessibility problems based on time, space, and funding as the Internet is open 24/7/365 and is virtually free. I've long since stopped arguing about that statement and don't lose any sleep over an impending Internet apocalypse. I prefer to pursue all my curiosities to the deepest depths of the great wide open without regard to anything that might have stopped me cold in days past.
Here's who has bought into the global surforama. Publishers of books and periodicals - virtually all available online; antiquities and antiquarian resources - unbelievably accessible from vendors to Google books; resource repositories - libraries, archives, historical societies and museums - all have websites that feature indispensable resources that formerly required snail mail dialogue or research trips; heritage organizations with Internet based repositories supporting virtually every topic we would wish to explore; commercial providers starting with Ancestry.com and followed by a growing number of subscription-based resources are by no means the end of the Internet-based resources menu. This list does not seem to have an end or a limit.
Second [and very briefly], family historians (formerly known as genealogists) with their unparalleled needs-to-know have taken the lead in uncovering, evaluating, and transforming countless formerly impossible to find resources of every kind into immediately retrievable information. These often include digitals of actual documents and material remains that have excited me as welcome presents so many times.
Finally, the Social History revolution has turned historical inquiry on its head - elevating the most common/ordinary/muted parts of the past to the center of the story line. What may have been tokens in the past, with always emerging corroboration and substantiation, we now understand are at the heart of the story. With all that has happened to demystify and deflate our formerly godlike leaders and icons in the information age, their story alone is no longer adequate as all of us ask: "What about people like me?"
If all that is not 100% true or valid right now, it will be soon unless the vampires or zombies do take over the world as we know it!
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first posted: 6/20/14