by John W. Mangrum
Webpage by Cliff Lamere 6 Oct 2002
This brief history of Albany is reproduced here with the author's permission. It was originally written to give the impression that the writer was living in the 1890s. Various sources were consulted in the writing of the history, especially "Flashback: A Fresh Look at Albany's Past" by C.R. Roseberry, published Albany: Washington Park Press Ltd., 1986. - CWL
Life is good in Albany, the second-oldest chartered town in the United States. Nestled in the Hudson River valley some 150 miles north of New York City, and just south of the eastern end of the Erie Canal, Albany remains a hub for trade as it has been since its founding, and as the capital of New York State since 1797, its wealth its more than matched by its political might. Albany is a city rich in history and political intrigue, and is now boldly venturing forth into the next century on the shoulders of Progress!
As far as most locals are concerned, Albany's history began in 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would later bear his name in search of a Northwest Passage to the Orient. Sadly, the following year he returned to Holland with the disappointing news that the river he had searched did not lead to his desired goal. However, he did report that fine furs could be found in the region, perking up his employers' ears.
Wearing fine fur was all the rage in Europe of the day, and several explorers set out to lay claim to this veritable treasure-trove. Around 1612, the Dutch Captain Hendrick Christaensen was the first explorer to relocate New York Harbor. During a series of voyages, Christaensen more sailed up the Hudson River (or the River Mauritus, as the Dutch called it) and either captured or recruited two young Native Americans, convincing the pair to return with him to Holland. Said to be the sons of tribal chiefs, the Dutch named the pair Valentine and Orson, after a popular medieval romance.
In 1613, Captain Christaensen returned to the region, the Indian guides accompanying him, and set anchor near where the Mohawk River joined the Hudson. By the next year the Dutch had established Fort Nassau, a fortified trading post on Castle Island, to cash in on the fur trade. Valentine and Orson were also persuaded to remain at the post, acting as guides and translators.
Around 1619, Captain Christaensen returned once more to Fort Nassau. In the Captain's absence, Orson had become bad-tempered, described by one European as "an exceedingly malignant wretch." During an argument, Orson murdered Captain Christaensen, but was "repaid with a bullet as his reward."
By 1624, a new, larger and more permanent colony was built to the north of Fort Nassau, and the settlement as a whole become known as Fort Orange. In 1652, Peter Stuyvesant, the Poltroon or "patron" of the colony named the settlement growing up around Fort Orange "Beverwyck." The trading post had become a town.
In 1664, the British bloodlessly captured the Hudson River region. Once in control, the British renamed Beverwyck "Albany" for James, Duke of York and Albany. Albany would keep the name forevermore. Although the Europeans were largely on good terms with the native Mohawk and Iroquois tribes, by 1676 King Philip's Indian attacks had become serious enough to provoke the British into building Fort Albany to protect the town. In less than two decades this would have a monumental effect on the town's survival.
In January of 1690, a war party of 210 men (comprised of 114 Frenchman, with the rest Indians) marched down from Montreal, planning to attack Albany. When they finally reached the area, the Indians (knowing Albany was defended by a fort with cannon) outright refused to attack the town. As a last-minute decision, the war party decided to attack Schenectady instead, a stockade about 20 miles to the west. This stockade was fortified, but the defenders were lax and weren't at all prepared for the attack. On Feb. 8th, the war party attacked; the people of Schenectady were massacred, while only 2 of the invaders were killed. A sole rider escaped the raid, rushing to Albany for help. Although both he and his horse were shot, they made the night-long ride and arrived in Albany before the next dawn. Sadly, before the Albany forces reached the area, the war party was long gone, having killed sixty people (men, women, and children) and razed all but a few houses.
The war party trudged back towards Montreal, dragging twenty-seven prisoners and stolen fifty horses with them. In the harsh weather, the invaders ate nearly two-thirds of those horses. Two days later, the Mohawk Indians came to the survivors' aid, and along with fifty Albany men, hunted down the raiders, killing fourteen stragglers. This event sparked what became known on this side of the Atlantic as the French-and-Indian Wars.
Albany survived, but by 1754 the Colonies were still caught in the ongoing conflict between France and England. The Albany Congress was called to try to keep the Iroquois from going over to the French, as some of their tribes had already done. Representatives from seven colonies came, hoping to appease the increasingly disgruntled Six Nations of the Iroquois. The Mohawks were over a week late, but the Europeans counted it lucky that they'd decided to come at all; the Mohawks were (quite rightly) distressed over the White Man stealing their lands. The Congress made enough concessions to soothe the tribe (enough so that they fought on the side of the Colonies when war eventually broke out), but even while the Mohawks were being pacified inside the Congress, outside they were being defrauded of even more land. The Albany Congress also debated the Plan of Union, the first attempt to unify the Colonies under a single government (albeit under the English crown). The plan never went very far, but the spirit of Union remained, and when the Revolutionary War eventually broke out, Albany survived several battles and served as a center for troops and supplies.
In the beginning of the next century the city started to expand in earnest. Since Albany was settled on gently sloping hills as the Adirondack Mountains came down to meet the Hudson, "downtown" had a literal meaning in Albany, and ever since the first settlement on Castle Island, each spring had brought with it troublesome floods. As the city grew in power, the growing population of upper class decided they'd had enough of the Hudson's annual overflow. The affluent started moving to higher ground, creating the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and Arbor Hill. In 1806, the cornerstone was laid for Albany's first Capitol building on Capitol Hill, also known as Gallows Hill from being the city's place of public execution.
Over the next few decades, Albany continued to grow in leaps and bounds, annexing several of its satellite communities and becoming a center of industry. All this prosperity no doubt came hand in hand with the construction of the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, and in 1831 Mohawk & Hudson ran the nation's first passenger train (the DeWitt Clinton) from Albany to Schenectady. As the iron industry built up steam, so did the logging industry, which peaked in the 1850's-70's; many of Albany's loggers were Irish immigrants who came to build the Canal, and stayed to raise families. In 1861, as the issue of slavery tore the nation apart, Albany hosted the State Anti-Slavery Convention. Although there was threat of a riot, the mayor was able to toss the rowdies out of the convention, defending the free speech of the dignitaries within.
Of course, not everything in Albany's history during this period was quite so commendable; some of its darker moments are still notorious to this day. 1827 marked the last public hanging on Gallows Hill, and in 1832 Albany was hit by a cholera epidemic. To ask some, worse than either of these were the hogs. For as long as anyone could remember, the accepted method of garbage disposal had been to simply toss it out the front window, where it would lie in the street until such time as Albany's healthy population of wild hogs would devour it. By the middle of the 19th century, downtown Albany was a literal pig sty. Thankfully, this was remedied in 1854, when the Albany Common Council cracked down on the hog epidemic, rounding up some 15,000 wandering pigs.
However, the event which set the most tongues wagging took place in 1861. In that year, newly-elected Abraham Lincoln took a pre-inaugural train tour across the Northeast, bolstering Northern spirits and gathering political support. As Lincoln was paraded through the streets of Albany, a young and popular actor got his first glimpse of the new President. To this day, thirty years later, people still wonder if President Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth caught each other's eye, if only for an instant.
During the Civil War, Albany produced war supplies for the Union; in fact, the ironclad Monitor was built in area ironworks in 1862. Three years later, shortly after the end of the war, Booth assassinated Lincoln, while two accomplices unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate the Secretary of State and Vice-President Johnson. Lincoln's body was sent through the northern states in a funereal tour, and as Albany crowds filed by Lincoln's coffin, John Wilkes Booth was meeting his end far to the south, surrounded in a Virginia barn. Sergeant "Boston" Corbett, a native of neighboring Troy who had worked in Albany, disobeyed orders and fatally shot Booth. Although Corbett was arrested, the nation made such a hero of him he was released and even granted a portion of the reward money.
With the war over, the nation tried to heal, and Albany continued to grow. In 1870, ground was broken on Washington Park, Albany's answer to NYC's Central Park. On a less grandiose scale, In 1874 the Sacred Heart Church was established by Father Francis Maguire, a powerful man as comfortable on horseback as on foot, and a priest not afraid to use a whip and a fist to protect his flock. In 1880, City Hall was ravaged in one of Albany's all too frequent fires, but it was soon replaced.
In the last decade, Progress has taken a firm hold of the Capital Region. Primitive electric streetlights replaced the current kerosene lamps throughout the city in 1881, and 1889 saw Albany's first station of public pay telephones. In 1883, the original Capitol Building was demolished, with a grand new Capitol building being quickly built to take its place. In fact, it sometimes seems like entire neighborhoods are being demolished in the name of Progress; out with the Old to make room for the New, as it were. Just in 1890 electric trolleys have started to replace horse-cars in most parts of town.
Modern Albany is truly a cosmopolitan city, boasting a wide mix of cultures. While still primarily Dutch and English, the last century has seen an influx of Irish and German immigrants, who have formed their own communities. There is also a smaller Jewish community, but as yet only a handful of Italians or Spaniards. Yes, there are still reasons for complaints; the downtown area still suffers from flooding every spring, and is considered by many a disreputable eyesore. But the locals seem to like their city warts and all, despite their grumbling. True, the city is very cramped-alleyways are uncommon-but developers currently building affluent homes in the Pine Hills neighborhood are finding resistance to the idea of putting homes in spacious lots! And Albany does truly have its bright spots. The recently opened Washington Park has become the center for a new fad: bicycling. In fact, in fair weather, so many young people turn out in the park on their bicycles that some people are starting to see them as a menace to the pedestrians!
Visited since 7 Oct 2002
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