Albany: One of America’s First Cities

Text by Anthony Opalka, Albany City Historian

The city of Albany traces its roots to the voyage of English explorer Henry Hudson sponsored by the Dutch East India Company in 1609. Seeking a water route to China by sailing westward, Hudson instead sailed up the river that now bears his name to the interior of New York State. Five years later, the New Netherland Company established Fort Nassau on the island that now houses the Port of Albany but within a few years, this fort was washed away. In 1621, the Dutch West India Company was chartered and three years later, the company built Fort Orange, the trading settlement that would eventually grow into the city of Albany. This early date makes Albany the longest continually occupied European settlement in the eastern United States.

The fort was populated by fur traders who did not expect to establish permanent residence in the fort, but rather, gather their beaver pelts and return to Europe where they were highly prized. In 1629, in a move to encourage permanent settlement, the Dutch established the “patroon” system, wherein tenant farmers would settle and cultivate the land and pay the patroons an annual land rent. The most successful of these medieval land-holding systems was established by Amsterdam pearl merchant Kilean Van Rensselaer, whose colony surrounded Fort Orange and comprises most of what are today Albany and Rensselaer counties on either side of the Hudson River.

Soon after the two systems were established adjacent to each other, conflicts arose as to who owed allegiance to the Dutch West India Company and who was a tenant of the Van Rensselaers. The dispute was settled in 1652 when Governor Pieter Stuyvesant of the Dutch West India Company shot a cannon in three directions from Fort Orange, establishing a boundary between the VanRensselaer colony and the new village to be called Beverwyck (place of beavers). In 2002, the anniversary of this event was marked in a celebration marking 350 years of municipal government in Albany.

In 1664, all Dutch claims in North America were turned over to the English without dispute. The New Netherland colony was renamed New York, New Amsterdam was to be called New York (city) and Beverwyck was renamed Albany, in honor of James, Duke of York and Albany, who would eventually become King James II.

Thomas Dongan, governor of the New York colony representing the British crown, granted a charter to the city of Albany on July 22, 1686. This charter still governs the city, making this the oldest charter still in force in the United States. At the time, approximately 500 residents called Albany their home, and by 1714, 1,128 lived in Albany, including 113 African slaves. Residents of Albany traced their roots at this time to Germany, Scotland, France, and the West Indies, but Dutch culture continued to predominate well into the eighteenth century. As a frontier settlement, Albany became strategically important as a trading hub and military supply center.

In 1754, at the Stadt Huys (city hall), leaders of several colonies met to develop a common defense against the French. The document, known as the Albany Plan of Union, was drafted with Benjamin Franklin as one of its primary authors, but was never adopted by the parliament.

Between 1757 and 1763, Albany played a significant role in the French and Indian War, although the city was never attacked. As economic and political tensions developed between the colonies and England in the 1775, the citizens of Albany supported the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia and Albany native Philip Livingston was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Albany’s strategic location along the Hudson and the eastern end of the Mohawk Valley made it a target of military operations during the American Revolution. The goal of British forces to the west and north was to attack Albany, but they were stopped at Fort Stanwix in the Mohawk Valley and at Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolution, north of Albany in 1777.

After the Revolution, Fort Frederick, which had replaced Fort Orange more than one hundred years earlier, was removed, and all remnants of the stockaded settlement disappeared. Albany was the sixth largest city in the United States in 1786 and had already planned for westward growth with a grid of streets at the top of the hill above the old stockade.

Albany became the capital of New York State in 1797 and by 1800, contained 5,349 residents, including 157 free persons of color and 526 enslaved. It retained some its Dutch culture, but increasingly became a more English-American place.

At the end of the eighteenth century, New York State passed a law allowing for the construction of privately-built toll roads called turnpikes, and Albany became the center of a wheel of such roads radiating in all directions. Of particular importance were the Columbia, Mohawk & Hudson (also known as the Albany and Schenectady) and the Great Western Turnpikes, carrying goods and people from the east (along the Columbia, from Massachusetts) to the west along the Mohawk & Hudson and Great Western. Many of those moving westward from New England chose to stay in Albany, further diluting its Dutch character. At the same time, many of the Dutch buildings in Albany were replaced with more up-to-date English-derived styles, leaving contemporary Albany with only a few buildings from its Dutch period.

In 1825, one of the most important events in Albany, New York State, and the United States of the nineteenth century occurred, with the completion of the Erie Canal, beginning at the Hudson River in Albany, and ending more than 300 miles to the west in Lake Erie at Buffalo. The canal solidified Albany’s position as the transportation and commercial hub of upstate New York and made New York City the premier port of the eastern seaboard. It opened the trans-Appalachian United States to settlement and commercial exploitation and Albany’s population grew by leaps and bounds in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Less than ten years later, another revolution in transportation took place in Albany with the chartering of the first railroad in New York State. In 1831, the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad inaugurated service between Albany and Schenectady, sixteen miles to the west, and within the next twenty years, railroads radiated in all directions from the city in the same way that turnpikes had around 1800. The railroad in some ways eclipsed the Erie Canal in importance because it was able to operate during all seasons, but the canal remained an important element in Albany’s development as well.

As Albany was developing as a transportation crossroads, it was also developing as an industrial center. Industries such as breweries, iron foundries, stove manufactories, and concerns related to shipping and railroading provided employment for the city’s growing population.

At the same time, some residents of Albany became interested in the anti-slavery movement that was sweeping the nation. (Slavery had been abolished in 1827 in the state of New York.) The city assumed a cosmopolitan air at this time, with people of all races travelling through either by canal, steamboat, railroad or road, and it quickly became an important stop on the Underground Railroad that stretched from the American South to Upstate New York and Canada. The most important figures in Albany in this movement were African-Americans Stephen and Harriet Myers, who were active from at least 1830 up to the time of the Civil War. This couple and their colleagues assisted hundreds of freedom-seekers in this period and the Albany “station” was said to be one of the best-run in the region, according to their contemporaries from outside the area. The building where they lived and operated the local Vigilance Committee is an individually-listed site on the National Register of Historic Places recognized with national significance.

Albany’s citizens fought in the Civil War, including a unit of Zouaves, and several regiments.

As a major city, and one that had a diverse population from its earliest European settlement period, Albany received a significant number of immigrants throughout the nineteenth century. The ethnic background of the immigrants generally corresponded to national trends, with Irish and German families arriving shortly before the Civil War, followed by German and Russian Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans and many other smaller groups in the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond.

After the end of the Civil War, the state of New York decided that its small Capitol building was not adequate to the governmental needs of the state and was not fitting for what had become the largest state in the union. Beginning in 1867 and ending in 1899, a new Capitol was constructed in Albany, with four architects, including Henry Hobson Richardson and Leopold Eidlitz, and grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Architecturally unique, the present-day Capitol was also the place where three of the four New York State Governors who became presidents of the United States served the people of the state: Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt.

As the twentieth century opened, Albany continued to remain a major United States city although its relative size diminished as cities in the Mid-West and West grew in size and importance. The city continued to be the home of various immigrant groups and its industries continued to provide employment for its growing population. Recognizing the continued importance of water transportation to the economic health of the state, New York State rebuilt its canal system in the opening years of the twentieth century with the new Barge Canal system, replacing many parts of the Erie and adjacent canals that relied on horse- and mule-driven boats. The city established the first municipal airport in the United States in 1927 and greatly expanded its Hudson River Port at the same time.

The Great Depression took its toll on residents of Albany, but it was also the place where Franklin Roosevelt experimented with state-funded relief efforts as state governor between 1928 and 1932, ideas that his administration further developed and refined on a national scale after he became president in 1932. The city also supplied soldiers and industrial products to the national effort following the outbreak of World War II in 1941.

The post-war period in Albany was one of significant changes to the city’s industrial base, its population, and its physical development. The city reached its highest population of nearly 135,000 people in the 1950 census, but its population and industries declined in the period following that. After the war, a large African-American migration from the South increased the black population of Albany and other northern cities, but the city’s population in general declined over the years to fewer than 100,000 today.

The most significant physical change in the city came in 1962 with the announcement by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of the construction of the (now) Empire State Plaza adjacent to the State Capitol, which cleared 98 acres of buildings and streets for a new complex of state offices and assembly spaces, as well as a new state library and museum.

After completion of the project in 1978 and a new interest in urban living on the part of young people and “empty-nesters,” the neighborhoods surrounding the Plaza were rehabilitated in large part with the assistance of federal Community Development Block Grant funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. At the same time, the national historic preservation movement took root in Albany with the incorporation of Historic Albany Foundation, an advocacy group dedicated to the preservation of the built environment in Albany.

Perhaps as a result of losing so much of its historic heritage over the years, many residents of Albany have dedicated themselves to preservation of its remaining building fabric and showcasing its history. Albany has had a historical museum since 1791 and the New York State Museum since 1870, as well as historic house museums for 100 years. Interest in the history of the city has grown, however, in the last 40 to 50 years and the understanding that Albany’s history reaches beyond traditional historical figures has given rise to groups whose mission is to recognize others whose contributions to the city’s history are as notable as those already celebrated.

The text above is one of the first drafts prepared by the Partners for Albany Stories, of which the Albany Institute is an active member. Partners for Albany Stories (PAS) is a collaboration of historical and cultural organizations working to develop a comprehensive and compelling story of Albany’s rich history. Our goal is to expand the public’s understanding of Albany’s important role in the past and present development of New York state and the nation.