Peter Hess Describes Early 1800s Albany

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Albany NY in the early 1800s by James EightsIn the year 1800, Albany was peaceful and prosperous. The Revolutionary War was over and the conflicts leading to the War of 1812 had not yet surfaced. The Dutch of Albany did what they did best, manufactured products and conducted trade. Van Rensselaers, Schuylers, Lansings, Yates, Livingstons, Gansevoorts, Bleeckers and Ten Broecks were still around and still dominated Albany.

On the northwest corner of State (previously Jonkers Street) and Pearl Streets, the center of Albany at the time, stood the giant elm tree planted in front of the home of Philip Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Livingston had planted the elm around 1750 and this corner was known as the Elm Tree Corner for the next 150 years.

Going up State Street, the next three buildings were the office and two homes of the Webster brothers, two twins who ran the first book printing company in Albany. The north side of State above Pearl was called the “Webster Corner.” The Websters started as newspaper publishers in 1782 with the Albany Gazette, later called the Albany Advertiser. They also published a quarterly called the Albany Journal and distributed cart loads of Noah Webster’s spelling books all over the northeast.

The next house going up State Street was the large stately mansion of Philip Van Rensselaer, younger brother of the Patroon. Philip was mayor of Albany from 1799 to 1821, appointed by Governor John Jay and then Governor DeWitt Clinton. He was a grandson of Philip Livingston. Beyond Van Rensselaer’s house there was a gap of several hundred feet before St. Peter’s Church, then known as “the English Church.” Beyond St. Peter’s was the site of Fort Frederick at the top of the hill and Pinkster Hill just beyond.

Going down State Street from the “Old Elm Corner” saw the Lydius House on the northeast corner. This house was built originally as a parsonage for Reverend Gideon Schaets who arrived in 1652 to become pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church. All of the materials to build the house, brick, tiles, wood and iron work, had been imported from Holland and had come over on the same ship that brought the first pulpit and church bell in 1657.

The house was later taken over by the Lydius family. One early author remembered from around 1800:

“When I was quite a lad I visited the house with my mother, who was acquainted with the father of Balthazar Lydius, the last proprietor of the mansion. To my eyes it appeared like a palace and I thought the pewter plates in a corner cupboard were solid silver, they glittered so. The partitions were made of mahogany and the exposed beams were ornamented with carvings in high relief, representing the vine and fruit of the grape.

Balthazar Lydius was an eccentric old bachelor and was the terror of all the boys. Strange stories, almost as dreadful as those which cluster around the name Bluebeard were told of his fierceness on some occasions; and the urchins, when they saw him in the streets would give him the whole sidewalk for he made them think of the ogre growling out his ‘Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.’

He was a tall thin Dutchman with a bullet head sprinkled with thin white hairs in his latter years. He was fond of his pipe and his bottle and gloried in celibacy until his life was in ‘the severe and yellow leaf” when he took an Indian squaw for a wife and they lived together for years.

His fine old mansion was demolished in 1832 when it was believed to be the oldest brick building in the United States.”

Proceeding down the hill on the same side, the next building was the State Bank, then Pierson’s Tobacconist and Doctor Dixtre, a druggist. Almost in front of Doctor Dixtre’s office was a city well, where travelers could get themselves a bucket of water. There were always complaints however that this well was filled with insects.

On the southwest corner across from the Elm Tree Corner were two substantial houses. The one on the corner was an Old Dutch style house built by Harman Wendell in 1716. Wendell was an Albany merchant and it was said that many a traffic with the Indians was conducted within its walls. The next house, about three times larger, was the Stevenson House, one of the first English style houses in Albany built in 1780. It was known as “the Rich Man’s House.” Being English, Stevenson was very unpopular in Albany during the Revolution but the fact that he was married to a daughter of Judge Volkert Douw of one of Albany’s oldest Dutch families kept the family from being driven out of Albany. Stevenson’s son later became mayor.

Also on that side was the home of George Merchant who at one time ran the Vanderheyden Palace as an academy and taught Greek and Latin. Later, Old Geological Hall and McChesney’s chair factory were also on that side.

Going north on Pearl from the Old Elm Corner, as you pass the Livingston House, the next large house was the Vanderheyden Palace. A fur trader, Johannes Beekman erected it in 1725. The bricks and some of the other materials were imported from Holland and the house was said to have been one of the finest specimens of Dutch architecture in the country. Jacob Vanderheyden purchased it in 1778 and lived there until he died in 1820.

Washington Irving used the Vanderheyden Palace in his story of Dolph Heyliger in “Bracebridge Hall,” as the residence of Heer Antony Vanderheyden. Washington Irving’s house on the Hudson River, Sunnyside, has a gable copied from Vanderheyden Palace on which Irving mounted the Palace’s weathervane. The weathervane, in the form of a horse at full speed, had turned over Vanderheyden Palace for over a century.

The next house is the residence of the Pruyn family and then the residence and offices of Doctor Woodruff, a doctor-dentist. The next house was that of a man named “Eights” who had fled New York City during the British occupation during the Revolutionary War and settled in Albany. A pastry baker occupied the next building and the next was the residence of the Widow Sturdevant, followed by the residence of Mynheer Brewer, the sextant and bell ringer of the Old Dutch Church.

The bell tower of the old church was located in the center of the church. “Every night at 8 o’clock, Brewer went to the church and rang the “suppawn bell.” “This was the signal for all to eat their suppawn (supper or light dinner) or hasty pudding and prepare for bed. It was the equivalent of the English curfew bell.”

The Old Dutch Church was demolished in 1805 and the stones were used in the construction of the new one on North Pearl Street.

After Brewer’s house was the Uranian Hall which was built by the Society of Mechanics as a school for their children. The Albany Female Academy was later erected on that site.

The next house was the home of William McClellan, a Scottish Physician, and then the large home of Rev. John B. Romeyn, DD. One early publication remarked that Dr. Romeyn was “quite remarkable for his obesity.” The publication went on to say that:

“One very hot day in July during the administration of Governor John Jay, the Doctor was present just at the conclusion of a council with Mohawk and Oneida Indians at Schenectada (Schenectady). The Indians have a custom of adopting white people of eminence into their tribes and giving them significant names and the honorary title of “chief.” At the Doctor’s urgent solicitation he was adopted by the Oneidas. The day was excessively sultry and he sat there perspiring heavily at every pore. When the ceremony was ended, Dr. Romeyn inquired “what was his new name.” With great gravity the old Sachem gave it in the Iroquois language, remaining stone faced.

When the soaking wet and dripping Doctor requested an interpretation, the grave faced Sachem solemnly pronounced Romeyn’s new name to be: “The Great Thaw.” The Indians sat unmoved; the entire White portion of the congregation roared with laughter. “

Next to Romeyn’s home was the house of Nicholas Bleecker one of the wealthiest merchants of the city, then Peter Elmendorf-a noted lawyer, then a little schoolhouse and playground. Behind the school was the home of Harmanus Bleecker, later Ambassador to the Netherlands. Next came the homes of John Andrews, a police constable, and John Bantum, a white and blacksmith. The next home belonged to “a crabby Irish schoolmaster named Crabbe” who “made it a religious duty to whip the whole school at least once a week so as to be certain that no sinner had been deprived of necessary chastisement.”

The next house was that of Saughler, a celebrated chocolate manufacturer and then the small dwelling of the sexton of the new church.

The next building was the new Dutch Church. The first pastor of the new Dutch Church was Dr. Westerlo. Across from the church was a baker who left his ovens running all night so that they would be ready for him when, long before dawn each day, he began baking his bread and cakes for breakfast. The flames from his oven perfectly hit one of the windows in the tower of the church and projected an eerie glow down Pearl Street at night. This caused many people to think the church was haunted and they refused to go near it after dark.

Next to the church ran Fox Creek (later Canal Street and still later Sheridan Avenue). Fox Creek at one time ran over the street, but in the early 1800s the creek bed was excavated down about 10 feet, a brick tunnel was constructed over the creek and the dirt was backfilled. Fox Creek runs under the street even to today.

Beyond the Dutch Church in the distance on a hill was the residence of General Abraham Ten Broeck later the home of Thomas W. Olcott of the Mechanics’ and Farmers’ Bank. The Ten Broecks, Schuylers and Patroon Van Rensselaer all smartly built their homes outside of what was then the limits of the Village of Beverwyck, later city of Albany, to avoid coming under the jurisdiction of Peter Stuyvesant.

One block closer to the river (east) was Market Street (previously Handelaers Street and later Broadway) that ran parallel to Pearl halfway between Pearl and the river. At the intersection of Market and State, just down the hill from the Old Elm Corner and right in the middle of the street, stood the Old Dutch Church, once the center of the community.

Just north of the church and also in the middle of the street was the Old Market House, a single story structure with open walls. The Old Market House was made of a series of brick columns supporting a tile roof very similar to the Farmers’ Market in New Orleans. Here farmers from outside the city came daily to set up their tables and sell fresh produce: vegetables, fruits, meat and fish to Albany residents and Indians.

The Old Market House was built in 1791 and was a gathering place for residents in the late afternoon and early evening after the butchers had departed. Spending leisure time sitting, smoking, drinking and gossiping at the Market was the high point of the day for many Albany burghers. There was a popular saying in Albany: “If I had a thousand pounds I could afford to sit in the market all day and would not call the Patroon ‘Uncle’.”

The Market House, all of Market Street and all of State Street, were where vendors and farmers of all kinds came and set up their wagons during good weather. That was why these were the two widest streets in Albany. There were shops along State and Market and some large warehouses along the Hudson River behind the Old Dutch Church, but most of the merchants sold their wares out of their wagons or from the Market House. This practice started in the early 1600s trading with the Indians for furs and continued until the early-1900s when the market was moved a few blocks south near Beaver and Grand Streets to get the congestion out of downtown Albany.

Starting from State on the west side of Market was Robinson’s Corner later occupied by the Museum Building and the stagecoach lines of Thorp and Sprague. Next came the home of Myndert and John Van Schaick, John Water’s grocery store, David Newland – a Scottish settler, Elbert Willet, and the Albany Bank incorporated in 1792. Next was the home of John Malley that became the Mansion House Hotel, Abraham Ten Eyck’s bookstore and then Douw Slingerland and Barent Staats, two merchants.

The last house before Maiden Lane belonged to Teunis Van Vechten whose son, Teunis, was the secretary of a meeting of young men preparing for the legal bar called to pass resolutions upon the death of Alexander Hamilton. Just across Maiden Lane was the home of Mrs. Douglas who ran a toy shop, then John and Abraham Brinkerhoff’s hardware store, Peter Annelly’s looking glass store, the home of Major John Wendell, attorney Stephen Lush and looming above all the other buildings was the mansion of Dr. Samuel Stringer.

Crossing the street, on the east side of Market from Maiden Lane headed back towards State, the first house on the corner of Maiden Lane was that of General Peter Gansevoort-hero of the Revolutionary War defense of Fort Stanwix. The next house was owned by Hill – a leather merchant who made gloves and leather breeches, Fairman – an eminent engraver was located on the second story above Hill. The next two houses were owned by Reverend Dr. Bassett of the Dutch Church and Barent and John B. Bleeker, fur traders and merchants.

Ford’s carpet store came next and then David Fonda’s grand mansion where he sold dry goods, groceries and liquor. Fonda owned one of the nine fine private carriages in Albany. His mansion later became the City Hotel. Next came an auctioneer’s store, the house and store of the brothers Kane, and the apothecary store of Dr. Marchion where the Albany Post Office was also located.

South of State Street, Market Street was called Court Street. The buildings along Court Street included John Stafford’s stove and iron store, Stafford and Spencer Coppersmiths, John Douw’s hardware store, Clarke’s hardware store, and Daniel’s English Hat Store – purveyor of the hated English round hat (bowler) that replaced the cherished Dutch three-cornered cocked hat.

The next store was that of Henry Lansing who sold teas and dry goods. Lansing dressed in the traditional Dutch way with a three-cornered hat and long queue of hair running down his back. Lansing was famous for not allowing his customers to enter his store. He would ask them what they wanted at the door and then go fetch it for them and get payment at the door.

About a mile north of the city and in line with Market Street was the estate of the Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer. About a mile south of the city in line with Pearl Street was the estate of General Philip Schuyler.

One other famous home of note was that of the Widow Visscher on the side hill on the northeast corner of Pearl and Columbia. An early periodical said the house was: “…then the residence of the buxom Widow Visscher. It was especially distinguished as the lodging place for the Indians when they came to Albany for the purpose of trading their furs, too often for rum … there many stirring scenes transpired when the Indians held their powwows and became uproarious under the influence of strong drink. At such times the widow would use her broomstick freely. It was a potent scepter in her hands in restoring order.”

Somehow the buxom Widow Visscher seems to have had more control over the Indians than anyone else and for some reason the Indians preferred to stay at her house when they came to visit. In several early accounts she is always referred to as the “buxom” Widow Visscher.

Widow Visscher was the widow of Matthew Visscher, a Revolutionary War soldier and member of Albany’s Committee of Safety who had died at the age of 42. The house was later occupied by Eben Pemberton as a grocery and provision store.”

As a possible indication of the liberal attitudes of Beverwyck, of the first four people arrested in the 1650s for selling liquor to the Indians, two of them were women.

You can learn about the history of Albany in the 18th century at The People of Colonial Albany website.

Illustration: Albany, NY in the early 1800s by James Eights.

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About Peter Hess

Peter Hess is the president of Albany Steel and served on the Board of Trustees of Albany Rural Cemetery for 18 years. During his time on the Albany Rural board, he wrote over 150 articles on important and interesting people buried in the cemetery. Starting about 2008, he accumulated the 150 articles and additional research into four books known as the People of Albany series. Hess has also conducted tours of the cemetery and spoken to public groups over 100 times.

4 thoughts on “Peter Hess Describes Early 1800s Albany

  1. Robb K. Haberman

    I very much enjoyed this informative piece. Do you know of any histories or genealogies of Albany’s Roseboom family? I”m seeking details about which Roseboom rented two rooms to Gov. Jay in early 1790. Any info would best most appreciated.
    Best, Robb


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