Pinksterfest: Albany’s Dutch-African Spring Festival

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19th century African American Band unknown sourceAn 1881 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine contained an article entitled “A Glimpse of an Old Dutch Town.” The Old Dutch Town was Albany. Albany was already 200 years old.

The article mentioned the principal Albany holidays of Christmas, New Year’s Day, Easter and Pinksterfeest (now known as Pinksterfest).

About Pinksterfeest, Harper’s explained:

“The Pinkster festivities commenced on the Monday after Whitesunday, and now began the fun for the Negroes, for Pinkster was the carnival of the African race. The venerable “King of the Blacks” was “Charley of Pinkster Hill,” so called because he was the principal actor in the festivities. Charles originally came from Africa, having in his infancy been brought from Angolo, in the Guinea Gulf; and when but a boy, he became the purchased slave of one of the most ancient and respectable merchant princes of the olden times, Volkert P. Douw of Wolvenhoeck.”

“Charles’ costume as king was that of a British brigadier general – ample broadcloth scarlet coat with wide flaps, almost reaching to his heels and gaily ornamented everywhere with broad tracings of bright gold lace.

“His small clothes were of yellow buckskin, fresh and new with stockings blue and burnished silver buckles to his well-blacked shoes. And when we add the three cornered cocked hat, trimmed also with gold lace and which so gracefully sat upon his noble globular pate, we complete this rude sketch of the Pinkster king.”

Both he and his followers were covered with Pinkster Blummies – the wild azalea or swamp apple. The procession started from 82 State Street and went up State Street to Bleecker Hill, on the crown of what was the Bleecker Burying Ground.

In front of the king always marched Dick Simpson and Pete Halenbeck (both former slaves), the latter the “Beau Brummel” of his time. During Pinkster Day, the Negroes made merry with games and feasting, all paying homage to the king, who was held in awe and reverence as an African King. In the evening there was a grand dance, led by Charles and some beauty, to the music of Pete Halenbeck’s fiddle.

It was Dutch custom that parties last until dawn; it was too dark to find your way home until the sun came up. Every decanter and glass must be empty and the Dutch also believed that water should only be used externally.

Pinkster was a spring carnival brought to Albany by the Dutch in the 1620s. It was associated with the renewal of life in the spring. The earliest Dutch tradition included church services. Baptisms of babies born over the winter were held during the Pinkster festival. Children dyed eggs and ate gingerbread cookies, frequently cut into playful shapes.

Albany’s Black population had celebrated a spring carnival in their homeland. Over the years so many African traditions were incorporated into Pinkster that it became an African-Dutch holiday. It was the most important African holiday in New Netherland. On Pinkster, Albany swelled with black residents as those who lived in rural areas migrated to the city for the festivities. The local Indians also participated.

Booths were set up around the city square (today’s Academy Park) where many black vendors sold refreshments such as berries, herbs and beverages. Drinking, game playing, dancing and music from different cultures dominated the festivities. King Charles ruled over the day awarding prizes and issuing proclamations.

Around 1880, John J. “Uncle John” Williams said that he had been born in 1809 and belonged to Colonel Philip P.

Staats, father of Barent and Peter Staats, both physicians in Albany. Williams said that Pinkster Day was a religious day, partly pagan and partly Christian, in Africa. He said that he remembered as a child that Albanians native to Africa would annually dance their wild dances and sing in their native language on Pinkster Day. He said that in Albany, Pinkster would last an entire week. Williams remembered King Charles and said that Charles had come from royal blood. He confirmed that King Charles had been purchased in Angola in the Guinea Gulf when he was an infant.

Williams remembered that Adam Blake was the Master of Ceremonies for the event. He said that the Blake family had been the servants of the Patroon Van Rensselaer and Blake was a grand Master of Ceremonies.

Jackie Quackenboss, another former slave, was also one of the main attractions, beating on a kettledrum he made by stretching a sheepskin over an eel pot. Quackenboss set the rhythm for all of the dancing.

An article written around 1850 said:

Pinkster Hill! What pleasant memories of my boyhood does that name bring up! That hill was famous as the

gathering place of all the Colored People of the city and of the county for miles around, during the Pinkster festival in May. Then they received their freedom for a week.

They erected booths, where gingerbread, cider and apple toddy were dispensed. On the hill they spent the days and evenings in sports, in dancing and drinking to their heart’s content.

I remember those gatherings with delight, when old King Charley … dressed in his gold-laced scarlet coat and yellow breeches used to amuse all the people with his antics. On one occasion Charlie took me on his shoulders and leaped a bar more than five feet in height. He was so generously treated because of his feat that he became gloriously drunk an hour afterward and I led him home just at sunset.

King Charles’ uniform of red coat and yellow breeches were most likely a British General’s uniform, probably Volkert Douw’s uniform from the French & Indian War.

King Charles was always ready for a good time and was also famous as the jockey for Heer (Mr.) Douw’s racehorses. Racing horses was a common pastime around Albany and some wealthy merchants purchased and bred horses for speed.

One winter night, several Indian sachems and their entourages went to a reception and dinner for them at Wolvenhoeck, Douw’s estate in East Albany (Rensselaer). Douw lived on the other side of the Hudson and it was only easy to get there in winter when visitors could walk over the ice. The rest of the year a visitor would need to use the ferry. It was evening and after a convivial supper the guests grew merry and General Schuyler offered to bet a large amount that the horse he rode coming to the feast could beat Douw’s famous racehorse Sturgeon which had won many a purse.

Under the supervision of the overseer of Wolvenhoeck, a group of White Men, Indians and Blacks began clearing a racetrack in the dark on the ice of the frozen river. Many lanterns were brought out and distributed to the men who aligned them on the edges of the track so that the jockeys could see where they were going.

King Charles rode Sturgeon; it is not recorded who rode Schuyler’s horse. Many bets were placed and crowds of Indians, Black and White onlookers crowded the sides of the track, all cheering and urging on their favorite.

The horses took off on the ice but it was no contest, King Charles on Sturgeon won handily.

Photo: A late 19th century African American band (source unknown).

This entry was posted in African American History, History and tagged , , on by .

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.

2 thoughts on “Pinksterfest: Albany’s Dutch-African Spring Festival

  1. Peter Insalaco

    Please let me know where the settlement of Haarlem fits in, I have been told that it was in what is now East Harlem. In or around what is now 126th Street near 1st Ave. This close to the Harlem River. There plans underway to honor this spot as an African Burial Grounds…Thank You Peter


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