Thursday, November 15, 2012

Albany Ale: The British Invasion...Sort Of

I swear, I don't intend these posts to be so long. Any how, here goes.

British colonial Albany is a bit unusual in that it wasn’t particularly British— at least not culturally, any way. Now, I realize that sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit—a Mike Myers as Linda Richman, “I’m a little verklempt … talk amongst yourselves … I’ll give you a topic” bit, but it’s true. Albany still thought of itself as Dutch well into British control.

The plan for the city of Albany, c.1790
Courtesy of the New York State Museum
In August of 1664 the growing might of the British Royal Navy made itself known to Dutch residents of the island of Manhattan, when four frigates sailed into the harbor and demanded the surrender of all New Netherlands. With that, Director-General of New Netherlands Pieter Stuyvesant acquiesced, and Dutch New Amsterdam became British New York. The colony would fall back into Dutch hands briefly in 1673, but by 1674 it was back under British control.

It wasn’t as if the Brits didn’t try to assimilate the New York Dutch, they did. Beverwijck was re-named Albany in honor of Prince James the Duke of Albany (who would go on to become James II of England), and its street names were anglicized—Jonkers Street became State Street, Handlers Street became Market Street (and later Broadway.) The Dutch became the butt British jokes, as well—implying that New Netherlanders were cheap and lazy. Worst of all, some New Netherlanders were actually sold into slavery and sent to the southern British colonies. However, one last negotiation by Stuyvesant made all the difference to those Dutch living in the Hudson valley—Article VII of Articles of Transfer. Article VII protected religious freedom, and while the British almost everywhere else in the colony ignored the article—and in fact acted against it—it stood fast in New York City and up the Hudson River. This cornerstone of religious freedom allowed the Dutch Reform Church to continue to operate in the colony. Even after British control, Dutch reformed ministers in America were trained in the Netherlands, and therefore church services were held in Dutch, and language affects culture. Had the British quelled the Dutch church, New York may have adopted British culture sooner, but since they did not, Dutch culture thrived well into the second half of the 18th century. It wouldn’t be until the North American extension of the Seven Years’ War—the French and Indian War—in the 1750s, with its influx of British soldiers and supporters that Albany would finally embrace its Anglo alter ego.

Albany was at the edge of battleground New York, during the French and Indian War. It was the largest town between New York City and French controlled Canada, and therefore became the billet and headquarters for a large part of the British Army in North America. It was both a target and a jumping off point of a number of military endeavors. It was the site of the 1754 Albany Congress—an inter-colonial cabal organized to gain support for the war. The city continued to act as a base of operations for the British through the war’s end in 1763. With that conflict over however, British-national support wouldn’t last long. The sentiment quickly turned decidedly anti-British by the end of the decade. The city soon became a hotbed of political dissidence—revolutionaries and tory loyalist vied for control of the city. With the outbreak of violence in 1774, Albany was once again in the midst of war—the mayor, Abraham Cornelis Cuyler celebrated the King's birthday, while the sign of the Kings Arms Tavern was burned at the foot of State Street. Within three years Albany would be the target of British General John Burgoyne. His plan was to head south from Montreal and link-up with redcoat forces moving east from Niagara Falls—at Albany—therefore cutting off New England from the southern colonies. Burgoyne never made to Albany. His army was stopped, as it moved south from Canada, by American forces at the Battles of Saratoga. The British and loyalist militias to the west, never made it to Albany either. This was partly due to the actions of Colonel Peter Gansevoort at the battle of Oriskany and the Siege of Fort Stanwix, in central New York. Gansevoort was the great-grandson of Harmen Harmanse, a Beverwijck patriarch and the proprietor of the brewery on Broadway and Maiden Lane.

Regardless of military strife and shifts in colonial power during the one hundred plus years of British control, Albany continued to grow. By the 1750s the old stockade had been removed and replaced. By the 1790s, that stockade would be gone as well. The city would expand north, south and east. By the 1790s, the city's borders extended south from what is today Clinton Avenue, to modern day 3rd street and east from the river to Dove Street. Further north, along Fifth (now Patroon) creek settlements began popping up, as they did along the Beverkill to the south. By mid-century Albany’s riverfront also began to develop. No longer was it simply a collection of small docks and moorings, but rather a full-fledged commercial waterfront. By the end of the century, having survived colonialism from two major European powers and two bloody and destructive wars, Albany was now an independent, inland port and a capital city—poised on the edge of an industrial boom.

So, how did all this change affect Albany’s beeriness? Surprisingly, it didn’t affect it very much. Albany seems to have been a beer town in the 17th century and that trend continues into the 18th century.

You might think that a British controlled colonial town with river access to the Atlantic ocean may have gotten in on the rum trade, and rum production may have muted beer production. It didn't—and my reasoning goes back to the Dutch culture of New York. Whereas British settlements in New England took advantage of the importation of Caribbean sugar, and involved themselves in the triangular rum trade between the islands, colonies and England, New York did not—at least not until much later. Why? Because rum is British and New York was Dutch, and the Dutch drank what? That’s right—beer. 

“Wait a minute,“ you say “If there was an influx of British soldiers to Albany in the 1750s, didn’t they demand rum—and wasn't colonial rum production more important to the British than beer?”

The un-ghosted area represents the borders of
Albany as represented in the 1790s map above.
Click for a larger view.
They did, and it was—but as I said, not in New York, and especially not in Albany. Not that they're weren't rum distilleries in Albany, there were—a whopping two*. Rum distilling was not a major competitor of beer brewing in Albany. There simply wasn’t enough rum made in Albany to have cut into beer production. Secondly, the first of the two distilleries didn’t open until the late 1750s and the second not until the 1770s. While rum distillation got a late start, many of the old, Dutch family breweries were still operating successfully, garnering their owners both wealth and political power. Second generation Dutch families also began establishing breweries within the city, however it would not be until the second-half of the last decade of the 18th century that a non-Dutch brewer would establish a brewery within the city of Albany.

That being said, lets take a look at the map.

1. The old, Dutch family breweries of the Ryckmans, Gansevoorts, and van Schaicks, established in the 1650s, continued to operate along the Broadway corridor well into the second half of the 18th century. Albert Ryckman was elected mayor of Albany in 1702, while the Gansevoorts became one of the most influential families in all of New York. Brewing may have gained these families wealth and power, but by the end of the 18th century all three had diversified—he families had gotten into everything from from lumber to politics. The Ganesvoorts operated their brewery until tearing it down in 1807 and erected a hotel named Stanwix Hall, in honor of the fort defended by their now famous family member. The Van Schiacks moved further north ip the river, near Cohoes, New York, building a mansion on their namesake island. By the turn-of-the-century the other two families had left the city for country estates, as well.

2. While patroonships were a Dutch concept, the British honored the system after their take-over. In 1666 the first patroon to actually live—permanently—in the colony, Jeremias van Renssealer built a series of mills and a brew house to the west of his manor near the mouth of what is now Patroon Creek. It’s unclear if this was a commercial or personal consumption operation.

3. At some point during the 1680s Beverwijck-born Bastian Harmanse Visscher would open a brewery along Market Street (now Broadway), having learned the trade from his father. By the 1720s Visscher’s son Teunis had joined the family business, followed by his grandson Bastian T. Visscher in the 1750s. Like the old, Dutch families, these second-generation, Beverwijck family would become pillars of Albany society, and like those families, the Visscher's would also leave Albany by the end of the century. Unfortunately, the location of the Visscher brewery is unknown, other than being on what is now Broadway.

Abraham Wendell c.1737.
One of the Wendell's Mills' buildings can be
seen in the background of this painting.

Courtesy of the Albany Institute of History and Art
4. Sometime during the 1730s, the relative newcomers to brewing, the Wendell family, opened a series of mills and a brew house along the Beverkill, near what is now the basin of Lincoln Park. This area became an Albany landmark simply known as Wendell’s Mills, and operated almost to the turn of the 19th century, although it’s unknown if the brewery did as well.

5. In 1796, Scottish-born James Boyd established a brewery at Arch and Green Streets—of which now is the parking lot for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles and Albany County Department of Health. Boyd becomes the first non-Dutch brewery-owner in the city of Albany. A brewery will operate at that location for next 110 years.

So where does that leave us?

Surprised, actually. Remember at the beginning of the Albany Ale: Going Dutch post, I mentioned the "zones" on the Sanborn Insurance maps?
The first was in the South End along the River; the second was further west, near what is now Lincoln Park; the third was located in the Center Square; and the fourth was on upper Broadway, near the entrance to the Erie Canal.
Our map shows that we've begun establishing those zones, earlier than I expected—three of them at least: the southern zone near the river, the northern zone on upper Broadway, and the zone near Lincoln Park. The fourth, the Center square zone has yet to be established. The Broadway corridor zone also seems to be going strong—at least until the end of the century—since it doesn't exists on the 1890s Sanborn map, it remains to be seen how it fares into the 19th-century.

Speaking of the 19th century—that's up next. Stay tuned. 

Many thanks to the New York State Museum and Steve Bielinski for his work on the People of Colonial Albany website.

* The 1750s era Douw-Quakenbush rum distillery was unearthed by archaeologists in downtown Albany in 2004, just before a revitalization project in the city began. The New York State Museum has a permanent exhibition titled Beneath the City: An Archaeological Perspective of Albany, that includes a variety of artifacts, including two wooden vats from the distillery. Volkert Janse Douw, an early Beverwijck settler and patriarch of the Douw family was a brewer and opened the Dean Street brewery in 1654. The Van Schaicks would eventually buy the property and run their brewery there, into the 18th-century. It's not quite beer, but it's still cool.


  1. Craig, this is a side note, but in a most interesting book from a few years ago, Cookies, Coleslaw and Stoops, noted here in a New York State history context:

    the author explains that traces of the Dutch language survived into the 20th century in the Hudson Valley. The (apparent) last speaker died only in the 1940's. The author reports that the wife of the Dutch ambassador to the U.S. wrote in 1866 that if you spoke Dutch in Manhattan, one in 10 people would understand you, which is quite extraordinary.

    I have always wondered whether some very aged persons along the Hudson may still speak some Dutch. I would there must be some families, probably in isolated areas, where the language survived or certain expressions at least. Have you ever heard this?

    As reported further in this book, linguistic studies around the time of WW I argued that even though the old Dutch had died out in areas it was formerly strong, imprints of its patterns could be detected in young English-speakers, an alleged sing-song rhythm for example.

    This is not connected to beer but I couldn't forbear to mention it as I was discussing the book recently with a relation who lives and works in Netherlands. (Substantial extracts can be viewed on Google Books).

    He said when reading extracts of old New York Dutch recorded in the later 1800's, you could certainly understand it but he had to speak the words aloud to get most of the sense. This again is extraordinary when one considers how old the implantation of the language was and how early the British started to displace it.


    1. That doesn't surprise me. Martin van Buren—8th U.S. President from 1837 to 1841—who was from Kinderhook, NY (a half hour or so from Albany) was the only U.S. President who first language was not English—it was Dutch—and he spoke it in the White House.

    2. Ironically, van Buren was also the first U.S. President born a true U.S. citizen. The preceding seven were all born before the start of the American Revolution.

  2. Very interesting, I hadn't known that.

    But I'll wager somewhere near or in Albany there is a very aged person who either can understand the old Dutch or even speak some of it, maybe tell a folk tale, or a joke or something like that. Whenever I read of a "last" person, I am dubious, things often last a lot longer than one thinks.

    In the book, Jersey Dutch and Hudson Valley Dutch are the two forms of the old language studied. They are closely related of course but evolved somewhat differently in their respective areas. The author makes it clear that these forms derived from the early 1600's settlements, not from 1800's or later Dutch immigrations.

    By the way your statements about the influence on the language of the continued Dutch Reform Church is backed up in this book, which explains that even in the 1800's services were still held in Dutch into about mid-century.



    1. The Cultural Education Center (home to the New York State Museum—and my office!) in Albany, is also the home of the New Netherlands Institute and Research Center. Dr. Charley Ghering and Dr. Janny Venema (a Netherlands native, herself) have been translating and transcribing New Netherlands Dutch records for the past twenty-five years. I'm sure they can muddle their way through old Dutch.

      I believe the last Dutch language services in the First Dutch Church, in Albany, were in the 1790s. Either way that's 120 years post Dutch control.

  3. In the "Cookies" book Craig, the author claims the last Dutch sermon in New York (the State) was read in 1833 (see pg. 32):

    He states in New York City, it ended by the end of the 1700's and your statement viz. Albany makes sense to me since the town would have modernized before the country.

    The author asserts that in Bergen County, NJ, parishioners conversed amongst themselves in Dutch until about 1914 - quite extraordinary again.

    Interesting about the researchers right on your doorstep. One would think if an elderly person still living knew Old Dutch or understood it they would know... Perhaps it is all truly lost, but I wonder whether there isn't somewhere in the Hudson Valley a 90 year old from an old New York family who knows some low Dutch, maybe I'm wrong though..


  4. The cool thing for me personally in all this is that I worked in Holland in 1986, the guy who owned the flower shop chain my Mom ran out east setting me up with a position and so much of what I read about the culture in CNY aligns with the experience in the Aalsmeer flower auctions. Massive work ethic, relaxed approach to life, delayed expectations for reward, self-sufficiency.