Slavery in Albany, New York, 1624-1827

Article excerpt

In 2005, the New York Historical Society opened an exhibit titled "Slavery in New York," bringing attention to the fact that slavery was not limited to the South. Fourteen years before, in 1991, the discovery of human remains by construction workers in lower Manhattan brought attention to the African Burial Ground, where slaves in New York City were buried. These developments and previous studies by scholars have emphasized that New York City practiced slavery well into the 19th Century. However, most studies on slavery in New York mention other New York state cities and towns only intermittently. It should be emphasized that slavery was widespread throughout New York State, and that the capital of New York State, Albany, had a significant history with the institution. This article will discuss the evolution of slavery in Albany, prominent slaveowners in Albany, the type of work slaves did, and how slaves fared under the laws of Albany.

The story of slavery in Albany, New York began with the establishment of the Dutch West India Company in 1621. Prior to the company's establishment, its parent company, the Dutch East India Company, sponsored exploration in the Americas in the hopes that they would repeat the same success as its nemesis Spain. English seaman Henry Hudson was commissioned by the company in 1609 to find the elusive Northwest Passage. Instead, Hudson sailed along a river valley that would later bear his name. Although his journey was a failure, his journey fostered the establishment of New Netherland in 1624. The northernmost point of New Netherland was Fort Orange, which evolved into present-day Albany.

To achieve the goals of permanent settlement and agricultural production, the Dutch West India Company instituted the patroon system, in which landowners were given tracts of land to settle and develop. As with the English colonies, indentured slaves from the European settlement population were initially used to meet the demand for labor. However, this proved to be unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. A 1626 report by the Director and Council of New Netherland best describes the reasons: "Many servants daily run away from their masters, whereby the latter are put to great inconvenience and expense; the corn and tobacco rot in the field, the whole harvest is at a standstill, which tends to the serious injury of this country, to their master's ruin, and to bring the magistracy into contempt." (2) To correct this, the Dutch West India Company instituted the following policy: "In like manner, the incorporated West India Company shall allot to each patroon twelve men and women out of the prize in which Negroes shall be found, for the advancement of the colonies of New Netherland." (3)

Eager to accelerate Dutch colonization of New Netherlands, the act was later changed to provide as many slaves as possible. One possible reason for the change was the role the Dutch played in the Atlantic Slave Trade at the time. Via piracy of Spanish slave ships and shrewd dealings by the Dutch West India Company, enslaved Africans found their way to the Dutch West Indies and New Netherland. Of those who went to New Netherland, the majority were found in urban areas such as present-day New York and Albany. At the same time, patroonships in rural areas used slave labor to duplicate the riches of plantations in the American South and Caribbean.

The patroon system in New Netherland proved to be unsuccessful for most Dutch settlers. However, there was one Dutch family that held the only successful patroonship in the colony: the Van Rensselaer family. Considered one of the first families of New York, the Van Rensselaers settled in the Albany area and held dominance in New York economic and political affairs from the early 1600's well into the mid 19th century. The Van Rensselaer patroonship began in 1629 when Killian Van Rensselaer, a diamond merchant and trader, purchased an immense tract of land surrounding Fort Orange. …