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Upper Hudson Region History -
A River Runs Through It

By Rebecca Haynes
Contributing Editor

    From the beginning, the river brought people here. First, Native Indians made their home near its banks, using the water for transportation, as a food source and as drinking water. The explorers followed. The river beckoned them after their journey across the Atlantic. It was the river that offered the chance to explore a new world from their ships. It was the river that offered hope of a faster route to places where the Europeans on those ships could trade their goods.

    Then came the settlers, who also used the river as their entrance to a new life and new lands. And like the Indians before them, the settlers also relied on the river as a source of food and water. As a new nation struggled to survive, the river played an important role in not only its fight for freedom, but in its growth and development, both economically and culturally, after the battle was won.

    Although the land that is part of what are now Albany and Rennselaer counties was explored by the French as early as 1540, it wasn't until 1609 when Englishman Henry Hudson sailed up the river now named for him that this land was claimed by the Dutch, the country for which he sailed.

    Although it can't be proven, journal entries of crew members aboard Hudson's Half Moon indicate that the ship sailed as far north as what is now Albany before turning back to sea. Distances they recorded as well as descriptions of the currents, depth of the river and landscape along its banks all point to Albany, with smaller boats launched from the Half Moon thought to have explored as far north as what is now Troy.

    The area's river location and abundance of wildlife first attracted fur traders, a business that flourished for decades. The Hudson offered an easy way in and out, with its quick access back to the Atlantic allowing for trade and passage back to Europe.

    Several years after Hudson's explorations, the Dutch West India Company, chartered by the Netherlands but never to have the same success as the Dutch East India Company for which Hudson sailed, was given permission by the government of the Netherlands to settle and rule the area. In 1624 the first group of permanent settlers arrived and it was then that Fort Orange was built on land now part of Albany proper.

    Eager to settle the land, the Dutch West India Company encouraged the establishment of private agricultural patroonships. Although he never came to New Netherland himself, the wealthy Kiliaen Van Rennselaer became the area's patroon, sending representatives to become friendly with the native Mahican Indians. These friendships gave Van Rennselaer an edge in the competition to buy the sought-after land claimed by the Indians on both sides of the river. On this land he established Rensselaerswyck. Sponsored by Van Rennselaer, who built sawmills, gristmills, homes and barns, hundreds more settlers soon began coming to the area.

    But it wasn't long before friction developed between the new community and Fort Orange, run by the Dutch West India Company. In 1652 Peter Stuyvesant, director general of New Netherland, expanded the space around Fort Orange, calling the area Beverwyck and prohibiting Van Rennselaer from building there.

    Another aggravation for the Dutch West India Company was the influx of the English, which began the seesaw battles for land ownership between their two countries. In the fall of 1664, Stuyvesant surrendered New Netherland to the crown. The territory was renamed New York in honor of the Duke of York and Albany, and the settlement of Beverwyck became Albany.

    Even under English rule, the Van Rennselaers continued to hold much influence in the area and in 1685, the patroonship was converted to an English manor with the family retaining title to the area and the second Kiliaen Van Rennselaer, grandson of the first patroon, becoming lord of the new manor.

    Visitors today can get in touch with the area's Dutch past with a visit to Crailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer. The former home of the Van Rennselaer family is now a museum of Hudson Valley Dutch culture.

    Although the area continued to hold onto its Dutch influences, Albany's city charter established by the English in 1686 marked the beginning of the area's slow transformation. Pieter Schuyler was appointed the city's first mayor and city records and documents began to be written in English, although it was nearly 100 years until a total transformation was made and even then, bastardized Dutch was still included in the language as well as the written word.

    With settlements now growing on both sides of the Hudson, the river's importance was never in doubt. It continued as the area's entrance and exit point and it was a source of water as well as food. The city of Albany and other area settlements were built up from its banks.

    In the years before the Revolution, the citizens of the area worked to maintain friendships with the Indians and to avoid conflict with the French, who laid claim to much of the land north of New York and were angered that the trappers around Albany cut into their fur-trading business. During the French and Indian War, Albany was an important stop for both Colonial and British forces - its river location once again critical, as it fostered easy shipment of supplies needed by the troops.

    As an uneasy peace settled in, businesses other than the fur trade were coming into their own. The area's farmers and millers were producing what was reported to be the finest wheat flour in North America. And the timber industry was working overtime to produce the wood needed for ship construction. Stone docks built along the Hudson in Albany made it easy to anchor boats and load or unload their cargos. Outbound vessels carried flour, fish, lumber and horses, while boats from the West Indies were common, bringing loads of rum and sugar. Ships from Europe arrived with dry goods, hardware and wines.

    Albany also had developed a reputation as a city well tolerant of others, and although most of its residents attended either the Reformed Dutch Church or St. Peter's, the church of England, it was in 1774 that Mother Ann Lee founded the first settlement of Shakers in America. Located about four miles west of Albany, the Shaker Heritage Society welcomes visitors today. The meeting house which still stands dates back to 1848 and tours highlight the grounds of the settlement, giving a glimpse into history and this simple lifestyle.

    At the time of the Revolution, Albany was a relatively quiet city with less than 3,000 residents. But its river location would make it an important stop for Colonial troops, to which the city gave its support. And although it wasn't as involved in the battles to control territory as were places further south along the river, it was important to the Continental Army as a meeting and resting place between battles. Soldiers were stationed there throughout the war and provisions for the men were stored there. British prisoners also were held in the city.

    Col. Philip Van Rensselaer, who was commissioner of military stores for New York during the Revolution, conducted most of his business from his home, Cherry Hill, which visitors to the area can tour today.

    Albany, because of its location on the river, was targeted by the British, who felt its capture literally would divide the colonies and lead to their defeat. Maintaining control of the city and the river would have allowed the British to cut the supply route of the Continental Army.

    They were never successful. Attempts to sail north on the Hudson were never realized and British troops coming south along Lake Champlain were defeated at Saratoga. Although they failed to accomplish their goal, the stratetic importance of the river was never overlooked by either side and as such, the Upper Hudson became an important part of this country's history and literature. Philip Schuyler, a wealthy Albany landowner, not only helped to plant the seeds of discontent with England, but also served as a General heading the northern division of the Continental Army. His mansion is now a historic site which visitors can see today. His Georgian home was built in 1761 and among the noteables Schuyler entertained there was British Gen. Burgoyne, who relaxed at the home after his defeat to the Colonial army at Saratoga.

    After the war, the area continued to bustle and grow. The Hudson brought people from the lower valley and New York City up to the Catskills, a place which became popular with not only members of the art and literary world, but with the rich as well, who felt time in the moutains was therapeutic.

    The invention of the steamboat provided quick and easy access to the northern reaches of the Hudson. Steamboat travel was fast and affordable, and by 1850 there were about 150 of these vessels plying the river's waters. Estimates say these boats carried as many as a million passengers.

    As Americans were trying to find their own identities, this grand river became a focal point, allowing them to mix stories and scenes from the Revolution with the Dutch folklore of its earliest settlers.

    And after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, the river became one of the nation's main arteries of trade, opening a gateway to the west and prompting a period of major economic and industrial expansion along the Hudson.

    The same year the canal was completed a young artist named Thomas Cole decided to take a sketching trip through the Hudson Valley. His subsequent paintings celebrating nature launched other artists to do the same and their style became known as the Hudson River School of Painting. It became the first national school of painting in the United States. Using the river as inspiration, these painters were lauded for their realistic interpretations of the area's beautiful and unique landscape.

    As the 19th century progressed, businesses flourished and more professionals began making their homes along the Upper Hudson. The American Express Co. was founded here and in 1861, Albany's Tweedle Hall hosted a meeting for conciliation, concession and a compromise on slavery. The wealthy families in the area generally owned three or four slaves, who, according to written reports, were usually treated kindly and lived and worked amongst the family.

    Albany, which had become the state's capital, began a building boom. The Executive Mansion, built in 1850 as a private home is now home to the state's governor. An art collection housed there highlights works from the Revolution to present day.

    Constructed in the latter half of the century, the Capitol building features a mix of different styles, as the job of designing the building fell to different hands as the project progressed. It showcases elaborate carvings, a million dollar staircase, and of course, the legislative and executive chambers of state government.

    By the turn of the century, as more industries and rail lines were developed, much of the Hudson Valley had been clear cut. The timber industry was dead along the Upper Hudson and sewage and industrial wastes were beginning to take their toll on the river. It was then, a few decades into the 20th century, that the battle to protect the environment began, drawing a fine line between unnecessary destruction and the need for modernization.

    As more and more industries sprang up along the banks of the Hudson, waste being dumped into the water began to affect the water's quality. Many fish and other aquatic animals could no longer survive. A little further downriver, a major battle that began the modern-day environmental movement was brewing with Con Edison's proposal to build a major hydro-electric plant at Storm King Mountain.

    The 17-year battle set court precedents, a major one being that a project's environmental impact is just as important as its potential economic gain. Con Edison finally gave up on its plan, donating the land purchased for the plant to be used as a park. But the company's continued dumping of dangerous PCBs at its Fort Edward and Hudson Falls facilities further up river led to more environmental battles. The company was finally banned from discharging the chemical and began a cleanup.

    Many today would debate whether that cleanup has been effective. PCB levels have dropped in much of the river, but recently levels have increased downstream as the tide and currents disturb the PCB-laden silt that had settled at the river's bottom. Fish and other aquatic populations are once again thriving, but commercial striped bass fishing is still banned on the Hudson.

    During the battle with Con Edison, singer and environmentalist Pete Seeger entered the fray by forming Clearwater, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Hudson River. His group built a sloop which still sails the river today, promoting environmentalism and teaching ways to keep the river healthy. The Walkabout Clearwater Chorus, an offshoot of the Clearwater organization, performs throughout the area acting as an embassador for the group as well as offering fun family entertainment, keeping alive the history told in the folk songs they sing.

    In July 1998, the Hudson was honored by President Clinton by being named one of 14 American Heritage Rivers. The initiative was created to recognize and reward community efforts to restore and protect the environmental, economic, cultural and historic values of the nation's rivers. It also encourages communities to develop strategies to preserve the rivers for future generations.

    Communities surrounding the Hudson will receive benefits through the initiative, including a designated "River Navigator" charged with coordinating support of river revitalization programs. Attacking pollution problems, building greenway and pedestrian paths, protecting watersheds, rebuilding historic docks are just some of the opportunities that will be available to these Hudson River communities.

    From this nation's beginning, the Hudson River has held a place of importance. The first great river encountered by the European settlers, it played a pivotal role in the country's early commercial, military and cultural history. From the steamboat to the Erie Canal, the Hudson opened a world to the west.

    Today the river, once polluted and dying, is healthy and on the regenerating itself. Its waters are patrolled to keep polluters and illegal commercial fishermen in check. And the communities along its banks work hard to preserve its beauty and resources for generations to come, because as Vice President Al Gore said when making the announcement on the heritage river designations, "There is nothing more powerful than water as a catalyst for economic revitalization and cultural renewal."

    "Seventeenth Century Albany: A Dutch Profile" by Charlotte Wilcoxen, Education Department, Albany Institute of History and Art, 1984.
    "Historical Narrative: The Story of Albany" by various authors, J.B. Lyon Company, 1924.
    "The Hudson River Highlands" by Frances F. Dunwell, Columbia University Press, 1991.
    "The Hudson River Valley: A History and Guide" by Tim Mulligan, Random House Inc., 1981.
    The Half Moon Press, August 1998 issue.