THE FIRST UNDRED YEARS (1686 - 1786): IN THE BEGINNING

Judy Shepard Staff writer
Section: TRICENTENNIAL,  Page: T1

Date: Sunday, July 6, 1986

It's just before dawn. There's a white mist on the river, barely visible in the soft gray light. The tide is taking the river south, tugging gently at the sloops anchored offshore.


The ratelwacht, the nightwatchman armed with his wooden rattle to rouse sleeping Albany in case of fire or Indian attack, is finishing his last round of the night. Passing the English sentry at the south gatehouse of the walled city, he wearily heads north on Handlers Street past the two-story building that serves as jail, courthouse and town meeting hall, turns the corner onto Jonker Street and trudges up the hill toward the fort, calling the hour. It's 4 a.m. on a Sunday in July, 1686.


It's a quiet time. But soon a stately procession of cows will plod down Handlers Street, the broad north-south way earlier called Cow Street in honor of these daily journeys. Cow herd and cows will move out the south gate to spend the day on the Pastures. This communal grazing ground is below the old Dutch Fort Orange, built by the Dutch West India Company in 1624 and abandoned these past ten years.


And soon through the town's gates will come the farmers, millers and tanners who live outside the town in the colonie, the surrounding land of the Dutch patroon. Although Rensselaerswyck - the patroonship - and the town have been in a power struggle for decades, the patroon's tenants think nothing of coming into town for church.


They'll hurry to get there before the bell signals the beginning of the church service. Some of the men will stop for and a quick shave by one of several barbers who often double as surgeons, stitching up the men after their drunken disputes in the taverns or the streets end more often than not in the drawing of knives.


At the sounding of the third bell, Albany's many taverns will be quiet, too, as no tapping is permitted once the final bell summons all Albany to the Dutch Reformed Church.


In fact, not many will work today, except for Dominie Godfredius Dellius, who will work very hard indeed: His sermon will consume four hours this morning, and another two after lunch. An hourglass, attached to the handsome carved oaken pulpit brought over from the homeland when the church was built in 1656, will time his sermon.


Domine Dellius will give his message in Dutch to as many as 500 people, in a town with barely that many residents.


But the Dutch Reformed Church is the most prominent institution in this tiny town and the surrounding colonie, a fact signified by its location smack in the middle of the town's two main thoroughfares - Handlers and Jonker, later to become Broadway and State Street.


This squat, solid building faces up the hill toward Fort Frederick. Built in unsettled times, the church is armed with cannons and furnished with gun slits, equipped to do double duty as blockhouse.


The Lutherans, kept from public worship during the Dutch period, will be meeting in their own church in a less desirable location near the cemetery, where they were permitted to build after the English takeover in 1664.


In the 140 or so houses lining the streets, the women will rise early today as usual, waking the children and readying an early breakfast of sapaen - cornmeal mush - eaten from a communal bowl in which individual scoops are made to hold milk; bread or cheese, before the family heads to church. The women will exchange their weekday uniform - the apron, by far their most plentiful wardobe item - and dress in their best summer skirts of fine linen imported from the Netherlands.


The babies will stay behind, and, in the wealthier homes, will be watched over by the black slaves, or servants.


The streets have dried since the muddy spring, and the walk to church will take them over a hard-packed clay surface past the brick-fronted houses. Down the middle of Jonker Street a ditch drains muddy water down the hill to the river.


Facing each other along the Jonker Street hill are the homes of the town's leading citizens. The houses are brick-fronted in the Dutch style of steep gables, either straight or stepped. Walls are of milled wood; floors are tiled; roofs, thatched.


The newest houses are those on the north side a block above Handler's Street. Here the great fire of 1681 took seven houses, prompting the town magistrates to set up a fire department with ten districts, fire guardians, ladders and hooks.


Behind the houses are sheds, gardens and orchards, fenced to keep out the neighbors' pigs, still roaming loose despite a local law against it. The doors of the houses are double; the top half is opened to let in the summer breeze, but the bottom half is closed to keep toddlers in, pigs out.


Pigs enjoy the run of town, browsing on garbage thrown from the houses, their ears nicked by their owners for identification.


After all, it was only 40 years ago that the Rev. Isaac Jogues, the fierce Jesuit missionary, called this place clinging to the edge of the great North American wilderness "a miserable little fort of logs" where about 100 people lived.


And in 1663, Pieter Stuyvesant, the blunt- spoken governor general of Dutch West Indies ordered the "wretched huts" removed from within the fort. Some were little more than covered cellarholes.


But times have changed. New homes have been built; gardens fenced, orchards planted. And the English have been here almost 20 years now, their soldiers living in the new fort at the top of the steep hill at the west edge of town.


It was September 8 of 1664 that Stuyvesant surrendered New Netherland to the English, whose frigates dotted the harbor. The name Stuyvesant had given to the small upriver fur trading settlement in 1652 - Beverwyck - became Albany, in honor of James, the English Duke of York and Albany and, since last year, King James.


But the Dutch of Beverwyck, who had been in residence for 40 years before the English rule, have seen little change in their small town. They are still speaking Dutch, and their form of government remains, combining legislative, executive and judicial in the appointed magistrates.


In part this is because the English have paid little attention to the isolated upriver community, perched at the end of the world, a ten to twelve- day journey upriver from New York when the river is open, and inaccessible three months each winter.


It is also because Albany's isolation has drawn its people close together. Their closeness is reinforced by the constant threats - from the Indians in the south, from the Indians in the north, from the English, from the French, from fire, bad weather and disease. It has made them suspicious of outsiders.


But these people came here to make their fortunes and a strong pragmatic streak tempers their caution.


So, some of the local Dutch girls have married English soldiers from the fort, who attend the Dutch church Sundays with their wives. The soldiers have built homes in town on land given them as a bonus on their retirement from the service.


Sunday is a quiet day for this usually bustling, sometimes brawling town, although today there is an undercurrent of excitement in the conversations among the families outside the church door at the bottom of the hill.


Eyes are drawn to Pieter Schuyler and Robert Livingston, the town's two most prominent men, standing together and talking quietly outside church.


In just a few days, the two will take a river sloop south to New York to see Thomas Dongan, the British-appointed governor they have been pressing for a charter for their town, creating a municipal government and setting its boundaries.


Livingston and Schuyler are optimistic. Last fall, Dongan settled the patroonship's claim to Albany, clearing the way for the town's new political identity.


But today, Dongan's charter is just a rumor as Albany's people enter church and turn their minds to Domine Dellius' sermon. During the long hours, perhaps their thoughts will drift to what awaits them tomorrow, for Monday will bring a resumption of the lively business of the place.


Summer is the busy season here, with heavy boat traffic on the river carrying beaver pelts down to New York, along with grain from the farms of the colonie and milled lumber from the northern woods. Other sloops will anchor offshore after a trip upriver with cargoes of nails, sugar and gunpowder.


The Indians are in town for the summer, which is their trading season. They are bringing the pelts they trapped over the winter months when Albany was cut off from the outside world.


They'll be looking for trade goods like knives, hatchets or the dark- colored wool duffel cloth they like for their winter clothes. They like the Jew's harps; often at night from the woods north of town comes the buzzing hum of the harps as the Indians play.


The smell of baking bread will mingle in the warm air, for the Indians love sweet white rolls - so much so that many local bakers save their best bread only for the Indians. Despite a local ordinance forbidding this, many ignore it, so strong is the lure of the fur trade.


The fur trade is what made this town, but the black river is running dry, and the wise traders have diversified, supplying grain, building supplies, tanned hides to the south and setting up service businesses in the town for the soldiers, traders and farmers.


But demand remains great for fur, so great that abuses are still a serious problem. The Indians are intercepted in the woods, cheated, roughed up, run down, or offered too much rum and their pelts taken by eager traders.


Now the Indians must stay at the hut built for them at the north of town; no longer do they trade freely in the streets and sleep in the town, in the homes of the fur traders.


The port will be a busy place tomorrow, with sloops leaving on the downriver voyage and others arriving, unloading casks and bales offshore. Small skiffs and canoes line the shore; although the river is the primary method of transportation, it does not allow docks to remain for long on its banks. Every spring its ice and floodwaters scour the shore, and each year the docks must be rebuilt.


Near the Lutheran church, local beer will be brewed. Not trusting the water, the townspeople drink spirits all day long, and the court records are proof that not all of them hold their liquor well.


In fact the rowdy, brawling days of Fort Orange are not so far behind at all. The Jonker Street homes of Albany's leading citizens may have their touches of elegant stemware and delft in the kas, the great wooden cupboard of the main room, or on the mantelpiece, but Albany is at an awkward age, still rough and clumsy.


But then, it has been only 77 years since Henry Hudson's crew first came here and traded for beaver furs, and less than that since Albany became a permanent settlement. Life here is still precarious, symbolized by the stockade.


The trade of this busy upriver port has made it a prosperous place, but there has been little peace as Indians and Europeans battle for control of the rich New World. Nor will there in the years to come.