GOV. DONGAN'S CHARTER: WAS CITY'S FIRST MILESTONE

Nancy Connell The Times Union
Section: TRICENTENNIAL,  Page: T9

Date: Sunday, July 6, 1986

Like a vain old dowager, Albany is really shaving off quite a few years when it declares its 300th birthday this year.


In 1686, when Gov. Thomas Dongan issued the charter which gave Albany legal status as a city, the settlement was already two generations old and numbered 500 residents. It had gone through three name changes, a transfer of power from the Dutch to the English and had prospered as a center of fur trade. Yet even with all the settlement had already seen, the Dongan Charter is hailed by historians as an important milestone in Albany's development.


"Albany needed some kind of mechanism for developing the community," said Stefan Bielinski, director of the Colonial Albany Social History Project of the New York State Museum. "It established a system based on an English model. It created a structure of government that was completely different, but it confirmed things that were in place that seemed to work."


Henry Hudson, sailing in the Half Moon, anchored off Albany in 1609.


"His report of rich furs attracted more Dutch ships to the river, and in 1615 a trading post was built but destroyed by a flood two years later," the late Alice Kenney wrote in the city Tricentennial Guidebook. "In 1624 the Dutch West India Company established a permanent post, Fort Orange ... More families were sent in 1630 by Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a wealthy Amsterdam jewel merchant who had secured from the company a grant to lands now comprising most of Albany and Rensselaer Counties."


During these early years, the only government for the growing frontier town was the court. Local magistrates were appointed by the Dutch to arbitrate disputes, and a scout or sheriff enforced the judicial decisions.


The court, established to keep the peace, sometimes imposed regulations to curb abuses but it lacked many important powers. The court was not empowered to grant land titles, or to initiate the passage of ordinances.


In an unpublished manuscript about the Dongan Charter, Bielinski recounts an anecdote illustrating the problems which faced a growing Albany before the charter.


On a visit to Albany, Dongan noticed many houses were imperiled because they were built on eroding hillsides so he asked Robert Livingston, soon to be appointed the town clerk, about the problem. Livingston replied the magistrates did not feel they had the power to make regulations about the matter.


Then there was the matter of land titles.


As Bielinski put it, Albany grew up as a squatter town on land claimed by the Van Rensselaer family as part of Rensselaerswyck, a huge tract of land which extended inland on both sides of the Hudson River.


In 1652, 34 years before the charter, Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Netherlands, recognized the settlement as a separate entity and called it Beverwyck. But Van Rensselaer continued to claim ownership of lands within Beverwyck, even though 200 lots within the stockade had been bought and sold as authorized by the court of Beverwyck, Bielinski said.


The Dongan Charter changed all that. It defined the city boundaries, giving Albany all the land north of what is now Gansevoort Street, south of Orange Street, and extending 16 miles to the northwest.


One of the biggest of the settler's problems had been a means to lay claim to open land, Bielinski said. The charter gave the city the ownership of all unappopriated land, the right to divide land into lots and the power to convey property titles.


The charter gave the city a mile of waterfront on the Hudson and perpetual fishing rights. It allowed settlers to cut timber and firewood free of charge on the surrounding Manor of Rensselaerswyck until 1706. And, in one of the most diplomatically important aspects of the charter, it gave the city sole management of all trade with the Indians residing in the territory controlled by Great Britain in all directions from Albany except south.


The charter also established the city officers: a mayor, recorder, town clerk, six aldermen, six assistant aldermen, a treasurer, a sheriff, coroner, clerk of the market, high constable, three subconstables and a city marshall.


Dongan named Pieter Schuyler the first mayor and Livingston the clerk, affirming positions of leadership they already held in the community.


The mayor, recorder and aldermen were justices of the peace who could try cases.


The mayor, an appointee of the governor at the beginning, had substantial discretionary power which made him an important figure in the every day life of the community. He could issue licenses to sell liquor. He was the clerk of the city market, determining the legal weight of a loaf of bread or a cord of wood and the composition and volume of a barrel of beer.


Dongan, the British colonial governor of New York, made Albany only the second chartered city in the territory when he acted in 1686, but it was a time when charters were being issued throughout the English empire, Bielinski said.


In addition, the charter accomplished items important for the British.


It strengthened the tie between the Dutch of Albany and the English provincial government and encouraged settlement of the northern frontier.


By granting Albany exclusive trading rights with the Indians, the English hoped to protect the Indians from some of the abuses they suffered at the hands of less accountable traders, Bielinski said.


At the time, the English and French were at war in both Europe and North America.


"Restricting all dealing to Albany gave the best chance of maintaining peace on the frontier and gaining support of the Iroquois and other tribes against the French," Bielinski wrote.


The Dongan Charter laid the foundation for the government of Albany for the next 100 years and beyond, Bielinski said. From 1686 until the start of the American Revolution 90 years later, "things become more regularized," Bielinski said. "Positions are filled, the city takes control of land sales, development takes place in outlying lands in Schaghticoke and Fort Hunter, and along the waterfront."


"Anything that happens has to come under city government," Bielinski said. "When the Presbyterians want to build a church, they have to deal with the city government."


In the spring of 1775, the common council stopped meeting and the government was taken over for three years by a Committee of Safety, a group of local residents who actively supported calls for revolution against Great Britain. The Committee of Safety did not try to assume the formal lawmaking and administrative duties of city government, but only tried to keep order.


The committee was concerned with politicizing the population, Bielinski said. Everyone was required to take a loyalty oath to the new revolutionary government. People who refused were deprived of leadership positions and property.


"Hundreds of people were forced to leave the community in the 17th Century," Bielinski said.


Then, in 1778 the common council began to function again and the charter government resumed.


"With the coming of peace in 1783," Bielinski said, "the activities of city government intensify and the city becomes involved a lot more in really developing the community."