The American Revolution Comes to Albany, New York, 1756-1776

Albany map 1758

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world…He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation: For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.”–Declaration of Independence

On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed its Committee of Five to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston composed a document that proclaimed why the thirteen colonies had no other recourse but to separate from the British Empire. They declared that “The history of the present King of Great Britain [George III] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.” The committee added weight to the colonists’ claims by providing a long list of specific examples of the king’s injustices towards them. Among the enumerated grievances: King George III had given his “assent” “For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.”[1]

The colonists experienced the king’s unjust quartering throughout the French and Indian War (1754-1763). It all started when John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun assumed command of the British forces in 1755. Loudoun lamented how the British soldiers had lost the 1755 campaign to the French because his predecessor William Shirley could not find winter quarters for them near the front lines. Loudoun sought to rectify this situation by ordering the governors of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania to erect barracks in Boston, New York City, Albany, and Philadelphia. The governors either refused or informed Loudoun that their colonial assembly would provide only some of the funds needed to build barracks or rent rooms in inns and public houses within those cities. Eventually, each city built at least some of the barracks Loudoun had demanded, but only in Albany, New York did Loudoun resort to forcibly quartering his troops in private homes.[2]

Between 1754 and 1760, thousands of British soldiers, colonial officials, merchants, and camp followers made their way to and through Albany. The war proved to be both a profitable and an antagonistic experience for the Albanians. Albanians profited from the war both financially and via the opportunity to extend their patronage networks. Merchants, tavern keepers, artisans, and laborers furnished their visitors with supplies, housing, and services. Elites rubbed elbows with aristocratic British officers. The Albanians had expected to profit from the war, but they had not anticipated the adversarial politics of identity that the war brought out. Although the Albanians claimed to be Britons, their British guests recognized them only as foreigners, Dutch colonials. The British Army used this non-British view of the Albanians to justify their quartering practices. Many Albanians believed the army’s quartering practices had violated their constitutional rights as Britons and they reflected on this when it came time to choose their loyalties during the American Revolution. The Albanians’ disagreeable experiences with the British Army during the French and Indian War predisposed the community to side with, or at least not oppose, the Patriot cause.

Quartering

In late June 1756, the people of Albany, New York extended a warm welcome to the Earl of Loudoun. Loudoun had come to Albany to turn the French and Indian War in Great Britain’s favor. The Albanians also hoped that he would lessen their troubles with the drunken and disorderly soldiers who disrupted their community. If the Albanians’ welcome impressed Loudoun, he did not show it. Instead, he called the city magistrates to a meeting where he informed them that he had certain “powers” and that as a civilian body the Corporation would not always understand or like what he must order his army to do. Loudoun wasted little time in demonstrating his unpopular “powers.” Between 1756 and 1763, Loudoun and his successors forcibly quartered their soldiers in the Albanians’ private homes.[3]

The British Army began quartering on June 25, 1756. General James Abercomby asked the Common Council to find quarters for the 42nd Highland Regiment (the Black Watch). At first, the Albanians seemed happy to lodge the soldiers as “the great many [Highlanders] behaved Worthy to be called honest & reasonable Men.” However, the conduct of a few soldiers soon spoiled any pleasure the Albanians derived from assisting the army. Some of the quartered Scots “behaved like Brutes in Human Shape— by making horrible Noise in their room, Threatening to Oblidge People to Wait on them[,] rise at all times of the night and open their doors, Insisting on the second Best Bed In the house, Abusing & Destroying the furniture, Cou’d themselves in Eating furniture—this was the general Complaint.”[4] The Albanians wished to help the Army, but they no longer desired to share their homes with its soldiers.

Even Loudoun disliked quartering. He complained to friends and superiors that he faced opposition to quartering throughout the colonies. He also lamented that his need for quarters unduly taxed the Albanians’ means. In a letter to the Duke of Cumberland, Loudoun reported that the Albainans “really have hardly any more beds than they lay on themselves.” He assured the Duke that he was making the best of a bad situation, “in Albany, where I am obliged to Quarter more Troops than the People can support, or reasonably ought; I have taken nothing from the People but House room; and as they really have no Beds, I have given the Men Paliasses to lye on, and furnish them firing from the Magazines, at a rate of one fire to 20 Men, as they have in the Barracks; The Officers I have Given Money for their firing.” Loudoun also insisted on paying for his own lodgings.[5]

The Albanians resented quartering for reasons beyond the inconveniences of having to share their homes with strangers. They believed that the British Army had violated their constitutional rights with its practices; first by illegally applying the Mutiny Act of 1689 and second by using quartering as an illegal form of punishment. Anyone who displeased the army usually found more soldiers assigned to billet in their home.[6] The Albanians also realized that Loudoun justified his quartering policies based on his views of the Albanians as “Old dutch Inhabitants,” “Dutchmen,” or simply as “Dutch,” foreigners who were not entitled to the constitutional rights of Britons.

Quartering played a large role in why Albany became a Patriot stronghold. The military occupation of Albany during the French and Indian War showed the Albanians what close imperial rule might mean. The Army had effectively muted the Albanians’ political and legal voice. British officers had interfered with the governance of their community and their ability to conduct diplomacy with the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois peoples. The soldiers also brought drastic demographic and economic change to the community. The British Army’s victory over France redirected the center of the British North American fur trade to Montreal and positive experiences in America led many British soldiers and merchants to settle in both Albany and Albany County. The Albanians struggled to adapt their society to fit the new, post-war world. Although many enthusiastically embraced the opportunities the new British Empire had to offer, many more resisted and longed for a return to their mostly autonomous, pre-war ways. Their treatment in the past and their frustrations with the post-war present created a long, riotous period that led a majority of Albanians to embrace the American Revolution.

From Anger to Revolution

During the 1760s, the Albanians’ outrage with the British Army dovetailed with the broader colonial movement for equal subjectship. After the war the Albanians unleashed their pent-up frustration by participating in eight demonstrations against the Army and British authority. The riots began in May 1763, when the Common Council requested that the British Army remove all of its buildings from the city’s streets and “all spots of ground” where the inhabitants needed use of the land. Colonel John Bradstreet rebuffed this application.

Bradstreet’s refusal outraged many Albanians. The City of Albany had owned the land prior to the war. The Corporation had loaned the land to the Army to support the war effort. The Treaty of Paris 1763 had ended the war and the city not only wanted, but needed, its land back to support the post-war population boom.[7] Around May 23, 1763, Mayor Volckert P. Douw led a group of protestors to the Army storehouse where they pulled down its fence.[8] This action served as the first salvo in a five-year campaign to recover city lands and demonstrate frustration over British authority.

Between 1763 and 1767, Albanians participated in five “riots” or “mob actions” that tried to tear down dilapidated military buildings on city-owned property. Albanians also attacked members of the Army on two occasions in 1764. In the first incident, two intoxicated lieutenants attempted to gain entry into a house where “they had some Female Acquaintance.” A fight erupted when the woman called out to her neighbors for help. The situation devolved into a violent street brawl that involved at least a dozen grenadiers, several soldiers, and “a Mob of about 200 [Albanians].” Seven months later, two Albanians beat a sentry who disrespected them.[9]

By January 1766, it became clear to the Albanians that Britons throughout North America shared their frustrations with British authority. In 1764, Parliament began to tax the colonists to pay for their protection and for the French and Indian War. Many colonists argued that Parliament had illegally taxed them with its Sugar Act (1764), Stamp Act (1765), and Townshend Duties (1767) because the colonists did not have direct representation in that body. The Albanians disliked the taxation measures as well. They interpreted these measures as an indication that Parliament intended to rule the British colonies more directly than they had before the war.

In January 1766, the Albanians’ riots converged with the wider colonial movement against Parliamentary taxation. The Albanians combined their protestations against the British Army with their disapproval of Parliamentary taxation by rioting against the Stamp Act. For two days, the Albany Sons of Liberty hounded Henry Van Schaack based on rumors that he had applied for the position of Albany stamp distributor. At first, the protesters tried to intimidate Van Schaack with their number. They requested that Van Schaack appear before them in Thomas Williams’ tavern where nearly forty men greeted him. Although Van Schaack assured the gathering that “he never had apply’d for that office,” the assembled men insisted that he renounce the stamp distributorship and swear an oath that he would never apply for the position. When Van Schaack refused to take the oath, the Sons of Liberty honored their threat to destroy his property. In an effort to avoid the Sons’ threat to destroy his person, Van Schaack relented and took the oath.[10]

Why was Albany a Patriot Stronghold?

In 1767, the Albanians got what they wanted: Major General Thomas Gage ordered the Army to vacate Albany. For the first time in its history, Albany did not have a military force occupying it. However, after the army left, the Albanians found that they could not return to the pre-war past. Their society had changed and the imperial crisis continued to intensify.[11]

The escalation of the imperial crisis forced the Albanians to make a decision. Geography dictated, and history had demonstrated, that either a colonial or British army would occupy their city during a war. Negative experiences with the British Army during the previous war and Parliament’s post-war attempts to impose a stricter imperial rule predisposed a majority of Albanians to side with the Patriots.

Loyalism by the Numbers

Statistically, Albany stood as a Patriot stronghold. Between 1775 and 1781, the Albany Committee of Safety, the Schenectady Committee of Correspondence, and the Albany County Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies interviewed 2,057 suspected Loyalists. During that time, these boards found eighty-seven Loyalists living in the City of Albany; 4.2 percent of all persons accused of loyalty throughout Albany County. Of those eighty-seven only twenty-six turned out to be bona fide Loyalists. These numbers reflect that the committees investigated approximately 3 percent of Albanians for loyalism and that true loyalism accounted for just 0.87 percent of Albany’s population.[12]

Undoubtedly, many of the suspected Loyalists were actually people who tried not to choose sides. Men like Henry Van Schaack tried to remain neutral in an effort to keep their political and economic options open no matter which side won the war. Albany Patriots distrusted men like Van Schaack and kept a close watch on anyone who did not outwardly support their cause. According to Van Schaack, the Patriots deemed anyone with a “mere difference of political sentiment” as “disaffected.”

Van Schaack related the perils of trying to live in Albany as a neutral. He reported that the Committee of Safety fined, imprisoned, and banished any individual who spoke “disrespectfully of the Whigs in general,” “discouraging” or “unbecoming talk against the American cause,” “disapprobation of the measure they [the Whigs] were pursuing,” “diminutively” of the authority of the Committee, or those who refused to sign the General or Continental Association.[13] Residents of the City of Albany had to support the Patriots or adopt a quiet life devoid of vocal political opinion as tight quarters and the power of the Albany Committee made it easy to detect and punish Loyalists, or those who disapproved of the Patriots’ politics and actions.

Conclusion

Unable to return to their pre-war lives, many Albanians embraced the Revolution as an opportunity to create a new life. This “new” life looked slightly different for each Patriot. Men like Philip Schuyler supported the Revolution because they had lost their voice in the colonial assembly and they believed the Revolution would launch them into positions of greater power. Men like Abraham Yates Jr., used the Revolution as an opportunity to level political power between men of middling means and the elite. Men without political designs or ambitions looked upon the Revolution as a chance to help ensure that no Army ever forcibly quartered or dictated the governance of their community again. Although reasons for joining the Patriot cause differed for each Patriot, they all shared two common aspects: The Revolution offered Patriot Albanians the opportunity to vent their frustrations with the unexpected and drastic changes the French and Indian War had brought to their community. The Revolution also gave them the chance to affect social, political, and economic changes that they found more palatable.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Map of Albany, New York, 1758. Source: Library of Congress]

 


[1] Second Continental Congress, “Declaration of Independence,” United States National Archives: Charters of Freedom, n.d., http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration.html.

[2] Alan Rogers, Empire and Liberty: American Resistance to British Authority, 1755-1763 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).

[3]New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Astor, Lenox Tilden Foundation, Abraham Yates Jr., Papers, 1604-1825, “Journal,” (MssCol 3405), July 29, 1756; Fred Anderson,. Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, First Vintage Books Edition, (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 150-167; Daniel Marston, The French-Indian War, 1754-1760, Essential Histories 44, (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2002), 35-37; Ruth Sheppard, ed. Empires Collide: The French and Indian War 1754-63, (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2006), 84-89.

[4] Abraham Yates’ description of “Cou’d themselves in Eating furniture” likely refers to the soldiers’ disruptive and destructive behavior. The soldiers placed demands on their hosts for food, drink, and better accommodations even when it fell to the army to supply those needs. In a different journal entry, Yates related how the soldiers’ disorderly behavior caused at least two Albany women to miscarry. NYPL, MAD, Astor, Lenox Tilden Foundation, Abraham Yates Jr., Papers, 1604-1825, “Journal,” (MssCol 3405), June 25, 1756; NYPL, MAD, Astor, Lenox Tilden Foundation, Abraham Yates Jr., Papers, 1604-1825, “Journal,” (MssCol 3405), June 27, 1756.

[5] “Firing” refers to firewood. Loudoun conducted an extensive survey of all the houses in Albany and made note of how many fireplaces each home had. He used this information to billet his men. Huntington Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections, Loudoun Papers, “Earl of Loudoun to Duke of Cumberland,” (LO 2262), November 22, 1756.

[6] In December 1757, Loudoun billeted an additional six soldiers, for a total of twelve, on Sheriff Abraham Yates Jr. As Sheriff, Yates felt duty bound to confront Loudoun and his officers when he found soldiers “kicking and abusing the Waggoners” and harassing their hosts. Moreover, Yates challenged the authority of Captain Christie. In October 1757, Christie ordered Yates to incarcerate Jacob Van Der Werkin. Yates refused to admit Van Der Werkin because Christie lacked a mittimus, or arrest warrant. Christie ordered his men to break into the jail and forcibly commit Van Der Werkin. Yates protested by taking the jailhouse keys and refusing to let the army use the jail until they either released Van Der Werkin or gave him due process. In retaliation for this insubordination, Loudoun billeted the extra men on Yates. NYPL, MAD, Astor, Lenox Tilden Foundation, Abraham Yates Jr., Papers, 1604-1825, “Journal,” (MssCol 3405), October 7, 1757; NYPL, MAD, Astor, Lenox Tilden Foundation, Abraham Yates Jr., Papers, 1604-1825, “Journal,” (MssCol 3405), December 24, 1757; NYPL, MAD, Astor, Lenox Tilden Foundation, Abraham Yates Jr., Papers, 1604-1825, “Journal,” (MssCol 3405), December 26, 1757.

[7]The end of the war had caused a population boom in the City and County of Albany; the population of Albany County grew by 148 percent between 1754 and 1771 and the City of Albany felt its effects. David Arthur Armour, The Merchants of Albany, New York: 1686-1760, American Business History: A Garland Series of Outstanding Dissertations (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1986).

[8] American Antiquarian Society, Manuscripts, John Bradstreet Papers, “Draft of Letter to General Jeffery Amherst,” (MSS Bradstreet Papers), May 23, 1763; William G. Godfrey, Pursuit of Profit and Preferment in Colonial North America: John Bradstreet’s Quest (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982), 166-168.

[9] Elizabeth M. Covart, “Collision on the Hudson: Identity, Migration, and the Improvement of Albany, New York, 1750-1830” (Dissertation, University of California, Davis, 2011), 94-107.

[10] New-York Historical Society, Henry Van Schaack, “Narrative of Riotous behavior in Albany,” (John Tabor Kempe Papers), Box 12, Folder 2, January 18,1766; Beverly McAnear, “The Albany Stamp Act Riots,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3, 4, no. 4 (October 1947): 486–98; Henry Cruger Van Schaack, Memoirs of the Life of Henry Van Schaack (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Company, 1892).

[11] Since its founding in 1614, Albany had been home to a garrison of troops. At first the troops served the Dutch West India Company. English soldiers replaced the Dutch soldiers after the English conquest of New Netherland in 1664. Both the Dutch and English troops protected their nation’s interest in the fur trade. Between 1664 and 1767, the soldiers who lived within the walls of Fort Orange and its successor Fort Frederick, represented a cross-cultural mixture of English, Scots, and colonial North American men, many of whom established roots within the Albany community. The thousands of soldiers who arrived at the start of the French and Indian War did not have roots in the community and they looked upon the people of Albany as colonials and Dutch foreigners. See Stanley McCrory Pargellis, “The Four Independent Companies of New York,” in Essays in Colonial History Presented to Charles McLean Andrews by His Students (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931), 96–123.

[12] Elizabeth M. Covart, “Collision on the Hudson: Identity, Migration, and the Improvement of Albany, New York, 1750-1830,” 108-136.

[13] Henry Cruger Van Schaack, Memoirs of the Life of Henry Van Schaack, 67-68.

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4 Comments

  • Thank you for an interesting article which reveals that open opposition to Great Britain seems to have preceded that which occurred in New England and elsewhere. I lived in Upstate New York for 10 years in Niskayuna and Glens Falls and was not aware of the Colonial troubles in the City of Albany prior to the Revolution even though I was actively involved in re-enactments and reading about the region.
    Thanks again for a most insightful read.
    John Pearson

    • You are most welcome John. I surprised the leading expert on Albany history when I told him about the post-French and Indian War riots over quartering. I found information about them in the Thomas Gage Papers at the William L. Clements Library.

      As you know New York State has a long history of involvement with the Revolution and its War for Independence, but the story is more complicated than it is in New England given the heterogeneity of the population and its relationship with the Haudenosaunee peoples.

  • I really do love learning about events outside of the standard stories we’re told about the American Revolution. There was a great deal going on all over the country, not just in Boston or New York. Thanks for an interesting and enlightening article.

  • As a native Albanian, I was happy to see an article on the city in JAR. Many years ago, I did research on the Albany Sons of Liberty as a undergraduate at Manhattan College. I shared it with Ed Countryman when he was at Cornell. He referenced my work in his “A People in Revolution” (1981). I disagreed with McAnear’s assessment that the rioters were Albany fireman who let a convivial holiday celebration turn into a riot. The Stamp Act rioters were mostly Dutch merchants with a vested interest in politics and commerce. Their names can be traced from Stamp Act documents through the Revolution and into the Anti-Federalist period. I look forward to Elizabeth’s book.

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