Here is a statistic that might shock you. In 1790, there were 217 households in Albany County that owned five or more slaves of African descent, a portion of the county's 3,722 slaves, the most of any county among New York state's 21,193 slaves counted in that year's census.
History textbooks and conventional wisdom tend to relegate slavery as an issue of the Southern states, a shameful narrative bracketed by President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the grim toll of the Civil War.
But new research at the State Museum and an exhibit at Fort Crailo, a state historic site in Rensselaer, titled "A Dishonorable Trade: Human Trafficking in the Dutch Atlantic World," is bringing slavery out of the shadows and directly onto the front stoops of Albany across three centuries.Through historical research and archaeology, the emerging scholarship is painting a fresh portrait of a deeply ingrained system of wealthy Dutch families in Albany and the Capital Region who owned human beings and subjugated them to their will during the17th,18th and19th centuries.
"Slavery was an unfortunate fact of the Dutch colonial period and it's something people might not be aware of, but they should be," said Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Research Center at the State Library. He's translated thousands of 17th-century Dutch documents over the past four decades and the only mentions he finds of slaves are in wills, when a wealthy Dutchman bequeathed slaves and other personal property to descendants. The slaves are typically not named and slave families are often split up among descendants.
Slaves in Fort Orange and Beverwyck settlements, precursors to Albany, were used for loading and unloading ships, carpentry repairs, farming and livestock care and domestic chores.
"It was an accepted part of the culture at the time, slaves were considered another aspect of doing business and everyone was involved in it," Gehring said. "The Dutch don't really like to talk about it, but it can't be ignored."
Gehring has seen the Fort Crailo exhibit and recommends it. "It's a real eye-opener," he said.
The slaves of Albany - the preferred term is now enslaved people - are a kind of lost sub-culture because they have vanished from the historical record with barely a trace. Virtually no documentation remains for the thousands of them who lived, worked and died here."We know almost nothing about how the slaves lived and worked, where they were buried, or information about their daily lives. We're using archaeological tools to try to tell the social history of slavery in and around Albany," said Michael Lucas, curator of historical archaeology at the State Museum, who presented a talk on his new research at the museum last month. He hopes to replicate at Schuyler Flatts - the sprawling riverside estate of the prominent Schuyler family along Broadway in Menands a few miles north of downtown Albany - the sort of archaeology he completed on early 19th-century slave quarters during many years working for the National Park Service in Maryland.
This spring, Lucas and colleagues will use a magnetometer, ground-penetrating radar and other low-impact technologies to try to locate long-disintegrated outbuildings that Lucas surmised may have been where more than a dozen slaves owned by the Schuylers lived while working at the Flatts.
The Schuyler family lived in the Schuyler Mansion, a state historic site in Albany's South End. The family patriarch, Gen. Philip Schuyler, was a Revolutionary War hero and the father-in-law of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, the country's first treasury secretary - whose story is told in the Broadway hit musical "Hamilton."
Lucas came to his new post about 18 months ago and the Schuyler Flatts research was spurred, in part, by the 2005 unearthing of skeletal remains of 14 slaves during a construction project across Broadway from the Flatts. The bones rested on a shelf at the State Museum for the past 10 years while researchers pieced together what limited information they could using DNA analysis.
Their names were never recorded and virtually nothing is known about their history.
"We found out as much as we could, but it's still an incomplete picture," conceded Lisa Anderson, curator of bioarchaeology at the State Museum who led the research. The slave remains will be honored at a special reburial ceremony at Schuyler Mansion on June 17 and they will be reburied the next day in a multicultural, ecumenical ceremony at Saint Agnes, the Albany Roman Catholic diocesan cemetery in Menands.
Lucas will also use the technology to try to locate what he believes is a much larger slave burial ground at Schuyler Flatts. "The Schuylers owned that property for more than two centuries, so it's likely there were far more slave burials than the 14 that were unearthed," Lucas said.
The Schuylers bought the land from the Van Rensselaer family, descendants of the first patroon, in 1692 and they occupied the working farm across many generations until 1910. The site is now jointly owned by the Open Space Institute and the town of Colonie and is open to the public as the Schuyler Flatts Historical Cultural Park.
It was a meeting place and trade center for Native American tribes and a resting area for troops and settlers in colonial times. Numerous ancient artifacts were discovered in digs during the 1970s by Paul Huey, a retired state archaeologist who is consulting with Lucas.
One area Lucas plans to probe is a site about two miles west of the Flatts that may have been the home of a mixed-race slave named Chalk, the offspring of an affair between a male member of the Schuyler family and a female African slave at the Flatts. The affair and the home of Chalk - so named because of his white-hued skin - is described in Ann Grant's "Memoirs of An American Lady," which recounts her time as a friend and guest of Margarita Schuyler in the 1760s.
Meanwhile, across the Hudson River in Rensselaer, at Fort Crailo, slaves were also a part of life at the homestead built in the early 18th century by Hendrick Van Rensselaer, grandson of the first patroon, and generations of the wealthy Dutch family.
Consider Andries, a slave whose story is told in the new exhibit at Fort Crailo. He was taken most likely from the coast of West Africa and shipped to the Caribbean island of Curacao, where the Dutch traded in slaves who were forced to work on island sugar plantations.
Andries worked as a slave on Curacao for 13 years until the Dutch West India Company, who owned him, brought him to New Amsterdam, today's Manhattan, in 1655. Jan Baptist van Rensselaer sent his younger brother Jeremias from Albany to Manhattan to select a slave for their farm and homestead in 1657. His brother wrote back and said he had purchased for 50 beaver pelts "a tall, quick fellow who can work well." His name was Andries.
Andries worked for both brothers. Jan Baptist headed back to the Netherlands in 1659 and later asked his brother to ship Andries across the Atlantic. The brothers argued. "It would be nothing but foolishness to try to have him serve you in a free country," Jeremias wrote.
After an angry exchange of letters, Jan Baptist told his younger brother he could keep Andries, but he expected compensation. They haggled over the price and the younger man eventually sent 45 beaver pelts as pay. There is no record of what happened to Andries after 1660.
The exhibit "A Dishonorable Trade" was created by Crailo staff members, including three who won a prestigious grant to study at the Yale Public History Institute in the summer of 2013. "We can no longer deny or ignore the extent of slavery right here in Albany," said Heidi Hill, historic site manager at both the state-run Fort Crailo and Schuyler Mansion. "We are committed to telling this untold history. We want a lot of people to see this exhibit, especially school children."
When Hendrick Van Rensselaer died at Fort Crailo in 1740, he bequeathed his 16 slaves to his wife and children. It was the only known written mention of his slaves.
Slavery was gradually abolished in New York state and ended completely by statute on July 4, 1827, when the last of the remaining slaves were freed. Blacks took to the streets in large numbers and celebrated Emancipation Day on July 5.