Historians debate location of early Dutch settlement in Albany
The Port of Albany has been the focus of a lot of attention lately because of community debate over the location of a proposed crude oil processing plant.
But before the industrial sites and rail yards moved in about 80 years ago, the port was known as Castle Island.
Several Capital Region historians believe the island is the site of the very first Dutch settlement in America, Fort Nassau. But nearly 400 years after it was abandoned, its exact location remains a mystery.
Two different local historians share what they know about the first fort in New York and possibly, America.
To get a clear view on the fort’s origins, I met up with retired historian Paul Huey at the Albany Public Library. The story of Fort Nassau begins with, who else, Henry Hudson.
In 1609 Hudson first sailed up the river that now bears his name. According Huey, a first mate on Hudson’s ship made a mistake in his navigation on that northward voyage…
“The measurements were 3 minutes off, at the tip of Manhattan Island where he took a reading and that error seems to have been consistent northward… it would place his northern most anchorage opposite the present day city of Albany, somewhere near state street. But if you subtract the 3 minutes in his minutes it places Henry Hudson at the Port of Albany.”
It was there Hudson met members of the Mowhawk and Mohegan nations.
“As soon as he returned back to England and then to the Netherlands word got out that the Indians that he has encountered were eager to trade their furs for European goods.”
Well, that opened the flood gates and numerous Dutch traders set sail for the ‘New World.’
In 1614 Dutch trader, Hendrik Christensen decided the island had Hudson stumbled upon was the perfect site for a trading station and thus Fort Nassau was built. But Huey says that’s where the certainty ends…
“It’s very frustrating and the information is so sketchy about the fort and all we have are the dimensions of the building inside and the moat and the walls of the fort.”
So what is known?
“Actually if it was a typical Dutch fort we can surmise what it was like, because there are examples of forts of that size in the Netherlands today.”
To get a better feel for where the fort possibly stood, I head out to Castle Island or as it’s now known today, the Port of Albany.
Don Rittner, a Capital Region historian gave his theory on Fort Nassau’s location at a diner across from Global Companies giant oil storage containers.
“We know the size of the fort. We know basically it was a 58 by 58 foot square palisaded, or stockade what we call which is a series of vertical or horizontal timbers to protect the trading house. The trading house was about 38 by 20. So that was inside the stockade area.”
However, Rittner says the fort at Castle Island did not last.
“The sight was on this island for 3 or 4 years, it kept getting flooded out each year by the river and then in 1624 they went over on land and they built back on the main land and they built what was called Fort Orange.”
Fort Orange lasted much longer than Nassau before it too was abandoned, buried in time and earth and was eventually excavated in 1970. Artifacts discovered there are on display across the Hudson River at Fort Crailo in Rensselaer.
But, given that Fort Nassau predates Fort Orange, Rittner thinks the site is worth excavating as well.
“Here you’re talking about basically an island that’s only really been developed since the 1930’s and in this particular area there’s a lot of it that’s open and so I don’t think it would cost as much to do a full scale archeological excavation than if we were digging in the downtown.”
Back at the Albany Library, historian Paul Huey says it may not be that simple.
Beginning in the 1920’s when Castle Island was converted to the Port of Albany, Huey says the land was raised by 18-feet to prevent future flooding. The creek that separated the island from the mainland was filled in, and train tracks were built over it.
“If you look at the Vingboons map, he very carefully draws in the depth of the water around the castle island and the water is deepest and closest to the island at the northern end.”
And if you were going drop anchor and dock your ship, the northern end of the island was the most logical place to do it.
Which would mean the remains of Fort Nassau is most likely beneath Island Creek Park, where Broadway intersects with Church Street.
But it’s still an educated guess.
So why bother with the alleged existence of hastily planned and intentionally abandoned fort? Because, Don Rittner says, it’s still a crucial part of our collective history.
“The Dutch contributions to American civilization which began with the building of this fort in 1614. It was a Dutch occupation in this area for 60 years before the English took over that created all of our freedoms that we take for granted today. And so you would think that you would want to save and preserve the symbol of what it means to be an American. That’s what makes this site so important.”
Standing in the Port of Albany, possibly over the buried ruins of Fort Nassau, I’m Jenna Flanagan for the Innovation Trial.