After almost two decades of searching and scrutinizing, we know that 16,000 different men, women, and children lived in the city of Albany before the Industrial Revolution. Although we have been counting them constantly for many years, we know that total is only an estimate. But it is off only by a few hundred "missing persons" who thus far have escaped identification and classification!
But who were the people of colonial Albany? What were their names? Where did they come from? And how did they live? These are the basic questions asked by the historians at the Colonial Albany Social History Project each and every day!
The simple answer to these questions is that we conduct historical research to identify early Albany people and to uncover, recover, decode, and interpret the stories of their lives, of how they interacted with each other, and how they reacted to the flow of history through the outside world.
Our basic plan has been to seek out and examine closely every historical resource that might yield information on early Albany people. The volume and diversity of materials so far encountered is, to say the least, staggering! As one might imagine, researching the lives of so many people to the end of being able to answer more than a hundred basic questions about each of their lives has proven to be a monumental task that cannot be completed!
Early on, we implemented a strategy for confronting the past that would enable us to develop the individual biographies in a way that would make them increasingly useful. Four overall research objectives: to identify each person by name, to set each person in time (birth and death), to fill-out their lives, and to place each individual on the historic community landscape, have structured our cooperative effort since 1981.
Guided by the logic of considering the most comprehensive and accessible resources first (beginning with the seemingly most obvious and the most easily understood), we sought the oldest historical document that claimed to identify every member of the community at a particular point in time. Of course, no single document could do that! But closest to a baseline list was the census of households taken in June 1697 as part of a colony-wide survey ordered by Benjamin Fletcher, the royal governor of New York.
Sheriff Simeon Young and his deputies scoured immense Albany County and returned lists of men, women, and children for each of the political jurisdictions. The list for the City of Albany identified 174 different households accounting for a total of 714 people. Although that document did not include slaves, missed most of the soldiers who garrisoned the fort, and omitted several prominent residents and Sheriff Young himself, the "Census of 1697" was the first historical document to account systematically for the people living in the city of Albany. Although it actually named only heads of households, we call that document a "Comprehensive Survey" because it was represented as a complete enumeration of the city's inhabitants, giving a total population, gender, and age breakdowns. Despite its omissions, that document has provided a basic list of city people at the end of the seventeenth-century.
Using church records and other reconstitution resources, we were able to identify most of the spouses, other adults in the household, and many of the 386 children enumerated but not named in the census. These individuals provided a substantial base population for the pre-industrial city. An article that closely examines the Census of 1697 was published in 1991 in a scholarly volume entitled The American Family.
To grossly oversimplify a process that continues to occupy all of our research resources, we then sought to fill-out some of the rest of the city's population by tracing the householders of 1697 back to identify the "original settler" or first family member in America. Then we moved forward in time to include all of their descendants through the eighteenth-century who were born to Albany parents, became Albany residents themselves, or married city residents.
Because people entered and left the community from the time Beverwyck became Albany in 1664 to the 1800s, we identified four additional and purportedly "comprehensive surveys" for 1679, 1756, 1790, and 1800, sought-out spouses, children, and descendants, and began biographical studies on each of those lives as well. That overarching reconstitution initiative yielded the names of more than 14,000 individual city people.
The remaining 2,000 early Albany people have been the subjects of more intensive individual study. These "special cases" were primarily of African-ancestry - slave and free, people of European background who lived in Albany but were not counted when those particular surveys were taken, or individuals so transient or so marginal that they did not connect in a historically visible way with the activities of the more mainline city population.
The Colonial Albany Social History Project is dedicated to presenting the story of an important early American community based on the contributions of all of its people. Inclusion criteria have been established. A research design is in place. And every day we learn new details about the people of colonial Albany and their world. And almost that frequently, we can apply new learning toward understanding their lives more fully. The "People of Colonial Albany Live Here Website" is the most public manifestation of our overall program!
The "List of the Heads of Families and the number of men, women and children in each household in the City and County of Albany, the 16th of June, 1697" is found in volume 42 (beginning on page 34) of the "New York Colonial Manuscripts" at the New York State Archives. The Albany, Rensselaerswyck, and Schenectady returns have been transcribed and printed in Annals of Albany, volume 9, pp. 81-89. The Rensselaerswyck census is now online. The Schenectady portion of this survey also is available online.
The houses of city fathers Johannes Abeel, Evert Bancker, and Johannes De Wandelaer were omitted from the 1697 Albany census - probabaly because they also were residents of New York City at that time.
The Federal Censuses for 1800 and 1810 were organized under heads of households but were expanded to include twelve categories of enumeration. They were: White boys under 10; boys 10-16; males 16-25; men 26-45; men over 45. White women were broken down under the same five categories. The final two columns counted other free people (Free Blacks) and slaves. For Albany city, the 1800 census was arranged by ward. But the 1810 census included no ward designations.
first posted 1999; last revised 12/22/07