originally published in the Albany Times Union


PAUL GRONDAHL Staff writer

Want to get a feel for Thanksgiving in colonial Albany, circa 1700?

OK, first turn off all the lights at night. The house goes black. Buy a 20-watt bulb and screw it into a socket. Huddle around its weak glow. That's about all the illumination you'd have from 17th-century candlelight.

Now, shuffle down to your unfinished basement (go ahead, feel your way along the walls so you don't fall in the dark).  It should be drafty and cold and a little musty. Essence of wet sweat socks.  Ah, that's about right.

Hungry?  You're probably starving.  The larder is becoming bare. Fresh vegetables are a distant memory.  By Nov. 23, even fall crops like potatoes and squash are running low and you've already had to begin food rationing to make it through the winter. If you're lucky, your Thanksgiving repast might include a slab of dried, salted venison to gnaw on and a few crusts of stale wheat bread.

You may be running a fever, too. The season of sickness has arrived. If you're a woman in Albany of childbearing years, it's likely you're pregnant and struggling with nausea and morning sickness.  A woman in this era delivered at home, with the help of a midwife, an average of 10 children.  That's only counting the full-term pregnancies and babies who survived into childhood.

There were many miscarriages, stillbirths and deaths in infancy. The babies were born underweight at birth, they caught pneumonia and died after a few days.  Literally catching your death of cold was a common fate.

Ready to celebrate Thanksgiving yet?

``Based on my research, Thanksgiving was a non-event in colonial Albany.  I haven't found any record that they celebrated it here,'' says Stefan Bielinski, director of the Colonial Albany Social History Project at the New York State Museum and a widely published scholar of the period.  ``Late November was the start of the bleakest time of year. Winter was coming, and that meant death, starvation, disease and scarcity.''

Smallpox, yellow fever and assorted plagues lay in wait for weakened Albanians.  The grim reaper cut many out of the pack.

The bottom had fallen out of the lucrative Dutch beaver trade with the Indians in old Beverwyck in the 1660s, when the trading post in the downtown core was re-christened Albany.  By the 1690s, the Dutch influence had waned and British colonizers filled the vacuum, asking the old Albany river rats to turn new cultural tricks.

Life was cramped and leisure time was minimal. The city was home to about 1,000 souls concentrated in a quarter-mile-square cluster hugging the Hudson River. As the 17th century merged into the 18th, small shops popped up on the ground floor of people's homes. Work and hearth became one. Trade shifted from beavers with the Indians to wheat and lumber for westward-moving settlers.

The typical house at this time was two stories and measured about 20 feet across and 30 feet deep, wood-frame construction, brick if you had some money.  Figure 10 children, two adults, maybe a relative or two and a bakery or butcher's shop stuffed into an area equivalent to a living room in today's sprawling custom homes.

Each tiny room had a fireplace, continuously stoked with firewood when you could afford it or cut your own on the outskirts of town against the cold, damp and drafty abodes.

Come the time of Thanksgiving, days were short.

``It was the age of darkness and their lives were ruled by light,'' Bielinski says.  ``They'd eat their biggest meal in afternoon daylight and when it got dark at five o'clock, things pretty much shut down.''

A small consolation: Beer was cheap and brewed aplenty at several taverns in town.  You could always drown your sorrows in a foamy draft ale.

First published on November 23, 1995
Copyright 1995, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

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