A DISGRACED LEADER RETURNS TO ALBANY AFTER 219 YEARS
PAUL GRONDAHL Staff writer
It has been a long separation from his hometown for Albany's 26th mayor.
It has been 219 years to be precise.
But Abraham Cornelis Cuyler is back in City Hall, even if he's not smiling.
Bowers After being arrested and run out of town in disgrace during the Revolutionary War for his Tory sympathies his property was confiscated, including his home on North Pearl Street and all its furnishings Cuyler put Albany far, far behind him.
Following a confinement by the revolutionists in Hartford, Conn., Cuyler, who had been colonel of the Albany militia, escaped and joined the British forces.
Refusing to support the revolution, Cuyler's wife, Jannetje, and their five children fled Albany in 1778, apparently smuggling out the family portraits. The family later reunited and eventually resettled in Canada. Subsequent generations of Cuylers ventured to South Africa, where they exploited slave labor to drive a prosperous plantation.
All the while, in the mayor's conference room at Albany's City Hall, where portraits of the city's mayors are hung, the frame for Abraham Cornelis Cuyler remained empty.
Consider Cuyler's offense. It was early June 1776. Cuyler was in a party mood. The 38th birthday of England's King George III, born on June 4, 1738, was approaching. Cuyler wound up at Richard Cartwright's Tavern in Albany.
The mayor apparently began drinking. After several mugs of grog, presumably, Cuyler, sufficiently uninhibited, began raucous and noisy toastings to King George III's birthday.
This was a bad idea in Revolutionary-era Albany. Cuyler paid dearly for his Loyalist outburst.
``He sure stirred up the populist sentiment. It was a case of very bad judgment,'' says Virginia Bowers, the city of Albany's historian, who pieced together the Cuyler puzzle with months of detective work and a correspondence with Cuyler's descendants in, of all places, Albany, South Africa.
Bowers will present photographs of period portraits of Cuyler and his wife, portraits that are in the collection of a South African museum, to Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, so that the photographs may be hung in the mayor's room portrait gallery.
``After an absence of more than 200 years, they return to Albany, New York, from Albany, South Africa, with my best wishes,'' writes A.J. Mullins, a distant descendant of Cuyler who lives in South Africa and with whom Bowers corresponded in tracking down the Cuyler portraits. ``I love a happy ending,'' Bowers says. ``It was great the way everything fell into place.''
Despite his political gaffe in the tavern, Abraham Cornelis Cuyler was a pillar of the Albany community in pre-Revolutionary War days. Both his father (Cornelis Cuyler) and grandfather (Johannes Cuyler) also were mayors of Albany. At that time, the city's mayor was an annual appointment made by the British Royal Commission.
``The Cuylers came late to Albany and worked twice as hard in the fur trade as the Schuylers and Ten Broecks to become prosperous,'' says Stefan Bielinski, director of the Colonial Albany Social History Project at the State Museum.
``Although they were Dutch, the Cuylers were products of the British system and did very well under the British, which is the only way I can account for them being Loyalists and appointed mayors by the British,'' Bielinski says.
Abraham Cornelis Cuyler, before being run out of town, was the last mayor appointed by the British. Cuyler is a central character in the opening of Bielinski's book-in-progress, ``The Other Revolutionaries,'' a study in the new social history that views history from the bottom up.
Bielinski begins his book with Cuyler drinking to the king's health in a chapter titled ``The Beginning of the End,'' using the story to illustrate the last hurrah for the British system in Albany. ``There were accounts that Cuyler tried to come back to live in Albany after the Revolution, but his neighbors and former friends were very unfriendly,'' Bielinski says.
That wasn't the last word on the Cuylers, though. A son of the 26th mayor, Jacob Glen Cuyler, was a colonel with the British Army, participated in the occupation of South Africa and became commandant of Fort Frederick along Algoa Bay. Jacob Glen was among the first British settlers of that region and renamed it Albany after his birthplace apparently harboring no hard feelings for being driven out of his hometown.
Col. Jacob Glen Cuyler makes an appearance in James Michener's exhaustive historical novel of South Africa, ``The Covenant.'' Michener writes of Cuyler, ``A man of courage and intelligence, he prospered in the new colony, rising to rank of colonel and magistrate of a large district south of Graaff-Reinet. He was a foe of revolutionaries. They had driven him from his home in America and left him with indelible memories: When he came to South Africa he brought with him two handsome portraits, completed shortly before his death by Major Andre, who lived with the Cuylers before his execution as an English spy.''
Michener continues with a long description of Cuyler's carrying out the hangings of five men at Slagter's Nek, ``the soul-wrenching thing that happened.''
Col. One descendant makes an appearance in James Michener's ``The Covenant.''
Four of the five survived the first attempt when the ropes broke. Despite pleadings from the locals, who believed it was a sign from God that the four should be spared, Cuyler had the quartet strung up again. This time, the ropes did their intended work. Michener writes, ``He had a job to do, a revolution to quell. Having been driven away from Albany, he understood the terror that could engulf a land when revolutionary ideas were allowed to gallop across a countryside, and he intended having none of that in Africa.''
First published on April 3, 1995
Copyright 1995, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.