Discover the History of Albany, New York
Settled in the early 1600s, the city of Albany combines its historical roots with visionary thinking, empowered by hundreds of years as the governmental seat of New York.
Albany History & Heritage
Colonial Times - 1800: The City's Beginning
Albany (then known as Fort Orange) was settled by Dutch fur traders in the early 1600s. Henry Hudson discovered the area while looking for a faster trade route in 1609. Prior to the European settlers, the Tri-City area was inhabited by the Algonquians, Mohicans and Iroquois. Early French settlers, the French Walloons, created a colony named Fort Orange in 1624; this was located in what is now Albany. Fort Orange took its name from the House of Orange, a royal family of The Netherlands. Soon after, in 1629, the Dutch West India Company set up a major trading post at Fort Orange.
By 1664, nearly 10,000 Dutch settlers lived in and around Fort Orange when the English took control. King Charles II granted ownership of the territory to his brother James, the Duke of both York and Albany, and the settlement was renamed Albany. In 1686, Albany was recognized as a city when Governor Thomas Dongan signed the Dongan Charter. As a result, Albany is still the oldest continuously chartered city in the country.
Though technically part of Britain's crown until the American Revolution, Dutch merchants continued to influence the city, and under Dutch guidance, Albany played an important role in maintaining communication between the French, British and Iroquois. Pieter Schuyler, who was the Governor of New Netherland, was named the first Mayor of Albany by Governor Dongan in 1686, and since then, 34 of Albany’s mayors have been of Dutch descent.
Years later, in 1754, the leaders of several colonies met in Albany and discussed Benjamin Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union, which focused on the best defense against the French. At this conference, the iconic image of the snake and the phrase “Join, or Die” were presented by Franklin. During the French and Indian War, which lasted from 1754-1763 (officially declared in 1756), Albany was the main site for military planning.
When the American Revolution (1765-1783) occurred, Albany was once again a central location. For the Patriots, Albany was a useful supply center because of its close proximity to the Hudson River. During the Revolution, Albany native Philip Livingston signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1797, after the British had lost control of the city, Albany became the official capital of New York State.
Today, Albany's Annual Tulip Festival in historic Washington Park honors the city's Dutch heritage each spring. Thousands view nature's spectacular color show while enjoying the music, art and food of this popular event.
1800 - 1900: Travel by Water, Rail and Underground
Throughout the 19th century, Albany grew rapidly as a transportation center. People could travel to and from the city by stagecoach and wagon, watercraft (including steamboats), and train.
In 1807, Robert Fulton set up a steamboat line from Manhattan to Albany, making it the first successful enterprise of its kind. By 1825, the Erie Canal was completed between Albany and Lake Erie forming a continuous water route that enabled the shipment of local resources and strengthened trade and business. In 1831, travel by rail began with the first ride from Albany to Schenectady. This route continued until 1840 when the rails stretched east to Boston. By 1851, a traveler could make his or her way from New York City to what is now known as Greenbush.
Prior to the Civil War, abolitionists were active in the Albany area. Stephen Myers was at the forefront of the movement and acted as the “conductor” of the Albany stop on the Underground Railroad. With the outbreak of Civil War, Albany again served as a major supply center.
The easy access to Albany resulted in population growth in the 19th century as well. Various groups traveled to and settled down in Albany, particularly members of Irish, German, and Jewish communities.
During this period, Martin Van Buren established one of the country’s first political machines, the Albany Regency. Composed of a group of politicians, the Albany Regency controlled the New York State government from 1822-1838.
Erie Canal Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division
1900 - Modern Times: Travel by Air, Urban Renewal & Historic Sites
Albany's airport was constructed in the 20th century and has the distinction of being the oldest municipal airport in the U.S. It originally started as an airstrip in Loudonville in 1908. It was then moved to Westerlo the year after. It stood there until 1928 when Mayor John Boyd Thacher called for a new modern airport to be built in Colonie, where it still stands. Today, the Albany International Airport handles daily arrivals and departures from Delta, Southwest, United, US Airways and JetBlue among others.
While many historic Albany districts and buildings remain, delighting visitors with their many architectural styles, the city has seen its fair share of urban renewal projects. One of the largest in American history started in the 1960s, when then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller became the driving force behind the Empire State Plaza.
The Plaza was the subject of controversy during the time it was constructed, a topic that is covered today by an excellent documentary entitled "The Neighborhood That Disappeared", which often airs on WMHT, Albany's local PBS station. More than 1,000 buildings were razed, nearly 9,000 people were forced to leave their homes and more than 350 businesses were closed. In total, this massive undertaking displaced approximately 8% of Albany's population via eminent domain.
The ultra-modern Plaza complex, designed by Wallace Harrison, the chief architect of New York City's Rockefeller Center, was completed in 1978. A walk through the complex will uncover one of the finest collections of modern art you will find outside of a museum. The Empire State Plaza Art Collection consists of 92 paintings, sculptures, and tapestries. One of the most unique pieces is “Two Lines Oblique,” a kinetic artwork by George Rickey constructed between 1968 and 1971. The stainless steel needles twirl through the air and continue to attract people to the area. Visitors to the Plaza will also want to take the elevator to the top of the Corning Tower and view the Green Mountains from the 42nd floor observation deck.
Throughout the summer and fall, musical entertainment and family events can be enjoyed at the Empire State Plaza.
The modern Plaza stands in direct contrast to the architecture of the Capitol Building, located on State Street. Completed in 1899, this building was inspired by the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The Capitol is an eclectic blend of Gothic Revival, Romanesque and Moorish influences due in part to the five different architects who played a role in its construction over a 25 year period.
Notable features in Albany's Capitol building are three massive staircases that are works of art in their own right, and the Senate Chamber, complete with 23-carat gold leaf, Italian marble, and massive fireplaces. Thanks to Governor Cuomo, the public is now able to visit the building’s fascinating Hall of Governors. Take a free guided tour to learn more.
Did you know The Pride Center of the Capital Region in Albany is the oldest continuously operating LGBTQ Center in the United States? Established in 1970, the center has operated programs to meet the health and human service needs of the Capital Region’s LGBTQ community.
At any time of year, you can visit the New York State Museum for a cultural exploration of Albany, the state, and the nation. One of Albany’s most popular modern buildings is The Egg, a stylistic performing arts venue of curved lines that houses two theatres and features concerts and other special events.
All over Albany, local history exists in many shapes and forms. From historic buildings to cultural centers, Albany’s history is alive and well.
See our Fast Facts page for general information and demographics.