Fort Orange

Fort Orange (Dutch: Fort Oranje) was the first permanent Dutch settlement in New Netherland and was on the site of the present-day city of Albany, New York. It was a replacement for Fort Nassau, which had been built on nearby Castle Island in the Hudson River, and which served as a trading post until 1617 or 1618, when it was abandoned due to frequent flooding. Both forts were named in honor of the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau. Due to a dispute between the Director-General of New Netherland and the patroonship of Rensselaerswyck regarding jurisdiction over the fort and the surrounding community, the fort and community became an independent municipality, paving the way for the future city of Albany. After conquest by the English, Fort Orange (renamed Fort Albany) was soon abandoned in favor of a new fort- Fort Frederick, constructed in 1676.


In 1623 a ship with 30 Walloon (French Protestants from what is today Belgium) landed at New Amsterdam (New York City), 8 of whom moved to present-day Albany. There they proceeded to build Fort Orange roughly 2 miles (3.2 km) north of Fort Nassau, which was prone to flooding. Despite these additions, a 1628 publication on the population of New Netherland stated that "there are no families at Fort Orange... they keep five or six and twenty persons, traders, there".  In 1626 the commander of Fort Orange and a company of men set out from the fort to assist the Mahicans in their war against the Mohawks. They were ambushed and three of the men were killed approximately a mile from the fort, roughly where Lincoln Park and Delaware Avenue are sited today.

Whereas later settlement would be through the purchase of land from the Native Americans, the Dutch built Fort Orange without any consent and continued to hold it only through the goodwill of the Mahicans and the occasional presents that they gave to them. When the Charter of Privileges and Exemptions was established in 1629 setting up the patroon system, Kiliaen van Rensselaer established his patroonship of Rensselaerswyck, surrounding Fort Orange on 24 miles (39 km) of shoreline along the Hudson River and 24 miles (39 km) inland on each side. This land patent was interpreted by van Rensselaer as including Fort Orange and the settlement that had begun outside its walls, and it was van Rensselaer who began purchasing and acquiring title to the lands. In 1630 Gillis Hoosett purchased in van Rensselaer's name the lands to the south and north of the fort from the natives. Later in 1630 the first real settlers and farmers came to Fort Orange and settled on the outskirts of the fort. Dispute soon arose between agents of the Dutch West India Company and agents of the patroon over control of Fort Orange and the surrounding settlement, first called the Fuyck and later Beverwyck. In the 1640s a French Jesuit priest named Isaac Jogues described Fort Orange as "a wretched little fort... built of stakes, with four or five pieces of cannon of Breteuil".

The director-general of New Netherland representing the West India Company was Pieter Stuyvesant, who saw the patroon's position, power, and land as a direct threat to the West India Company's ability to profit from the beaver pelt trade in Fort Orange. Several confrontations arose over the status of the fort and the right of settlers around it. Stuyvesant at first ordered all buildings within cannon shot to be destroyed, then lowered that circumference to that of musket shot. In response, the patroon's agent Commander van Schlechtenhorst decided to expand settlement to "within pistol shot of Fort Orange". After the yearly freshets had damaged much of the fort, the West India Company decided to reconstruct the fort using stone. In response, Van Schlechtenhorst declared it illegal for anyone to quarry stone within Rensselaerswyck for the fort or for anyone to sell the material to the fort's commander, Carl van Brugge. All material for the fort then had to be shipped in from outside the colony. Van Schlechtenhorst claimed that Fort Orange had been illegally built on the patroon's lands, while Stuyvesant pointed out that Fort Orange had been built 15 years prior to the establishment of Rensselaerswyck. In 1651 Stuyvesant declared the jurisdiction of the fort to extend 600 paces around the fort, thereby severing it from Rensselaerswyck. In 1652 Stuyvesant, with the intention of settling this dispute once and for all, set up a "Court of Justice for the Village of Beverwyck and its dependencies", the first municipal government for the future city of Albany. At the time when Beverwyck consisted of roughly 100 structures huddled next to the fort, Stuyvesant set up Beverwyck at a safer distance from the cannons of the fort and laid out future Albany's oldest streets- State Street and Broadway.

By the end of the 1650s the fort was in disrepair again, and both Fort Orange and Beverwyck were enclosed by a wooden stockade in 1660. In 1663 smallpox raged in Fort Orange, killing one person a day, which was a large percentage given the small population in the fort. On September 8, 1664 the English, after sending numerous war ships to New Amsterdam, demanded the surrender of New Netherland and came to terms; on that date New Netherland became the Province of New York with Colonel Richard Nicolls as the first English colonial governor, and New Amsterdam was renamed New York. Johannes De Decker sailed on that day from New Amsterdam to Fort Orange to rally the troops and settlers to resist English rule. On September 10 Governor Nicholls sent troops to demand the peaceful surrender of the "Fort Aurania", aurania being the Latin name for orange that the English used when referring to Fort Orange. It was not until September 24 that vice-director of New Netherland Johannes de Montagne surrendered the fort to the English and Colonel George Cartwright took command. On the 25th Captain John Manning was given control of the fort, which was renamed Fort Albany; Beverwyck was named Albany. In 1673 the Dutch retook New York City, which they named New Orange, on July 29 and Albany on August 3. In September Albany was renamed Willemstadt and Fort Albany became Fort Nassau. The Treaty of Westminster, signed on February 19, 1674, renamed New Orange and Willemstadt back to their English names; Fort Nassau became Fort Albany and Willemstadt became Albany.

In 1666 Jeremias van Rensselaer, then-patroon of Rensselaerswyck, petitioned the new government of Governor Nicholls to recognize Fort Albany (Fort Orange) as part of Rensselaerswyck. Governor Nicholls informed him that he would be wise to drop the matter until he heard from the Duke of York. In 1678 Governor Andros issued to the patroon's heirs a grant reaffirming the patroon's rights over Rensselaerswyck but leaving out Fort Albany and the immediate area around the fort.

The English abandoned Fort Orange and built a new fort on top of State Street Hill named Fort Frederick both to defend the settlement from the natives to the west and to be on high ground to remind the Dutch inhabitants of English rule. The land around the old fort was sold to the Dutch Reformed Church for use as pastureland, but the fort itself continued to deteriorate. It continued to be placed on maps during the 18th century, labeled as "ruins of an Old Fort", and Richard Smith observed that there was "nothing to be seen of Fort Orange... but the Ditch which surrounded it". After the US Revolutionary War the deteriorated site of the old fort was seen as a historic site and was home to many historical observances.

Subsequent occupation

Simeon De Witt built a large house or mansion and a number of out buildings on the site of the old fort during the 1790s, and the address for the site of the old fort became 549 South Market Street (later Broadway). On his property traces of the old fort could still be seen as late as 1812. He lived at this location while he was the surveyor-general of New York. Following his death, the buildings became the Fort Orange Hotel, which burned down in 1848 but was rebuilt under the same name.

In 1886, as part of the bicentennial of Albany's incorporating document, the Dongan Charter, the city erected a bronze tablet at the site of the northeastern bastion. In the 1930s the tablet was moved during construction of the Dunn Memorial Bridge and for almost 100 years it did not sit on the site of Fort Orange. The Albany Institute of History and Art has a cannon ball that is marked with "Dug up at Fort Orange site July 22nd 1886", the date the bicentennial marker was placed, but no known excavations were done other than placing the sign. The tablet was moved again in 1971 after excavations discovered remnants of the fort during construction of Interstate 787 and the interchange with the South Mall Expressway. The marker then returned to the site of Fort Orange, but not to the location of the northeastern bastion which it refers to.

As the Fort Orange Archeological Site, the area of the fort was declared a National Historic Landmark (and therefore added to the National Register of Historic Places) on November 4, 1993.

Commanders of the fort
  • Daniel van Krieckebeck
  • Hans Jorissen Houten
  • Carl van Brugge
  • Johannes Dyckman
  • Johannes de Decker
  • Johannes de la Montagne
as Fort Albany under the English
  • Captain John Manning
  • Captain John Baker
  • Lieutenant Salisbury
as Fort Nassau under the Dutch
  • Lieutenant Andries Draeyer

Prior to the excavations that occurred in 1970, there had not been any 17th century Dutch artifacts discovered in Albany. The excavations were undertaken by the New York State Historic Trust with the New York State Department of Transportation from October 20, 1970 until March 1971. The first test hole was made in what had been the cellar of the De Witt house, which had obliterated all remnants of the old fort, but digging at a site that was under Broadway in front of the house turned up many pieces from the Dutch colonial past of Albany. Among those pieces were a Jew's harp, tobacco pipes, beads, Rhenish stoneware, and delftware. The excavations also revealed the south moat and counterscarp, a pebbled path from the east entrance of the fort, a brewery owned by Jean Labatie built in 1647, and parts of several houses owned by Hendrick Andriessen van Doesburgh, Abraham Staats, and Hans Vos.

From the excavations it was noted that venison made up the majority of the meat eaten by the settlers of the fort, seconded by that of pork. The greatest number of fish bones and scales were found in a pit 20 feet (6.1 m) south of the pebbled entrance path dating from before 1648. Sturgeon were found infrequently in later 17th century deposits. Eating and drinking utensils consisted of lead-glazed red-bodied and white/buff bodied earthenware, tin earthenware, Rhenish stoneware, Chinese porcelain, glass roemers, spechter glasses, and facon de Venise glassware. The tin-glazed earthenware, at least prior to 1650, were of the majolica variety and not the delft. The porcelain was rare and consisted of only a few shards.