State Museum exhibit looks at Fort Orange

What we know about Albany is in large part due to the efforts of Charly Gehring and Paul Huey.
The 1970 Fort Orange excavation site is seen with the construction of I-787, looking east. Inset: Paul Huey.
The 1970 Fort Orange excavation site is seen with the construction of I-787, looking east. Inset: Paul Huey.

No one knows more about early Albany than Charly Gehring and Paul Huey, and no one has illustrated that history better than Len Tantillo.

The work of those talented three men – historian, archaeologist and artist – and the vast resources of the New York State Museum have combined forces to produce a new exhibit, “A Small Fort, Which Our People Call Fort Orange.” Put together by Michael T. Lucas, Curator of Historical Archaelogy at the museum, the exhibit went up on May 5 and will remain on display in the West Gallery well into 2019.

“What you’ll see is an overview of Fort Orange, and we tried to cover as many aspects of the fort as we could,” said Lucas, referring to the structure that went up 1624 in what is now downtown Albany. “We have a section about Native Americans at that location before the fort went up, we talk about the interactions between the Dutch and the native people, and we look at the early life at the fort.”

What we know about Albany is in large part due to the efforts of Gehring and Huey. Gehring, a Fort Plain native, created the New Netherland Project within the confines of the State Library 44 years ago to translate 17th century Dutch documents into English. It’s now called the New Netherland Research Center. Huey, meanwhile, a Cohoes native, was employed by the State Historic Trust, now the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, when he oversaw the 1970-71 excavation of the Fort Orange site. Included in the exhibit is a nine-minute film of Huey and his staff working at uncovering various Dutch artifacts from that dig nearly a half century ago.

“I had a hard time convincing people that there was something there to find,” said Huey, who retired as a scientist/archaeologist from the state in 2010. “The state archaeologist didn’t think it was worth doing. People in the state Department of Education didn’t like the idea. It was the Department of Transportation that deserve a lot of credit. They looked at my proposals and offered to change their scheduling for the building of Interstate 787. Their primary concern was the construction of that new highway, but they were very supportive, as was Mayor [Erastus] Corning, and that helped us get a permit to start digging.”

Huey and his crew found a Jew’s harp, tobacco pipes, beads, and various forms of earthenware and glassware, as well as a wine bottle that belonged to the second governor of the New York colony, Francis Lovelace. They also uncovered remnants of the original Fort Orange.

 “When we started we didn’t expect to find the actual building and its structural remains,” said Huey, “but we did, and we were able calculate where the outline of the fort was. It had four bastions and four curtain walls, and in the 1640s the Dutch West India Company began allowing traders to build individual homes inside the fort. So, during the earliest time period, the only people in the area would have lived inside the fort.”

Relations between the settlers and the Native Americans in the area were mostly tranquil according to Huey, but when Kilian Van Rensselaer started his patroonship, Rensselaerswijck, outside the walls of Fort Orange, his subordinate, Brant Slichtenhorst, clashed with Peter Stuyvesant, the director-general of New Netherland and the man in charge of Fort Orange. For that story we turn to Gehring.

“They both arrived in the late 1640s and they immediately locked horns,” said Gehring. “They had a similar temperament and I think they misjudged each other. Slichtenhorst was in his 60s, Stuyvesant was in his 30s, and because Stuyvesant was such a young guy, Slichtenhorst thought he could get away with anything.”

While Slichtenhorst is largely forgotten by all but the most avid colonial historians, Stuyvesant, the one with the wooden leg, is the guy most fourth graders in New York, and just about everyone else, remembers.

“Stuyvesant was dedicated and irascible, but he went through a tremendous amount to survive,” said Gehring. “He survived that injury, and if I had lost my leg I might be that irascible, too. But he was dedicated to the Dutch West India Company, and he did the best he could. There was no email back then, it took months and months to communicate and get messages back and forth. He couldn’t wait for permission or advice from Europe. He had to make decisions.”

Helping illuminate all this wonderful history of New York are six of Tantillo’s paintings. One of his most famous images, “Fort Orange, 1635,” shows the structure on the west bank of the Hudson River with a Dutch ship out on the water. Tantillo’s artistic talent is obvious, and as for the historical detail of his paintings, Huey and Gehring both give him a big thumbs up. Tantillo, who lives in Nassau in Columbia County, says he couldn’t have got it right if not for the work of Huey and Gehring.

“Paul Huey’s discoveries and observations provided me with an indispensable sense of the construction of Fort Orange,” said Tantillo. “And Charles Gehring’s research provided me with a sense of time and texture.”

Lucas also agreed that the work of Huey and Gehring is invaluable to lovers of Albany’s history.

“They’ve really helped us understand the breadth of Dutch culture that was here in Fort Orange so long ago,” said Lucas, a Nebraska native who came to the state museum in 2014 after spending more than two decades in the Chesapeake Bay region. “And everything Paul found when he excavated Fort Orange are items that you would have found in Amsterdam in the 17th century. We learned a lot from their work, and the other lesson learned is that whenever you dig, anytime there’s construction, there’s a lot of history underneath the ground waiting to be discovered.”

‘A Small Fort, Which Our People Call Fort Orange’

WHAT: An exhibit on early Albany

WHERE: New York State Museum, 222 Madison Ave., Albany

WHEN: Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.







Categories: Art, Entertainment

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