Four hundred years after Dutch explorers built a small fort along the banks of the upper Hudson River, a local historian said he believes he has pinpointed the exact location of the ill-fated stockade that was one of the earliest European settlements in North America.
John Wolcott said he used old maps, including one dating to the 1600s, to determine the exact location of Fort Nassau in what is now the northern end of a rail spur at the Port of Albany, along the river's west bank.
"I can only guarantee that this is where it was built," Wolcott said. "I can't guarantee how much is left of it. There's only one way to find out."
Wolcott said he has presented his findings to local officials in the hope that they'll authorize preliminary excavations at the port site. If any early Dutch artifacts or the fort's remains are found, a larger archaeological excavation should be conducted to preserve the site and development it into a heritage tourism attraction.
"It would be ideal if substantial remains are found because it could be the focus of more studies of our Dutch and American Indian histories," he said.
Fort Nassau was constructed in early 1614, seven years after the English started the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement and six years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
A Dutch crew traveled upriver from Manhattan to establish a fur-trading outpost close to the Mohican and Mohawk tribes. Built on an island that was prone to flooding, the fort was abandoned after about three years. Seven years later, the Dutch built Fort Orange, on the mainland, in what is now downtown Albany.
Wolcott has been researching Albany's Dutch heritage for decades. In the late 1960s, he used old documents to pinpoint the location of Fort Orange. A year later, he worked on the excavations that uncovered the fort's remnants before the construction of Interstate 787 covered the site.
Wolcott said he used charts and coastal maps from the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries to pinpoint Fort Nassau's location on the northern tip of the island. The narrow stretch of water separating it from the west bank was filled in decades ago during the port's construction, he said.
An expert in New York's Dutch heritage said he's skeptical of Wolcott's findings. Charles Gehring, director of the Albany-based New Netherland Research Center, said Fort Nassau was likely located a short distance south of where Wolcott places it.
"It's been one of those mysteries over the years of where the fort actually was," Gehring, whose annual New Netherland seminar in Albany next month will focus on 1614 and Fort Nassau.
Global Partners had planned to build a crude oil facility where Wolcott says the fort was located. The company changed those plans, saying it would renovate an existing building for the project. The move came after Wolcott and fellow local historian Don Rittner said any new construction could destroy historical artifacts from Fort Nassau.