“Fort Nassau” was North America’s oldest Dutch trading house, built in 1614 near the present-day Port of Albany. But the precise location of the ruined structure has been largely forgotten over time as the natural and built environment changed during four centuries.
“Fort Nassau is very significant to American, Dutch and Indian history,” said John Wolcott, the researcher who identified the location. “But its exact location had been lost over the years. Not only has the geography changed, but the latitude readings provided by early maps have to be adjusted for problems caused by being inland using instruments of the time.”
After pouring over maps and charts spanning the 17th to 21st centuries, Wolcott is confident he has rediscovered the spot where Fort Nassau once stood and that there may be “artifact laden strata and articulated features” left to uncover.
According to Wolcott, the fort was located in what is today the northern end of a side spur of the Kenwood Rail Yard (Port of Albany) close to the present day intersection of Church St. and Broadway. The site is across the road from a small riverfront park and a vacant grassy lot.
The property is owned by Global Companies, a unit of Global Partners, based in Waltham, Mass. This January, the company announced plans to build a 2,600-square-foot facility at the port’s rail yard to heat and transfer crude oil arriving by train.
At the same time, Wolcott announced in a a press release that he was working to pinpoint the exact location of the Fort Nassau site in the vicinity of the proposed oil boilers. Since then, Global Companies has opted for another location for those facilities, Wolcott noted. This month, Wolcott completed his research.
“If we can test the site, and if it’s proven that some serious history can be uncovered, then the property should be acquired by the public or an academic institution so that a careful archaeological excavation can be conducted without a construction deadline,” Wolcott said. “It could be an excellent site for further study as well as a tourist attraction of international multicultural significance.”
Based on a contemporary record when the fort structure had been constructed, Wolcott says the dimensions of Fort Nassau are 58 feet across the quadrangle, surrounded by an 18-foot moat. That poses higher probability of finding something, he said.
Fort Nassau was constructed in late winter or early spring 1614 during a trading expedition for the Amsterdam Van Tweenhysen Company, commanded by Captain Adriaen Block.
The fort was located on “Castle Island,” which has since gone by several other names (on the Hudson River, which was then called the “North River”), and was later buried under silt and earth. Fort Nassau became the focal point for the North American fur trade in the Northeast, where the Dutch and indigenous peoples traded goods for fur. It also became the staging point for expeditions to seek out mineral deposits and other natural resources for exploitation.
After several washouts by the Hudson River spring floods, and a final severe flood in 1617, the Dutch moved on to the mainland and built Fort Orange, which in 1970 was partially excavated before an exit from I-787 was placed on top of it.
“Fort Nassau didn’t turn out to be a permanent settlement, but it was the beginning of it all here in the Northeast,” Wolcott said. “Let’s finally save one of these amazing colonial sites.”
In 1969, Wolcott pinpointed the exact location of Fort Orange using an obscure manuscript map. A year later he was hired as a field worker for the State Historic Trust to help prove his findings were true. They were.
A map attributed to Johannes Vingboons, titled “Noort Rivier in Niew Neerlandt,” shows a reddish-orange smudge on the north tip of Castle Island. The Library of Congress dates the map as “1639?” but Wolcott believes the map was probably created in 1626 or 1627. In a more recent book, Shirley Dunn, former curator of Fort Crailo in Rensselaer, noted that the smudge represented the ruins of Fort Nassau.
In the early 17th century, Dutch historical and geographical writer Joannes de Laet provided a description of Fort Nassau’s location with latitude that Wolcott analyzed for problems caused by instruments of that time.
Wolcott next found an 1863 U.S. Coast Survey of the Hudson River that includes a square piece of land in Island Creek that conforms to the dimensions of the fort and to the reports of historic washouts.
Finally, he used a 1910 map with a street pattern to link the 1863 map to existing landmarks today and transferred the location of the fort to a modern satellite image of the site.
“I call that 1910 map my ‘Rosetta map,'” Wolcott said, in reference to the Rosetta Stone that helped scholars crack the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics. “I used the Albany and Greenbush ferry slips at the end of the streets as anchors for positioning.”
September Symposium On 1614
This Sept. 20, The New Netherland Institute will host its 37th New Netherland Seminar in the Huxley Theater of the Cultural Education Center in Albany, NY. The program will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the construction of Fort Nassau on Castle Island in the port of Albany. “1614” will feature five speakers who will offer arguments for its probable location on the island, though Wolcott will not be among them.
Images of some of the maps Wolcott used and created in his research can be found here.