In 1658, 17-year-old Jan Janse Bleecker set sail from Mappel, Overyssel in the Netherlands for Nieuw Amsterdam (now New York City) in the Dutch colony of New Netherland. He knew that Dutch traders had established a trading post there about 45 years earlier.
In 1629, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a partner in the Dutch West India Company, had obtained rights to establish a settlement and control the fur trade at Fort Orange located about 150 miles north of New Amsterdam.
Ships departing for the colony were loaded with trade goods of all sorts, knives, axes, hammers, saws, nails, as well as almost every type of clothing, shoes, boots, belts, hats and rolls of cloth (duffels), needles and thread. Guns, powder, shot and flints were also in great demand.
Ships returning to Amsterdam were loaded with furs. Beaver was the main fur, but mink, badger, possum, fox and other pelts were included. The pelts were sold to furriers, possibly relatives of the Van Rensselaers, who made them into coats, hats and muffs that were then sold all over Europe. Wide rimmed felt hats made from multiple layers of beaver hair removed from the beaver skins were very popular and probably the main product made from the beaver pelts.
Traders working with the Van Rensselaers had set up stores in Beverwyck (the community outside the walls of Fort Orange, now Albany) and stocked them with the trade goods. Due to the lack of hard currency, beaver pelts and Native American strings of sewant (wampum) were used for currency. The traders traded with the Native People and then sold the furs to the patroon (the Van Rensselaers). The Van Rensselaers then exported the furs to Amsterdam and returned with more trade goods for the merchants.
Jan Janse Bleecker landed at New Amsterdam, but after a short stay sailed up the Hudson River to Beverwyck and began trading. Within a short time Jan became an interpreter and go-between with the Iroquois when problems or negotiations were necessary.
Although hugely outnumbered, the colonists at Beverwyck were somewhat protected by the desire of both parties to protect the trade. The Iroquois guarded their source of tools, clothing and weapons. They, especially the Mohawk, sent parties of up to several hundred warriors on forays into Massachusetts, north into Canada, and south into Virginia and South Carolina, but never attacked Fort Orange.
Jan Janse Bleecker was at Beverwyck in 1664 when the British seized control of the colony and renamed it Albany and in 1686 when English Governor Thomas Dongan granted Albany a charter as a city. In 1686, Jan Janse’s son, 18-year-old Johannes Bleecker was serving with British forces when he was captured by French and their Native allies and carried captive to Canada. He escaped the next year and made his way back to Albany.
In 1689, there was a threat of war with Native People in Western Massachusetts and Jan Janse was appointed a captain of the Albany militia. Jan Janse also served as justice of the peace and city recorder. From 1689 to 1701, he was Albany’s representative to the Provincial Assembly for the Province of New York. In 1701, he was mayor of Albany, appointed by the King of England on the recommendation of the English governor in New York.
Johannes Bleecker followed in his father’s footsteps serving as fur trader, interpreter, Mayor of Albany and member of the Provincial Assembly.
Four generations later, at about the time of the American Revolution, great grandson Jacob Bleecker, Jr. was still selling many of the same goods his family had sold for generations. Entries in his ledger showed that his store sold wheat, flax, butter, rum, rice, maple sugar, blankets, stockings and gloves. Guns and powder were still a big item. Accounts were now kept in pounds, shillings and pence following the English system instead of the earlier sewant and words were in English but written phonetically in the custom of the day, whatever combination of letters caused you to say the right word was acceptable. Thus flour was also flower and salt was sometimes sault.
Jacob’s wife was Elizabeth Wendell, daughter of Hermanus and Barbara Bratt Wendell. Hermanus Wendell was another successful trader who built a large home at 98 State Street in 1716.
Harmanus Bleecker was the third son of Elizabeth and Jacob, but both of his older brothers died at a young age. At the age of 17, Harmanus joined the law firm of John Vernor Henry in 1797. At 21, he passed the bar exam and went into business for himself.
Over the next several years, he became a successful Albany attorney and ran a training school for law students. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of Albany Boys’ Academy, the Albany Bible Society and later became a member of the Board of the State Normal School and a regent of the University of the State of New York. In 1811, he was elected a Federalist congressman representing Albany. Albany’s General Philip Schuyler and his two sons-in-law, Alexander Hamilton and Albany’s Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer III, were among the founders of the Federalist Party.
When President James Madison proposed increasing the federal standing army in response to the British impressing U.S. sailors to serve on British ships, Bleecker, together with most northern Federalists, opposed the plan. He said that Madison would not be able to increase the army no matter what Congress did because jobs were plentiful and everyone who wanted to work was already working. He said that only the idle, dissolute and disorderly were available for military service and in the entire United States there were not 50,000 of these to fill the President’s request. The impressment of U.S. sailors led to the War of 1812.
Bleecker’s Federalists and the followers of Governor George Clinton had always been at odds and the conflict in Albany was continuing. In a letter to Bleecker in Washington on February 15, 1813, his friend John Rodman said: “You are no doubt better informed than I am of the confusion and misunderstandings among the Federalists and Clintonites at Albany. The re-appointment of DeWitt (Clinton) has given great dissatisfaction here. As soon as the news reached town, there was a meeting of some influential young men of the federal party called at which some spirited resolutions were adopted and more spirited speeches delivered.”
Bleecker returned to Albany in 1813 and served in the New York Assembly in 1814 and 1815. In 1816, Bleecker and his law partner Theodore Sedgwick moved from their offices at 109 State Street into larger quarters at 64 State. Martin Van Buren (later President) and his law partner, Benjamin Franklin Butler, took over Bleecker’s old offices.
In 1825, Bleecker was on a committee of six to greet and entertain the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited Albany. (Lafayette had been assigned to arrange an attack on Quebec from Albany during the American Revolution, but found there were too few troops to support the effort.) At the banquet, Daniel Webster made the toast to: “The Ancient and Hospitable City of Albany where General Lafayette found his headquarters in 1778 and where men of his principle find Good Quarters at all times.”
In 1835, Prince Hendrick of the Netherlands, a younger son of King Willem II, attended a dinner held by Albany’s St. Nicholas Society. Society president Abraham Van Vechten, General Solomon Van Rensselaer and Bleecker, the first vice presidents, presided. Other officers included Jacob Ten Eyck, Peter Gansevoort, Volkert Petrus Douw, Richard DeWitt, Dr. Herman Wendell, Dr. Jonathan Eights, General Van Cortlandt, Judge Vanderpoel and J.V.L. Pruyn. Erastus Corning and William L. Marcy also attended.
Among the fifty-nine toasts given were toasts offered by John Van Buren (son of the President), Samuel F. B. Morse (the virulent nativist of telegraph fame) and James Bradstreet (son of British Colonel James Bradstreet). Albany’s St. Nicholas Society held their annual supper on the eve of the feast day of St. Nicholas, December 6th, following the tradition in Holland. St. Nicholas Eve and St. Nicholas Day were Dutch days of celebration. St. Nicholas Eve in the early to mid-1800s began with a large supper at either the Mansion House (a restaurant that was previously the home of Erastus Corning and later the Albany Club), Congress Hall (owned by Black Albany native Adam Blake and located just west of the current Capitol, now a park), or Stanwix Hall (owned by the Gansevoorts and located on State Street at Broadway).
The St. Nicholas Supper included such Dutch dishes as suppan en melk, hoofd kaas, zult, hokjes en poot jes, kool slau – heet en koud, rollet jes, worst, gufryt-pens, oli-kookjes and krullijes as well as mutton, roast beef, tongue, veal, turkey, geese, ducks, chicken, hams, venison, partridge, quail, oyster pies and clams followed up by “pies, tarts &c.” The banquet room was decorated with Dutch orange as its dominant color.
At various dinner courses, toasts were offered and songs sung. “Auld Lang Syne” was sung to the Netherlands homeland, “Hail Columbia” to the President of the United States, “God Save the King” to the King of the Netherlands, “Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)” to the late Elardus Westerlo, pastor of the Dutch Church, and others. The governor, the mayor and some officials from the Netherlands were usually present. Some of the toasts were given in Dutch.
It was on St. Nicholas Eve, Dec. 5 that jolly old St. Nick arrived from the Netherlands with his sleigh and reindeer to leave small presents and treats in the children’s stockings, hung by the fireplace with care. (The Feast of St. Nicholas is Dec. 6. Christmas, December 25, was an entirely different day.)
Albany’s St. Nicholas Society originally included only those of Dutch descent. It eventually expanded to include those who had married into Dutch families and later included everyone in Albany. Through most of the 1600s, 1700s and the early 1800s, all of Albany was celebrating the arrival of St. Nick (Santa Claus) on December 6.
Harmanus Bleecker continued as a very successful Albany lawyer. He accumulated a sizeable fortune, as he was frugal in his expenses. His mother and father died and he had not married. Bleecker was very popular and well-liked and a frequent socializer.
In 1838, at 59, Bleecker told friends that he was going on an extended visit to Holland and other places in Europe. It showed a measure of his popularity with the business community of Albany when sixty-eight of the most prestigious people in Albany decided to co-host a going-away party for him. Names such as Corning, Pruyn, Ten Eyck, Gansevoort, Lansing, Olcott and Townsend were among the hosts. Governor William Marcy attended.
Bleecker sailed first to Bristol, England and then to Paris. He spent Christmas Eve dining with General Lewis Cass and his wife; Cass was the U.S. Ambassador to France. He called on Samuel F. B. Morse and Morse sent him the following note:
“My Dear Sir, At one o’clock today I shall have a room full of the French savants to see the operation of my telegraph. If it would gratify you to see them and it, I shall be very happy to have you at that hour. With sincere respect and esteem, my dear sir, Your friend and servt. Sam. F. B. Morse, Dec. 26th, 1838.”
After a few weeks, Bleecker continued on to The Hague, Netherlands where he spent several months, visiting the great hyacinth and tulip gardens in Haarlem in the spring. In Hague, Bleecker found that the St. Nicholas celebrations in Albany were well-known and reported in newspapers in The Hague.
While in The Hague, Bleecker sent a letter home mentioning the news that he heard that Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer had died, as had “Mr. Van Schaick” (probably Hendrick Van Schaik, whose father Jacob G. Van Schaick served at the Battles of Saratoga). He said that he visited Prince Hendrick and said that “the manner in which I have been treated here … being principally on account of the [Albany] St. Nicholas Society” and its popularity in the Netherlands.
Ambassador to the Netherlands
Early in June, 1839 Bleecker left the Netherlands for London to return to the United States. While in London, he received a letter from the State Department in Washington sent on behalf of his friend and fellow Albanian, President Martin Van Buren, appointing him Chargé d’Affaires of the United States of America to the Netherlands. Bleecker returned to Holland and took rooms at the Hotel Bellevue.
Bleecker’s term as minister was mostly social and administrative. He intervened for passports for Americans visiting Holland. He called on Dutch officials at the request of President Van Buren and relayed requests and information. He greeted many Americans passing through Amsterdam. He intervened when a fight between two U.S. sailors in Rotterdam resulted in the death of one of them.
His secretary, John Romeyn Brodhead, another Albanian, traveled to Amsterdam and studied the archives of the Dutch West India Company to research the history of Albany and record important documents, copying them by hand.
“I received today yours of the 9th [of July] in reply to mine of the 17th of June. Ten years ago we would hardly have supposed that in so short a time we could communicate so speedily with the old world. It is but a little over a month since mine of the 17th was written here. Behold I have an answer from more than 3,000 miles distant – what may we not expect in the future?” (J.V.L. Pruyn was amazed that he had gotten a reply to his letter to The Hague in only 43 days. Little could he imagine that the future would bring instantaneous response.)
On October 29th, 1841, Bleecker wrote to Robert Hewson Pruyn, secretary of the Albany St. Nicholas Society, telling Pruyn that he had just attended a dinner of the Dutch Society of Fine Arts and at the dinner toasts had been offered up in honor of Albany and New York State.
Upon President Van Buren’s loss in his re-election campaign in 1840, Bleecker wrote to him advising him that both the King and the President of Orange had contacted Bleecker and expressed their regret on Van Buren’s defeat. He told Van Buren that his State of the Union address had been carried by the French papers and partially reported in the Dutch newspaper. He offered to return, assuming his term would end with Van Buren’s term.
While Bleecker was waiting for a reply, he received a letter from Maria Brinkerhoff in Albany reporting great excitement in the city: “We are all in a state of excitement with the proposal to build a bridge across the river opposite this city … The Trojans are up in arms and declare if the Albanians build it, they will come in a body to cut it down. This will not deter the proceedings however.” The bridge plan was held at bay, largely by the citizens of Troy, until 1866 when the Livingston Avenue Railroad Bridge was built.
As Bleecker was preparing to depart, he went through a ritual of dinners and visits, one-by-one thanking all of those people who had worked and socialized with him during his stay. He left his closest friends, the family of Dirck Mentz, a Dutch government figure, until last. He had socialized with the Mentz family since he had arrived three years earlier and he had been teaching their daughter Cornelia to speak and write English for the last two years.
He wrote to J.V.L. Pruyn, “about 2 hours before I was to start, I called on Miss Cornelia Mentz to bid her farewell forever, having the day before finished all other leave taking; when instead of parting, we agreed to remain together during life.” Bleecker continued, “I thought myself too old for her and too old to be married.” He said that Cornelia was 28 but looked 22. He was 62.
He stayed on in The Hague for another six months to make wedding arrangements and get settled.
Upon their arrival in Albany, many friends and associates welcomed them and a full social schedule was immediately thrust upon them. Ex-President Van Buren sent them a note: “Allow me to congratulate Mrs. Bleecker and you upon your arrival & to say to you that it will afford me sincere pleasure to receive a visit from you at any time that will suit your own convenience.”
Harmanus Bleecker continued to do some legal work in Albany. He died six years later on July 18, 1849, and was buried at Albany Rural Cemetery in Lot 61, Section 3.
Bleecker left all of his property to his wife but expressed a desire that upon her death it should be used in some way to benefit the city of Albany. Attorney J.V.L. Pruyn was designated to administer the fund. Cornelia Bleecker married Henrich Coster, a Dutch resident, and they returned to Holland. Before they departed, they executed documents leaving any remainder of the fund after she died to J.V.L. Pruyn to be used in conformance with Harmanus Bleecker’s wishes. In 1877, Cornelia Bleecker Coster died, having survived both her second husband and attorney J.V.L. Pruyn. Her will left the fund, by now considerably grown, to Amasa Parker to be used in some way to benefit the city of Albany as Harmanus Bleecker had intended.
Parker decided that the Harmanus Bleecker Fund should be given to the Young Mens’ Association to build a public hall and public library for the residents of the city of Albany. The Young Mens’ Association raised $50,000 which, when added to Bleecker’s $130,000, paid for the construction of Harmanus Bleecker Hall. Thirty-five years later, the hall was sold and the proceeds were used to build the Harmanus Bleecker Library.
Albany’s Bleecker Reservoir (later Bleecker Stadium), was also named after Harmanus Bleecker when it was constructed in 1850. Two Albany streets still bear the name Bleecker.
Illustrations, from above: a view of New Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboons, ca. 1665; The Roemer map of Albany 1698 showing Fort Orange and Beverwyck; A frontispiece portrait by Harriet Langdon Pruyn Rice in Harmanus Bleecker: An Albany Dutchman, based on an 1819 portrait by Ezra Ames that formerly hung in the Harmanus Bleecker Library; Stanwix Hall in Albany; John V. L. Pruyn ( John Van Schaick Lansing Pruyn) from the August 1888 issue of the Magazine of Western History; and Harmanus Bleecker Hall and central YMCA library in Albany in the early 20th century.