New York State Museum: Opening New Exhibit On Fort Orange

May 4, 2018

The New York State Museum is opening a new exhibit Saturday that explores the early settlement of the Capital Region.

“A Small Fort, Which Our People Call Fort Orange” features never before seen artifacts from the 17th century precursor to today’s Capital Region. The exhibit examines the momentous archeological discovery of the fort in 1970, as well as the lasting impact of Dutch settlement of New York.

Fort Orange was built in 1624. Dr. Charles Gerhing, Director of the New Netherland Research Center at the New York State Museum in Albany.

“This was the ideal spot for the Dutch to settle for the fur trade.  The Hudson River connects with the Mohawk River, and it is the only access to the interior of the country. So the Indians would bring the furs down here and then they would be stored at Fort Orange, and then eventually shipped down the river,” says Gerhing.

Paul Huey was the archeologist who made the discovery of The Fort Orange site. He says very little was known about how the New Netherlands Dutch lived prior to the unearthing in the 1970s.

“We didn’t know whether they were living a crude existence eating out of bark dishes with clam shell spoons, or something like that. The artifacts we began finding at Fort Orange just blew that preconception, and we began to realize that the Dutch were able to recreate the entire material culture they were familiar with back home,” says Huey.

Huey says he examined two maps, one from the 1600s and the other from the 18th century, which both showed a similar location for Fort Orange. He and his team broke ground in October 1970.

(Dr. Lucas describes the artifacts discovered at Fort Orange, left by the Native American inhabitants before the Dutch arrived)

(Huey, joined later by Gerhing, took the reins to share the puzzling history behind tobacco pipes in the Dutch settlement.  Huey also discusses the use of marbles at Fort Orange)

Another interesting feature of the exhibit is the artwork of Len Tantillo. Lucas says Tantillo is allowing the museum to use his artwork to enhance the exhibit. Gerhing says Tantillo’s 12th version of Fort Orange entitled “Fort Orange and the Patroon's House” was presented to then Crown Prince, Willem Alexander, in 2009. Willem Alexander is now king of the Netherlands.

“He does a tremendous amount of research because I’ve worked with him on paintings and I know how meticulous he is. This 12th version of Fort Orange is one of the most accurate, I think, that we can find. Again it’s worth coming here just to review his paintings, it enhances everything on display,” says Gerhing.

The new exhibit contains only a portion of the discovered artifacts, as the rest are still being processed. Lucas says the artifacts remained in the possession of the state Department of Parks and Recreation for many years before being transferred to the museum in 2016.  Again Huey:

“The city of Albany, the public, went bonkers when they heard about this, it was exciting. The public came down in mass crowds of people, came down to see what we were finding,” says Huey.

Lucas says the exhibit is on an open run and the museum will continue to process the remainder of the artifacts.

“But we also give behind the scenes tours, sometimes, and then we also incorporate artifacts into educational programs as well.  So there will be other opportunities to see the wealth of artifacts we have in the collections,” says Lucas.