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Cultural History

Human History of the Pine Bush: The road to conservation.

Who Lived in the Pine Bush? A brief timeline…

Based on archeological evidence, it is believed that people have utilized the Albany Pine Bush for at least the past 8,000 years. The Pine Bush represented important habitat for food sources including wild game and fruit-bearing plants.

While there is no evidence of permanent Native American settlements in the Pine Bush, many passed through the area along an east west corridor. Native Americans hunted mammals, fished streams, and collected wild berries and nuts in the Pine Bush. Early on, Native Americans applied fire to the Pine Bush intentionally. The fire actually increased their food supply because more nuts and berries grew after a fire. The fire also allowed them to drive game for hunting.

Beginning in the early 1600s, European explorers and settlers interacted with the Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy and the Mahican nation in and around the Pine Bush. The Mahicans occupied land to the east and south along the Hudson River, while the Mohawk Iroquois lived west along the Mohawk River. The two nations competed with each other for trade with the settlers.

Pine Bush Settlers Photo By Zone 5

Few people settled in the sandy pine barrens, and the Pine Bush remained largely unoccupied until recent times. Pine Bush Settlers Photo By Zone 5

The Dutch and English were the first to establish the trading outposts that today are known as Albany and Schenectady. Both locations were important destinations for those seeking to trade beaver and other animal pelts for imported goods including copper pots and broadcloth.

As Albany and Schenectady became settled, the Pine Bush developed a dangerous reputation. It was notorious as a refuge for smugglers, thieves, and during the American Revolution, English Loyalists. In addition to its bad reputation, the Pine Bush was prone to fires, making colonists hesitant to live there. The few that did usually lived along the King’s Highway and ran taverns for passersby. By the 19th century, some settlers attempted to farm the land of the Pine Bush. Perhaps the most successful farmer was Theophillus Roessle who grew about 5,000 fruit trees on his plot of land. He said the sandy soil that is characteristic of the Pine Bush, was, “the best land for fruits in the world.”

Times have changed, and today less than 6,000 acres of Pine Bush land remains undeveloped. The Pine Bush is now home to many businesses, schools, and homes. The open space that remains is critical habitat for hundreds of species of plants and animals, 20 of which are considered rare. It is an important ecological, recreational, and educational resource for residents and tourists of the Capital District Region and is recognized as a globally unique ecosystem.

Pine Bush Timeline

8000 B.C.E. – Paleo-Indian groups left evidence of their presence in the Pine Bush

1624 – Settlement of Fort Orange by the Dutch

1640 – Native Americans had difficulty finding enough animals in the Pine Bush to meet the European demand for furs

1686 – The English gained control of Fort Orange and changed the name to Albany

1699 – Albany residents were required to collect firewood from the Pine Bush for military troops

Old Truax Tavern

The Truax family operated taverns in the pine barrens to provide rest and refreshment for Kings Highway travelers. Photo Courtesy of Schenectady Historical Society.

1707 – The privilege of cutting firewood from the Pine Bush by Albany residents ended in 1707 but some still did so unofficially

1710 – The governor of Albany arranged for German refugees to come to the United States and work in the Pine Bush to make rosin and pitch for navy vessels. Thousands of pitch pines were destroyed.

1799 – Routes 5 and 20 were constructed, lessening the travel on the King’s Highway

1850 – Patroon Creek was dammed to create Rensselaer Lake

1858 – The Great Land Swindle occurred

1914 – Plans to create a park in the Pine Bush were developed by two architects commissioned to design a beautification plan for the city of Albany

1973 – The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation set aside more than 450 acres of the Pine Bush for protection, calling it the Pine Bush Unique Area

1978 - The grass roots organization Save the Pine Bush was formed to stop development in the Pine Bush

1988 – The NYS Legislature created the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission

Today – The Pine Bush Preserve Commission protects and manages 3,200 acres of land and has a Discovery Center for students and visitors to learn about this unique natural resource.

What was the King’s Highway?

The King’s Highway was a 16 mile road that ran from Albany to Schenectady, providing an overland passage between the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. The original route was first established as a narrow footpath by the Iroquois as part of the more extensive “Mohawk Path.”

Road House in the Pine Bush

Road House in the Pine Bush Photo Courtesy of the Schenectady Historical Society

In addition to serving as an overland passage between rivers, The Kings Highway was also an important trade corridor. Native Americans traded animal pelts with Europeans along the Kings Highway beginning in the 1600s.

Many tales have been told about this sandy roadway through the barrens and rumors spread about dangers travelers could encounter. Starting in 1756, a group of militiamen took turns escorting travelers along the trail because it had such a dangerous reputation.

In 1793, a stagecoach began carrying passengers from one end to the other for a charge of 3 cents per mile. Eventually the importance of the Kings Highway waned with the establishment of new roadways including the Albany-Schenectady turnpike (Route 5) in 1799 and the Great Western turnpike (Route 20), making westward travel from Albany much easier. After this, the majority of travelers used the new roads, and use of the King’s Highway declined.

Isaac Truax owned a tavern in the Pine Bush along the King’s Highway, which served as a rest stop for travelers. It was rumored that some guests had been murdered during their stay there. An excavation of his basement many years later found human skeletons buried under the floor.

For centuries the Albany Pine Bush has provided resources of many different kinds for people. In addition to a place for hunting and food gathering, the Pine Bush provided land for farms, sand for glass manufacturing and trees for lumber and posts. The following list describes in more detail some of the resources extracted form the Pine Bush throughout history.

Water

Halfway through the 19th century, the Patroon Creek was dammed to create Rensselaer Lake. It could hold 1.5 million gallons of fresh drinking water and supplied Albany residents with drinking water for 25 years.

Animal pelts

The Mohawks and Mahicans sold the furs they harvested from the Pine Bush to Europeans at Fort Orange, present day Albany. Both settlers and Native Americans used the “Mohawk Path” later named the Kings Highway, as a travel corridor through the Pine Bush.

Berries

Local families used to go berry picking in the Pine Bush. They could enjoy huckleberries, blueberries, and elderberries.

Trees

Trees of the Pine Bush were used for a wide variety of things, including firewood, engine fuel, roof shingles, fences and stockades, and canoes.

Sand

The sandy soil of the Pine Bush was used in the production of window glass at the “Glass House” in the Town of Guilderland.

Circa 1930 Old State Road in Foregroun

Circa 1930 Old State Road in Foreground Photo Courtesy of Schenectady Historical Society

In The Great Land Swindle of 1858, part of the Pine Bush was divided into 860 plots of land and sold to distant buyers at very high prices. The buyers thought they were getting land in a well-developed area. When they came to see it, many thought it was useless and attempted to earn back some of their wasted money by reselling it at high prices to a second round of unsuspecting buyers.

Circa 1930s Arnold House on Lydius St

Circa 1930s Arnold House on Lydius St Photo Courtesy of Schenectady Historical Society

Travelling in the Pine Bush Photo By Zone 5

Travelling in the Pine Bush Photo By Zone 5