Around 1800, François Alexandre Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld, under the title of Duke de La Rochefoucauld Liancourt, published his Travels through the United States of North America, the Country of the Iroquois, and Upper Canada, In the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. In it, the Duke devoted substantial coverage to Albany.
The Duke had, it must be said, something of a shipping fetish. In writing of Albany, he noted that the history of the city occurs in all descriptions of the United States, so he chose to skip over it, but noted the extensive shipping trade.
Ships of eighty tons burthen sail up to the town; and the trade is carried on in vessels of this size. A sort of sand-bank, three miles below Albany, renders the navigation rather difficult; yet it is easily cleared with the assistance of pilots acquainted with it, and no ship arrives without one of them on board. This impediment, it is asserted, might easily be removed at a trifling expence; and ships of a much larger size might then anchor near the city.
He wrote that the trade of Albany was chiefly the produce of the Mohawk country, as well as articles of trade from Vermont and New Hampshire. He noted that the exports chiefly consisted of timber and lumber of every sort, potatoes, potash and pearl-ashes, grain, and manufactured goods.
These articles are, most of them, transported to Albany in winter on sledges, housed by the merchants, and by them successively transmitted to New York, where they are either sold for bills on England, or exchanged for English goods, which are in return sent from Albany to the provinces, whence the articles for exportation were drawn. Business is, therefore, carried on entirely with ready money, and especially in regard to pot-ash; not even the most substantial bills are accepted in payment.
Somewhat contradicting his earlier estimate of ship size, he reports that:
The trade of Albany is carried on in ninety vessels, forty-five of which belong to inhabitants of the town, and the rest to New York or other places. They are in general of seventy tons burthen, and make upon the average ten voyages a year, which, on computing the freights outwards and homewards, produces a total of one hundred and twenty-six thousand tons of shipping for the trade of Albany. Every ship is navigated by four men; the master is paid twenty dollars a month, if he have no share in the ship, the mate fifteen, and a seaman nine. There is also generally a cabin-boy on board, or more frequently a cook, as few ships have less than eight passengers on board, either coming up or going down. The freight of goods is usually one shilling a hundred weight; but this varies, according to their value, or the room they occupy.
The trade of Albany is very safe, but seems not to be very profitable. The neat proceeds of a voyage amount upon an average to about one hundred dollars, which makes for the whole year one thousand dollars for a ship, a profit by no means considerable. If you add to this the money paid by passengers for their passage, which amounts to ten shillings a head, making from seventeen to twenty dollars a voyage, and from one hundred seventy to two hundred dollars for the ten voyages, which are made in the course of the year, the whole yields but a very moderate profit, which is however increased by the sale of the goods. This is as yet the usual way in which trade is carried on by this city; it deprives the merchants of Albany of a considerable profit, and throws it into the hands of those of New York. Some of the former undertake indeed voyages to England, Holland, and other countries; but, for this purpose they charter New York vessels. These are the bolder people; and are called men of the new notions, but their number is small.
He noted that there were several areas where Albanians were missing the boat, so to speak. They failed to sail directly to Europe, which would have cut out the middle-man of New York and busied the ships when the river navigation was iced up. They failed to trade horses and mules, while Connecticut merchants were doing a thriving business exporting them to the Antilles. He warned that two newer towns were threatening to take over Albany’s role despite being somewhat further away, having shallower water and smaller ships. Those towns were New City (now Lansingburgh) and Troy.
New City contains about sixty or seventy stores or shops, and Troy fifty or sixty. These new-settled merchants all prosper, and their number is daily increasing. The merchants of Albany, it is reported, view this growing prosperity of their neighbours with an evil eye, and consider it as an encroachment upon their native rights. If this be true, the jealousy of the merchants of Albany must be the result of their ignorance and confined views.