Opening paragraph of the Dongan Charter
|Ratified||July 25, 1686|
|Location||Albany County Hall of Records|
|Author(s)||Governor Thomas Dongan|
|Purpose||Incorporated the City of Albany|
The Dongan Charter is the 1686 document incorporating Albany, New York as a city. Albany's charter was issued by Governor Thomas Dongan of the Province of New York, a few months after Governor Dongan issued a similarly worded, but less detailed charter for the city of New York. The city of Albany was created three years after Albany County. The charter is the oldest existing city charter still in force in the United States and "arguably in all the Western Hemisphere", according to Stefan Bielinski, former senior historian of the New York State Museum. In 1936 the United States Congress commemorated the charter's 250th anniversary by minting a half dollar coin.
After the city of New York received a municipal charter from Governor Dongan the governor came to Albany, at which time the village sent a delegation of prominent men to request a charter of their own. The Patroon, after being encouraged by the governor, finally released all claims to Albany and forfeited a strip of land 1 mile (1.6 km) wide and 16 miles (26 km) long to Albany. Albany at the time consisted of about 500 residents living in around 140 houses. In July 1686 a delegation led by Pieter Schuyler and Robert Livingston traveled to New York to receive the charter for Albany; the charter was signed on July 25, 1686 and was read aloud to the citizens of Albany three days later. Due to England, and by extension Albany, using the Julian calendar at the time, the corrected date for the signing of the document under the Gregorian calendar is August 1, 1686.
During Leisler's Rebellion Jacob Leisler demanded the charters of Albany and the city of New York be forfeited, and New York yielded but Albany's mayor, Pieter Schuyler, refused. Schuyler went on to became one of the major leaders in suppressing the rebellion. The next major threat to the charter government came during the American Revolution when the Common Council stopped meeting in 1775. The local Committee of Safety took over daily functions until 1778 when the Common Council began meeting again.
A Dongan Charter Parade was held in 1936 for the 250th anniversary celebrations, and as part of the ceremonies the United States Congress authorized the minting of an Albany Charter half dollar coin. Tricentennial celebrations held in 1986 included a re-enactment of the signing and awarding of the charter by Governor Mario Cuomo playing Governor Dongan, and Mayor Thomas Whalen playing Mayor Schuyler. Other events during the tricentennial were fireworks, music, the unveiling of a tricentennial clock, a hot-air balloon lift-off from Lincoln Park, and a cake large enough to feed thousands. Mayors from other Albany's around the world were among the visiting dignitaries who were invited to the ceremonies and given a tour of the city by Mayor Whalen.
The charter turned the village of Albany into a city under the name of "The Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty of the city of Albany"; this legally separated it from Rensselaerswyck, a nearby colonial estate. The charter also established Albany's boundaries and a municipal government, as well as specifically naming the first officers. Certain special rights were put into the charter as well, such as the exclusive right to negotiate with the Native Americans. It also established Albany as the sole market town in the upper Hudson region, with the right to purchase land at Tionnderoge and Schaghticoke.
The mayor of Albany was the executive officer and selected by the Lieutenant Governor. He was also designated as the clerk of the marketplace and the coroner for both the city and Albany County. Two alderman and two assistant aldermen were chosen from each ward and sat on the Common Council along with the mayor and recorder. The mayor, recorder, and aldermen were also justices, the assistants however did not have any judicial powers.
The sole right to issue trading privileges anywhere in Albany County rested with the mayor and Common Council. Albany County encompassed all of Upstate New York north and west of Ulster County at that time, as well as the state of Vermont. All residents of New York, except those of Albany, were specifically banned from trading with any Iroquois nation, or with any other native tribe to the west, east, or north of the city of Albany, or with native tribes anywhere within Albany County.
The Dongan Charter was first amended on March 21, 1787 to remove the mayor's powers to act as the city and county's sole coroner, and to regulate trade with Indians. It continued to be used with only minor changes until March 16, 1870, when it saw major changes by the state legislature in 1870 and 1883. In the 1870 revision the name of the city was changed from "The Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty of the city of Albany" to the "City of Albany". In 1998 the people of Albany adopted a revised charter as an amendment to the Dongan Charter.
The United States Congress authorized on June 16, 1936 the minting of 25,000 half dollar coins celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Dongan Charter. These were legal tender, though few actually ever circulated. The Albany Dongan Charter Coin Committee was established to approve the design and chose Gertrude Lathrop, an Albany native, to create a design, she would also go on to design the New Rochelle commemorative coin.
All 25,013 coins were minted at the Philadelphia Mint, the 13 extra were for the assay commission and were destroyed. Commemorative coins of this period had normally sold for $1.00 or $1.50, the Albany Charter Coin however was put for sale at $2.00. The commemorative coin mania that had been sweeping the country in the spring and summer of 1936 had already seen close to twenty other commemorative coins issued that same year, and had abated by the time of this issuing. 7,342 coins were returned to Philadelphia and melted in 1943 and between 1,600 to 2,400 were sold in 1954 by the State Bank of Albany.
As of 2009[update] the coins can fetch $330 for an uncirculated coin rated as MS-60, and $470 for an MS-65. Original packaging, which is more rare, included a four-page booklet containing an illustration of the coin, a history of Albany, and slots for one to five coins. Both the booklet and the envelope it came in are highly collectible today. Even scarcer today are boxes designed to hold single coins and inscribed with "The National Commercial Bank and Trust Company of Albany".
The Albany Charter coin is 30.6 millimetres (1.20 in) in diameter and weighs 12.5 grams (0.44 oz), with a reeded edge, and was 90% silver with 10% copper. The obverse is a beaver gnawing on a maple branch, which represents the importance that the fur trade had in Albany's economy, with the maple used since it is New York's state tree. Seeds of a maple tree separate the words "United States of America" from "Half Dollar", which are arranged around the bottom periphery while "E pluribus unum" and "In God We Trust" appear in small letters above the beaver. On the reverse are Governor Dongan, Robert Livingston, and Mayor Schuyler standing in front of a pine tree on a base inscribed with the year 1936. The artist's initials, "GKL", are inscribed next to the governor's feet. The mayor is holding the new charter and shaking hands with the governor. Above the three men is an eagle with the legend "Liberty". Arranged along the top periphery are the words "Settled 1614 Chartered 1686", while "Albany, N Y" arcs across the bottom; pine cones separate the two inscriptions.
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