The de Neufvilles helped fund American Revolution, died bankrupt after founding Guilderland glassworks

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The only image of the Albany Glassworks known is this 1815 view of the glasshouse when it had been expanded from the time of the de Neufvilles’ operation. It is illustrated on script that would have been paid to a worker who could have used it to purchase goods in the community.

While this tale begins in 18th-Century Amsterdam, prosperous trading city of the Netherlands, it ends as a chapter of Guilderland’s history. Jean de Neufville and Leendert, his son and business partner, were among Amsterdam’s numerous wealthy merchants and bankers whose financial success was based on ownership of merchant ships, warehouses, and banks.

Descendants of Protestant Huguenots who fled French religious persecution in the previous century, the family prospered in the Netherlands. Jean de Neufville was an Amsterdam merchant who in the 1760s and 1770s traded in the Caribbean, and for several years was part owner of a coffee plantation on a Dutch island there.

As his wealth grew, he acquired a warehouse, a fine canal-side house at 224 Keizersgracht, and the estate Saxenburg at Wester-Amstel outside the city. Putting his profits to work, he established a banking partnership with his now-adult son.

The year 1776 brought the revolt of 13 of England’s North American colonies. Shortly after its outbreak, American representatives sailed to Europe, seeking financial aid and war materials to enable them to carry on their conflict against the British. While initially they turned to wealthy, powerful France, the prosperity of prominent Dutch bankers beckoned.


Loan not repaid

Jean de Neufville was sympathetic to the Patriot cause and in 1778 began shipping goods, including guns, to the United States. He had contact with the American representative William Lee and, acting on their own, the two signed a secret agreement. De Neufville had it approved by a Dutch magistrate and it was sent off to America on “The Mercury.”

Intercepted by the British, the attempt was made to throw the papers overboard, but they were retrieved. Sent back to England, the furious British precipitated the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War over the incident.

John Adams, then serving with Benjamin Franklin in France, was sent to the Netherlands in hopes of obtaining loans from Dutch bankers. One of the first bankers he met was deNeufville. The banker loaned Congress one million florins and also made a substantial loan to the state of South Carolina.

During this period, there was correspondence between de Neufville and both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin regarding the loan. At the war’s end unfortunately these loans and the lack of repayment led to the de Neufvilles’ bankruptcy in 1783.

Their homes and warehouse were sold. The de Neufvilles’ affluence, influence, and place in Dutch society were gone.

Jean de Neufville corresponded with George Washington in 1783, bemoaning “the ruin of credit of his house.” While some of the American loan had been repaid, South Carolina totally defaulted.

Washington responded in January 1784, “The disaster which happened to your house with which you were connected must be affecting to every true American, especially as your great zeal in the cause of liberty & your unwearied efforts to promote the interest of the United States are well known to the Citizens of the republic.”

Washington added, “I have the pleasure of being acquainted with your son.” If de Neufville had written to Washington, hoping to get some sort of favor, he received only pleasant words.


Opening a glassworks

Turning to the United States as the place to revive their fortunes, first Leendert and two years later, his father, Jean, and stepmother arrived in the United States. Here they became Leonard and John de Neufville.

In 1785, Leonard was in Albany County in a virtual wilderness on the bank of the Hungerkill on the edge of the pine bush west of Albany. On May 12, 1785, Leonard de Neufville signed an agreement with partners Jan Heefke and Ferdinand Walfahrt to open a glassworks in this location.

The site would provide sand for glass manufacture, pine to fuel the furnaces, and the Hungerkill’s steadily flowing water for use in the glass-making process or power equipment if needed. The potash needed in the manufacture of glass was readily available from local farmers who were beginning to clear trees from the surrounding countryside.

The probable motivation of the three partners was that, with the population growth and settlement of new areas in the new nation, there would be a demand for window glass.

De Neufville sadly underestimated the difficulties he would face in restoring his fortune by manufacturing glass in a wilderness spot two miles away from the King’s Highway, the main road into Albany. The connecting road was a narrow dirt track called the Schoharie Road. The Western Turnpike, which eventually provided a more direct connection, was years in the future.

It isn’t known where the three men got the capital — was it theirs or was it from silent American partners? — to build a glasshouse with furnaces and the necessary equipment. Money was given to Heefke to travel to German to recruit 24 or 25 glassblowers while in the meantime the glasshouse was being erected.

Their location was given the name of Dowesburgh or Dowesborough, the first of many names given to the hamlet of Guilderland.

By spring 1786, glassblowing could begin at the glasshouse with Heefke acting as the company agent and Walfahrt as the manager. Production consisted of small panes of window glass — measuring 6-by-8 inches and 7 by 9 inches — and of bottles ranging in size from small snuff bottles to large demijohns.

Native Americans living near the Wildehaus Kill at Dunnsville were paid to weave willow coverings for the demijohns — large glass bottles with small necks — to prevent breakage in shipment.

The glass was taken by ox cart over the Schoharie Road to the King’s Highway, then into Albany for sales there and for shipments to be sent downriver to New York City.

Their Albany agent was Wm. John Van Schaick who handled sales and shipping. Cash flow must have been limited as one of his letters related accepting two barrels of pork and 10 barrels of beef in return for a window-glass sale.

Jean, or John as he became known, followed his son to the United States, moving to Dowesborough in 1787. His optimistic letter to Colonel Clement Dibble of Philadelphia let him know that things were going well at the glasshouse, as they were able to match the prices and quality of imported British glass although he admitted the public considered the British glass to be superior.

He also noted that unfortunately the Hudson’s winter freezing delayed shipments to New York City, but in the meantime production was being stockpiled for spring shipping.



However, a year later a different picture emerged when John was visited where he was living in Dowesborough by Elkanah Watson. Watson was a prominent businessman, a founder of the State Bank of Albany and promoter of canals.

During the Revolution he had been in the Netherlands and France while in the employ of a Providence, Rhode Island merchant and was also involved in his own business there. While in Europe he apparently met the then-wealthy de Neufville and had kept in touch.

After his visit to de Neufville in 1788, Watson left a written commentary that he had “found him in solitary seclusion living in a miserable log cabin furnished with a single deal [pine] table and two common arm chairs, destitute of the ordinary comforts of life.”

Watson, who had grown progressively more affluent as he aged, must have been saddened seeing the reverses suffered by de Neufville.

Earlier in 1788, the three glasshouse partners — Leonard de Neufville, Jan Heefke, and Ferdinand Walfahrt — petitioned New York State Legislature for aid, justifying their request with the statistic that 30,000 pounds (dollars had not yet become part of our monetary system at this date) were being drained from the state by being paid to English glassmakers instead of being spent on state-made window glass.

Although their petition was ignored, the next year the partners repeated the petition. By the time the state finally came through with a loan, the glasshouse had become bankrupt under their ownership. Surviving letters tell of unfilled orders, lack of credit, and legal problems leading to the bankruptcy which seemed to have occurred by 1789.

Other investors took over the glassworks operation and achieved profitability until readily available fuel ran out in 1815 when the works were shut down permanently.

John de Neufville and his wife moved into Albany where he died in poverty in 1796. Leonard had a mental breakdown, supposedly one of several during his lifetime.

Likely the stress of trying to make a success of a glassworks in the wilderness was a factor in his final breakdown. He died in 1812 in a Pennsylvania institution.

After John’s death, the United States Congress agreed to award John’s impoverished widow a grant of $3,000 in recognition of her husband’s contribution to our victory in the Revolution.


Largely forgotten

Drivers on Foundry Road in Guilderland barely notice the historic marker, pointing out the approximate location of the glassworks that began there in the mid-1780s. The men who established it are obscure and their efforts met with failure. Leonard’s other two partners get no credit whatsoever.

Today, few know that the de Neufvilles played an important role in our victory over England in 1781 and seemed to be known to many of our founding fathers. Because of their support, the de Neufvilles lost their fortune, and in coming to America ended their lives in poverty.

Yet, they were among the first to settle in what is now the hamlet of Guilderland and, by establishing a glassworks and bringing in glassblowers, created a small community that has continued to grow.

While the de Neufvilles’ personal story was a tragic one, Guilderland residents can appreciate their contribution to the late 18th-Century history of our town.