Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Mohican Indians had a number of settlements along the Hudson River near the confluence with the Mohawk River. The land comprising the Poesten Kill and Wynants Kill areas were owned by two Mohican groups. The land around the Poesten Kill was owned by Skiwias and was called Panhooseck. The area around the Wynants Kill, was known as Paanpack, was owned by Peyhaunet. The land between the creeks, which makes up most of downtown and South Troy, was owned by Annape. South of the Wynants Kill and into present-day North Greenbush, the land was owned by Pachquolapiet. These parcels of land were sold to the Dutch between 1630 and 1657 and each purchase was overseen and signed by Skiwias, the sachem at the time. In total, more than 75 individual Mohicans were involved in deed signings in the 17th century.
The site of the city was a part of Rensselaerswyck, a patroonship created by Kiliaen van Rensselaer. Dirck Van der Heyden was one of the first settlers. In 1707, he purchased a farm of 65acre, which in 1787 was laid out as a village.
An early local legend that a Dutch girl had been kidnapped by an Indian male who did not want her to marry someone else gained some credence when two skeletons were found in a cave under Poestenkill Falls in the 1950s. One skeleton was female and Caucasian with an iron ring. The other was Native-American and male.
The name Troy (after the legendary city of Troy, made famous in Homer's Iliad) was adopted in 1789 before which it had been known as Ashley's Ferry, and the region was formed into the Town of Troy in 1791 from part of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck. The township included Brunswick and Grafton. Troy became a village in 1801 and was chartered as a city in 1816. In 1900, the city of Lansingburgh was merged into Troy. In the post-Revolutionary War years, as central New York was first settled, there was a strong trend to classical names, and Troy's naming fits the same pattern as the New York cities of Syracuse, Rome, Utica, Ithaca, or the towns of Sempronius, Manlius, or dozens of other classically named towns to the west of Troy.
Northern and Western New York was a theater of the War of 1812, and militia and regular army forces were led by Stephen Van Rensselaer of Troy. Quartermaster supplies were shipped through Troy. A local butcher and meat-packer named Samuel Wilson supplied the military, and, according to an unprovable legend, barrels stamped "U.S." were jokingly taken by the troops to stand for "Uncle Sam" meaning Wilson. Troy has since claimed to be the historical home of Uncle Sam.
Through much of the 19th and into the early 20th century, Troy was not only one of the most prosperous cities in New York State, but one of the most prosperous cities in the entire country. Prior to its rise as an industrial center, Troy was the transshipment point for meat and vegetables from Vermont, which were sent by the Hudson River to New York City. The Federal Dam at Troy is the head of the tides in the Hudson River and Hudson River sloops and steamboats plied the river on a regular basis. This trade was vastly increased after the construction of the Erie Canal, with its eastern terminus directly across the Hudson from Troy at Cohoes in 1825.
Troy's one-time great wealth was produced in the steel industry, with the first American Bessemer converter erected on the Wyantskill, a stream with a falls in a small valley at the south end of the city. The industry first used charcoal and iron ore from the Adirondacks. Later on, ore and coal from the Midwest was shipped on the Erie Canal to Troy, and there processed before being sent on down the Hudson to New York City. The iron and steel was also used by the extensive federal arsenal across the Hudson at Watervliet, New York, then called West Troy. After the American Civil War, the steel production industry moved west to be closer to raw materials. The presence of iron and steel also made it possible for Troy to be an early site in the development of iron storefronts and steel structural supports in architecture, and there are some significant early examples still in the city.
The initial emphasis on heavier industry later spawned a wide variety of highly engineered mechanical and scientific equipment. Troy was the home of W. & L. E. Gurley, Co., makers of precision instruments. Gurley's theodolites were used to survey much of the American West after the Civil War and were highly regarded until laser and digital technology eclipsed the telescope and compass technology in the 1970s. Bells manufactured by Troy's Meneely Bell Company ring all over the world. And Troy was also home to a manufacturer of racing shells that used impregnated paper in a process that presaged the later use of fiberglass, Kevlar and carbon fiber composites.
This scientific and technical proficiency was supported by the presence of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or RPI, one of the highest-ranked engineering schools in the country. RPI was originally sponsored by Stephen Van Rensselaer, one of the most prominent members of that family. RPI was founded in 1824, and eventually absorbed the campus of the short-lived, liberal arts-based Troy University, which closed in 1862 during the Civil War. Rensselaer founded RPI for the "application of science to the common purposes of life", and it is the oldest technological university in the English-speaking world. The institute is known for its success in the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace.
On December 23, 1823, The Troy Sentinel was the first publisher of the world-famous Christmas poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "The Night Before Christmas" or "Twas the Night Before Christmas"). The poem was published anonymously. Its author has long been believed to have been Clement Clarke Moore, but its author is now regarded by a few to have been Henry Livingston, Jr.
Troy was an early home of professional baseball, and was the host of two major league teams. The first team to call Troy home was the Troy Haymakers, a National Association team in 1871 and 1872. One of their major players was Williams H. "Bill" Craver, a noted catcher and Civil War veteran, who also managed the team. Their last manager was Jimmy Wood, reckoned the first Canadian in professional baseball. The Troy Haymakers folded, and Troy had no team for seven seasons. Then, for four seasons, 1879 to 1882, Troy was home to the National League Troy Trojans. The Trojans were not competitive in the league, but they did have the biggest hitter in professional baseball, Dan Brouthers.
Troy has been nearly destroyed by fire three times. The Great Troy fire of 1862 burnt the W. & L. E. Gurley, Co. factory, which was later that year replaced by the new W. & L. E. Gurley Building, now a National Historic Landmark: Gurley & Sons remains a worldwide leader in precision instrumentation.
In 1892, Robert Ross, a poll watcher, was shot dead (and his brother wounded) by operatives of Mayor Edward Murphy, later a U.S. Senator, after uncovering a man committing voter fraud. The convicted murderer, Bartholomew "Bat" Shea, was executed in 1896, although another man, John McGough, later boasted that he had actually been the shooter.
In 1900 Troy annexed Lansingburgh, a former town and village whose standing dates back prior to the War of Independence, in Rensselaer County. Lansingburgh is thus often referred to as "North Troy". However, prior to the annexation, that portion of Troy north of Division Street was called North Troy and the neighborhood south of Washington Park is referred to as South Troy. To avoid confusion with streets in Troy following the annexation, Lansingburgh's numbered streets were renamed: its 1st Street, 2nd Street, 3rd Street, etc., became North Troy's 101st Street, 102nd Street, 103rd Street, etc. Lansingburgh was home to the Lansingburgh Academy.
In addition to the strong presence of the early American steel industry, Troy was also a manufacturing center for shirts, shirtwaists, collars and cuffs. In 1825, a local resident Hannah Lord Montague, was tired of cleaning her blacksmith husband's shirts. She cut off the collars of her husband's shirts, since only the collar was soiled, bound the edges and attached strings to hold them in place. (This also allowed the collars and cuffs to be starched separately.) Montague's idea caught on, and changed the fashion for American men's dress for a century. Her patented collars and cuffs were first manufactured by Maullin & Blanchard, which eventually was absorbed by Cluett, Peabody & Company. Cluett's "Arrow shirts" are still worn by men across the country. The large labor force required by the shirt manufacturing industry also produced in 1864 the nation's first female labor union, the Collar Laundry Union, founded in Troy by Kate Mullany. On February 23, 1864, 300 members of the union went on strike. After six days, the laundry owners gave in to their demands and raised wages 25%. There were further developments in the industry, when, in 1933, Sanford Cluett invented a process he called Sanforization, a process that shrinks cotton fabrics thoroughly and permanently. Cluett, Peabody's last main plant in Troy was closed in the 1980s, but the industrial output of the plant had long been transferred to facilities in the South.
When the iron and steel industry moved west to Pennsylvania and beyond, and with a similar downturn in the collar industry, Troy's prosperity began to fade. After the passage of Prohibition, and given the strict control of Albany by the O'Connell political machine, Troy became a way station for an illegal alcohol trade from Canada to New York City. Likewise, the stricter control of morality laws in the neighboring New England states encouraged the development of openly operating speakeasies and brothels in Troy. Gangsters such as "Legs Diamond" conducted their business in Troy, giving the city a somewhat colorful reputation through World War II. A few of the buildings from that era have since been converted to fine restaurants, such as the former Old Daly Inn.
Like many old industrial cities, Troy has had to deal with not only the loss of its manufacturing base, but a loss of population and wealth to suburbs and other parts of the country. This led to dilapidation and disinvestment, until later efforts were made to preserve Troy's architectural and cultural past.
Kurt Vonnegut lived in Troy and the area, and many of his novels include mentions of "Ilium" (an alternate name for Troy) or surrounding locations. Vonnegut wrote Player Piano in 1952, based on his experiences working as a public relations writer at nearby General Electric. His 1963 novel, Cat's Cradle, was written in the city and is set in Ilium. His recurring main character, Kilgore Trout, is a resident of Cohoes, just across the Hudson River from Troy.
, Troy is updating its citywide comprehensive plan for the first time in more than 50 years. The two-year process is known as "Realize Troy" and was initiated by the Troy Redevelopment Foundation (with members from the Emma Willard School, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Russell Sage College and St. Peter's Health Partners). Urban Strategies Inc. (Toronto) is planning Troy's redevelopment.