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CHAPTER I -- GEOGRAPHY and EARLY HISTORY
- Schenectady County was formed from Albany County, March 7, 1809. It is bounded by the following adjacent counties: on the north, by Montgomery and Saratoga; on the east, by Saratoga and Albany; on the south, by Albany and Schoharie; on the west, by Schoharie and Montgomery. In shape it is very irregular. A line across the county, in its widest part, would be drawn from the south-east corner of Niskayuna to a point on the Schoharie Creek, near the south-west corner of Duanesburgh and would be about 28 miles long. The Mohawk River flows in a general south-easterly direction through the county and forms a part of its north-eastern border. Besides this river, the principal streams are Schoharie Creek, Norman's Kill, and their tributaries. The city of Schenectady and the towns of Niskayuna, Rotterdam, Princetown, and Duanesburgh are on the south side of the river, and Glenville is on the north side. The area of the county is 124,021 acres, or about 194 square miles, of which the city of Schenectady has 2,875 acres, or about 4-1/2 square miles; Duanesburgh has 42,875 acres; Glenville, 30,094; Rotterdarn, 23,377; Niskayuna. 9,904; Princetown, 14,895.
The surface of the northern and western parts of the county is much broken by hills and valleys. Towereuna hill, in the extreme south-western corner of Glenville, rises abruptly from the river and is, perhaps, 300 feet in height. Other high hills are in the north-western part of Rotterdam, along the river, and are of about the same height. The highest land in the county is in the neighborhood of Mariaville, and is about l,000 feet above the water in the Mohawk. The south-east part of the county is mostly level and sandy. The bottomlands along the river are widest a short distance west of the city limits, where they are about three miles wide, varying thence westward from a few rods to a mile in width. The underlying rock through the county is, generally, Hudson shales, while in some places birdseye limestone is found. The greater part of the surface is covered with a thick deposit of drift, consisting principally of clay in the west part, and sand in the east. The principal agricultural products of the county are hay, oats, rye, corn, and potatoes. Broomcorn was for many years very extensively cultivated, but of recent years it has declined in importance, owing to western competition.
The name Schenectady is derived from Schau-naugh-ta-da, which in the language of the Iroquois signifies "over the pine plains," or "across the pine plains," and is said to have been used by them at first to designate Fort Orange (now Albany). The Dutch afterward applied it to the place where Schenectady now stands, as being over the plains from Albany. By the census of 1880, the population of Schenectady city was 13,655; of the county, 23,558. The population of the city is at present (July, 1887) estimated at 20,000.
The earliest European settlers of Schenectady County came from the Netherlands. They were descended from a noble race, their ancestors, even as far back as to the times of the Romans, having been distinguished for their brave spirit and love of liberty. During a large part of the middle ages, the Netherlands were divided into a number of feudal principalities, whose chieftains held a nominal allegiance to the German emperors or the kings of France. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Netherlands, then comprising what is now Holland and Belgium, had between two and three hundred walled cities, numerous towns and villages, and a population of three millions. The great cities grew in wealth and power, chiefly by manufactures and commerce. Having acquired chartered rights, they became in reality city republics, regulating their own local affairs, choosing their own magistrates, and sending their representatives to the general assembly of the provinces.
When their rights were invaded by the Emperor Charles V. and his successors on the throne of Spain, they made a brave resistance, and in 1579 the northern portion of the country united in a permanent confederation, known as "The Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands. Thus was laid the foundation of the Dutch Republic. The heroic struggle for civil and religious liberty was continued by the Netherlanders for thirty years longer, until it resulted in the acknowledgment of their independence in 1609.
In that memorable year, Henry Hudson, an English navigator, then in the service of the Dutch East India Company, discovered the river that is now called by his name. Sailing up this river for about 150 miles, he took possession of the country in the name of the States-General of Holland. To the territory which they had thus acquired the Dutch gave the name of New Netherlands. In 1613 they erected a few buildings on Manhattan Island, where New York city now stands. In 1614 they built a fort and storehouse on a little island just below Albany, and in 1623 they built Fort Orange on the site where the city of Albany now stands.
The early history of Schenectady County is interwoven with that of the native Indians found in this part of North America. These belonged to two great families, the Algonquin and the Iroquois. The latter were distinguished for their intelligence and warlike spirit. They formed a confederation of five tribes, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, to which was added later, in 1714, the tribe of the Tuscaroras. In the contests waged by rival European nations for the possession of this country, the Iroquois were hostile to the French, and friendly to the Dutch and the English. In 1618, they made with the Dutch a treaty of peace which was long and faithfully observed on both sides. The Dutch, always intent upon trafffic, secured the rich fur trade. In exchange for furs the Indians received European trinkets, fire-water and fire arms.
Among the confederated Indian tribes, the Mohawks were the most powerful. Along tbe banks of the Mohawk River they had five fortified posts, called castles, one of them at the mouth of the river, another at Schenectady, and others farther west. They claimed ownership in the soil extending still more widely, northward to Canada, eastward to the Hudson, and southward to the Catskills.
In 1621 the Dutch West India Cornpany was chartered by the States-General of Holland, and invested with almost absolute authority over the New Netherlands. At first, as their only object was trade, they made no effort to acquire possession of land, but afterward they concluded to attempt a more permanent occupation. For the purpose of encouraging colonization, the company gave to any of its members who would buy land from the Indians and form a colony of fifty persons nearly absolute control of such land and the colonists. These owners were called patroons, and they acquired very extensive landed property. One of them, Killian Van Rensselaer, owned a tract of land containing over 700,000 acres, including all of the present county of Albany and the greater part of the counties of Rensselaer and Columbia., This large estate was named Rensselaerwyck, and the name of Beaverwyck was applied to the district, or hamlet, which included Fort Orange. Van Rensselaer did not himself come over to this country, but intrusted the care of his colony to Arendt Van Curler (or Corlaer), who came to this country in 1630, and under whose able management the colony was greatly prospered.
As Arendt Van Curler subsequently became the founder of Schenectady and left upon the men and institutions of his day the permanent impress of his characacter, it is proper here to describe his character and deeds. We find in him a most worthy illustration of the sterling traits inherited from a noble ancestry, To a mind of great natural strength and energy he added a firm will, a cultivated intellect, high moral purpose, unyielding integrity, along with persuasive power and large practical knowledge. It was his to place himself on the side of right, and then to win others to that side. These qualities commanded for him the respect and won the love of the civilized European and the uncivilized Indian. So highly was he regarded by the Indian tribes that after his day they applied his name, Corlaer, as the official title of respect by which they addressed the governors of New York. In the lexicon of the Iroquois language it is stated that their word kora is derived from the name of the celebrated Arendt Van Corlaer, that it was applied as a title to the Dutch governors of Orange and New Amsterdam, afterward to the English governors of Albany and New York, and to all the governors of New England. The Governor-General of Canada is invested with this title of honor, and for Her Majesty, the Queen of Great Britain, they are accustomed to exalt more highly her glory by adding the epithet kowa, that is, "the great," so that Queen Victoria is styled, in the language of the Iroquois, kora-kowa, "the great Corlaer."
Van Curler was a statesman of broad and comprehensive views. It was largely owing to his influence, in fact more to him than to any other one man, that the friendship of the powerful Iroquois was secured for the Dutch and the English, and thus the country came under a Germanic rather than a Latin race and civilization. With all his other admirable qualities he united a spirit of humanity that often found exercise in relieving the captives whom the Indians had taken. It was on an errand of mercy, to save some prisoners from their cruel captors, that he made in September, 1642, his first westward journey through the Mohawk valley. He was charmed with the country, and described it as "the fairest land the eyes of man ever rested upon."
In 1646, Killian Van Rensselaer died, leaving his colony in the hands of his son. Van Curler, then recently married, having obtained a farm in Rensselaerwyck, settled down in private life. But he always retained a liberal public spirit. Many of the settlers near Fort Orange were restive under the restrictions imposed upon them by the patroon. They wished to hold their lands, not by a feudal tenure, but in feesimple, or absolute possession. This desire Van Curler shared with them.
In June, 1661, he with fourteen others applied to Governor Stuyvesant for permission to purchase from the Indians the "Great Flat," a tract of land on the lower Mohawk, including the present site of Schenectady. Permission having been obtained, the land was bought in the following month. The description given in the deed was somewhat indefinite, but the area comprised was comparatively small. The right of trading with the Indians was not granted till 1672, so that at first the settlers were restricted to agriculture.
The land thus acquired was apportioned among the original proprietors by giving to each of them a houselot in the village, a farm on the Great Flat or on the islands, a pasture-ground east of the village, and a garden-lot on the west, near the Binne Kill. The original village plat comprised only the area extending from the main Binne Kill on the west to Ferry street on the east, and from the Mohawk River on the north to the lowlands on the south. It was divided into four blocks, or squares, and these were subdivided into house-lots. Van Curler's lot was at the corner of Church and Union streets, the present site of Union Classical Institute. The entire area of the village was inclosed and fortified with stockades, or palisades. The streets were laid out regular and at right angles.
They were named:
1. Handelaers (Traders) street. The name was changed in 1690 to Lion street, and at the close of the Revolutionary War to Washington street (now Washington avenue).
2. Front street, which still retains the name, and was so called because it was next to the river.
3. Ferry street, which retains its name, and was so called because at the foot of it was the landing place for boats.
4. Church street, which still bears the same name, and was so called because the earliest church (Reformed Dutch) was built at its southern termination.
5. Niskayuna street. This is now known as Union street.
6. Albany street. After the massacre of 1690, the name was changed to Martelaers (Martyrs) street. It is now known as State street.
The alluvial tract of arable land (Dutch, bouwland) extending from the river and State street on the north to the sand bluff on the south, and from the line of Centre street (continued) on the east to the hills west of the first lock on the canal, comprising an area of several hundred acres, was called the Great Flat (Groote Vlachte). When it first came into the possession of Europeans, it was mainly cleared land, and its fertile soil had for many years been cultivated by the native Mohawks.
The influence of Van Curler was strongly felt, and always for good, not only in the settlement which he had formed. but far more widely. In 1664, when the New Netherlands came into the possession of the English, he was consulted with great deference in regard to the policy to be pursued with the Indians. Two years later, his humanity appeared in rescuing from threatened starvation the French soldiers under Courcelles, who, starting from Montreal, made an unsuccessful expedition against the Mohawks. In 1667, while on a journey to Canada, in compliance with a friendly invitation from the French governor, Tracy, having embarked in a canoe to cross Lake Champlain, he was overtaken by a storm and drowned. He left no children. His widow continued to reside at Schenectady until her death, in 1675. Of the original settlers of Schenectady, all were natives of Holland except one, Alexander Lindsay Glen. He was a native of Scotland, but leaving that country as a refugee, he found an asylum in Holland, whence he emigrated to the New Netherlands. In 1665, he received a patent for some land which he had purchased on the north side of the Mohawk, and on which he had erected a mansion of stone. Retaining a warm affection for his native country, he named his estate Scotia (Latin for Scotland). From him, also, came the subsequent name of the township of Glenville.
The area of land originally purchased by the settlers of Schenectady soon proved insufficient to meet the wants of the increasing population. In 1672, they purchased additional lands from the Indians and made application to the Governor and Council for a patent, but this was for some time denied, for the alleged reason that permission had not been first obtained from the Governor to buy the land, and that full information of the premises was not given. Besides, some obstacles were interposed by the Mohawks themselves. Finally, in 1684, the settlers obtained from Governor Dongan the desired patent for the ancient township of Schenectady. This patent confirmed and secured to them a territory of 128 square miles, being 16 miles in length by 8 in breadth, including the present area of Schenectady city and the towns of Rotterdam and Glenville.
Schenectady, as is shown above, was patented as a township with certain municipal rights in 1684. It was chartered as a borough in 1765, and incorporated as a city March 26, 1798. The extensive area comprised within the city limits was divided into four wards: the first including all the compact portion of the city between Union street and the Mohawk River; the second, that part south of Union street and including a small portion of the bouwland; the third, what is now the town of Rotterdam; the fourth, what is now the town of Glenville. In course of time it became evident that one municipal government was not adapted to the wants of the increasing population, with their diverse interests, the inhabitants of the third and the fourth ward being engaged mainly in agriculture. Accordingly, in compliance with the general petition of the people, the legislature, in 1820, passed an act by which the third ward was set off and became the town of Rotterdam, and the fourth ward was set off and became the town of Glenville.
At various times in its early history, Schenectady suffered from the attacks of the French and the Indians. The most memorable of these attacks was in February, 1690. The causes which led to it were connected with the political changes in England, where the arbitrary king, James II., had been driven from the throne (November, 1688), and William and Mary had begun to reign (February, 1689). The great majority of the people on this side of the ocean favored the new order of things. With their support and in the name of the new sovereigns, the government of New York had been assumed by Jacob Leisler,a wealthy merchant and captain of the militia. The people of Schenectady were strongly Leislerian in their sympathies, and were bitterly opposed to those who had held office under King James. John Alexander Glen, the commander of the place and justice of the township, then residing at Scotia, was not allowed even to enter the village; and, contrary to his advice that a strict guard should be maintained, they left the gates unguarded except by images of snow, which they had placed there as sentinels.
Schenectady is said to have had at this time about 80 houses and 400 inhabitants. The village was mainly west of Ferry street, and was protected by palisades. There were two gates, one at the north end of Church street, the other at the south end, opening out to the Albany road. There was, also, near what is now the corner of Washington and Front streets, a fort garrisoned by 24 men. After the destruction of this fort, another one was built on the spot where now is the junction of Front, Ferry, and Green streets. In order to understand the circumstances connected with the attack on Schenectady, we must bear in mind that a portion of the Iroquois had been proselyted by Jesuit missionaries, who induced them to remove to Canada, where they settled at a place (a few miles above Montreal) called Caughnawaga, or Sault Saint Louis. It was under these circumstances that an expedition was sent by the French from Canada, with the intention of striking a blow at Albany or Schenectady. Of the various accounts, English and French, the most reliable appears to be the one written by Mons. de Monseignat, Comptroller-General of the Marine in Canada. The following extract from his report includes the most important part of the account.
"News arnved at Quebec of the success of the first party that had gone out against the English, and which had been organized at Montreal. It might have consisted of 210 men, to-wit: of 80 Indians of the Sault and the mountain, 16 Algonquins and the remainder Frenchmen. It was commanded by Lieutenants Le Moyne de Sainte Helene and Dailleboust de Mantet.
" Having taken their departure from Montreal, after a march of five or six days, they called a council to determine the course they should take, and the point they considered themselves in a condition to attack. The Indians demanded of the French what was their intention. Messieurs de Sainte Helene and de Mantet replied that they started in the hope of attacking Orange, if possible, as it is the capital of New York and a place of considerable importance, though they had no orders to that effect, but generally to act according as they should judge on the spot of their chances of success, without running too much risk. This appeared to the Indians somewhat rash. They represented the difficulties and the weakness of the party for so desperate an undertaking.
"As the Indians, who had perfect knowledge of the localities and more experience than the French, could not be brought to consent, it was determined to postpone coming to a conclusion until the party should arrive at the spot where the two paths separate-the one leading to Orange and the other to Corlard [Schenectady]. In the course of this march, which occupied eight days, the Frenchmen judged proper to diverge toward Corlard, according to the advice of the Indians, and that road was taken without calling a new council.
Nine days more elapsed before they arrived, having experienced inconceivable difficulties, and having been obliged to wade up to their knees in water and to break the ice with their feet in order to find a solid footing.
"At eleven of the clock at night, they came within sight of the town, resolved to defer the assault until two o clock of the morning. But the excessive cold admitted of no further delay. The town of Corlard forms a sort of oblong with only two gates, one opposite where our party had halted, the other opening toward Orange, which is only six leagues distant. Messieurs de Sainte Helene and de Mantet were to enter at the first, which was found wide open. Messieurs d'Iberville and de Montesson took the left with another detachment, in order to make themselves masters of that leading to Orange. But they could not discover it, and returned to join the remainder of the party. A profound silence was everywhere observed, until the two commanders, who separated after having entered the town, for the purpose of encircling it, met at the other extremity.
" The signal of attack was given Indian fashion, and the entire force rushed on simultaneously. M. de Mantet placed himself at the head of one detachment and reached a small fort where the garrison was under arms. The gate was burst in after a good deal of difficulty, the whole set on fire, and all who defended the place were slaughtered. The sack of the town began a moment before the attack on the fort. Few houses made any resistance. The massacre lasted two hours. The remainder of the night was spent in placing sentinels and in taking some rest. The house belonging to the minister [Rev. Peter Tassemaker] was ordered to be saved, so as to take him alive to obtain information from him; but as it was not known, it was not spared any more than the others. He was killed in it and his papers were burnt before he could be recognized.
"At daybreak some men were sent to the dwelling of Mr. Coudre [John Alexander Glen], who was major of the place, and who lived at the other side of the river. He was not willing to surrender, and put himself on the defensive with his servants and some Indians; but as it was resolved not to do him any harm, in consequence of the good treatment that the French had formerly experienced at his hands, M. d'Iberville and the Great Mohawk proceeded thither alone, promised hirn quarter for himself, his people and his property, whereupon he laid down his arms on their assurance, entertained them in his fort, and returned with them to see the commandants in the town.
"In order to occupy the Indians, who would otherwise have taken to drink and thus rendered themselves unable for defense, the houses had already been set on fire. None were spared in the town but one belonging to Coudre, and that of a widow who had six children, whither M. de Montigny had been carried when wounded. All the rest were burnt. The lives of between fifty and sixty persons, old men, women and children, were spared, they having escaped the first fury of the attack; also some thirty Iroquois, in order to show them that it was the English, and not they, against whom the grudge was entertained."
The French lost but two men at the attack on the town; but their return to Canada was attended with great hardships and the loss of 19 more men. Of the inhabitants of Schenectady, 60 were slain in the massacre, 27 were carried into captivity, one (or possibly more) escaped to Albany, and the remainder probably fled for refuge to their friends and neighbors who were settled along the river.
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