The Old New York Frontier/Part 3/Chapter 1

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The Old New York Frontier by Francis Whiting Halsey
Part 3, Chapter 1

Part 3.   Land Titles and Pioneers (1679 – 1774)
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Chapter 1.   William Penn and Sir William Johnson (1679 – 1766)



Page 87[edit]

IN the future of North America and the history of Anglo-Saxon civilization the year 1664 was important. Men of English race, under their own flag, in that year began to exert an influence on Manhattan Island. Ten years later they were confirmed in possession of that territory, now occupied by one of the earth’s largest and most opulent communities. The two dates form part of a great and memorable chain, starting in 1588, when was overthrown the Spanish Armada, and ending in 1759 when the English conquered at Quebec. The whole series embraces successive events by which the North American continent was wrested by Englishmen from Spanish, Dutch, and French domination. Considering all that followed from the peaceful capitulation of New Amsterdam in 1664, it was one of the most far-reaching events in American history.

Fifteen years after the capitulation, the English in New York obtained from the Indians a promise of the valuable domain of the Susquehanna. As affecting any actual title the promise appears to have had little value, but it is of interest to know that thus early had the valley attracted the attention of Englishmen. By this act the English surpassed in enterprise anything the Dutch had done in forty years of residence. The Dutch had shown merely the interest of fur traders, seeking a route of travel. The English wanted not only a route but land.

Page 88[edit]

James Graham and William Haig, agents of William Penn, arrived in Albany in 1683 with an offer from Penn to the Indians for the purchase of these lands. Penn’s purpose was by this method to divert toward Philadelphia the trade that went to Albany. His scheme showed foresight and the English were at once alarmed by it. They declared that if he bought the river it would “tend to the utter ruin of the beaver trade as the Indians do themselves acknowledge.” Moreover, there “hath not anything ever been moved or agitated from the first settling of these parts more prejudicial to his Royal Highness’s interests and the inhabitants of this government than this business of the Susquehanna river. The French, it is true, have endeav-ored to take away our trade by piece-meal, but this will cut it off all at once.” In one year Penn, in fact, had received “upwards of 200 packs of beavers,” and the trade promised to increase. If this continued, the New York Government could not maintain itself and Albany would be depopulated. Governor Dongan received word from London in reply to this report that "we think you will do well to preserve your interests there as much as possible so that nothing more go away to Mr. Penn or either New Jerseys."

Page 89[edit]

Three weeks after the visit a conference with the Indians was held at Albany, and a formal instrument was signed and sealed conveying to the English the Susquehanna territory above Wyalusing,[1] and in 1684 an offensive and defensive alliance against the French was concluded at which the Onondaga and Cayuga sachems made the following statement:

We have given the Susquehanna river which we won with the sword, to this government and desire that it may be a branch of the great Tree [2] which grows in this place, the top of which reaches the sun, under whose branches we shall shelter ourselves from the French and any other people, and our fire burn in your houses and your fire burn with us and we desire that it always may be so and will not that any of your Penn’s people shall settle upon the Susquehanna river, for all our folks or soldiers are like wolves in the woods as you sachem of Virginia know, we having no other land to leave to our children. We desire of you therefore that you would bear witness of what we now do, and that we now confirm what we have done before.
You great man of Virginia, we let you know that great Penn did speak to us here in Corlear’s House by his agents and desired to buy the Susquehanna river, but we would not harken to him for we had fastened it to this government.

This "great man of Virginia" was the Governor-General, Lord Howard of Effingham, who had gone to Albany to remonstrate against invasions of his territory by the Indians. He told them it was now about seven years since they came unprovoked to Virginia and “committed such murders and robberies,” and that they had invaded that province every year since in a warlike manner. He proposed a “new chain” and one “that may be more strong and lasting even to the world’s end.” The Indians were pleased by this conciliatory spirit and the next day planted the tree of peace.


[1] It is obvious that by the Susquehanna was then meant not only the river as we know it, but other streams that flow into it above Wyalusing, including, besides the Unadilla and Charlotte, the Chenango and Chemung. One of the official papers of the times says, “All the nations with whom Albany hath trade live at the head of the Susquehanna river.” Again the river was described as "situated in the middle of the Senaca country.” It was the Cayuga and Onondaga sachems who now made a conveyance to the English. They said the river “belongs to us alone, the other nations having nothing to do with it.”
[2] The Tree of Peace.

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When the delegates from the several nations referred to the King of England, then Charles II., they called him "your friend that lives over the great lake." They asked to have him informed that they were "a free people uniting ourselves to what sachem we please," which was probably the earliest message to Great Britain from these shores showing a spirit of independence.

The Indians did not regard this treaty as a deed conveying all their right and title. The reference to the valley as the only land they had to leave their children, implies that they believed the land still remained in some sense their own. They were merely placing themselves and their lands "under the protection of the King," and hoped thus to "shelter themselves from the French." Sixty years later, at a conference in Albany, the Indians declared that their fathers had made the Susquehanna conveyance by advice of the English as a way to secure self-protection and to prevent Penn and others from imposing on them. They had understood that they "might always have the land when we should want it." The English had told them they "would keep it for our use," and "accordingly we trusted them."

That the English, on the other hand, believed they had secured ownership is obvious from Dongan’s report of 1687, when he said he had been obliged "to give a great deal to the Indians for the Susquehanna river." Whatever the sum given, it probably was not large. Certain other convey-ances of land secured from the Indians in 1683 named as considerations "half a piece of Duffels, two blankets, two guns, three kettles, four coats, fifty pounds of lead and five and twenty pounds of powder."

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Dongan, in announcing the purchase to Penn, expressed a hope that “you and I shall not fall out: I desire that we may join heartily together to advance the interests of my master and your good friend.” But Penn never forgave Dongan for thwarting his ambition, and finally had his revenge. At the court of James II., where he was high in favor, Penn fostered prejudices against Dongan, and in 1686 Dongan heard that he was to be recalled. In distress he wrote directly to the King: "Mr. Penn has written that I was to be recalled home and I do not doubt that he would do all he can to effect it, having no great kindness for me because I did not consent to his buying the Susquehanna river." But this letter saved him not. Dongan was recalled. Two years later James himself, in the revolution of 1688, realized what it was to be overtaken by misfortune. Nor was it long before misfortune came to Penn. Penn’s desire for the valley still existed as late as 1691, when an address to the King, William of Orange, from the Governor and Council of New York, contained these words:

If Mr. Penn should attain his pretenses to the Susquehanna river it will not only destroy the best branch of your Majesty’s revenue, but it will likewise depopulate your prov-ince, the inhabitants of Albany having only seated themselves there and addicted their minds to the English language and the mysteries of the said trade with purpose to manage it, that if it should be diverted from that channel they must follow it, having no other way or art to get a livelihood.
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In the following year, by an order in Council, Penn was deprived of the Governorship of Pennsylvania, and new accusations were made of treasonable correspondence with James, who was now a king in exile. But the men of New York, thanks to Dongan,[3] had forever secured the Susquehanna Valley. In 1711 we find them giving an order to the Indians living on the river to send their fighting men to Albany to join an English expedition against the French in Canada. Thenceforth until the Revolution the English often repeated this appeal and not in vain.


[3] Thomas Dongan's services to the Province of New York have been most lastingly commemorated in that instrument called after him – the "Charter of Liberties and Privileges" of 1686, which remains a landmark in the history of popular government in America.

Following the fur traders came actual settlers. Along the lower Mohawk white men had established homes soon after the Dutch came to New York, but in the main these were only trading posts, just as Albany itself originally was one. Schenectady was the most important, the place heing actually settled somewhat later – about 1660. By 1690 it had grown to be a town of eighty houses surrounded by a stockade. At midnight in February of that year Frontenac burned all those houses and killed sixty-three persons. Royal grants of land further west along the Mohawk came later still. Even the English were slow to set value on the vast areas of fertile soil that lay uncultivated in the Western wilderness.

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Near Fort Hunter, John P. Maibae acquired a patent in 1705, while in the same year was issued the great Oriskany patent on which Fort Stanwix was afterward to be built, and which remained for many years the extreme outpost of the white men’s landed possessions in the Province of New York; but the real “thirst for land” did not actually set in among the English until twenty or thirty years later, in the time of Governor Burnet, who with large foresight planted the trading post and fort at Oswego. To that period belong the patents issued in the Mohawk Valley to Lewis Morris, Robert Livingston, Rutgerd Bleeker, Abram Van Horn, and Frederick Morris, and the great Cosby’s Manor grant extending from German Flatts westward beyond Utica, on both sides of the stream.

When the Protestant missionaries took up their work, the upper Susquehanna had become familiar ground to many white men, a few of whom had secured titles to land. It is not surprising to find that the first men who became owners of land were traders, or men interested in the trade, or that they still more frequently were men whose official places enabled them to secure grants advantageously.

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John Lindesay, who obtained the Cherry Valley patent in 1738, and founded the settlement at that place in the following year under the name of Lindesay’s Bush, had been Sheriff of Albany County, and in company with Philip Livingston, who lived in Albany and was a commissioner of Indian affairs, for more than twenty-five years, had obtained in 1730 a patent on the Mohawk near Little Falls. Lindesay secured the Cherry Valley tract while George Clarke was Lieutenant-Governor. Clarke, who was interested in the tract, came to America from England in Queen Anne’s time, in order to act as Secretary to the Province, and in 1736 had become Lieutenant-Governor, an once he held for seven years. By marriage he was connected with the family of Hyde, to which belonged the earls of Clarendon, and from which came the name of the family home in Otsego – Hyde Hall.[4]


[4] After the Revolution another George Clarke, heir to these 1ands as Clarke’s grandson, came over and established himself permanently on the lake. Of the semi-baronial life which he led there, interesting glimpses are given by Levi Beardsley, who knew Clarke well and had often partaken of his hospitality.

Arendt Bradt, of Schenectady, who obtained a small patent on Schenevus Creek in 1738, another on the same creek in 1740, and a third at the mouth of that creek in 1740, was a commissioner of Indian affairs, serving with Philip Livingston, and with Livingston owned a patent on the Mohawk. Nearly all these Indian commissioners were engaged in the fur trade. Although they received no salaries as commissioners, the office was one of profit and consequence. What was known as Petrie’s Purchase, extending north from Otsego Lake, was secured in 1740, John J. Petrie being a resident of German Flatts, where at one time he was a magistrate. John Groesbeck, who was an officer of the Court of Chancery, obtained in 1741 the patent lying northeast of the lake, in which neighborhood lay the George Clarke lands.

Voleert Oothout in 1741 secured a patent to the bottom-lands of Cherry Valley Creek, extending from Lindesay’s patent down to and across the Susquehanna. David Schuyler, whose family was prominent in Indian affairs, and who had close relations with John Lindesay, in 1755 obtained his large patent running west from Richfield. From him the lake of Richfield derived the name which for many years it bore.

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Most interesting of all these early grants is the one made to William Johnson in 1751. Desiring to secure possession of the Susquehanna lands extending from the mouth of the Charlotte to the Pennsylvania line, he, like others, found it necessary first to purchase them from the Indians. In May, 1751, he petitioned for the lands after having correspondence with Gouldsborough Banyar, as to the form of petition. He applied for a tract extending one mile back from the river on each side and estimated to embrace 100,000 acres.

In the same year a warrant was issued to Johnson and others – the petition had come from "William Johnson and Co." – to lay out these lands as far as the Pennsylvania line, a line which then had not been definitely fixed, and this gave rise to anxiety in Pennsylvania. In this year was held the Albany council at which Jonathan Edwards learned of the desire of the English to send missionaries into the valley. Johnson’s interest in these lands and Hawley’s coming to Oghwaga have close connection. That Johnson purchased the lands from the Indians is shown in a letter he addressed to “the King’s most excellent Majesty in Council,” in 1766, saying the Six Nations had given him "by deed a tract of land on the Susquehanna river within the said Province," for which he "had paid them a large sum of money."

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Johnson was the earliest white man who by purchase acquired title to lands in the upper valley west of the Charlotte. He had first risen to office in 1745, when he was made a Justice of the Peace. Four years later he was appointed Sole Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and prepared at once to conciliate the red men Along with wampum belts he sent them a request to attend the council of 1751. Clad in their own dress, he partook of their pastimes, put on their paint and feathers, and was adopted by the Mohawks as a chief. All previous councils were far outdone, and Johnson’s success perhaps marked a turning-point in the conflict with France. The council met on the same hill where now rises the imposing edifice reared by the Empire State for its Capitol, and here, under Johnson’s influence, was held that other and greater council, the Congress of 1754.

In his time Johnson became owner of a vast estate, acquired by methods of which modern notions of right and wrong perhaps would not wholly approve, but which in the eighteenth century were common to men in office in America. Dr. Timothy Dwight says this wealth was due to "a succession of ingenious and industrious devices," and a story illustrative of them has been so widely printed as to be generally believed:

Old King Hendrick of the Mohawks was at his house at the time Sir William received two or three rich suits of military clothes. The old King, a short time afterward, came to Sir William and said: "I dream." "Well, what did you dream?" "I dream you gave me one suit of clothes." "Well, I suppose you must have it," and accordingly he gave him one. Some time after, Sir William met Hendrick and said: "I dreamed last night." "Did you.? what did you dream?" "I dreamed you gave me a tract of land," describing it. After a pause Hendrick said: "I suppose you must have it," and then raising his finger significantly, added, "You must not dream again."
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Besides Dwight, others have accepted this story, among them Campbell (who credits it to Dwight), Schoolcraft, and Simms, who gave Henry F. Yates as his authority. Stone, in very positive terms, pronounced the story untrue, and his statement inspires confidence. Johnson has not been the only victim of the anecdote. In language almost identical it may be found in a biography of the younger Conrad Weiser, where Weiser takes Johnson’s place as the hero. Weiser’s biographer is as positive as Johnson’s in his denial of its truth.

A tradition exists in the Susquehanna Valley that the land referred to in the story was not in the Mohawk Valley, but in the Susquehanna, at the mouth of Otego Creek, and it is well known that some of the early deeds now on record at Cooperstown use the words "being a parcel of Sir William Johnson’s dreamland tract." Johnson’s own statement that he had paid "a large sum of money" for his Susquehanna tract, the warrant issued to him in 1751 and Stone’s positive denial must, however, be remembered. As for the early Otsego deeds, they could have done little more than continue a tradition which, at the time the earliest deeds at Cooperstown were drawn, was forty years old. King Hendrick, moreover, was of the Mohawks and that nation is not known to have claimed any lands as far west as Otego Creek. Some importance must also be given to a letter written by Johnson to the Lords of Trade in 1764, in which he says:

The friendship which several of the Indian nations professed for me induced them at different periods many years ago to give me deeds of several large tracts, signed in public meetings of the whole, far which as they always expect a return I at times paid them large sums, more than they received from many strangers, and might have procured patents for such tracts and settled or disposed of them to great advantage a long time since, but for my unwillngness to be engaged in lands from the nature of my employment.