The Story of New Netherland/Chapter 21
THE Iroquois term of location eastward of the Long House, “Schenectady,” has been spelled in fifty-nine different ways, and the names of the modern city are many and significant. “Schnonowe,” “The Dorp,” “Les nouvelles habitations hollandaises,” “Schenectady,” “Schoon-echtendeel” (beautiful portion), “The Ancient City,” “The Finished Place,” “The Electric Capital,” are names given fondly or humorously to the first settlement on the Mohawk, or the municipality founded by Arendt van Curler, whose noble life ended in 1667.
In the next year, 1668, a fresh move on the chessboard of European politics made the young settlement thrill. The triple Alliance of England, Holland, and Sweden against France, the owner of Canada, populated the American woods with scalp-hunters, and made new danger for the frontiersmen. Although for the safety of New York the Iroquois in the Long House were still like a wall of life and fire, yet politics and religion, being yoked together, had altered the situation. The French Jesuits had converted many Mohawks, and led off a contingent of “praying Indians” to Montreal. Their new zeal, added to their elemental passions, made war a delight. In this was a startling danger for the Dorp on the Mohawk.
These free farmers were never in favor either with the aristocratic manor folks at Albany, or with “John Company’s” servants at Manhattan, or with the Court party that fawned on the English governors or fattened with the land speculators from Great Britain. Very much as the rich Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay at first looked down on the Pilgrims at Plymouth — as Anabaptists, poor relations, and as too democratic, even to boorishness — was the southern view of the frontier villagers on the Mohawk. Andros was especially severe with “the Dorp,” and on one occasion he actually blockaded the place for a month. The right to bolt flour and to trade in furs was denied the Dorpians, and many a time did the sheriff come up from Albany to search houses and keep money in the pockets of patroon and Company. The bolting of flour was Manhattan’s monopoly, to the bloating in wealth of men already rich, and to the inconvenience and impoverishing of the villagers who could have only meal. It is significant that on the city seal of Schenectady is a sheaf of wheat, while on that of New York City are windmill sails and barrels of flour. The secret of Manhattan’s early wealth and of Schenectady’s hardship is thus told as eloquently as the golden codfish of Massachusetts reveals the sea as the source of colonial riches.
Jacob Leisler opposed this monopoly, and stood for the freedom of the people. When, by the choice of the men of the province and appointment of the Committee of Safety, Leisler was made Director of Affairs, he promised the Schenectady people freedom of trade and the right to bolt flour. Was it any wonder that, in 1690, most of the Schenectady people were Leislerian in sympathy and acts? Yet as there were also anti-Leislerians, the Dorp was as a house divided against itself, — a fact which, alas, was known in Canada.
Peter Tassemacher (the name meaning pocket or cup maker) was the first Domine settled in the Dorp. He had seen not a little of the world before he was killed to please the Versailles boudoir. After his preparatory examination at Rhenen on the Rhine, he bad been a teacher in the English Church at the Hague, served in South America, and after 1652 in several churches in lower New Netherland, being popular wherever he went. Yet he had his critics. Two Labadists, Danker and Sluyter, while prospecting for a settlement of their fellow believers in America, and before deciding upon Maryland, visited Schenectady. Their snarling criticisms of the sermons and manners of this and other Dutch ministers may be read in the published journal of their travels. Tassemacher must have been at least ordinarily eloquent.
The Church at Schenectady began its existence some time before 1680. The old artilleryman, Hans Janse Eencluys, who had served the Company, with Jacobus van Curler, in Connecticut, and later the Patroon at Rensselaerwijk, lived on the ground which is now the campus of Union College. Eencluys’s hill, “the brook which bounds through Union’s grounds,” still bears his name on its murmuring waters, he made over to the Church, for the benefit of the poor at Schenectady, his plantation, on condition that he should be kept in his old age and weakness. The deacons took good care of him until his death in 1683. Then they buried him with honors, and administered on his estate. The Arme weg, or “ poor pasture,” furnished fodder for the villagers’ cows for nearly two centuries.
According to local tradition, some people who were owners of cattle, but not at all “poor,” abused the generosity of the deacons, and took advantage of the free pasture. Thereupon a law was made that all cows properly entitled to free grass should have one horn painted red. The cure proved worse than the disease. Soon every cow in the place had a crimson horn. In a sense not modern the town was “painted red.”
Dutch churches have ever been guardians of the poor, the orphan, the aged, and of all who were without natural protectors. No country on earth excelled Patria in wisely and beneficently organized charity, and what the people were and did in Patria was but slightly changed in New Netherland. By the faithful work of the churches, as administered by the deacons and the family organization, many of the modern miscellaneous charities were rendered unnecessary.
The prosperous condition of the poor fund, from 1680 to 1690, is shown in that, when the deacons’ accounts were audited by Domine Tassemacher, the money on hand amounted to about 4000 guilders, or $1000, worth now at least $5000, — a handsome sum for a little church in a frontier village of sixty log cabins. On the parsonage they built for the Domine, Claes van der Volgen helped. He was the famous young man, who, his life spared in the massacre of 1690, went to Canada, was adopted into the tribe, lived as an Indian, but returned to his home, and died in old age as a Christian, a deacon, and a Dorpian. Happily a Delilah, of whom he was enamored, sheared off his scalp lock, and the strength of his Indian desires vanished.
It is to be hoped that the Domine had light enough to read his Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament in his little parsonage study-room, for an item of two glass windows costing ten guilders is not suggestive of luxury. It reveals rather the scarcity of the transparent medium imported from Europe. The home-made “lights “ in most of the houses consisted of tough paper greased with lard, with perhaps many a joke about “American stained glass,” which was hardly up to the Gouda standard in Patria. The Dutch had even petitioned to build a new house of worship for their popular pastor. The extra expenses, to which the congregation was put on the Domine’s account, were evidently in anticipation of his marriage, about which tradition has many tongues. A buxom young widow was to be the juffrouw, and the merrymaking on the sad night of February 8, 1690, is said to have been the engagement party, after the manner of Patria. According to another legend, a squaw, for soiling with snow or mud the spotless floor, was roundly scolded by a neat housewife. The Indian woman, who possibly suspected what was coming, answered that it would be dirty enough in a few days. Instead of nuptials, the parsonage became the scene of slaughter and the funeral pile of its occupant.
Between danger from Canada and the Leisler troubles, the villagers were already in the shadow of a great peril from without and in danger of anarchy from within. During the previous summer of 1689, the haughty Mohawks of the Mohawk Valley, allies of the Dutch and English, had destroyed Montreal. For this proceeding, the French were bound to take vengeance. The Leisler troubles divided the people, and the “Commonality” were ready to take up arms against the partisans of Andros, the flour monopolists, and the Jacobites. Yet both parties laughed at the idea of the distant French being able so soon to recoup and unite for it blow on the settlements as far south as Albany. Besides, they forgot those Mohawks who were allies with the French in faith. Their criminal neglect and fatal delusion brought the Dorpians to grief.
After years of locked gates, sentinels pacing their lonely rounds on the palisade platform, after the building of a fort, and — as the result of Leisler’s union of the colonies — the reinforcements of its garrison by Connecticut militia, Fate seemed to mock Providence. Just when the storm of war broke without warning, the gates were wide open, the entrance being blocked only by a fall of snow and by two mock sentinels of the same material. One and all, soldiers and burghers, from cradled babies to venerable sires, the Domine and his flock, the latter after a merrymaking between sunset and midnight, were wrapped in the deepest slumbers.
All this amazing neglect of common care was because of the division of the people into Leisler and anti-Leisler parties. In the vehemence of factional quarrels, ordinary precautions were not taken, and danger was sniffed at. In mid-winter, with from five to twenty feet of snow on the trails, who would be so mad as to face danger and cold over a stretch of a hundred miles? Yet the French dared.
More than one description of the fort and hamlet that thus tempted mighty France in Canada had been sent to VersaiIles. Woman’s beauty, courtly favor, and royal commands, in an age of loyalty, were the spurs that drove the gallant young French officers to brave the menace of death by cold and starvation. They would root out the nest of heretics, and win, perhaps, a fur preserve for the glutting of the Markets of France. So, on snowshoes, leading their red allies and their loyal henchmen through winter’s whiteness and silence, they reached the Mohawk. To their surprise, on crossing the river’s ice sheet, the Frenchmen found the village gates open.
Quickly ranging themselves in lines along the streets, they raised the war whoop, and with spear, tomahawk, sword, powder and ball, began the work of blood. At the outset, one unforgetting Canada brave, long ago treated kindly by Deacon Wendell, came with a led horse, dragged out his friend, threw a blanket over him, and at the gate, past all his fellow savages, gave the brute a whack on the flank which started the rider to Albany. Nearly dead and half frozen, Deacon Wendell lived to become the ancestor of the witty essayist and physico-theologian, our Oliver Wendell Holmes, who himself told me the story that is confirmed by witnesses of the old time.
Among the victims was Domine Tassemacher. He was to have been saved, for the Frenchmen wanted his papers. Tomahawked early in the massacre, and tossed back to cremation in his parsonage, little that had once been his was found in the ashes. Another victim was a son of Anneke Janse. Among the saved or lost were the ancestors of scores of the most famous families of the Empire State.
At daylight Sanders Glen, an anti-Leislerian, who lived in his loopholed and palisaded house at Scotia, across the river, was visited by the French officers. They promised him his life and the lives of his relatives then among the prisoners, because of his past kindness to their people. Going over to the village, he chose out so many to be set free that the Canadian Mohawks grumbled, and further rescue proceedings were stopped. Then the plunder was loaded on fifty horses, the twenty-seven captives tied, and all the houses, except four or five, were set on fire. Sixty corpses lay on the level waste of ashes. Twenty-five persons had escaped. Most of the dead who were not killed at once, but who in mortal wounds perished in their nightclothes, were found frozen on what was later called “Martyrs Street.” The anti-Leislerians gloated because Leisler’s “seditious letters now found all bloody upon Schenectady streets, with the motions of a free trade, bolting,” etc.., had been picked up.
Schenectady became the theme of grave debate between Versailles and London. Gay was the chat among lace-cuffed ministers of Louis XIV over the destruction of the heretics of the frontier village. But the Dutchmen of Dorp, though cast down, would not be destroyed. They hated Albany patroonism and feudalism and Manhattan monopolies as bitterly as ever. As unquailing in their perseverance, and as tenacious in their love of freedom as had been their fathers behind the dikes, the remnant came back. These free farmers, despite poverty and all discouragements, would neither yield to the seductions of patroonism at Albany, nor back down before the further menace from Canada. Freedom was too sweet.
As soon as spring warmed the ground, the remnant of the survivors were back to seed their farms, to rebuild among the ashes their homes, and on the old site to uprear the palisades and start the town again. At intervals they welcomed back from captivity the captives, often grown from boyhood to man’s estate. Sometimes these had been adopted into Indian families, but on their return they were quickly won to civilization again.
Until the Peace of Ryswijk, in 1697, there was no safety in the Mohawk Valley except behind fortifications. The farmer worked with a musket at his side. There were many funerals of men found in the fields without hair and with lead inside their bodies. More than one skull have I seen at Dorp cloven by tomahawks, or perforated with balls, and sometimes with leaden bullets rattling inside, when the old cemetery was emptied. Nevertheless, because of the movement of large bodies of British soldiers through the town, wealth increased.
By 1700 the people were able to call a minister and build a new house of worship. Thenceforth life became much richer in every way. In 1734 a fine new stone church, fifty-six by eighty feet, was built. With a belfry, bell from Amsterdam, clock, and a gilded weather-vane surmounting all, the sacred edifice must have seemed almost metropolitan in its imposing proportions. For over a century, until it melted in a fire which consumed this fourth house of worship, the sweet tones of the bell from Patria called to prayer and praise.
When the daily promenades of “our rural divinity” ceased, and paved streets and brick sidewalks came into fashion, in place of lanes and cow-tracks, the New York Central Railroad Company wanted the land which was formerly “the poor pasture,” just about the time that the Church lost the edifice by fire. The Arme weg of Eencluys, over which iron horses had long been careering, was sold for $11,500, which sum was applied, in 1862, to the building of the gem of architecture on which Edward Tuckerman Potter, brother of the late bishop now at rest in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, lavished the wealth of his genius. When in June, 1880, we celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the Church, with blazoned banners, floral symbols of bell, hourglass, font, and vane, with the church charter and other muniments in evidence, the list in the local newspapers showed that the Dutch clans and families, with some others, were will represented. As the local newspapers reported: —
The Bankers, Barhydts, Buskirks, Chisms, Clutes, Condes, Corls, Cregiers, de Forests, de Graffs, Duryees, Felthousens, Fondas, Freemans, Fullers, Gillespies, Glenns, Greggs, Groots, Grouts, Hagamans, Hamlins, Harmans, Hoags, Kittles, Kleins, Lansings, Marcelluses, Mynderses, Oothouts, Ostranders, Ostroms, Ouderkirks, Parmentiers, Pearses, Peeks, Plancks, Propers, Putnams, Quackenbushes, Quants, Reagleses, Reeses, Relyeas, Rosas, Ruoffs, Sanderses, Schermerhorns, Schoolcrafts, Schuylers, Sellyes, Shaffers, Sitterleys, Slovers, Snyders, Speirs, Swarts, Switses, Swortfiguers, Tellers, Thorntons, Tolls, Truaxs, Twombleys, Turnbulls, Tymesons, the Vans of all sorts the Vedders, the Veeders, Vieles, Visschers, Vibbards, Vorheeses, Vroomans, Waldrons, Wassons, Weatherwaxes, Weekses, Wellers, Wemples, Wendells, Wessels, Westinghouses, Whitmyers, Wilkies, Winegarts, Whitbecks, were all out Sunday at the bi-centennial exercises in the First Reformed Church, besides scores of others bearing names familiar in Holland.
Most prominent among the floral symbols on bi-centennial day were those of the Holy Book, the marriage bell, and the baptismal bowl. On Manhattan in 1694 the people’s silver offerings of coins and ornaments were sent to Patria, and the Amsterdam artisans melted down the treasure and hammered out the sacred vessel still used in the church on Madison Avenue. From Schenectady a similar offering of white metal enriched the rim of the church bell. In these baskets of silver translation lie Domine Selyns’s apples of gold: —
- Not on mere water fix your sight,
- Ne’er to ’ve been born were better,
- But look for more in baptism’s rite,
- Than that which kills — the letter.
- For, with his precious blood Christ knows
- How from my sins to cleanse me;
- And by His Spirit life bestows,
- Washing the wound that stains me.
The limits of this little book do not allow a chapter on “the intellectuals” of New Netherland, nor on its bibliography. There were poets and prose writers, and not all the works printed in Dutch were volumes of sermons. The church in Schenectady was typical in having a long line of scholarly pastors, graduates of universities, whose books in Mohawk, Dutch, and English, and the literature about the men and their writings, would make a respectable library.