The Old New York Frontier/Part 1/Chapter 3

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Part 1.   Indians and Fur Traders
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Chapter 3.   The Coming of White Men (1614-1740)


THE Susquehanna Valley had been visited by Europeans several years before the Pilgrim Fathers made their landing at Plymouth. When Captain Christiaensen, the sturdy Dutch navigator, in 1614, selected Albany as the site of a trading post and erected near there a fort, he acted on knowledge already acquired concerning its relation to those routes into the Indian country which converged near the confluence of the Mohawk and the Hudson. In that year or the next, two men, of whom one was named Kleynties, set out from Fort Orange (Albany) to explore the fur country, and crossing from the Mohawk to Otsego Lake, proceeded down the Susquehanna into Pennsylvania. On the information these men secured was in part based that interesting piece of Dutch cartography called the Figurative Map, which shows not only the Connecticut, Hudson, and Mohawk rivers, but another stream, the home of "Sennecas" and "Minquas" (Mohawks).

    The course of this stream, as shown on the map, does not conform to any stream we know, but there was only one river inhabited by Senecas and Mohawks beyond the river Mohawk. This was the Susquehanna and its branches. About forty years later (in 1659) another map, that of Visscher, published at Amsterdam, gave a more accurate outline of a river which is unquestionably the upper Susquehanna and its branches. At its head, living on the shores of a lake, were men called "Canoo-makers." This lake appears to have been Otsego. On the Figurative Map is a marginal note in Dutch referring to "what Kleynties and his comrade have communicated to me respecting the locality of the rivers and the positions of the tribes which they found in their expedition from the Maquaas into the interior and along the new river down to the Ogehage." [1] At the latter place lived enemies of the Iroquois. The "new river" was the Delaware.

    Another Dutchman soon explored the country farther south, one Hendrickson, Christiaensen’s successor in command of the ship, who made discovery of "certain lands, a bay and three rivers" between the 38th and 40th degrees of parallel, making report as follows to the States General in August, 1616:

And did there trade with the inhabitants; said trade consisting of sables, furs, robes and other skins. He also traded for and bought from the Minquaes [2] three persons, being people belonging to this company, which three persons were employed in the service of the Mohawks and Mahicans, giving for them kettles, beads, and merchandise.

  • [1] The Figurative Map was found in the archives at The Hague in 1841.
  • [2] A Mohawk village appears on the Figurative Map, near the mouth of the Susquehanna.

    A visit to the head-waters of the Susquehanna was made in 1616 by Stephen Bruehle, whose purpose was part of a larger purpose entertained by the Dutch at that time to secure Indian warriors to aid them in a conflict with the French, who were then pressing down from Canada. From these warlike preparations dates the beginning of that alliance between the Six Nations and the white men of New York around which so much history thenceforth for a century and a half was to revolve. From it dates also the Indians’ familiarity with fire-arms.

    During the Dutch domination and the first years of English rule, many traders came into the valley. As the century was rounding well into its last quarter, not only the English at Albany, but an Englishman farther south, William Penn, began to show new and livelier interest in the territory. By that time its value in the fur trade had been amply demonstrated. When Dongan came over as Governor, new energy at once was infused into the administration. In 1683 Commissioners at Albany obtained for him an account of the river and its relations to the Indian settlements, their information coming from Europeans, or "Christians," as white men were then called, as well as from Indians. The Commissioners recommended that regular traders be sent out, to form camps or settlements along the valley. It was argued that these places would be much nearer the Indians than Albany was, "and consequently the Indians more inclinable to go there." The recommendation in part sprang from a desire to thwart certain efforts made by Penn to increase his trade, and in part from a desire to accede to the requests of Indians, but in the main Penn’s ambition was the moving cause.

    In a short time adventurous young men set out on journeys to the interior. Dongan, in 1686, requested the Indians to see that "neither French nor English go and live at the Susquehanna River, nor hunt nor trade amongst the brethren without my pass and seal." Should any be found without such passports, he desired the Indians to "bring them to Albany and deliver them at the Town House, where care shall be taken for punishing them." He would not make exception in cases of white men married to squaws, "they being only spies upon the brethren." The reply was that "we dare not meddle therewith, for a man whose goods are taken from him will defend himself, which may create trouble or war." In the following year Dongan desired to secure royal authority for erecting "a campagne fort" upon the Susquehanna River, "where his Majesty shall think fit Mr. Penn’s bounds shall terminate," and Dongan’s ideas as to this point favored Wyalusing.[3]


  • [3] Dr. Reauchamp’s rendering of this word is Home of the Old Warrior.

    Of the men sent out in Dongan’s time we do not know the names. We have, however, the names of two men who, on June 7, 1701, crossed the western branch of the Unadilla River, then called Eghwagy Creek. They were David Schuyler and Captain Johannas Bleeker. They were not traders, but delegates on their way from Albany to Onondaga charged with counteracting French intrigues.

    The next earliest names are those of German settlers, who in large companies, on three occasions, and perhaps four, passed down the valley on their way to Pennsylvania. They formed part of that large body of Palatines who have left so deep an impression on the Mohawk and Schoharie countries. They had originally left their homes on the Rhine in consequence of the devastation attending the wars of Louis XIV. In England they had met the five Indian chiefs taken over by Mayor Schuyler, who offered them land in America, and Queen Anne, who had given them food and shelter, advanced the money to pay their expenses across the sea.

    Late in the year 1709, to the number of about 4,000, they set sail, and lived successively in New York, Livingston Manor, and Schenectady, a hundred and fifty families in 1714 taking up lands at a place called Weiserdorp, which is now known as Middleburg, in Schoharie County. These families were in a state of great poverty. One "borrowed a horse here, another there; also a cow and plow harness," and during the first year they "made many meals on the wild potatoes and ground beans that grew in great abundance." A moving spirit among them was the elder Conrad Weiser.

    When trouble arose over titles to their Schoharie lands, which were claimed by Robert Livingston and others, a serious wrangle ensued, resulting in the sending of a sheriff from New York to Weiserdorp, a village of forty huts, constructed of logs, earth, and bark. A hostile reception awaited him, one of the incidents of which was an attack by a mob of women, led by Magdalene Zee (or Zeh), who carried the sheriff some distance on a rail, broke his ribs by pounding him with clubs, and otherwise did violence to him, the full details of which the present generation would not tolerate in print.

    The Germans concluded to submit the matter to the English sovereign, and three men, including Weiser, were sent to London. While at sea, the ship was attacked by pirates and Weiser "three times tied up and floged, but would not confess to having money." On arrival, they found that Queen Anne had died and that news of their attack on the sheriff had seriously prejudiced their case. One of Weiser’s companions sailed for home in disgust and died at sea, while Weiser and the other were arrested and sent to prison – perhaps to the Tower, for Brown says Weiser spent a year in that ancient castle. On being released the two men quarrelled. Weiser’s son says the trouble was they "both had hard heads."

    Dissatisfaction in Schoharie grew apace and finally a general migration set in for Conestoga, Pa. The route chosen was the Charlotte and Susquehanna rivers. Thirty families are said by Rupp to have gone down in the summer of 1723, "a few months before Weiser’s return." Some fifty others followed in 1725 and in 1729 another company departed.

Portrait of Sir William Johnson

    At the mouth of the Charlotte they built canoes with which to make the remainder of the journey, felling trees for the purpose. The tree-stumps were long remembered by Susquehanna settlers for their association with this migration. Twenty-five years later when Sir William Johnson applied for a patent he wished it to begin "where the Germans made their canoes to go to Conestoga." Household goods were transported in the canoes, and the horses and cattle driven along the Indian trail. Brown says deliberately that after reaching Conestoga, twelve horses broke from their stable and wandered away. A year and a half later ten of them were found at Weiserdorp, three hundred miles from Conestoga.

    The younger Conrad Weiser, who made this journey, says there was want of leadership. Each man did as he pleased, "and their obstanacy has stood in their way ever since." Young Weiser rose to considerable eminence in Pennsylvania as an Indian agent, and his services to the Government were so important that Washington, standing at his grave in 1793, remarked that these services had been rendered in a difficult period and posterity would not forget him.

    The migration from Schoharie had an important influence on the future population of Pennsylvania and New York. Had these Palatines fared better in Schoharie, it is not unlikely that the upper Susquehanna Valley would have been first peopled by that race instead of the Scotch-Irish, but the Palatines were not slow to inform their friends in the old country of their experience in New York and to advise them to settle in Pennsylvania instead. Many of the Palatines never left Schoharie however, and many others remained to found thriving settlements along the valley of the Mohawk, of which enduring evidence survives in the geographical nomenclature. From that pioneer stock came the central patriotic figure in the battle of Oriskany – General Nicholas Herkimer.

    About 1722 young men sent out by Governor Burnet had reached Oghwaga. Fifteen years later the importance of the valley as a highway to the South and West had become fully understood. In 1737 Cadwallader Colden, the Surveyor-General of the province, made an offlcial report showing the importance that he attributed to it. "Goods may be carried," he said, "from this lake (Otsego) in battoes or flat-bottom vessels through Pennsylvania to Maryland and Virginia, the current of the river running everywhere easy without any cataracts in all that long space." After describing the east and west branches of the Susquehanna, he added that "by either of these branches goods may be carried to the mountains, and I am told that the passage through the mountains to branches of the Mississippi which issue on the west side of these mountains is neither long nor difficult, by which means inland navigation may be had to the Bay of Mexico." Twenty-five years later, at the close of the French War, Pouchot described the Susquehanna as "navigable almost from its source," and as "flowing through a beautiful valley filled with very fine timber."

    It was not until the time of Johnson's trade activity that men with large purposes were regularly established on the river. Johnson's policy in sending his agents to Oghwaga, which he preferred to Oswego because of the absence of competition, resulted in its own reward. He became the most successful trader in the province.

    Johnson was a native of Ireland and a nephew of Sir Peter Warren, the owner of a large tract of land at the mouth of the Schoharie Creek, in what is now the town of Florida. Johnson had become Warren’s agent, and had engaged in the fur trade on his own account. Unlike the average trader of that time, Johnson was honest and fair in his dealings. Conspicuous for humanity, he won the regard of the Indians very early, and he retained it through life. He married a German wife, and soon found himself on the road to great success as a man of business. In 1739 he made plans for his trading post at Oghwaga. From this place trained agents were sent out along the network of trails, making contracts with the Indians at their own door – a method giving him vast advantage over the men who did business with Indians at Albany and Schenectady.

    Albany had become very unpopular with the Indians. The younger Weiser records a conversation he once had with an Onondaga chief named Canassatego. "You know our practice," said the chief; "if a white man in travelling through our country enters one of our cabins, we all treat him as I do you. We dry him, if he is wet; we warm him if he is cold; and give him meat and drink that he may allay his hunger and thirst, and we spread soft furs for him to rest and sleep on. We demand nothing in return. But if I go into a white man’s house in Albany and ask for victuals and drink, they say, 'where is your money?' and if I have none they say, 'get out, you Indian dog.'"

    There is no dearth of testimony to show that Indians fared badly in bargains made at Albany. Peter Kalm, an observing traveller, who visited Albany in the middle of the eighteenth century, says, "many persons have assured me that the Indians are frequently cheated in disposing of their goods, especially when they are in liquor, and that sometimes they do not get one-half or one-tenth of the value of their goods. I have been witness to several transactions of this kind." He refers to the "avarice and selfishness of the inhabitants of Albany" as well known. Few of the great fur traders have survived with good reputations. Parkman says many of them were "ruffians of the coarsest stamp, who vied with each other in rapacity, violence, and profligacy." They "cheated, cursed, and plundered the Indians and outraged their families." Johnson was a very conspicuous exception to this too general rule.