Schenectady Genesis - Purple Mountain Press



by Susan J. Staffa

From the Preface

Schenectady, the first town to be settled in the Mohawk Valley west of Albany, has long been aware of its Dutch origins. Local historians refer to the town as "Old Dorp," while the city dubs "Patroons," those upon whom it wishes to confer honor. The Schenectady County Historical Society has perhaps the most complete genealogical file in upstate New York, on the Abeels through the Ysselsteyns, as well as a fine collection of antiques representing the material culture of the Dutch. Recently, however, the realization has dawned that the Dutch heritage is far more than the clay pipes and delftware of the Historical Society, the steep roofs of the Stockade, and the genealogy of a few residents. It is especially exciting that this awareness comes just when the city is passing through a period of economic transition and reaching for a new identity. In the expression of Schenectady's Dutch past, it may find resources for the future.

Conceptually, Schenectady Genesis points in two directions. It refers not only to how Schenectady came to be, but the impact that Schenectady and the activities of Schenectadians had on the development of New York and the nation. The story of how the Dutch colonial village became an American city is part of the story of how the colonial Province of New York became a State, and European colonies in America became the United States. Schenectady's story cannot be told properly apart from the stories of Albany County and the Mohawk Valley in particular. A community's political, economic, and cultural connections to the world outside are essential to its process of development, and it is only the larger context, by providing spatial and temporal perspective, that preserves local history from the realm of trivia and reveals the true significance of events.

This book is the first of a two-part study that will trace the evolution of the Dutch colonial village of Schenectady, first into an English colonial borough town, and then into an American city incorporated in 1798. The aims of this work are several. I am writing primarily for general readers who may have heard of New York's Dutch heritage but do not perceive the connection between it and the modern Empire State. The heritage has no significance unless the connection is understood. Recent scholarly works have traced the evolution of Dutch colonial communities through the early part of the eighteenth century, but none has yet traced in detail the history of a single community all the way through the Revolutionary period and the last years of the eighteenth century. While scholars working in New York history will be interested to see a detailed study that covers a period of 137 years of the evolution of a frontier village community founded by the Dutch, Schenectady readers in particular will appreciate being able to relate local historical sites, structures, personalities, and traditions to broad themes of American cultural development in the colonial and post-colonial days of nation-building.

How This Book Came to Be

This book had its genesis in the investigative work of the writer, undertaken at first merely out of curiosity, and then more diligently pursued as hitherto unknown facts came to light, pointing the way to reinterpretation. As one brought up in the Stockade, the original part of the town settled by the Dutch in 1661, I, like most Schenectadians, had always had the idea that the town's early history had already been told. In 1962 the Stockade became the first legally protected Historic District in the State of New York. In the nineteenth century, scholars such as Professor Jonathan Pearson, the Reverend William E. Griffis, the Honorable Judge John Sanders, and the Honorable Austin A. Yates had translated documents and written substantial volumes upon which twentieth-century historians had heavily depended. The colonial tradition, in fact, had become commonplace and even the story of the Schenectady massacre, by French and Indians in 1690, had become stale. Few writers had been concerned with the process of community reconstruction. I early developed an aversion to local history and to what seemed to me to be the parochial orientations of traditional American history. Adopting a broader, deeper focus, I emerged finally with a doctorate in anthropology, focusing on archaeology and Native American and Near Eastern cultures. Only after spending ten years in Cairo, Egypt, did I return to Schenectady to uncover, quite unexpectedly, a colonial history that hitherto no one had realized was there.

The story began to unfold very close to home. In fact, the first clue was the house that had been our family home for over sixty years. It appeared to be a Victorianized federal-style house and, from the 1950s, it had borne an historic marker proclaiming it to have been built in 1815. Ten months of architectural and archival research, however, showed it originally to have been a house of an old Dutch style, a center-hall "gable-ender" as a late eighteenth-century Schenectadian had described it. The identification of the original owner of the house was no less startling. He was none other than Captain Philip Schuyler, a younger brother of Colonel Pieter Schuyler, the first Mayor of Albany, whom Pieter had made the first commandant of Queen Anne's fort. The fort, built in 1703, had once stood beside the house and came to serve as a nucleus of the town as it developed after the massacre of 1690. Since 1884, a statue of an Indian that has become a familiar symbol of the Stockade and colonial Schenectady has marked the site at the intersection of Ferry, Front, and Green Streets. Further research showed that during the Revolution, our house was the home of Colonel Christopher Yates, an outstanding patriot and community leader who was the father of a governor of New York State.

The revelations concerning the house were not as unsettling as the implications they bore for the reinterpretation of Schenectady's early history. No one had ever bothered to ask who was in charge of the fort or considered the role of the fort in the community. Pearson had known of the presence of the Schuylers in Schenectady, but had not pursued the significance of that fact. When I sought information in the standard works of local historians, it appeared that almost nothing had happened between the massacre of 1690 and the Revolution! The Schuyler presence signaled an important untold story because all histories of Schenectady in its formative period had been told in a purely local, rather than in a broad Euro-American or even a regional frame of reference.

Pieter Schuyler had not only been the first Mayor of Albany but Provincial Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The Covenant Chain alliance with the Five-Nations Iroquois that allowed the British to prevail over the French in North America can be traced from a mutual assistance pact initiated by Arent van Curler, the founder of Schenectady, through Pieter Schuyler who developed it into a firmer and more far-reaching alliance, and finally to Sir William Johnson, Schenectady's principal patron of the mid-eighteenth century, under whose leadership British victory over the French was at last achieved.

But what of the Dutch connection? The significance of Schenectady's Dutch origins first became apparent to me through an exchange of visits between Schenectady and Nijkerk, the Netherlands, the birthplace of Arent van Curler. In 1984, a group of citizens of Nijkerk led by their mayor made a visit to Schenectady to establish commercial ties. The Nijkerkers had not been allowed to forget their seventeenth-century American connection. At the entrance of the Reformed Church in Nijkerk is a bronze plaque that was installed in 1909 by the Reverend William Elliot Griffis, who was minister of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady in the 1880s. It reads:

1620 - ARENDT VAN CURLER - 1667

A D 1909

In 1986, with the sponsorship of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, I had the opportunity of being a member of the return delegation to Nijkerk.

I saw several seventeenth-century Dutch houses and the Van Slichtenhorst farm on which Pieter and Philip Schuyler's mother had been born, but what impressed me most was the continuity, not primarily in material and stylistic respects, but in the attitudes and motivation of our hosts. Where the past met the present was in the virtual identity of values of Dutch hosts and American guests that the exchange underlined. It was for commercial reasons that the Dutch had settled New Netherland and with commercial aims in mind the modern Nijkerkers had sought to revitalize the tie. From commerce and entrepreneurship sprang other salient cultural traits emphasized by Dutch and Americans: the existence of social and cultural pluralism, toleration, openness, and appreciation of differences, as well as the ability to negotiate and adjust to altered circumstances. Both the Dutch and the Americans have learned how to cope with change, indeed, to generate change, without succumbing to its stresses, and they have learned to survive, even turning natural and military crises to their advantage. On my return from the Netherlands I was happy to discover that early Dutch documents of the New York State Archives were being translated through the New Netherland Project and that several New York State historians had already reached the same conclusion as I had. The spirit of the Indian connection sprang from the spirit of the Netherlands as surely as the steep gable roofs of the Stockade recall our Dutch forbears.

Theses, Themes, and a Note on Methods

My principal thesis is that the heritage of New Netherland, the values and attitudes that made Schenectady and America great, descended intact through the colonial period and were manifest in the post-Revolutionary incorporation of this American city. I also believe that that spiritual heritage can become symbolically manifest in the historic structures of the Stockade, now preserved principally for their age and aesthetic quality. Schenectady's material heritage provides an essential link between the colonial and modern community. For the spiritual heritage to be perceived, however, the sites and structures must be fleshed out with the lives of early inhabitants and the significant events that occurred there.

If the readers of this book visit the Stockade Historic District, they will notice that my historical identification of many of the buildings differs from the identifications on many historical markers. In the 1950s and 1960s property owners and a single committee member did most of the research of the committee on historical house markers over a period of only a few months. Each house was considered separately, with no consideration given to its relationship to neighboring structures. My mapping project was carried on over several years. I compared early and modern maps and probed primary sources, including not only deeds, but tax lists, genealogies, and early descriptions of buildings, as well as structural analyses. Several lines of evidence support every identification. The definition of Schenectady's colonial neighborhoods emerged, and its general accuracy was confirmed as each house lot found a proper fit in relation to its neighbors. I have filed a series of folders on early Stockade houses and neighbor-hoods, including maps and copies of original documents, in the Schenectady County Historical Society.

The art of discovery revolves around two approaches. One is the ability to doubt and question. The other is the ability to view the phenomenon under study in a new context. My interpretation of community history is based in my experience as a social anthropologist. From the sociological point of view, the colonial community is not defined as a group of buildings within a stockade or even a group of early settlers. The community rather has reference to a clustering of interaction systems—social, economic, religious, and political. This is no less true for Schenectady than it is for Cairo, and I had utilized this holistic model with considerable success in tracing the evolution of that Near Eastern metropolis for a span of more than one thousand years. Communities change and develop more often through shifts in the large networks in which they participate than through changes in their internal systems.

Multiculturalism is a popular topic for writers and educators these days, but not many have explored the problem of unity in diversity. How can a diverse plural society be unified? The topic of civil society is now being debated within and among several academic disciplines, but for most Western scholars, civil society refers to a wide range of associational activities that are outside of and contrast with activities that take place within the formal framework of government. That definition, however, is one that developed along with the evolution of modern Western society. In many non-Western cultures, indeed, in pre-modern Western culture, the state and society are better understood as part of a seamless web of moral interaction, in which lines between public and private, civil and religious, are not clearly drawn. Politics is inseparable from other aspects of social life. In human history, civil societies in fact have evolved and survived through values, ideas, and practices that generate cooperation, accommodation, trust, and account-ability in local settings.

A principal theme of this book is the same as that of my book on Cairo, namely community evolution in a society divided into both hierarchically organized socioeconomic ranks and special status groups based on ethnicity and religion. The social organization of colonial Schenectady bore several similarities to the social organization of medieval Cairo, as social, economic, and political, networks were defined by the conditions of pre-industrial communications technology. But the culture and underpinning values of colonial New York were quite different from the culture and values of medieval Cairo.

There are three subthemes in this book. One is the relationship of early settlers and newcomers to the community, with special attention to newcomers of non-Dutch extraction. Another theme is the strong relationship of Schenectady's early settlers to Native Americans who lived in the region, and a third theme is the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in building community and providing leadership in solving community problems.

The proper study of unity in diversity requires an unbiased approach in treatment of constituent parts, and it is just in recent decades that it has become possible to write an objective history of the evolution of a Dutch colonial village into an American city, taking into account the Dutch point of view. Most traditional New York historians understood Dutch colonial culture poorly, and only as it was portrayed through English language sources. It has only been in the past twenty-five years that a new and more accurate picture of Dutch society in colonial New York has been emerging from the translation of New York's Dutch records by Dr. Charles Gehring at the New Netherland Project in Albany. I am inspired by his work and the work of "new social historians" of recent decades who have been exploring Dutch colonial society utilizing the conceptual tools and quantitative methods of sociology, as well as the modern scholars who have likewise been transforming the writing of British colonial history in America.


"Meticulous scholarship combined with a welcome readability makes Schenectady Genesis the history of colonial Schenectady students of the period have been waiting for. One can read this history with the same enjoyment one takes in a good historical novel. Susan Staffa gives us the colonial Dutch of Schenectady with all their tenacity and vitality and shows us how they carved out institutions that we still depend on today." --Sally van Schaick, Educator, and Editor of the Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter

"It's the only written work on Schenectady that gives you access to the original layout of the village, and draws together all the records for that area in a clear and concise way. It's a good narrative of what happened in Schenectady under the Dutch. It's a very worthwhile book." --Charles T. Gehring, Executive Director, New Netherland Institute

"This history of the beginnings of Schenectady is thorough and penetrating, illuminated by the author's anthropological training, her understanding of how interpersonal ties determined the nature of the community, and how diverse cultures intersected. Her understanding of the villagers' relations with the local Mohawks and the Iroquois Confederation clarifies how the village managed to thrive so close to a risky frontier. The book is very well written, and Staffa's easy style, together with her maps, charts and tables, makes the many complicated social intersections of families and their histories easy to follow, so that readers can trace both the social and geographic emergence of this very interesting colonial community." --Malcolm R. Willison, Sociologist and Professional Editor

"Dr. Staffa brilliantly captures the uniqueness of the early Dutch settlers of Schenectady, where commerce, multiculturalism and the forging of strong bonds with the Native Americans, notably the Mohawks, defined their presence in the New World. Most European powers that came to the Americas treated the Indians they encountered with contempt, intent on taking their land. The Dutch came not to conquer, but to engage in commerce. Dr. Staffa delineates in a masterful way Schenectady's unique role, as the northwest outpost of New Netherland, in carrying out this endeavor." --Ronald Lagasse, Former Director, Schenectady County Public Library

"Schenectady's stockade has been the focal point or frame of reference for Schenectady's colonial history. Schenectady Genesis enlarges that picture, drawing our attention to what went on out and around the stockade, to what made Schenectady the Gateway to the West, the Key of a Large Country, the Colonial Crucible." --Laura Lee Linder, Archives and Historical Concerns, First Reformed Church of Schenectady

"There are a lot of names in this book, names people are looking for and coming to Schenectady to find in researching their heritage and family histories. Genealogists are going to like Schenectady Genesis." --Virginia Bolen, Archivist/Librarian, Grems-Doolittle Library, Schenectady County Historical Society

Susan J. Staffa holds a PhD in anthropolgy from Indiana University. Her Conquest and Fusion, which traces more than ten centuries of social evolution of Cairo, Egypt, where she lived for several years, was published in 1977. She is currently working on the second volume of Schenectady Genesis, which will complete the city's history to the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Schenectady Genesis: How a Dutch Colonial Village Became an American City, ca. 1661–1800
Volume I: The Colonial Crucible, ca. 1661–1774

423 pages • 14 Chapters • 31 Illustrations • 14 Maps
6 Charts • 34 Tables • Bibliography • Index

$29.00, paperback. A Purple Mountain Press original, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.