The Stockade Historic District is the oldest residential neighborhood in the country. It is home to what the National Parks Service called “the highest concentration of historic period homes in the country,” with over 40 homes over 200 years old. It is the first Historic District established in New York.
Settled in 1661 by a group of enterprising Dutch merchants and fur-traders, the settlement flourished until 1690 when a party of French-Canadian and Indian marauders burnt the stockaded village to the ground, massacred most of its inhabitants and marched 27 prisoners back to Quebec. Native Mohawks, including “Lawrence the Indian,” encouraged the hearty Dutch to resettle; by 1692, the Stockade area was once again a flourishing fur-trading outpost and a thriving industrial and commercial center marked by sturdy homes of local merchants, laborers and farmers of Dutch, English, and Scots heritage.
The Stockade saw one of the first calls for liberty in 1765 and was the area’s center for the Committees on Safety. During the revolution the Stockade became a crucial link in the line of supplies for the Revolutionary effort providing provisions, bateaux and arms to the continental army. George Washington visited several times during and after the Revolutionary War.
Union College traces its beginnings to 1779, when several hundred residents began the first popular demand for higher education in America. These residents pursued that dream for 16 years until, in 1795, Union became the first college chartered by the Regents of the State of New York. Originally located in the Stockade , the college moved to its present location, 1/2 mile to the east, in 1814. Designed by the renowned classical landscape architect Joseph Jacques Ramee, Union College was the first planned campus in America predating the famous University of Virginia designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1817-22. Since its inception, the college has been recognized as a national, even international, leader in non-denominational, liberal arts education. Some of the original college buildings have survived on College Street.
The 18th Century brought prosperity to the area. Many businesses, warehouses and wharves were built along the Binne Kill to service the traffic which moved up and down the Mohawk River. This was the principal route used to settle the Midwest and caused Schenectady to receive the appellation “Gateway to the West”.
In 1819 a devastating fire destroyed most of the commercial establishments along with many houses on nearby Washington Avenue. A total of 200 buildings were lost. The description of the properties lost from contemporary newspapers inspired L. F.Tantillo’s painting “Schenectady Harbor.”
As a result of the fire, and the opening of the Erie Canal, the commercial district relocated approximately 1/2 mile east to be nearer the canal. This left the Stockade area mainly residential, and saved it from being demolished in the name of progress.
Stockade History Details
The Early Years:
A little more than thirteen thousand years ago, there was a catastrophic draining of the pre-historic Great Lakes that created the wide and fertile Mohawk Valley. This valley is the only water route though the Appalachian mountain range. Thus, for many thousands of years this valley has been an important trade route. The Stockade sits near the eastern terminus of the valley about 8 miles from where the river drains into the Hudson River. The Mohawk River west of the Stockade was navigable by canoe and flat bottom boat all the way to the Great lakes. East of Schenectady, the river flowed through a series of gorges and over several cataracts. The western and central portions of the valley were under the control of the Iroquois Indian nation. The eastern portion was controlled by the Mahicans (Mohicans), who were part of the Algonquin group of tribes.
In 1609, Henry Hudson, an English navigator, 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.
In 1621 the Dutch West India Company 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 Beverwyck was applied to the district, or hamlet, which included Fort Orange (Albany). Van Rensselaer did not come over to America, but entrusted the care of his colony to a relative, Arendt Van Curler (or Corlaer), who came to this country in 1630, and under whose able management the colony prospered.
In 1646, the Patroon, 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 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 fee simple, 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 the Stockade. Permission was obtained and 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 divided among the original 14 proprietors by giving to each of them a house lot 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 plan 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 entire area of the village was enclosed 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, comprised an area of several hundred acres, and 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 been cultivated by the Indians for many years. A nature preserve covers a portion of the Groote Vlachte today.
The first Stockade was built in about 1664 and a second larger Stockade was built after the Massacre.
French and Indian Wars
The French and Indian Wars is a name used in this country for a series of conflicts in North America that represented the engagements that accompanied the European dynastic wars. In each of these wars the French and the English ( and Dutch) enlisted the help of their Indian allies. The Iroquois were aligned with the Dutch and English and the Huron or Wyandot with the French. The timeline for the series of wars was:
The massacre at Schenectady took place early in King Williams War on a bitter cold night in February 1690. There had been a very heavy snow fall a few days before and the residents of the village felt secure, thinking that the harsh winter conditions protected them. 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 a wooden stockade. 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. The raiding party, which had traveled 200miles from Montreal consisted of 114 Frenchmen and 96 Indians (mostly of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians ) took part in the assault.
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.
“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 (Schenectady) forms a sort of oblong with only two gates, one opposite where our party had halted, the other opening toward Orange (Albany), which is only six leagues (~15 miles) 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.”
“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 [John Glenn], 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.
By 1704 the Stockade was repaired and expanded to College Street on the East and to Cowhorn creek on the south. A new fort, the Queen Anne’s or Queens Fort was built near where the “Lawrence the Indian” statue now stands to garrison troops. Another fort known as the King’s fort was built where the Community College now stands. This fort was built to house both white and Indian refugees while the village was rebuilt.
Finally, during the French an Indian War the Queens fort was rebuild and the stockade enlarged once again extending the northern border to the Mohawk River.
The Revolutionary War
As the French and Indian war ended in 1763 with the surrendering of the French colonies, the English Parliament passed the first of a series of acts to consolidate control on the American Colonies and help pay the costs for the war which left the British Treasury reeling with debts. These acts, eventually became known as the “intolerable acts,” because of the taxes levied on the colonists sent a wave of protest throughout all the American colonies.
In 1765 the growing dissatisfaction with English rule was manifested at the Dutch Reformed Church (which stood in the intersection of Church and Union Streets) as the first of several “Liberty” flags were raised in protest.
In 1773 the population of Schenectady was spilling beyond the boundaries of the second (1704) stockaded area. The walls were in disrepair. Companies of militia were raised at the Stockade which served at Fort Ticonderoga and at the battle of Saratoga. Most of the militia from the Stockade served in the Mohawk Valley which was hotly contested throughout the war, since the majority of the Iroquois and many of the valley residents (called Tories) sided with the British. The Valley was also a major source of grain and other supplies for the Continental Army. Numerous Indian raids took place in and around the Valley and the bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Oriskany, took place in the western part of the Valley and the Battle of Saratoga took place near the juncture of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. These 2 battles, whose sites are now National Parks, prevented the British from cutting New England off from the middle Atlantic and southern colonies… which was the British strategy for victory in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. A detailed description of the Stockade during the Revolution is found at: Revolutionary War
The Western Gateway and the Erie Canal
Although the early settlers were unaware of the causes of these waterways, they soon saw their advantages. The first description we have of these natural avenues of communication is found in a report to the Colonial Governor, in 1724, by Cadwallader Colden. Colden appears to be one of the first to appreciate the value of the natural streams of New York as a means of commerce, and he even extends his view to a line of communication from the Hudson to the Great Lakes, and thence to the Mississippi and the ocean.
Colden makes the first suggestion of the course of the route along which the Erie was finally built. “Goods are daily carried from this Province to the Sennekas,” say the members of a committee, of whom Colden was one, in reporting to the Governor on November 6, 1724, “as well as to those Nations that lie nearer, by Water all the Way, except three Miles, (or in the dry Season, five Miles) where the Traders carry over Land between the Mohawks-River and the Wood Creek, which runs into, the Oneida-Lake, without going near either St. Lawrence-River or any of the Lakes upon which the French pass.” From Schenectady to Lake Ontario, there were but three portages, two of them very short. The portage between the Mohawk River and Wood’s Creek and was called the Oneida Carrying Place and later the Great Portage at Rome.
These natural watercourses became the first public highways, and roads, when they were opened later, were so poor and the carrying of goods over them so expensive, that the people naturally retained the streams as channels for the transportation of goods and often as a means of travel, making some improvements from time to time, as we learn from some of the early writers. As a result of the Stockades location at the eastern end of this waterway, a good highway was built through the pine barrens between the Stockade and Albany. This highway was called the Kings Highway and much of the route can be traveled today. Thus goods or immigrants could load at Amsterdam or London, be unloaded at Albany, carted over the Kings Highway and loaded onto Bateau at Schenectady, and carried to the Great Lakes. By 1808, some improvements had been made in the old Indian trail that ran just north of the river and this led to the first bridge being built across the Mohawk. The bridge, erected at the foot of Washington Ave. was designed by the celebrated bridge architect, Theodore Burr, and was considered a masterpiece of skill. Its original symmetry and beauty were afterward greatly marred by the addition of several piers and ungraceful coverings. For a time it was the longest bridge in the world. In 1874, it was replaced by a new bridge, built on the same piers. The original piers are visible today and form a backdrop to a neighborhood maintained public garden.
“Batteau” is a French term for “boat”. It came to signify, 200 years ago, any flat-bottomed, shallow-draft vessel that was pointed at both ends. This vessel was the mainstay of inland shipping, particularly for the military, until the end of the 18th century.
Batteaux (the plural) came in different sizes, known generally as 3-handed,4-handed or 5-handed according to the crew needed to propel them. There were undoubtedly many variations in design, but all were characterized by a flat bottom made up of pine boards laid lengthwise, with battens nailed across to hold the bottom together. Oak frames, usually made from natural crooks, fastened the bottom to the pine planks that formed the sides of the vessel.
These craft were propelled by poles and oars, with a small sail used when the wind permitted. The Mohawk River batteaux built in Schenectady( actually at the Stockade along the shores of the Binnie Kill) were apparently smaller and lighter than most, because of the shallow and often constricted channel they had to navigate and the several portages around which they had to be carried on their way west to Lake Ontario. They carried about 3000 lbs. of cargo. Prior to the Revolution as many as 600 batteaux made the journey from the Stockade to Lake Ontario. The port of Schenectady was along the banks of the Binnie Kill on the western side of the Stockade. Washington Ave. was lined with warehouses, docks and boatyards as well as taverns and boarding houses.
George Washington in 1783 wrote: “I have lately made a tour, . . . through the Lakes George and Champlain as far as Crown Point; then returning to Schenectady, I proceeded up the Mohawk river to Fort Schuyler, crossed over to Wood Creek which empties into the Oneida lake, and affords the water communication with Ontario. I then traversed the country to the head of the eastern branch of the Susquehanna, and viewed the Lake Otsego, and the portage between that lake and the Mohawk river at Canajoharie. Prompted by these actual observations, I could not help taking a more contemplative and extensive view of the vast inland navigation of these United States, and could not but be struck with the immense diffusion and importance of it; and with the goodness of that Providence which has dealt his favors to us with so profuse a hand. Would to God we may have wisdom enough to improve them. I shall not rest contented until I have explored the western country, and traversed those lines (or great part of them) which have given bounds to a new empire.” Also in 1784, Christopher Colles petitioned the Assembly and Senate of the State of New York for permission to improve the Mohawk waterway so as to remove all obstructions. Nothing came of this petition but others picked up the challenge of improving the Mohawk waterway.
In 1791, a resident of Albany, Elkanah Watson, a resident in Albany began a persistent push to build a canal. He became a director of the Inland Lock Navigation Company when that company was incorporated in 1792. Eventually with the help of General Schuyler and Gov. Clinton the State committed to build the canal. Ultimately it was decided to build a canal system that would connect the Hudson River to Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.
The most difficult part of the canal system to build was the section between the Stockade and the falls at Cohoes, where the river cuts through steep hills and gorges. Originally the path of the Canal through Schenectady would have been along the river, where Riverside Park now stands. After construction had started, a serious flood inundated the area where the canal was being built. That along with entreaties by some business men who wanted the canal to run through the middle of the growing city resulted in the canal route being moved to where Erie boulevard now runs. The eastern section of the Erie Canal and the Champlain Canal were completed in 1823 and the Canals were officially opened on October 1, 1823. The canal was a great financial success and quickly paid of its debt. By 1834, it was recognized that the traffic was such that the Canal should be enlarged and deepened. this was by 1845. Remnant of this enlarged canal or visible throughout the Mohawk valley including a large lock about 1.5 miles west of the Stockade. The large number of locks between Schenectady and the Cohoes falls made that section of the canal very slow to traverse. as a result many choose to use the continually improving Kings Highway.
George Featherstonhaugh (pronounced fen-shaw), a resident of nearby Duanesburg, saw a business opportunity related to the Kings highway. He was aware that George Stephenson in Great Britain had invented a steam locomotive in 1814 to haul coal out of mines. He envisioned using the same technology to haul people and material between Albany and Schenectady
On December 28, 1825, he ran a newspaper notice announcing the formation of the Mohawk and Hudson Rail Road Company. The M and H Railroad became the first chartered railroad in NYS on April 17, 1826. Construction began in August 1830 and the railroad opened September 24, 1831, on a 16-mile route between Albany and Schenectady through the Pine Bush region that separates both cities. Initially horses were used. The DeWitt Clinton locomotive made its first test run on July 2nd that year. It was the fourth locomotive built in America. The railroad was seen as a way to expand land transportation as the Erie Canal was the leading transportation network of the time, but it took an extremely long time to go from Albany to Schenectady on the canal as there were over a dozen locks between the two cities, due to Cohoes Falls.
While the Mohawk and Hudson was the fourth railroad in the US, it was the first to have passenger service. In 1832, a rider wrote in his journal. “June 28, arrive in Schenectady. Among the astonishing inventions of man, surely that of the locomotive steam engine hath no secondary rank. By this matchless exercise of skill, we fly with a smooth and even course along once impassible barriers, the valleys are filled, the mountains laid low, and distance seems annihilated. I took my seat as near as possible to the car containing the engine, in order to examine more minutely the operation of this, to me, novel and stupendous specimen of human skill. Having thus, as if by some invisible agency flown the distance of 16 miles in 40 minutes, at Schenectady I took passage on the Hudson and Erie Canal for Buffalo.”
The western terminus of this early railroad was at the top of the Crane Street hill, about one-half a mile from the Stockade. From there stationary engines were used to lower the carriages down to the Erie Canal.
Many, if not most of the immigrants who settled the Midwest arrived at New York, took Hudson River Schooners or early steamboats up the Hudson to Albany, traveled the Kings Highway or the Mohawk and Hudson railroad to Schenectady and then took the Erie canal west and settled in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana. This flood of settlers earned Schenectady the sobriquet ” The Gateway to the West”.
The Great Fire of 1819
In the Historical Society building on Washington Avenue is a signed lithograph by Len Tantillo. It is titled “Schenectady Harbor, 1814.” The scene depicted is the backyards of the houses on Washington Ave. as viewed from across the Binne Kill – 186 years ago. The artist’s depiction of the Binne Kill shows the many wharves, warehouses, and boat-building facilities which lined this waterway prior to the opening of the Erie Canal.
The buildings along the Binne Kill together with many valuable properties on Washington Ave. did not survive the Great Fire of 1819. The fire which burned for two days razed 160 buildings in the center of Schenectady’s downtown. The fire was fought with a bucket brigade. A strong breeze moved the fire along. There was no incentive to rebuild the waterfront building, as work was already underway on the Erie Canal. In Schenectady the “Erie” ran parallel to the river down what is now Erie Boulevard. So the commercial rebuilding was done away from the river. And most of the buildings along the west side of Washington Avenue ended up as residences with substantial backyards thanks to the Great Fire and the opening of the Erie Canal.
These two events, occurring in closely in time, are the reason that the Stockade survived. Now it was essentially on an island between the canal and the river and nearly all commercial development took place to the east and south. The early captains of industry chose the Stockade as the preferred place to have their homes. Their children intermingled and married descendents of the original settlers.
The Industrial Era
In the 19th Century Schenectady experienced significant growth due to the need for workers at The Schenectady Locomotive Works and later the General Electric Company. Schenectady was a key manufacturing center during the Civil War. The Stockade continued to be the preferred place for the industrialist to live until the creation of the GE Reality Plot in the early 20th Century. The “Plot’ as it is known was Schenectady’s second historic district. The “Plot” is beautifully described and documented in “Enclave of Elegance” by Bruce Maston, MD., JD. During this period many large mansions were built in the Stockade, notably the Ellis Mansion and the…… Mansion. Many other houses were enlarged and modernized. Many building facades and interiors had Victorian elements added.