Monday, September 25, 2017

James Cuff Swits – Herbalist and Gentle Giant

This blog post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

In April of 1946, a group of “old-timers” gathered at the Schenectady County Historical Society to swap yarns of days gone by. The 12 well known Schenectadians shared their recollections with a packed house in the Historical Society library. According to the Schenectady Gazette, the average age of the group was “more than 75 years”. They began by reminiscing about State Street in the 1880’s – the many stores and groceries, hotels, trolleys, gas lamps and barber shops as well as sharing memories of the Blizzard of 1888. Conversation soon turned to Jim Cuff, a well-known character from the 1800’s.

Jim Cuff was a familiar figure on the streets of Schenectady. His lanky 6’7” frame and odd shuffling gait made him instantly recognizable. He looked even taller than he was because of his unusual clothing. He wore cast offs that were too short leaving his wrists and ankles exposed and an old “plug” hat that added to his height. He always wore a neckerchief fastened with a piece of carved bone and rubbers or galoshes year-round. He carried himself proudly and one of the presenters said of him “how pathetic a figure – such fierce pride coupled with such superb dignity”.

Jim’s heritage is a bit sketchy. He was born sometime after 1800 on the farm of Henry Swits located where Proctors now stands and the area beyond. By most accounts, his father was James Hartley, a black man, and his mother, according to Jim, was the last of the Schoharie (probably Oneida) Indians. Both of his parents worked on the farm as sharecroppers and one or both may have been a slave of Henry Swits. He was named James Hartley Swits but was referred to as Jim Cuff, Cuff being a "Negro name of significance" at the time.
This portrait of Jim Cuff was taken by professional photographer Joseph A. O’Neill in his Jay Street studio, without payment, for the posterity of the city. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Jim made his meager living as an herb peddler, often called an "herb doctor or "medicine man" around town. Most mornings from early spring to late fall he roamed the Rotterdam Hills, now Coldbrook, as well as the river flats along the old Campbell Road collecting herbs, roots and bark. He peddled the "yarbs", as he called them, door to door to housewives who bought them to make their own remedies. His gaunt figure was a fixture standing in front of the Ellis Building on State Street selling watercress, wild mushrooms, spearmint, fox glove, sunflower and poppy seeds, milkweed and berries out of his huge basket. 

A one room shanty in Cotton Hollow was what Jim called home. He built the shack himself from found materials and reportedly had just one piece of furniture, a cast off chair. Jim slept on the dirt floor near his only source of heat, a fire built in a hollow dug into the floor. The shanty is believed to have been located in the vicinity of the current Lincoln School, between State and Albany Streets.

Jim was a gruff but kind and gentle man who was welcomed into the homes of his customers. If
Jim Cuff standing in front of what is believed to be his shanty. 
Courtesy of fultonhistory.com
children sometimes taunted him, he would loudly shuffle his feet to shoo them away. Several people looked out for him. Dr. Harlan Swits, a descendent of Henry Swits, had Jim deliver a standing order of herbs to his State Street office and kept an eye on his well-being. He stopped by Colonel A.W. Toll's home most mornings and was given breakfast that he ate in the woodshed. The tollgate keepers on the old Scotia bridge let pass without cost, he was an avid fisherman and spent many hours fishing at Sanders Lake and along the Mohawk. Jim regularly visited the Wallace Stonecutters where he would shoot the breeze with his friend Tom Wallace. His kindness was exemplified in a story told by Dr. Swits. Once, when a circus came to town, there was a parade on State Street. Horses and buggies were lined up along the curb and people were told to rein in their horses. The parade spooked the horse of one buggy with a young girl at the reins. The horse crashed into the canal bridge and ran off along the bridge as the girl fell to the floor. Jim Cuff rushed from the crowd and grabbed the bridle, calming the horse then carrying the girl out of the damaged buggy. Called a hero by many onlookers, Jim cared only about the well-being of the girl.

He didn't attend church, saying his clothes weren’t fine enough but Jim had his own kind of spirituality. He believed that there was a better place after death, often saying "Someday we shall all be in equal skies". In his declining years, he was destitute and relied on help from some of his friends and customers. When one of his customers didn't see him out with his herbs for several days he checked on Jim and found him in his shack, quite ill. An item in the Schenectady Gazette, dated February 26, 1893, stated “Schenectady’s big Indian, Jim Cuff, who has been ill of consumption and lung hemorrhages, was today removed from his hut to the county almshouse on Steuben Street”. He died there a few days later on March 4, 1893. Dr. William Clute signed the death certificate for "James Cuff Swits" noting the cause of death as pneumonia and giving an estimated age of 72 although many thought he could have been closer to 90. Jim was buried in the Potters Field section of Vale Cemetery in Schenectady. 

James Cuff Swits grave as it now appears in Vale Cemetery. Courtesy of Gail Denisoff.
Jim's story doesn't end with his death. His friend Tom Wallace carved Jim's likeness in bas relief on his headstone, the only such stone in Potters Field. Under his name and date of death, Wallace carved the words "Admitted to that Equal Sky". Forty years after Jim's death, a local physician, to alleviate his guilt, anonymously gave an account to the Schenectady Gazette regarding the placement of that headstone. The physician, a medical student in Albany at the time, decided that Jim's skeleton would be an exceptional specimen for study since Jim claimed to be the last of the Mohawks and was close to seven feet tall. When he got wind that other medical students had the same idea, the physician went to Potters Field at night and switched Jim's headstone with that of a woman who had died about the same time. A few nights later, he returned to dig up the grave. According to his account, the sight of the dead Cuff so unnerved him that he quickly refilled the grave and left the cemetery without the body or switching back the headstones. He claimed not to remember which was the other headstone he switched. Other accounts have Union College students removing Jim's body for autopsy. Whether either of these stories are true is the subject of speculation. Jim may not be lying beneath his headstone but he is not forgotten.

Photos and information for this blog from the Schenectady County Historical Society holdings and the Fulton History collection.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Ghost Train of Mont Pleasant

We can't wait for Halloween over at the Schenectady County Historical Society, so when one of our volunteers found this letter about the "Ghost of the 9:15", we were thrilled and wanted to post it right away. There is not much backstory to it, so we've transcribed the letter below.



December 28, 1992

To: Larry Hart

Larry, here is the real story of the "Ghost" Train.

As a teenager living in Mt. Pleasant in the early 1950s, entertainment for young teenagers was non-existent. The "flockey" as it was called was our playground, the wooded area between Mt. Pleasant and Bellevue. We explored and knew every inch of that land from Altamont Ave. to Lower Broadway Hill.

The "Ghost of the 9:15" was the actual name of the event.

The Ghost was a bed sheet attached to a fishing pole and dangled from a tree branch which was along side the railroad tracks. The white sheet was painted black on one side so as not to be seen when transporting our ghost to and from the tree. The sheet was reversed and the black side covered the fishing pole.

The original story that we had heard was that a hobo was killed in that location years before and that his ghost haunted the 9:15 train. We helped the story to be true. 

You could probably see the ghost train pretty well from this vantage point of the Congress Street bridge. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
We could travel the Mont Pleasant area from yard to yard, alleyway to alleyway in the dark as well as in the daytime. Our schedule was to pick up the "Ghost" bed sheet attached to the fishing pole around 8:30. Wait until it was dark enough, then walk or run from the alleyways between Cutler and Davis Terrace, down to Park St. into the woods and down to 3rd Ave. We then would climb the tree, wait for the train, flip the bed sheet over to the white side, dangle it as the train passed, flip it to the black side, down the tree, through the woods, alleyways, and home. When the news about a ghost got out of control and crowds would gather to try to see him, we would not appear that night and eventually retired him for good. 

That's the story of the "Ghost of the 9:15"

Yours truly,
One time member of the "Cutler St. Gang"

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Ambrose Ham – Survivor of the USS Maine

This post was written by SCHS Library Volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Stylized image of the USS Maine explosion. Only 94 of the ship's 355 crew members survived the explosion. Courtesy of the Nautical History Gallery and Museum
Schenectady resident Ambrose Ham was a 20 year old Apprentice First Class aboard the USS Maine when it exploded in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898.  An article in the Schenectady Evening Star dated February 17, 1898 questioned his survival.  According to the article, an Ambrose Hall was listed as a survivor and hope was that he was really Ambrose Ham.

Born January 10, 1878, in Indian Fields, New York, Ambrose moved to Schenectady as a boy with his mother and brothers where he lived on Catherine Street and attended school until the 6th grade.  Following the death of his mother in about 1894, he came under the guardianship of Mr. B.L. Conde of Schenectady who enlisted him in the US Navy on July 31, 1894 at the age of 16.  He was placed on a school ship in Newport RI where he apprenticed for approximately 18 months.  On his enlistment card he was described as being 5’4 ¼” tall with grey eyes, light brown hair and a light freckled complexion. At the time of the explosion, Ambrose had been part of the crew of the Maine for about a year and a half.

The USS Maine is best known for the explosion in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898
Image of Ambrose Ham from
the Feb. 6, 1906 edition
of the Binghamton Press
and Leader. Courtesy of
fultonhistory.com
which killed 261 of its crew of 355. Sent to protect American citizens who were then in Cuba, the Maine exploded without warning and sank quickly. The cause of the explosion is still unclear but the incident was one of the factors leading to the Spanish-American War. The phrase, "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”, became a call for action. In 1898, an investigation of the explosion was carried out by a naval board appointed under the McKinley Administration. The consensus of the board was that Maine was destroyed by an external explosion from a mine. However, the validity of this investigation is still a subject of speculation.

Ambrose did indeed survive the sinking of the Maine.  In response to a letter sent to him from the Schenectady Sunday News, Ambrose gave this account of the incident sent from the US Army Hospital in Key West, Florida dated February 26th, 1898 (original letter in the Grems-Doolittle Library):

Dear Sir,

I received your letter with picture last night.  I thank you very much for taking such an interest in my escape from the Maine. 

On Tuesday, Feb 15th I went on watch at 8:00 o’clock, aft on the poop deck.  I was standing signal watch and my watch would be up that night at 12:00 o’clock.  Everything went well till twenty minutes of ten.

It was a beautiful night, the water in the harbor was as still as a lake.  The ship was swinging to flood tide.  As I was about to turn around to walk aft, I saw a volcano of fire which seem to envelope the whole ship then followed a terrible roar and another which lifted the big ship out of the water.  I was hit by a piece iron which was coming down like hail.  The whole forward part of the ship was torned to pieces, steele was twisted like wire. Men were thrown high in the air and what few escaped were burned so badly we could hardly tell who they were.

As soon as the explosion was over I ran to the Captain boat which was not injured and helped to lower it into the water.  Several men who were not hurt got into the boat with Cadet Holden in charge and picked up the men in the water.  By that time boats from shore and some from the Spanish man of war came up, picked up a lot of injured men and took them ashore to the Hospital.  Well our boat stayed around the wreck which was burning.  The after part of the ship was not injured and on the poop deck was the Captain, leut comd. Wainwright and a couple of junior officers.  Then the captain gave orders to see if everyone was off the ship.  Next order was to abandon ship.  The captain was the last man to leave the ship, he seem as cool as a piece of ice.  He was taken over to the City of Washington where some of the survivors were and such a night – men with broken limbs, burned faces.  The Maine surgeon, the Captain and Lieut. Blow were working hard dressing the mens wounds.

Two of the men were taken to Havana Hospital that night but they died afterwards.  Next day we were taken to the Steamer Olvette which runs between Key West and Havana and left that afternoon and arrived in Key West at night.  Went to the Hospital some to Marine some to Army Hospital.  Last week eight men came from Havana, four are expected today.  The men were treated kindly on the Steamers and in the Hospital.  On the City of Washington some of the passengers stayed up all night to watch the wounded. 

Whether it was an accident or not I will not say.  The court of inquiry will know tomorrow.  My injuries were slight and are all well now.  The men in this Hospital are improving quickly and will be able to get discharge from Hospital in two weeks with the exception of two men who have broken legs.  It was said last night that two men died in Havana Hospital.  I don’t know how true it is.

I am sorry I could not send this account before for I only received your letter last night.  Would you mind sending me one of the papers with my picture in it.  I would like to read the account of the disaster in your paper and oblidge.

Ambrose Ham

The USS Marblehead courtesy of Wikipedia.
Following his release from the hospital, Ambrose served aboard the USS Marblehead in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He was honorably discharged from the Navy on January 9, 1899, a day before his 21st birthday.  After returning to Schenectady, Ambrose lived on Paige Street and worked as a grocer. His guardian, Mr. Conde had pursued a lawsuit that his mother, Mrs. Hannah Wiltsie Ham had initiated before her death for an inheritance from an uncle of hers.  He was successful and when Ambrose returned, there was $1300 in the Schenectady Savings Bank waiting for him.   Shortly thereafter, on March 12, 1899, Ambrose was baptized in the 2nd Dutch Reformed Church .


By the early 1900’s, Ambrose (whose name in later years was sometimes spelled Hamm) and his wife, Edna, were living in Binghamton, NY where he was employed for many years as a Postal Clerk.  He died on November 23, 1961 at the age of 83.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Mayor and the Aurora Borealis

Image of Samuel W. Jones.
This blog entry was written by library volunteer Bob Emery.

The Schenectady County Historical Society owns the diary, 1821-1855, of Samuel W. Jones (1791-1855), mayor of Schenectady in 1837-1839.  Jones came from a prominent Long Island family, noted for its legal accomplishments (his uncle Samuel Jones, for instance, was Chancellor of the State of New York).  After graduation from Union College in 1810 and admission to the bar in 1813, Jones located in Schenectady.  He cemented his position in the community by his 1816 marriage to Maria Bowers Duane (1793-1858), granddaughter of James Duane, a member of the Continental Congress and mayor of New York City, locally best known as founder of Duanesburg and owner of a big chunk of the eastern Mohawk Valley.
        
Jones had a career of some minor distinction.  Prior to his service as mayor of Schenectady he overcame local “Dutch prejudice” to achieve election in 1833 as a city alderman, as well as appointment to the county Court of Common Pleas; after his mayoral term he was elected County Court judge and county Surrogate.  In addition, he was a longtime vestryman of St. George’s Church and a leader in such local civic projects as the Schenectady African School Society, founded in 1829 to educate Schenectady’s newly emancipated African-American residents.  Jones was, in short, a solid citizen of the superior sort.

Jones’s “diary” might better be described as a journal, containing random notes on things that interested him, including some information on the Jones and Duane families that might be of interest to genealogists.  These random notes ranged from criticisms, as an old alumnus, of the way Union undergraduates pronounced Greek to the derangement and dismissal of the Presbyterian Church’s minister, and everything in between.  One of Jones’s main interests, however, was transportation improvements.  In the 1820’s he was a devoted supporter of De Witt Clinton, particularly of Clinton’s efforts to promote the Erie Canal.  Throughout his diary, Jones was careful to note when the canal closed for the winter and opened in the spring, and any untoward events that affected its operation.  In his later years, he was involved in turnpike and railroad development.  Another of Jones’s major interests was politics.  After Clinton’s death, Jones moved into the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, becoming a strong follower of Martin van Buren and Andrew Jackson.  As early as the Compromise of 1820, he had expressed his suspicions concerning the expansionistic ambitions of the slave states; if he had lived long enough he may well have followed other van Buren Democrats (like B.F. Butler) into the Republican Party.


Weather for the week of December 21, 1840.
If there was any sign of the Aurora Borealis
in Schenectady, then Samuel Jones noticed it
and wrote about it in his journal.
Jones’s primary interest, though, seems to have been meteorology, and in particular the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.  The Aurora Borealis seems to have been much more visible in Jones’s time than it is now.  Like his contemporary Professor B. F. Joslin of Union College (whom Jones knew), Jones regarded the Northern Lights phenomenon more as a weather-based than as an astronomical event.  Hence, he carefully recorded meteorological data surrounding each appearance of the Aurora Borealis.  He devoted page after page of his diary to the Aurora, noting such things as extent and duration as well as careful descriptions to the shifting colors of each appearance.  If one is to judge by the attention Jones paid to the Aurora Borealis in his diary, it was his main interest, even surpassing politics.

"Last evening another more brilliant display of the Aurora Borealis. It concentrated in the zenith from all directions it was first seen in the South East and in the course of the evening presented every shade of colour from bright red to white-  sometimes it would hand from the zenith over the whole south part of the sky-  sometimes to the north and sometimes to every point-  it continued until late in the night as I heard-  it was brilliant at Eleven when I went to bed." - Entry from Samuel Jones Diary dated September 4th, 1839.


Jones’s diary is by no means a significant source for Schenectady history.  It is, however, a useful record of the interests of a prominent local citizen who might, not altogether unfairly, be described as an Aurora Borealis fanatic.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Genealogy Success Story

This post was written by SCHS member Carol Clemens published in the Heritage Observer

My husband and I recently did DNA testing through Ancestry’s service. When the results were completed, I noticed a “first cousin match” in the results, on my husband’s side. Thinking it was probably one of the “known cousins” and being busy, I did not contact the person immediately. Shortly after, I received a message through Ancestry from the person, and found she was NOT one of the cousins I knew about.

Here is part of her message:

I was actually adopted. I found my birth mother's family several years ago and all I know about my father’s side is that he was a policeman with the Downey Police Department. I'm trying to figure out his name due to the fact that by the time I found my birth mother she was deceased, and my siblings, through her, do not remember his name. They have asked the older family members but no one can remember his name. Maybe this story rings a bell for someone in your family. I hope I'm not opening a can of worms that is, or was, a secret for your family. If you have any information, please let me know. I don't need to meet anyone, I just want to get some family medical history and have names for my children's family trees.


The clue was the fact that her father was a Downey, CA police officer. My husband’s Uncle Walt was a police officer in California and later an Alaskan State trooper. I had documentation of his residence in Downey for the correct time span. Piecing together my research, her limited knowledge, and DNA, we have no doubt that she is indeed the daughter of Uncle Walt. 

I have added her info to the family tree and shared it with her. From knowing nothing other than the occupation of her father and his residence, she now has family history going back to 1801 in Norway. She has the colorful story of her Grandfather “jumping ship” in New York harbor in 1923 and his purchase of “immigration papers” for $50 that he believed made him a US citizen. She now knows about her half-brothers and sisters and has photos of many of her Norwegian ancestors.
My husband’s mother recently passed away and we held a Celebration of Life Service in her hometown in upstate New York. Our “new” cousin and one of her daughters made the trip from the West Coast to join us in celebrating the life of the aunt she never knew.  She was so excited to meet the family she never knew about.  She was welcomed with open arms….and went home with not only new memories, but photos and even a quilt made by her late aunt.


I am delighted that I could play a part in this wonderful success story. It would not have been possible without both careful, documented research and the benefits of science through DNA testing.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Schenectady's Colorful Canallers

This post is written by SCHS library volunteer Diane Leone

The Erie Canal running through Schenectady. This sketch is from
the December 1873 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
The Erie Canal was one of the country’s most ambitious engineering undertakings. Completed in 1825 after eight years of construction, this marvel connected Lake Erie with the Hudson River, thus opening up the untapped resources of the Midwest to the East coast, which sent both immigrants and manufactured goods west. Although scoffers called the original canal Clinton’s Ditch, it very quickly proved its value, and by 1865, more than 7,000 boats traveled its waters. The waterway was enlarged to accommodate heavier traffic, once in 1862 and a second time in 1895. Eventually the mechanized Barge Canal, completed in 1918, replaced the original canal with its towpath. Still, the “Roaring Giddap,” as the canallers called the horse- and mule-powered canal, left an indelible imprint on the history of the nation.

Along with other cities and towns on the canal, Schenectady was part of a rich store of stories—some tall tales—and songs about those who made their living on the Erie. These canallers, primarily men, were a rowdy lot. As noted canal historian Lionel D. Wyld states in Boaters and Broomsticks: Tales and Historical Lore of the Erie Canal:“They drank deeply, they ate heartily, they fought eagerly, and they sang lustily” (79). After all, they worked long hours at physically demanding jobs in a competitive, even aggressive atmosphere, with hours of monotony punctuated by stops at canal towns which offered ample liquor and other forms of entertainment.

The Craig Hotel in Niskayuna was a popular stop on the hotel. This photo shows owner Jack McPherson behind the bar. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.
  
Drinking and fighting seem to have been the two chief activities of these boatmen. The literature is rife with examples of canallers’ fondness for spirits, although this reputation derives partly from authors, such as Walter D. Edmonds, known for popularizing the canal in fiction. In Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal, Wyld includes an iconic song, “E-RI-E Canal, with the apt refrain:

O the E-ri-e was a-rising, And the gin was getting low, And I scarcely think we'll get a drink ‘Till we get to Buffalo, ‘Till we get to Buffalo.  (101)


As Lawrence Naylor notes in The Effects of the Erie Canal on Schenectady, “A boater could get off at Union Street, race down Wall Street to Lou Barhydt’s for a jug of rum, and, if he didn’t stop to sample the merchandise, could dash down Wall Street and hop back aboard at State to continue their journey west” (15). Wyld relates the amusing tale of a boater who brags to the bartender at McClare’s Hotel in Rexford that he can, “…down a gallon of hard cider without taking more than three breaths” (Boaters 45). When the barkeep agrees to the wager, the boater disappears for a few minutes. Upon his return, he chugs down the gallon of cider provided by the bartender.

“Didn’t think it could be done,” he [the bartender] told the canaller, shaking his head in doubt over what he had just seen with his own eyes. The Erie boater wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “T’ tell the truth, neither did I,” he answered with a satisfied grin, “’til I run down to yer neighbor tavern t’ find out!” (Boaters 45)


Alcohol was not only a means of relaxation, but also served as compensation or inducement for preferential treatment. Packet boats, which carried passengers, traveled day and night, and captains were under pressure to reach their destinations quickly. The fourth verse in the song, “Raging Canal,” makes this clear:

The Captain told the driver to hurry with all speed---And his orders were obeyed, for he soon cracked up his lead; With the fastest kind of towing we allowed by twelve o’clock, We should be in old Schenectady right bang against the dock. (Wyld, Low Bridge! 91)


Henry Heilbronner owned a successful
 wholesale liquor store on State Street. 
There's a good chance the bribes for the 
locktenders came from Heilbronners.
Courtesy of the Schenectady History Museum.
Travelers were known to bribe canallers with whiskey to accelerate the boat’s speed through the canal, although vessels traveling faster than four miles per hour risked being fined, since the resulting wakes could damage the canal walls. Boatmen offered liquid tips to the locktenders—who wielded quite a bit of power—to speed up their time in the locks with a surge of water. A captain on the wrong side of the locktender, however, might find his boat unexpectedly bumping up against the sides of the lock.

Given the rate of alcohol consumption, canallers had a reputation for aggressive behavior. To some extent, this was an occupational qualification. Given the busy canal traffic, waiting time for entry into the locks was often long. Delays were bad for business, particularly for packet lines, which had preference over freight boats going through the locks. Competition existed even among packet crews. It was important for a captain to count among his crew intimidating men who could physically enforce their claims. To that end, captains were often handy with their fists, and hired men known as successful brawlers.
An example of an early lock on the canal. Courtesy of the
Albany Institute of History and Art.


Cities such as Buffalo and Watervliet had reputations as places where fighting was rampant. In fact, in the 1860’s, a two-mile area on the Buffalo waterfront was viewed as the “wickedest street in the world.” Apparently, Schenectady was also a hub for scrappers. Referring to the canal around 1850, a 1922 Gazette article, “Schenectady Was One Bright Spot on Erie Canal,” noted that the opening of the canal season in the spring brought the first fight of the season, “…where every quarrel or grudge contracted on the trip between Buffalo and Albany among canal men was fought out” (14). This maiden contest took place in a large open area on Dock Street—now Erie Boulevard—midway between State and Weaver Streets. The contestants were required to be sluggers of great distinction, whose animosity toward each other was stoked by the canallers. The battle ended only when one fighter indicated that he had had enough, which often occurred only after he was in rather dire shape. Following this spectacle, the crowd would proceed to a drinking establishment on Robinson Street where the victor bought drinks for the spectators and the loser, and the imbibing continued, “…until everyone in the party was unable to stand” (14).

So concerned was the city’s governing body about the influence of canallers on the students of both Union College and the attached grammar school that they extended the force of existing laws, which prohibited luring youth into “the vice of gaming” and providing them with “wine or spiritous liquors.” Jeanette Neisuler notes in her article, "When Schenectady and the Erie Canal Were Young," that the city fathers also had the canallers in mind when they enacted other laws, including the following: “If, when there shall be an assemblage of persons at or near any railroad or canal within the bounds of the police district in this city, any one of them shall audibly utter profane or obscene words…” (154), the perpetrator will incur a fine of $25.
Photo of a barge in the canal with Dock Street on the left. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.

Along with those who made their living working the boats, the canal generated a variety of auxiliary jobs. The runner, often a youth, was tasked with convincing passengers to choose the packet line for which he worked. It seems that Schenectady’s runners were so competitive that this piece of the canal was called “The Battleground.” Wyld includes a report from a passenger from Saratoga, who observed the antics of competing runners on Dock Street. As their sales pitches turned to insulting their rivals, there arose quite a brouhaha:

With fists flying, the hawker for the Dutch Flyer ploughed into the Will ‘O’ Wisp man and the fight was on.  The Saratogian reported that everyone in sight joined in—it was anybody’s fight.  Three participants were pushed into the canal but kept on fighting all the same. Some canallers were jailed, but the battlers earnestly continued the brawl in the lockup (Boaters 43).


The Great Wardrobe on the canal in 1894. This photo was taken west of Schenectady. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.
This image gives you a good idea
of how low the lowbridges of the
canal were. Courtesy of eriecanal.org
For packet boat canallers the safety of their passengers was important. Numerous bridges spanned the canal, often crossing farmland bisected by the Erie. The many travelers who took some fresh air on the roof of the packet boat cabin were in danger of suffering serious, even mortal, injury if they did not heed the canaller’s warning of "Bridge!" or "Low Bridge!" Neisuler mentions an 1835 Amsterdam newspaper report of a rather gruesome accident. A young woman traveling between that city and Schenectady was reading in an inclined position to avoid head exposure, when the vessel passed beneath an especially low bridge: “…before she had an opportunity of discovering her danger, her head was caught and crushed in a horrid manner, between the timbers of the bridge and the trunk on which she was leaning….” (157).

Accidents were common among canallers as well. Schenectady chronicler Larry Hart notes that mishaps were a daily occurrence in Old Dorp; along with injuries from low bridges, they included drownings, heat prostration, mangled limbs, and strangulation by ropes. Wyld offers several examples of these unfortunate events, including an incident in which the rope line of a grain boat near Two-Mile House in Rotterdam wrapped around a boater’s leg, dragging the vessel and nearly severing the man’s appendage. As the author relates, the victim was brought to the nearby hotel, “… and given a good supply of spirits until the doctor came to complete the amputation” (Boaters 110). Another accident on the enlarged and deepened canal was the result of a leaky boat—not an uncommon occurrence—which carried a cargo of rock salt. As the craft began to sink between Schenectady and Niskayuna, the captain used an axe to cut open the stable roof to save the mules.
           

Some locktenders on shore spied the woman and shouted to the captain.“Never mind those mules,” they hollered, “get that old lady off the boat before it goes down!” The boater kept hacking away. “These mules cost money,” he shouted back. “I can get an old lady anyplace!” (110)


As some of the stories related above indicate, canal life generated a rich body of traditional tales. Among many others were yarns about an incredible strong Bunyanesque character named McCarthy, the giant squash of Palmyra, the Rome area’s giant frog, and mosquitoes from the swamps west of Utica. Another Schenectady tale involves the winds that often blew women’s skirts up as they crossed the numerous bridges spanning the canal. From this embarrassing situation arose a story from the end of the nineteenth century, about a lovely woman attired in quality clothing and a “…wide-brimmed blue velvet hat, topped by a black ostrich feather.” When a stiff wind blew her hat into the canal, she ran away in a confused state. “The boaters and dock workers who watched her broke into loud guffaws, for along with that beautiful hat, proud ostrich feather and all, the pesky canal wind had lifted her auburn hair clear off her head, revealing a now wigless, grey-haired older woman” (Wyld, Boaters 44).

Those who made their living on the canal were a colorful group of characters, who worked and played hard, and made the Erie Canal era the fascinating period that it was and an integral part of the life of Schenectady and an expanding American nation.

Works Cited: 

Neisuler, Jeanette. "When Schenectady and the Erie Canal Were Young." New York History, vol. 35,   no. 2, Apr. 1954, pp. 139-58.

"Schenectady Was One Bright Spot on Erie Canal." Schenectady Gazette, 4 May 1922, p. 14.

Wyld, Lionel D. Boaters and Broomsticks: Tales and Historical Lore of the Erie Canal. Utica, North   Country Books, 1986.

Wyld, Lionel D. Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1962.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Impact of the Glorious Revolution on Schenectady

A lot of the focus on the Schenectady Massacre tends to focus on the direct events that occurred in Schenectady during the night of February 8, 1690 but the events that led up to the massacre and that occurred afterward are also interesting and worth mentioning. During the late 1680s and early 1690s, the Colony of New York was at the height of political division. These divisions, along with fears of attacks by the French and Indians, and the spread of Catholicism set the stage for a short lived political uprising that left a strong mark on the small town of Schenectady.

British Parliament offering the crown
to William and Mary in February 1689.
Courtesy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England is considered a turning point in English history, it also caused a chain of events that resulted in a disruption of British power in America. The Revolution eventually caused King James II of England to be overthrown by English Parliamentarians and Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange. King James' policies of religious tolerance collapsed and the rights of British Catholics were severely limited. Another effect of the Glorious Revolution was the Bill of Rights which was an act of Parliament that enacted certain civil rights and put limits on the power of monarchs.

Governor Edmund Andros.
His glorious locks matched
the Glorious Revolution.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The ripples of the Glorious Revolution reached America rather quickly, most notably in the April, 18, 1689 Boston Revolt which was an uprising against the rule of Governor of the Dominion of New England (and former Colonial Governor of New York) Sir Edmund Andros. Andros was extremely unpopular in New England due to his lack of respect for local representation, his promotion of the Church of England in Puritan areas, and the Navigation Acts which limited trade for New Englanders. The resentment of New Englanders culminated in a revolt in Boston where Andros was deposed and imprisoned. While Andros was in captivity, he sent a call for help to his Lieutenant Governor, Francis Nicholson who was based in New York. Unfortunately for poor Andros, Nicholson had some problems of his own...
Lieutenant Governor
Francis Nicholson.Courtesy
of Wikipedia

Nicholson knew about the Boston Revolt, but tried to keep it quiet in New York for fear of something similar happening to him. But news traveled fast, even in 1689, and officials in Long Island soon found out about the Boston Revolt. Nicholson, like Andros, wasn't the most popular in New York and was seen as just another English Governor who had no respect for local authorities. Nicholson's reputation may have been well deserved as he stated that New Yorkers were "a conquered people, and therefore ... could not could not so much [as] claim rights and privileges as Englishmen." This combined with his notorious temper afforded him few friends in the colony.


Statue of Jacob Leisler in
New Rochelle, New York.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
A direct link to the Schenectady Massacre came when Nicholson discovered that France declared war on the English. Nicholson believed that this would mean more trouble in New York from the French and Indians in Canada. He scrambled to bring troops back to New York and invited the militia to join his regular soldiers at Fort James on Manhattan. Unfortunately for Nicholson he ran into influential merchant Jacob Leisler who was wholeheartedly against the lieutenant governor.

Leisler believed that Nicholson was attempting to impose Catholic rule on New York and was also against having to pay increased duties to improve New York's defenses. The militia demanded the keys to the powder magazine at Fort James, which Nicholson handed over to avoid any bloodshed. The militia gained more control and chose Leisler as their leader. Nicholson left New York on June 6th, and Leisler took control of New York.

Leisler's government was controversial in Albany with many of the local leaders refusing the legitimacy of  Leisler's rule and Albany became the center of the anti-Leisler forces in New York. Notice of a French and Indian attack spread to Albany by September 1689 which caused leaders in Albany to petition Leisler for help. Leisler sent his adviser and son-in-law Jacob Milborne to take military control over Albany but the Albany Convention refused the terms and Milborne went back to New York City.

Lands of the original patentees of the Schenectady Patent from Jonathan Pearson's. Courtesy of schenectadyhistory.org

Although Albany pretty much ignored Milborne, his visit had sown the seed of discontent in the minds of several prominent Schenectadians including Ryer Schermerhorn who was a landowner and one of the original Dutch settlers of the town. Milborne promised that Schenectadians would be shown favor over those in Albany in Leisler's Government. Schenectady's official position was against Leisler, but many saw Leisler as a way to get our from under the strong hand of Albany. The conflict between the two groups was noticeable in the months before the Schenectady Massacre. According to Thomas Burke's article Leisler's Rebellion at Schenectady, New York, 1689–1710,

"The Leislerians apparently refused to serve watch under the command of officers from the other group...the watch threatened to throw Captain Sander Glen on the fire if he came on guard."

Court case of Ryer Schermerhorn (a descendent of the original Ryer) vs. Arent Andriese Bradt & other defendants. This case is 1 of 126 in our legal matters collection that mention a Ryer Schermerhorn. Courtesy of the Historic Manuscript Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
On February 8th, 1690, this quarrel proved to be the downfall of Schenectady as a band of French

and Indians attacked and destroyed the unguarded town. As you might expect in current times, neither Leisler, nor the authorities at Albany took responsibility for the attack. Albany city clerk Robert Livingston wrote an account that blamed the Leislerians while Jacob Leisler blamed the Albany's government. The attack at Schenectady struck fear in New Yorkers and Leisler was able to use this fear to gain more power in New York City which he kept until 1691 when he was executed. Although Leisler's control of New York was short lived, his legacy was felt deeply in Schenectady. 

A Peitition for the Division of Common Lands
to Governor William Tryon from 1774.
One of Leisler's biggest supporters in Schenectady was an original patentee of the Schenectady Patent, Ryer Schermerhorn and those who supported Leisler generally supported Schermerhorn. Many of the original landowners in Schenectady died during the Schenectady Massacre leaving Ryer Schermerhorn as the sole manager of the patent's common lands which included roughly 80,000 acres of land that he could collect rent on. Understandably, many in Schenectady were unhappy with one man having control of that much land and they petitioned for a new patent in 1703. This petition was granted, but Schermerhorn ignored it and continued to refer to the original 1684 patent which gave Schermerhorn and his heirs control of the land forever. Ryer Schermerhorn's heirs, as well as the heirs of other original settlers, took the original patent as gospel and fought for control of the common lands of Schenectady until 1798 when Schenectady was incorporated as a city. 

The Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives hold many papers mentioning Ryer Schermerhorn, including some very early ones in Dutch.