Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Liberty Flag in Schenectady

Photograph of Liberty flag. From collection of Schenectady County Historical Society.
This blog entry was written by Frank Taormina, one of the Society's trustees and a frequent researcher here in the library.

Well over 200 years ago the Liberty Flag you see pictured above gained the attention of people living in this locality. The symbol of the “Sons of Liberty”, the flag was duplicated many times by American colonists from Georgia to Massachusetts expressing their disagreement with the treatment they were receiving at the hands of the King and Parliament of Great Britain.

Colonel Barré, c. 1765,
by Douglas Hamilton.
Image found online.
The “Sons of Liberty” became a focal point of American resistance to British rule early in 1765 when the British government instituted the Stamp Act. This part of American history began when Isaac BarrĂ©, a veteran of the French and Indian War and, at this time, a member of Parliament protested against the passage of this act, referring to the colonists whom he had gotten to know as a result of his service in the war as “Sons of Liberty” and pointed out to his audience:
"They planted by your care! No, your oppressions planted them in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated, inhospitable country, where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable, and among others to the cruelties of a savage foe and actuated by principles of true English liberties, they met all hardships with pleasure compared with those they suffered in their own country from the hands of those who should be their friends."

When the language used by Barre made its way to America, it resulted almost immediately in the creation of a host of “semi-secret societies of colonial resistance” to what an overwhelming number of people felt was unfair taxation.

One of the “semi-secret societies” which literally sprang into existence was the Albany Sons of Liberty responding with alacrity to an invitation from the Sons of Liberty in New York City. Albany’s newly created chapter immediately extended an invitation to Schenectady and Schenectady, so we are informed by two notable local historians, John Warren Joyce and William Efner, simply ignored the invitation!
The protest on the part of the Sons of Liberty was so great that the British repealed the Stamp Act, replacing it, as historians tell us, with a host of other forms of equally objectionable taxation whose ultimate effect was the American Revolution and American Independence.

In the meantime, the Liberty Flag did not make its appearance in Schenectady until January 26, 1771, when, so we are informed in a letter written by John Sanders and John Baptist Van Eps to Sir William Johnson, “The inhabitants and freeholders have also put up a Liberty pole well bound with iron bars, twenty foot above the ground in about the center of our town and spiked it with a great many iron nails with the flag at the top.”  The location of this pole was at Ferry Street at the approximate junction of what is now Ferry Street and Liberty Street, near the tavern of a “Major Snell”.  The letter in addressing thanks to Sir William also refers to “this weighty dispute of our unlucky town”. We should notice as well that the reference to people putting up the flag is to “inhabitants and freeholders”.  In a publication called “Pathways of Time,” in a chapter written by William Efner, we learn that it was customary to refer to the more recently arrived English speakers as “inhabitants” and to the earlier and original Dutch settlers as “descendants”. In Efner’s discourse we learn about “the bitter struggle between the descendants of the original Dutch pioneers and the Yankee and 'English' newcomers for control of the common lands”, an argument which apparently went on for over 100 years, from 1684 until its settlement in 1798. The point as part of this discussion is that the people raising the “Liberty Flag” on their newly erected “Liberty Pole” in 1771 were protesting not taxation without representation, but rather the insistence of the “Descendants” that the “Inhabitants” did not have the right to property within the bounds of the Schenectady Patent! That was the “weighty dispute of our unlucky town” referred to by Sanders and Van Eps.

A second “Liberty Pole” was erected in Schenectady on January 12, 1774 near the southwest corner of Church and what was to become Union Street. On this occasion, the flag raising stimulated a gathering of fifty men whose names are listed for us, in their own handwriting, in the records about this event at the Schenectady County Historical Society. There was some suggestion made at the time this event occurred that local authorities were going to charge the participants with “rioting”, but there were no acts of violence and no damage was done, so the charge was never carried out against the participants.

Nicholas Veeder of Glenville poses with the Liberty flag.
Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
Now as we look back at the flag we recognize it, apparently, as the same one in the possession of Nicholas Veeder, Schenectady’s longest lived veteran of the Revolutionary. In the photograph posted here, we see him seated in front of his hone in Glenville, in uniform, beneath the Liberty Flag which was then in his possession. Veeder, who lived until he was 101 years old, was supposed to have carried this flag at the Battle of Saratoga. We know for sure that he did carry it for years afterward in the Fourth of July parades in Schenectady of which he, after his friends have given him his annual bath, was a regular participant. When Veeder made his way to his ultimate reward, the flag came into the possession of the Sanders family who kept it for twenty years, making a gift of it, at last, to the Historical Society where it rests today.

Besides the flag to remind us of the glories of the past, we have one other constant reminder which I learned of recently. Liberty Street came into existence in 1802, running from west to east and beginning at Ferry Street, at that time, and was given its name to commemorate the Liberty Pole which once stood where it began.

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