|First page of Glen Letter 455, a letter from Richard Duncan to Gov. Joseph Yates regarding a debt Duncan owed to Yates.|
This blog entry is written by Chris Carney, an intern at the Schenectady County Historical Society.
My name is Chris Carney, and I am one of three summer interns here at the Schenectady County Historical Society. As someone who is not originally from New York, this internship has provided an amazing opportunity to learn about New York and Schenectady history. Initially, the project I was given was simple enough: select a letter from a collection of general papers and correspondence and research/write about it. I chose a letter from one Richard Duncan of Schenectady to Joseph C. Yates, the Governor of Schenectady. Dated the 16th of April, 1815, Richard Duncan is asking for leniency concerning debts he owes to Joseph Yates. While Joseph Yates is a common name where Schenectady history is concerned, Richard Duncan was an unknown to me.
As it turned out, Richard Duncan was quite the man himself. His date of birth is unknown, but in 1755 he came to America from Berwick-upon-Tweed, England with his father, a merchant by the name of John Duncan. Richard is most notable for being a British loyalist, also known as a “Tory.” To that effect, in June of 1776, he assisted Adjutant General Allan Maclean in escaping to Canada and the following year he joined John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga (Schuylerville, NY). After their surrender on the 17th of October, Richard traveled to the province of Quebec. There, he was commissioned captain in the first battalion of Sir John Johnson’s King’s Royal Regiment of New York, also known as “The King’s Royal Yorkers”. Despite his political and territorial connections in Canada, Duncan returned to Schenectady in 1791 after the death of his father to care for his father’s estate known as the Hermitage, an 800-acre parcel of land in Niskayuna.
Initially when researching, I was unsure if the Richard Duncan who wrote the letter I was looking at was the same Richard Duncan detailed above. The piece of information that confirmed my suspicions was found at a Canadian reenactment website dedicated to the regiment Duncan was Captain of, The King’s Royal Yorkers. The site has a page dedicated to Richard Duncan’s powder horn. It had just crossed the auction block, and as a result, there are a number of highly detailed images of the powder horn. One of the images shows the intricate carving of a house from Niskayuna, his father’s property at the Hermitage! His letter to Yates also mentions his father’s former property. Between Richard and his father, a debt of £3,000 had been jointly accrued, and after John Duncan’s death, Richard began selling parcels of the Hermitage. One buyer mentioned in Duncan’s letter to Yates was Harmanus P. Schuyler. Schuyler built a large brick estate for his family, and that house is now known as the Stanford Home. If you take a drive down Rt. 5 toward Mohawk Commons, you’ll notice a brick house in the midst of being moved. That is the house built by Schuyler on land originally purchased from Richard Duncan. It is too cool how history and today intersect sometimes. The letter itself is dated April 16, 1815, and Richard died four years later in 1819.
This research into the background of Richard Duncan helped to impart a newfound curiosity into other Tory sympathizers during Colonial America’s time under England. Every city has their own interesting characters, but to have found such an interesting person on accident, simply because I picked a letter with a printed transcription was a surprise. I’d be interested in how many British sympathizers lived in and around Schenectady and upstate New York in general. I’d also be interested to know what life was like for a Tory after American independence was achieved. All in all, it was an interesting piece about a surprisingly interesting person in Schenectady history.
 University of Toronto. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. University of Toronto. http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=2383 (accessed July 27, 2012).