Friday, February 7, 2014

Remembering the Schenectady Massacre

Schenectady Massacre by Samuel Sexton. Sexton focused primarily on portraiture, but this painting depicts the Massacre.  It portrays the atrocities committed against the people of Schenectady (such as the child's head being dashed against a wall), but also takes a number of inaccurate artistic liberties. In Sexton’s rendition, “Indians,” not French soldiers, attacked Schenectady. He also depicts a Schenectady that he was familiar with during his lifetime; brick, step-gabled homes insinuate a well-established community. The painting is part of Schenectady’s history as a fabricated romantic image of the past from the nineteenth century and as an artistic work by one of Schenectady’s most well-known artists. Image from collections of Schenectady County Historical Society.

This weekend marks the anniversary of the Schenectady Massacre. Late at night on February 8, 1690, a group of French and their Native American allies attacked the small Dutch and English settlement at Schenectady. The raiders silently entered the gates while many were sleeping, and at a signal, began to sack and burn the town. The attack came in retaliation for a series of Iroquois raids on Canada, including the Lachine Massacre. The original objective of the raiders was to attack Albany; however, an attack Schenectady offered a more feasible and easy means to "punish the English" and strike fear into the hearts of those in the frontier communities.

Nineteenth-century illustration depicting people fleeing Schenectady as it burns. Image from Schenectady Massacre clipping file. 

A document written by Robert Livingston recounts the horrors of the attack:

"They divided themselves into three troops and after they had everything well spied out and found that the gates were open and that nowhere there was any sentinel on duty and that on account of the heavy snow which had fallen the day before no one had been in the woods by whom they could have been detected, the full wrath of God was poured out over us. Having posted three or four men before every house, they attacked simultaneously at the signal of a gun. They first set fire to the house of Adam Vroman, who when he offered resistance was shot through the hand. After several shots had been fired, his wife, hoping to find an opportunity to get away, opened the back door, whereupon she was immediately shot dead and devoured by the flames.... His eldest daughter...had her mother's child on her arm.... Asked...whether the child was heavy...she said yes, whereupon [one of the invaders]...took the child form her and taking it by the legs dashed its head against the sill of the house, so that the brains scattered over the bystanders....

"The women and children fled mostly into the woods, almost naked and there many froze to death.... Oh, we poor, miserable people, how we were scattered during that dreadful night, the husband being separated from his wife and the children from both, one hiding for 2 or 3 days in the woods and in swampy and marshy land, where God in His mercy nevertheless did not forget them....

"The rest, then, who escaped the bloody sword, were condemned to be prisoners, but here again God's guiding hand clearly appears, for many sorrowful women and children and some old men, seeing this dreadful journey ahead of them, which meant practically death, doubtless offered up their prayers to God, who from the depths of their woe granted them delivery.... Considering that the old men and children and also the women would be a hindrance to them in their flight, they [the French and their allies] discharged them from their place of confinement to the great joy of all...." (Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. More excerpts from this document can be read by visiting Digital History).

List of people killed in the Schenectady Massacre, from Documentary History of the State of New York by E.B. O'Callaghan. 

The men who invaded Schenectady burned nearly all the homes and barns in the community, and killed 60 people -- 38 men, 10 women and 12 children. 27 men and boys were taken prisoner to Canada, along with 50 horses. By morning (February 9), the settlement was in ruins. Many who were not killed or taken prisoner fled as refugees to Albany. Symon Schermerhorn famously rode while wounded to Albany to warn that community's denizens of possible attack. Following the Massacre, some fled the community never to return. Others remained at Schenectady to slowly rebuild the town.

This Dutch-language document was penned on behalf of the inhabitants of Schenectady following the Schenectady Massacre. Many of the survivors of the Massacre fled the settlement, but a small group of survivors began to rebuild the town, and in this document they offer a plan of attack, advising a “march to Canada with six hundred or more christians and as many savages as may be obtained” to bring ammunition and provisions “in order to do as much damage to the enemy as possible.” By May 1690, a Colonial Congress met at New York City to organize an attack on Canada, and the survivors at Schenectady had constructed a fort at the intersection of Washington Avenue and State Street for protection. Image from Historic Manuscripts Collection, Grems-Doolittle Library. 

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