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

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.