Monday, March 25, 2019

Collection Spotlight: Mohawk Prayer Book

Last week we were visited by a film crew from the First Nations Technical Institute. This institute is based in Ontario and was founded to provide greater access to post-secondary education for aboriginal peoples in Canada. Their film crew is shooting a documentary focusing on Mohawk people, both in Canada and in New York. They came here in search of primary source documents and items related to the Mohawk and were made aware of SCHS through former Niskayuna town historian Linda Champagne.

One item in particular that they wanted to shoot for the documentary was a prayer book that had been translated into the Mohawk language by Dominie (meaning minister or pastor) Bernardus Freeman and Laurens Claesse van der Volgen. This prayer book is an interesting document that shows the interactions between the Christian settlers and indigenous people in the area and the attempts of these settlers to convert the local Native population to Christianity.

Portrait of Domnie Bernardus
Freeman. Courtesy of  A
History of St. George's
Church in the City of
Schenectady, Vol. 1
Bernardus Freeman was a tailor by trade who lived in the Netherlands. He applied to be the minister at Albany in 1699 and it was approved after a some consideration by the Classis of Amsterdam. His duties changed soon after he set sail for America and was instead appointed as the second minister at the Schenectady Dutch Reformed Church. As the minister of the church, Freeman was expected to preach and convert the Mohawk in the area. He turned out to be more successful than his predecessor due to his familiarity with the Mohawk language as well as having an assistant who was familiar with the Mohawk.

Freeman's focus on baptizing and marrying the Mohawk is evident in the church records. Thomas Burke, the author of Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York 1661-1710 used Dutch Reformed Church records to find out how many Native Americans were baptized from 1698-1760. During Freeman's tenure as minister from 1700-1705 baptisms and marriages of Schenectady's native population reached its peak. Freeman baptized 113 Native Americans were baptized and married 15.

Freeman did not conduct his missionary work alone though. His pay to join and relocate to Schenectady's Dutch Reformed Church  was 60 pounds with an additional 15 pounds for expenses. He was also provided with funds to hire an assistant. The person he chose to do the work was Laurens Claesse Van Der Volgen. Van Der Volgen's name may be familiar to those well-versed in Schenectady's history as he was one of the 27 people captured during the Schenectady Massacre.

Van Der Volgen survived the grueling trip back to Canada and was assimilated into the indigenous Canadian community. It is unknown which community he was adopted by, but it is likely that he had interactions with the Catholic Mohawks in Canada (Kanyen'kehĂ :ka) which would explain his fluency in the Mohawk language. Van Der Volgen would eventually make his way back to Schenectady and would work with Dominie Freeman to help translate The Book of Common Prayer into the Mohawk language. For more information on Laurens Van Der Volgen, check out our July 2010 newsletter.

Portrait of Laurens Van Der Volgen. This portrait is currently exhibited in our Beyond the Pines: Early Schenectady exhibit at the Schenectady History Museum located at our 32 Washington Ave. location.
The translations that Freeman and Van Der Volgen produced remained in manuscript form until a missionary named William Andrews was appointed to teach the Mohawk community how to write as well as convert them to Christianity. Andrews did not have as much linguistic skill as Freeman and was unable to become fluent in the Mohawk language. He relied on Van Der Volgen's fluency in the Mohawk language and was so terrified of losing him that he attempted and failed to teach English to two Mohawk youth. Andrews had little to no success with teaching the English to the Mohawk community and conducted much of his missionary work with Van Der Volgen's assistance.

One of Andrews' goals was to provide the Mohawk community with printed works in their own language. He received permission to do so and decided to get Freeman and Van Der Volgen's translation of the Common Prayer printed in New York City. Andrews chose William Bradford as his printer who was known as "the pioneer printer of the Middle colonies." By 1715, 200 copies of the book were published along with 150 catechisms and a small spelling book for children. Andrews would have limited success in his missionary work. He became disheartened and resigned in 1718.

The Mohawk Prayer Book is the earliest known printed work in a Native American dialect in New York. It's almost completely in Mohawk besides a title page/table of contents and the name of the prayers. The prayer book, along with a portrait of Laurens Van Der Volgen was kept within the Van Der Volgen family. Helen Van Der Volgen of Delphi, Indiana conducted quite a bit of research on the prayer book. She wrote to several different places for more information on it including The New York Public Library and the Museum of the American Indian. This correspondence was included with the donation of the book. The prayer book and the portrait was then passed down to their daughter, Mary Van Der Volgen Chatfield. Mary Chatfield visited the Schenectady County Historical Society in 2008 and donated both the portrait and the prayer book at that time. The prayer book is not in the best shape. The spine, front and back covers have become detached over time and there are a few pages missing or heavily damaged. That said, most of the text remains.

Images of the prayer book can be seen below:

Sources Used:

A History of St. George's Church in the City of Schenectady, Volume 1 by Willis T. Hanson

Early Prayer Books of America: being a descriptive account of prayer books published in the United States, Mexico and Canada by John Wright.

Faces of Schenectady: 1715-1750 by Kate Weller.

Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America by E. Jennifer Monaghan

Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York 1661-1710 by Thomas E,Burke

The Book of Common Prayer Among the Nations of the World: A History of Translations of the Prayer Book of the Church of England and of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America by William Muss-Arnolt.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Schenectady's Worst Flood

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

This image shows flooding on the Erie Canal looking towards State Street. Advertisements for The Carl Company, J.E. Davidson's Son, Dan A. Donahue, John Wagner's Furniture are shown. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives Photo Collection.
Schenectady has experienced its fair share of spring flooding. Concerns rise, especially in the Stockade area, whenever temperatures begin to climb causing ice to start thawing and breaking up in the Mohawk River and the streams feeding into it. Couple that with heavy rain and you have a recipe for disaster. Schenectady residents thought the March floods of 1893 and 1913 which hit a high-level mark of 21 feet were the worst they had ever experienced. That was until the flood of 1914, still considered the worst in Schenectady history.

A view of State Street after the 1914 Valentine's Blizzard.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives
Photo Collection.
The winter of 1914 was a tough one. Not only were the temperatures unusually cold for all of January and February but Valentine’s day brought a blizzard dropping 32 inches of snow in less than 20 hours. Drifts reached 15 to 20 feet in some areas. March arrived with warmer weather and rains. Small creeks began to swell and ice that had built up over the long winter was breaking apart. In the early morning hours of March 27th, loud grinding and cracking sounds were heard emanating from the Schoharie Creek and other small waterways as gigantic chunks of ice started crashing and hurtling their way to the Mohawk River.

As the floes moved into the river, joining masses of slowly colliding slabs of ice, destruction followed. By 7pm that evening, a 300-foot bridge in Amsterdam gave way, the same bridge that had been destroyed exactly one year before. Soon after, two private bridges in the Schenectady area fell to the unrelenting mounds of ice. First the Rexford Toll Bridge collapsed followed by the Freemans Toll Bridge. Onlookers described the ice slabs as twenty feet high and three feet thick. The piers of the Scotia Bridge were also being barraged by the ice but were still considered secure.

Massive chunks of ice were common during the 1914 flood. This photo shows some of them on North Street. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives Photo Collection.
Early the next day linemen from the New York Telephone Company attempted to string cable across the Mohawk at Freeman’s. By this time the river was raging and rising rapidly. After rowing a boat through the hazardous current twice unspooling their cable, the three men aboard attempted a third crossing. This time they weren’t as fortunate. A massive cake of submerged ice shattered their boat sending the three men into the river. Two of the men, John Inglis and John Becker, were pulled under and drowned, the third, William Ryan, held on to wreckage from the boat and managed to get to a railroad bridge where he was rescued.
The Stockade experienced some of the worst of the 1914 flood. This photo shows the only method of transportation that people in much of the Stockade could use, boats. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives Photo Collection.
Meanwhile, the rising river was spilling over its banks in the city of Schenectady and heavy rain was falling. American Locomotive and General Electric, both having suffered losses from the flood the year before, had workers stack sandbags and timbers to block the water. Sandbags were also placed on manhole covers to prevent the back up of sewers on Dock Street and River Road along the canal. Washington Avenue, South Ferry Street, North Street, South Church Street, Ingersoll Avenue and other streets leading to the river were filling with water. By 5am on the 28th men were pounding on doors to awaken residents to vacate their properties.

At 10:30 am the General Electric whistle blew sending thousands of workers out of the plant to make their way home on flooded streets. Trolley service was cut off going into Scotia. People used rowboats to make their way through the rising water. By 11:45am flood levels had reached 23.5 feet. The area around General Electric was covered by two feet of water and four feet covered the grounds of American Locomotive. South Church Street was six feet under water and many riverfront cottages had water up to their rooflines. Between 300 and 400 homes had been evacuated.

Even with the flood, some people found ways to entertain themselves. This photo shows Reuben Dworsky (left) and Isidore Goldstork (right) rowing down a flooded Broadway during the 1914 flood. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives Photo Collection.
Between 2:00 and 3:00pm the ice jam finally began to move. Water rapidly receded and by the morning of March 29th much of the water had returned to normal levels. About 30,000 people made their way to the river to watch the massive chunks of ice floating by resulting in a boon for trolley service. What followed was a mass clean up effort. Stores tried to beat the flood by moving merchandise to upper levels, but many still had flood sales in the ensuing weeks. General Electric and American Locomotive reported relatively small losses, but other business and homes were hit hard with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Major flooding has continued to be a worry in Schenectady over the years. Most problems seem to occur in spring although some are associated with other events, most recently, Hurricane Irene in August of 2011. Much of the Stockade was once again under water with many people forced to evacuate. Hopefully, Schenectady will never again experience a flood that compares to that of 1914.