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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter I: Backgrounds and Beginnings

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[This information is from pp. 1-14 of The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62 by Jeanette G. Neisuler (Schenectady: Board of Education, City School District, 1964), and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 370.9747 N41, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

About three hundred years ago a small band of adventuresome men under the leadership of Arent Van Curler gained permission from Governor Stuyvesant to start a settlement on some choice flat lands about fourteen miles to the west of Albany. They were Dutch, these first white settlers of Schenectady, as Dutch as ballooning britches, front stoeps, and mouth-watering olijkoeks. And being Dutch, they cared little about telling other people what to do, and even less about other people telling them what to do. Specifically, they were fed up with the Patroon at Rensselaerwyck, the rivaling Dutch West India Company at Albany, and the all-encompassing regulations and restrictions decreed by both of them. Each of the fourteen men ready to break away with Van Curler felt perfectly capable of managing his own life, liberty, and the pursuit of beaver; at least, he wanted a chance to try.

Holland World Power

The early American Dutchman possessed an understandable affinity for the mother country. Holland, in the world of the 1600's, was a power to be reckoned with. She was an acknowledged leader in the fields of agriculture, commerce, dairying, finance, and manufacturing. National well-being was reflected in individual well-being. Her people, enjoying an uncommon degree of civil, political and religious liberty, were industrious, contented, and probably the best educated and the most cultured people in the world. Unlike most of the other early immigrants to the new world, Dutchmen were not driven here by persecution but drawn here by commerce.

In almost every respect, the Dutch in America were an exact replica of the Dutch in Holland. By instinct and design, they clung to the ways of their origin. They spoke the same language, adhered to the same customs, raised the same peaked roofs, condoned the same crooked streets, honored the same traditions, and respected the same superstitions. What was more natural than that they should seek to identify themselves with the mother country's educational policy as well? (1)

Educational Philosophy

The Dutch were, by faith, Calvinists. A change in their religion, which shifted the emphasis from the Church to the Bible, had resulted in making the search for salvation more of an individual responsibility. Since they felt that the most direct route to Heaven lay through the pages of the Good Book, their choice seemed simple and clear-cut: learn to read or succumb to the Devil. Education was forged, then, into a two-pronged weapon with which to attack evil, one point aimed at illiteracy and the other at protecting the constant supply of ministers.

In Holland, the schools were under the joint control of Church and State. The Church assumed the right to design the broad educational plans — examining and licensing the teacher, setting his wages, approving the texts, and keeping a sharp eye on instruction, while the civil government assumed the practical responsibility — collecting and disbursing whatever public monies were allotted to education from taxes and excise duties.

There was no organized government waiting for the Dutch who first came to America, so all authority was vested in the West India Company with whom the work of colonization had begun. The officials of the company had bound themselves to "maintain good and fit preachers, schoolmasters and comforters of the sick." (2) They, in turn, decreed that the patroons to whom they granted lands must "particularly exert themselves to find speedy means to maintain a Clergyman and Schoolmaster, in order that Divine Service and zeal for religion may be planted in that country. (3) The affidavit of the first teacher in New Amsterdam (New York City) is dated 1633, and the first school was established there in 1638. Both were financially supported by the West India Company and the villagers. With this joint pledge to dig down into both public and private purses in the interest of the school, the Hollanders helped implant a basic principle in the new land: public support of education. (4)

Dutch Defeated

For the next quarter century, wherever in New Netherland (New York State) a settlement sprouted, the patroon or settlers were required to establish a school. Then, in 1664, the humiliated Dutch were forced to lower their flag to the despised enemy, the English. Rather surprisingly, however, the victor adopted a policy of non-interference. But the calm was a short one. All within a decade, the Dutch recaptured the province, held it for scarcely more than a year, and then lost it again by the Treaty of Westminster in 1674. After that the English clamped down; there was to be no more public money for schools. Though there still existed an occasional Latin school for the sons of the rich who were preparing for the ministry, in general, the few other schools that remained were parochial and completely dependent upon the church. Before long, and until Britain lost her hold over the colonies in the Revolution, all teachers were required to apply to the Bishop of London or the Governor of the Colony for their licenses. Under these conditions, public education shriveled up and all but died.

French and Indians Burn Schenectady

There couldn't have been many children attending the church school conducted in Schenectady in 1684, since the whole town held only a couple of hundred people. But to the Dutch here, as elsewhere, the school was of utmost importance. Not only did it safeguard religion by teaching the reading of the Bible, it was also the best means of keeping alive Dutch culture and customs. The Church had been built only two years before, and the Domine Petrus Tessachermaecker had been called soon after to be the first pastor. Before long, the good man found that his duties combined teaching with preaching. For the next half dozen years, both the little village and its school strove for a foothold at the edge of the wilderness. Security had just begun to appear possible when two unplanned occurrences brought tragedy to the town. The inhabitants were not unaware of the struggle between France and England, but they found it more comforting to retreat behind an attitude of "it can't happen here," and to keep busy tilling their fields and bartering their beaver skins. One bitter February night in 1690, a French and Indian war party from Canada pushed toward its target — Albany. The cold was insufferable, the Indians were becoming truculent, and Albany was still miles away. So a last minute change was made in the plans and Schenectady was destroyed instead. Even then, explicit orders had been given to spare the Reverend Tessachermaecker on the slim chance he might be "induced" to give information. But in the savagery of the moment, those orders were either forgotten or disregarded. Within a few horror-saturated hours, vulnerable little village, church school and beloved pastor had all come to a fierce and fiery end together.

Settlement Rebuilt

Certainly, here was ample reason to write Schenectady off as a total loss and retreat to the security of Albany. But the Dutchmen, plucky enough to attempt a settlement under such forbidding circumstances in the first place, were not inclined to sit and cry over Fate's senseless blunders, or even over their own personal misfortunes. "God's will," they murmured, and then, with resolution, the help of some friendly Mohawks, and an adequate supply of beer, they hove to and raised a new town to cover the ashes of the old.

About 1710, a Reverend Thomas Barclay, an Episcopal clergyman, was making the trip over from the fort at Albany once a month to preach to the inhabitants at Schenectady. There were perhaps a hundred or so Dutchmen here, and a small number of Englishmen. By his own words, the Reverend's object was not so much to preach to the Dutch as it was to convert them. (5) In any case, he also conducted a school here — in English — and once again Schenectady's young minds were being put to the test.

This was at a time when waterways were the world's chief highways — smooth sailing in the summer, and even smoother skating in the winter. It didn't take Schenectadians long to awaken to the advantage of having the Mohawk for a backyard. The falls and rapids between here and Cohoes, where the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers met, interfered with navigation. This made Schenectady a natural junction point between east and west, since the town was the last place people could stock up for a trip west, and the first place they could unload coming east. Industries connected with transportation and with servicing the men and beasts who kept things on the move — shipping, carting, boatbuilding, storage, wagon building, blacksmithing, harness making, stable yards, and taverns — soon transformed old Dorp into a bustling port town.

Early Teachers

To try to categorize the Schenectady teachers who attempted to advance the cultural life of the town during this period is more frustrating than fruitful. Conformity was practically nonexistent. It was not uncommon for the minister to double as teacher. If he did not happen to be the only man in town who could read, he was certainly by far the best educated. Conversely, it was also not uncommon to have the teacher substitute for the minister and the sexton — reading the service in the minister's absence (he was not permitted to compose his own), ringing the church bell, passing out funeral invitations, keeping the church tidy, and even as the need arose, digging a grave.

The complete school curriculum was limited at first to only two R's: reading and religion, and classes, whenever possible, were conducted in Dutch. Gradually, however, as the town became more commercialized, and as the pure Dutch stock became diluted with Yankee newcomers, the religious emphasis weakened and the English language took precedence.

Schools remained dependent for their support upon tuition and the individual generosity of the wealthier burghers. As long as this financial elasticity persisted, the employment of a teacher remained a strictly private matter. Any man had a right to teach provided he knew his p's and q 's and had a little free time on his hands. And every man had a right to decide just how important education was, and just how much he was willing to pay for it. Having made his decision, the prospective employer himself then interviewed the applicant. "How have you prepared yourself to teach?" he might ask. "0h, I'm well prepared," would come the confident reply. "I've got my winter's chores all done, and I've taken a room at the tavern where I can give lessons." The satisfied employer would then proceed to stipulate the length of the term, select the subjects to be taught, and specify the wages.

The term of employment might last anywhere from a day or two to the better part of a year. Payment depended upon pupil attendance which was, more often than not, poor and irregular, and, naturally, teachers were expected to make rebates for the absences. The pay itself was unpredictable, both as to the form it would take and the likelihood of collecting it. Cast-off clothing might be offered as wages, or old furniture, room, board, laundry, a load of wood, rum, or cider. Money, when it was on rare occasions given, was pitifully little, and often slow in coming. One early Schenectady schoolmaster's accounts show he was paid a little over half a dollar a week; others, not so lucky, earned less than that. A local schoolmaster presented a bill for eight months' "Schooling for 2 children from ye 21st April, 1739 to ye last December." With the cost of 2 Psalters added, and an "Abatement for ye children Being at Home at Harvest" deducted, the total came to 3 pounds. But included with this bill was another, involving all the same parties, for the schooling of 2 children for seven months of the previous year, apparently still unpaid. (6)

No wonder early letters, bills, court cases, and diaries show that so many of Schenectady's earliest teachers had supplementary occupations with which to pad their meager earnings. Thomas Neilson, who taught here in 1738-39, did spinning in his spare time. Schoolmaster George Passage was a cobbler on the side in 1769, as was William Johnson in 1772. Reverend Alexander Miller conducted a school in connection with his duties at the First Presbyterian Church from 1770-1781. Others here worked part-time as surveyors, landlords, teamsters, and tradesmen.

The term, schoolmaster, in those days meant just what the name implied. Since the purpose of education was as much to beat the evil out of each child as it was to cram facts into his head, a teacher's brawn was considered at least as valuable an asset as his brain. "Do you think you can handle the big ones?" was one of the first questions put to a prospective teacher. If his "yes" was unequivocal, chances were better than even he would be hired on the spot. The degree of respect a teacher could command was generally in direct proportion to his competence with the rod. This suggests one reason why virtually all teachers of the day were men.

Bolstering this reign of authority was the universally accepted theory that fear was the greatest inspiration to learning. Persuasion came in three distinct sizes: "little ticklers" convinced those with poorly prepared lessons; springy switches applied to the legs reformed the mischievous, the lazy, and the truants; and long willow or hickory rods laid smartly across the backs of confirmed trouble-makers, while they undoubtedly did little to rehabilitate the culprits, at least relieved the teachers. Not a day, scarcely an hour, went by that the schoolmaster didn't have to defend his right to the title. From the parents, the master gleaned only contempt, or at best condescension; after all, people reasoned, any man content to spend his time doing such no-account work must be either too lazy or too incompetent to do a real man's work. But from his pupils, he harvested a bumper crop of hatred and fear.

One other qualification every teacher had to possess, was one of which he was inordinately proud — skill in making and mending goose-quill pens. Steel pens did not come into use until around Civil War times, and even then they were so expensive that only the rich could afford them. Every morning the scholars would troop up the the master's desk to have their pens sharpened for the day's writing lesson.

If the quill were too far gone, he might, with a few deft strokes of his penknife, fashion a new one.

If teaching were somewhat less than happy, so, often, was the teacher. Escape, it seems, was frequently sought in nips, drams, tankards, and bowls. During Revolutionary times, one Schenectady teacher presented a bill for 1 pound 13 shillings for the schooling of the children of a local tavern keeper. By the time the tavern keeper had deducted from the teacher's account all the toddys, "cyders", and rum which he had consumed, there was nothing left for the poor man to collect for his services but nine shillings. (7) Indeed, excessive tippling became such a common affliction of teachers that attempted control sometimes appeared in the form of a pledge which the teacher was required to sign. One such read:

This agreement made the twentieth day of March, 1800, Witnesseth, That the subscriber hereunto will not, betwixt this date and the first day of June next ensuing, neglect his school through means of his getting intoxicated, with any kind of liquors whatsoever, under the forfeit of five dollars for each time, time to be stopped out of his school pay by me.

It was signed by both the employer and the teacher. (8)

There is no doubt that the public was becoming increasingly interested in the teacher's character. Evidence may be found in the number of newspaper advertisements which began to specify moral requirements. Said one: "Wanted, a single person, as a SCHOOL-MASTER, to take charge of a school… None need apply who cannot produce good recommendations." (9) Said another: "Wanted, a good schoolmaster for 3 months. A man of good morals and qualifications…" (10) Belatedly, almost casually, the teacher and his profession were being impelled toward dignity and respect.

Notes for Chapter I

  1. Dutchmen were serious but not stuffy about their religion. In America, even in the beginning, the control of the church over the school was not as tight as in Europe.
  2. W. B. Efner, "School System History" (unpublished folder on file at the City History Center, Schenectady, N. Y.) This reference adds that the "establishment of these schools rested conjointly with the company and the classis of Amsterdam, and this fact is the reason for the extant record of these early schools."
  3. John Romeyn Brodhead, Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, Vol. I, ed. E. B. O'Callaghan (Albany, N. Y.: Weed, Parsons & Co., Printers, 1856), p. 99. This reference quoted from the "New Freedoms and Exemptions."
    In Education in New York State, comp. and ed. Harlan Hoyt Horner (Albany, N. Y.: State Education Department, 1954), p. 12, it says, "It is believed that the first official declaration relating to common school education in the Colony of New York, appeared in the so-called 'Freedoms and Exemptions' granted by the Dutch West India Company to settlers in the New Netherlands on June 7, 1629. In this grant patroons and colonists were required to provide for a minister and schoolmaster." Note No. 2 seems, therefore, to have been a directive from Holland to the West India Company, and note No. 3 a directive from the Company to the patroons and settlers.
  4. Horner, Ibid, p. 151.
    In A Basic History of the United States, Charles A. and Mary R. Beard (Philadelphia: The Blakiston Company, 1944) p. 64, the year 1642 is given as the year Massachusetts passed a law that "required the towns to make some provision for giving the rudiments of learning to those children who did not get them at home."
    Also, in The Miracle of America, Andre Maurois (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1944), p. 57, "in 1635, the town meeting established the Boston Latin School." It then adds, "In 1642 a Massachusetts law made parents responsible for having their children taught to read. In 1647 another law decreed that every community of fifty families should have a school in which reading and writing were taught, and every town of a hundred families or more should have a grammar school, that is, a secondary school that prepared for college."
  5. John Sanders, Early History of Schenectady (Albany, N. Y.: Benthuysen Printing House, 1879), p. 350.
  6. George R. Howell (ed.), Albany and Schenectady Counties, From 1609 to 1887 (New York: W. W. Munsell and Company, 1886), p. 120.
  7. Ibid., p. 121.
  8. Ibid..
  9. Advertisement in the Mohawk Mercury (Schenectady, N. Y.), April 12, 1796.
  10. Advertisement in the Schenectady Cabinet, December 9, 1816.

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