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Schenectady County, New York: Its History to the Close of the Nineteenth Century

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[This information is from pp. iii-viii of Schenectady County, New York: Its History to the Close of the Nineteenth Century by Austin A. Yates (New York: New York History Co., 1902). It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 974.744 Yat, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

This story of Schenectady is very little more than a compilation of the work of other archival authors. It could not well be otherwise. The annals of the historic old county have been wonderfully served, comparatively easy of access, through the work of former writers who have exhibited remarkable industry, and in some instances, the most thorough erudition. Giles F. Yates, writing under the nom-de-plume of the "Antiquarian," in the Schenectady Reflector of which he was editor in the '30's gathered some charmingly interesting bits of history, tradition and romance. They are like pretty vistas in the scenery of the by-gone but, they were, as they were only intended to be, material for the local columns of his paper in a city, that, in those days, taxed ingenuity and often imagination to find anything local to write about. This matter was incidentally connected with the history of the bloody wars of Frontenac, and with the complications of New Netherland politics, which were about as bad as those of Manhattan are now. The awful devastations of the French and Indian wars, in the little frontier post, hamlet, village and city, are well and sadly known. But all that was known was scattered and fragmentary, made up of paragraphs and items in the school books of elementary history, in which the city had always a fleeting prominence owing to its long, and to unpracticed tongues, its unpronounceable names, a schoolboy terror in its orthography, a strain on music of speech with the blood-curdling picture of the "Burning of Schenectady in 1690," over every mantel-piece; full of thrilling story as is almost every city street, country road, and acre of Old Niskayuna and Rotterdam, its people have seemed, until the latter half of the last century, abundantly content with legend and tradition.

We have no Dutch Heroditus or Livy, Thucydides or Pliny to preserve for the coming generations, heroes, martyrs and statesmen of one of the most historic localities of New York state. The educated immigrant, or the comparative stranger within our gates of sufficient culture to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy the quaint folk talk of the valley, the rapidly disappearing old gabled architecture, and the grand record of the brave and resolute Dutchmen of Colonial and revolutionary days. He is invariably attracted by the abundant material for history, romantic and thrilling, and of the abundance of solid truth for strange fiction. The old Mohawkers were content to bear and repeat the jumble of tradition and history, fact and fancy, recitals of the actual occurrences that filtered through the song and story of the generations, to whom it was a serious and often an appalling reality. The oft-told tale was well enough known, often enough repeated by the oldest inhabitant, present in a community that rarely ever travelled, to satisfy all the historic needs of the valley.

There were enough to lift their voices for the local audiences that cared to listen to the story that began in the nursery. There seemed to have been no local genius interested, ambitious or industrious enough to come down to business with the pen of a serious, painstaking and accurate historian. Yates did much to charm the paragraph reader of the newspaper. The Hon. John Saunders [i.e., Sanders], a descendant of a grand old family, a graduate of Union, a most interesting writer, has, in his Early Settlers of Schenectady [i.e., Centennial Address Relating to the Early History of Schenectady, and Its First Settlers], indulged himself and delighted his readers with patriarchal reveries of the early days of the last century, authentic tradition, handed down to him from the frontier Glens, that is of absorbing interest to a race of Holland blood and language that is fast passing away. The Judge never pretended to be a historian, was only, in fact, a most delightful narrator of fireside story, and family lineage, and as such his work is invaluable.

So it is to the comparatively new importation of industrious brain that we owe the preservation of the history of this his old county.

The more than twice told tale, somewhat tedious to the old resident, has the charm of novelty to the cultivated gentleman, who enters afresh upon the valley as rich in reminiscence as it is rare in the beauty of its scenery.

Pierson [i.e., Jonathan Pearson], the historic pioneer in the family annals of Albany and Schenectady, became deeply interested in the lives and work of the now famous men who formed a town to fight heroically in its defense, and to perish in its ashes or survive to send out into a great state the names of men who, in pulpit, and law courts, and on battlefields for King and Colony, have contributed splendidly to the renown of the foremost state of the Union.

Jonathan Pierson [i.e., Jonathan Pearson] was a wonder. His industry and power of research were remarkable. A professor of chemistry in Union College, knowing and teaching all that was known or could be taught. He was treasurer and secretary of its Board of Trustees. One who follows him on his journey through the musty records of Ancient Churches, the old Paris and English Documents of the State Library, and sees the evidence of his tremendous labor, strewn all along the pathway of his toilsome journey, wonders how or when he found the time to do the work that looks like the achievement of a lifetime of indefatigable industry. Schenectady, one of the most progressive cities in the state to-day, owes Pierson a debt of gratitude, as the world owes the patient and tireless men who have disentombed the ancient towns from the burial of Vesuvius.

Following Pierson, came his heavy debtors, Sanders and McMurray. Of the charming idyls of the one, the only one to the manor born, we have already spoken. McMurray, all army officer and a military instructor at Union, has rendered us infinite service in the form of the most comprehensive work, the most complete History of Schenectady yet written. There is much that is new in his discoveries, all is certainly valuable.

The Hon. Judson S. Landon has yielded to the fascination of the place and theme, and has brought to elucidation the strange situation which seems to have made Schenectady the battle ground of the French and English. It has produced traditions born of the solid learning of the historian. His article in Putman's publication of "Historic Cities," and his paper "Why Schenectady was Burned in 1690," lets in a flood of light on the historic causes of the city's origin, its sad youth, and its national prominence in Colonial and foreign wars.

Dr. William Elliot Griffes, while pastor of the First Reformed Church, immediately acknowledged the charm of the association of Schenectady, with much that was heroic in the characters of the Holland burgher. In the pulpit and on the platform, and in the literary world in which he has recently taken such eminent rank, he has heralded the grand tolerance of that Church of Holland, often a martyr, never a bigot or persecutor or that has tortured or killed for opinion's sake. Through the whole land he has proclaimed the heroism and bravery of the burgher who never quailed before the enemy of his faith, and who united with his valor a forbearance and magnanimity that won the love and the confidence of his Indian foe or neighbor.

Men born on heights which shadow the picturesque or pastoral beauty of the world's scenery, may not cease to admire, but become so used to the panorama that they cease to note it. The scenery along the valley of the Mohawk in the kaleidoscope color of Autumn foliage, startled Henry Ward Beecher into expressions of rapture, and as he crossed "The Street of the Martyrs" in a palace car, passed in sight of the Buykendahl, the scene of the massacre of 1748 under Towereune, where the valley narrows into the highway of nations, passed by the stone mansions of Guy and Sir John Johnson, by the shrine of "Our Lady of Martyrs," consecrated to the memory of that heroic Jesuit Missionary martyr, Father Jogues, the homestead of the patriot Fondas, Oriskany, and the monument to Herkimer and Fort Stanwix, where St. Leger was held back till Burgoyne was whipped at Saratoga. The great divine thrilled with the recollection of all he had read and heard of the land of story and song.

Now, we of this day, long used to the journey, rush through all this avenue of scenic beauty, with a pipe in the smoking car, or a book in the day coach, too familiar with the sights of the great valley to glance out of the window.

Years ago, on the "Role Baum," that overlooks the precipices of the Plaut, and towers above Youta Pusha, the hill that from Union College looks like the iron clad prow of a battle ship, with a group of under graduates, the writer looked down on a scene of pastoral beauty that swept over a score of cities and villages, and over the hill tops and mountain peaks of four states. Turning to the farmer living in the stone house, from whose windows all the streets in Schenectady can be traced, and where with a strong glass, time can be read on the clock of the Reformed Church, we expressed our envy of his mountain home. He was a bright man, far from a dullard, but there was no answering enthusiasm, for without looking up, he stolidly followed his plow with a listless acquiescence in his remark "Yes, folks say it is a sightly place, but I'm so used to it I don't notice it any more," and he kept his eye in the furrow, that produced his bread and butter. The artistic element in his nature, if he had any, had been exhausted long ago. There was nothing left but the practically bucolic.

So we old Mohawkers have lived on the site, and amid the scenes of one of the most legendary valleys on earth, and have heard it all, seen it all, from childhood. It is the immigrant that becomes our novelist for it is all charmingly new to him.

We Dutchmen of old, from old Peter Stuyvesant down, abhorred the Yankee, and the prejudice of the Mohawk Dutchman was the most stolid of them all. The repulsion was natural, not entirely unreasonable. The New Englander was smart, the burgher was only honest. Jonathan said that Clausha was either asleep, or not good for anything, after 4 p. m., of any day. Clausha retorted that it must have been in the dewey eve when the Yankee sold him wooden hams and condemned shoe pegs sharpened at the other end for oats.

The restless eagerness of the Down Easter disturbed the taciturn Hollander who, secure in the conviction of his own honesty and that of his old neighbors, distrusted that glibness to which his race fell easy victims. In olden time the interloper was received because he could not be kept away, but his probation was long before he met a warm welcome by the Dutchman's fireside.

All is not only changed now, but we have become debtors to those who more than a generation ago were strangers inside the old barricade. It is not the descendant of the old Roman who is unearthing the buried splendors of Pompeii, but the men of learning from other lands. The Yankee horde is upon us, overflowing us, but it is a welcome throng. They bring trade, business and prosperity with an electric touch.

More than all, they have brought a learning and culture no greater than that which we had in the old time, but so impressive with historic surroundings, but they have been impelled to write, and write with recorded accuracy and charming enthusiasm.

History was made here by Bradts, Schermerhorns, Swarts, Vielies, Bankers, Tellers, Yates, Van Slycks, and all the great army of Van unpronounceables, and their heroism and adventures gave the Ancient City its renown. But Pierson and McMurray, Griffes and Landon, are the record savers of the old days. To these industrious, able and erudite chroniclers the writer owes lasting obligation, for without their work, this vista, cut out of the great picture, could not have been put in its modest frame.

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