Monday, May 3, 2010

The Burning of Schenectady, 1690

On the bitter cold night of February 8, 1690 the village of Schenectady lay deep in sleep. As the snow and wind increased, a band of 210 French soldiers and their Indian allies studied the sleeping town from across the frozen Mohawk River. Although surrounded by a stockade of logs ten feet high, the town’s two gates stood wide open and unguarded.There were no lights nor signs of movement in the small fort located on the northern side of the palisaded town.

The Mohawk River, from Riverside Park: probable site of French crossing

Three weeks earlier, the French commander Lemoine de Sainte Helene had led this small band out of Montreal, trekking on snowshoes through the deep snow of the Adirondacks for twenty-two days to reach the frontiers of the English colony.

The soundly sleeping settlers were mostly Dutch, and some of the eldest among them recalled the founding of their village four decades earlier by the redoubtable Arendt van Corlaer (or Curler), the Great Friend of the Mohawks. The Mohawks held Corlaer in such high regard that they ever afterward referred to the chief white man, whether Dutch or English,  as The Corlaer, and transferred to him their lasting loyalty.

The French who now lingered outside the helpless village had come south as much to crush the powerful Mohawks as to destroy Schenectady and its larger neighbor, known since 1664 as Albany. The war which now came with such stealth to the Mohawk Valley had its origins far across the Atlantic. When James II, a Catholic and friend of France, was forced to give up his throne in1688 in favor of the protestant William of Orange, worldwide war between England and France became inevitable. William and his wife Mary Stuart, backed by a lively parliament, were more than ready to duel with France for control of vast stretches of the New World. Even so, the villagers knew little of the quarrels of distant monarchs , and in the dead of winter, had no fear of any attack.

Louis XIV of France was ultimately 
responsible for the massacre

 William and Mary, whose ouster of James II
in 1688, led to war with France

The site of massacre is still  known as "The Stockade," and is a very desirable residential neighborhood of historic residences cherished by its inhabitants.

Elegant 19th century ironwork is common 
on houses in the Stockade neighborhood

According to Jonathan Pearson’s 1883 history of Schenectady:

The village at this time lay mainly west of Ferry street, and was stockaded with palisades of pine logs ten feet high. It had at least two gates, one at north end of Church street, opening out to the highway (Front street), which led to the eastward to Niskayuna. Another at south end of Church at State, opening out to Mill lane and the Flats and the Albany road (State street).The only dwellings outside the stockade were built on the northerly side of State street, extending as far south-east as Centre Street. It is said there were 80 good houses in the village and a population of 400 souls, both numbers doubtless greatly exaggerated.

House on Ferry Street, along which the palisade ran in 1690

In the northerly angle of the village on or near the corner of Washington and Front Streets was a double stockaded fort garrisoned by a detachment of 24 men of Capt. Jonathan Bull's Connecticut company under the command of Lieut. Talmadge.

No trace remains of the 1690 era settlement, except perhaps in traces buried beneath the streets and houses of this attractive neighborhood, although the Brouwer house may date back to the time of the massacre or just a little later.

 The oldest house in Schenectady

Originally planning to wait until much later at night to attack, the French and Indians were driven by the unbearable cold to strike at once, entering the village without hindrance and assembling in small groups outside each house. Then, according to Professor Pearson, the slaughter began:

In the ill fated village, the inhabitants went to rest with their gates open and no guard set. They trusted that the Indians who had been sent out as scouts to Lake George would forewarn them of the enemy's approach. The French marched upon the village from the north, crossed the river on the ice and divided their men into two companies with the intention of entering the town, one by the north or Church street gate, the other by the south or State street gate. The latter entrance being in a measure covered by the dwellings on that street could not be found; both companies therefore entered by the north gate and separating, spread themselves throughout the village, five or six before each house. At the signal agreed upon, a simultaneous onslaught was made upon each dwelling and before the terror stricken inhabitants could seize their arms, the savages were upon them. Resistance was vain. Within two hours 60 of the people were slaughtered without distinction of age or sex. After selecting such booty as they could carry away,the French fired the houses and burnt all but five or six.

1898 plaque commemorating the massacre of 1690

 A tourist reading the 1898 plaque

This was a slaughter. The only successful resistance was offered by Adam Vrooman and his family at their house, which stood on the west corner of Front and Church streets opposite the north gate. Evidently, they maintained a steady fire which kept the enemy far enough back so that they could not set fire to the house.

Professor Pearson speaks of one other family that escaped destruction:

Capt. Sander Glen's family and relatives with their habitations and other property, on account of former kindness shown to captive Frenchmen, were spared by express order of Lemoine de Sainte Helene

The Glen Sanders Mansion

Portions of the elegant Glen Sanders Mansion, now a popular wedding and banquet venue, may date back to Captain Glen’s house spared in 1690.

By the  morning of February 9, 1690, the French and Indians headed back into the northern forests with  27 (or 30) prisoners and 50 horses laden with plunder, giving up on the original plan of destroying Albany and burning the Mohawk villages farther west along the river.  African slavery was widespread among the Dutch and slaves were among those killed and taken prisoner.

 Historic marker recognizing the role of Symon Schermerhoorn

Symon Schermerhoorn, though wounded, had managed to escape the slaughter that night and raised the alarm. According to records preserved in Albany, the call to arms was given but the militia decided not to pursue the enemy lest they leave Albany undefended.

The official French report by M. de Monsignat, quoted by Professor Pearson, reveals that the French lost 17 and the Indians four on the return journey. The names of all those carried off as prisoners are included in primary sources included by professor Pearson in his chapter on the massacre. Many of those taken were ransomed and returned to the Mohawk Valley in succeeding years.

The enemy was pursued, although apparently only by the Mohawk friends of the settlers, who caught up with the French just before they reached Montreal and killed six. Their actions were commemorated by the erection of a statue in 1887 of one their number, known as "Lawrence the Indian." The statue was placed at the junction of Front, Green and North Ferry Streets, which marks the northeastern extremity of the stockade and blockhouse.            

Lawrence the Indian statue

The war ended inconclusively, but was renewed again in 1725 and 1755 before the French were finally defeated. Schenectady was never again directly attacked, although much blood was shed nearby in the series of wars that originated in European rivalries.

Update on location of the 1690 Stockade

I recently heard from Tom Morgan, an avid researcher of local history and a follower of this blog.  Tom generously provided an old engraving  which he believes to be a fairly accurate depiction of the village at the time of he massacre.

Tom also provided the information below and his own chronological map showing the location of the three stockades which stood on this site.


At the time of the massacre the village lay mainly west of Ferry Street, protected by pine palisades ten feet high. The only dwellings outside the palisade were on the north side of what is now State Street. Near the corner of Washington and Front stood the double stockade fort which fell so easily on the fatal night. After 1690 the palisade was rebuilt, and was again rebuilt in 1705 to include more of the expanding village.  Being made of wood, the walls and fort had a limited lifespan and needed to be rebuilt once more in 1735. This time the fort was constructed with timbers on a stone foundation.

The fort remained an essential feature of each rebuilding. When the village was restored  just after the massacre, a new and larger fort was constructed in the southwest corner of the enclosure, the original fort being used as a blockhouse and church. This fort contained "two great guns." In the 1705 renovation, a fort was built in the northeast corner, variously called Corlear's Fort, Fort Cosby and the Queen's Fort. In the 1705 and 1735 reconstructions, the "Queen's New Fort" was built at the east angle of the stockade. The fort remained  standing through the Revolution and was finally torn down in 1783.

The expense and effort which went into the fortification of this site is testimony to the uncertain and violent century which followed the 1690 attack. Although wars swirled around Schenectady, however, it was never again attacked.

The neighborhood thrived in the peaceful and prosperous era that accompanied independence but was in decline by the mid 20th century. Tom informed me of the formation of the Stockade Association in 1958, through whose efforts the area was designated as the first Historic District in the state, saving many buildings from destruction and preparing the way for the attractive residential neighborhood it is is today.


  1. This is an excellent blog. My husband and I visited the Schenectady Stockade area last spring and found your photos to be a timely record of what is now at the site. Thanks for such a useful posting.

  2. In doing my family history, learned Jan Pootman (Putnam) and wife Cornelia Bradt were among those murdered and she was scalped. a grandaughter of theirs, Sarah Putnam married Johannes Lewis, they were my ggg grandparents

  3. Thanks for the blog, very informative. I am a descendant of Jan Van Eps who was killed in the Massacre. Mark Sproul, Ontario Canada.

  4. Very well done; I have linked this post to my blog tonight which features an account of the Mohawk request that the settlers not abandon Schenectady.

  5. I too am a descendant of several massacre victims (Van Eps). I'm planning to visit the site in June 2018 during a family trip. Thanks for the site information. I've been looking for years and finally located this blog. Thanks. Mike Biferno,

  6. With all due respect, you should be displaying the 1698 Romer map of Schenectady, made in 1698 instead of the "old engraving" which was actually made in the 20th century. If you look at the Romer map, there is only one stockade line "from Col. Dongan's time" going from the Mohawk River to the fort then across Ferry Street to State Street, then down to Cowhorn Creek. There was no stockade enclosing the whole town in 1690. Pearson's book shows a copy of the 1696 Miller map that shows "The Fort at Schenectady" not the whole town. The Miller map has a back story that would take more space than this reply. Suffice it to say, that if you look at the southwest corner of the Romer map (where the old WRGB building or current SCCC CST building is today), you will see a small refuge fort, which is the fort that Miller was referring to. The interpretation in Pearson's book was done by his editor Junius MacMurray, not Jonathan Pearson. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the Romer map, in the British Crown Archives, was unknown in Schenectady until Father Grassman brough a copy back to Schenectady in the 1940s.