Early History of Colonie
To a large degree the Town of Colonie was shaped by events that took place some ten to fifteen thousand years ago. This was a period when the last of the great continental glaciers began to recede. As the ice melted, it left behind the debris which the glacier had carried during the last advance. A prominent example, that is visible today, is a geological feature called an esker. It is a long and narrow accumulation of sediments, grading from boulders to course gravels to finer sands and clays. These sediments were laid down by melting water flowing under the edge of the ice sheet. The esker in Colonie runs from the Dunsbach Ferry area, through Latham and Loudonville, and finally disappears near Albany.
As the glaciers melted, the water that was set free was trapped by a barrier that must have existed well south of Albany. A large glacial lake was formed, that geologists call Lake Albany. Meltwater flowed from the "Glaciomohawk" River into Lake Albany, near the present site of Schenectady. The lake slowed the flow of the water entering from the river, and a large sand delta was created. Eventually the waters of Lake Albany drained, leaving this delta exposed to the elements. The westerly winds sweeping down the Mohawk Valley spread the delta sands over a wide area, including portions of the Town of Colonie. After the wind shaped the sand into dunes, plants stabilized their motion, forming a large in-land Pine Barrens. This area, known today as the "Pine Bush", at one time covered forty square miles between Schenectady and Albany. A quote from the Heritage of the Pine Bush follows:
Proudly,, patiently,, atop the lonely, dunes I have kept my silent vigil over the wind-swept plains of Colonie. I came with the sand, tossed from the desert left in the tomb of Lake Albany. Flourishing on the granite sand, washed from the Adirondacks into the Mohawk by glacial streams, I have nurtured the barriers which have become the symbol of the transcendental beauty of the Pine Bush. Written by the wind, I whisper to you now, a rhapsody.
When Lake Albany drained, most of Colonie was a moderately level area some two to three hundred feet above sea level. At first this plateau or upland area was drained by tiny rills, but eventually larger brooks were formed as the rain carried away the sand and finer gravels. All the principal drainage streams which originate in the Town of Colonie had developed from these small rills. These drainages include: Patroon's Creek, Sand Creek, Lisha Kill, Shaker Creek, Delphus Kill and the Salt Kill. While it seems strange to envision, the sizable ravines and gullies that were formed by these streams have been produced since Lake Albany drained, approximately 10,000 years ago.
The lowland areas of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys are characterized by long alluvial flats. These were the first lands selected by both the Indians and the early colonists, since the continual flooding created fertile soils for agriculture. The alluvial flats along the Mohawk River near the Mohawk View area was designated by the Indians as "Canastagione", a name that had many spellings, and eventually became Niskayuna. "Canastagione" referred to the Indian corn fields on the Mohawk.
The majority of anthropologists believe that prehistoric man first came to North America from Asia about twelve to twenty thousand years ago as they followed game animals across the Bering land bridge into Alaska. Within a relatively short period of time these peoples had migrated as far as the southern-most tip of South America. The earliest settlements in our area were located along the lower Hudson Valley and the Atlantic Coast and remained there until the climate warmed up at the end of the glacial period. This climatic change encouraged the growth of hardwood forests and the migration of many animal species into the areas where the glaciers previously had been. Prehistoric man likewise migrated into these areas.
Archeologists have identified many different cultural groups among the aboriginal Indians, by noticing the differences in the style and inventory of their tools and pottery. Since artifacts are the primary physical evidence of a cultural group, archeologists use the differences in artifact styles as an indication of differences in lifestyles, religion and other cultural behavior.
The location of many Indian occupations have been discovered in the present Town of Colonie. The majority of these sites have been found along the rivers and streams, where fishing provided a major food source and the water permitted easy travel. Only two sites, along the Little River ("BinneKill") between Breaker Island and Menands, have been the subjects of professional archeological excavations.
Over the course of several thousand years many cultures moved through or occupied land in our Town. The division of the Indian cultures falls into three major chronological stages: Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Woodland. While PaleoIndian remains have never been found in Colonie, they have been discovered in Greene County. Archaic Indians may have settled in our vicinity along the flats of the Hudson River. Since the river provided easy travel and abundant natural resources, these prehistoric Indian cultures may have occupied this land for over 3000 years. The Woodland peoples developed pottery, specialized burial rituals, and later had an agricultural economy based on corn, beans, squash and nuts. They dug large pits in order to store these foods. After the pits were no longer used they were filled with discarded tools and other refuse. The bow and arrow were not used until relatively late in prehistoric times. Many of the so-called "arrowheads" which have been found were probably javelin and spear points, or special types of knives.
The Iroquoian and Algonkian tribes were the last of the Late Woodland people in New York State and played an important role in our colonial history. The Mohawks were a local Iroquois-speaking tribe who lived near the mouth of the Schoharie Creek where it enters the Mohawk River. Their neighbors to the east were the Mahicans (not to be confused with the Mohegans in Connecticut). The Mahicans spoke an Algonquian language, quite unlike that spoken by the Iroquois.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Mahicans were the most powerful of the Indian tribes in our area. They controlled the territory from Lake Champlain to Dutchess County in the lower Hudson Valley, and from southern Vermont westerly to the Schoharie drainage. The principal Mahican villages were located at Monnemin's Castle on Peeble's Island at the mouth of the Mohawk River, at Unwat's Castle at Lansingburgh and another at Castleton.
For the most part, the relationship between the local tribes and the earliest Europeans was friendly. The Indians traded furs for guns, liquor and other desirable trade items, The greed created by the fur trade stimulated intense hostilities between the Mahicans and the Mohawks. With the encouragement of the Dutch, the two tribes warred for several years. Finally, in 1628 the Mahicans were forced to vacate that part of their territory which was west of the Hudson. They were confined to living on the east side of the River, south of the present City of Rensselaer.
There is confusion over whether artifacts found in Colonie, previously attributed to the Mohawks, instead may have belonged to the Mahican culture. It is possible that the two tribes had more similar cultures than scholars realize. Future excavations along the flats of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers may in time produce evidence to help archeologists solve this puzzle.
Henry Hudson was the first European visitor to reach the vicinity of the present Town of Colonie. Hudson was an English navigator employed by the Dutch East India Company to find an open polar route to Northern Asia. When he reached the North American continent on July 3, 1609, Hudson traveled along the coast until he found an inlet which he surmised would lead him to India. He traveled up this river to the farthest navigable point, not far from Albany. There he encountered the Mahican Indians who readily traded furs and food in exchange for beads, knives and hatchets.
Reports of Hudson's journey stimulated a group of' Amsterdam merchants to form the United Netherlands Company, for the purpose of developing the fur trade with the Indians. On October 11, 1614 the Dutch government granted this Company a four year monopoly to trade with the Indians in New Netherlands. A crude trading post, called Fort Nassau, was built on a low island in the Hudson River, near the mouth of the Normanskill. By 1617 spring floods forced them to build a new fort on the west bank of the Hudson, opposite the first fort.
In 1621 the Holland States General incorporated the Dutch West India Company, and gave it exclusive jurisdiction over New Netherlands, including the rights to trade and to found new settlements. Initially, the Company viewed its colony of New Netherlands as a trading center rather than as an expanding agricultural settlement. In the spring of 1623 the Dutch West India Company persuaded 30 families to emigrate to New Netherlands. When they arrived in the early part of 1624, eighteen of these families settled in Albany, while the rest remained on an island called Manhatans. Soon after they arrived, they built a fortified trading post called Fort Orange, near present day Broadway in Albany.
Unfortunately, the task of colonizing New Netherlands became too expensive, and the Company abandoned their plans of sending settlers to their colony. The Directors of the Company decided upon another way to make their venture profitable. They offered grants of land, "with feudal jurisdiction, to such members of the Company as would undertake to transport and settle within four years, fifty colonists above the age of fifteen. The settlers would become agricultural tenants of the grantee, or patroon, for a fixed term of years, being subject to his jurisdiction during that time". In this way it was expected that the population of the colony would be increased without expense.
Kiliean van Rensselaer, a wealthy Amsterdam merchant, was one of the first people to take steps to plant colonies in New Netherlands. After obtaining the approval of the States-General, Van Rensselaer sent instructions to Sebastian Jansen Crol at Fort Orange, to purchase from the Indians a tract of land sufficient in size for the settlement of a colony. "The colony of Rensselaerswyck began at the southern end of Barren Island in the Hudson River and ran northerly along the river as far as the Great Falls at the Cohoes, some twenty-three miles. It included the land on both sides of the river, running back twenty-four miles from each bank." Eventually, this tract included nearly a million acres of land.
Meanwhile Kiliean van Rensselaer actively exerted himself to obtain the quota of persons required by the West India Company to be settled in the first year. He led a campaign with numerous advertisements, which induced a number of people to become settlers in his patroonship. The arrival of these people marks the first significant settlement in the Albany area. While most of them were farmers and artisans, they were of diverse backgrounds and heritages. The purpose of bringing these people to New Netherlands was to establish Rensselaerswyck on an agrarian basis.
The colonists in New Netherlands were not exempted from the serious political and religious changes that took place in England and France during the middle of the Seventeenth century. As a result of England's victories, Pieter Stuyvesant, Governor of Niew Amsterdam, was Forced to surrender his territory to Colonel Nicolls, the commander of the British Fleet in 1664. The surrender included not only the fort on Manhattan, but "all such forts, taverns, or places of strength as were now owned by the Dutch." Thus after fifty years of Dutch domination, all of the Hudson-Mohawk territory came under English political rule. Beverwyck and Niew Amsterdam were renamed, respectively, Albany and New York, after the Duke of York in Albany, who later became James II King of England. During the English occupation little colonization occurred in the upper Hudson Valley, and consequently the Settlements remained Dutch in character, at least until 1800.
Before the middle of the 17th century adventurous pioneers occupied the desirable alluvial plains in Niskayuna (Canastigione), the Half Moon (Waterford) and as far north] as "Saraglitoga". From the last years of the 17th century and far into the 18th. the frontiers west of Albany were the scene of blood raids instigated by the French in Canada and carried out by the Indians allied with them. Although farmers. their families and servants, were killed while harvesting crops in their fields, the settlers remained undaunted.
During this period, communication passed back and forth between officials in Albany and those in England concerning the need for the erection of a new fort at Niskayuna (as then called) to replace the "pretty large Stockaded Fort ... quite gone to ruine". This fort was located on Marten Cregier's land, near the mouth of the present Shaker's Creek, from the time of the earliest settlers.
At the time of the Schenectady Massacre, in 1690, when that city was destroyed by a hostile French and Indian force. Symon Schermerhorn escaped and rode along the River Road and Old Niskayuna Road, warning the settlers; thence on to Albany with the news Schermerhorn's descendants still live on the road named for him in the Mohawk area. Below is the description from "Forts and Fires the Mohawk Country, New York" by John J. Vrooman relating the dramatic tale:
Near midnight on February 8, 1690 Symon Schermerhorn was roused by his great dog Negar. When he opened the shutter he saw, almost in disbelief, a column of men in strange uniforms, followed by a file of Indians. Rousing his brother, he said, "Ryer, the French are in town - I will ride to Albany and give the alarm." He was able to saddle his horse and get to the north gate before he was fired upon, wounding his thigh and the horse. His route passed close to the river and through Niskayuna, where there was no doctor. He had to pull his mare down to walk because of the pain. It is logical that he turned down the Crooked Road (Old Niskayuna Road) and on down the hill to the stockade gate. Numbed by the cold and weak from loss of blood he could barely stammer "Schenectady - French - Indians - Fire - everything afire."
Prior to the establishment of the Van Rensselaer Manor in 1630 few efforts were made to establish New Netherlands as an agrarian society. The fur trade was the principal occupation of the majority of the settlers. During the early years of the Van Rensselaer's patroonship most of the colonists remained in close proximity to Fort Orange probably as a result of their interest in participating in the fur trade, even though many of them had signed farm leases. Both the Dutch government and the West India Company had difficulties in obtaining settlers; this situation did not change until the latter part of the seventeenth century when the English Governors established the manorial system in New York.
Details concerning the location of the very earliest settlers' homes are scarce. Patroon Creek was the first landmark north of the fort. Marinus Adriansz signed a three year contract to be a tobacco planter on a farm north of Fort Orange. In 1632 Gerrit Thensz de Reux was to settle a farm on the Blommaerts Kill (Patroon Creek). Later he is recorded as living on a farm across the river, at de Laets Burg Farms just north of the kill were occupied by Rutger Jacobsz in 1645 and Adrian Hybertsz in 1647. On January 29, 1654 Jacob Jansz Flodder was the highest bidder for grist and sawmills on the Creek. Barent Pietersz Coeymar and Teunis Cornelisz van Spitsbergen obtained a lease for a sawmill higher up the stream in the same year.
Cornelius Anthonisz van Schlick (Van Slyke) came from Breuckelen in 1634 under contract as a carpenter and mason. By 1636 he was in charge of a farm immediately south of de Vlackte (later Schuyler Flatts). The Patroon wrote "the place of Broer Cornelis and the Great Flats together... contain about 140 morgens according to survey." A morgen contains approximately two acres.
Broer (Brother) Cornelis married a part Indian woman named Otstoch, called "Princess", and was adopted into the tribe. One daughter, Hilletie, became interested in the Christian religion and married Pieter Danielse van Olinda. She and her sister Leah, acted as interpreters for the Mohawks. In appreciation the Indians granted her the large island in the Mohawk River at Niskayuna later called Shaker Island. This grant was made June 11, 1667, patent dated on May 8, 1668 and conveyed by Hilletie's husband to Jan Clute on March 4, 1669.
On October 24, 1704 Hilletie van Olinda petitioned for a patent "known by the Indian name of Dewaethoeiacocks, lying on the south side of the Maquase River, bounded on the south side by Kiliaen van Rensselaer's patent; on the west by the patent of Peter Hendrick de Haes; easterly down along the river, by the Kahoos or Great Falls, containing 40 acres." This land was outside the Manor. On October 15, 1719 Daniel van Olinda was granted a patent for 1,284 acres including the 400 acres mentioned above. The acreage amounted to two square miles. The Van Olinda descendents farmed the area for many years.
Arendt van Curler, a cousin of the Patroon, at the age of twenty years, was commissioned on May 12, 1639 as a secretary and bookkeeper of Rensselaerswyck. He was in charge of the Patroon's farm at the Flatts, and according to records and reports, he had a house built there for the laborers and carpenters. The building was 120 feet long, and was used as a dwelling for the farm laborers with the additional space used for the farm animals. It had a cellar measuring 20 feet long and 28 feet wide. Excavations under the direction of Paul R. Huey, Chief Archeologist, Bureau of Historic Sites, New York State Division for Historic Preservation, located this early structure in 1974.
The lease of May 1, 1648 shows the terms and legal restrictions to which Arendt van Curler was bound on his farm on the Flatts. While traditional historians believe that the lease terms are an indication that the farming was a form of servitude for life, the fact is that oftentimes the Patroon never collected rents from his farmers, and the lease terms were not strictly adhered to. Arendt van Curler was interested in participating in the fur trade himself, and consequently he requested permission from Director-General Peter Stuyvesant to purchase land from the Mohawk Indians. In 1661 van Curler moved with several families to this tract of land and founded Schenectady beyond the limit of Van Rensselaer's Manor.
Little information is known concerning the tenancy of the Flatts after van Curler left; other than that the house had caved in by 1668 and the van Rensselaers were in need of a good tenant. Philip Pieterse Schuyler, General Philip Schuyler's great grandnephew purchased the farm in 1672, probably repaired the old house and cellar, and may have built an additional structure without a cellar on the north. This was the beginning of a long Schuyler lineage in the area.