have we learned the lessons of the 1690 Schenectady Massacre?

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. . click on the images above to go to their page in the New York Public Library Digital Collections . .

Yesterday was the 326th anniversary of the infamous Schenectady Massacre, which occurred on February 8, 1690. The Massacre was the source of the Snowmen at the Gates legend that inspired the name and header image of this weblog. As we wrote in explanation:

snowmencameo Our name “Snowmen at the Gates” refers to the legendary snowmen “standing guard” in a blizzard, on February 8, 1690, outside the open north gate of the sturdy stockade fence that was built to protect the little village of Schenectady. Although messages had been received from the larger outpost at Albany warning that a war party was on the way that evening, the appointed sentries apparently decided to leave their posts to have a tankard or two at the nearby Douwe Aukes tavern. That dereliction of duty allowed a band of 114 French soldiers and 96 Sault and Algonquin Indians to enter the stockade, burn down the village, and massacre, kidnap, or scare away its residents.

Perhaps out of embarrassment, this story was not often retold in our neighborhood. I lived in the Stockade for two decades before I learned about it from Bob Eckstein’s well-researched discussion in his book The History of the Snowman (Simon & Schuster, NY, 2007, at 210-212). In fact, a longtime Stockade resident and business owner who gives informational tours of the Stockade had never heard of the tale when I mentioned it to him last Fall. Bob Eckstein notes that:

The details of this event have been rewritten many times in the form of poems, song and history books, based mostly on rumor—often done to suit the desires of different political sides at work.

Quoting several historians, Eckstein discusses many of the reasons and excuses given for ignoring the warnings from Albany, and for the failure of the mostly-Dutch settlers to obey the orders of their hated English commander Captain John Sander Glen to close the gates.  Pointing out skepticism from some quarters about the snowman portion of the tale, Eckstein concludes that “Almost every historic source corroborates the snowman detail.” For example, he quotes Historian Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, from History of Saratoga County (1878), concerning the reaction to Capt. Glen’s wanting the stockade gate closed:[villagers] ridiculed him and placed a snow image as mock sentinel…before the open gate.”

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e0-f443-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w (1)  In addition, neither Bob Eckstein nor I have found any source that denies the gates were left open (stuck in the high snow) with no human sentinels in place when the French and Indians from Montreal arrived with malice in their hearts at Schenectady’s north gate. Like Eckstein, I agree that the villagers were wrong to assume that no human would be traveling, much less attacking, under such bad weather. That sounds like a lame excuse made up after the fact, as midwinter raids in deep snow had been made before, and blizzard conditions would make the raiders harder to detect and the guards perhaps less able to respond.

Others have filled in details of the night of the Massacre. Gaye Jeanes writes at Geni.com, in “The Schenectady (NY) Massacre of 1690“, that “The original target was Fort Orange (present day Albany), but when Schenectady was discovered [by a scouting party] to be defenseless the raiding party decided to attack [Schenectady] instead. Finding no sentinels other than two snowmen and the gate ajar according to the tradition, the raiders silently entered Schenectady and launched their attack . .”

In his “Why Schenectady was destroyed in 1690 (A paper read before the Fortnightly club of Schenectady, May 3, 1897)”, Jason S. Landon points to the “confusion and anarchy” caused when news of the abdication of James II and the ascension of William and Mary to the English throne reached New York, and disagreement arose as to the rightful governor of the colony. He then explains that:

[T]he people of Schenectady were divided in their sentiments, and though warned of their danger by the friendly Mohawks, still, incapable of union, they failed to obey either power and fell into anarchy and subsisted without any government. The result was that, though the village was surrounded by a stockade and had a garrison of eight soldiers commanded by a lieutenant, the gates of the stockade were upon this night of destruction left open and unguarded, and citizens and soldiers slept the sleep of the just.

snowmencameoBW-004 Eckstein sees no reasons why the snowman detail in the Massacre story would be a fabrication. One reason he gives is that “No one slanders a person by falsely accusing them of making a snowman of all things.” I agree with his conclusion, but not with that particular reasoning. Charging that a soldier or citizen detailed to guard the village went AWOL thinking snowmen would serve as adequate sentinels seems very serious to me, surely worthy of a courts martial, especially given the resulting massacre. Indeed the seriousness of the charge, made more scandalous by claiming the guards were drinking at a tavern rather than at their posts, seems like a very likely motive behind the people of the Stockade wanting to deny the incident and hushing it up. For one thing, descendants of some of those Dutch families are still living in Schenectady or its vicinity.

We’ll never know whether the AWOL guards really thought the snowmen would fool a raiding party. Eckstein is probably correct that no one was likely to stop to build snowmen in the middle of a blizzard in the dark. But, it seems highly likely that there would be snowmen built near the gates of the stockade. More than half of the inhabitants of Schenectady at the time were children, with no iPads or x-boxes or even tv’s available to keep them indoors. Building snowmen seems like a natural recreation, and would allow the kids to play soldier (and Indian). Given the treacherous surrounding countryside, parents and guards would almost surely have kept the children close to the stockade gates to monitor them better and help assure their quick return if danger arose.

The idea of the guards choosing a warm tavern over sentinel duty in a blizzard also makes a lot of sense. If you were going AWOL, would you return to your barracks or home, or would you sneak over to the pub? The Schenectady County Historical Society’s weblog tells us, in “Taverns and Inns of Schenectady, Part 1” (July 15, 2015), that:

Beer and heartier beverages were an important part of Colonial life and some of the more prominent original settlers of Schenectady brewed and sold these beverages in their taverns and inns. Alcohol was not just limited to the men in New Netherlands, women and children were also known to drink. Early Dutch settlers were so fond of imbibing that when Peter Stuyvesant became director-general of New Netherland, he passed several restrictions on drinking and selling alcohol.

Eckstein says the errant sentinels went to Douwe Aukes Tavern, “the center of most ruckus and riots in Fort Schenectady.”  That conjecture seems fairly likely, too. For example, in his 1914 book “Schenectady, Ancient and Modern” Joel Henry Monroe tells us (at 41):

 [Douwe Aukes De Freeze] kept an inn or tavern . . located at the corner of State street and Mill lane, near the first church erected in the village. Douwe Aukes’ inn apparently was the herding place of the villagers and the recognized center of festivities, for it is said that high carnival was or had been in action there the night of the massacre in 1690, which in some degree may  have caused the pervading insensibility to the impending slaughter of the citizens.

An 1898 Centennial Tablet located at Cucumber Alley and Washington Avenue states that there was a 24-man garrison located in the stockade the night of the massacre, and that “18 were scattered scattered through village, during the massacre.” I’m not certain, but that might suggest that six of the soldiers were at Douwe Aukes’ tavern when the raid took place.

DSCF1316-MassacreMarker Despite the weight of the evidence supporting the historical existence of snowmen outside the open stockade gate on the night of the Massacre, the very recently published February 2016 edition of the Stockade Spy, the newsletter of the Stockade Association, has a front page article stating that the tale “of the Snowmen Sentinels that failed to protect the village, remain[s] subject to skepticism and speculation.” The author, Samuel Maurice, also calls it a “tall tale.” In a similar vein, the historical marker to the left of this paragraph,erected at the Centennial of the City’s charter, says only that the raiding party “entered during night at north gate,” without mentioning it being rather easy to enter.

  • DSCF1319 Maurice gives more credibility to the Ride of Simon Schermerhorn that night to warn the people of Albany of the attack, than he does the snowman story. Some Schermerhorn Skeptics wonder if he wasn’t just fleeing or looking for medical help for his wounds. The people of Fort Orange at Albany, of course, knew the raiders were heading for Schenectady that night. Simon might have had mixed motives, but Schenectady needs as many heroes as it can get for the sad tale of its Massacre.

The skepticism over the snowman legend mentioned in the current issue of the Stockade Spy is rather ironic, for at least two reasons: (1) Sharing page one of the February Spy with Maurice’s “The Schenectady Massacre” is an article with the boldface headline “Celebrate the Snowman! A Winter Commemoration of the 1690 Massacre“. Despite a total lack of snow, the first-ever Snowman Celebration was held at Riverside Park, Saturday afternoon, February 6. (Go to “suns along the Mohawk” for photographic coverage of the event.) By promoting the Celebration of the Massacre Snowmen, the Stockade Association gave the legend its broadest publicity ever within our Stockade neighborhood. And,

DSCF1362

artificial snowmen celebrating fake sentinels

(2) The Stockade Association is perhaps the prime private organization targeted by this weblog when it asks whether Schenectady’s watchdogs are adequately on guard and acting to fulfill their duties to protect our community. (It is, of course, the one I know the best, as a resident of the Stockade.) Over the past few years, the leaders of the Stockade Association, and an often indifferent membership, appear to this observer to be sleepy, toothless watchdogs. They seem unwilling to fulfill the organization’s primary objectives, as stated in its charter and by-laws, especially: the “Promotion and preservation of the residential character of the Stockade Historic District”; the “Representation before any City or County governmental agency or component on matters affecting the neighborhood”, and enhancing the safety and beauty of the neighborhood. The most glaring examples are, first, the failure to put the issue of the Schenectady Casino (a mere half mile from the district’s western boundary) on its agenda, in order to allow full discussion, promote needed research, and gauge the support or opposition of residents and property owners. And, second, the current refusal, despite new leadership, to ascertain — and, more importantly, to simply ask the Planning Commission to find out through a competent Visual Impact Assessment — how the giant Rivers Casino pylon sign and LCD screens will affect our skyline, nightscape, and traffic safety.

(update) We need to add: (3) The failure of the Association to strongly protest the suggestion by the City Engineer early in 2016, that the office would continue to favor the “Ferry Street” process of repairing sidewalks and repaving streets, is similarly inexcusable. See information and commentary on our Save Our Trees portal.

  • No matter how successful and enjoyable events such as the Stockade Outdoor Art Show, annual Walkabout, or Valentine flamingo visitation, may be, thanks to the hard work of Association members and other residents; and no matter how neighborly individuals are toward each other, the Stockade Association cannot be taken seriously if it does not live up to the tagline on its website masthead: “Committed to protecting, preserving and improving New York’s first historic district.”

The lessons to be learned from the 1690 Schenectady Massacre and its Snowmen at the Gates are rather obvious, but well worth remembering, whether taken literally or metaphorically:

  • take warnings of danger seriously (including doing necessary fact-finding), even when you may not be friendly with the source of the warnings, or you hope your adversaries will only arrive when the weather is good
  • don’t leave your gate open to spite your unpopular boss or because digging it out is too difficult in a blizzard
  • when given or taking responsibility to protect the community, serve faithfully and diligently (and find able substitutes before heading to a tavern for a beer)
  • when choosing sentinels to stand guard or to police the community, make sure they have the heart, brains, and stamina needed to fulfill their duties. No Snowmen Need Apply.

snowmencameoBW-002 Have the people of Schenectady, its government, elected officials, civil servants, and community leaders and groups, etc., learned the lessons of the 1690 Massacre and put them to practice consistently? Far too often, it seems, the answer is no. That conclusion applies in spades when it comes to what is surely the most important continuing governmental role this Century: preparing for the selection, construction, and operation of a casino in Schenectady. (See the list of postings in the Home Page sidebar.) We need observant, curious, active, and diligent watchdogs — with a pulse, and both a bark and a bite.

One more thing about snowmen: beside serving no useful offensive or defensive regulatory or watchdog role, they are very averse to heat, hoping to avoid it and its damaging effects whenever possible.

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  • feb8infamy4x6we We belatedly realized that February 8, the day the Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor is slated to open, is the anniversary of the Schenectady Massacre of 1690. See our posting “our infamous February 8th

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