The 1690 Schenectady, NY, Massacre was an attack by the French and their Indian allies on the Dutch and English settlement at Schenectady in New York on 8-9 February 1690. The attack came in retaliation for a series of devastating Iroquois raids on Canada, which had essentially stopped the French fur trade for two years.
In much of the late 17th century, the Iroquois and the colonists of New France had engaged in a protracted struggle for control of the economically important fur trade in northern North America. In August 1689, the Iroquois had launched one of their most devastating raids against the French frontier community of Lachine. This attack occurred after France and England declared war on each other but before the news reached North America. New France's governor the Comte de Frontenac organized an expedition from Montreal to attack English outposts to the south, as punishment for English support of the Iroquois, and as a general widening of the war against the northernmost English colonies. The expedition was one of three directed at isolated northern and western settlements, and was originally aimed at Fort Orange (present day Albany).
Led by Jacques Le Moyne de Sainte-Hélène and Nicolas d'Ailleboust de Manthet, the raiding expedition consisted of about 160 Canadiens, mostly frontier-savvy coureurs de bois, with 100 Indians, primarily christianized Mohawk, Sault and Algonquins. They made their way across the ice of Lake Champlain and Lake George toward the English communities on the Hudson River.
A march from Montreal to Schenectady — a distance of 200 miles, was one of extreme labor, requiring great pluck and endurance. Between the St. Lawrence and the Mohawk rivers, there was then an unbroken wilderness without a single habitation. In mid-winter, the snow lay in the forest from three to six feet deep and could be traveled only on snow-shoes. In addition to their heavy muskets and ammunition, the French were forced to carry provisions for the march of 22 days. Such were the conditions of an attack upon Schenectady — only possible in winter without a flotilla of canoes to cross the lakes.
Fort Orange appeared to be well defended and a scouting reported on the 8th of February that no one was guarding the stockade at the small frontier community of Schenectady. Schenectady and Albany were politically polarized in the wake of the 1689 Leisler's Rebellion and the opposing factions had not even been able to agree on the setting of guards.
They started from Montreal on the 17th of January and, after suffering incredible hardships on the way, arrived in sight of the town about 11 o'clock at night on the 8th of February.
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 opened out to the highway [Front street], which led to the eastward to Niskayuna. Another at south end of Church at State opened 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 southeast as Lange gang (Centre Street). It is said there were 80 good houses in the village and a population of 400 souls, both numbers doubtless greatly exaggerated.
In the northerly angle of the village on the Binnè kil (near corner 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 Lt. Enos Talmadge. Thus fortified and garrisoned, the inhabitants should have repelled any ordinary attack or at least held the enemy at bay until help could reach them from Albany.
"The destruction of the place was occasioned by divided counsels and a fatal apathy. The whole Province was then divided into two factions—the Leislerians and the Anti-Leislerians—the short hairs and swallow-tails. Divided feelings and counsels ran so high in Albany and Schenectady as to counteract the sense of self preservation. Both parties were determined to rule, neither was strong enough to take the lead," wrote Jonathan Pearson in his history of Schenectady Patent.
But Schenectady and Albany were politically polarized in the wake of the 1689 Leisler's Rebellion and the opposing factions had not even been able to agree on the setting of guards. The animosity was so great between the two that those who were supposed to serve as guard for that night instead built snowmen for guards in their places. One gate, it was reported, could not be closed due to the heavy snow that had fallen throughout the day.
|Plan of Schenectady|
It was the French and Indians' intention to make the attack later, but the intense cold forced them to enter the town at once. In the midnight attack which followed, the invaders burned houses and barns, and killed men, women and children. Most were in night clothing and had no time to arm themselves.
According to the French report sent to Canada describing the raid, "Messieurs de Sainte Helene and de Mantet were to enter at the first [gate] which the Squaws pointed out, and which in fact was found wide open. Messieurs d'Iberville and de Montesson took the left with another detachment, in order to make themselves masters of that leading to Orange. But they could not discover it, and returned to join the remainder of the party. A profound silence was everywhere observed until the two commanders, who separated at their entrance into the town for the purpose of encircling it, had met at the other extremity.
"The signal of attack was given Indian fashion and the whole force rushed on simultaneously. M. de Mantet placed himself at the head of a detachment and reached a small fort where the garrison was under arms. The gate was burst in after a good deal of difficulty, the whole set on fire, and all who defended the place slaughtered.
"The sack of the town began a moment before the attack on the fort. Few houses made any resistance, M. de Montigny discovered some, which he attempted to carry sword in hand, having tried the musket in vain. He received two thrusts of a spear — one in the body and the other in the arm. But M. de Sainte Helene, having come to his aid, effected an entrance and put every one who defended the place to the sword. The massacre lasted two hours. The remainder of the night was spent in placing sentinels and in taking some repose.
"The house belonging to the minister was ordered to be saved, so as to take him alive to obtain information from him; but as it was not known, it was not spared any more than the others. He was slain and his papers burnt before he could be recognized."
A number of the townspeople escaped, during the fury of the attack, and hid in the woods or made their way over the Albany Road to Albany. Some had suffered wounds by the enemy and others had their hands and feet frozen in the terrible 16-mile night journey through the snow and bitter cold.
By the morning of the 9th of Feb., the community lay in ruins — more than 60 buildings were burned. Most of the residents were dead or taken prisoner, with some survivors managing to flee as refugees to the fort at Albany. Symon Schermerhorn was one of these. Although wounded, he rode to Albany to warn them of the massacre.
Through two feet of snow and great drifts, Schermerhorn galloped over the River road to Niskayuna, warning the settlers on his way. After covering over thirty miles, in a six-hour ride in the bitter cold of the February night, Symon reached Albany with his dreadful message. His horse fell dead at the city gateway and Schermerhorn fainted from exhaustion and his wound.
The clerk's office of Albany county contains the reaction of the inhabitants when Schermerhorn arrived in Albany:
"This morning about 5 o'clock ye alarm was brought here by Symon Schermerhoorn who was shott threw his Thigh yt ye french and Indians had murthered ye People of Skinnechtady; haveing got into ye Towne about 11 or 12 a Clock there being no Watch Kept (ye Inhabitants being so negligent & Refractory) and yt he had much a doe to Escape they being very numerous. They fyred severall times at him at last throw his Thigh and wounded his horse and was come over to Canatagione (Niskayuna) to bring ye news.
"Severall ye People haveing Escaped ye Cruelty of ye french and there Indians came Running here & told us ye Village was a fyre and yt they had much a doe to Escape for all ye streets were full of french and Indians & yt many People were murthered and yt ye enemy were marching hither which news was Continually Confirmed till afternoon....Some horse men sent out to Discover ye Enemies force and there march but were forced to Return ye snow being so Deep yet some were sent out again who got thither...Lawrence ye Indian with ye Maquase[s] yt were in Towne were sent out also to Skinnechtady to Dispatch posts to ye Maquase Castles for all ye Indians to come downe but unhappily sad [sic: said] Indians comeing to Skinnechtady were so much amazed to see so many People murthered and Destroyed...." Apparently even the Indians were startled by the savagery of the attack and failed to send for their fellow tribesmen.
Approximately 60 people were killed in the raid on Schenectady, including 10 women and 12 children. After the fighting ceased, all the houses and barns--save a few--were set on fire and the blood-stained raiders filed eastward from the burning town, with their pack train of booty and line of dejected prisoners. The little band of survivors stood helpless around their flaming dwellings, while some wept and wailed over the gory corpses of those who, a few hours before, had been their living loved ones. Even the Mohawks were shocked at the slaughter and destruction done by the enemy. The work of thirty years of human industry went blazing skyward and the night of that far off midwinter Sunday closed over the blackened ruin of what had once been the busy, thriving and comfortable little village of Schenectady.
The French began their retreat at eleven o'clock Sunday morning. They took with them 27 prisoners, men and boys, and 50 of the settlers' horses, which served them in the double stead of pack animals and of food when their provisions ran out on the terrible winter march of over 250 miles. Had it not been for this traveling meat supply, the raiders would have perished of starvation or would have been overtaken and destroyed by the force which went out in pursuit from Schenectady.
Capt. Johannes Sanderse Glen (known to the Dutch as Sanders Glen), who lived in Scotia across the river from Schenectady, prepared to defend his house with the aid of his Negro slaves and some Indians. Kryn, the Mohawk chief, and a French officer went alone across the river on the ice and told Glen that he was safe because of the many kindnesses he and his wife had shown French captives. The raiders not only spared Glen's house and family, but they went with him to the stricken town and gave up to him such captives and their possessions as he claimed to be his kin. "The Indians grumbled that Glen's kinsfolk were astonishingly numerous."
Through the Captain's pleadings, many lives and several houses were thus saved. It is said that the French officers ate breakfast at Glen's from a round mahogany table now in the possession of the Glen-Sanders family in their Scotia mansion. Glen claimed as many survivors as he could and the raiders took the rest to Canada. Typically those captives who were too young or old or ill to keep up along the arduous journeys were killed along the way.
An old Dutch Bible of the Glen-Sanders family has the following account of the massacre, written at the time in Holland Dutch by a son or daughter of Capt. Glen.
"1690. tusschen de 8 & 9 Februarie is de droovige mort gedaan hereop Schenectady by de Franse en haar Wildes: — alles verdes treurt en Verbrant * * * op 5 huysen naer maer; maer op Schotieage neen quaet gedaen by akpresse order van haer governeur, Voor het goet doet myn grootvader mynvader en Oem aan een gevange paep priest & verscheiden anderen gevangen gedaen hadde in de oorlogh tussche onse Wildet & de Franse."
Following is a translation:
"1690 — between February 8 and 9 the regrettable murder has been committed here at Schenectady by the French and their savages; everything destroyed and burned * * * but for five houses; but in Scotia no harm was done by the express order of their Governor. For the good my grandfather, my father and uncle did to a captured papist priest and several other prisoners in the war between our savages and the French."
The writer's "grootvader" (grandfather) was Alexander Lindsay Glen, known to the Hollanders of Schenectady as Sander Leenderste Glen. "Mynvader" was the writer's father, Capt. Johannes Glen, and his "oem" (uncle) was Sander Glen. The "good" these Glens did the French priest and other prisoners consisted in assisting them to escape or in saving them from torture.
The Glen property originally included Sanders Lake and two small river islands called Spuyten Duyvil and Kruisbessen (Gooseberry) Island. Sanders Lake is probably an old cut off river channel and is the only natural lake or pond lying along the Mohawk's course from its source to its mouth—a distance of 135 miles. The military camp ground known as "the Camp" lay to the westward of the Glen mansion on the Mohawk flats. Nearby, on higher ground, the Mohawks had a favorite place for torturing the victims which they had captured and there brought to the river.
On one occasion, the Mohawks captured a French priest and bound him and then came to Alexander Glen for firewater. He supplied them so liberally that they were soon all sound asleep, whereupon "Sanderse" loaded an empty hogshead on a cart and put the French captive in it, sealed up the head, leaving the captive the bunghole for air, and then sent the driver across the ferry and on to Albany with his concealed passenger.
When the savages awoke from their debauch, they were furious at the escape of their prisoner, but Glen assured them that the priest was in league with the devil and had escaped by magic. This humane act became known in Canada and was the reason why Glen's house was spared in the massacre of 1690.
The Schenectady raid had been part of a three-pronged French attack on isolated northern and western settlements. The two other prongs of the attack were at Salmon Falls, New Hampshire, where 30 were killed and 54 prisoners were tortured to death and Fort Loyal (today Portland, Maine), where the inhabitants were killed or taken prisoner.
Reynier Schaets and his son were among those killed in the Schenectady raid. Schaets was a son of Gideon Schaets, dominie of the Dutch Reformed Church at Albany. Reynier was a surgeon, who had been appointed Justice at Schenectady by acting-governor Jacob Leisler on 28 Dec. 1689. Reynier's wife Catharina Bensing and three other children-- Gideon, Bartholomew and Agnietje--survived.
Nineteen Frenchmen were killed or captured on this retreat by the war party of 140 non-Christian Mohawks and 50 Albany militiamen, part of whom followed the enemy to the gates of Montreal. The pursuit could not overtake the main body because the raiders hitched their captured horses to sleds and so outdistanced their pursuers over the ice of Lake Champlain. The pursuing Mohawks and militia cut off several parties of stragglers and, in one skirmish, killed six Frenchmen. The Mohawks brought back 13 captured Frenchmen to their castles along our river, where the victims suffered a terrible retribution by being tortured and burned.
A few days subsequent to the massacre at Schenectady, Pieter Schuyler, mayor, and Dirk Wessels Ten Broeck, recorder of Albany, and Kilian Van Rensselaer, Patroon of Rensselaerswyck, addressed the following appeal to the Governor Bradstreet and Council of Massachusetts.
"Albany ye 15th day of febr, 1689/90.
"To our great greeffe and Sorrow we must acquaint you with our Deplorable Condition there haveing never ye Like Dreadfull massacre and murther been Committed in these Parts of America, as hath been acted by ye french and there Indians at Shinnectady 20 miles from Albanie Betwixt Saturday and Sunday Last, at 11 a clok at night. A Companie of Two hundred french and Indians fell upon said village and murther'd Sixty men women and Children most Barbarously, Burning ye Place and Carried 27 along with them Prisoners, among which the Leift [Lt.] of Capt. Bull Enos Talmadge & 4 more of sd Company were killed & 5 taken Prisoners ye Rest being Inhabitants and above 25 Persones there Limbs frozen in ye flight.
"The Cruelties Committed at sd Place no Penn can write nor Tongue Expresse, ye women big with Childe Rip'd up and ye Children alive throwne into ye Flames, and there heads Dash'd in pieces against the doors and windows.
"But what shall we say we must Lay our hands upon our mouth and be silent. It is Gods will and Pleasure and we must Submitt, it is but what our Sinns and Transgressions have Deserv'd. And since Generally humane things are Directed by outward means, so we must ascribe this sad misfortune to ye factions and Divisions which were amongst ye People and there great Dissobedience to there officers for they- would Obey no Commands or keep any watch, so yt ye Enemie haveing Discovered there Negligence and Security by there Praying maquase Indians (who were in sd Place 2 or 3 Days before ye attaque was made) Came in and Broak open there verry doors before any Soule knew of it, ye Enemy Divideing themselfs in 3 severall Companies Came in at 3 severall Places no gate being shutt, and Seperated themselfs 6 or 7 to a house and in this manner begunn to Murther spareing no man till they see all ye houses open and masterd, and so took what Plunder they would, Loading 30 or 40 of ye Best horses and so went away about 11 or 12 a Clock at noon on Sabbath day.
"Dear neighbours and friends we must acquaint yu yt never Poor People in ye world was in a worse Condition then we are at Present, no governour nor Command no money to forward any Expedition and Scarce men enough to maintain ye Citty and we must Conclude there only aim is this Place which once being attaind ye 5 nations are Rent from ye English Crown & in Stead of being a Bulwark to these Dominions as hitherto they have Proov'd will help to Ruine and Destroy the Countrey and Lay all waste. We have here Plainly Laid ye Case before yu and doubt not but you will so much take it to heart and make all Readinesse in ye Spring to Invade Canida by water. We Pray God Continually for ye arriveall of our Govr without which we can doe but litle haveing enough to doe to keep ye Indians to our side with great Expense; for these Distractions and Revolutions at N: Yorke hath brougt us into a miserable Condition, That without yr assistance and the 50 men from N. Yorke we should not be able to keep ye Place if any Enemy came wee begg an answer with al haste yt we may Satisfy ye Indians, we write to N: Yorke and oyr Parts of our mean Condition. We long much to hear from yr honrs haveing sent an Indian Expresse ye 15 January last with what papers Related to ye Indians at yt time, since when our messengers are come from onnendage and ye Indians al declare to be faithfull to this governmt. We have writt to Col Pynchon to warn ye upper townes to be upon there guarde feareing yt some french & Indians might be out to Destroy them. We have no more to add in these Troublesome times but yt we are Honble gent.
Your most humble & obedt servts
ye Convention of Albanie
ye Convention of Albanie
Pr Schuyler, Mayor"
As a result of the attack, the Albany Convention, which had until then resisted Jacob Leisler's assumption of power in the southern parts of the colony, finally acknowledged his authority. The attack forced New York's political factions to put aside their differences and focus on the common enemy.
Leisler then organized, with the assistance of Connecticut authorities, an expedition from Albany to attack Montreal. Led by Connecticut militia general Fitz-John Winthrop, the expedition turned back in August 1690 due to disease, lack of supplies, and insufficient watercraft for navigating on Lake Champlain.
An interesting footnote: On 27 Oct. 1887, the Albany Journal reported, "Three skulls were dug up in Schenectady recently by workmen excavating for a house. Two of the skulls are now in the possession of Walter P. Van Vorst, of that city, have fractures that look as though they were made by a tomahawk. It is thought the skulls belonged to victims of the Schenectady massacre in 1690."
Greene, Nelson, History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925 (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company) 1925.
Pearson, Jonathan, et al., A History of the Schenectady Patent in the Dutch and English Times; being contributions toward a history of the lower Mohawk Valley, edited by J. W. MacMurray, A. M., U. S. A. (Albany, NY: J. Munsell's Sons, Printers) 1883.
"The Schenectady Massacre" (New York Times, 2 Nov. 1887)