Words To Remember

"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Midnight Ride of Symon Schermerhorn

Most Americans are familiar with the famous ride of Paul Revere, who warned Bostonians of the impending British invasion on 18 April 1775 during the American Revolution.  Paul Revere had it easy. It was springtime; he was in robust health; and, presumably, so was his horse.  Not so for Symon Schermerhorn.

But few people know about Symon's famous ride that took place 85 years before in the Dutch village of Schenectady on the banks of the Mohawk River.  The Schermerhorn family--consisting of the children of Netherland emigrant Jacob Janse Schermerhorn--had settled in the fortified village of Schenectady {from the Mohawk word meaning "beyond the pines"} about the year 1685.

The eldest son Reyer "built a house with bricks and sash brought from Holland and put up five mills on a creek, which he dammed up," according to his descendant, J. Crane Schermerhorn. Schermerhorn Mills consisted of five mills. The first was a flouring or grist-mill, and the others a saw-mill, a hat factory, a fulling mill and a wool-carding mill. 

Reyer's original house has long been since demolished, but J. Crane Schermerhorn described having visited the house numerous times over the years, including the cellar. "The cellar was divided by iron doors, so that they could keep things secure from the Indians, as well as from their negroes, who had a portion of the cellar to themselves.

"One of the young negroes was scalped by the Indians on one of their raids and the Indian bound up his head and carried him away to Canada, a prisoner, for he wanted to get double price for him. But he got nothing, for they grew careless as they neared the Canada line and the negro got up one night when the Indians were all asleep, took his scalp and started for home, all alone through the deep snow. He got back all right and was quite a hero. When my father was a little boy, he saw the scalp and I think, the negro boy, who was then an old man."

The second son, Symon, had married in 1683 Willempsje Viele, the daughter of Arnout Cornelisse Viele, another early New Netherlands settler.  They had two sons: Johannes, baptized 23 July 1684 in Albany, and Arnout, baptized 7 Nov. 1686, in Albany.  Also probably living with Symon at the time were his younger brother Cornelius as well as his sister Jannetje.
 It was a bitter cold mid-winter night with heavy snow falling since earlier in the day.  Undoubtedly, Symon and his family--along with the other inhabitants of the village--had gone to bed hours before, snug in their homes.

But a war party of  over 200 French soldiers, Christianized Mohawks and voyageurs was approaching the sleeping village, determined to avenge the wrong they felt had been done the year before when a combined party of English and Dutch had attacked Montreal.  In silence, the enemy crept into the stockade, gave a loud war whoop and began the attack.
Symon himself 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 Cornelius, Symon is supposed to have recognized the French uniform and told his family he was going to ride to Albany and give the alarm.

From 5 to 7 foes burst through the cabin door, shooting without warning. Johannes, not yet 6, Symon's oldest son, died that night, probably shot by an intruder.  So did three of Symon's African American slaves.  How Arnout Schermerhorn and his mother Willempsje escaped the Schenectady Massacre is not fully known. A family tradition says that four-year-old Arnout was wrapped up in a blanket by his father and he and his mother hid in a snowdrift, out of the path of danger. Cornelius and Jannetje also escaped. The rest of the family, living some distance away from the scene of the destruction, were also unharmed.

Not dressed for the weather outside, Symon was still able to saddle his horse and get to the north gate before he was fired upon. He was shot through the thigh and a bullet also wounded 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.

Meanwhile, the snowstorm raged.  Symon had escaped with his life on a wounded horse and rode through the cold winter's night, warning the inhabitants as he passed through the outlying settlements.  It took him six hours to accomplish his ride--today it takes only 20 minutes by car.  It is said Symon actually covered about 36 miles on his circuitous route, but finally 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, Symon could barely stammer, "Schenectady - French - Indians - Fire - everything afire."

Then Symon fainted.  His horse died at the stockade gate.  But he had managed to deliver the warning. 

Symon eventually recovered from his wound and, soon after the Schenectady Massacre, moved to New York. On 4 Sept. 1691, his wife was admitted to the Reformed Dutch Church of that town. Symon and his wife Willempsje added two more children to their family, both girls: Jannetje, baptized 24 March 1693 and Maria, baptized 5 July 1693.

Arnout grew up in New York and married Maritje Beekman.  He undoubtedly followed a ship-master's life from early youth in New York and traded between Boston and New York and probably between Charleston, S. C., and New York, as did his son John.  He also traded largely in New York real estate, as is indicated by the city records.

As for Symon, he became master of a vessel navigating the Hudson and a record shows that on 23 June 1693, he transported soldiers from New York to Albany. He may have been following a vocation connected with his father's former interests at this time or the business may have been his private venture.

Symon's brother Cornelius had been previously a skipper on the Hudson and continued at this occupation for many years, so the indications are that the trading interests of their father, Jacob Janse Schermerhorn, were to some extent kept up by his sons after his death. Symon's descendants followed the shipping business for many generations.
 Symon died in 1696 in New York City and his widow married Levinus Van Schaik Winne on 20 June 1699. She and Levinus had two children: Maria, born in 1700, and Benjamin, born 1705.  Levinus died in 1706 and Willempsje married a third time to Johannes Van Hoesen on 19 June 1709.  She died in Albany in 1712.

To commemorate Symon's ride, each year the Mayor of Schenectady re-enacts the ride in period clothing, although in some years the mayor has chosen to ride in a car rather than on horseback.  His ride is also remembered with a  mural on the wall on the second floor of the Albany City Hall.

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