Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Mabee Farm Historical Site - A Photo Essay

Mabee Farmhouse
We tend to think of our pioneer ancestors as living in log cabins carved out of virgin forests. But rather than wood frame houses, many early Dutch settlers on the 17th century frontier in what is now Upstate New York may have lived in stone houses such as the one pictured above. This house stands on the Mabee Farm Historical Site just west of the city of Schenectady, New York. It is described as the oldest house still standing in the Mohawk Valley. The house has survived 300 years of floods and wars that constitute the vagaries and vicissitudes of history.

Now a property of the Schenectady County Historical Society, the farm was originally settled by Daniel Janse Van Antwerpen, who received the land via a deed from the English Governor Francis Lovelace in 1671. Its location on the river, just west of the village of Schenectady (founded ten years earlier) made it an idea spot to build a trading post to welcome Mohawks carrying their beaver skins to sell at Schenectady or Albany. This was indeed the frontier in that long ago era, the last outpost of European settlement beyond which lay the Mohawk villages scattered along the river that bears their name.

View along the Mohawk River
Yes, the river  --  before there was the Erie Canal, there was the river, which had been a major corridor linking the Atlantic coast to the interior of North America for thousands of years before Van Antwerpen built his stone house. How many Native Americans chose to make their way to Schenectady and Albany (earlier known by its Dutch name, Beverwijck) by way of the paths through the forest, and how many came by way of the river in birch bark or hollowed-out log canoes we cannot now know. What we do know is that the Mohawk River originates in the valley between the Adirondack Mountains and the Tug Hill Plateau. It flows 140 miles eastward, to where it plunges over the Cohoes Falls before emptying into the Hudson River just north of Albany.

The river's watershed drains 3,460 square miles in Upstate New York; it includes all of Montgomery County, most of Schoharie County, and parts of twelve other counties. Along most of its trajectory, the river is lined by hills, some steep, some sloping, that are the remnants of the banks of the mighty Iro-Mohawk River formed by the meltwaters of mile-high glaciers as they retreated 10,000 years ago. Later, it was the highway into the interior, rich with beaver, bear, and mink waiting to be captured and bartered for trade goods at a venue such as the Mabee trading post. In our era, the river is now the purview of pleasure boats quite different from the canoes and bateaus that plied this route a few hundred years ago.

I have seen bald eagles soar above its banks and perch on trees waving in the gentle wind. They were long absent from this valley, but in recent years have returned to their old haunts along the river.

Open hearth
How did the house's original inhabitants prepare their meals? In an open (jamb-less) hearth, which was typical of Dutch houses of the era. Our guide pointed out the wooden beams that frame the hearth. Although most of the smoke and much of the heat generated by a fire here was sucked up the chimney, this fireplace was the only source of heat in the large room where the family cooked, ate, and carried out other daily activities such as spinning wool from the farm's sheep.

The wide hearth allowed the lady of the house to have several pots simmering at once, and perhaps a turkey or slab of meat roasting on a hook over the flames. For some ideas about what dishes the family may have learned to prepare from their Mohawk neighbors, go to A Taste of the Iroquois Harvest.

Table at the Inn

A small inn was added to the original stone structure early on. Travelers along the river or road could stop to rest, or refresh themselves before continuing on their journey. The table is set as if a group has just abandoned their card game to move on toward their destination. Won't you sit down and enjoy a pint of home-brewed beer?

There is some debate about whether the house originally had a cupboard bed, which was typical of Dutch houses during the era when it was built. The bed displayed in the house today is from a later era in colonial America, with a rope mattress and homespun coverlet.

Bathed in sunlight, the whitewashed walls and china wash basin form a stark counterpoint to the highly polished dark wood. Three hundred years ago you might have peered out this window to see a group of Mohawks approaching, laden with beaver skins.

A circle of gravestones marks where the Mabee clan rest among the trees. Many of the graves date back to the 18th century. May they rest in peace among the trees.

Mabee Family Graveyard


- Dunn, Russell: Mohawk Region Waterfall Guide. Hensonville, NY Black Dome Press; 2007.

- Gehring, Charles T. and William A. Starna, trans.: A Journey Into Mohawk and Oneida Country. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988.

- NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation: Mohawk River Watershed: ; accessed 9/20/2012. For a detailed map of the watershed, see:

- Snow, Dean R., and Charles T. Gehring, eds.: In Mohawk Country. Syracuse, NY; Syracuse University Press, 1996.

To view a webcam photo of the Mohawk River at the Cohoes Falls, go to this link provided by the US Geological Survey (updated three times daily).

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