Sunday, February 24, 2013

On the River Bank

The other day I stood near the bank of the Mohawk River, a few feet from where my long-ago ancestor Jacques Van Slyck lived and ran his tavern, the first such establishment in the village of Schenectady. A massive gnarled oak tree marks the spot where Jacques may have set out by canoe to his farm on Van Slyck Island. Or perhaps he even walked across the frozen river on a blustery and raw February day such as today.

This peaceful spot is also near where on a cold February night 323 years ago, a raiding party from Canada crept across the frigid landscape, entered the sleeping settlement through an opening in the stockade, and nearly destroyed the town and its inhabitants.

Now the neighborhood children ride their bicycles up and down the narrow streets and lanes, play pirates on the river bank, or climb the ancient oak that stands silent as a sentinel at water’s edge.

That night the lanes echoed with war whoops and the agonized cries of the wounded and dying. Homes were torched, and those defending their property and families were cut down or taken prisoner. One man, a certain Symon Schermerhorn, took advantage of the chaos to leap onto his horse and flee the carnage, riding for hours through the snowy pine bush to warn the larger settlement at Albany.

Who were the attackers? A group of about 200 French soldiers and their Iroquois and Algonquin allies, known as “praying Indians,” for having been converted by Jesuit missionaries. They had marched from Montreal seventeen days earlier, with orders to attack Schenectady and to “burn the place.”

Attacking shortly before midnight on the night of February 8, 1690, the invading force was in control of the village within two hours, having slaughtered 60 men, women, and children, and leaving only a handful of houses standing.

The French and Indians eventually retreated north, leaving the town in ruins, and taking 27 captives with them, many of whom were later ransomed.

This bloody attack was one episode in what became known as King William’s War, a part of the struggle between England and France for hegemony in North America.

As the Indian allies of the French were familiar with the residents of Schenectady who had Mohawk connections, none of the Van Slycks, Van Olindas, or others with family ties to the Mohawks, were killed or taken captive in the raid. But Jacques did not survive for long afterward; he died in Albany in May of that year.

The spot along the river is peaceful and quiet 300 years later. Gray slabs of ice lie helter-skelter along the river’s edge, where the water has frozen, thawed, and refrozen. In the spring and summer, there will be picnics in the riverside park and boats plying the water. Waterfowl will make their voices heard, or glide silently through the waves.

The early carnage is largely forgotten now, except by history buffs like me. But I can’t help thinking: If the war party had bypassed Schenectady and attacked Albany instead -- which was their original plan  -- I might be writing this blog en fran├žais


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Burke, Thomas E., Jr., Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York, 1661-1710. Albany, NY. : State University of New York Press. 1991.

Staffa, Susan J. Schenectady Genesis: How a Dutch Colonial Village Became an American City, ca. 1661-1800. Vol. 1; Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press. 2004.

For more about Jacques Van Slyck's death and deathbed will, see: "In den Name Godes -- Amen".

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