History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Agriculture and the Revolution
in the Mohawk Valley
By Charles Gehring
Published by Fort Klock Historic Restoration
Fort Klock, St. Johnsville, N.Y.
Research for this publication paid for, in part, by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.
The limestone farmhouse built by Johannes Klock in 1750 was one of many constructed in the Mohawk Valley during the colonial wars between England and France. During the American Revolution these structures protected the area farmers from the numerous raiding parties sent out of Canada. Information extracted from a Rebel prisoner taken near Store Arabia records twelve forts in this immediate area with the number of soldiers stationed at each post. Fort Klock (which was distinguished from Klock's House) was reported as having 10 men, while the others had garrisons ranging from eight to twenty-seven.
The reliance of the local farmers upon these small forts for protection was, however, a two edged-sword. They provided the farmers and their families with a place of refuge when ample warning was received; enabling them to survive the raids and return to their farms. Without them many would have been either taken prisoner or have been forced to abandon their farms, as many did, and move into more stable areas; becoming both unproductive and a burden upon the already strained economy. The effectiveness of such small posts was best expressed by Joseph Brant who complained in his report on the 1779 Minisink raid that he would have taken more prisoners if it had not been for the many forts "into which they were always ready to run like ground hogs." On the other hand this strategy of forming defensive islands to meet the enemy was hindering Col. Willett's strategy to turn out large numbers of the militia to support his levies during alarms. Only in this way, he felt, would he be able to muster a large enough force to stand up to the enemy and soundly defeat them. But the farmers were intent on protecting their own. In a letter to the Governor in 1718 Willett laments that
". . . in times of alarm the inhabitants fly to their fortresses. There the men with their women and children. . . are all huddled together. The women looking as much to the men as to the fortifications to save them. How then to draw the men from these places to which they have fled for refuge for themselves and their families is a difficulty I fear I shall not be able to get over.'
The militiamen had from experience become wary of straying too far from home. In the previous summer while they were escorting supplies to Fort Schuyler Joseph Brant raided the Canajoharie district with devastating results. By a series of successful engagements in the summer of '81 Willett quickly gained their confidence; and in the fall of that year the militia turned out in force at the Battle of Johnstown.
Early writers on the war in the Mohawk Valley usually presented their continual destructive raids as pure revenge by the Loyalists on their former Rebel neighbors. In some instances this was probably the case; but British strategy was not based upon revenge, but rather upon specific military objectives. In 1777 it was thought that the presence of St. Leger's army in the Valley would cause the numerous Loyalists to rise up against the Rebels and return this fertile and strategically important region to the Crown. When this expected uprising failed to materialize and St. Leger was forced to lift the siege of Fort Schuyler, the strategy was changed to one of total destruction. But it was not done out of a desire to punish unrepentant Rebels, but rather to destroy the Valley's capacity to supply wheat to the Northern army and the New England states.
Wheat production in New England had diminished considerably by the middle of the 18th century due to exhaustion of the soil and a series of destructive diseases. By the time of the Revolution the center of wheat production in the northeast had shifted to the fertile Hudson, Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys of New York. Demands upon New York wheat by New England were so great during the Revolution that Governor Clinton was forced to place an embargo upon its exportation. This, however, only gave rise to numerous instances of smuggling across the border. The need to supply the troops in New York with bread also brought about the hoarding of wheat by farmers who hoped to sell it to the highest bidder for hard cash rather than to the army for inflated continental currency. These 'unpatriotic' acts mused the legislature to enact laws of impressment which permitted state agents to seize wheat for army use; the farmer received in return a certificate redeemable at a future date for continental currency. Such policies made the lot of the wheat farmers all the more difficult and placed many in such desperate state that acts of hoarding and smuggling increased. The Valley farmers were thus squeezed between friend and foe alike: the destruction of their capability to produce by the British, and the seizure of the fruits of their labor by the government in Albany. What had been a blessing in peacetime had become a curse in war.
The Mohawk Valley's potentiality for growing wheat is noted in a letter from Lt. Governor Clarke to the Lords of Trade in 1741. He writes about the good crops of wheat being raised by the people who have settled there and that the population is bound to increase, "the fertility of the lands being now generally known to be very good and far exceeding any other in the Province." Many Valley farmers transported their grain to Albany to be sold there on account. The ledgers of Robert Sanders, for example, are filled every spring with the names of farmers from Stone Arabia to Burnetsfield bringing in their wheat in exchange for yards of cloth, castor hats, tea, household utensils, tools, gunpowder, etc. Sir William Johnson, who advocated a diversified agriculture as in New England, saw little hope for the Dutch and German farmers of the Mohawk. In 1765 he wrote to a society promoting agricultural improvement the following assessment of local husbandry:
"wheat, which in my opinion must shortly prove a drug, is in fact what they chiefly concern themselves about and they are not easily to be convinced that the culture of other articles will turn more to their advantage,"
Four years later a visitor to Albany reported seeing 31 sloops at the docks, each capable of carrying 400 to 500 barrels of flour and that the sloops trade constantly with New York City, making 11 to 12 trips a year. Although other crops such as peas, rye and flax were cultivated, wheat was clearly king.
It was not, however, the fertile land of the Valley alone that made wheat such an attractive crop. In order for any business to be profitable there must be ready markets and a transportation network available to distribute the products at the lowest possible cost. The markets lay in New England and the West Indies, and the transportation system was provided by the unique combination of the Mohawk and Hudson River valleys. Shipments could be made either by bateaux, on the Mohawk or by sleigh along the King's Highway to Albany. There they were loaded aboard sloops for shipment down the Hudson. The Valleys that opened the markets to the wheat farmers also provided a conduit for goods needed by the settlers. Subsistence farming was pursued only until enough land was cleared for profitable crop yields. Then all energies were concentrated on cultivating wheat and clearing more land in order to increase the crop.
In the early years of settlement the grain had to be carried to the grist mills at Schenectady and Albany. But soon thereafter mills were constructed in the area so that by the outbreak of the Revolution each settlement had several to accommodate the grain. During the war these mills became prime targets for enemy raiding parties: beginning with the destruction of the mills at German Flatts in 1778 and culminating with the burning of Ellice's mills at Little Falls in 1782. By the end of the war only a few small mills of limited capacity remained in operation. In 1781 Col. Jacob Klock informed Governor Clinton of the critical situation in Palatine. He wrote that only two grist mills remained in the neighborhood, namely Forts Walrath and Nelles, and that if they were destroyed the area would have to be abandoned.
Grist mills produced the final product; but before this could take place the grain had to be sown, harvested and thrashed. On several occasions the militia refused to turn out for alarms until either the grain had been sown or harvested. Willett was forced to post guards around fields so that the grain could be harvested without fear of surprise attacks; and in some instances soldiers were ordered into the fields to assist in the harvest. It was the period of time, however, between harvesting and thrashing which afforded the enemy the greatest opportunity to accomplish their strategy of destruction. Once the ripened wheat had been cut it was tied into bundles and stored in barns to await the thrashing operation. This storage, usually in the loft over the thrashing floor, allowed the wheat to ripen further and also delayed this tedious labor until the winter months when little could be done outside anyway. By spring all of the grain would be ready for transport to the grist mills which would be operating at peak efficiency with the water power provided by the melting snows.
The barns built by these wheat farmers had been especially developed by the Dutch of New Netherland for the processing of wheat. The high beams over the center aisle allowed wagons to enter the barn so that the bundles of grain could be tossed onto the platform above for storage. The heavy plank floor in the center aisle served as a thrashing floor whom the grain was either removed by flailing or trampling with horses.'The thrashed grain was stored in granaries built into the two side aisles (the remaining spaces in these aisles served as stables for the animals during the winter). The orientation of the barn was generally east-west so that when the large doors in the gable ends were opened during the winnowing operation, the chaff was separated from the grain by the draft from the prevailing winds. The destruction of homes in the Valley caused much hardship to the inhabitants, but the burning of their barns, especially in the fall when they were full of grain, struck at their livelihood. During the 1780 Canajoharie raid 52 houses and 41 barns were lost. After the October raid of the same year in Stone Arabia it was reported that all had been destroyed except for the soil. This raid-and the Warrensbush raid in the following fall were particularly demoralizing since the farmers could see their summer labors literally going up in smoke.
By war's end in 1783 every settlement from Bowman's Creek to Riemensnyder's Bush had suffered the effects of the constant raids. This once productive region lay in ashes. Only 800 of the 2500 man militia in Tryon County remained who were capable of bearing arms. Of the estimated 10,000 inhabitants before the war only 1200 taxables remained. The decimated population mounted to a mere 3500 of which 300 were widows and 2000 were orphans. The despair felt by these survivors is expressed in a petition by 140 men of Tryon County. In 1783 they asked the state legislature for relief from interest due on their debts because their "estates" had been "turned into a wilderness by the wanton cruelty of the common enemy."
That any people were able to remain in the Valley is probably attributable as much to the concept of the fortified homestead as anything else. Without them the British strategy to bring about the total destruction of the farmers' capacity to produce grain would have been accomplished. The flow of wheat to the granaries of Albany would have ceased, and the outpost at Fort Schuyler would have become untenable. Governor Clinton's pessimistic assessment after the 1780 raids, that Schenectady had become the western frontier of New York, would have become a reality.
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