Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Series of Talks Given by David Minor on The Erie Canal

Connect directly to David Minor's radio scripts:

"This project began as a talk to the winter meeting of the Canal Society of New York State in March 2002. I decided to follow two sets of travelers along the route of the Erie Canal - the first group during the planning stages, in 1810; the second group in 1826, shortly after the full length of the canal was opened. The idea was to draw on the journals of the travelers, while also giving some of the historic background of the areas traversed. Occasionally we'd project a bit into the future.

When I put together the first talk I was somewhat surprised to find I'd only covered the area from Albany to Schenectady. Obviously this was going to be a more extended project than I'd anticipated. For the 2003 presentation I got from Schenectady to Little Falls and now, in 2004, as far as Rome, New York.

"Lord of the Rings" was three years in the telling. Now it's a tie. So far."

Third Winter Meeting Talk, 2004

Before setting out for the west from Little Falls, with De Witt Clinton in 1810 and Amos Eaton in 1826, I have to make one or two things perfectly clear. German Flatts . . . has two Ts. It's the German Flatts on the Mohawk, not on the Hudson near West Point. And German Flatts . . . is Herkimer. But. Herkimer is German Flatts. So! Are we all straight on that? I'll explain in few minutes. But first let's join De Witt Clinton as he and his fellow canal commissioners continue on their canal-planning mission across the state. It's Wednesday, July 9th, 1810.

The party wants to make Utica, about 23 miles away, before stopping for the night. So they're up before the birds, at 4 AM, ready to push on up the Mohawk. Seven or eight miles later they make a breakfast halt at German Flatts, on the south side of the river. A bridge connects the village with its north-side twin, Herkimer. Twelve years earlier the Inland Lock Navigation Company built a mile-long canal leading here in a straight east west line, avoiding several dangerous Mohawk rapids at Wolfs Rift, where the river arches to the north, and rejoining it at the villages. Clinton notes that the canal here is 24 feet wide and four feet deep. The depth must have seemed to be a good one, but his own "ditch" would be forty feet wide. He figures the canal or a good turnpike would end up costing about the same and estimates the cost of the lock, plus a guard lock, at $6,000. He also comments, "The canal here ought to have been extended further to the east, in order to have avoided another difficult rapid, and this could have been done at a trifling expense." Locking through in just five minutes they pause for a quick bite at the toll-keeper's. While they're breaking their fast let's go back to that German Flatts is Herkimer, Herkimer is German Flatts, puzzle.

It's kind of a shaggy geographer story, but here goes. Palatine Germans pushed west of Little Falls about 1753, and began settling the patent awarded in 1726 to merchant John Joost Petrie and others, known as the Burnetsfield Patent. The settlers proceeded to hunker down on both sides of the river. The northsiders named their settlement Stone Ridge. Then they changed it to Palatine Dorf. Then to Burnetsfield, and finally, for the time being at least, German Flatts. The land has been described as, "extremely rough, full of rocks, pot-holes, swamps, uneven and apparently untillable."

In 1788 state surveyor Simeon DeWitt, who is now, 22 years later, one of Clinton's fellow canal commissioners, wasn't sure which settlement was which. He asked local doctor William Petry, who had been a surgeon during the Revolution, for clarification. Petry, figuring DeWitt would be looking west from Albany, said that Herkimer would be on the left or southern bank and German Flatts on the right or northern one. DeWitt, figuring Petry would be near the source of the Mohawk looking east, got the two turned around. Before the whole thing got straightened out the misinformation became law. And stayed that way.

Clinton also mentions that West Canada Creek flows into the Mohawk here from the north. Today it divides Herkimer from East Herkimer.

Over the last six decades warriors have passed this way, skirmished, massacred, conferred, and battled here, as in the rest of the valley. French, Iroquois, British, York Staters, all have fought and died here. Fort Herkimer stood in German Flatts, part of a chain of military outposts arrayed across the eastern part of the state - forts Klock, Schuyler (renamed Stanwix), Plain, Dayton, Ehle and Frey, as well as Oswego, up on Lake Ontario - many of them little more than fortified residences. General Herkimer observed his river as he passed through on his way to Oriskany and was laid to rest on its banks off to the east when he was brought back. The local resentments from these vicious wars would linger for years afterwards. Historian Nathaniel S. Benton tells of Herkimer resident John Adam Hartman sitting in a local inn when an Indian enters and proceeds to get drunk, then proudly displays a grisly massacre souvenir. " When the Indian left, Hartman found business on the same road. They both passed into a swamp; and the Indian never came out. . . Hartman was tried for murder, but was acquitted." And there were whites just as capable of similar atrocities, and on their own kind.

But now, in 1810, peace has finally prevailed, at least through the valley. From aboard the Eddy, the Clinton party's boat, the commissioners can look up the hill to the single story fieldstone Fort Herkimer Church already close to forty-five years old. It's the oldest church building in the entire Mohawk Valley. A second story will be added two years from now. 1810 population figures are not readily available but in 1813 the church reported the congregation's children totaled 750, so German Flatts obviously has a good-sized population, many probably scattered in the outlying countryside, when the Eddy passes through. Clinton only mentions the church, but businesses depending on water power are beginning to take advantage of the river and the first canal.

On the north side of the Mohawk, the village of Herkimer's population numbers around 500. It too has one church, the Herkimer Reformed Church, this one with a congregation dating back even further, to 1723, when the parishioners met in an octagonal log cabin. The third church on the site dates back to just last year, 1809. Like it's predecessors, this one will be destroyed by fire, in 1834. Boats locking through must be commonplace by now, but perhaps the eight-year-old son of the church's minister may have watched the Eddy passing by. That boy, Francis Elias Spinner, will one day be named the 10th treasurer of the U. S. and, in 1842, will connect his new Herkimer home to the Erie Canal with a concrete sewer pipe, the first one in the nation. As with the sister village across the river, Herkimer probably contains a schoolhouse, a tavern or two, or three, a few stores, and a good number of residences.

Clinton's party pushes on for Utica, stopping for a mid-day meal at Meyer's saw- and carding-mill. Another small mystery here - he doesn't mention the exact location, just that it's 71 miles from Schenectady. With the aid of Spafford's "Guide for New York Travellers" we can place the spot as a couple of miles past Frankfort. The local names of Meyer, with an 'e' and with an 'a', and the name Moyer are pretty interchangeable in these parts and there's a Moyer Creek at Frankfort so it's possible Clinton got the name slightly wrong and that the creek was named for the miller. Also, John Myers (SPELL) opened a tavern here in 1795, possibly another variant of the name. The village of Frankfort itself consisted of about a dozen houses, a woolen mill, a grist mill and a new tavern run by Jacob Wever. It sounds like the party only made about six miles between breakfast and dinner. Perhaps they were heading into the wind.

At this point Clinton describes changes in the land, "the hills retreat from the river, the land grows better, the river narrows, and beech and sugar maple supply the place of willow bushes which cover the banks below." He mentions other plants, including a Cucumber tree more commonly found in the Genesee Valley; commissioners Simeon DeWitt and Peter Porter get off the boat for a closer look. Hemp, mandrake and ocsis are also spotted along the way. By the time they arrive at Utica, around 10 PM, commissioners Governeur Morris and Stephen Van Rensselaer have already ensconced themselves at the now filled-up Bagg's tavern, so Clinton and the others on the Eddy have to put up at Billinger's. As they settle in for the night we'll scoot back to Little Falls and take up our 1826 floating classroom. In nearby Ilion, by the way, Eliphalet Remington II carries on his father's tradition, running a forge where the waters of Ilion Gorge twirl five waterwheels. He manufactures plows, wedges, crowbars, axes and other farm implements. Oh. And gun barrels as well.

1826. Amos Eaton's Rensselaer students Asa Fitch and, to a lesser degree, George Washington Clinton, De Witt's son, once again provide most of the period commentary. Both Herkimer and German Flatts have grown a fair amount in the past 16 years, especially in the last five, since this stretch of the canal between Utica and Little Falls has been in operation. Records from 1824 indicate a population then of 2,665, and,"7 grain mills, 10 saw mills, 2 carding machines, 2 fulling mills, 1 oil mill, 1 ashery, and 1 meeting-house." Across the river Herkimer has close to a hundred houses as well as several stores, hotels or taverns, and law offices. There's also a printing office where The People's Friend newspaper carries on a journalistic tradition begun about 1802 when Benjamin Corey first published the Herkimer Telescope. There have been half a dozen papers in between, most only lasting a year or two.

Fitch's journal for Saturday, May 6, 1826, notes that the party hopes to reach Utica in time for church tomorrow. They get an early 8 AM stsart out of Little Falls and by 9 are passing Herkimer and German Flatts. As they float along, nearing the beginning of the long level, Professor Eaton takes advantage of the quiet time to lecture his charges on, "rocks before us, the succession in which they appear, difference between Green Mountains and Macomb Mountain layers, etc." Sound familiar? Clinton mentions seeing a large number of a variety of anadonata (mussels, to us non-techies), both in and out of their shells, all floating dead. His father had told him of seeing the same phenomenon here, although Clinton Senior doesn't mention it in his journal.

Passing Frankfort, they tie up for the night around five o'clock, where Ferguson's Creek crosses the canal on an aqueduct. A short distance beyond, Starch Factory Creek, named for a manufactory started on its banks in 1807, enters the Mohawk from the south and our student adventurers decide to seek out its source during the late afternoon. The creek begins near Frankfort Hill, where the radio tower stands in our own time, but the explorers never do find it. Fitch reports that they return to the boat between 8 nd 9 PM, to learn that they had taken a wrong turn on the way out. But they all have worked up good appetites and they turn in for the night, dirty, tired, and happy. While they get a good night's sleep we'll go back to the canal commissioners as they prepare to explore 1810 Utica.

Built here in 1758 Fort Schuyler served successfully as a trading post but was less effective as a deterrent to military forces in the Mohawk Valley. The valley here was just too wide and relatively level; troops could slip quietly by, unnoticed, on either side of the river. But it's not like nothing ever happened at Fort Schuyler. In May of 1778 garrison orders were posted, informing all persons in the fort that laundry women must no longer wash clothes inside the fort or in the surrounding ditch. The Iroquois had named the spot Ya-nun-da-da-sis, or U-nun-da-ga-ges, meaning Around the Hill. After the fort was destroyed by fire in a 1776 attack they renamed it Teva-dah-ah-to-da gue, or Ruin of Fort. The small size of the river this far up and the relative flatness of the land also made water power less of a factor in commercial development, most of the fast-running water being on the smaller side streams. Foot and hoof traffic played a larger part, and an inn was built here in 1788; twelve years later the Mohawk Turnpike opened on the north side of the Mohawk, connecting Utica and Schenectady, its construction and maintenance costs supported by a dozen tollgates along the way. For those who wanted or needed to avoid the tolls and didn't mind a bumpier ride, there was a free road between the two places south of the river. In 1792 a new bridge carried travelers across the Mohawk. John Jacob Astor and friend and later partner Peter Smith had passed through the area several times; Smith decided to settle down here and opened a store. It was here that he and his wife had a son in 1797 who they named Gerrit, a future opponent of slavery. That same year Oneida County was formed and Utica was incorporated as a village. You could soon read all about it in the first newspaper, the Gazette, and pray for Utica's well-being at Trinity Protestant Episcopal, the village's first church.

Five years before De Witt Clition and the other commissioners came along traveler Timothy Bigelow described the village. "Utica is now a little city, and contains several dwelling houses, some of which are of brick, a great number of stores and manufactures of different kinds." Trowbridge's Hotel he praised for its commodious size, good fare, and excellent wine.

Less than a month before Clinton arrived Ward Hunt was born here in Utica. In 1844 he would be elected mayor of the by then city and would go on to become associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

But now it's Tuesday, July 10th, 1810. Clinton and the other commissioners regroup, and take a meeting, discussing their various findings, then adjourn, planning on meeting again in Rome the day after next. Clinton describes the Utica of 1810, "a flourishing village . . . it arrogates to itself being the capital of the Western District. Twenty-two years ago there was but one house; there are now three hundred, a Presbyterian Church, an Episcopal, a Welch {spell] Presbyterian, and a Welch Baptist; a Bank, being a branch of the Manhattan Company, a Post Office, the office of the Clerk of the County, and the Clerk of the Supreme Court. By the census now taking, it contains 1,650 inhabitants". The Welsh influx had started about five years earlier and would continue well into the 1840s. Had this been a Sunday, members of the group attending church might have had some colorful company, for a contemporary account says, "Very often as many as fifteen Indians and their squaws attended service dressed in beautiful ornamental garments with moccasins, embroidered in beads and quills and their hair gathered in a knot from which feathers of bright colors depended. After the galleries were put in, the Indians sat up there on the right side of the church always attentive and reverent worshippers."

Clinton remarks on the new prosperity of the place, which until recently had suffered economically from the shortsightedness of the Bleecker family, who owned 1200 acres in the village and, like Finn and Ellice in Little Falls, would only lease their property; at exorbitant rates. "They seem now to have embraced a more liberal policy. They have made a turnpike of two miles, and a bridge over the Mohawk, to carry the traveling through their estate; and they have opened streets for sale. . . .Utica bears every external indication of prosperity. Some of the houses are uncommonly elegant; the stores are numerous and well replenished with merchandize. . . . The capital of the Manhattan Bank is $100,000. The building is improperly situated close by stables, and is much exposed to fire. In consequence of the trade with Canada, specie is continually accumulating here. It affords a great facility for the transmission of money to and from New York." Perhaps it's for this reason that a paid watch, or police force, is introduced this year. Before returning to his hotel for the night he mentions that he, "Dined at Mr. Kip's, who lives in handsome style, and who received us with great hospitality." The next morning Clinton, Gouvenor Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, General William North and Simeon DeWitt set off overland for Whitesborough and Rome. In about a dozen years, thanks to their own efforts now, they'll be able to make the journey by water.

The Whitesborough that the commissioners visited next was quite rural at the time, a small village with a 1795 courthouse, 40 houses and a few scattered industries beginning to pop up. Clinton's party visits, "a famous cheese-maker, named Abraham Bradbury, an English Quaker. . . Notwithstanding his high rent, he clears upwards of $1,000 a year by his establishment." A short way further they visit the Oneida Manufacturing Society, a textile factory powered by Sauquoit Creek. "The stock is said to be profitable, and to be forty per cent. above par. It employs forty hands, chiefly young girls, who have an unhealthy appearance. It is on Arkwright's plan, and contains 384 spindles on six frames."

Then, with the Mohawk River having petered out behind them, they enter the 1797 Rome Canal, a nearly two mile artificial waterway with two brick locks, a feeder canal and two dams, that replaced the portage, or Great Carrying Place, that had once linked the Mohawk with Wood Creek, which comes down from the north and turns west at Rome. When Clinton's ditch is built he will injure the Roman citizens civic pride by ignoring this canal and building his own about mile away. Now Clinton mentions briefly passing the battlefield at Oriskany before arriving at Rome, where at least some of them put up at Isaac Lee's hotel, a large three-story frame building and prepare for another meeting the following day.

The professor and his students will travel through in grander style in 1826. Canal all the way. Having had good clean, dirty fun on Starch Factory Creek the night before, May 7th, the Sabbath, finds them busy getting ready for church. According to Fitch, "All was hubbub and confusion this morning until after breakfast. Each one was busy preparing his clothes, shoes, etc, preparing for church." But it took so long to get their clothes back into halfway decent shape that they missed the morning service in Utica. Having some time to kill Fitch walks around town. "Almost a city, in comparison with what I thought it was. It is much larger, handsomer and has more business done in it than I have thought."

Just last year Utica's population had reached 5,040, compared to 1,696, 16 years earlier, once again due to the project of the canal commissioners and, of course, the many hundreds of laborers, as well. Back in 1814 the Utica Academy was founded, to carry education beyond the grade school level. The institution, which in 1853 will become the Utica Free Academy, will last 173 years, finally closing down in 1987, despite the effort of some Uticans to save it. In 1817 Utica was incorporated as a town. Three years later the J. Parker and Company stage line hired a local driver here by the name of John Butterfield, who wouldn't do too poorly in the transportation business himself. And if it hadn't been a Sunday when Eaton and his students came through they might have picked up a copy of the Utica Sentinel and Gazette; formed by several mergers and acquisitions out of the 1803 Utica Patriot that our 1810 travelers had known.

This afternoon in 1826 Fitch and about half the students attend the Episcopal Church, where the minister expounds on the text for the day - "And every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord".

Tongues, or at least appetites, are apparently on their minds today because Eaton hires a cook for the expedition, a black woman named Frances, who is to be paid $16 per month. Now with bellies and souls entertaining thoughts of a brighter future, the young scholars and their professors set off for Whitesborough. George Clinton puts the whole day much more succinctly. "We arrived in Utica in the morning and attended divine service. In the afternoon we went to Whitesborough."

Whitesborough, which will later drop the "ugh" from the end of its name and become a western suburb of Utica, has grown since 1810. Asa Fitch describes a, "Whitesborough allowed by all on board as having most pleasant village of any we have yet visited.", Wide-spaced houses, wide roads with a Main Street planted with trees. Earnest young George Clinton never indicate his impression in writing. Asa Fitch, son of a doctor, congressman and staunch Presbyterian, is impressed that as the result of a recent powerful religious revival, one village church added 40 more communicants earlier that Sunday. The rather strait-laced young man is made aware of his group's bad language. "Members of our expedition are universally addicted to the ungentlemanly habit of using profane language, [on a canal!!] many on the most trifling occasions & in a shocking degree, which I have seldom heard equalled by the most depraved and profane persons . . .Would that while passing through the country where the holy spirit is working in the heart of many of the inhabitants, some of our party might be seized with the flame, might be convinced of their wild ways and be converted to a love of the dear redeemer." Eaton though not much of a churchgoer probably agreed with the sentiment. Besides cautioning against whistling, singing, making loud noises and indulging in uncivil conduct, the same rule cautioned, "If boatmen or other persons address any of the party with vulgar or abusive language no reply shall be made . . ."

The boat cabin being entirely occupied that night, Fitch spends the night in a Whitesborough tavern. Sleeping, of course.

Oriskany battlefield got only a passing mention by Clinton, but the Rensselaer students are curious, so Professor Eaton gives them a tour of the battlefield, about a mile south of the canal. It was here that the western force of the planned three-pronged British convergence on Albany was turned back by Nicholas Herkimer's forces and where he received his mortal wound. We all learned that the southern prong never got off the ground. And the northern prong was defeated at Saratoga, much of the credit belonging to Benedict Arnold - who also had a hand in a disinformation campaign near Oriskany.

The canal's continuous bending gets Fitch disoriented. Used to an east-west canal he get confused when twists cause it to run north-south. But he'd have no trouble at Oriskany. Now he describes how they, "Saw exact spot, as near as it is known, where the general was killed. . . . on the country's being settled afterward, the bones and skulls of the killed were scattered over the ground where the battle was held and they were all buried in a hole together." He picked up piece of glass in the ruined cellar of probable provisions store, for lack of anything, "more precious". Several bones were found, probably of animals. Then it was to move on. Bear in mind that, unlike today's route, the Ditch passed well to the south of Oneida Lake, so Eaton's boys completely bypassed Rome. After spending an hour in Verona and listening to an afternoon botany lecture on trillium, they stop at Oneida Creek. There's no inn and everyone spends the night crowded aboard the boat.

We'll backtrack now and check out Rome, primarily in De Witt Clinton's time.

Samuel de Champlain made a brief appearance in the area in 1615 while on his way to the Onondaga Valley to shoot up some natives; after that fur trappers would pass through from time to time but no permanent settlements were laid down. Wood Creek meanders south from Elmer Hill, south of the sources of the Mohawk, and hangs a sharp right, eventually ending up in Oneida Lake. The Upper Mohawk just to the east comes down and flows off in the other direction. The mile or so between these two riparian elbows, became the canoe portage or Carrying Place already mentioned. A number of French and British forts were built along this route between 1689 and 1758; a third of them known to us only by name. Granting a request by the Oneida, colonial governor Lord Cornbury has a road built over the portage in 1702. In 1756 British forces here became fearful of the French advance that had just overrun Fort Ontario, or Oswego, destroyed their own defenses and retreated to the German Flatts and Herkimer region. The French subsequently launched several attacks from Fort Ontario, doing great damages to those two fortifications. The British, under Brigadier General John Stanwix moved back to the Carrying Place and built a fortification at the eastern end; the post taking the brigadier's name. He would complete the star-shaped works in 1759, taking a little bit of time off, to attack the French on the upper St. Lawrence valley. No armchair generals in this war. There would be no further combat in this area, this time. In 1768 a treaty is signed here, setting all lands to the southwest aside for the Iroquois.

The British failed to refortify the defenses in 1775. General Philip Schuyler sent a force under New Jersey colonel Elias Dayton to rebuild the fort, and it was briefly named Fort Schuyler. There never seem to be enough good names to go around; to avoid confusion with two other Fort Schuylers, one at Utica and one down in the Bronx, the name later reverted to Fort Stanwix. When the British under Barry St. Leger and their Indian allies begin making forays against the fort in 1777, general-in-residence Peter Gansevoort sends out a call for reinforcements and General Nicholas Herkimer rushes off to help save the day and meets his fate. But, as the very first Stars and Stripes rises above the besieged ramparts, Barry St. Leger's British army is held back and eventually meets their own fate at Oriskany. In 1781 a fire partially destroys the fort and a flood comes al ong later in the year to finish the job.

After the Revolution a village grows up athwart the Carrying Place. At first named Lynchville, after landowner Dominick Lynch, it soon renames itself Rome. Some say because it was the savior of the republic, some that it was because Irish-born Lynch was a Catholic. Whatever the reason, it was Rome (unofficially) in 1810 when the commissioners visited. A U. S. arsenal had been established here in 1808 to serve New York's western defenses.

Clinton mentions the site of the fort, "now in ruins, and partly demolished by Lynch, its proprietor. . . .Wood Creek is here so narrow that you can step over it." By now the settlement's population has reached 2,000. In seven years, minus a few days, the first shovelful of earth would be turned here for the Erie Canal. When Eaton and his flotilla pass to the south the city's population has about doubled.

And we'll rejoin everyone next time, heading for Syracuse.

©2004 David Minor / Eagles Byte

David Minor
Eagles Byte Historical Research
Pittsford, New York
585 264-0423
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Part Four

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