Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

From Forts & Firesides of the Mohawk Country
by John J. Vrooman, 1951
Published by Baronet Litho Co., Inc., Johnstown, NY


GAUNT and gray, impressive in its simplicity, appealing in its loneliness and a tombstone to its early pastors, the church's truncated weatherbeaten steeple rises sturdily above the hundreds of graves scattered at its base in proof of the solidarity of its buttressed stone walls and the honest labor that went into them. Old Fort Herkimer Church is perhaps the oldest remaining House of God in all New York, save only the Sleepy Hollow Church at Tarrytown, which was completed before 1699.

The exact date of the beginning of the Fort Herkimer Church is not known, but the site was donated in 1730. The first church building, erected in 1725 was, in the natural course of events, built of logs, but about 1737 the present building was begun. Halted in the building by the French and Indian War and by the impoverished condition of its parishioners thereafter it was not completed until 1767. This date accompanied by the initials J. H. E., are cut in , stone set in the north wall over the original doorway. The letters stand for John Jost Herkimer, the builder, the letter "E" being the initial letter of the German word "erbaut" (built). Originally its walls were eight feet less than their present height. The entrance was also changed from the north to the west side, and the pulpit moved to the east end. Admirably suited to defense, the building formed a part of the stockaded fort built herein 1756 under the administration of Sir William Johnson.

John Jost Herkimer's early log house, erected about 1723, stood a half mile east of the church. A recently erected tablet at the roadside identifies the location. When he built a stone house, maintaining in it a store and trading post, the place immediately became a "port" for all river travellers and traders. It was known as Fort Herkimer by the English and it rightly deserved the name, for it was the only stone house in the western end of the Valley. There is a reproduction of the original ground plans entitled, "Plans and Profile of Retrenched Work round Herkemeis house at Ye German Flats, 1756," which shows an elongated quadrilateral with one long side facing the river at the north. The four corners are not true "corners" but spear-shaped projections (bastions) which allowed the deflenders to fire down the sides of the palisades. A gate is shown in the north wall and just outside is the "Smith's Shop." Directly mside the gate is what was the Herkimer house, called on the plan the "Old House." To the west of it was a "Guard Room" in front of which a well is shown. To the east of the "Old House" a "Stone House" is indicated.

To the Indians it was known as "Fort Kouari," the last word being the Indians' name for old John Jost. He earned the nickname by an act of kindness. He had been poling along the upper river, looking for a rich tract of land he hoped he might buy from the Indians and there carve out his homestead. So far he had been unsuccessful. Apparently the Indians were not disposed to sell more land. But here, at a bad rift in the channel, he went ashore to look about. In the forest he met a party of Indians who had made a dugout canoe from a large log and were unable to launch it. Seeing their difficulty and also mindful of his own purpose, he soon had the canoe in the water, much to the amazement of the Indians, who immediately dubbed him "Kouarl" (the bear) because of his great strength. And he had his agreement from them for the land he so much wanted to buy. The following description of the house he built was given by one of the local residents from a personal knowledge of it:

The building was of stone, forty feet wide and seventy feet long, two storys high with a basement. The roof was very steep and covered with oak shingles three feet long. The walls of the building were over two feet thick, pierced with six windows, six portholes and a door on the front or north side besides the front windows in the basement, wide enough to drive a team through.

The basement was under the cast end of the building and under the west half of the house was a cellar, each about 35 feet square. The only opening in the west end was a square window in the upper story.

The main entrances to the building were two doors, one on the south and the other on the north side. The hall way, running through the middle of the building from north to south was about twelve feet wide. Near the north end which was then the front were two doors, one opening into the east and the other into the west room, the house being divided into two rooms on the main floor, and the cast room subdivided into a large kitchen and a small bedroom and a pantry.

A little farther on in the hall was the grand staircase, broad and easy of ascent, made of white oak leading to the second story which was divided into three rooms, a bedroom over the hall at the head of the stairs and a large room in each end of the house. The broad old fireplaces, both in the lower and upper rooms with 'Pothook and trammel' and the traditional backlog and forestick blazing upon the old andirons on a cold day, gave by the grand old rooms an air of comfort and cheerfulness."

John Jost Herkimer was one of the most widely known and influential men in the Valley and with him the English Government contracted for supplies to be sent up to Fort Oswego -- not canned goods, green vegetables, tomato and orange juice, but corn meal, salt pork, candles and rum. These were his principal items of stock along with powder and lead, rough cloth and duffels, which he traded to the Indians for furs. Someone has computed the average rate of profit on this trading business: for every dollar's worth of rum sold, the trader took furs worth $20.00. No wonder it was a booming business! In prosaic lines of endeavor it took a month to earn one-quarter as much as could be gained for one dollar in trade. The profits of one trading expedition into the wilderness equaled the earnings of several years of hard work, but there was always the chance of not getting back alive.

John Jost Herkimer was merchant and trader as well as farmer. He lived at his outpost over fifty years (when he wasn't away fighting) and raised a family of thirteen children, along with his corn and peas. He died in 1775 with war still rumbling in his ears.

The old Herkimer home, the fort buildings, the parapets and palisades have all passed away, strangely enough leaving the church, which is the oldest building, the sole survivor. Within the church is an excellent example of an elevated pulpit flanked by a flight of stairs on either side. Over the pulpit hangs a massive sounding board, beautiful in the simplicity of its lines and ornamentation. One can visualize in it the good Domine Rosenkrantz (he of the "creaking knees") preaching to his congregation as described so lucidly in the novel "Drums Along the Mohawk." In fact many of the scenes of that novel are laid in and about the buildings herein described. The pews of the church are quaint, stiff and severely plain, and each is entered through its own door.

The English erected the fort as a secondary line of defense and as a storehouse from which to reinforce and supply Fort Oswego, which was their western outpost. Yet in later years it became the scene of great activity. Sir William Johnson was here in 1756, and again in 1772, in company with Governor Tryon to review the Provincial Militia. Colonel Marinus Willett commanded here for a time; Arnold was here in 1777, and Washington stopped here in 1783 on an inspection trip through the Valley.

The neighborhood was raided in 1757, the brunt of the attack falling on the north shore. The next year the south side of the Valley was attacked. This was, of course, during the French and Indian War. In 1782, at the time of the Revolution, a force of some 400 Tories and Indians burned and destroyed 120 houses and barns and over 600 head of livestock in this immediate neighborhood.

First known minister at this church was the Reverend Johannes Schuyler, followed in 1733 by Reverend George Michael Weiss, the first "permanent" pastor in 1746. Abraham Rosenkrantz served as pastor from 1752 until his death in 1796. He was beloved by all his parishioners and in fact by all the settlers of the Valley for he preached not only at Fort Herkimer Church but at Canajoharie, Stone Arabia and at Schoharie. In the raid of 1757 he was saved through the insistence of friendly Indians, who, after warning the inhabitants, forced the minister to cross the river to safety. He married a sister of General Herkimer. He was buried, at his own request, under the pulpit he had so faithfully filled and here he still lies. His was one of the largest funerals ever held here.

The history of the church is intimately associated with the history of the early families of the settlement. Its records and its gravestones; are a mine of information to those interested in the genealogy of this section of the Valley.

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