A document for the ages: Original 1661 deed details purchase of land from three Mohawk chiefs
SCHENECTADY Peter Minuit wasn't the only 17th century Dutchman who knew how to get a good deal from the Native Americans.
In July of 1661, 35 years after Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for 60 Dutch guilders, Schenectady founder Arendt Van Curler purchased what was called the "Groote Vlachte," or Great Flat, an area of land on the Mohawk River now mostly occupied by the General Electric Company.
It was great farmland, at first coveted by the Mohicans before they lost control of the place to the Mohawks.
The July 27, 1661, deed, 350 years old and now a part of the collection of the Albany County Hall of Records, indicates that Van Curler convinced three Mohawk sachems — Cantuquo, Sonareetsie and Aidane — to sign their mark on the document giving possession of the land to Van Curler. In return, Van Curler presented the Indians with “six hundred hands of good Wheyte Wampum, six Koates of Duffels, thirty barrs of lead, and nine bags of gunpowder.”
While some historians have suggested that men like Minuit and Van Curler practically “stole” the land from the Indians, Dave Cornelius, an expert on the history of New York native Americans, said the Indians were not at all cheated in the transaction.
“They didn’t own the land, they knew it, so it really wasn’t theirs to begin with,” said Cornelius, a Schenectady native who is descended from both Mohawks and Mohicans. “The duffel material is something they would have wanted as well as the wampum, and since the white man had been in New York for 30 years or so by that time, they also would have wanted the gunpowder. And, the Mohawks were selling off land they had taken from the Mohicans, so, I think everybody would have been happy with the deal. Everybody except the Mohicans. I’m sure they weren’t too happy.”
According to Cornelius, there was very likely a large Mohawk settlement on the south bank of the Mohawk at Schenectady, and then a smaller village on the northern shore in Glenville. On the deed, along with the marks of the three Mohawk sachems, each chief drew an animal, a turtle, wolf and bear, representing the three clans that made up the Mohawk tribe.
“The Mohawks probably had more clans in the past, but at that time there were just three,” said Cornelius. “They called the village Orongugharie, and there was a smaller village on the other side of the river near the Flint House in Scotia. Wherever you see a Mohawk village on the river, there was usually an associated village on the other side. You have Fort Hunter and Tribes Hill to the west, and to the east of Schenectady you had a small village at Vischer Ferry and the Rosendale Road area [in Niskayuna].
“They didn’t build right on the river. They would have picked an area with a small stream off the river. From the river, you really had to look to find them. The only thing that gave them away was the smoke rising from their fires.”
Cornelius suspects that most of the Mohawks forced to resettle around 1661 probably moved out to Fort Hunter or even further west. Van Curler was considered a close and trusted friend by the Mohawks, and as a result relations between the Indians and the Dutch in and around Schenectady were almost always friendly.
When Van Curler and his fellow 13 original proprietors moved to their new land in 1661, Alexander Lindsay Glen had already built his first house across the Mohawk River in what is today Scotia. A Scot, he immediately became part of the community, and everyone in that initial group was supposed to limit their interaction with the Indians. Farming would be their only pursuit, and that meant no fur trading and no selling liquor to their Indian neighbors. According to Charly Gehring, director of the New Netherland Project at the New York State Library, it was a promise easily made but impossible to keep.
“We like to take Van Curler at his word and say that he was interested only in agricultural, but we say that with a wink,” said Gehring, who has been translating historic Dutch documents for more than 30 years now. “The idea was to take advantage of the fur trade. Everybody had that in their head, and Van Curler wanted to cultivate that area around Schenectady. He knew there was money to be made.”
Scott Haefner, director of the Fort Johnson State Historic Site, studied Van Curler and Colonial New York closely while a history major at the University at Albany, and feels there is little doubt about Van Curler’s motives when it comes to his founding of Schenectady.
“The ‘Groote Vlachte,’ or Great Flat, was where the Indians crossed the [Mohawk] river and headed to Fort Orange,” said Haefner, who was also the Schenectady County Historical Society librarian before moving to Fort Johnson, just outside of Amsterdam. “That was the place to catch them, and Van Curler knew that. I think his purpose in settling Schenectady was to undermine the authority of the patroon and the Dutch West India Company. He wanted to get outside those boundaries where he could just do as he pleased.”
Sent to the new world
The original “Patroon” was Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a wealthy diamond merchant in the Netherlands who sent Van Curler, his 18-year-old great-nephew, over to the New World to oversee his business interests. As commissary of Rensselaerwyck, his uncle’s huge estate in New Netherland, Van Curler was the man responsible for collecting rent and making sure the operation ran smoothly and made money for the patroon.
By most accounts, Van Curler came to New York in 1638. It was four years later, in 1642, while he was out in the wilderness trying to cultivate friendly relations with the Indians, that he first came across the area near the Mohawk River that would become Schenectady.
“Hardly half a day’s journey from the Colonie there lies the most beautiful land on the Maquas [Mohawk] Kill that eyes ever saw,” Van Curler wrote to Van Rensselaer. As impressed as he was, it took two more decades before Van Curler decided to move away from his home at Schuyler Flatts on the Hudson River near present-day Menands and relocate on the Mohawk River. But it wasn’t as easy as just picking up and leaving. Along with the restrictions on the fur trade, Van Curler and his new community had to ask Albany officials for permission to settle in Schenectady, and in June of 1661 his petition was granted.
“Then, he goes to the Mohawks in July, and in this very vaguely worded deed, he buys the land from the Indians,” said Haefner. “He was one of the best legal minds in the colony and very well connected in Holland. But the deed was so vague that after Van Curler died in 1667, it really didn’t mean that much. That’s why the people who remained sat down with the Indians in 1672 and came up with a new deed.”
The 1672 document, in the archives of the Schenectady County Historical Society, provides a little more detailed information about the area involved in the purchase. The western boundary was set near Wolf Hollow in the West Glenville Hills where the Mohawks and the Mohicans had their last great battle in 1669, and the eastern line would be where the Alplaus Creek flows into the Mohawk near the present-day hamlet of Alplaus.
In 1684, Governor Thomas Dongan granted Schenectady a charter making it a township within the county of Albany, and that area resembles what is today Schenectady County. The village officially became a city in 1798, and in 1809, when Schenectady County was formed, the city limits still included what is today Glenville and Rotterdam. Both of those areas became towns within Schenectady County in 1820.
As for the fur trade, Albany continued to own the rights to deal with the Indians for quite some time, but in 1723, Schenectady’s Johannes Mynderse changed all that. After being arrested for smuggling furs and for openly trading with the Indians, Mynderse appealed his case to the royal court and won, thus ending Albany’s fur-trading monopoly.
Attack on village
Van Curler, meanwhile, mysteriously drowned in 1667 in Lake Champlain, on his way to Montreal to meet the new French governor of Canada. Twenty-three years later, the French and their Indian allies came down from Canada and attacked the village of Schenectady, killing 60 people and taking 27 captive. It was a devastating setback for the small settlement, and it might have been averted if Van Curler, only 47 when he died, had still been alive. In his three decades in New Netherland, Van Curler was constantly brokering peace treaties between the many different factions living there, including the French.
“Van Curler was a young guy who came over here and got fascinated with the natives,” said Gehring. “He was very capable in his dealings with everyone, and in his fair handling of the Indians he became very close to them.”
So close, in fact, that Van Curler was reputed to have a handful of children from different native American women.
“I guess that’s no secret, and having those female companions probably helped him in his dealings,” said Gehring.
“Was he a good person or a bad person?” asked Haefner. “Well, it’s hard to say. “He was well-liked, which wasn’t the case with [Gerrit] Van Slichtenhorst and other Dutch leaders in Albany. Many of them were pretty mean and argumentative. Van Curler was somebody you could work with.
“I think the colonists lost their most powerful advocate when he died, but it’s hard to say just how altruistic he was. They were all a bunch of mercenaries back then.”
The Indians had such respect for Van Curler that even centuries after his death they continue to address each governor of the state as “Corlaer.”
“I don’t have any real problem with him,” said Cornelius, who compared Van Curler to William Johnson, the founder of Johnstown and the British crown’s Indian agent for North America prior to the American Revolution. “The Indians liked Van Curler, and like most white men, he took advantage of the situation. Like Johnson, he was incredibly popular with the Indians, and like Johnson, Van Curler blended in very well with them. They trusted him.”