Historian to discuss 18th century culture as it pertained to everyday people in Colonial times

Saturday, February 22, 2014
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Fort Johnson, the home of Sir William Johnson, will be one of many “fortified homes” to be discussed by Marilyn Sassi in her presentation at Mabee Farm.
Fort Johnson, the home of Sir William Johnson, will be one of many “fortified homes” to be discussed by Marilyn Sassi in her presentation at Mabee Farm.

Eighteenth century scholars can give us a pretty good idea what it was like having Sunday dinner with Sir William Johnson, Philip Schuyler or John Sanders. But what about average folk?

“Ninety-five percent of the material culture we have from that time period is from the wealthy,” said Marilyn Sassi, a local historian who lives in the Stockade section of Schenectady.

“We can study paintings that give us an idea of how the patroons and other wealthy people lived. But what about the everyday person? What kind of house did they live in and what did they wear?”

Those are just some of the questions Sassi will try to answer in a four-part series titled “Early Mohawk and Hudson Valley Life: How Clothes, Arts and Architecture Changed, 1750-1812,” beginning Tuesday night at the Mabee Farm’s Franchere Center.

The series, which is divided into four sections, “French and Indian War,” “American Revolution,” “Post-Revolution” and “19th Century,” will continue over the first three Tuesday nights in March.

‘Early Mohawk and Hudson Valley Life: How Clothes, Arts and Architecture Changed, 1750-1812’

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday; 7 p.m. March 4, 11 and 18

WHERE: Franchere Center, Mabee Farm, 1080 Main St., Rotterdam Junction

HOW MUCH: $5, free for members of the Schenectady County Historical Society

MORE INFO: 887-5073,

Average 18th century residents of the Mohawk Valley, suggested Sassi, were in a bit of a “time warp,” when it came to material culture.

“England was the trendsetter, and there were places in America — Boston, Philadelphia, Portsmouth and Williamsburg — where they were keeping up with the English,” said Sassi, who has worked as a curator at the Schenectady County Historical Society and the Van Alstyne Homestead in Canajoharie.

“Those areas were up to date and Albany, being a harbor city, was a bit more sophisticated than we were here in Schenectady. But in the Mohawk Valley, we were on the frontier and very much isolated. That’s why it can get very frustrating for many of us who study this time period. We do know about the Glen Sanders family, Sir William Johnson and the Schuylers and people like them, but not that much about everyone else.”

Part of Sassi’s presentation Tuesday night will be on the fortified homes or “forts” that sprang up in the Mohawk Valley around the time of the French and Indian War. While Fort Johnson, just west of Amsterdam, is probably the most famous of these, there were others, such as Fort Wagner, Fort Klok, Fort Frey and the Van Alstyne Homestead that, while not nearly as elegant as Fort Johnson, were still fortified homes.

“These were average people who were great builders, who built these comfortable but structurally sound homes that protected people from Indian attack,” said Sassi, who has taught classes at Hudson Valley Community College and Schenectady County Community College.

“The neighbors would gather in these homes when facing a threat for protection because they were built with stone.”

Surviving homes

Along with the “forts,” Sassi will talk about a handful of small homes that do offer some evidence of what life was like in the 18th century.

“I have to go back a bit beyond 1750, but I will talk about homes like the Mabee Farm, the Abraham Yates House in Schenectady and the Van Allen House in Kinderhook.

“The Van Allen House is one of the best examples of that early style of rural architecture that was around during the Dutch Colonial period,” she said.

“The Van Allen House, the Mabee House and the Yates House have all survived. There are also other houses that were torn down and removed and now are in ruins, but I do have images of every house I talk about.”

The Yates House at 109 Union St. in Schenectady, still a private home, is a structure Sassi is particularly interested in.

“The Yates House is the only existing urban Dutch house in New York that still retains the original aspects of its facade,” said Sassi, who studied material culture and museum studies at Russell Sage and the University at Albany.

“There are some rural homes that are intact, but when you’re talking an urban setting the Yates House is the only one. It still has the decorative finial and the original anchor beams. It’s a very important house that we have to make sure we preserve.”

Sassi, a member of the Proctors History Committee, will also talk about powder horns, clothing, furniture, ceramics and Native Americans.

Native Americans

“For the most part, the only reason I’m talking about Fort Johnson is to bring in the Native Americans,” she said.

“Guy Johnson drew a wonderful sketch of Fort Johnson that still survives, and it shows the tents that were in the backyard for the Indians, and all the other dependencies, like a bakehouse, a mill, a small building where they made barrels.

“It’s very important to include the Iroquois in this kind of discussion because they were always caught in the middle. They were pawns, first between the French and the English, and then between the Loyalists and the Patriots.”

Sassi’s series is being sponsored by the Schenectady County Historical Society and the Burning of the Valleys Military Association.

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