History of the Town of Schaghticoke

the results of research about the history of the town of Schaghticoke

Monthly Archives: September 2011

Immigrants to Schaghticoke: The Knickerbockers

This is a c. 1985 postcard of the Knickerbocker Mansion, probably built c. 1788 by John Knickerbocker, Jr.


                In earlier posts, I discussed the Native Americans of  Schaghticoke. The first whites or Europeans to live in the town were of Dutch descent.  Of course Albany began its history as a trading post for the Dutch in 1624. I wrote earlier about the city of Albany  purchasing land at Schaghticoke in the early 18th century, the Albany Corporation Lands. The city  granted leased farms of fifty acres each to a few men from Albany in 1708.  Those first Dutch settlers arrived the next year. Descendants of  several of those first families stayed in town for at least the next 100 years. They brought Dutch customs and culture with them, from the language, to the religion, Dutch Reformed. The services at the church were conducted in Dutch until about 1800.

                Johannes Knickerbocker was one of the first settlers, and became the most outstanding Dutch immigrant to Schaghticoke. He was the son of Harman Jansen Knickerbocker, who immigrated from Holland to New Amsterdam (New York) about 1674. At the time, last names were not in general use, but when needed, often reflected the place one lived or came from. In the records, Harme Janse (spelling was also very flexible) was sometimes called Herman Jansen Van Wyekycbacke or Van Bommell- both locations in the Netherlands. Last names were also taken from occupations, and around 1695, Harme Janse began to refer to himself as Knickerbacker. It means “marble baker”. Playing marbles was a popular Dutch game, and probably either Harme Janse or his father made marbles. Harman or Herman married Elizabeth Van de Bogart in 1678. Their son Johannes was born in 1679, and they  had moved upriver to the Albany by 1680.  Harman bought a farm at Half Moon for thirty beavers in 1682. He added to his property there in 1697, but sold it and moved to Dutchess County in 1704.

                Meanwhile, son Johannes or John grew up and married  Anna Quackenbush in 1701. As stated above, he was one of the original eight lessees of Albany City land at Schaghticoke. Even before moving to Schaghticoke,  the enterprising Johannes and Dirck VanVeghten petitioned the city of Albany for milling rights, probably on the Tomhannock Creek near their farms, “to erect a saw mill . ..together with a privilege to cut saw logs within the city bounds (the Albany Corporation Lands).” Johannes added to his leased acreage over the years.  In the 1720 census of the city of Albany,  Johannes was one of twelve freeholders at Schaghticoke. That means he had property worth at least forty pounds.  Johannes and Ann had three sons, Harmon, Wouter, and John.  The youngest, John (1723-1803) inherited the land on which the surviving mansion stands when his father died in 1749.

              John, son of Johannes, became the leader of the new community of Schaghticoke. In 1750 he married Rebecca  Fonda at the Dutch Reformed Church in Albany. They had two children who survived, John, born in 1751, and Anna, born in 1753. John Sr. continued his father’s habit of acquiring land, leasing several more farms within the Albany Corporation Lands.  John became very involved in civic and military affairs. He was a soldier in the French and Indian War, part of the British expedition against the French Fort Carrillon in 1758. In 1773 he was appointed a Justice of the Peace in Albany County, and as the Revolution began,  headed the local Committee of Safety.  He became the first Colonel of the local militia unit, the 14th Albany. It is possible that some of his land was used to bivouac American troops preceeding the battle of Saratoga. John resigned his commission after being wounded at the battle of Saratoga in 1777. He ended his long civic career as the first assemblyman to represent the new Rensselaer County in the NYS Legislature in 1792. John died at the age of 79 in 1802.

                John Junior continued in his father’s footsteps. At the age of eighteen, in 1769, he petitioned the city of Albany, asking that he be granted all the remaining unleased Albany land between his father’s land and the Hudson River. This was allowed, in exchange for a yearly feast at his home for the Albany Common Council.  By 1788, he owned much more land than his father. It is probable that about that time he constructed the current Knickerbocker Mansion. The father and son were certainly among the wealthiest men in Schaghticoke. There were six Knickerbocker farms on the c. 1790 map of the Albany Corporation Lands.  The 1790 census lists father and son each owning nine slaves, the most of anyone in town. Slaveholding was common in the Dutch culture. In 1800, John Junior had $5750 worth of real estate, and a personal estate of $1406.  John Junior went beyond farming to invest in the second bridge over the Hoosic River in 1799, which facilitated both agriculture and the developing industry in the gorge of the Hoosic. 

              John Junior also followed his father in taking on civic responsibilities. After serving as a private in the 14th Albany Militia in the Revolution, he continued on in the militia.  In 1791 he was a Major in Brigadier General Henry VanRensselaer’s Brigade , rising to the rank of Colonel by the War of 1812.  John served the town of Schaghticoke as both Poor Master and a Commissioner of Highways. He was appointed an assistant Justice of the Peace when Rensselaer County was formed in 1791, and served after his father in the State Assembly, from 1796-1802.  John Junior died in 1827, leaving 1,166 acres of land in his will. The Knickerbockers had  come a long way since Harmen Jansen’s arrival in the New World about 100 years earlier. In  future posts, I will write about one of John Junior’s sons, Herman.

The Knickerbocker Mansion is open for tours Sundays from May to October. Several rooms have been beautifully restored.

               The Knickerbocker Historical Society has done remarkable work in restoration of the Knickerbocker Mansion, which was a derelict building in the 1980’s. It is “the most significant historic building in upper Rensselaer County.” If you have not visited it lately, I strongly recommend that you do. The Mansion is open for tours every Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm from May to October. The Society also holds a number of special events during the year, and is available for weddings and special events. Their website is www.knickmansion.com. Email them at knickinfo@aol.com, or phone at 518-664-1700. The Society also knows far more about Knickerbocker history and genealogy than I!

Bibliography: Pierpont Nelson Architects, Historic Structure Report: Knickerbocker Mansion,1990.

                     1790 census

                        Miller, Richard J. “Patroons of Modernization”

                        Sylvester, Nathan, History of Rensselaer County


The Yates Ax Murder

             This is really a Pittstown story, but I can’t resist telling it. It does connect with Schaghticoke’s Gothic novelist, Ann Eliza Bleecker, and it occurred during the Revolutionary War, so it’s in the time frame I’ve been writing about.  But it interests me also because it is both gruesome and poignant.  I think we all have a vision of historical times as somehow being different than our own, the people more honest, harder working, more patriotic, just better people somehow. As a teacher, I always heard parents and other teachers say, “Oh, kids today are more disobedient, less disciplined, etc… than in MY day.” Well, I have to say that I feel that people are just the same they always have been. Human nature is human nature. And this story is an illustration.  It is also an illustration of how difficult it is to piece together a story that occurred over 200 years ago. Many of the facts I will cite below come from the hard work of Warren Broderick of Lansingburgh.

                Around the time of the American Revolution, a large family surnamed Yates moved to the Schaghticoke area from Westchester County. They are not to be confused with the family of Peter Yates, the Colonel of our local militia unit during the war. He and his large family moved here about the same time, but they were of Dutch descent, from Albany. The Yates family I am speaking of was of English descent, and from the New York City area. Some of the family, including the father, Richard, were Loyalists during the war. The grown children of the family were Peter (1755-1813); Eve (1744-1825), wife of Richard Green; Rachel (1752-1825), wife of Jacob Overocker; Eleanor, wife of  Dr. Samuel Jackson, and James, who is the protagonist of our story. The Jacksons were Loyalists, who left the area in 1782. They all lived in and around what is now the Melrose part of Schaghticoke, some in what is now Pittstown. Peter Yates, Eve Yates Green, and Rachel Yates Overocker are all buried in St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery, at the junction of  Northline Drive and Valley Falls Road.

                James and his wife Elizabeth lived in the “ west part of Pittstown.” Three of their children, Isaac (1777), Joseph (1779), and Maria (1781) were  baptized in the Gilead Lutheran Church in Brunswick. Maria’s baptismal sponsors were Henry and Maria Grawberger, who lived in the Melrose area and are buried in St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery. Those are the clues to where James and his family lived. There is also a James Yates on the list of those in the 14th Albany County Militia.

        I was reading about the other Yates, Colonel Peter, and the border problems with Vermont  in the letters of Governor George Clinton, when I came across this passage in a letter from one Simon Pendleton,

Upon the 4th instant (Dec. 4, 1781), in the Night, one James Yates, living upon the Western boundaries of Pittstown, Murdered his Wife and four Children with an Ax; the eldest 6 years of age, and the youngest a sucking child.  He likewise killed his two horses, his Cow, and his Dog, which was all the living creatures he had about his house.  The murderer was the first that made the discovery; nor did he attempt to make his escape.  He was brought into this City (Albany), this afternoon.”

                Amazingly to me, there is an extensive article about the murders in Wikipedia- the unknown author cites several contemporary newspaper accounts: one in the “Connecticut Courant” in Hartford, Conn. on December 25, two in the “Massachusetts Spy” in Worcester, Mass., on  December 27, 1781 and February 14, 1782, and one in the “Salem Gazette” in Salem, Mass. on February 7, 1782. The articles add the information that his neighbors said James was healthy and sane before the incident, and that Mrs. Yates and the baby were found dead at a distance from the house, apparently killed trying to flee. Also, Yates went to his parents’ home nearby the next morning in the nude and confused, and that he felt he had been killing Indians and had been “tempted to this horrid deed by the spirit.” One of the papers also stated that Yates had been a member of the Shaker sect. I have not been able to confirm this- he would have been a very early member- as the Shakers only began in 1777- and as the Shakers were celibate and he had several children, I don’t think it is possible. 

                            In earlier posts,  I wrote about Ann Eliza Bleecker, a young, educated mother who came to Schaghticoke with her husband  about the same time as the Yates. She suffered through the Revolutionary period, which included her evacuation south and the death of one of her small daughters. She wrote a fictionalized and sensational account of the Indian massacre which had occurred in Schaghticoke in the early 1700’s. At the exact time of the Yates ax murder, Mrs. Bleecker and all of the town residents were in turmoil due to the controversy over the location of the border of Vermont. Mr. Bleecker was one of those who had been kidnapped and taken to Vermont temporarily during the controversy. Plus the war was still on, and there was constant worry about incursions by Tories from Canada.

                Mrs. Bleecker evidently plunged into the events surrounding the murder. She wrote a letter to a friend about the event, and Warren Broderick feels that two articles about the tragedy appearing in the “New York Weekly Magazine” and the “Philadelphia Minerva” in 1796 were also by her.  All were published posthumously, as Mrs. Bleecker died in 1783. She had been in poor health since suffering a miscarriage shortly after the events of December 1781.  In the letter, she reports “the most tragical afffair has happened here that I ever remember to have heard of.” She reports the facts just as in the letter above, concluding, “by all appearances he is a religious lunatic.”  In the magazine articles, she adds that Yates was interrogated at her house before being sent to the jail in Albany, where she had sent him some fruit. The following August she reports that “poor Mrs. F___ was lately delivered of a child who is a terror to everyone who sees it. It seems she was struck with so much horror at the sight of  James Yates’s murdered family, that it made too fatal an impression.” Unfortunately, the wikipedia article cited earlier includes Mrs. Bleecker’s fictionalized account of the murder as fact.

                Unfortunately, we don’t know the end of the Yates story, as the court records are lost, and no local newspapers from the time survive.  We can only speculate as to why he committed the murder.  Some thoughts are: stress from the repeated deployments with the militia, or from the split in his own family between patriots and loyalists, or from the new agitation and worry over the border dispute with Vermont; stress from trying to survive as a poor farmer on the frontier with a growing family; marital or other family problems; mental illness;  and  temporary insanity. I’m not sure what to make of Mrs. Bleecker’s claim of “religious lunacy,” concluding that Yates was “under a strong delusion of Satan.”  But I think that this sentence from the first letter is very telling: “ The murderer was the first that made the discovery; nor did he attempt to make his escape.”  That tells me that the act was done while Mr. Yates was in some sort of state where he was unaware of what he was doing.  Today we might have more clinical speculations as to why such an event might occur: depression, schizophrenia or other mental illness, a fugue state, or whatever. But while we know that events like this do happen from time to time, but they remain, “beyond the conception of human beings” to understand.



    Broderick, Warren, “Fiction based on well-authenticated facts”, Hudson Valley Regional Review, 1987.

    Bleecker, Ann Eliza, “Posthumous Works”, reprinted 1970.

    “Public Papers of George Clinton”, Letter No. 4198, p. 556.




The Border War: New York and Vermont


                As I have written in past posts, Schaghticoke was in the thick of the action during the American Revolution, especially in the summer and fall of 1777, as General John Burgoyne advanced south to defeat at Saratoga. I hope that all of you have toured the Saratoga Battlefield, General Schuyler’s home and the Battle Monument in Schuylerville, and the newly opened Victory Woods, site of the last encampment of the British before their surrender and accessible from the Battle Monument parking lot,. We are so fortunate to live so close to the scenes of such vital episodes in the history of our country.

                Schaghticoke was also in the thick of the controversy over the land that would become the state of Vermont in 1791. As of 1750, three colonies claimed Vermont: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. In 1764, King George proclaimed that the area that would later be Vermont belonged to Albany County, New York. New York surveyors began to set up counties in areas which had already been surveyed by New Hampshire. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys formed to fight for an independent Vermont, either as a state or its own country. They claimed the territory of New York west to the Hudson River and between Canada and Massachusetts. This, of course, would include Schaghticoke. Settlement of the controversy was delayed by the Revolutionary War, and the Green Mountain Boys not only fought the British, but raided as far as Schaghticoke, trying to establish the western boundary of Vermont as the Hudson River.

                In May 1781, a Convention was held in Cambridge which repeated Vermont’s land claims. Representatives were from many  supposedly New York communities, including Hoosick, Saratoga, Fort Edward, and…Schaghticoke. But once the threat of the British was gone, with the surrender at Yorktown, many at the convention renounced their support of Vermont. They had been afraid that the Green Mountain Boys would destroy their forts, leaving them defenseless before the British.

            The events of the following summer were chaotic. According to Kloppott’s “History of Schaghticoke,” Colonel Peter Yates and the 14th Albany County Militia- the Schaghticoke militia unit- garrisoned the old fort at Schaghticoke. They were to be ready to put down any rebellion or unrest against New York by the Vermonters. According to John Kaminski in his biography, George Clinton, Governor of New York  was very concerned that the Vermonters and the British would join together to attack frontier sites, such as Schaghticoke.  About sixty residents of Schaghticoke met that summer to elect representatives to the assembly of Vermont! Two local men even acted as justices of the peace for Vermont.  And both local residents and people from  the uncontested part of Vermont even tried to force others to support Vermont. A notice was sent to Schaghticoke residents warning them to “Cease from all seditious..conduct.”

                 In August, the governor of Vermont, Thomas Chittenden, wrote to Colonel Yates, berating him for “drafting and forcibly compelling sundry Inhabitants on the East side of the Hudson into the service of the State of New York…creating disregard for the Jurisdiction of this State” (Vermont). In other words, Chittenden felt Yates had no right to call out his 14th Albany County militiamen in Schaghticoke and Hoosick, as they were living in what he claimed was Vermont.  Colonel Yates responded that he had taken an oath to serve New York State, and needed to obey his orders- which were to assemble his militia men to protect the area from raids by Vermonters. I found this information in the “Public Papers of George Clinton”, published in 1904.

              Matters reached a head in December of 1781. Lt. Colonel John Van Rensselaer, Colonel Bratt, and others of the 14th Albany were taken prisoner by “tirannical Ruffians who have disavowed allegiance to the state of New York”. This was a mutiny  within their regiment. Some of the men who had served together throughout the Revolution were now changing allegiance from New York to Vermont. They went so far as to kidnap their officers.  They were taken to Bennington, where they “were treated in a most scandilous manner” before being released.  It is unclear what the mutineers thought would be accomplished by kidnapping their officers. Maybe they had some thought of forcing them to swear allegiance to Vermont.

            General Gansevoort ordered Colonels Yates and Henry VanRensselaer to march the loyal men in their regiments to the aid of Lt. Col. John VanRensselaer at his dwelling in St. Croix or SanCoick- near present day Hoosick Falls., and “to take such measures for quelling the Insurrection as shall appear necessary and expedient.” The General added, “I must recommend to you the greatest precaution and Circumspection in the Matter.” That seems a tall order- quell an insurrection, but be careful. General Stark added his opinion, telling Yates that the insurrection “must be the result of folly and madness. You will be very cautious not to begin hostilities with them but stand your Ground and act defensively until reinforced.” The whole thing was very upsetting: the Revolutionary War not even over, yet fighting  was beginning within the new States. And no one wanted to begin shooting at former comrades.

           Colonel Yates reported to General Gansevoort from St. Coick on December 12. He said he only had 80 men, and the insurrectors 146. The “rioters” were in a block house, which Yates could not hope to take as he had no artillery. He did not want to back down until the matter was resolved as “we shall all be taken immediately by the other party and be obliged to comply to their will.”  Yates asked for artillery and reinforcements, and concluded “the men is (sic) very uneasy wanting either to fight them or go home.”

              General Gansevoort came out in person from his headquarters at Saratoga to lead the militia, arriving at the house (inn) of Charles Toll of Schaghticoke at the same time as the sheriff of Albany. The sheriff arrived with a warrant to arrest some of the insurgents. Toll’s house was at a bridge over the Hoosick River, perhaps where the bridge at Valley Falls is today. Before this group could head for Hoosick Falls, the retreating militia arrived. They were being pursued by “the militia of the pretended State of Vermont, consisting of at least 500 men with a field piece (a cannon)”. General Gansevoort led a further retreat, “to the town of Schaghticoke, where the Men might be housed from the inclemency of the cold weather,” and in a more defensive position. The General does not say so, but perhaps this was in the old fort at Schaghticoke, near the current Knickerbocker Mansion.  Discretion being the better part of valor, the General dismissed the militia, as reinforcements were not arriving, and with 80 men he couldn’t hope to prevail against 500. He stated that the residents of Schagticoke, “especially those who have taken an active part against the insurgents, are in a very precarious Situation.” They were afraid they would have to either swear allegiance to Vermont or abandon their homes.

           In the end, everyone settled down, unwilling to have war between new Americans. The majority of people in Schaghticoke remained loyal to Albany County and the state of New York.  Vermonters decided to take their case to the Congress of the new United States and seek a legal settlement. This didn’t happen until 1790, when New York paid Vermont for part of the disputed land.  Obviously, Schaghticoke remained in New York, but if the militia on either side began shooting, who knows what would have happened?!


Bibliography:  Kloppott, Beth, History of Schaghticoke, 1980.

                      Kaminski, John, George Clinton, Madison House Publishers, 1993.

                       Public Papers of George Clinton, Vol 7; NYS, 1904.