Quad celebrations get a kick-start when Albanians recall the hero of the Schenectady Massacre
Paul Revere had it easy. It was springtime when he made his famous 1775 midnight ride to warn of the British invasion. He was in robust health, and, presumably, so was his horse.
Not so for Symon Schermerhorn. On the night of February 8, 1690, he took off from the settlement of Schenectady to Albany to warn of a massacre by the French and Indian raiders. He had already been shot, as had his horse. Meanwhile, a snowstorm raged. Still, he made the trip in six hours (nowadays the 17-mile trip between cities takes about 20 minutes by car), warning people along the way and arriving barely conscious at Albany’s Fort Orange at 5 a.m. to warn of the massacre.
“Think of what it was like,” says Jim Schermerhorn, a descendant through Symon’s younger brother, Cornelius, who was living with Symon’s family at the time of the massacre. “His son had died, a lot of children had been killed in horrible ways. All told, 60 people were killed. Part of the reason [for Symon’s ride] was self-preservation, and Albany was the seat of government, so that’s where you’d go for help. I think he was concerned that an attack would be mounted on Albany, which would have been disastrous.”
Known today as the Schenectady Massacre, it’s an event that many of us have never heard of, although it’s legendary in Capital Region lore. A little history lesson you might have forgotten (if you were taught it at all): The colony known as New Netherland had been founded by the Dutch on the east coast of North America in 1623. It covered parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Alas, the colony came under British control in 1664, and in a series of sweeping name changes, the former Beverwyck was renamed Albany. Bear in mind that if the Dutch had convinced more settlers to leave the comforts of home and go to New Netherland, we might all be speaking Dutch today. In 1689 France declared war on England, and in so doing all its outposts. Hence the attack on unassuming Schenectady.
The journey of the attackers, who ventured to the region from a small town outside of Montreal, wasn’t a walk in the park either. They traveled along frozen waterways, from the St. Lawrence to Lake Champlain and southward. When they were just northeast of Albany and Schenectady, a huge winter storm hit.
“The original target had been Albany. If they had captured or decimated Albany, if the dominoes fell another way, the history could have been different,” says Schermerhorn, an officer of the Dutch Settlers Society of Albany. “It was quite cold and snowy, so suddenly it seemed like Schenectady, which was closer, would be a better bet to attack.”
A midnight raid on a small outpost — there were fewer than 100 residents — seems cruel, but Schermerhorn points out that there are always two sides to a story. “There was a raiding party the year before by our Indian allies on a town outside Montreal, so this raid was payback.”
Still, it’s hard to know where fact and legend blur. Various versions of the event exist; some, no doubt, have been embellished. But if you look at the minutes of the emergency meeting of Albany’s common council held on February 9, 1690 — the day Symon arrived — you’ll see that they wrote down his story: that he arrived at 5 a.m.; he was shot through the side and into his horse; there was, in fact, a monster snowstorm; and that they tried to send militia to the scene, but the snow was too deep.
Schermerhorn notes that a year after the attack, Symon moved to New York City and started a very successful shipping business with Cornelius. “I guess he said, ‘To heck with this. I’m going to civilization.’ ” Things turned out pretty well for him: The prominent New York City branch of the Schermerhorns is descended from Symon (think Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn and Schermerhorn Hall at Columbia University).
Over the years, the Schenectady Massacre has been reenacted by the mayors of Schenectady and Albany with varying degrees of authenticity. Perhaps the most memorable ride took place some 20 years ago, when Schenectady Mayor Karen Johnson — her face slathered in Vaseline to protect it from the cold — covered the distance. This year, Schenectady’s chief official, Brian Stratton, dressed in period costume, will ride up on a horse and be greeted by Mayor Jerry Jennings of Albany; dramatic readings and a reception will follow. “It doesn’t hurt that Mayor Stratton was my vice principal in high school,” says Schermerhorn, who admits to exerting some persistent persuasion to get the mayor on horseback. No Vaseline needed this time, though: He’ll only ride one city block.
The Commemoration of the Ride of Symon Schermerhorn takes place on Feb. 9 at 10:30 a.m. at Albany City Hall, Eagle St., Albany. 518-434-2032.