View of L`Esperance on the Schoharie River. Thomas Cole (1828)
Indigenous Peoples in Schoharie before 1800
When John Brown, Jeptha Simms and William Roscoe wrote their magisterial histories of Schoharie County in 1823, 1845 and 1882, respectively, they largely began in 1711 when the first Palatine German settlers moved into the area. In doing so, they imagined the Schoharie Valley as a sort of virgin utopic terra nullius, or "land belonging to no one." These ideas are often still idealized and romanticized in public discourse of the Valley.
On the contrary, Indigeous occupation of the Valley goes back some 9000 years. Archaeological evidence shows that toward the end of the last Ice Age (10,000-8000 years ago), communities regularly travelled north along waterways during the warmer months to procure resources not available near their winter settlements in what is today Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware (Ritchie 2014)
The density of Indigenous occupation in the Schoharie Valley between 900-1400CE (a period known as the Owasco period) is evidenced by the presence of several well-documented villages along the Schoharie River and its confluence with the Mohawk (Snow 2016). It is during this time that we see the first clear archaeological evidence of cultural institutions commonly associated with later Iroquois society such as longhouse villages and matrilocality/matrilineality (Snow 1996; Fergusson 2009). After about 1400, it seems that regional politics and conflicts between Mohawk and nearby Mohican communities in the Hudson Valley turned the Schoharie Valley into a sort of political neutral zone for a time between the two groups (Fergusson 2009). While small groups of Mohawks and Mahicans likely moved through the valley, there were few larger permanent villages in Schoharie until the late 1600 or early 1700s when new villages were established near Middleburgh, just prior to the arrival of the Palatines. From documentary and archaeological evidence, these re-established villages in Schoharie likely consisted of people from a mix of backgrounds that including Mohawk but also included refugee communities from other areas of the eastern seaboard who had become displaced by European expansion and who were welcomed into Mohawk communities under an Iroquois “one people” ideology (Fergusson 2009)
The above emphasizes the deep historical ties Indigenous communities had to the land, as well as the ways that British, German, and Dutch colonists as newcomers stepped unwittingly into complex pre-existing geopolitical maneuverings and negotiations during the 1600-1700s. Indeed, European settler-colonialists were often used by Native groups as political pawns in power struggles between Indigenous nations (Hantman 1990). In the case of Schoharie, Fergusson (2009) describes how Mohawk elders living in the Mohawk valley ‘gifted’ the Schoharie Valley to Queen Anne despite not actually living in Schoharie. In so doing, Mohawk communities positioned themselves such that they would continue to profit from future real estate sales, could weaken their political rivals, the Mahicans, and could use the new European colonialists to create a sort of political buffer zone.
Once the Palatine German settlers arrived in Schoharie, there is a rich historical record of both primary and secondary sources detailing the types of interactions that occurred between the Palatines and Indigenous peoples during the early 1700s, ranging from friendly cooperation to violent, racist antagonism. In recent decades there’s been a productive theoretical and empirical conversation within archaeology regarding the nature of North American colonial spaces and entanglements (for example, Hantman 1990; Given 2004; Gosden 2004; Silliman 2005; Jordan 2010). These approaches to the archaeology of colonialism have increasingly refuted the idea of unidirectional domination or acculturation of Indigenous peoples, and have instead advocated for a more nuanced understanding of power negotiations and interactions between Indigenous communities and colonizers. From this theoretical standpoint, the Schoharie valley can be viewed as a colonial frontier space characterized, at times, by an uneasy coexistence. However, the relationship between Euro-American communities and Indigenous peoples changed dramatically in the 1770s as Mohawk communities were forced to choose sides around the American Revolution. Since the Mohawk nation’s foreign policy goals and aspirations depended in a large part on their relationship with England, many Mohawk communities, including those in and around Schoharie, fought with the British against the American revolutionaries.
Slavery in NY and in the Schoharie Valley
With the exception of some attempts at recreating a plantation-slavery system near Geneva in the late 1700s (New York State Museum 2021), there are few examples of the type of large singular slave-owning plantations more commonly seen to the south. The lack of these highly visible examples of mass-enslavement is sometimes erroneously taken as evidence of the supposed benign nature of the New York slave economy, relative to the more studied plantation system to the south. However, from the mid-1600s until 1827, when slavery was formally abolished in New York State, New York’s economy likewise depended on enslaved labor. Instead of a plantation system, New York’s economic and agricultural production was built on a feudal manor system where powerful landowners such as the Lansings, Livingstons, Schuylers, and Van Rensselaers owned massive estates totalling thousands of acres, which they leased out to individual families and tenant farmers who themselves, in many cases, had small numbers of enslaved peoples. When scaled up to the level of the manor, the end effect is largely he same: rather than a singular unit of hundreds of people enslaved by a single slave-owning family and collectively working the land as in a plantation system, the New York manor system oversaw similar numbers of enslaved people working similarly large areas of land in-total, but the production of agricultural goods and cash crops was being directly produced at the level of smaller tenant farms whose labor and output ultimately enriched the large landowner. In this way, the percentage of individual families in 1790 along the Hudson and Mohawk corridors who owned at least one enslaved person actually rivalled or surpassed that of any of the Southern states in 1860. For example, in 1790, 50% of families living Ulster county (currently parts of Ulster, Green, and Sullivan counties) were slave-owning families (New York State Museum 2021). Furthermore, in many cases large landowning families such as the Livingstons also kept conventional slave-holding plantations in the south and in the Caribbean, facilitating the movement of goods and people and tying the northeast into a larger global slavery-economy of trade and exploitation. (New York State Museum 2021).
Transcription of 1790 census for Schoharie - then still part of Albany Co. (*) denotes where at least one person was recorded, but handwriting is undecipherable and exact number unclear
Although the Schoharie Valley wasn’t part of a large manor system, an agricultural economy akin to that of the manor made up of similarly small slave-holding landowners was in place in the Valley from the early 1700s. Jeptha Simms (1845), for example, describes the trial and subsequent execution of two of Adam Vrooman’s enslaved workers after they were accused of murder. As the Palatine families better established themselves and began to grow their own capital, they too began purchasing enslaved workers – an action that served as a way of increasing their own agricultural output (and thus their profit) as well as constituting a visible display of wealth and status to the rest of their community (Brown 1823; Rickard 1937). By the 1790 census, 46% of the 304 families listed in Schoharie County were slave owning families (Daniels 2008).
Both racially marginalized by European colonists and (later) by early American society, the social boundaries between free and enslaved Africans and Indigenous communities seemed particularly porous. In his book on African Americans in Schoharie County, Schoharie author and historian Jack Daniels (2008) recounts oral histories from local descendant families of escaped Africans who were taken in and welcomed by Mohawk communities in the 1700s.
"Peopling" the past in this way allows us in the present to understand the history of Schoharie County in a more holistic and human-focused way. For example, while the Schoharie Valley is remembered today as "the Breadbasket of the Revolution" it's worth also remembering as well that the Valley's agricultural output in the late 1700s was reliant at least in part on the labor of enslaved people toiling within a slave economy.