Categories: Schenectady County
From handwritten arrest warrants for sheep thieves to a roster of horses and wagons in a Revolutionary War British camp, a newly surfaced collection of early-American documents has historians excited.
The hundreds of yellowing but well-preserved pages were saved by Joseph LaRue, one of the early settlers of the town of Charlton. Last winter, his descendants donated them to the Saratoga County historian’s office, making them publicly available for the first time.
LaRue came to what is now Charlton in 1775, before it was even a town. He was later the town’s first justice of the peace.
His archive includes land deeds, routine court records and the military camp papers of a friend who settled in Charlton after the revolution, but had driven wagons for the British army in New York during the war.
The LaRue family, direct descendants who still live on the same Charlton Road property, found the materials nearly 50 years ago under the attic floor of the family farmhouse.
Local history enthusiasts knew the collection existed, but the family’s donation will make them available to researchers for the first time.
“The LaRue family really deserves a lot of credit,” said County Historian Lauren Roberts. “They could have auctioned them or sold them on eBay, but they did a great thing. They donated the whole collection, so it can be safely conserved and preserved.”
The documents are now kept in a climate-controlled storage room for old records in the county government complex, along with documents such as early deeds and census records. The documents — 606 pages in total — are the largest collection of such early documents the office possesses.
“They really are a treasure trove,” Roberts said.
Eric Schnitzer, a park ranger and historian at Saratoga National Historic Park in Stillwater, said the British military records include some documenting routine camp life. Those kinds of records were often destroyed and now interest many military historians.
“These are brilliant. To find something like this is very rare,” Schnitzer said. “The social history of armies is absolutely fascinating.”
The papers were donated by the LaRue family in February, but it was only after Skidmore College student Ned Porter, interning for the county historian, sorted them last summer that the scope of the collection became clear.
“Because [LaRue] was a judge, I think he was entrusted with documents,” Roberts said.
The papers were found in the Charlton Road farmhouse of Albert and Linda LaRue. Albert is a sixth-generation direct descendant of Joseph LaRue.
Joseph LaRue appears to have saved jury lists, arrest warrants and other documents from the time he was a justice, starting with the formation of Charlton in 1792. Before that, Charlton had been part of Balls Town, one of the four original Saratoga County towns.
But some of the most interesting and potentially significant documents are those that belonged to a man named John Campbell, who appears to have been a friend of LaRue’s. Campbell was a loyalist during the revolution, a “conductor of waggons” for the British quartermaster’s unit at Fort Knyphausen, near the northern tip of Manhattan. It was part of the British army stationed in New York under General Sir Henry Clinton.
The collection starts in 1778, the year after the Battle of Saratoga had been fought 175 miles north of the city. While colonists had beaten back the invasion force from Canada, New York City remained in British hands.
“It was post-Battle for New York, so the British were down there and there were no battles going on,” Schnitzer said. “It is a period that is not well studied.”
But, according to Schnitzer, interest in the civilians and suppliers who surrounded an army in Colonial times has been growing — and records like those Campbell saved will help historians better understand that era.
Roberts said it seems doubtful Campbell could write — he signed orders with a “mark” — but he saved many orders from the years 1778 to 1783, as well as inventories of transportation and commissary supplies.
One paper lists the available horses, wagons and drivers on Staten Island, with black employees (it isn’t clear if they were slaves) noted, but listed by their first names only.
The orders cover such mundane matters as being told to transport a prisoner or haul bricks to engineers. There are receipts for the purchase of “salt hay” and for the boarding of horses in local barns.
The records show that years later, when he lived in Charlton, Campbell went to Canada to take the British government up on an offer of land there for those who fought on the loyalist side. But he was apparently unsuccessful and came back in Charlton.
“He died in 1799, and Joseph LaRue was his executor. That seems to be why he had the papers,” Roberts said.
The collection of court records starts in 1792, the year LaRue became a judge. Jury trials would sometimes be held in his home, and copies of written testimony would be saved.
“A lot of them have to do with horse sales and thefts of sheep and hogs,” Roberts said.
Papers include lists of names of jurors and arrest warrants or complaints related to matters like livestock theft and misrepresentations made during a horse sale. In one document, the complainant says he was sold a horse after misrepresentations about its age and health and he demanded $8 compensation.
By the time LaRue was hearing such cases, he was one of the most eminent men in town, having been one of its original settlers.
LaRue, who was born in 1730, came to what was then the New York frontier in 1775 as part of a group of people from Freehold, N.J. Here they founded a community they called New Freehold — a moniker still memorialized in the name of the local Presbyterian Church.
LaRue owned 300 acres in the Harmony Corners area and later acquired another 200 acres. He built a log cabin in the vicinity of where the LaRue farm still stands. He worked as a blacksmith and a tanner and also farmed.
“He had a farm, but most everyone did,” Roberts said.
LaRue had 10 children, including two daughters who married Revolutionary War militiamen. His family intermarried with the Valentine family, and there’s a saved receipt from a Mrs. Valentine for 15 gallons of rum.
“Did she run a store? Was she just very thirsty? We don’t know,” Roberts said, tongue in cheek.
The newly available documents raise questions for historians to ponder, she said, and provide a window on ordinary life in the nation’s — and the town’s — earliest days.
“There are the people that were coming here, settling down and creating a community,” Roberts said. “We’re lucky they were pack rats.”