A letter that left Schenectady during Colonial days, with words pleading for relief from Indian threats, is returning home.
The Schenectady County Historical Society on Friday confirmed it purchased the antique letter at a Manhattan auction.
And society officials believe they have solved a minor mystery — the message once believed written around 1690 is now considered a relic from the mid-1700s.
“It’s a wonderful document that shows us what life was like in the
community at that specific time,” said Melissa Tacke, the society’s librarian and archivist. “Originally, when the auction was posted, it was purported to having been written around 1690. Based on a closer reading of the letter and the context of a signature that’s there, I think it may have actually been written closer to around 1740, 1750.”
Society President Merritt Glennon said news stories about availability of the letter, which had been in a private collection out of state, inspired local history aficionados to invest in the community’s past.
“We had a number of our members and good friends who came forward and said, ‘Well, we should buy this document. I will donate so much money,’ ” Glennon said. “So that’s the way it came about. We said we would bid on the document up to the amount that was donated to us. That’s pretty much how it worked. We’re the proud owners.”
The letter, offered by Swann Auction Galleries, sold for $4,400, and a buyer’s premium added by the auction gallery raised the price to $5,500. Swann officials had estimated the piece would sell for between $1,500 and $2,500.
The note to Maj. John Alexander Glen of Scotia is one and two-thirds pages long. It describes the desperation and fear of the times.
“The enemy doth surround us on every side, murdering some of our people in a most cruel & barbarous manner . . . hiding himself & spying us,” the letter reads. “We are every moment in fear of our life.”
The greatest fear in the Stockade had occurred Feb. 8, 1690, when an army of French Canadian soldiers — assisted by Native American Indians from the Sault and Algonquin tribes — raided the settlement. Sixty men, women and children were killed and the town was burned to the ground. There was danger for years afterward.
Clues from the Dutch language, and mention of Crown Point and Cornelius Van Santvoord helped sort the letter into the proper century.
Tacke said almost all local documents from 1670 to the early 1700s were written in Dutch. “This letter is in English, and the English is obviously by someone who’s very fluent in the language,” she said.
A short notation in Dutch is part of the letter, Tacke added, and is written in the same handwriting as the longer, English portion of the letter. The note is signed by “C. Van Santvoord,” and Tacke believes this is Cornelius Van Santvoord, an early clergyman known to be fluent in English, Dutch and French.
“He did not come to Schenectady until 1740, and he died in 1752, which leads me to believe this might be that person,” Tacke said.
Near the end, the writer also refers to a fort in Crown Point. Tacke said the first fort at Crown Point was built in 1730, followed shortly afterward by a stone fort. In 1690, there was no fort in Crown Point.
There is also no mention of the sacking and burning of the settlement in the letter — a fact that probably would have been included in a missive written soon after the massacre.
Life was difficult enough for early Schenectadians of the late 1600s. Troubles continued into the 1700s, and the letter points them out.
“It shows us quite vividly the sense of unease and insecurity that people in those frontier years felt leading up to the French and Indian War,” Tacke said.
The letter, written in a small, occasionally hard-to-read script, came from “subscribed freeholders and inhabitants” of Schenectady. Daily plights were described, with some creative spelling.
“If we go on to plant our somer corn, so necessary to the sustaining as wel of our life, than of the life of our cattle, we are troubled walking to & from our plantations, in order to look after the fences of our fields, and even then do we run the same risque & danger of being killed or taken by surprize.”
Through their words, the first locals seemed prepared for retreat.
“We being abandoned & left to the mercy of the cruel ennemy, we must abandon our houses and farms and our town & move to the lower parts of the province, to live in security,” the letter reads. “We are ready scoffed at & despised by the Indians & they blame the government of neglecting us.”
Auction officials said the letter was never published.
Rick Stattler, Americana specialist at Swann, said there were several active bidders for the Schenectady artifact.
“I think people just respond to the human drama of that situation, the difficulty of not just facing an armed enemy but trying to farm in the face of an armed enemy. That’s just incredibly difficult,” Stattler said. “You’re trying to raise crops to sustain your livestock. At no moment are you safe when you’re out in the field.”
Letters from the past are popular auction items.
“It’s just a very vivid way of understanding history,” Stattler said. “You can sort of get the digested version of history by reading a history book or you can get an original, first-hand account and see how somebody actually felt about events that surrounded them.”
Letters, often long ones, could be primary sources of news in centuries past. “Often I’ve sold many letters that were in excess of 10 or 15 pages,” Stattler said. “They’d write as much as they could fit into the envelope.”
The Stockade letter is no longer in a private scrapbook. Tacke is glad to see the document in a museum; she believes historians also will appreciate the acquisition.
“This is a piece of Schenectady’s history that’s going to stay in the community and it’s going to stay where researchers can see it and use it, which I think is really important,” she said. “When a document stays in private hands, it’s lost to scholars, it’s lost to researchers, it’s lost to educators … It’s important that people can actually have access to it.”
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