The idea of finishing up Susan Staffa’s “Schenectady Genesis” was quite intriguing for Niskayuna attorney John Gearing, and the more he looked into local history, the more fascinating it became.
“I knew I had a lot to cover, and as I got into it the story was a lot more nuanced and complex than I could have imagined,” said Gearing, whose Volume II covers the time period locally between 1760 and 1800. “I didn’t think it would take as much time as it did, but I ended up drawing on resources from all over the world, online, as well as heading down to Manhattan, over to Cooperstown and plenty of places in this area.”
While Staffa’s first volume, published in 2004, examined the history of Schenectady’s founding up to the American Revolution, Gearing’s effort chronicles just 40 years. The official title is “Schenectady Genesis: Volume II: The Creation of an American City from an Anglo-Dutch Town, ca. 1760-1800.” Staffa had begun working on the second volume of “Schenectady Genesis,” but died in 2010 at the age of 73.
Soon after Staffa’s death, Gearing was selected by the Colonial Schenectady Project to complete her research and produce another book. It was Staffa and others who formed the Colonial Schenectady Project back in 1990 to help celebrate Schenectady’s long and vibrant history,
“We believe readers won’t be disappointed when they read this very detailed and exciting 389-page book,” said George Marshall, president of the Colonial Schenectady Project. “Covered and uncovered are many historic events beginning with the French and Indian War to the American Revolution and beyond. We’re very excited about the release of this book, and happy that we found the right person to write an equally informative sequel to Dr. Staffa’s book.”
While Gearing’s work took him to the New York Historical Society in Manhattan and the New York State Historical Association and Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, he did much of his research within the local area. If he wasn’t checking out the shelves and archives of the Grems-Doolittle Library at the Schenectady County Historical Society, he was immersed in the material available at the Efner History Center in City Hall. There were also numerous trips to Albany and the New York State Library, as well as visits to the archives room of the First Reformed Church of Schenectady.
While he enjoyed chronicling the events from the French and Indian War and the American Revolution that happened around upstate New York, the topic that really aroused his interest was a far less military one.
“The struggle for control of the ‘common lands’ became very contentious, and it was a political and legal struggle that went on for 100 years,” said Gearing. “The original trustees and their families were charged with overseeing the lands and to use them for the benefit of the inhabitants. I think it really blocked Schenectady’s development for a time because people were coming to the area and wanted to buy land and they couldn’t because of the fighting over who really controlled the land.
“I think that’s what led to the settlement in areas to the west like Fonda and Schoharie County, and it’s a problem that isn’t resolved until almost the turn of the century when Schenectady is finally chartered as a city in 1798.”
A Connecticut native, Gearing moved to the area nearly 20 years ago. He got his undergraduate degree in psychology from Bates College, his masters from The Georgia Institute of Technology and his law degree from the University of Connecticut. According to Chris Leonard, historian for the city of Schenectady, Gearing’s education has served him well.
“Mr. Gearing’s training as a lawyer and familiarity with reading ancient deeds and documents shines through in the depth of his meticulous research,” said Leonard, who served as editor of the book. “The art of editing this work has required several close readings of the text. Each time through, I was struck by the sheer depth and scholarship and coverage within.”
The book, says Leonard, will appeal to the professional historian as well as a casual history buff.
“It is an eminently readable tale, but the work will remain on my shelf as an invaluable volume covering the final four decades of the 18th century in Schenectady. As the City Historian of Schenectady, there is no better way to help preserve the history of the city for future generations than by engaging with major literary works covering its past. And make no mistake, this text is a major addition to such great books.”
Some of the material in Gearing’s book may be brand new to even the most learned of historians.
“I looked at diaries and letters, and when I was in Manhattan I came across a new collection of documents recently donated to the New York Historical Society,” said Gearing. “It was donated by a woman tracing her family roots, and many of the documents pertained to the common lands. I don’t know if I’m the first one to read them, but I’m the first one to write about them.”
Readers will also learn about prominent merchants such as Daniel Campbell and John Duncan along with politicians and patriots such as Christopher Yates and Isaac Vrooman.
“Yates and Vrooman were probably the two most important guys in Schenectady during the second half of the 18th century,” said Gearing. “Yates did a lot during the American Revolution, and Vrooman was the guy behind the idea of getting Schenectady a charter and getting it out of the control of Albany. He was the one who said, ‘Albany has always been the enemy of our liberties.’ ”
Carrying on the work
Gearing said that finishing up what Staffa started was a challenging proposition. An anthropologist by trade, Staffa was a Schenectady native and a 1954 Nott Terrace High graduate who continued her education at Vassar College, the University at Albany and Indiana University.
“Susan was an anthropologist, so her work is different than what previous historians like Jonathan Pearson had done,” said Gearing. “She looked at the way Schenectady grew and was developed, not only in the original buildings and geography, but also the new social institutions, the development of churches and schools, and the coming of other immigrants, like the Irish and Germans. She looked at how society changed, and I tried to carry that on in my work.”
Within the book’s 389 pages are 100 images of maps, charts and paintings, along with several new photographs of artifacts. The book is selling for $29.95 and will soon be available at the Schenectady County Historical Society and the Open Door Bookstore.