Echoes of the original Fourth of July at the Schuyler Mansion

Dawn Elliott of New Paltz demonstrates weaving on a tape loom during the old-fashioned Independence Day celebration at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site on Catherine Street in Albany on Monday, July 4, 2022.
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Dawn Elliott of New Paltz demonstrates weaving on a tape loom during the old-fashioned Independence Day celebration at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site on Catherine Street in Albany on Monday, July 4, 2022.

ALBANY — One of the few pieces of the local landscape still standing 246 years later gave visitors a little sense of Capital Region life, circa July 4, 1776.

The Schuyler Mansion, home of one of the region’s most prominent families of the era, hosted a weaver, a musket expert, a tinsmith, candlemakers and many more for the event, most swaddled in period garb and offering children diversions from the pre-electric era.

It was a comfortable and enjoyable visit to the past. Most of those who were re-enacting history and most of the guests experiencing it rolled up in computerized, air-conditioned cars, but for the one afternoon we could imagine life with that hand-dipped candle as the only illumination after sunset.

The mansion itself is genuine, with many details painstakingly restored or recreated from bits of the original, which had been in use as a Catholic orphanage when the state purchased it in 1911.

As one of the most prominent men of his era, Phillip J. Schuyler’s life was more chronicled than most, and he meticulously kept his receipts, making it easier to determine two centuries later, how he furnished his home.

The state historic site also doesn’t shy away from a realistic depiction of a fundamental irony of Schuyler’s life: Just as he fought for the freedom of the Colonies, he sought the return of his enslaved servants who’d made a bid for their own freedom.

Ian Mumpton, historic site assistant at the mansion, said the many sharply contrasting opinions of Schuyler make him “the perfect example of looking for more voices, more narratives.”

He can’t just be viewed as a hero who was a product of a different time, Mumpton said, because even his contemporaries had very mixed views of him.

But 1776 certainly was a different time.

Tom Johannessen of Hopewell Junction set up his manual carpentry shop and showed how furniture and other fine woodwork was made in 1776: Slowly and carefully.

A writing desk he built contains no nails or screws, which were quite expensive back in the day.

“I made that all by hand, the majority is all dovetail,” he said. “The only glue that’s holding it together is animal glue, a hot glue they used back then. Most fine gentlemen had [writing desks], and some women.

“A common person would have had furniture too, but they wouldn’t have been in a huge house like this, depending on their class in life. If they had a small farm they probably built most of the house themselves.”

Dawn Elliott of New Paltz set up her loom Monday and wove a linen tape, an indispensable accessory around the time of July 4, 1776.

“They used it for holding up their socks as fancy garters,” she said. “Tapes allowed clothing to be adjustable while still looking tailored and fitted. That’s the main virtue of tape.”

Elliott can produce about a yard an hour when she’s not performing a re-enactment or historic education. It’s a rhythmic process she can do while watching a movie.

“This was largely done in people’s homes,” she said, “because everyone needed it. And absolutely every person walking around in the 18th century had tape somewhere on their body. It’s one of those mundane things you don’t think about.”

July 4, 1776, was not a time of fireworks and cookouts, it was an era of bloody conflict that racked up tens of thousands of casualties on both sides.

Stuart Lehman of Guilderland, a Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactor, displayed some of the weaponry wielded by the two sides.

The Charleville musket was a hand-me-down to the Continental Army from the French, who had upgraded their own arsenal. It was woefully inaccurate, but a well-trained soldier could fire it three times in a minute.

“These were pointed in a direction,” Lehman said. “You were supposed to line everybody up shoulder-to-shoulder and have a wall of lead out in front of you. The British were very good at it, and we eventually started winning battles when we started matching them in those particular skills.”

The rifle on his table was far more accurate than the smoothbore muskets, all the way out to 300 yards, but it was available to Americans only in small numbers. It was also extremely slow to load. So as the rifleman was reloading, the surviving comrades of the British soldier he’d just shot would charge and pin him to a tree with bayonets.

An unsharpened bayonet also sat on Lehman’s table, looking very capable of the task.

“By the time of the Battle of Saratoga, [American commanders] had learned by experience how best to deploy the riflemen,” Lehman said. 

A corps of regular infantry carrying faster-loading muskets with bayonets affixed covered the riflemen as they picked off British artillery crewmen and officers.

“That disrupted the British advance and led to their retreat,” Lehman said.

The American victory at Saratoga in autumn 1777 was decisive and critical, often described as the turning point of the war. In defeat, British Gen. John Burgoyne surrendered nearly 6,000 of his troops. 

Burgoyne himself was treated well as a “prisoner guest” in the Albany mansion of one Philip Schuyler — who had been sacked as a regional American commander after Fort Ticonderoga fell to the British only a month earlier.

Schuyler would soon resign from the Army but remained hugely influential as a supporter of the Revolution, statesman, businessman, U.S. senator, and early advocate of the canal system that would begin to be built soon after his death in 1804.

Mumpton and other researchers have traced other ways Schuyler shaped the future. One ironic example: Some of his runaway slaves fought for the British on the British promise of freedom. When that didn’t work out, they left the young United States and were among the first significant wave of Black immigrants to a colony that remained firmly British, Nova Scotia.

“A number of people in this household specifically we know wound up in Nova Scotia,” Mumpton said Monday. 

And some of those who found continued oppression in Nova Scotia were among the first wave of colonizers of Sierra Leone.

Church records and other artifacts round out the picture. Schuyler placed a newspaper ad in 1768 promising a reward of three pounds for the return of Harre, who walked with a distinctive gait because of his remarkably small legs and frostbitten toes. Other records show him breaking up families for sake of profit. And one of his 60-something laborers died of a hernia.

“Nobody writes about Philip Schuyler’s treatment of the people he enslaves,” Mumpton said. “Those stories come out in the details, though. For one thing, the sheer number of people who try to escape is itself telling.

“Who was Philip Schuyler? People always ask that. There’s a lot of answers.”

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