Compared to Symon Schermerhorn, Brian Stratton had it easy.
Schenectady’s mayor hoisted himself onto a saddled draft horse and rode about two city blocks to Albany’s City Hall in the relatively warm weather for early February. He had the luxury of a police escort, a heavy wool cloak and clear roads on his short, late-morning journey.
In contrast, Schermerhorn made the 17-mile journey from Schenectady’s stockade to Albany over the course of six hours amid blizzard conditions. Both he and his horse suffered gunshot wounds in a massacre that killed most of the 60 inhabitants of the western outpost.
Schermerhorn’s journey in 1690 was to warn Albany of the French and Indian raiders that had swept down from the Montreal region and laid waste to the settlement on the Mohawk River.
And Schermerhorn did it all wearing only a nightshirt.
“Symon didn’t have all these accoutrements,” Stratton said referring to his heavy garb.
For the second time during his administration, Stratton re-enacted Schermerhorn’s historic journey, though a much more abbreviated one. The event was started by Schenectady County Legislator Karen Johnson. When she was mayor, she launched the first Colonial Festival by dressing in Colonial costume and taking the short ride down Washington Street to the historic brownstone City Hall in Albany.
City officials dedicated a street sign in honor of Schermerhorn at Broadway and Steuben Street. This year’s re-enactment also coincides with Schenectady County’s bicentennial and the quadricentennial of the explorations of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain.
“So this in many ways can be a starting-off point,” Stratton said of his ride.
The Schenectady Massacre occurred after roughly 200 French soldiers joined Sault and Algonquin Indian raiders in a campaign to attack English outposts to the south.
The brutal attack was meant as retribution for a number of raids by the Iroquois, who had been armed by the British.
Originally, the raiders had targeted Fort Orange in Albany. But facing a spell of bitter winter weather, they opted for sacking Schenectady, which was closer and left mostly unguarded.
Records show Schermerhorn, wounded through his thigh, arrived in Albany around 5 a.m. The Common Council met in emergency session and tried to dispatch a militia to Schenectady, but the snow was too deep.
Still, his ride was enough to warn Albany and perhaps prevent any further incursion by the raiders. News of the massacre quickly spread, causing a rallying cry through the region.
“No pen can write, no tongue can express the cruelties committed at said place,” wrote Albany Mayor Pieter Schuyler in a letter to the governor of Massachusetts. “Yee women big with child rip’d up and ye children alive and thrown into those flames and those Dash’d in pieces against the doors in windows.”
Jim Schermerhorn, a direct descendant of Symon Schermerhorn, said he tries to remind his own children of the trying times his ancestors faced while settling the Mohawk Valley. He said the Schenectady Massacre shows the tenuous grip the Dutch and English pioneers had on life.
“It brings it all into perspective,” he said after the re-enactment. “While these are trying times now, they are no comparison to what they once faced.”
Stratton’s ride wasn’t without a bit of antagonism. The mayor found himself enveloped by a throng of reporters gathered at city hall to hear Common Council members call for an investigation into the issuance of no-fine parking tickets to police union associates.
Mayor Jerry Jennings bristled at the news conference, which seemed to detract much of the attention away from the re-enactment.
“It’s too bad we have some people that don’t believe in the history of this city,” he said.