|HISTORY OF THE VILLAGE OF HERKIMER|
This historical vignette of the village of Herkimer comes from the photographic book "Panorama and History of Herkimer County, N.Y.: 1725 - 1900". It was given to Betsy Voorhees, Town of Herkimer editor, by Sue Perkins, director of the Herkimer County Historical Society.
Many of the original photos of the town and village in 1900, contributed by Jerry Reed, Otsego County NYGenWeb coordinator, are already on the site and accessible on the Town of Herkimer page.
Source: Panorama and History of Herkimer County, N.Y.: 1725 - 1900, published by Miss Flora L. Wood, written and compiled by Thomas C. Murray. Published 1900.
Prior to the year 1720, what is now the beautiful village of Herkimer with its activity and enterprise, was a wilderness, inhabited only by savages.
The town of Herkimer, or Fort Kouari as it was at first called, was settled by a party of people called Palatines, from the lower Rhine in Germany, who, through the good offices of Queen Anna of England, were permitted to emigrate to her territory in New York at the expense of the English government, she providing for their support for a year.
The first arrival in New York State was in August, 1708, in the Mohawk Valley, some claim, as early as 1720, and at Herkimer Village as early as 1723-24.
The Burnetsfield Patent, which was dated April 30, 1725, granted to ninety-two persons a tract of land containing one hundred acres for each.
It did not cover any one symmetrical tract outline, but consisted of several tracts of land, separated by intervening land, and differing in size and shape. It extended along both sides of the Mohawk River between Frankfort and Little Falls, and included the villages of Herkimer, Mohawk, and Ilion. There were forty-six lots on each side of the river. The broad river bottoms about the site of Herkimer were naturally a much coveted portion of the patent, and in order to give as many as possible of the grantees a share in this choice section of the tract, it was divided into lots of thirty acres each, and the recipients of these completed their allotments of one hundred acres each by taking seventy-acre lots of the same numbers, in the patent of the higher wooded land back from the river. The thirty-acre lots covered the site of the village of Herkimer.
The people, being thus provided for, tilled their lands, built a town consisting of five forts, and were allowed to worship God in their own way. Thus these people enjoyed peace for nearly thirty-five years.
Late in the month of October, 1757, friendly Oneida Indians brought word to the Palatine settlement that a French expedition for their destruction was on foot. Shortly afterward the warning was repeated with advice to the others to take refuge in Fort Herkimer. The warning went unheeded. Meanwhile, M. de Belletre, a French officer at the head of a part of three hundred Regular, Canadians, and Indians, was making his way through the northern forest in the direction of German Flatts. About 3 o'clock in the morning of November 12, 1757, Belletre and his troops made an assault on the little Palatine settlement, consisting of about thirty houses, on the site of the present village of Herkimer. The savages, with their wild war-whoops, quickly set fire to the houses and tomahawked many of the inmates who were caught by them while attempting to make their escape. A majority of the inhabitants, however, escaped across the river to Fort Herkimer.
There were about twenty houses between Fort Kouari (Herkimer) and Fall Hill (Little Falls) on the south side of the river, and eight on the north side, which were abandoned for a time when the settlement at Herkimer was destroyed.
In the following April the settlement on the south side of the river near the fort, was attacked by the French and Indians. About thirty of the inhabitants were killed. Captain Herkimer commanded the fort at this time, and at this unexpected outbreak collected within the fort all the inhabitants he could gather, but several families not being able to reach the fort were killed and scalped. (It is known that this horrendous act was performed by the savages grasping the hair and peeling the scalp from the back to the front.)
The capture of Forts Frontenac and Kingston by the English in 1757, the surrender of Quebec and Fort Niagara the following year, and a general pacification of the Indians, again brought peace and quiet to the survivors of the Herkimer settlements, after which their friends were returned to them from captivity.
The inhabitants of Herkimer again took up the thread of their lives which had been so rudely and viciously broken, and with bright dreams of future happiness, went to work with a will to rebuild their ruined homes.
Tryon County was then organized and divided into four districts of which the Palatine district (Herkimer) was one. The inhabitants, to further fortify themselves against future troubles, organized Local Committees of Safety which did excellent work during the terrible disturbances of the next few years.
Upon the outbreak of the Revoluntinary War the settlers built two strong forts to which they could fly for safety and protection, and in which they could store a part of their goods.
Fort Herkimer was erected on the south side of the river and Fort Dayton on the north side, the latter fort being erected at the present site of the County Court House in the year 1776, by Colonel Dayton.
In the year 1781, a party of rangers or scouts under Lieutenant Woodworth, stationed at Fort Dayton, were reconnoitering when they were surrounded by Indians and all killed. This encounter took place in a deep ravine about three miles from Herkimer, on the east side of West Canada Creek, and now only a mound of earth marks the graves of this little band of patriots.
Fort Dayton again entered the scene on August 1, 1778, when a large party of Tories and Indians under Brant raided the upper valley and burned 125 houses, barns and mills, and drove off livestock.
The famous scout, John Adam Helmer, came in touch with enemy south of Mohawk and ran ten miles to German Flatts to warn the settlers who sought shelter in Fort Dayton and Fort Herkimer. Thus, only two settlers were killed when Brant and his followers swept down on the settlement.
The fortress in Herkimer became the western stronghold during the Spring of 1781 when a disastrous fire damaged Fort Stanwix.
An exploit of heroism, equaling any incident of the Revolutionary war, occured in this year. It was the memorable defense made by the Shell family of Shell's Bush, in the northeastern part of this town in Herkimer. This little settlement was visited on the 6th day of August, by a company of Indians and British sympathizers numbering about seventy, and commanded by a man named Donald McDonald. Nearly all of the inhabitants fled to Fort Dayton, but John Christian Shell had a fort of his own, in the shape of a two-story block-house, garrisoned by himself and his family.
Shell had six sons, and two of these boys between eight and ten years of age were captured by the enemy in a field near where their father was at work. Shell and his wife and the remaining four sons succeeded in reaching the block-house where they had a supply of firearms, and they prepared to defend themselves. Mrs. Shell loaded the rifles while Shell and his sons were kept busy firing them through the loop-holes in the walls, and incidentally bringing down many of the enemy. The besiegers made repeated attacks upon the block-house, but were as often driven back by the well directed fire of the plucky little garrison. Finally McDonald, becoming desperate, rushed up to the block-house and attempted to force open the door, and while thus engaged he was shot through the leg and disabled. He was then dragged inside and relieved of the ammunition with which he was well supplied, and of which the garrison was very much in need. McDonald was also detained as a hostage. While the Shells were taking a brief respite, the besiegers made a charge upon the block-house in a body and some of them thrust their gun-barrels through the loop-holes. Mrs. Shell stood not idle while this was going on, but seizing an ax she used it to such good effect on the guns that many of them were forever silenced. The attacking force was again repulsed. Darkness had now settled over the scene, it was night. The fight had been in progress from two o'clock in the afternoon. After the last repulse of the enemy Shell went up into the top story of the block-house and shouted to his family below that he could see troops from Fort Dayton coming to their rescue. This was one of Shell's "bluffs," but it had the desired effect, and the Tories and Indians fled to the woods. Shell and his family took advantage of the opportunity and made their escape, arriving safely at Fort Dayton a few hours later. McDonald was left at the block-house overnight, but next day he was brought to Fort Dayton where his death occured as a result of the amputation of his injured leg.
Investigation showed that six of the attacking party were killed in the assault upon the block-house, and the two young Shell boys, who were afterward rescued, reported that of twelve wounded, nine died while on their way to Canada. Brave old Shell finally came to his death at the hands of the savages. He and his sons were at work in a field near their home when the father was shot down by an Indian concealed in a nearby wheat field. Shell's sons defended him from the would-be scalpers until help came from Fort Dayton, but one son was killed and another wounded in doing so.
On the 29th of October following, Colonel Willett with a force of four hundred picked men and sixty Oneida Indians, started from Fort Dayton up the West Canada Creek to intercept a party of British Regulars, Tories, and Indians, numbering about six hundred and led by Major Ross, and a Tory encamped for the night in the wilderness, while one of his trusted lieutenants named Sammons, conceeded cautiously until he descried the camp-fires of the foe, who had also encamped for the night on what is called Butler's Ridge, in the north-eastern part of the town of Norway. Sammons returned as quickly as possible and reported his discovery to Colonel Willett, who at once entered upon the work of arranging for an early morning surprise of the enemy. It was Willett's intention to head off Ross' and Butler's forces and lie in ambush, but the latter were on the move as early as Willett and his men, and the two opposing forces arrived at the junction of two roads almost simultaneously. A brisk skirmish at once ensued and one American was fatally wounded.
The Tory forces fled across Black Creek closely followed by the Americans. A running flight was kept up nearly all of the way down to the West Canada Creek, which was about ten miles distant and which was reached in the late afternoon. As the Americans reached the Creek and a few had waded in to cross over, the fog which had obscured the opposite shore suddenly lifted and revealed the enemy on the bank.
Butler, doubtless believing that the stream afforded a barrier to further pursuit by Willett, mounted the trunk of a fallen tree and insultingly defied his pursuers. His reckless bravado cost him his life. One of the Americans, named Carpenter, and an Oneida Indian, both raised their rifles and fired at the same instant. Butler was seen to fall, and at this his forces became panic stricken and fled. Some of the Americans then waded the ford of the West Canada Creek and found Butler dead, shot twice through the head. The raid of Butler and Ross was the last serious invasion of the Mohawk Valley.
The Butler Home off Switzer Hill Road and the intersection of the old Trail Road had become a shrine in the town known in 1742 as Butlersbury.
Herkimer village is the oldest in the county of Herkimer, and the land upon which it is principally located was in early times called the "Stone Ridge."
About the year 1765 the inhabitants possessing the several lots assigned to them about the site of Herkimer, began to look upon the "Stone Ridge" as a desirable place for a more compact village.
The "Stone Ridge" was included in lot No. 17, of the Burnetsfield patent, which consisted of eight-six acres and which had been assigned to Gertrude Petrie, the wife of John Jost Petrie. On the 1st day of July, 1765, the owner of lot 17, executed a deed to forty-six of the Burnetsfield lot owners, conveying to them sixty-two and three-fourths acres, this being that portion of lot 17, extending southerly from a line running east and west near the northerly end of the Palmer House block on Main Street. That portion of lot 17 lying north of this line and south of the Turnpike road, now German Street, Mrs. Petrie retained, and on this part afterward was erected Fort Dayton, the Court House, County Jail, County Clerk's Office, and the Dutch Reformed Church. The sixty-two and three-fourths acres were not immediately used for a village by the inhabitants. The trouble arising from the war of the Revolution prevented a distribution of the new lots among the forty-six Burnetsfield lot owners until 1793, when proceedings were instituted in the Court of Common Pleas of Herkimer County for this purpose.
The Court appointed three commissioners to make the division and they divided the sixty-two and three-fourths acres into what was termed the easterly and westerly divisions of the village of Herkimer, the present Main Street being the dividing line. They then ran a street through each of the two divisions, parallel with Main Street, and these streets are now known as Washington and Prospect Streets. The land, by which these streets were bounded, was then laid out into village lots and it made forty-six lots in each division. Each of the forty-six Burnetsfield lot owners was given two lots, one in each division.
John Jost Herkimer, to whom was assigned two lots in this partition, was dead many years before the partition was made, but the title to his lots was held by his descendants. John Jost Petrie and others, who were assigned lots upon the partition, were also dead when the partition took place, and the titles to the same went to their descendants. The title to the portion of the "Stone Ridge" retained by Mrs. Gertrude Petrie, with the exception of one acre of land belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church, passed to General Michael Myers shortly after the close of the Revolutionary War, and from him the title to all that portion of the village of Herkimer was received including the title of the county to the land upon which the Court House, and County Clerk's Office now stand including the Old Jail.
The map for the Herkimer divisions and the report of the commissioners who divided the sixty-two and three-fourths acres were recorded in the Oneida County Clerk's Office, and may be seen there in Book of Deeds No. 2, commencing at page I.
For some time after the close of the Revolutionary War, what is now Herkimer was known as Fort Dayton. The old fort has long been a thing of the past, it having been torn down soon after it had served its purpose in the war of the Revolution. In a letter written by General Francis E. Spinner to a friend in 1874, he said that when he was a boy at school, about the year 1813, that most of the old fort could be easily traced. The area within which the Reformed Church and the Court House stand was within the lines of the fort. The County Clerk's Office occupies the site of the ditch that was outside of the southeast breastworks of the old Fort Dayton.
The first store in the village was conducted by Nicholas Weaver.
Dr. William Petry, who had been a surgeon in the army during the war of the Revolution, was Herkimer's first practicing physician.
In 1830 the village of Herkimer contained about one hundred and twenty dwellings, five general stores, eleven hotels, eight law offices, and one printing office.
There was but one church, and that occupied the site of the present Dutch Reformed Church. The Court House and Jail occupied the site of the present Court House. These three buildings were destroyed by fire in 1834. There were two school houses, one situated on North Washington Street and one on West German Street. At that time there were five general stores within the village.
About the year 1800, Jacob P. Weber known as "King Weber," conducted a store on German Street, near the head of North Main Street, where he dealt largely in peltries, trading with the Indians and the white trappers. In this business he amassed a fortune, and his wealth was considered to be greater than that of any other person in this section of the state at early period.
There were several hotels in the village at that time some of the buildings still occupied by other interests. In those days hotel rates were low, a sixpence paying for a meal or a night's lodging. Nearly all the travel was overland by stage. These stages carried all the passengers to and from the west by way of the Turnpike road on the north side of the Mohawk River and through this village, and thus much custom was brought to the hotels here. The stages were drawn by four horses, and a relay was kept at some tavern here for each stage. As a stage was nearing the village the driver would toot his horn, and by the time he reached the tavern the fresh horses would be ready to replace the tired out and jaded ones.
Herkimer contained several whiskey distilleries about that time. One of them was located on the site owned by Morris Mark; another on the corner just north of the Baptist Church; one in the easterly part of the village near the West Canada Creek highway bridge and just north of where the old toll-gate used to stand. There was also a whiskey distillery near Kast's Bridge, and a cider-brandy distillery on the Middleville road at the Farmer Place near the County Home.
On north Prospect Street, stood an ashery used for the manufacture of potash, and a short distance south of that place was a tannery. There was also an ashery on North Washington Street nearly opposite the schoolhouse which is now not in use.
Where the Jail now stands, was located a cow-bell manufactory, and the venerable Colonel James A. Suiter worked in this factory when a boy, his pay being a shilling a day. (Today this is known as the 1834 Jail & Gift Shop.)
There were a number of tailors, shoemakers, and blacksmiths in the village and all of them prospered. No ready-made clothing, factory-made shoes, etc., were to be had here in those days. Herkimer was the home of a number of prominent lawyers, among them being Gaylord Griswold, who became a member of Congress in 1802; Aaron Hackley, who was elected to Congress in 1818; Michael Hoffman, Charles Gray, and Flavius Littlejohn, the latter of whom afterward moved to Michigan and became Governor of that state.
The inhabitants of this village were mostly the descendants of the Old Palatines and of later German emigrants. The German language, or "Mohawk Dutch" as it was called, was the language most generally spoken by the people, and it was to be heard everywhere, even in the pulpit, the sermons in the old Dutch Reformed Church being preached in that tongue. The people of those days, who resided here, were simple, honest folk, unlearned and superstitious. They generally believed in ghosts and witches, and the following story is told of how one man's belief in the black art led him into doing something which would now be considered the act of an insane person. A man named Henry Helmer, who resided on West German Street, in a dwelling which then occupied the site upon which the residence of Jacob G. Bellinger resided, was the owner of some hogs that became afflicted with some unusual disease, and he concluded that these hogs were bewitched. Helmer consulted a professed "witch-doctor" by the name of Baltus Bridenbecker, who lived in the town of Schuyler, and he was advised to burn the hogs, and that the first man who was seen approaching the place when the hogs began to squeal would be the witch. Helmer confined the hogs, piled brush upon them, and then set fire to the brush. The first man to appear when the hogs began to squeal was an odd character by the name of Jacob Moon, and of course, Helmer believed him to be the witch. The hogs were roasted and ever afterward Helmer was called the "sibrorer," the Dutch name for "hog-roaster."
There was but one representative of the Low Dutch in Herkimer at that time, one Peter DeGraff, a tailor by trade, and who also kept the toll-gate on the Turnpike road near the West Canada bridge in the easterly part of the village. Henry DeGraff, a son of this Peter DeGraff, took up his residence in New York, and afterwards became President of the Bowery National Bank of that city. The early settlers along the Mohawk River were divided as between the Low Dutch and the German High Dutch, as the two classes were divided upon the River Rhine in Germany. There the Low Dutch lived upon the lower Rhine and the High Dutch upon the upper Rhine. Here the Low Dutch settled along the Mohawk River below Canajoharie and the High Dutch above that point, and hence we find below Canajoharie the name of Amsterdam, a Dutch name, and above, the names of Palatine, Minden, Danube, Manheim and Frankfort, all German names from the upper Rhine.
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