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Some Historical Context

It was believed that the pre-eminence given this feature on mid-eighteenth century maps signified its creation as an event of some importance in Colonial New York of the early 1700s. But in a cursory reading of the more obvious collections of colonial documents created between 1728 and 1731, not one mention of this construction, or of the navigation obstacle it was designed to eliminate, could be found.

Having failed to discover any more specific verbal descriptions of this navigation project in these documents than those recorded on the maps themselves, what can we learn from more general documentation of the time that may reveal something of the context for this early construction on the ancient watercourse between Albany and Oswego?

An image of primitive roads along early waterway corridors.

Given the richness of Mohawk Valley history during the last half of the eighteenth century, and the frequency with which details of human events played out throughout that valley are described in our legends, texts and folklore, it is truly difficult to comprehend the degree to which the Upper Mohawk was qualitatively a different world in the first half of the 1700s.

In 1730, the Upper Mohawk region, i.e., that section of the river valley west of Burnet's Field (Herkimer), must have very closely resembled the following description, taken from the margins of a 1758 British map of the area along Wood Creek, west of Fort Williams (Rome): "The whole Face of the Country Covered with Thick Woods on each side of these Rivers and no other Inhabitants but Indians, and this Country scarcely known by any except some Officers of the New York Independent Companys who commanded partys at Oswego, & some Indian Traders who went annually from Albany & Schenectada to Trade with Indians at Oswego. . .""45 That this is not an exaggeration is confirmed by an account of travel here recorded in 1765: "From a little above the German flatts, quite to Fort Stanwix the Country is all wood, except one plain ten Miles Short of the Fort, called Oriske fields, and that is in dispute. Seven Indian Huts were on it, when I passed it in June 1765." 46 Even as late as 1793 we find these observations recorded in the vicinity of Utica: "The banks are lined with trees, which lean over like an arbor, so as to render the navigation shady and very agreeable, and it seems like being in a garden."47 This confirms our supposition earlier that the field of view available to early navigators on this stretch of the river was very much limited to the river itself. This mitigated against a more accurate perception of the relationship of meanders to each other, except when in proximity to each other.

Certainly the level of frequent travel associated with this navigation corridor in the later eighteenth century, particularly by military contingents who used the watercourse as a highway of war, cannot be projected into this region prior to 1750, some 20 years after the construction at "the Neck." We have already seen that the fortification of the most strategic place along this navigation corridor - namely the Great Carrying Place (Rome) - did not occur at all until 1746, and not in any substantial way until the following decade.

The first major change in the composition of the Upper Mohawk region, and one that may have influenced events that led up to this cut at "the Neck," was the migration of Palatine settlers, in 1723 and 1725, from the mid-Hudson Valley to grants of land on the Mohawk at Stone Arabia (near Canajoharie) and the German Flatts (near Herkimer). This pushed the western limits of settlement into the Upper Mohawk and to within less than fifteen miles of the as yet un-cut "Neck" in the river. Within ten years this migration had created, according to one historian ". . . a German river, an American Rhine, between Fort Hunter on the east and the settlement of Frankfort on the west."48

Probably the most dramatic change in the status of this region, however, and one that clearly changed the significance of the Mohawk/Oneida corridor as a transportation route westward from the Provincial Capital at Albany, was the construction in 1727 of a "Trading House" at Oswego, on Lake Ontario - the end point of that navigation. Prior to that, the Iroquois traveled to Albany to trade, primarily with the Dutch, who retained their influential role in Indian commerce into the mid-eighteenth century. The completion of the fort at Oswego, designed to protect the fur traders there and to maintain a trading perimeter defensible against the French, was a natural extension of the British initiative west through the Mohawk/Oneida Corridor that was begun in the 1680s. It is perhaps of strategic interest that the construction of this outpost of the Provincial Government, and the concomitant need to facilitate passage back and forth between Albany and Oswego, occurred only two short years before the execution of the short canal at "the Neck,".

In 1729, just before that construction, the Laws of the Colony of New York reflect an increased concern for security and the regulation of trade at the new outpost, as well as some concern for the interference of foreign interests, namely the French, with that trade. They note that "Trade with the more remote Nations of Indians at the Trading House at Oswego is . . . Considerabelly Encreased . . ."49 and provision is made to compensate for that with additional supplies. Reimbursement is accounted for past services in support of Oswego, all carried by boat along the Mohawk/Oneida corridor.

It is interesting to note that in this accounting payment is made to twenty six persons, each for "his Voyage to Oswego."50 Entries indicating reimbursement "for Padels," "for labour at the Battoes," "for mending Battoes," and "for repairing battoes" underscore the critical role these small craft played in support of Oswego and the importance of this inland transportation system in maintaining the interests of the British Empire in central New York. We cannot say when the batteau traffic on the Mohawk surpassed that of the bark canoe and dugout, and certainly the canoe and dugout continued to be major vehicles on this system for both aboriginal and European travelers throughout the eighteenth century. But clearly, according to these records, by 1730 it was in the batteau that official trade and travel moved east and west on the river.

The only primary eyewitness image of early navigation on the Mohawk, drawn in 1807.

While we have little primary documentation on batteaux of the early eighteenth century, and precious little on the batteaux in use on the Mohawk River in the mid-eighteenth century, we can assume they were similar to the vessels that routinely trafficked the Mohawk in the late eighteenth century. Small, flat-bottomed, and pointed at both ends, these shallow draught boats were about 30 to 40 feet long and were rowed, poled, or sailed depending on the direction of travel and the conditions of the day. Manned by two or three boatmen, these vessels carried a few tons cargo at best, and were driven upstream in the shallows by the use of setting poles, or were rowed where the current permitted. Under the right conditions, and most usually when running back to "Schenagtade", a sail could be raised on a single mast, and steering was accomplished by a long oar stuck between pins in the stern. The boatmen camped along the river bank each night, with such meager tents and utensils as their employment allowed.

Small batteaus, known in early times as three-handed and four-handed boats, were in use on the Mohawk, which carried from two to five tons each; and so called because three or four men were required to propel them. These boats were forced over the rapids in the river with poles and ropes, the latter drawn by men on the shore. Such was the mode of transporting merchandize and Indian commodities to and from the west, for a period of about fifty years, and until after the Revolution.51

That this pattern applies equally in the late 1720s is confirmed by an entry in the Colonial Laws, where "Mr. Harramanus Wendell," a prominent Albany merchant, is contracted to provision Oswego during the coming years (1730-33): "It is further agreed with the said Mr. Wendell that in Case he Sees Cause to make use of two or four Battoas and the Paddles Seting Poles or Tents which are Built bought or paid for the use of the said Trading House, he may take them..."52 *Mid-eighteenth century batteaux have been found, but only in Lake George.

So it is clear that in the closing years of the 1720s, qualitative changes were taking place in the previously unsettled tract that lay between Herkimer and Oswego, and that these changes were producing a geometric increase in traffic along the Mohawk-Oneida corridor. Pressures for improvement of that navigation corridor must have been increasing as well, and the cut at "the Neck" in 1730 must have been a direct outgrowth of these pressures.

Yet in spite of the "official" nature of much of this new activity (the establishment of a trading post at Oswego and the confrontation with the French), it appears that this artificial waterway is unmentioned in any official documents of the period. Why would the creation of so unique a construction be so casual an event as to avoid formal documentation, except for the post facto notice it is given on several mid-eighteenth century British maps? Certainly today, any modification of a river or stream channel is a matter of governmental approval and legal recording. But in the early eighteenth century, on the Upper Mohawk, miles beyond the reach of government, and even civilization, such requirements did not apparently apply.

Could this revolutionary act, creating New York's first "canal," have been merely the undertaking of a private party, perhaps a boatload of traders acting on their own volition and otherwise unaccountable to any higher authority?

A map of a huge meander neck cut on the Lower Mississippi River, dug through in 1720.

The precedent for just such an event is found only a few years earlier, but hundreds of miles to the southwest, on the lower Mississippi. Isaac Weld recounts this occurrence during his travels through the region in the late 1790s:

The Mississippi has a very winding course, and at every bend there is an eddy in the water. . . In the year 1722, as a party of Canadians were going down the river, they found at one place such a bend in it, that although the distance across land, from one part of the river to the other, was not more perhaps than two hundred yards, yet by water it was no less than forty miles. The Canadians cut a trench across the land for curiosity. The soil bordering upon the Mississippi is remarkably rich and soft, and the current being strong, the river in a short time forced a new passage for itself, and the Canadians took their boat through it. This place is called Pointe Coupe'e. There are many similar bends in the river at present, but none so great.53

Observed a few years later by another, the site is again described: "Fausse Riviere, or Point Coupee, this is the old bed of the river, and is something like the Tunica Bend, but not so large; it was cut through a few years ago by some Canadian traders, by which a distance of about twenty miles is saved..."54

A map of the neck cut on the Mohawk River meander C.

While on a much grander scale than anything we would see on the Mohawk (left), the configuration described here is proportionally quite similar, and so, perhaps, the situation is comparable (above, right). Predating the cut on the Mohawk by a decade, this event on the Mississippi suggests an opportunity, technology and motivation like that we have hypothesized for "the Neck."

In the eighteenth century a batteau trip from Schenectady to Oswego took approximately two weeks. The few minutes of that trip which this sole improvement on the Mohawk might have saved could not have been a significant advantage in early navigation, and one wonders if in fact the cutting here might have been little more than "for curiosity," driven perhaps by a moderate amount of frustration at being detoured, if only slightly, by so insignificant a bar of land.

But whatever the motivation, and by whatever parties it was executed, the result stands as a unique event in the history of navigation in New York. Opening the era of artificial waterways, even in so minute a fashion, it heralded the coming of over two centuries of artificial navigation improvements in and adjacent to the Mohawk River. It is perhaps appropriate that the site of this event, one of the more historic sites along the ancient Mohawk-Oneida corridor, today lies alongside the modern Canal.

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