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Meander Area "A": The Evidence

On first glance, Area A, the most westerly of the three meanders, is the perfect candidate for being the original 1730 neck. It is southward trending, rounded and uniform, and evident below the 1953 rechannelization cut can be seen a cut-off at the neck of the meander strikingly similar to that exhibited on the mid-eighteenth century British maps.

It is clear from a comparison of the 1803/11 Wright surveys and the extrapolated pre-Thruway river course in this area, shown also on the 1947 USGS map, and in more detail on the Thruway construction plans themselves, that this cut-off was so well established by the end of the eighteenth century that the pre-existing meander loop was not even mapped.

But we should not place too much stock in the overall form or shape of "the Neck" as drawn by the British and the configuration of Area A. Given the extremely small size of the drawings, and the simplistic way in which the rest of the Mohawk River was represented on these maps, even in areas we know were characterized by extremely convoluted meander patterns, we can be sure this image was more symbolic than representational. It was meant to convey a general situation more than a detailed configuration. To the early eighteenth century traveler, a map provided relative position, the relationships of features to each other, a guide on how to traverse from one feature to another, and an index of unusual, dangerous, or significant features along the way. Unless they presented particular obstacles, strategic advantages, or were extraordinary landmarks along the route, the specific and particular twists and turns of the Mohawk were entirely irrelevant, and so could be abstracted and rendered symbolically. This makes "the Neck" stand out more than it really would have at the time. It certainly renders it much larger than it was in real space, and it gives it an abstract perfection that it undoubtedly did not possess.

As an example of this idealization of form note an almost identical neck, although not cut through, in the western end of Cosby's Patent, and represented on a 1769 map of that area (below, left).26

The section of Mohawk River, right of center, between the Sauquoit Creek on the west and a sharp
bend of the river where the City of Utica is today, as it appeared in 1769. The section of Mohawk River between the Sauquoit Creek on the west and a sharp
bend of the river where the City of Utica is today, as it appeared in 1811.

In form it is well rounded and uniform, just like Area A, but in reality this neck was no doubt the lop-sided meander seen today just east of Sauquoit Creek, and shown by Wright as essentially unchanged in 1811 (above, right). Few people would draw so irregular a feature in so uniform a fashion today. Yet if you consider the effect of making that series of sharp turns on the river in a small boat, unable to see the relationship of where you had been to where you were going, and not motivated to check every twist of the river by compass, you would probably, in retrospect, render the river course in much the same manner.

One could challenge, however, our assumption that what we see today as the main channel alignment is what the British saw when they made their maps over 230 years ago. How do we know that the lop-sided meander opposite Utica today wasn't round and uniform in 1756? Well, we can't be certain, but we can approach a high level of probability.

First of all, and most immediately, we have absolute confirmation that the river channel has not changed significantly within the study area for over 185 years. The main channel configuration shown by Wright in 1803 is virtually identical to the reconstructed main channel configuration evident today. This is a particularly profound fact, since one of the contributing factors to major stream channel disruption during the historic period was the increased rapid run-off and flooding produced by the clear-cutting of virgin forests on the uplands during the mid-nineteenth century. If any episode of environmental change should have introduced changes in the meander patterns of the upper Mohawk River, that post-Wright situation should have. Yet we see little or no evidence of this change between 1803 and the present.

Second of all, when comparing the survey made by Wright just after the close of the eighteenth century with earlier patent maps that show the Mohawk in sufficient detail, particularly the maps of the Oriskany Patent and Cosby Manor, we recognize most if not all of the salient meanders of the river, evident in some cases as early as the 1760s. If we have the confirmed continuity of this channel configuration through the study area for over 220 years into the past, is it improbable to assume such continuity a brief four decades further into the past? Can it be reasonable to assume a dramatic change between 1730 and 1770, and then stability from 1770 to the present? Lacking any historic record of extraordinary natural catastrophe during that brief period, it would not be reasonable to make that assumption.

So we have to conclude that the river has migrated little in this area since prehistoric times. In fact, the topography of meander Area A is so uniform as to suggest virtually no evolution in the loop since formation. Normally, a migrating meander moves across the flat deposit of the valley floor, leaving behind scars or tracks of its previous positions, each being a small depression, set lower than the base level of the original floodplain (below). A migrating meander like this will have the land on the inside, or the side away from which it is moving, at a lower level for some distance from the existing river channel, with prominent "meander scars" revealing abrupt abandonment of previously well established positions of the channel.

A schematic diagram of the way rivers migrate across floodplains.

In Area A, however, the floodplain within which the meander lies is virtually level in all directions around the loop. The meander is neatly incised directly into this plain, suggesting that it has moved almost not at all since it was initially formed in the main channel of the river. Land within the center of the loop is slightly lower than that around the outsides, suggesting this meander was evolving slowly and uniformly by expansion in all directions, gradually increasing its diameter. It apparently was cut off at the neck at a time prior to any major evolutionary pressure on the river system. This meander has the least evidence of rapid migration of any of the three areas, suggesting it was cut off and ceased to evolve while the other two continued to evolve. Before being cut off by the Thruway channelization project, it had already been cut off at the neck by the natural force of the river, in what appears to be a classic example of a "chute cut-off" .

Evidence of depressed soils right in the gap (neck) suggests the arms of the meander were moving apart - the neck may have been getting wider, not narrower - when the cut-off occurred. We must assume the width of the neck was as wide at the time of the cut-off as it is today, since once the cut was made and the energy of the river no longer entered the loop, the meander could not continue to widen its mouth.

We can project the arms of the meander northward until they are in proximity, making a dug channel practical. That would place the 1730 canal, if it had been built here, north of the pre-Thruway cut. The main river channel would have continued to migrate southward after cutting to absorb the energy of the river directed against the artificial channel. In its wake it would have left a very low, gravelly, point bar formation, barely above the surface of the river. In fact a small point bar does exist immediately north of the old channel here. Yet the native ground surface north of the cut-off where we project the site of the dug channel is significantly higher than the water level in the old riverbed. This suggests the land here was a resistant height of the prehistoric floodplain that deflected the river southward, causing the meander in the first place.

Creation of a natural chute cut-off.

Certainly an artificial cut here would have been of substantial depth, as well as length, and the minimal savings of travel time on the river would not seem to have warranted so great an expenditure of energy. Pending discussion of areas B and C, we will consider this meander to be a poor candidate as the site of the 1730 canal. It appears to have been cut off during prehistoric times by the natural force of the river (right), became a detached ox-bow pond, and never was a navigable loop of the Mohawk during the eighteenth century.

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