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NARROWING THE SEARCH

These maps, drawn in the mid-eighteenth century, were intended more as guides for travel than as a record of the finer points of local geography. From such small manuscripts, covering vast areas and often relying on simplistic abstractions of only the most salient details, can we possibly expect to determine where the site of this unusual feature exists in the modern world?

Key eigteenth century landmarks in the upper Mohawk Valley as shown on the 1772 map.

We first have to pick out the basic components of the mid-eighteenth century upper Mohawk valley as shown on British maps and relate these to their known positions today. After examining each map, it is clear that the feature in question (A) lies to the east of Fort Williams, near the later site of Fort Stanwix (B), the present site of the city of Rome, Oneida County. It lies to the west of a populated area labeled variously as "Herkamer's," "German Flatts," and "Burnetsfield,"(C) - this being the present village and environs of Herkimer, Herkimer County.

It is also located somewhat easterly of the midpoint between two streams (D) that intersect the river from the south. These streams are not labeled on the 1759 drawing, and the identity of the more westerly is only suggested on the 1756 map by the indication of the Indian village "Orhisconi" (E) at its junction with the Mohawk. However, on the 1757 map the more westerly stream is clearly identified as "Orhisconi" and the more easterly as "Sidagqueda Creek." Both streams exist today and retain their names, if not their original spellings, as Oriskany Creek and Sauquoit Creek. Both intersect the Mohawk from a southerly direction, the major stream being the Oriskany. It rivals even the river itself in size, a fact clearly evident even in 1759 on the Clements Library manuscript.

If we examine this portion of the river valley as it appears on a modern map,5 we can see that the pattern represented in miniature on these early manuscripts is clearly present today. It is possible to determine that our search for the site of this unusual early eighteenth century navigation project can be restricted to an area between the Oriskany and Sauquoit creeks, a portion of the Mohawk valley about four miles in length and located in the Towns of Whitestown and Marcy, immediately west of the present City of Utica, Oneida County.

Channel realignments associated with the construction of the Barge Canal (1918) and the New York State Thruway (1953) have changed the flow patterns of the Mohawk within the area in question. But by working with a series of maps documenting these 20th century modifications to the river system, we can easily retrograde this channel alignment to bring us at least to the brink of the eighteenth century, if not actually into it.

On examining a modern map of the valley west of Utica one is immediately struck with the presence of a major artificial waterway, the Barge Canal, which traverses the valley floor running slightly above, and occasionally through, the course of the original Mohawk River. The historic maps suggest that the neck cut-off we are searching for was situated approximately two thirds of the distance east from Oriskany Creek toward Sauquoit Creek. Therefore, we will focus our examination of the modern river system in that area, which is roughly bisected by the path of the present Thruway bridge as it crosses from the north side to the south side of the valley.

It is, in fact, the construction of this bridge, in 1953, that necessitated the most recent realignment of the Mohawk channel, producing a straight-line course where a twisting river bed had originally existed. This channelization continued westward one that had been created many years earlier, when the intersection by the Barge Canal of a large, northward meander of the river required a cut across its neck at the southern extreme in 1918. A similar, if somewhat smaller, cut was also made at that time across the neck of a narrow loop immediately west of the junction of the Oriskany Creek and Mohawk River.

Those changes relating to Thruway construction are confirmed by the 1947 USGS map,6 the 1953 Thruway construction plans,7 and a set of the 1948 air photos.8 Those relating to Barge Canal construction are confirmed by the 1898 USGS map9 and the 1921 canal construction plans.10

A modern map of the study area with the original Mohawk River alignment recreated as it was before the construction of the Barge Canal, circa 1920.

We can now work back through these two 20th century episodes of realignment and channelization in the Mohawk, establishing the main river channel as it would have existed in 1900 (above).We can then compare this with the two most detailed and accurate surveys of the Mohawk Valley prior to that time, created in preparation for the construction of the Erie Canal, and executed by Benjamin Wright in 180311 and 181112 (below).

A composite of survey maps created in 1811, showing the river in its natural state. Courtesy of the Erie Canal Museum.

These surveys confirm that the Mohawk River channel was essentially unchanged by natural forces between circa 1800 and circa 1900, and by extension, between 1800 and the present.

Within the search area there are three meanders narrow enough to suggest the need for, and the possibility of, an artificial cut-off - the one at the Thruway bridge location being open, and the ones to either side of the bridge being cut off . While the two cut off loops are just barely evident on the USGS map, they are much more obvious on early stereo air photographs .

As it is virtually certain that the site of the 1730 canal work rests in one of the three locations, my research effort was focused on evidence supporting the selection of one of these as the sought after historic site. The first tactic of the investigation was to seek contemporaneous eighteenth century property maps that might show a more detailed image of the area in which "the Neck" was located, perhaps illustrating the feature itself.

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