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A History of the Schenectady Patent in the Dutch and English Times
19: "Schenectady"

The Editor

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[This information is from pp. 436-440 of A History of the Schenectady Patent in the Dutch and English Times; being contributions toward a history of the lower Mohawk Valley by Jonathan Pearson, A. M. and others, edited by J. W. MacMurray, A. M., U. S. A. (Albany, NY: J. Munsell's Sons, Printers, 1883). It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 974.744 P36, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

[Copies of this book are available from the Schenectady County Historical Society.]

[The original version uses assorted typographical symbols to represent footnotes. To improve legibility, the online version uses the form (page number - note number.)]

Probably no city has enjoyed so many names or rather spellings of names as Schenectady.

That first recorded is in the Indian deed in 1661, to Van Curler for the flats, — Schonowe. In his honor the Iroquois called it Curler or Corlaer, meaning the village of Curler, or Corlaer's village. Similarly the wild Indians of the "plains" speak of the President of the United States as "Wasseeton," and the great dome of the National capitol as "Wasseeton's Campo" i.e., Washington's wigwam or tent.

The French designated the town as Corlaer after they had become acquainted with it; though the first map, in which the editor has found the settlement mentioned, is in Jesuit Relations (Madam le Mercier's relation to the Superior of the Society of Jesus, dated Kebec, 1665), where it appears as "Les nouvelles habitations hollandoises."

Doctor Samuel Mitchell in a communication to the New York Historical Society (I, 43), gives the following names which he derived from John Bleecker the old Indian interpreter at Albany:

Similarly the present town of Schenectady took the name when referred to at Albany, as "beyond the pine plains."

Danker and Sluyter having described the beautiful valley in which it lies, speak of it as "this Schoon-echtendeel." Hon. H. C. Murphy in his translation of their journal [i.e., Jasper Danker and Peter Sluyter, Journal of a Voyage to New York], notes this as a play on the words Schoon-echtendeel = beautiful portion.

When the Dutch arrived at the head of navigation of the Hudson's river in 1609, the Mohawks had castles at the mouths of the Norman's kil and the Mohawk river, but the larger portion of the natives first seen were Manhattans, Minguas, Mohegans, Delawares and other river Indians.

These gave names to remoter places, by which they became later known and the name Schenectady was connected with the Mohegan explanation of its meaning. The Mohawk country was to the north and west of the highest point to which ships could go.

The following hitherto unpublished memorandum by the late Dr. E. B. O'Callaghan presents a different and probably the correct explanation of the term Schenectady as it was variously used.

As it applies to the town on the site of Albany at an earlier date its authenticity is the more probable.

"The usual signification attributed to this word is believed to be erroneous having been derived not from the Mohawk but from the Mohegan language.

"In the former tongue

"These two words combined form:

"S'Gaun-ho-ha, appears also in another name given to the town by the Mohawks at an earlier date. The Indian title to the land in the immediate vicinity of Schenectady was extinguished July 27, 1661, by a conveyance to Arent Van Curler. In his deed the land called by the Dutch 'Groote Vlacht,' is named by the Indians Schonowe, identical probably with S'Gaun-ho-ha in sound and signification.

"To understand the full import of these terms it should be remembered that the Mohawk tribe was the head of the confederacy called the Five Nations or Iroquois; they claimed the exclusive power to initiate treaties with other tribes and foreign powers; in their figurative language the Mohawks were the door of the cabin, i.e., the confederacy. (438-1) All ambassadors to the Five Nations approached the confederacy by the Mohawk tribe.

"On one occasion the Governor of Canada seeking to divide the counsels and strength of the Iroquois sent an ambassador to the Senecas. The Mohawks resented this infringment of their prerogative, and informed the Governor that they were the Door of the Cabin 'but,' say they, 'you enter the Cabin by the chimney, be cautious lest you get smoke in your eyes.'

"It is well known that the present site of Schenectady was early occupied as a Mohawk settlement — probably the chief town of the tribe. What name could then be more significant than S'Gaun-ho-ha, — the door? But when their principal settlement was removed west to Fort Hunter; Schon-o-we — the door — would become Sgaun-hac-ta-tie — without the door.

"It should also be remembered that the Iroquois called Albany Schanectadea, and very properly according to the above signification of the word, especially whilst our town was occupied by the Indians." (438-2)

On a hill on the flats (438-3) at the outlet of valley of the Norman's Kil was a town, noted by the early Dutch navigators as Tawas-gaunshee. This, the most easterly castle of the Mohawks, was literally the eastern door of the long house of the confederacy, and here the Five Nations concluded that formal treaty of peace and alliance which never was broken. From there along the Tawas-gauntha (Norman's Kil), led the trail (439-1) to the valley of the Mohawk river and thence through the gate or gap in the mountains to the Indian castles near and above Schoharie creek. (439-2)

It would not be difficult to connect this S'gaunshee or (Sgauntha) with S'Gaun-ho-ha, as derived by Dr. O'Callaghan. The scribes of the time were not skillful in the spellings of their own languages, and were not very likely to render the terms and sounds of an unknown tongue either literally or consistently, the same Indian term being variously spelled and as variously sounded. This is equally true of Dutch words in records of that date.

In the Vrooman map of 1768, it will be seen the Mohawk is designated as the "Schenectady River." Was this the Mohawk name of the river which led through the eastern gate of the Iroquois country?

In a note to Gowan's Edition of Miller's Description of the Province of New York, the editor, Hon. John Gilmary Shea, says: "Scanectade (Schenectady) is the Mohawk. The name means, beyond the openings. It was given by the tribe to Albany, and retained on the division by the present town."

He does not quote his authorities, but beyond the opening was probably as near to beyond or "without the door" as the limited vocabulary of the Indians could be expected to go. What he means by "retained on the division" is not clear, as the division of Schenectady from Albany occurred in this century.

"The ancient Mohawk village which stood at this place, was called Connocharie-guharie, or, as Benson writes it, Oronowaragouhre, in allusion to the vast piles of drift wood which were left every spring on the flats. The term 0rigoniwoutt appears to have been applied, at a later period to the village at the same place." * * * * "it does not appear from any author that Schenectady — the original Mohawk name for Albany — was applied to it till after the first surrender of the colony to England, four years after the date of the Patent." — Schoolcraft, Notes on the Iroquois. (440-1)

It is evident from the "indenture" (440-2) prepared to be signed by the "landholders on the plain called ————" that Governor Stuyvesant did not know the Dutch name for the place May 5, 1663, probably ignoring the Indian name. Van Curler registered the baptism of the town as Schanechstede, in the agreement of May 18, 1663, (440-3) sent to the Commies at Albany.

In official papers of 1664, the town is designated as Schaneghstede and Schanechstede (egh and ech being used interchangeably).

In the Indian deed for the Schenectady township, (440-4) in 1672, the name is Schan-hech-ta-de, which is very like S'Gaun-hac-ta-tie. This is as recorded by Van Marken, Notary Public. In 1675, Ludovicus Cobes — schout and secretary, writes it in the same manner except the middle h which is dropped, and as if to make up for this, changes Schan into Schaun, thus reverting very positively to Dr. O'Callaghan's derivation.

In Governor Stuyvesant's order of June, 1663, the word is spelled as now, Schenectady, and with slight variation this seemed to be the official orthography.

In 1802, a petition signed by original settlers, familiar with its history and surroundings, and at a time when the Mohawk language was more or less familiar to all of the inhabitants, — was accompanied by "a list of ye Lands and Income of the township of Schon-hec-ta-dy". The Rev. John Miller, the best educated man who had the visited the town up to 1693-5, spelled the name as he had heard it pronounced, when he visited the town, Scan-ec-ta-de and Scan-ech-ta-de. He may have gotten this spelling from Glen whom he knew, and who during the year 1695, at least, spelled it Scanectady.

In 1696, the commander of the fort, Lieutenant Hunt spelled it Schon-ac-ta-dy. (440-5)

Governor Andross orders "Sconextady strictly prohibited all trade," etc., in 1678.


(436-1) Compare first half of this word Ohonowa with Schonowe the name in the deed, and consider that the Mohawk gutterals were unrenderable in Dutch. They are likely to have been identical.

(436-2) Comparing these words with the derivations of Dr. O'Callaghan, we may have with little straining, Ca-ho-hact-at-ea = the river that flows without (or beyond "the cabin.") Schen-ec-ta-dea Ca-ho-hact-at-ea = the river that flows beyond the town without the door.

(438-1) "The Iroquois consisted of five nations, Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas, Onondagas and Senecas, occupying the heart of what is now the State of New York. The Mohawks lay on the river of that name; the Oneidas, Onondagas and Cayugas, successively to the west, near the lakes, and west of all towards the Niagara lay the Senecas. These names, except the first, are corruptions of their own. The Mohawks called themselves Gagnieguahague, but as the tribe collectively was styled Ganniageari, the She Bear; the neighboring Algonquin tribes called them Magua, the Bear, a name which the Dutch and English accepted. These five nations formed a league, and in their idea, constituted a complete cabin, hence the name for the whole was Hotinousionni, meaning, 'they form a cabin.'" — Dr. J. G. Shea, in note to Gowan's Ed. Miller's N. Y. [i.e., Gowan's Edition of Miller's Description of the Province of New York]

(438-2) Based on notes furnished by the late Dr. E. B. O'Callaghan.

(438-3) Prof. Pearson.

(439-1) For a century or more this was the common route from Albany to the present Schenectady.

(439-2) Tawas-Schohor was the Mohawk name for Schoharie. — Simms' Pioneers.

The Schoharie creek was a gateway to the Mohawk valley, and after Schenectady was ceded and was without the door, the locality became the real door to the Mohawk country, whether from the south along the Scoharie — the east along the Mohawk or the North Woods. Spelled sgau-hior it would sound the same as Scho-hor, and we are doubtless indebted to crude ears and cruder recorders for the present sound and spelling of the name.

(440-1) Introduction, see page 14.

(440-2) Ibid, 12.

(440-3) Introduction, page 14.

(440-4) Ibid, page 18.

(440-5) Fortifications and Garrisons, page 313.

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