This document is a guide for teachers, historians, living history interpreters, or anyone interested in the exchange of goods on the Mohawk River; or virtually any river that penetrated the American frontier in the late 18th century. It presents a sampling of the goods and produce that were exchanged along the inland waterways two hundred years ago, and suggests ways in which education projects can be developed around the concept of historic trade and transport in New York.
This guide was developed in 1992 to support a cooperative classroom project, coordinated by the State Museum, between the schools at Schenectady and the schools at Canajoharie/Fort Plain, some fifty miles upriver. Students, teachers and parents at each location collected and packaged goods typical of those shipped up [Schenectady], or down [Canajoharie/Fort Plain], the Mohawk River 200 years ago.
The Museum had created a full-scale replica of a Mohawk River batteau earlier that summer to deliver to communities along the canal system interpretive programming about the early canal and navigation history of New York's inland waterways. It was in this replica river batteau that the goods collected by the two school communities were then transported. The boat took the upriver goods from Schenectady to Canajoharie, and returned the downriver goods from Canajoharie to Schenectady, as part of a six-day educational program along the Mohawk River commemorating the bicentennial of the age of canal development begun in 1792 by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company - pre-cursor of the Erie Canal.
The original guide has been edited slightly for presentation in this format.
An educational program that emphasizes the commercial relationship between Schenectady and the upper Mohawk Valley in the 1790s and the transportation system that linked these two communities prior to the development of the turnpikes and the building of the Erie Canal.
In the 1790s, the most effective commercial transportation system in Upstate New York was the batteau shipping route from Schenectady to Oswego and the Great Lakes. Using the Mohawk River, small boats based in the harbor at Schenectady plied the waterway to Fort Stanwix [Rome] and back. As the improvements of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company were completed during the late 1790s and early 1800s, travel became easier, and larger boats began to use the route.
The harbor on the Binnekill in Schenectady had been an important port for inland transport for almost a century by the time the 1790s rolled around. Boats could not travel between Schenectady and Albany because of the Great Cohoes Falls, so a land route had connected the two communities. All goods coming west to the settlements, including significant quantities of goods from Europe, came up to Albany in sloops from New York City, and then by wagon to Schenectady. There goods were loaded onto small river boats - batteaux - and started upriver to the markets in the west. [Note: Anything west of Schenectady was the "wild west" in the early 1790s, and even as late as 1800 the areas west of Utica were still inhabited primarily by Indians. There was much less frontier hostility and conflict between these two cultures in New York State than there would be during the following century further west.]
During the 1790s, Canajoharie was a major depot for this inland shipping, where goods produced in the Mohawk Valley could be collected and held in a warehouse waiting for boats to carry them down to Schenectady. The Kane Brothers storehouse was first located in what is now the Village of Canajoharie around 1790 but later moved to a site a mile or so east of the present village, where a large warehouse was built and a short canal was dug to allow boats to come in off the Mohawk right up to the warehouse to unload.
Most of what came west up the Mohawk from Schenectady represented the manufactured goods in demand at the newly emerging settlements in the Mohawk Valley. There were few manufacturing establishments in the Mohawk Valley in the 1790s, and few even in Upstate New York. Most of the industrial production west of Schenectady consisted of the output of sawmills and gristmills. A great deal of what came upriver was produced in parts of New England, or had been shipped in from points south along the Atlantic coast or, more frequently, from Europe.
Settlers in the Mohawk Valley produced agricultural produce or simple products rendered from the natural resources of the country. These where shipped back down river to Schenectady and on to larger markets through New York City and even to Europe.
People in Canajoharie depended on the goods shipped in by batteau to supply needs that could not be met by the natural environment. They were primary consumers, and in return were the primary producers for goods sent to market. People in Schenectady may have consumed directly some of the produce sent down from the Canajoharie district, but more often they functioned as forwarders; people who passed the products along to their eventual market. They surveyed the needs of the rural markets to the west, and had shipped in the products that would meet those needs. They also surveyed the needs of the urban markets in New York City and, quite often, in Europe, and gathered the goods from upriver that they could sell in those markets as well. Very few of the products sold to people in the upper Mohawk Valley were produced in Schenectady, or even in Albany.
The drawings used above on this page are from the Notebooks of Canajoharie art teacher Rufus Grider, who complied images of New York State history in the 1890s. From the collections of the New York State Library.