Conrad Weiser and the New York Colony
By JOHN J. VROOMAN
A lad of no more than fourteen years can not be expected to leave a lasting impression upon the history of his country or upon his early associates, regardless of his possible prominence won in his more mature years. Hence the early history of Conrad Weiser in Germany is fragmentary indeed.
But from the records of the Weiser family, we know he was born in the remote little village of Afstaedt, some 20 miles southeast of Stuttgart, on November 2nd, 1696. The village was within the area so destructively ravaged by the French during the long drawn out and so-called “religious wars” that cursed the continent for more than 30 years.
About 1699, John Conrad Weiser, the father- who had been a corporal in the Blue Dragoons, and was now a private citizen, a baker and a vineyardist-removed to the home of his ancestors, Gross Aspach, a near-by village some 35 miles southeast of Heidelberg and 30 miles northeast of Stuttgart. Only after his wife died there in 1709, during her 15th pregnancy, did John Conrad decide that life had been too cruel-that the future looked hopeless indeed. His wife’s death occurred on what should have been a cheerful (lay, for it was May 1st, but it was not so. In 1707 the French had plundered the town. Then to crown this almost total destruction, the winter of 1708-09 had been one of exceeding severity so cold it was that, as the records run, “birds froze on the wing.” Such a statement, if it be something of an exaggeration, does explain the total loss of John Conrad’s vineyards. This was but another of the evil blows that caused him to seriously consider accepting the offer then on the tip of every tongue and sweeping across the stricken country like a breath of hope.
Queen Anne of England, whose recently deceased husband had been of German extraction, was filled with compassion when told of the frightful condition of those who lived along the Rhine in what had been the path of the victorious French, who “had made of it a desert waste.” And if she was moved by sympathy, her Parliament was also moved, but by practical and hard-headed reasoning.
The period of which we write was no more than 45 years following England’s capture of the New Netherlands from the Dutch. Yet that vast area bursting with potential possibilities, was of little economic value without settlers. England possessed no colony comparable with this one, only waiting to be brought to fruition, which they had christened “New York.”
One particular class of commodities woefully lacking in England, because they were in constant demand, was naval stores. As a maritime power of first importance, she was forced to buy such articles as tar, turpentine, pitch, and even spars, from the Scandinavian countries or from Russia. Now, it seemed assured, from reports being received from New York, that these products might be had from the pines which forested the banks of the Hudson River; all that was needed was man power-settlers-to cut and process them.
Thus was Queen Anne led to circulate her “Golden Book” among the survivors of the war-ridden Rhineland, offering them free passage to her newly conquered colony and maintenance there until those who chose to accept should become self-supporting. Is it to be wondered at that John Conrad Weiser, completely discouraged by his crushing misfortunes and doubtless suffering a curtailment of income from his bakery business, should have accepted this offer to begin life anew?
He sold his home and his vineyards to his eldest daughter and her husband, and with eight children under his wing, undertook the venturesome journey. How regrettable that there are no records to tell us of his experiences en route to the Netherlands and Rotterdam, the port from which he sailed! Indeed, if it were not for a brief autobiography, written many years later for the benefit of his own children by Conrad (who had dropped the use of the name “John”), we should know little of the life of the Weiser family through this period. There are, however, English governmental embarkation lists among which is recorded the sailing of “Weiser, Johan Koenraet and Vrouw and 8 Ch.” This entry occurs in the “Fifty party-embarked July 3rd to July 10th; sailed July 15th, 1709.”
Considering the date of the sailing, one is impressed with the precipitousness of John Conrad’s momentous decision, which he must have arrived at almost immediately following the death of his first wife. Conrad tells us in these few words, “My father moved away from Gross Aspach the 24th of June” and remarks a little later in his account, “In about two months we reached London.”
His autobiography ignores the tedious delay at London with its attendant sufferings caused by the ill-prepared and poorly provisioned camp at Black-heath. His is a brief statement “About Christmas day we embarked, and ten shiploads with about 4000 souls were sent to America.” He also fails to give us any details of the terrible voyage on which some 450 died of various maladies, all of which seem to have been embraced under the term “ship’s fever,” a severe form of typhus. Nor does he refer at length to the “Vrouw” mentioned in the sailing papers. What little he does divulge is of a derogatory nature. “My stepmother was indeed a stepmother to me,” he writes, concerning the spring and summer of 1713. “By her influence my father treated me very harshly.”
Previously, in his biography, he had made this rather startling disclosure: “In the year 1711 [which would have been while they were living at the Camps along the Hudson] my father married my stepmother,” adding, “It was an unhappy match and was the cause of my brothers and sisters becoming scattered,” until Conrad alone of the eight children whom John Conrad had brought to America with him, remained.
Writing of their arrival, Conrad records, “On the 13th June, 1710, we came to anchor at New York in North America and in the same autumn were taken to Livingston’s Manor at the expense of the Queen.” But not a word about the refusal of the health officials of New York to permit them to land. Appalled at the amount of sickness aboard the ships, the authorities shunted the entire group off to Nutten (now Governors) Island until those not desperately ill should have won back their health.
In the meantime, Robert Hunter, the newly appointed Royal Governor of the Colony, had made the voyage with them, safe and secure against sickness in the isolation and privacy of the great cabin of one of the ten ships of the convoy, the Lyon. He was promptly conducted into the city, there to make preparations for the placement of this unprecedented immigration.
The Palatines, according to the terms of a contract signed with the English Government before they sailed away from England, were to reimburse the Government for their transportation and maintenance until they became self-supporting by the production of the sorely needed naval stores-particularly tar and turpentine, which the Government would purchase. It remained for Governor Hunter to find land suitably located and with an abundance of pine timber and get the entire project under way.
To the Governor the country was as unfamiliar as it was to the Palatines themselves. The results of an extensive search in which land in the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys was considered, and the many reports and recommendations which followed, led him to purchase 6000 acres in what is now Columbia County, some 70 miles from New York and directly on the east bank of the Hudson River, thus providing deep-water transportation to and from the city. Opposite, on the west bank, lay another tract of land not yet granted and still remaining in the ownership of the Crown. Here, on these two tracts, were founded the “East Camp” and the “West Camp.”
While Governor Hunter busied himself with the future placement of the Palatines, the latter remained in temporary residence in their hastily constructed shelters on Nutten Island. It was while here that many of the children, orphaned by the death of their parents during the voyage over (or subsequently on the Island itself where an additional 250 died), or who were too young to work, were apprenticed. This included the younger children of the larger families as well, for it was the belief of the authorities at New York that these children should be spared the hardships of the exposed and difficult life that the Palatines must soon experience. Better that these young ones be placed in the homes of good and reputable people through their tender years.
Thus it was that two of John Conrad’s sons, George Frederick and Christopher Frederick, were bound out to William Smith of Smithtown, Long Island. It is understandable that the parents of these apprenticed children, John Conrad, for example, should have rebelled at such a course hut the local authorities had issued an “Order for Apprenticing the Palatine Children” over the Governor’s signature, which decreed in part:
There being many Orphans who are unable to take care of themselves to work, and many, who by sickness are Rendered uncapable of doing any service for some time and in that Condition would be a great expense and there being no Prospect of Settleing them this summer by reason it’s so much advanced…
Those in whose care the children were placed entered “into an Agreement in Writeing to Cloathe, Victuall and use them well and deliver them to the Government when called for.”
It was not until October that the Palatines were moved from Nutten Island to the lands they were to occupy along the Hudson. No provision had been made there for housing them, hence it was their first task to build the crudest of shelters until they could build more habitable, though still primitive cabins against the cold of winter, which was all but upon them.
If the Contract the Palatines signed seems impractical to our present-day understanding, we need only recall that the English Parliamentarians and the Palatines as well, were dealing with remote, unknown and untried situations. Doubtless both parties entered into the Contract in good faith but unforeseen exigencies arose which were contrary to the best beliefs of the English who conceived it, making it impossible for either of the signers to fulfill the contractual obligations.
The Government was to furnish all tools and equipment; the Palatines to furnish all labor. Their finished products, such as tar, were to be credited against their indebtedness. When this bad been fully repaid, they were to be granted land free and clear of encumbrance. But unfortunately, the English had been misinformed as to the nature of the pines from which the Palatines were to produce the tar, etc. Contrary to the reports made by the “Surveyors of the Woods” who acted for the Government, these pines were not the proper species from which naval stores might be produced in commercial quantities. Thus, the Palatines were faced with a problem that offered no satisfactory solution, nor could the English Government be expected to continue with so unproductive a contract.
Governor Hunter, optimistic to the bitter end (though a mere 200 barrels of tar had been produced and this largely from the cones the children had gathered from the ground) continued to furnish money to Robert Livingston, who had contracted with him to furnish and deliver food and drink to the Palatines. Hunter then submitted his vouchers to London for reimbursement.
Meanwhile the Palatines constantly bickered over the quantity and quality of the food and drink (“ship’s beer”) provided by Livingston and for which they must ultimately pay by the sweat of their brows. Another cause of dissension among them was this work of “tar burning” they were forced to perform, notwithstanding the fact that their Contract clearly specified this work of “producing and manufacturing of all manner of naval stores.” But their hearts were not in it. They insisted they came to America to farm-to raise those crops best suited to the soil. But faming was forbidden them until their obligations to the Crown had been fully paid.
At last, on September 6th, 1712, two years lacking but one month from the time of their arrival at the Camps, Governor Hunter was obliged to write his agent there, as follows:
I have at length exhausted all the money and credit I was master of for the support of the Palatines and have thereby embarrassed myself with difficulties I know not how to surmount if my bills of exchange be not paid.
And in the letter Hunter ordered his agent to notify the Palatines to seek employment elsewhere.
Nor were his “bills of exchange,” amounting to the huge total of some 20,000 Pounds, ever paid. The only person to benefit immediately was the Manor Lord, Robert Livingston, who succeeded in selling the Crown 6000 acres for 400 Pounds; the acreage being but a fraction of the enormous tracts he purchased from the Indians for a few paltry trinkets. It extended southward 24 English miles along the Hudson from Clavarack and the south boundary of the Van Rensselaer Manor. Also, by manipulating the tare (or weight) of the barrels in which he supplied the food and by the amounts of salt, as well, which he ordered packed with the meats he profited inordinately.
As for the expenses borne by the Crown: while it is true the Government did not repay Hunter, who maintained the Palatines in the Camps for 23 months theirs was the enormous expense of transporting the Palatines from Rotterdam to London, maintaining them there some six months, then sending 4000 of these poor emigrants to America, and maintaining them from three to four months on Nutten Island before transshipping them to the Camps.
And what of the Palatines who were presumed to be the principal beneficiaries? They were, in the light of present-day humanitarianism, treated in a manner that would be thought little short of brutish! This lack of a more merciful consideration, if not willfully conceived, was nevertheless, the result of an over-zealous effort to curtail expenses to what now seems an impossible minimum. This resuted in the deaths of some 600 to 700 of their number. Among those who died was Conrad’s youngest brother, John Frederick, who passed away in the severeness of winter at East Camp and is buried in a now unmarked grave.
Of Conrad throughout this tempestuous period we know but little. We do know that his father, John Conrad, perhaps because of his earlier military training, became a leader and the principal objector among the other less voluble leaders. In the fall of 1712, following the termination of their maintenance by Governor Hunter, some five or six deputies were chosen, with John Conrad at their head, to go to the Schoharie Valley of which they had continuously had good reports, to appraise it with the idea of moving there if the land looked arable and the Indians who dwelt there would welcome them as settlers.
When the deputies returned, loud in their praise of the valley lands and assured of a welcome by the Indians, some 50 families, the bravest and hardiest amongst them, left at once to take up their residence in their wilderness abode. Another 120 families left for Albany and Schenectady, bent on spending the rapidly approaching winter in those settlements wherever they might find shelter. Among this latter group were John Conrad and his family.
At Schenectady the Weisers were fortunate in finding a home with the family of Johannes Mynderse, a Dutchman, who was the armorer at the local fort. Here, recognizing the acute need of having someone in their group who could converse directly with the Indians rather than making use of a doubtful and possibly untrustworthy interpreter, John Conrad was successful in arranging for Conrad to spend the winter at the Indian Castle (village) at Fort Hunter at the mouth of the Schoharie River, where he might learn the Indian tongue. There, young Conrad, a lad just turned 17, spent a winter filled with hardships and dangers with Indians who, when drunk on trader’s rum, were not always careful how they used their knives and tomahawks.
In March, 1713, the Weisers left Schenectady and took up their abode at Weiserdorf in the Schoharie, where Conrad, making the journey from Fort Hunter, joined them later in the year. It was at this time that Conrad’s stepmother made things difficult for him in the home, if we accept Conrad’s own statement to this effect.
Before the Palatines left the Camps, Governor Hunter, anticipating a renewal of the tar-burning program in the spring, had set prescribed limits beyond which the Palatines were not to go. And since Schoharie was outside this area, they earned the ill-will of their Governor, a fact which proved most unfortunate in their future dealings with him. And on their part, instead of crediting him with all he had done for them, they bore him a grudge for his arbitrary ruling.
The land upon which they settled had never been purchased from the Indians; hut now that settlers were coming into the valley, the land was being rapidly taken up and patented by the Dutch, in spite of the fact that the Palatines were the first settlers on the east side of the valley. The Palatines might have patented the land they occupied but, ignorant and suspicious, they refused to part with any money, believing they were being imposed upon. In fact, when the new owners pressed the Palatines (now squatters) to lease or purchase the land they considered their own, they refused to heed such demands. It followed that the owners sent the sheriff to dispossess them.
During the time these troubles were taking place, Governor Hunter issued an order for the arrest of John Conrad as a “covenanted Servant of His Majesty who has been Guilty of Several Mutinous, Riotous and other disobedient and illegal practices.” Getting wind of this order, John Conrad hastened to Philadelphia, where he and two other Palatine representatives took ship for England for the purpose of obtaining a Royal Grant from Queen Anne. Arrived at London, they found that Queen Anne had died and the political complexion in England had changed radically. Lacking funds for a prolonged stay, such as they now faced, they were forced to borrow money they could not repay and were soon thrown into a debtor’s prison.
When the necessary money arrived from America to secure their release, one of the three delegates, thoroughly discouraged, took ship for America but died at sea. John Conrad and the remaining delegate, a man named Schaff, quarreled. The latter would no longer brook John Conrad’s dictatorial management. Conrad remarks in his autobiography: “they both had hard heads.” Schaff likewise departed, soon to die in his recently adopted homeland.
Robert Hunter, who had previously resigned his post as Governor, was present in England during John Conrad’s attempts to secure land. His weighty testimony played havoc with John Conrad’s appeal when the Governor branded him “a fugitive from justice.”
Meanwhile, in Schoharie, things went from bad to worse before the Palatines came to recognize the authorities of the land. Conrad and others of the Palatines were thrown into prison at Albany to be held there until they agreed to buy or pay a rental for the lands on which they squatted.
Conrad records in his very brief autobiography the following statement: In 1720, while my father was in England, I took my Ann Eva to wife and was married by the rev. Johan friderick Heger, reformed preacher, the 22 november in my father’s house in schochary.
Following his marriage, Conrad was in almost constant demand as an interpreter and as an ambassador to plead the cause of the Palatines at New York and elsewhere.
In 1723, many of the Palatines left the Schoharie to join others of their nationality who had settled in Pennsylvania. But Conrad remained until 1729, haying in the interim become something of a land buyer or “jobber.” But he occupied none of the tracts he bought, maintaining his residence at Weisersdorf- the present-day Middleburg of the Schoharie valley. Here his Ann Eva bore him his first four children two sons, Philip and Fredirich, and two daughters, Anna Madlina and Maria, the youngest, who was born December 24, 1728.
Conrad concludes his references to life in the Schoharie with these words : “Then in the year 1729 I went to pensilvania.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1960 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.