(Adapted from a webpage I created at the NYS Museum in the 1990s titled "New York's Oldest Canal" and the booklet titled "The Neck on Mohawcks River - New York's First Canal", The Canal Society of New York State, 1993.)
Phil Lord 9/2012
New York, like no other state, has the theme of canals and navigation broadly embedded in its history, since it straddles the waterways passage through the Appalachian mountain barrier from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. For most the origins of New York's "Canal Age" began in the 1820s, with the construction of the Erie Canal. But the origins of this historic tradition are much more deeply deeply buried in time - traceable to a single tiny site in the Upper Mohawk River Valley, and a day in the year 1730! In that year, a small cut was excavated across a narrow neck of land in a meander of the Mohawk near the present City of Utica. This was the first artificial channel for navigation created in what would become New York State and it symbolizes the beginning of the Canal Age.
This is the story of the discovery of that tiny site - the symbolic beginnings of the Canal Age in New York State. It is a detective story; of deciphering dozens of fragile antique maps, many of them preserved in museums and libraries in England; of finding clues in some of the earliest aerial photographs made of the Mohawk Valley; of field expeditions into streams, marshes and abandoned fields along the route of the modern canal.
You are invited to come along on the search for this nearly 300 year old canal, to examine the dozens of original documents and the reports of evidence from the field, and draw your own conculsions. Here you can follow, step by step, how I re-discovered this long lost historic canal.
This report details the discovery of this historic site and provides research resources for those interested in the history of the Mohawk River valley.
Throughout the eighteenth century the Mohawk River was part of a navigation corridor across what was to become New York State, and no doubt for Native inhabitants for thousands of years before.
By this corridor one could traverse, in small boats, the mountain barrier separating the Atlantic coastal waters from the Great Lakes. Departing Albany on the Upper Hudson (above, right), one traveled by land to Schenectady and there entered the Mohawk, sailing up that river to Fort Stanwix (Rome). There the Great Carrying Place, a land road of about one mile, brought one to the shallows of Wood Creek west of the city. One then navigated down Wood Creek to Oneida Lake, then through the Oneida River and Oswego River to Fort Ontario (Oswego) on Lake Ontario (above, left).
Details of this network of interconnected waterways crossing the region that would later become New York State were captured on a number of eighteenth century British maps, including the one above, drawn in 1772.
Early in the nineteenth century water travel to the Great Lakes was permanently opened to large boats by the completion of the Erie Canal (above), which provided a direct route from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo, by-passing the twisting and shallow waters of the Mohawk and closing an era of natural river navigation in New York forever. The opening of the Grand Canal in 1825 represents, for most people, the beginning of New York's canal era.
But the age of artificial waterways really began decades before, when the works of Philip Schuyler's Western Inland Lock Navigation Company (1792-1820) were constructed.
Bypassing rapids and obstructions in the Mohawk by the construction of several short canals, like the one above built in 1798 near Herkimer, complete with dams and locks, and improving navigation on Wood Creek by clearing and realigning the channel and installing several locks, these works may be regarded either as the terminal phase of river navigation or the true beginning of the canal era in New York.
But evidence has now come to light that over a half century earlier, in 1730, the Mohawk River was the site of a modest, but nonetheless significant, "canal" project - the earliest artificial waterway in New York State and one of the earliest in North America.
The Albany to Oswego corridor was of necessity the major thoroughfare for westward movement in the mid-eighteenth century and became a main avenue of military transportation during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and thereafter the Revolutionary War (1776-1783).
It is to be expected, therefore, that many British surveys and maps focused on this water pathway across New York. One of these, an anonymous manuscript drawn about 17571, records many details of the Mohawk and Wood Creek corridor (below).
This map, the original of which is in the British Museum, provides a detailed and descriptive look at the passage betwen the Upper Hudson and the Great Lakes in the mid-18th century. The section above focuses on the area east from Fort Stanwix (Rome), and our interest is drawn to one unusual feature drawn in the river channel (above, outlined in red).
On this map, a short distance east of the portage between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek at Fort Stanwix, there appears a loop in the Mohawk River and next to that loop is written: "the Neck digged through in 1730."
A second British map (above), dated circa 17562 and almost identical to the first, records the same detail, this time labelled "the Neck Diged through in 1730." On this latter version, the land area contained within the loop is shaded to emphasize the feature.
A third map , drawn about 17593 and recently discovered in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, provides an even more detailed image of this feature, accompanied by the label "this Neck was cut through." This rendering is noteworthy in that it actually shows a canal-like cut across the neck of land within the meander.
Reference to the 1772 map prepared for Thomas Mante4 (above) reveals that this feature is carried forward decades into later mapping, but without the identifying label.
The configuration of this feature is unmatched anywhere else on the Mohawk during the eighteenth century on any maps that have yet come to light. It appears as a uniform southward trending loop of the river with a connecting channel across the narrow neck of the meander, apparently cut through intentionally by artificial means.
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?
1772 Kitchin map used as base map here.
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 symbolic indication of the Indian village we know to be "Orhisconi" (E) at its junction with the Mohawk. Althouigh not identified here, 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 map5 (above), 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 significantly 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 (outlined above), 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 plans10.
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 (below, upper).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, lower).
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, such as the one below.
The above early aerial photograph, one of a set of stereo pairs dating from the 1930s and 40s, reveals the details of conditions in the study area after the completion of the Barge Canal, but before the construction of the NYS Thruway in the early 1950s. The old channel of the Mohawk River can be followed across this landscape. The river channelization necessitated by the construction of the Barge Canal, which cut through the original Mohawk alignment to the north (right of center), can clearly be seen.
One prominent and elongated meander (B) still carries the river just left of center. It is through the left side of this meander that the Thruway would later be built, necessitating yet another river relocation channel here in 1953. To either side of this loop can be seen two older meanders (A & C), now cut off and inactive. The easterly one (C) has been cut through by the canal-related river channelization project of 1918.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.
It is valuable to consider, before searching for property maps applicable to this 1730 excavation, how sparsely the upper Mohawk valley was settled in that time. Fort Williams (Rome), the cornerstone of westward trade and travel, would not be built for another 16 years (1746) and Fort Bull, at the western end of the Oneida Carry, would not exist until almost a decade after that (1755). Travelers through this region were very much isolated from even the most tentative fingers of civilization. Although the area of what was to become Herkimer was populated in 1759 by "about 100 families,"13 the lone habitation marked "Rynard's - Uppermost Settlement" on the 1759 map (above), and as "Rynards the uppermost Setler" on the 1757 map and "Rynarts the upper most Setteler" on the 1756 map, was still some ten miles downstream, to the east of "the Neck," near the present village of Frankfort. There is every reason to believe that in 1730 the entire stretch of river west of Herkimer was uninhabited by other than Indians, although traversed by citizens of several European nations.
Just as in many other parts of the Northeast, it was not until the close of the French and Indian War (1763) that settlement in outlying regions was actively pursued, with the frontier pushed gradually westward toward the Great Lakes. In fact, within what was to become New York State, it was the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768 that fixed the boundary between the lands of the Europeans to the east and the lands of the Iroquois to the west. This treaty line placed the navigation corridor between Fort Bull, on Wood Creek, and Albany, on the Hudson, within the domain and control of the British, and shortly thereafter surveys were being made of land grants and royal patents along the Mohawk River, some of which having been granted years earlier.
It is through these later eighteenth century surveys that we can begin to gain a more specific picture of the configuration of the Mohawk River within the study area, but with the understanding that in most cases these are manuscripts drawn over a half century after the fact of the 1730 canal. It was hoped that these more particular land survey maps would record the finer details that the statewide maps of the 1750s could not hope to portray at the scales at which they were necessarily drawn.
In assembling a compendium of historic maps relating to the research area, and on which we hope to find details to help resolve the selection of meanders, we have to determine within which historic land grants and properties the study area falls. A good general guide to eighteenth century land holdings along the Mohawk River is the Simeon DeWitt map (below) of 179014.
But as instructive as this map is regarding property lines, and clearly showing the locations of "Ochriskeney" and "Sadaghqueda" creeks, it is somewhat discouraging to see that "the Neck" so prominently represented on earlier maps is totally absent from this rendering. We must necessarily, therefore, estimate its location from the relative position of the Oriskany and Sauquoit creeks. Very quickly we see that the area in question falls within a parcel bounded on the west by the massive land grant known as the "Oriskany Patent," and on the east by an equally large parcel called the "Cosby's Manor."
The 1789 map of the Oriskany Patent15 (below) shows the entirety of the land grant stretching from west of Fort Schuyler (previously Fort Stanwix) eastward on the north side of the river to a point opposite the mouth of Oriskany Creek, and on the south side some 168 chains (11,000 feet) further. Comparison of this 200 year old map with the field confirms that the configuration of the Mohawk at the junction of Oriskany Creek has essentially remained unchanged.
At the west end of the patent (left edge above) one can see the portage between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek, with the fort guarding this portage (then called "Fort Schuyler" and later "Fort Stanwix") being passed closely by the river road.
At the eastern end of the patent (right edge above), the relationship of the patent boundary to Oriskany Creek can be seen (see detail below). At this spot the river road branches with one segment crossing the river to the north. A modern highway follows this same alignment today.
By projection, the eastern boundary of the Patent on the south side of the river would fall near the present County Route 12 and at precisely the same angle. This is also the angle and almost the same position as the west line of the Village of Whitesboro. Such coincidence of modern property lines and features suggests a derivation from the original east line of the Patent. The 1789 map shows a road along the north side of the river crossing to the south side immediately west of the eastern Patent boundary, just as the modern road from Careys Corners crosses the Mohawk immediately west of the west line of the Village of Whitesboro. It would seem, therefore, that the Oriskany Patent falls short by a few thousand feet of providing coverage of the study area on the south side of the river, and by over two miles on the north side.
Examination of the maps for the Cosby Patent16 to the east (below) clearly shows the west line of this grant being set across the river at the mouth of the "Sidaghquada Creek." As so often happened with early land surveys in uninhabited areas, surveys were run between easily identifiable natural landmarks. In this case the western boundary of the parcel falls exactly at the junction of the "Sedaghqueda Creek" and the Mohawk River.
Since we are using the intersection of the Sauquoit Creek with the Mohawk River as the eastern bounds of our search area, one can see that this patent only meets the edge of the study area, but does not cover any part of it.
It is within this gap (below) between the Cosby Patent on the east and the Oriskany Patent on the west, that the site of the 1730 canal must lie. It is within this area, therefore, that the search for land records and property maps was concentrated.
The most frequently used guide to the geography of eighteenth century New York is the 1779 Sauthier Map,17 as reproduced in O'Callaghan's Documentary History of the State of New York.18 This map portrays in some detail the entirety of settlement, features of terrain, and courses of the waterways across the State at that time (below - area between Oriskany and Cosby Patents in red circle).
Examination of the minute detail recorded between "Burnets Field" and "Ft. Stanwix" pretty much confirms our assumption that the search area lies between "Cosbys Mannor" and "Ochriscany Patent," as both the "Oriscany Cr." and "Sidaghqueda Cr."(see detail below) are indicated.
In fact, even though this detail was omitted from some earlier maps of the area, Sauthier enters the words "the Neck" on the south side of the river within this area! While this pretty much confirms our asumption that the site lies between these two major patents, the tell-tale cut-through loop is not portrayed.
It appears from this map that a third land grant encompasses the search area and "the Neck," and Sauthier has labeled this parcel "F. Morris." But the map in O'Callaghan is a later copy or facsimile issue, not the original.
Viewing the original19 would, at first glance, seem to reveal no major differences (above). But a closer examination reveals a slightly more easterly position for "the Neck" and the identification of "Fred.rick Morris" as the landholder of the new parcel.
A map of the Frederick Morris grant of 1736,20 redrawn at a later date (below) to reflect the reassignment of portions of the tract, confirms that it is the missing piece of land lying between the Oriskany and Cosby patents. Disappointingly, the river course through the grant is abstracted as a relatively straight line, which is unsupported by any other contemporaneous, or modern, evidence. The suspect southward trending loop shown at the west limits of the parcel is a later addition, penciled in and then partially inked over.
But although this map does not reveal the sought after "Neck," it does reveal four very significant facts. First, the Frederick Morris parcel does indeed begin at the mouth of the "Sadehqueda" creek and runs from there westerly. Second, the loop of the river added to the Morris map, which might have been seen to indicate "The Neck" is over 10,000 feet west of the Sauquoit Creek, placing it outside the search area. This suggests it is the large open meander that presently exists south of Careys Corners.
Third, a wedge-shaped lot attributed to Donald McKay and set off to him in May of 1770, appears to fill in a discrepancy between the original Morris grant and the east line of the Oriskany Patent south of the river. This discrepancy is apparent in a 1769 map of the region,21 which shows a gap between the west line of the Morris tract and the east line of the Oriskany Patent. Fourth, the adjusted west lines of the Morris tract match exactly the position and alignment of County Route 12 north of the river, through Careys Corners, and the west line of the Village of Whitesboro south of the river.
Referring back to the facsimile version of the Sauthier map we can see that this wedge-shaped lot appears to be included within the multiple lines defining patents and grants along this section of the river, being attached correctly to the western edge of the "F. Morris" tract. In fact, it would appear that Sauthier intended to indicate "the Neck" as lying within this tiny parcel, although the position of this label may just as easily be explained by the priority given to the "F. Morris" identification. The same space, particularly so small a space, could not be given to two different labels, and landowner designation was certainly the more significant.
To further clarify the ambiguous loop added to the Morris tract map, and to ensure that it is not, in fact, the infamous "Neck," a search was initiated for maps relating to the McKay lot through which the loop ran. Only one map, and that drawn in 1770,22 the date indicated on the Frederick Morris map as when the parcel was set off, portrays the particulars of the McKay property .
Significantly more detailed than the representation in the Morris survey, the loop of the Mohawk drawn here clearly suggests a southwestward trending, broad, and open meander, slightly more flattened on its eastern side, and with a pronounced extension at the base of the meander in its downstream, right, corner. This extension would be expected given the flow of the river from west to east, left to right, as the maximum force of the flood stage waters would be focused on this sharp northward turn, and the river would have the greatest tendency to cut laterally at this point, accentuating the corner, just as it appears on the 1770 map.
If we then compare this meander, as drawn in 1770, with the meander previously identified from the Morris survey as being the loop indicated, lying just south of Careys Corners (above, right), we can see a striking similarity in form. In fact, the angularity noted on the 1770 map along the eastern side of the meander, and easily mistaken for an abstract rendering by the cartographer, is actually present in the river at this precise point today. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the southward trending loop of the river indicated within the Morris tract, and suspected as a candidate for the 1730 "Neck," is actually the broad, open meander immediately to the west of the three loops within our primary search area. The configurations of this meander today, in 1803/1811, and in 1770 strongly indicate that it was never a closed, neck-like feature, and also reveals to us with some precision that the Mohawk River has not been subject to major natural alterations of alignment here for at least the past 220 years.
An earlier map of this section of the Mohawk Valley , drawn in 1769,23 clearly shows the relationship of the Morris tract, assigned here to "Lewis Morris junr", to the western edge of "Cosbys Manor." While the configuration of the river within Cosbys Manor matches very well the known configuration of the Mohawk in that area, and while the general proportions of the river through the Morris tract are similar to those existing here, with a wavy alignment in the easterly section followed by a northerly arching alignment in the westerly portion, there is too great an oversimplification in the area immediately west of "Sadaquida Creek," shown only as a small tongue of water on the south side of the river.
An even earlier map of the area is more detailed,24 including the intersects of the Oriskany and Sauquoit Creeks and a configuration of the Mohawk through the Morris tract that more closely approaches what we see today. Yet no indication of either the large open meanders seen west of the Sauquoit Creek, nor of any neck-like cut-off, is to be seen.
It is ironic that the short segment of the Mohawk River that is the focus of our search is the only stretch between Burnetsfield (Herkimer) and Fort Williams (Rome) that was apparently never mapped in detail during the eighteenth century! In fact, if one did not know that the straightline river course that presently exists west of Sauquoit Creek, through what was then the Morris tract, is the result of 20th century channel realignments connected with the construction of the Barge Canal and the Thruway, one could easily assume it was the channel exactly as shown on eighteenth century maps of the area.
Since the documentary sources did not provide conclusive evidence of the actual location of "the Neck", except to be between the Oriskany and Sauquoit creeks, it is necessary to examine each of the three suspect meanders identified in that stretch of the valley in the hope that the geologic characteristics of each will eliminate two of them while supporting the third as the site of the 1730 canal excavation.
We have narrowed our search area to less than 8,000 feet of valley floor, that being the space lying west of the Sauquoit Creek, but still east of the east line of the Oriskany Patent . It has been determined above that neither of the two broad, open, southward trending meanders situated at the extreme eastern end of the Oriskany Patent could ever have been closed, and no geomorphological patterns are evident in the stereo aerial photographs to suggest there were ever any neck-like meanders adjacent to the major stream channel there. Since both of these large meanders stand in the midpoint between the Sauquoit and Oriskany creeks they are unlikely candidates in terms of position as well, given that the 1756 and 1757 British manuscripts indicate the "the Neck" was located well within the eastern one half of the stretch of river between the two creeks.
Significantly, it is within that section of river, and immediately west of the Sauquoit Creek, that the three narrow meanders previously mentioned exist , the central one (B) being open and part of the pre-1953 main river channel, and the two flanking ones (A and C) being closed and cut-off. These latter are, in essence, tiny ox-bow ponds by-passed by the main river channel at some point prior to 1803, as they do not appear on either of Wright's Mohawk valley surveys.
The twisting courses of rivers such as the Mohawk often produce classic patterns of meandering, where cut-off loops of the abandoned riverbed lie alongside the active channel. Cut-offs of meander loops occur from a variety of natural causes, which we will explore shortly, and one should not be tempted to favor the cut-offs at A and C, nor to prematurely reject the open neck at B. Each area must be thoroughly examined in turn.
Initially one may be tempted to eliminate Area C from consideration as being too close to the mouth of Sauquoit Creek to fit the proportions indicated on the mid-eighteenth century maps.
To correctly interpret these British maps, however, we need to divorce ourselves from the overhead view to which we are accustomed, as seen on maps drawn from an aerial perspective. We need instead to place ourselves in the position of mid-eighteenth century boatmen traveling on the Upper Mohawk, set low to the ground and with often limited visibility beyond the tree-lined banks of the river itself. Christian Schultz, traveling this same route in 1807, appears to substantiate this assumption:
"You will please to observe. . . in all my references with respect to the rivers and water- courses, I shall use the terms right and left, as the frequent windings and sudden turns of the rivers render it almost impossible to give true bearings without a constant reference to the compass."25
We need to represent this configuration of meanders in terms of on-the-ground (or more correctly on-the-river) perceptions of distance and relationship. When we plot the positions of these three meanders in terms of time on the river, we see a significantly different proportional picture, and one not at all unlike that given us by the British surveyors.
In the following section of this report, each of the three meanders will be discussed in detail.
Look back to the aerial photo above to remind yourself where the three areas are we need to investigate.
The feature we are calling "Meander Area A" lies just 1,000 feet west of the NYS Thruway bridge, which crosses the Mohawk valley from north to south. It can be clearly seen on early aerial photographs.
This was once an open loop of the meandering river with a relatively narrow neck at its northern end. At some point in the past the river cut through this narrow neck, creating a new channel and leaving behind an ox-bow, partially filled with water to this day. Because the 1950s channel realignment project necessitated by the building of the Thruway bridge narrowly missed this feature, the entirity of the ox-bow and the chute cut-off have been preserved for us to examine.
Although the overall shape of the feature at first suggests it might be the same cut off meander shown on 18th century British maps, we know that shapes shown on early maps cannot always be taken as a realistic representation of what was actually on the ground.
As it turns out, this meander was no doubt cut through much earlier than the 1730 date indicated for "The Neck", and probably already existed in this form in prehistoric times.
The reasons for this conclusion involve complex and detailed analyses, which you can examine if you wish in the following section.
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
In form it is well rounded and uniform, just like Area A, but in reality this meander was no doubt the lop-sided one seen today just east of Sauquoit Creek, and shown by Wright as essentially unchanged in 1811 (above, right). And this configuration of the river remains exactly as drawn in 1811 today (below), except that the river has cut a "chute" through the neck of the westerly meander.
Few people would draw so irregular a feature in so uniform a fashion as it was in the 18th century 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 (see example 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.
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.
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 (above), became a detached ox-bow pond, and never was a navigable loop of the Mohawk during the eighteenth century.
So while this feature certainly represents a classic chute cut-off of potential interest to students of geology and stream morphology (above), it is not the site of the 1730 "canal".
The feature we are calling "Meander Area B" lies immediately east of the NYS Thruway bridge, and is partially bi-sected by it. It is an elongated meander of the original river, which has been isolated by the realignment project necessitated by the building of the Thruway bridge in the 1950s. Because the new channel was cut through the meander a few hundred feet south of its neck, virtually the entire feature is still visible today, although much disturbed by construction impacts from a variety of sources.
Unlike both areas A and C, this meander remains open to this day and appears never to have had a significantly narrow neck, except at its most southern extreme.
The reason this feature draws our attention is not because of its configuration, but rather because of its position and size. It represents the most prominent narrow meander within the study area, and if we assume that the prominence given to the 1730 feature by early map makers was at all associated to its prominence in the real world, this feature needed to be examined in some deatail.
It appears, however, that this meander was never cut off at any time in its history, and that it has had virtually this same appearance since prehistoric times. To support this conclusion required the greatest amount of analysis and documentation of all three features, and you can read that discussion for yourself below.
Meander Area B is located only about one thousand feet east of Area A and one portion of it is crossed by the present Thruway bridge that traverses the valley floor from the north to south side at this location. Unlike areas A and C, Area B is an open meander and its loop was part of the main channel of the Mohawk from at least as early as 1803 and up to 1953, when the river was channelized here to accommodate the construction of the new bridge.
Consideration of this loop in the river as the possible site of the 1730 canal cut rests on two points: first, its basic configuration and size, and second, the assumption that at some point after 1730, and prior to 1803, the meander reopened itself, filling in the artificial cut with flood deposit.
This meander would certainly appear to qualify as a "neck" as it is long and narrow, and the twisting, double-back course a boatman would have to follow in navigating this meander would seem, on the face of it, an inefficient detour in moving from one point to another on this section of the river. It is also southward trending and in a position between the two creeks that very closely matches that shown on the historic maps. One might also assume that since this meander is more extensive than either A or C, it must be a much more obvious candidate as the neck shown so prominently on the 1756 and 1757 maps.
Yet if one compares the river channel east and west of this meander, with its even larger loops and turns also confirmed to have existed in the eighteenth century, and then sees that none of these even more salient features of the river have been noted on the historic maps, one can see that the priority given to "the Neck" was more a function of its importance as a navigation feature than of its size.
But the most attractive archeological feature of this meander, and the one that appears to override the fact that the meander is open today, not cut through, is an anomaly seen on the 1948 stereo air photographs27. This appears as a light grey stripe (below) across the "ankle" of this boot-like loop of the river. This feature ran straight across a narrow constriction in the land isolated by the meander and is clearly a depression that has collected and held water for some time each season. The location of this depression can also be seen on modern topographic maps of the meander, which show a break in the elevated interior of the loop at precisely the point suggested by the photographs.
Field inspection revealed the interior of this neck north of the depression to be very uniform and flat, resembling closely the areas around meander Area A. However, south of this section of the meander the ground is irregular. The location shown on 1948 air photos as a narrow, well-defined swath of low ground across the neck of this meander is today a broad area of irregularity, with numerous shallow excavation pits and backdirt piles produced by what appear to be the cut and fill operations of bulldozers during the construction of the bridge.
Initially it was hoped that since the suspected site of the 1730 cut on this meander was dry and not part of the active river channel as in A and C, an excavated trench across the cut location would reveal subsurface evidence of the canal, subsequently filled by river flood deposits, but preserved by that action as well. Two factors worked against this approach. First, even though the original 1730 excavation might have consisted of little more than a ditch about 20 feet wide and three feet deep, with fairly defined cut sides, the fact that it was not a regulated canal segment, with a guard lock at the upstream end to control flow through the artificial waterway, meant this initial profile would have lasted only a few months. As soon as the river found this short-cut and directed the full force of its flow through it, the profile of the cut would very soon be further expanded by the natural erosive forces of the river and would, within perhaps only one year, take on an appearance and dimension totally indistinguishable from any other part of the natural channel.
One factor in this disturbance is the fact that the old Whitesboro sewer line, constructed in the last century between the Village of Whitesboro and the Mohawk River at the toe of the boot, had to be extended northward when the Thruway channelized the river and cut off the flow to the bottom of the meander (above).
Although the construction plans28 show this line running across the old river channel at the western side of the meander , field evidence, including the remains of an elevated brick manhole built up to resist flooding over the meander, suggest a line right up the center of the lower section of the loop. The construction of a sewer line through the area on a north-south alignment, and the construction of an elevated, narrow service road through the long axis of the meander, appear to relate to peripheral construction associated with the Thruway bridge, and make interpretation of the topography in terms of any pre-1953 artificial landform patterns virtually impossible.
In the field near the manhole was found a second transverse depression across what in fact is the narrowest part of the meander. On first glance this more southerly depression fits the image of a short artificial navigation cut. However, it appears to relate, not to any canal construction, but to borrowing of fill for the construction of the elevated service road and the manhole site itself, which is within a fairly substantial mound of earth at least seven feet above the normal ground surface.
At best we could expect subsurface excavation here to only prove whether or not the river ever flowed through this depression, not whether or not a man-made canal was dug here. Since the river, in its natural state, would be perfectly capable of cutting a chute through this neck using only its normal dynamics, such a finding would really lend very little to our proofs. But the possibility of archeological investigation was already preempted by the level of construction impact observed in the test area associated with the 1953 Thruway bridge construction project.
Lacking the ability to excavate across this suspected cut due to modern ground disturbance, we had to look to other field data for evidence - to the geologic configuration of the meander area as a whole.
First of all, in those areas that are outside the construction impact zone, primarily to the north, the topography of the meander suggests a stable condition, with almost no evidence of prior channels or lateral movement. The east channel of the river is deeply cut and well established, with high banks on both sides. The west channel shows some evidence of lateral movement outward from the interior of the meander, but its western banks are also well established and high.
This meander seems to have evolved prehistorically by extending its foot southward for some time, developing an elongation in its wake that became the "ankle" of the meander. At some time, and in an apparently dramatic episode of erosion, the meander cut a balloon-like "toe", probably to absorb some extraordinary energy that could not be handled within the narrow and extremely sharp end of the existing meander . Because the migration of a river leaves a lower plain behind it as it cuts into deeper deposits at its front, this new toe is at a lower elevation than the upper part of the meander.
There is no evidence in the field that conclusively confirms or negates the hypothetical identification of either of the transverse depressions as the site of the 1730 canal. We have to expand our analysis to consider the context within which this neck exists and the context within which a decision to cut through it over 250 years ago would have been made.
First of all, in spite of the narrowness of the neck and the convoluted nature of the alignment, the river appears to have maintained a broad and well defined channel here and would have represented no particular obstacle to navigation, although it would have certainly seemed to be an inefficient course to follow. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would invest the level of time and energy needed to cut through the lower neck just to save a few yards on the open river. To cut the neck to the north, in a location that would eliminate the entire detour and save several thousand feet on the river, would require an excavation of over 600 feet, a task of some magnitude, particularly as there are numerous other points on this river where a shorter cut could have saved significantly more time.
One need only look a mile and a half downstream (above) to find just such a spot, where a large, open meander comes back on itself to within less than 300 feet of its starting point. A savings of almost a mile could have been had with such a short cut, yet it was never made. It is not reasonable to suppose such a benefit would have been ignored while an equal effort was applied here to less advantage. (The river has now made that cut of its own accord.)
Before going on to the analysis of our third potential cut site in Area B, it is worthwhile to take a look at another early map, one to which we have not as yet made reference. This map (below) was drawn in 178429 and covers the property on the north side of the Mohawk River that lies between the "Oriskaney Patt" on the west and "Cosby's Patent" on the east, i.e., our search area. This map provides some detail over the entire run of the river between these two lines, showing the intersection of the Oriskany Creek at the western edge of the map.
But of particular interest is a pair of loops in the river at the eastern edge of the map, where it abuts the west line of Cosby's Patent. The first loop (Y), is most certainly meant to portray that first, boxy, northward meander of the river just west of the Sauquoit Creek. But west of that (X), is a rather pronounced southward trending loop of the channel, constricted at the top, and obviously a feature felt to be noteworthy relative to other features of the river course in this area.
On first glance this could be taken to be the meander detailed in the McKay parcel set off in 1770 and showing a southerly loop proven to be the one south of Careys Corners, over 10,000 feet west of Cosby's Patent. However, when plotted by the given map scale of 20 chains to the inch, the loop shown on this 1784 map is under 6,000 feet west of that patent, which places it precisely on the same spot as meander Area B. It is apparent that this meander was open and part of the main channel only 54 years after the construction of the artificial cut at "the Neck," and it is reasonable to assume, therefore, that this meander was not the site of a cut across its extreme top end.
We are left, then, with that mid-point depression of some 350 feet in length across the ankle of meander B. We have little choice but to dismiss this as a possible 1730 canal site based on, if nothing else, the logic of the context of the early eighteenth century project.
First of all, a cut here would save only a short distance (less than half a mile, compared to a mile saved with the same size cut at the downstream meander near Utica) and this on a stretch of river with a well established and easily navigated channel. Another neck, almost identical in length, narrowness and configuration, stands upstream (X above), immediately west of the mouth of Oriskany Creek. One would assume this meander presented the same obstacles to navigation as the meander at Area B, yet this neck was not cut.
While we might point to the sharp turn at the toe of the meander at B as a reason for bypassing this point of the river, as driftwood and sand would surely accumulate here. But in this short stretch of the river alone there are three points in the channel with equally sharp turns, and two with significantly sharper turns, yet none of these were cut, even though each of them could have been with an excavation of no greater length then that required here.
Another map (above), even earlier then the 1784 drawing examined above, not only provides a linkage between the loop shown on the McKay parcel and Area B but also seems to suggest that the full length of the meander at B was open only 40 years after the construction of the 1730 canal. This map, a 1770 plan of these same lands on the north side of the river between "Oriskene Creek" and "Sadaghqueda,"30 clearly shows the loop on the McKay parcel, complete with the flattened angle on its eastern side, and, about one third the way eastward toward Sauquoit Creek, the elongated narrow configuration of Area B, with the high (northerly) loop of the channel entering it from the west, and a lower bend in the river exiting it to the east. Matching the river as portrayed on this map to the river as reconstructed from modern maps is extremely easy, for even small dips and curves that seem to be nothing more than artistic license in the drawing, are revealed to be only somewhat attenuated renderings of the actual curves of the channel as they exist, even down to what might be considered some fairly minor components of the configuration (compare with the map above it).
Pending analysis of the final meander at C, we must conclude that Area B evolved to its present configuration prehistorically and has been open since before 1730. It is not a good candidate for a navigation cut. The bends are no more severe than any number of other meanders in the vicinity that were not cut. To effect a reasonable savings in river distance, the cut would have to be made in the northern end of the meander, a considerable excavation. A cut at the narrow neck in the southern portion of the meander would be easier but would only save a minuscule distance on the river.
The feature we are calling "Meander Area C" is located some three thousand feet east of the State Thruway bridge, and is so minor a meander, and so disturbed by construction impacts and natural processes, that it might easily escape detection. One needs to look really closely, even on early air photos, to see it.
Unlike areas A and B, this feature was not cut through in the 1950s by the Thruway's river realignment project, but was cut through a half century earlier by the Barge Canal's river realignment project. Because the canal itself was about to cut through a large meander of the original river to the north, a new channel had to be cut to keep the river connected. This channel went through the old river, plus both arms of the ox-bow of this meander loop, which had been cut through a very long time previous to the construction.
From examination of the geomorphology of this feature, it was hypothesized that a very great time ago, perhaps in prehistoric times, the river flowed past this loop in the dry remnant channel immediately west of the channel which today still holds water. At this time the western arm of the meander was as it appears today, while the eastern arm of the meander was in the more easterly channel, still visible.
It is supposed that by the beginning of the 18th century, this eastern arm of the meander had migrated westward to where it nearly joined the western arm, and at that time, it presented to navigators an obvious candidate for an easy cut-through channel. It is further suggested that after the meander was cut off, the active part of the river continued to migrate, with the channel moving easterly toward the ox-bow from the west. This movement, we suggest, was deactivated by the cutting through of both the Barge Canal to the north, and the realignment channel to the south, thus stabilizing the feature in its present configuration.
Here then, by all the evidence, is the site of the 1730 "Neck" - New York State's first "canal". You can examine the documentation for yourself, and come to your own conclusions about it, by reading the following.
By far the most complex, and on initial inspection the least likely, meander area being considered as the site of the 1730 canal project is Area C. Area C is also the least easily seen of the three and is virtually invisible except on aerial photographs. It lies to the east of Area B, about midway between Area B and the mouth of Sauquoit Creek.
Whereas Area A was a cut-off meander lying intact alongside the original river channel, Area C is in an area of construction and channelization that obscures not only its position but that of the old river bed as well. The rechannelization evident in this area all derived from the construction of the Barge Canal in 1918. Because the large northward loop of the river discussed above on the 1784 map had to be cut through by the canal trough, a by-pass channel was constructed to link the severed ends of the river and continue the flow of water downstream. This connecting channel can be clearly seen running parallel to the canal just west of Sauquoit Creek (below). The path of this artificial channel also cut through the lower section of a cut-off meander of the river, which we are calling Area C.
It is interesting to note that although this meander loop appears on none of the early historic maps we have been examining, its position is quite evident on some of them due to an awkward jog in the river (at northeast corner of meander in old river channel) at the point where the meander cut-off occurred. This jog can be seen clearly on both the 1811 and 1803 (below) surveys of Benjamin Wright, although no hint of the old meander is revealed.
The only maps that contain evidence of this meander loop are relatively recent ones; the 1908 canal map31 (below left) which represents the feature as an egg shaped swamp or marsh, and the 1898 USGS map32 (below right) which shows the meander partially water-filled and still connected to the main channel at the downstream end.
Area C is distinguished from either A or B by the presence of a number of fairly obvious meander scars along the west side of the main river channel, suggesting previous positions of the river while the meander loop was still open. Also present on the west side of the feature is a very well defined dry bed immediately adjacent to the water-filled trough. This was the terminal river channel prior to construction of the Barge Canal. Between this old section of the main channel and the western arm of the meander loop is an elevated ridge of land that is roughly the same height as the land in the interior of the loop (ox-bow). This suggests lateral movement of the west branch of the main channel eastward, with placement in the position of the dry channel for a considerable length of time prior to its terminal location.
Near the point northward where the cut-off crosses the bed of the west arm of the ox-bow, this intervening ridge becomes less defined on its eastern side, while remaining well defined on its west/northwest side. This suggests that the main river channel at the cut-off continued to migrate northwestward at the same time the more westerly part of the channel was migrating eastward. This accounts for the S-shape of the channel at this location that is so distinctive on the 1803/1811 mapping.
The west arm of the ox-bow has been partially filled reducing its watercourse to a narrow ditch-like feature which may have been dug after 1918 to drain off excess water from the old river bed. These modifications obscure the precise location of the original gap at the neck. The east arm of the ox-bow is set against a significantly higher mass of land to the east than that seen within any part of the meander area. Two distinct troughs exist at the northern termination of this arm of the meander. One, the more easterly, is separate and slightly more elevated than the more westerly, suggesting it is of greater age, as the lower and more defined westerly trough clearly was carrying the load of the river prior to final cut-off. This may suggest that the east arm of the meander loop was migrating westward at the neck prior to cut-off, thus producing a contracting, not expanding, neck. The evidence observed in the field (below) suggests that prior to cut-off these arms of the meander loop at the neck were little more than a few yards apart, creating not only a very narrow bit of land, but also imposing two rather severe cut-back turns on any boatmen who tried to navigate through.
The ox-bow, except in the immediate area of the neck, has the appearance of stability found in Area A and the unconstructed portions of Area B. However, there is evidence of significant hydrodynamics ongoing at the neck/cut-off area. First of all, if we project the alignments of the two arms of the ox-bow northward, we see (above) that the terminal main river channel at the cut-off (A) is some distance north of the point that these arms would have met, i.e., the river here has continued to migrate away from the original cut-off. But, the fact that the land separating the main channel from the western arm of the meander loop is elevated and pronounced, thus preventing over-bank flood deposits within the west arm of that loop, coupled with the fact that both arms of the loop are heavily filled with silt, suggests that the meander was still receiving a depositional load from the main river channel after the cut-off (B).
We might explain this filling phenomenon merely in terms of backwash from the migration of the main channel northward after the cut-off, starting from a point on the west arm of the loop where it is silted in. But if that were the case, we would not expect to see remnants of the original meander loop channels at both the east and west ends. We would rather have a true ox-bow, cut off and completely isolated by floodplain deposit, as we do elsewhere on the river where this has occurred prehistorically. We can only assume that the loop and the main channel remained connected after the cut-off, just as shown on the British maps, with the slowed waterborne sediments being dropped out as they flowed into the upper ends of the open arms of the loop, but the watered channels of the loop remaining well defined by virtue of their continued connection to the active river. This would have promoted some cutting during peak flow periods, followed by less pronounced filling during the slack water phase.
Note that of the three meander areas studied, Area C shows the greatest degree of movement, i.e., channel migration. This is particularly observable to the west of the water filled river bed, where a well defined dry channel can be seen, much deeper than the scars of any previous position of the river here to the west. Is it possible that the destabilizing effects of an artificial cut, which had to significantly change the physical dynamics of the river in this location, produced the relatively rapid adjustment of the river just upstream from the cut-off, with the river manufacturing a classic S-curve in the channel to absorb some of this added energy? Certainly none of the other meanders exhibits this degree of movement.
Any straight-line water channel will, over time, begin to meander. In uniform soils, and all things being otherwise equal, the channel will begin to take on an S-shaped course. If the river is also required to absorb a greater force of water than normal, this S-curve develops more rapidly. In essence, the river is trying to lengthen its course in order to absorb a greater volume of water at a uniform velocity. Certainly a cut at the neck at Area C, which would have shortened the normal length of the river here by over 500 yards, would have focused that added pressure at the cut-off. The accentuated S-curve at the cut-off, and the deep and dry river channel immediately to the west and apparently rapidly abandoned, may be evidence of this phenomenon.
Although small in size, and seemingly a poor cause for so great an excavation effort as a canal, this neck probably fit exactly the characteristics considered prerequisite for such a navigation improvement in the early eighteenth century. This point can perhaps best be proven by reference to the only other "Neck" identified in this navigational system in the eighteenth century, namely "the Neck in the Wood Creek."
The same 1757 map (above) that first showed us "the Neck digged through in 1730" on the Mohawk River, also portrayed a continuation of the water route westward to Oswego, including the carry across land at Fort Williams (Rome) - (A above) that brought one into the westward running, if shallow, waters of Wood Creek, and eventually through that creek to Oneida Lake. It is on Wood Creek, about 3/4ths of the distance west to Oneida Lake, that we see a horseshoe-like northward trending loop in the stream, drawn almost identically to the neck on the Mohawk, except that the arms of the former are clearly left unconnected. This feature is labeled "the Neck in the Wood Creek." (B above, detail of same below)
The 1756 map (below, left) which showed the neck on the Mohawk labeled "the Neck Diged through in 1730" also reveals this loop on Wood Creek in about the same location and also drawn open at the neck, but with no accompanying label to identify it, as also does the 1759 map (below, right).
In trying to empathize with the reasoning of eighteenth century travelers in this water system and to decipher what would motivate them to consider a constriction in the river worthy of artificial improvement, we are indeed fortunate to have this second "Neck" to investigate. Not only was it left open, and thus still exhibited all of the negative characteristics apparently associated with a "Neck" on navigable waters, but it remained so during a period when late eighteenth century travelers on these rivers were creating accounts and diaries of their observations. It is through several of these accounts that we gain an intimate understanding of "the Neck in the Wood Creek," and thereby, by extrapolation, "the Neck" on the Mohawk River as well.
But before looking at those journals, there are three additional historic maps that shed some light on this feature west of Fort Williams. The first (below), drawn in 1768,33 appears to show the major neck on the Mohawk, and a lesser one on Wood Creek. Although both are shown in the correct position, neither is identified.
The second (below), drawn in 1758,34 is as interesting for what it doesn't show as for what it does. The neck on Wood Creek appears in classic form, although not labeled, yet the neck on the Mohawk is nowhere to be seen, even though the area in which it had existed, between Oriskany Creek (A) and Sauquoit Creek (B), is included. Possibly this map intends only to portray, as we said earlier, the features of significance to the traveler. The open neck on Wood Creek was important; the dug-through neck on the Mohawk, being functionally the same as a straight-line river channel, was not.
A third map (below), drawn in the same year,35 provides a most informative image of the neck on Wood Creek. It shows a very large and pronounced open meander of the creek with a narrow neck, drawn along an otherwise gently curving course of Wood Creek, and situated about 4 miles east of Oneida Lake (on this map north is drawn downward, so east is to the left).
In reality, Wood Creek was characterized by a violently convoluted course (below) in which many such meanders existed. Again we see the map maker exaggerating features that were important to the traveler and ignoring others of equal size that were not.
But why was "the Neck in the Wood Creek" so extraordinarily important to eighteenth century boatmen? We quickly gain insight into this when we begin to read travelers accounts of passage on Wood Creek in the late eighteenth century.
The first of these eyewitness accounts was recorded by Elkanah Watson, who in 1791 traveled westward from Schenectady to examine the waters of the Mohawk corridor for possibilities of improved navigation in the future. His encounter with Wood Creek in early September undoubtedly echoed those of innumerable travelers previous, tempered with the optimistic demeanor of a progressive mind, looking forward to an age of water travel that would open up the western lands to trade and emigration.
He makes these observations, on first entering the shallow, twisting course of the upper Wood Creek drainage:
It is a mere brook at this place, which a man can easily jump across . . . we progressed with infinite difficulty. In many places the windings are so sudden, and so short, that while the bow of the boat was ploughing in the bank on one side, her stern was rubbing hard against the opposite shore. In some places our men were obliged to drag the boats by main strength; and in others, the boughs and limbs were so closely interwoven, and so low, as to arch the creek completely over, and oblige all hands to lie flat. These obstacles, together with sunken logs and trees, rendered our progress extremely difficult, - often almost impracticable. . . . From a superficial view of this important creek, it appears to me the great difficulties may be surmounted: - First, by cutting away all the bushes and trees on its banks. Second, by cutting across the necks, and removing all sunken logs and trees. . .36
Two days later, after navigating the convoluted course of the creek down to Oneida Lake, he states:
The innumerable crooks and turns in Wood creek, carried us to every point of the compass. We counted one hundred and eighty-eight distinct points of land, from Canada Creek, on both sides. At a place called the Neck, four miles from Oneida lake, we measured seven paces across [3 feet x 7 = 21 feet], and our boat had to go a mile round to meet us on the opposite side.37
Here we see the first inkling of the key to the boatman's frustration traveling these narrow waterways. A strip of land only twenty one feet wide had forced them to go a mile out of their way on the main channel. This frustration was evident also in an account of the journey of Judge Vanderkemp of Albany to Oneida Lake via Wood Creek in 1792:
. . . we proceeded to a place called "Oak Orchard" (close by lots 11 and 12 Wood Creek Reservation, south side of Wood Creek in town of Verona). Ere long we arrived at a singular neck of land, about a mile in length, and so small that by standing, we discovered the water at the opposite side. This was a tedious circumnavigation indeed. We might have passed it in a few seconds if a passage had been cut through.38
By the following year just such a passage had been cut through by the initial efforts of Philip Schuyler's Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, formed in 1792 to improve westward navigation. One of their first projects was the clearing of debris from the channel of Wood Creek, and the cutting of short canals across the necks of a number of the meanders, as recommended by Elkanah Watson a few years earlier.
By fortunate coincidence, two French settlers, making passage to the Black River country via the Mohawk and Wood Creek corridor, observed this construction under way, and confirmed both the location and dimensions of "the Neck" (on Wood Creek) here. On October 12, 1793, they note in their journal: ". . . A tenth cut which is very short, saves a quarter of a mile, and an eleventh cut, which is in a vegetable mold upon sand, is not over five toises long [6.3945 feet x 5 = 31.9725 feet] , yet it saves a mile and a quarter."39 Clearly this "eleventh cut" eliminated the infamous "Neck in the Wood Creek" as a navigation obstacle forever.
How does all this pertain to the "Neck" on the Mohawk? Well one can see here that it was not the size of the meander that prompted frustration, but the ridiculousness of the detour. Being prevented from a quicker course by so insignificant a bank of land was apparently more than the early traveler could bear, even though a bit further up or down the river even more outrageous loops of the river would take one thousands of feet off course. But these other loops were not so insolent as to come right back to within a few feet of their starting point and even to taunt the traveler by being visible ahead to someone standing up in the boat.
So it would seem that within the perception of early navigators, Area C fits perfectly the model of a neck needing to be cut. Unlike either A or B it presented a bit of land that was probably only a few yards across, easily cut, and saving a detour of a modest, but nonetheless significant, 500 yards.
But can we confirm this convincing, but nonetheless hypothetical, assertion with some scrap of primary data; some missing piece in the complex and scattered puzzle of the Upper Mohawk of the eighteenth century? Fortunately we can, and a more sure proof would be hard to construct if we were to create one for the purpose.
In examining the history of the settlement of Whitestown, one of the modern townships within which our study area falls, we find it is rooted in a subdivision of lands previously known in the eighteenth century as the Sadaqueda Patent. This patent is identified on an 1829 map (above) of the region.40 It will be seen that this patent (red shading) covers exactly the search area we determined to contain "the Neck"; lying between the Oriskany Patent to the west and the Cosby Patent to the east (blue shading), and was settled by Judge Hugh White (below) just after the Revolution.
As described in a regional history, the subdivision occurred in 1784:
Hugh White . . . came by water to Albany, crossed by land to Schenectady, where he purchased a batteau, in which he made passage up the Mohawk River, to the mouth of the Sauquoit Creek. Immediately after the revolution, Judge White became one of the purchasers of Sadaqueda Patent, jointly with Zephanial Platt. . . Ezra L'Hommedieu, and Melancthon Smith. By an arrangement between the proprietors, it was agreed that they should meet on the land in the summer of 1784, and make a survey and partition. Upon the arrival of Judge White, at the mouth of the Sauquoit, a bark shanty was erected for a temporary residence. During the summer the patent was surveyed into four sections, and the particular section of each owner was decided by lot.41
So the surveying of the patent into lots, one for each owner, happened in 1784. A map previously cited and dated 178442 may be the partitioning of the portion of the Sadaqueda Patent lying north of the river. But a second manuscript (below), discovered at the Oneida Historical Society, anonymous, and tentatively dated circa 179043 appears to show the partitioning of lands on the south side of the river, and appears also to confirm our hypothesis.
Matching this new map to the 1811 river map (above, left) is easy. Clearly seen are the Mohawk River, the intersecting "Sedaghqueda River" (A) (labelled as such on the full map) and the location of several houses along the old "Oriskene Road", (not included in above image). That the original patent division was just between four owners, the fact that this map shows many lots with homes already established suggests a c. 1790 date.
But the astounding feature of this map is the accuracy of the configuration of the Mohawk River, which matches precisely the alignment as we know it existed circa 1800, with the large boxy meander (B), the boot-like nmeander at Area B (C), and the northward arching meander near Area A (D). It is worthy noting that the bootlike meander at Area B is show exactly as it appears today, further confirming it was never cut through. And the meander at Area A is not shown, indicating it was so long past cut through it had retained no water.
And of particular note is the telltale jog in the channel east of Area B (E) that denotes the position of meander Area C. But the feature shown here that we have never seen on any other detailed eighteenth century map is the water-filled loop connected to the river on the westerly leg of the boxy meander, which is, in fact, our own meander Area C.
This map clearly shows that historically Area C was watered and connected to the main channel, exactly as indicated on the British maps of "the Neck" drawn in the 1750s. It also seems to indicate a much greater separation of the main channel from the west arm of the loop than is evident today, suggesting confirmation of our hypothesis about a rapid eastward migration of the main channel here, perhaps due to the destabilization of the river by an artificial cut. The dry channel noted in the field just west of the old river bed may be the position of the river portrayed on this circa 1790 map.
This map shows that by 1790 both Area A and Area B were already fixed in their terminal configurations, but Area C continued to evolve after 1790, suggesting the introduction of a destabilizing influence (the canal) prior to that period. In addition, the map appears to establish the relative ages of the two cut-off meanders, Area A and Area C, with Area C being the youngest.
The question arises as to why this rather dramatic loop is shown here but omitted from other maps drawn at the same period? It can be noted that on this map the island formed within the loop of the meander at C is given a lot number and acreage. Apparently there was some concern that this 7 acre parcel be correctly assigned in the division of lands here. This could only have been at issue if meander loop C was connected to the river and if the land within it was in fact an island, completely surrounded by water. Had it merely been a partially dry ox-bow, as it is today, there would have been no ambiguity about its attribution.
Why then are other maps of lands in this area not also mindful of the peculiar nature of this feature in drawing up their boundaries? Probably because all the earlier property maps divided these lands more broadly, being divisions of land on the north side of the Mohawk from lands on the south side, and including this loop of the river totally within a single parcel assigned to a single owner.
Then there is the tantalizing mystery of the date, or number - "1730" - entered on the bottom of the map (not shown in images above). There seems little doubt this was written at the same time the map was drawn. There is equally little doubt the map post-dates 1784, the year in which the owners named on the parcel first moved to this property and commissioned the partitioning of the lands. Could the date refer to an earlier base map on which the partitioning was later added? Or is it just a file number that, by some bizarre coincidence, is the same as the date of the construction of "the Neck" which only this map accurately portrays? We may never know.
It was believed that the pre-eminence given this feature on mid-eighteenth century maps signified its creation as an event of some importance in Colonial New York of the early 1700s. But in a cursory reading of the more obvious collections of colonial documents created between 1728 and 1731, not one mention of this construction, or of the navigation obstacle it was designed to eliminate, could be found.
Having failed to discover any more specific verbal descriptions of this navigation project in these documents than those recorded on the maps themselves, what can we learn from more general documentation of the time that may reveal something of the context for this early construction on the ancient watercourse between Albany and Oswego?
Given the richness of Mohawk Valley history during the last half of the eighteenth century, and the frequency with which details of human events played out throughout that valley are described in our legends, texts and folklore, it is truly difficult to comprehend the degree to which the Upper Mohawk was qualitatively a different world in the first half of the 1700s.
In 1730, the Upper Mohawk region, i.e., that section of the river valley west of Burnet's Field (Herkimer), must have very closely resembled the following description, taken from the margins of a 1758 British map of the area along Wood Creek, west of Fort Williams (Rome):
"The whole Face of the Country Covered with Thick Woods on each side of these Rivers and no other Inhabitants but Indians, and this Country scarcely known by any except some Officers of the New York Independent Companys who commanded partys at Oswego, & some Indian Traders who went annually from Albany & Schenectada to Trade with Indians at Oswego. . ."45
That this is not an exaggeration is confirmed by an account of travel on the Upper Mohawk recorded in 1765:
"From a little above the German flatts, quite to Fort Stanwix the Country is all wood, except one plain ten Miles Short of the Fort, called Oriske fields, and that is in dispute. Seven Indian Huts were on it, when I passed it in June 1765."46
Even as late as 1793 we find these observations recorded in the vicinity of Utica:
"The banks are lined with trees, which lean over like an arbor, so as to render the navigation shady and very agreeable, and it seems like being in a garden."47
This confirms our supposition earlier that the field of view available to early navigators on this stretch of the river was very much limited to the river itself. Note in the marginal drawing on an 1803 map (above) of the Mohawk River the "Surface of River" at right and the great "Height of the Bank" beside it. This mitigated against a more accurate perception of the relationship of meanders to each other, except when in proximity to each other.
Certainly the level of frequent travel associated with this navigation corridor in the later eighteenth century, particularly by military contingents who used the watercourse as a highway of war, cannot be projected into this region prior to 1750, some 20 years after the construction at "the Neck." We have already seen that the fortification of the most strategic place along this navigation corridor - namely the Great Carrying Place (Rome) - did not occur at all until 1746, and not in any substantial way until the following decade.
The first major change in the composition of the Upper Mohawk region, and one that may have influenced events that led up to this cut at "the Neck," was the migration of Palatine settlers, in 1723 and 1725, from the mid-Hudson Valley to grants of land on the Mohawk at Stone Arabia (near Canajoharie) and the German Flatts (near Herkimer). This pushed the western limits of settlement into the Upper Mohawk and to within less than fifteen miles of the as yet un-cut "Neck" in the river.
Within ten years this migration had created, according to one historian ". . . a German river, an American Rhine, between Fort Hunter on the east and the settlement of Frankfort on the west."48
Probably the most dramatic change in the status of this region, however, and one that clearly changed the significance of the Mohawk/Oneida corridor as a transportation route westward from the Provincial Capital at Albany, was construction at Oswego, on Lake Ontario - the extreme western end of the Mohawk/Oneida waterway. A trading post was established in 1722 with a log palisade, and New York governor William Burnet ordered a fort built at the site in 1727. Prior to that, the Iroquois traveled to Albany to trade, primarily with the Dutch, who retained their influential role in Indian commerce into the mid-eighteenth century.
The completion of the fort at Oswego, designed to protect the fur traders there and to maintain a trading perimeter defensible against the French, was a natural extension of the British initiative west through the Mohawk/Oneida Corridor that was begun in the 1680s. It is perhaps of strategic interest that the construction of this outpost of the Provincial Government, and the concomitant need to facilitate passage back and forth between Albany and Oswego, occurred only two short years before the execution of the short canal at "the Neck,".
In 1729, just before that construction, the Laws of the Colony of New York reflect an increased concern for security and the regulation of trade at the new outpost, as well as some concern for the interference of foreign interests, namely the French, with that trade. They note that "Trade with the more remote Nations of Indians at the Trading House at Oswego is . . . Considerabelly Encreased . . ."49 and provision is made to compensate for that with additional supplies. Reimbursement is accounted for past services in support of Oswego, all carried by boat along the Mohawk/Oneida corridor.
It is interesting to note that in this accounting payment is made to twenty six persons, each for "his Voyage to Oswego."50 Entries indicating reimbursement "for Padels," "for labour at the Battoes,""for mending Battoes,"and "for repairing battoes" underscore the critical role these small craft played in support of Oswego and the importance of this inland transportation system in maintaining the interests of the British Empire in central New York. We cannot say when the batteau traffic on the Mohawk surpassed that of the bark canoe and dugout, and certainly the canoe and dugout continued to be major vehicles on this system for both aboriginal and European travelers throughout the eighteenth century. But clearly, according to these records, by 1730 it was in the batteau that official trade and travel moved east and west on the river.
While we have little primary documentation on batteaux of the early eighteenth century, and precious little on the batteaux in use on the Mohawk River in the mid-eighteenth century, we can assume they were similar to the vessels that routinely trafficked the Mohawk in the late eighteenth century (above). Small, flat-bottomed, and pointed at both ends, these shallow draught boats were about 30 to 40 feet long and were rowed, poled, or sailed depending on the direction of travel and the conditions of the day. Manned by two or three boatmen, these vessels carried a few tons cargo at best, and were driven upstream in the shallows by the use of setting poles, or were rowed where the current permitted. Under the right conditions, and most usually when running back to "Schenagtade", a sail could be raised on a single mast, and steering was accomplished by a long oar stuck between pins in the stern. The boatmen camped along the river bank each night, with such meager tents and utensils as their employment allowed.
Small batteaus, known in early times as three-handed and four-handed boats, were in use on the Mohawk, which carried from two to five tons each; and so called because three or four men were required to propel them. These boats were forced over the rapids in the river with poles and ropes, the latter drawn by men on the shore. Such was the mode of transporting merchandize and Indian commodities to and from the west, for a period of about fifty years, and until after the Revolution.51
That this pattern applies equally in the late 1720s is confirmed by an entry in the Colonial Laws, where "Mr. Harramanus Wendell," a prominent Albany merchant, is contracted to provision Oswego during the coming years (1730-33):
"It is further agreed with the said Mr. Wendell that in Case he Sees Cause to make use of two or four Battoas and the Paddles Seting Poles or Tents which are Built bought or paid for the use of the said Trading House, he may take them..."52
So it is clear that in the closing years of the 1720s, qualitative changes were taking place in the previously unsettled tract that lay between Herkimer and Oswego, and that these changes were producing a geometric increase in traffic along the Mohawk-Oneida corridor. Pressures for improvement of that navigation corridor must have been increasing as well, and the cut at "the Neck" in 1730 must have been a direct outgrowth of these pressures.
Yet in spite of the "official" nature of much of this new activity (the establishment of a trading post at Oswego and the confrontation with the French), it appears that this artificial waterway is unmentioned in any official documents of the period.
Question: Why would the creation of so unique a construction be so casual an event as to avoid formal documentation, except for the post facto notice it is given on several mid-eighteenth century British maps?
Certainly today, any modification of a river or stream channel is a matter of governmental approval and legal recording. But in the early eighteenth century, on the Upper Mohawk, miles beyond the reach of government, and even civilization, such requirements did not apparently apply.
Could this revolutionary act, creating New York's first "canal," have been merely the undertaking of a private party, perhaps a boatload of traders acting on their own volition and otherwise unaccountable to any higher authority?
The precedent for just such an event is found only a few years earlier, but hundreds of miles to the southwest, on the lower Mississippi. Isaac Weld recounts this occurrence during his travels through the region in the late 1790s:
The Mississippi has a very winding course, and at every bend there is an eddy in the water. . . In the year 1722, as a party of Canadians were going down the river, they found at one place such a bend in it, that although the distance across land, from one part of the river to the other, was not more perhaps than two hundred yards, yet by water it was no less than forty miles. The Canadians cut a trench across the land for curiosity. The soil bordering upon the Mississippi is remarkably rich and soft, and the current being strong, the river in a short time forced a new passage for itself, and the Canadians took their boat through it. This place is called Pointe Coupe'e. There are many similar bends in the river at present, but none so great.53
Another source states "Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and his party bypassed False River to shorten their route up-river" in 1699, and it was in 1722 that a flood in the Mississippi permanently changed the river course to follow this cut (above). Perhaps Weld combined the two stories into one, and gave it the date of 1722.
Observed a few years later by another, the site is again described:
"Fausse Riviere, or Point Coupee, this is the old bed of the river, and is something like the Tunica Bend, but not so large; it was cut through a few years ago by some Canadian traders, by which a distance of about twenty miles is saved..."54
While on a much grander scale than anything we would see on the Mohawk, the configuration described here is proportionally quite similar, and so, perhaps, the situation is comparable. Predating the cut on the Mohawk by a decade, this event on the Mississippi suggests an opportunity, technology and motivation like that we have hypothesized for "the Neck."
In the eighteenth century a batteau trip from Schenectady to Oswego took approximately two weeks. The few minutes of that trip which this sole improvement on the Mohawk might have saved could not have been a significant advantage in early navigation, and one wonders if in fact the cutting here might have been little more than "for curiosity," driven perhaps by a moderate amount of frustration at being detoured, if only slightly, by so insignificant a bar of land.
But whatever the motivation, and by whatever parties it was executed, the result stands as a unique event in the history of navigation in New York. Opening the era of artificial waterways, even in so minute a fashion, it heralded the coming of over two centuries of artificial navigation improvements in and adjacent to the Mohawk River. It is perhaps appropriate that the site of this event, one of the more historic sites along the ancient Mohawk-Oneida corridor, today lies alongside the modern Canal.
One of the values of a concentrated study such as this is that it creates a guide to resources for further research.
When the study is focused on historical geography, as ours was, this compilation of resources helps others interested in a particular area or region, such as the Mohawk Valley.
In the following sections, the serious researcher and those with a casual interest in regional history will find valuable clues to often difficult to find documents to help them in their quest for new information.
Of particular note in this study is the compendium of historic maps that record in detail the upper Mohawk River Valley in the 18th and early 19th centuries. An attempt was made to find and record every map of this geography within this 100 year period. The reader will find this is a most valuable resource.
1. Map #7
2. Map #5
3. Map #10
4. Map #19
5. Map #44
6. Map #42
7. Map #43
8. D.E.C. Air Photograph Files.
9. Map #39
10. Map #41
11. Map #32
12. Map #36
13. Map #10
14. Map #29
15. Map #27
16. Map #26
17. Map #38
18. Map #38
19. Map #23
20. Map #2
21. Map #14
22. Map #17
23. Map #12
24. Map #11
25. Schultz, 1810, p.4.
26. Map #14
27. D.E.C. Air Photograph Files.
28. Map #43
29. Map #24
30. Map #15
31. Map #41
32. Map #39
33. Map #13
34. Map #8
35. Map #9
36. Watson, 1820, p.31-34.
37. Watson, 1820, p.34-35.
38. Wager, 1896, p.136.
39. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.65.
40. Map #37
41. Jones, 1851, p.783-784.
42. Map #24
43. Map #28
44. Map #23
45. Map #9
46. Mereness, 1916, p.418.
47. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.53.
48. Hislop, 1848, p.114.
49. New York State, 1894, p.535.
50. New York State, 1894, p.547-550.
51. Simms, 1845, p.139.
52. New York State, 1894, p.561.
53. Weld, 1807, p.77.
54. Cramer, 1811, p.124.
55. Castorland Journal, 1793.
56. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.61-63.
57. Campbell, 1849, p.59.
58. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.63-64.
59. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.64.
60. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.63.
61. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.64.
62. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.64.
63. Schultz, 1810, p.17.
64. Watson, 1820, p.34.
65. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.35.
66. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.65.
67. Campbell, 1849, p.44.
68. Schuyler, 1792, p.12.
69. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.63.
70. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.65.
71. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.65.
72. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.65.
73. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.65.
74. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.66.
75. Castorland Journal, 1793, p.64.
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Access is off Mohawk Street, a road that runs north across the valley from Whitesboro (below).
There is a parking lot on the west side of the highway just south of the Barge Canal (below).
Access is by walking east along the Canalway Trail. You will have to climb a bank on the south side to check if you have gone far enough, then cut up into the field and walk southwest a few yards to the site.
Comments and questions may be directed to Phil Lord at firstname.lastname@example.org