Sarah R. Johnston
John I. Garver, Ph.D.
Schenectady NY 12308 (USA)
The Mohawk River of Upstate New York has supported inhabitants along its banks for centuries. An essential resource for Native Americans, early settlers and traders; the river facilitated trade, and provided a route to the "interior", as well as fertile floodplains for farming. However, the Mohawk River has also proven itself to be a source of incredible destruction, at times capable of flooding its banks both frequently and severely. Upon visiting the Mohawk Valley in 1784, François Marbos, a secretary of the French legation noted, "In spite of the devastation to which the two banks of the Mohawk were a prey, the population there makes rapid growth" (Snow et al., 1996). The situation noted by Marbos continued, as settlers, attracted by the river’s many attributes, established settlements on the floodplain. These settlements, now cities and towns, are greatly affected by floods and the damage they cause. It is for this reason that a river’s flooding history is studied. Knowledge of when floods occurred in history, what factors contributed to them, and the damage they caused, provide a base of information on which preventative measures for the future are created.
This project is part of a continuing effort to research and record the Mohawk River’s flooding history, particularly as it pertains to the eastern section of the valley, namely the Schenectady area. The Union College Geology department has completed several papers which address the river’s flooding record, including "Historical Record of Flooding on Mohawk River, New York (1916-1996)", by John J. Gara and John I. Garver, and "Major Floods on the Mohawk River (NY): 1832-2000" by Mat Scheller, Karen Luey, and John I. Garver. Gara and Garver deal with events from the Twentieth century, and Scheller, Luey, and Garver work extends farther back to 1832 (all can be found here).
Older events have been elusive due to "very sketchy" documentation. It is the goal of this project to find and utilize what little documentation is available in order to research flooding on the Mohawk River from settlement of the Dutch in the mid 17th century to 1832. The scope of the project is also open to flooding events that have occurred on the nearby Hudson River, to which the Mohawk is tributary. While information concerning the Hudson was not researched directly, it often surfaced, and is included here, as it may suggest flooding dates on the Mohawk, and describes weather conditions of the time, etc. This is a work in progress, and we will be updating this web paper as we get new information.
The sources available that deal with flooding events prior to 1832 are indeed sketchy. Local newspaper records that have been helpful in past projects are rather complete and readily available through the New York Newspaper Project, but only for those issues that date back as far as 1824. Issues that precede this date may be available in hard copy, however the issues obtainable range from completely miscellaneous to somewhat regular.
For this project, newspapers were studied at the New York State Archives and the Schenectady County Historical Society. The New York State Archives maintains a separate catalog of pre-1820 newspapers that may be viewed in hardcopy. Various newspapers published out of Schenectady, Albany and New York City were examined for the years from 1771 to 1820. However, a potentially helpful group of issues of The Cabinet, predecessor to The Schenectady Cabinet, for the first two decades of the 19th century, could not be retrieved from storage. Some issues of The Cabinet from this time period were viewed at the Schenectady County Historical Society, although they did not prove helpful.
With a newspaper record that is fair at best, it is necessary to turn to other sources. Local history books for the Albany and Schenectady areas were examined at the Schenectady County Historical Society and New York State Library and provided somewhat helpful information via second-hand accounts. First-hand accounts from the journals of those who traveled the Mohawk Valley were also utilized. Many of the accounts were viewed in Dean R. Snow’s In Mohawk Country, a convenient compilation of all the significant narratives of the Mohawk region dating from 1634 up to the beginnings of the Erie Canal during the 19th century. Finally, original reports of the Canal Commissioners, as well as later hydrology reports addressing the Erie Canal and Mohawk River were also used. By employing these scant resources, this project provides a skeleton of flooding history of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers for the years 1634 to 1827.
Dec 11-12, 1634
The events of 1634 are reported by Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, a Dutch barber-surgeon sent into the Mohawk Valley by a commander at Fort Orange, on the Hudson. Van den Bogaert’s personal journal is "the earliest known record of the interior west of the Hudson" (Snow 1996). The journal is translated from Dutch by Charles T. Gehring and William A. Starna, and published with notes in the book A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634-1635. It was also published in In Mohawk Country, however, in this version, the notes have been removed, and is slightly less helpful. In an entry dated December 11, 1634, Van den Bogaert writes, in reference to the Hudson River,"This waterway flows past their castle (a large Indian village) in their country, but we are unable to travel on it because of the heavy flooding." The next entry, December 12, contains the following, "After we had traveled an hour, we came to the tributary that flows into our river and past the Maquase’s villages. Here there was a heavy ice flow."
Gehring’s notes cite "the tributary" as the Mohawk River, and then offers clarifying information, "From Van den Bogaert’s description, it is apparent that on December 11, the party approached the Mohawk River, found it heavily flooded, and unable to or choosing not to cross, spent the night." This account is very brief, and the flood’s affects, if any, on the surrounding areas are unknown. Therefore, this event is best classified as a date of possible flood, as there is no way to determine or infer the severity of the flood from the description.
April 30- May 3, 1639
The information gathered on the Hudson flood of 1639, comes from a visitor to Albany named De Vries, whose description was published in Munsell’s Annals of Albany.
Whilst I was at Fort Orange, the 30th of April, there
was such a high flood at the island on which Brand-pylen
lived, -who was my host at this time, - that we were compelled
to leave the island, and go with boats into the house, where
there were four feet of water. This flood continued three days,
before we could use the dwelling again. The water ran into
the fort and we were compelled to repair to the woods, where
we erected tents and kindled large fires (Munsell 1850, vol. 1).
De Vries’ account suggests that this flood was significant because it demanded the relocation of inhabitants and lasted for three days. The mention of the flood’s affect on Fort Orange might prove useful, as the fort is mentioned in descriptions of other floods along the Hudson also.
The flood in March of 1646 may be associated with particularly harsh winter just prior, according to Munsell’s Annals of Albany.
The winter which had just terminated, was remarkably long
and severe. The North (Hudson) River closed at Rensselaerswyk,
on the 24th November, and remained frozen some four months.
A very high freshet, unequalled since 1639, followed, which
destroyed a number of horses in their stables; nearly carried
away the fort, and inflicted considerable other damage in the
colonie (Munsell 1850, vol. 1).
This account is interesting because it mentions the flood of 1639, thereby providing extra information about the 1639 flood, and the years between. The description indicates that the flood was quite devastating, and one can assume that this was, indeed a major flooding event on the Hudson River.
June 24-26, 1661
The account given here of the events in 1661 was taken from Howell and Munsell’s History of Schenectady County, New York, but can be found verbatim in several history books. Arent Van Curler had requested of the Governor "permission to settle upon the ‘Great Flat’ lying west of Schenectady" when the following events ensued:
Before the Governor’s authority was received at Beverwick
a freshet laid the country for miles around under water. This
was followed, a few days after (June 26), by an inundation
much greater than the first, which forced the inhabitants to
quit their dwellings and fly with their cattle for safety to the
woods on the adjoining hills. Incalculable damage was caused
by these irruptions. The wheat and other grain were all
prostrated, and had to be cut mostly for fodder, affording
scarcely seed sufficient for the next spring.
The Governor’s letter is dated June 23, so it can be inferred that the first inundation mentioned occurred that day or one of the following, before the second inundation of the 26th. The flooding was severe enough to prevent communication and purchase of the land for an entire month (Howell 1886). Thomas E. Burke, author of Mohawk Frontier, cites heavy rains that caused the flooding, and also mentions several years of severe weather that plagued settlers prior to the flood of 1661 including very hard winters and wet springs.
August 4, 1663
The following description of the events that occurred along the Hudson River is taken from O’Callaghan’s History of New Netherland.
"…And in the course of the summer, the country around Fort
Orange was submerged by a freshet which caused considerable
damage. The grain was mostly cut; the harvest had been fully as
heavy as in the first ten years of the settlement; but the flood came
down unexpectedly like an avalanche, and swept all away"
This description is not very specific, and thus makes interpreting its severity and duration difficult. However, the author does mention "considerable damage" and the loss of crops, indicating that this flood was likely quite substantial.
March 23-24, 1761
The journal of Warren Johnson, brother of William Johnson, describes his experiences as he visited his brother in the Mohawk Valley for the years 1760-1761. His journal describes the winter of 1760-1761, which from his description seems to have been fairly harsh. He also describes several days of thaws and heavy rains before the following entries,
March the 23d. A Thaw, about 9 ‘Clock this Morning, the Mohawk
River broke up at Fort Johnson, the Ice carried every thing before
it, & really appeared dreadful…
March the 24th. Some frost, but the weather very fine, and quite
pleasant, were it not, for the Snow on the Ground: Vast quantities of
Ice, on the Land, along the River, driven there by the River’s breaking
up (Snow 1996).
The severity of this flood can be argued, as it is a matter of interpreting Johnson’s words. What exactly "every thing" was that was carried away by the ice is an important detail that Johnson does not further describe. However, from his description of the event as "dreadful", and his mentioning of "Vast quantities of Ice," left on the land, it is apparent that the flood was relatively sizeable, and at least out of the ordinary enough to make a strong impression on him.
The Albany Gazette, for February 24, 1772, reports flooding on both the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers.
ALBANY. Last week we had a southerly Wind accompanied with Rain, which raised the MOHAWK and HUDSON RIVERS to a very great Height; on Saturday the Ice upon the MOHAWK-RIVER, opposite to Schenectady, broke up, damaged a wharf belonging to Mr. John Visger, Junior, and swept away the Batteau-House:--
It is clear from this report that the ice had very damaging effects, and as described, the water was at a "very great height," suggesting that this flood was of a considerable size.
Flooding on the Hudson River as described by the Albany Register for March 29, 1790, was initiated by a week of heavy rains.
The weather for a week past being uncommonly moderate, and
attended with considerable falls of rain and some slight snows,
raised the river to such a degree on Saturday last, completely to
carry off the ice; and as by accounts form Poughkeepsie, &c. the
river has been some time since clear… (Albany Register, 1790).
This account does not indicate the flood was particularly damaging to the surrounding area. This date is probably best considered a date of moderate flooding on the Hudson, and possibly flooding on the Mohawk if the heavy rains affected the whole region.
The apparent flood that occurred in 1809 is mentioned by Roberts in Old Schenectady, because it destroyed the first work to construct the Burr Bridge. Other sources cite 1808 as the opening of the Bridge, but Roberts describes it being destroyed during construction in January of 1809. There is little indication that this flood, or breakup event was particularly large, but Roberts’ comments on its cause, and area’s pattern of flooding are interesting to note.
In those days, the Mohawk was much more to be depended upon
than it can be now. The ice formed and broke up and the floods
came and went, at times which were more nearly fixed. This was,
probably, due to the fact that Nature had not been deranged by the
destruction of the forests. They had the effect of holding back rains
and melting the snows, and of allowing them to gradually run
away to the sea, by the way of the Mohawk and Hudson. But the
winter of 1809 was an exception. The river rose rapidly, in the
January thaw, and the ice went out, taking the work of months and
the hope and money of the workers with it.
The work taken out by the event was not ruined by the River’s current, but rather, scaffolding and supports built upon the ice, were ruined when the ice broke out from underneath them (Roberts 1904). The only indications that this event was significant are Robert’s description of the winter of 1809 as "an exception" and his mention that the river rose "rapidly". This event should be considered as a possible date of a break-up flood.
In a January 1818 Assembly Journal, the Erie Canal Commissioners mention heavy rains and repeated flooding along the Mohawk River:
The rains have surpassed in extent and duration all former example. More waterhas flowed in the Mohawk river the past summer, than was ever before witnessed in any season by the oldest inhabitants. Its extensive intervale lands have several times been deluged… And in 1817, when the works were to be commenced, no season was ever marked with such repeated inundations; as if to indicate at the commencement, by the height, impetuosity and durability of the greatest floods, the exact dimensions and strength of the works necessary to discharge or resist them.
While the exact date of flooding is not described in the journal, it does mention high water in Rome during October as part of the summer flooding in 1817. W.B. Langbein mentions in his report how the flood of 1817 "became the design flood," which the Canal Commissioners used as a flooding reference, particularly in their construction of those areas which paralleled the river (Langbein 1976). It is obvious from the report that the flooding of 1817 was quite severe, if not marked by an instance of extremely high water, than by "repeated inundations" as mentioned.
- March 3, 1818
This flood appears to have been quite sizeable according to Munsell’s "Notes from Newspapers" section of the Annals of Albany.
March 3rd. The water rose to great height in the river the night of the 3d March, so that several families in Church st. would have perished if they had not been rescued. The water was two feet deep in the bar room of the Eagle Tavern, on the southeast corner of South Market and Hamilton streets. Sloops were thrown upon the dock, and the horse ferry boat was driven about half way up to Pearl street. A family occupied a house on the island opposite the city, who were rescued by the people of Bath. So great a freshet had not been known in forty years (Munsell 1850, vol. 6).
It is not clear what flood is being referred to forty years prior to this one. No floods on the Hudson were found for the time period of approximately 1778. The nearest date attained by this project is the flood of 1790. However, the lack of information of a flood at approximately 1778 is likely a product of this project’s concentration on the Mohawk River, as specifics about the Hudson were not actively researched.
Mohawk River -
In a report of the Canal Commissioners from February, 1822, a flood in November of 1821 is mentioned in reference to engineer’s placement of the canal.
…The correctness of this location was tested by the great flood of November last, which, suddenly raising the Mohawk to an unusual height, was not observed any where to approach within many feet of the top of the banks, or to do any injury to the works which were completed. On the land side, more damage was sustained; the flood from the hills filled the canal, and in some places, broke down the new and unfinished banks, destroyed the wing of one of the dams, and injured several unfinished culverts.
This flood was apparently rather large, described as the "great flood," however, all the damage mentioned was not caused by the river, but caused as the authors said, by "the flood from the hills." Presumably, the flooding was caused by heavy rains, which caused both the river to raise, and local streams to flood, or the so-called "flood from the hills."
April 22, 1827
The mention of this flood was also found in "Notes from Newspapers" of the Annals of Albany: "April 22. The water in the river was higher than had been known since 1818" (Munsell 1850, vol. 9). The only indication of this flood’s magnitude, because there is no description of flood damage, comes from the comparison to 1818. So while it can be inferred form its relationship to 1818, that this flood was sizeable, although its specifics are unknown.
It has been the goal of this project to research and compile dates of flooding along the Mohawk River using the historical record. However, a lack of information attained makes it difficult to extrapolate long-term flooding trends. There is a sizeable gap of about one century in the record of flooding gathered for both rivers. Part of this is surely due to the lack of newspapers. Local newspapers available are irregular for the time period before 1824, and non-existent for the period prior to the 1770s and 1780s. Still, the floods compiled here help understand the Mohawk River’s characteristics in recent history, and hopefully provide a base upon which future workers may build a more complete chronology. The prevalence of information gathered about the Hudson River incidentally may indicate, that had the Hudson been researched directly, there is more information to be attained. Future studies to determine the historical record of flooding on the Mohawk River may be most productive if they are expanded to a regional scale and include flooding events on the Hudson River and others.
Burke, Thomas E. Mohawk Frontier. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 17, 59
Canal Commissioners. 1818; Assembly Journal. Published in Canal Laws, NY State Gov. 1825. Vol. 1 p. 375
Canal Commissioners. 1822; Report of the Canal Commissioners. Published in Canal Laws, NY State Gov. 1825. Vol. 2 p. 72
Gara, J. 1998: Historical Record of Flooding on the Mohawk River, New York. Unpublished research report, Union College Geology Department, Schenectady, NY.
Gehring, Charles T. and Starna, William A. 1988; A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634-1635. Syracuse University Press, p. 1-3, 25-27
Howell and Munsell, 1886; History of Schenectady County. New York: Munsell and Co., p.3
Langbein, W.B. 1976; Hydrology and Environmental Aspects of the Erie Canal, (1817- 99), Geological Survey Water supply paper. U.S. Gov.
Munsell, J. 1850; Annals of Albany. Albany: J. Munsell. vol. 1 p. 200-201, vol. 6 p. 128 vol. 9 p. 126, 184.
O’Callaghan, E.B., 1848; History of New Netherland. New York: D. Appleton and Co. vol. 2, p. 482-483
Roberts, George S., 1904; Old Schenectady. Schenectady, Robson and Addee, p. 123-124
Scheller, M. and Luey, K, 2000; Major Floods on the Mohawk River (NY): 1832-2000. Unpublished research report. Union College Geology Department, Schenectady, NY.
Snow, Dean R., Gehring, Charles T. and Starna, William A. 1996; In Mohawk Country. Syracuse University Press, p. 267-268.
The Albany Gazette, February 24, 1772.
The Albany Register, March 29, 1790
Van der Bogert, M.E., et al., 1978; A Chronology of Floods and Flood Related Events in the Schenectady Section of the Mohawk River, Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce Environmental Advisory Council Flood Assessment Task Force, Schenectady Riverside Research Committee.
Funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation
Home to Mohawk Flooding