Schenectady is a city in Schenectady County, New York, United States, of which it is the county seat. As of the 2010 census, the city had a population of 66,135. The name "Schenectady" is derived from a Mohawk word skahnéhtati meaning "beyond the pines". The city was founded on the south side of the Mohawk River by Dutch colonists in the 17th century, many from the Albany area. They were prohibited from the fur trade by the Albany monopoly, which kept its control after the English takeover in 1664. Residents of the new village developed farms on strip plots along the river.
Connected to the west via the Mohawk River and Erie Canal, the city developed rapidly as part of the Mohawk Valley trade, manufacturing and transportation corridor. By 1824 more people worked in manufacturing than agriculture or trade, and the city had a cotton mill, processing cotton from the Deep South. Through the 19th century, it developed nationally influential companies and industries, including General Electric and American Locomotive Company (ALCO), which were powers into the mid-20th century. The city was part of emerging technologies, with GE collaborating in the production of nuclear-powered submarines and, in the 21st century, working on other forms of renewable energy.
The city is in eastern New York, near the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. It is in the same metropolitan area as the state capital, Albany, which is about southeast. In December 2014, the state announced that the city was one of three sites selected for development of off-reservation casino gambling, under terms of a 2013 state constitutional amendment. The project will redevelop an ALCO brownfield site in the city along the waterfront, with hotel, housing and a marina in addition to the casino.
When first encountered by Europeans, the Mohawk Valley was the territory of the Mohawk nation, one of the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, their presence in the region stretching back to at least 1100 AD. Starting in the early 1600s the Mohawk moved their settlements closer to the river and by 1629, they had also taken over territories on the west bank of the Hudson River, formerly held by the Algonquian-speaking Mahican people.
One of the major Mohawk villages, Canajoharie, later known as the Upper Castle, was further west along the south side of the Mohawk River. When Dutch settlers built Fort Orange (present-day Albany, NY) in the Hudson Valley in the 17th century, the Mohawk called their settlement skahnéhtati, meaning "beyond the pines," referring to a large area of pine barrens that lay between the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. About 3200 acres are now protected as the Albany Pine Bush. Eventually, this word entered the lexicon of the Dutch settlers. The settlers in Fort Orange used skahnéhtati to refer to the new village at the Mohawk flats (see below), which became known as Schenectady (with a variety of spellings).
In 1661 Arent van Curler, a Dutch immigrant bought a big piece of land on the south side of the Mohawk River. Other colonists were given grants of land by the colonial government in this portion of the flat fertile river valley, as part of New Netherland. The settlers recognized that these bottomlands had been cultivated for maize by the Mohawk for centuries. Curler took the largest piece of land; the remainder was divided into 50-acre plots for the other first fourteen proprietors. Most early colonists were from the Fort Orange area and likely expected to take part in the fur trade; but the Beverwijck (later Albany) traders kept a monopoly of legal control. The settlers here turned to farming. Their 50-acre lots were unique for the colony, "laid out in strips along the Mohawk River", with the narrow edges fronting the river, in French colonial style. They relied on rearing livestock and wheat. The proprietors and their descendants controlled all the land of the town for generations, essentially acting as government until after the Revolutionary War, when representative government was established.
Early Dutch traders in the valley had unions with Mohawk women, if not official marriages. Their children were raised within the Mohawk community, which had a matrilineal kinship system, considering children born into the mother's clan. Many mixed-race descendants, such as Jacques Cornelissen Van Slyck and his sister Hilletie, who were of Dutch, French and Mohawk ancestry, became interpreters and intermarried with Dutch colonists. They also gained land in the settlement. In 1661 Jacques inherited what became known as Van Slyck's Island from his brother Marten, who had been given it by the Mohawk. Van Slyck family descendants retained ownership through the 19th century. Because of labor shortages in the colony, some Dutch settlers brought African slaves to the region, as did the later English, who continued with agriculture in the river valley. Traders in Albany kept control of the fur trade.
In 1664 the English seized the Dutch New Netherland colony and renamed it New York. They confirmed the monopoly on the fur trade by Albany, and issued orders to prohibit Schenectady from the trade through 1670 and later. Settlers purchased additional land from the Mohawk in 1670 and 1672. (Jacques and Hilletie Van Slyck each received portions of land in the Mohawk 1672 deed for Schenectady.) Twenty years later (1684) Governor Thomas Dongan granted letters patent for Schenectady to five additional trustees.
On February 8, 1690, during King William's War, French forces and their Indian allies, mostly Ojibwe and Algonquin warriors, attacked Schenectady by surprise, leaving 62 dead, 11 of them African slaves. American history notes it as the Schenectady massacre. A total of 27 persons were taken captive, including five African slaves; the raiders took their captives overland about 200 miles to Montreal and its associated Mohawk village. Typically the younger captives were adopted by Mohawk families to replace people who had died. Through the early 18th century in the raiding between Quebec and the northern British colonies, captives were also ransomed by their communities. In 1748, during King George's War, the French and Indians attacked the city again, killing 70 residents.
In 1765, Schenectady was incorporated as a borough. During the American Revolutionary War the local militia unit, the 2nd Albany County Militia Regiment, fought in the Battle of Saratoga and against Loyalist troops. Most of the warfare in the Mohawk Valley occurred farther west on the frontier in the areas of German Palatine settlement west of Little Falls. Because of their close business and other relationships with the British, some settlers from the city were Loyalists and moved to Canada in the late stages of the Revolution. The Crown granted them land in what became known as Upper Canada and later Ontario.
It was not until after the Revolutionary War that the village residents were successful in reducing the power of descendants of the early trustees and gaining representative government. The settlement was chartered as a city in 1798.
Long interested in supporting education, residents founded Union College in 1795 under a charter from the state. The school had started in 1785 as Schenectady Academy. This founding was part of the expansion of higher education in upstate New York in the postwar years.
During this period, migrants poured into upstate and western New York from New England, but there were also new immigrants from England and Europe. Many traveled west along the Mohawk River, settling in the western part of the state, where they developed more agriculture on former Iroquois lands. A dairy industry developed in the central part of the state. New settlers were predominately of English and Scotch-Irish descent. In 1819, Schenectady suffered a fire that destroyed more than 170 buildings and most of its historic, distinctive Dutch-style architecture.
New York had passed a law for gradual abolition of slavery in 1799, but in 1824, there were still a total of 102 slaves in Schenectady County, with nearly half residing in the city. That year the city of Schenectady had a total population of 3939, which included 240 free blacks, 47 slaves, and 91 foreigners. They finally gained freedom in 1827.
In the 19th century, after completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Schenectady became an important transportation, manufacturing and trade center. By 1824 more of its population worked in manufacturing than agriculture or trade. Among the industries was a cotton mill, which processed cotton from the Deep South. It was one of many such mills in upstate whose products were part of the exports shipped out of New York City. The city and state had many economic ties to the South at the same time that some residents became active in the abolitionist movement.
Schenectady benefited by increased traffic connecting the Hudson River to the Mohawk Valley and the Great Lakes to the west and New York City to the south. The Albany and Schenectady Turnpike (now State Street) was constructed in 1797 to connect Albany to settlements in the Mohawk Valley. The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad started operations in 1831 as one of the first railway lines in the United States, connecting the city and Albany by a route through the pine barrens between them. Developers in Schenectady quickly founded the Utica & Schenectady Railroad, chartered in 1833; Schenectady & Susquehanna Railroad, chartered May 5, 1836; and Schenectady & Troy Railroad, chartered in 1836, making Schenectady "the rail hub of America at the time" and competing with the Erie Canal. Commodities from the Great Lakes areas and commercial products were shipped to the East and New York City through the Mohawk Valley and Schenectady.
The last slaves in New York and this city gained freedom in 1827, under the state's gradual abolition law. The law first gave freedom to children born to slave mothers, but they were indentured to the mother's master for a period into their early 20s. Union College established a school for black children in 1805, but discontinued it after two years. Methodists helped educate the children for a time, but public schools did not accept them.
In the 1830s, the abolitionist movement grew in Schenectady. In 1836, Rev. Isaac Groot Duryee (also recorded as Duryea) was a co-founder of the interracial Anti-Slavery Society at Union College and in 1837 of the Anti-Slavery Society of Schenectady. Freedom seekers were supported via the Underground Railroad route that ran through the area, passing to the west and north to Canada, which had abolished slavery.
In 1837 Duryee, together with other free people of color, co-founded the First Free Church of Schenectady (now the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church). He also started a school for students of color. The abolitionist Theodore S. Wright, an African-American minister based in New York City, spoke at the dedication of the church and praised the school.
Through the late 19th century, new industries were established in the Mohawk Valley, and powered by the river. Industrial jobs attracted many new immigrants, first from Ireland, and later in the century from Italy and Poland. In 1887, Thomas Edison moved his Edison Machine Works to Schenectady. In 1892, Schenectady became the headquarters of the General Electric Company. This business became a major industrial and economic force and helped establish the city and region as a national manufacturing center. GE became important nationally as a creative company, expanding into many different fields. American Locomotive Company also developed here, from a Schenectady company, and merging several smaller companies in 1901; it was second in the United States in the manufacture of steam locomotives before developing diesel technology.
20th century to present
Like other industrial cities in the Mohawk Valley, in the early 20th century, Schenectady attracted many new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, as they could fill many of the new industrial jobs. It also attracted African Americans as part of the Great Migration out of the rural South to northern cities for work. General Electric and American Locomotive Company (ALCO) were industrial powerhouses, influencing innovation in a variety of fields across the country.
Schenectady is home to WGY-AM, the second commercial radio station in the United States, (after WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts, which was named for Westinghouse.) WGY-AM was named for its owner, General Electric (the G), and the city of Schenectady (the Y). In 1928, General Electric produced the first regular television broadcasts in the United States, when the experimental station W2XB began regular broadcasts on Thursday and Friday afternoons. This television station is now WRGB; for years it was the Capital District's NBC affiliate, but is now the CBS affiliate.
The city reached its peak of population in 1930. The Great Depression caused a loss of jobs and population after that. In the postwar period after World War II, some residents moved to newer housing in suburban locations outside the city. In addition, General Electric established some high-tech facilities in the neighboring town of Niskayuna, which contributed to continuing population growth in the county. In the latter part of the 20th century, Schenectady suffered from the massive industrial and corporate restructuring that affected much of the US, including in the railroads. It lost many jobs and population to other locations, including offshore. Since the late 20th century, it has been shaping a new economy, based in part on renewable energy. Its population increased from 2000 to 2010.