In the 18th century, the upper Hudson River and the lower Mohawk River (now the NYS Canal System) were not easy to navigate. Both rivers had stretches of deep placid water, but they also had sand bars, gravel bars, rock ledges, shallows, and rapids. In a dry year, there were places where the water was only six inches deep.
Despite this, the two rivers were the easiest route, so a substantial amount of cargo was moved through the area. From the early 18th century, the military moved supplies to outposts along Lake Champlain, the Great Lakes, and the Canadian border. Later, agricultural products and furs traveled from the western lands, downstream to the cities along the coast. Finished goods and other necessities were carried back into the countryside.
To travel on the rivers, a vessel that was both high in cargo capacity and shallow in draft was needed. From the early 1700s until the 1800s, the preferred vessel for river travel was the bateaux. These boats were easy and cheap to construct, handy to row, pole, or sail, and spacious enough to hold a profitable cargo.
Schenectady was home to boat builders and dozens of boat crews that that served to bring goods west. Some trips were only as far as present-day Herkimer, while others went as far as Michilimackinac, an outpost at the straits connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron. A common commercial trip was to bring goods as far as Niagara Falls, where the goods were then loaded onto sloops to cross Lake Erie. The trip from Schenectady to Niagara and back took about one month to complete.
A typical commercial boat was crewed by three men: one steering and the other two rowing, or all three polling the boat or hauling it through shallows. Any passengers were expected to help row.
During the French and Indian War in the 1750s, Pontiac’s War in the 1760s, and the American Revolution in the 1770s, Schenectady and the Mohawk River saw fleets of bateaux used by the military. Often, the boat crews were enlisted from civilian bateaumen.
After the American Revolution, there was a concentrated effort to improve the river to allow larger boats to transport cargo. By the early 19th century, canals were replacing the natural river as the preferred navigational waterway, leading to the eventual disappearance of the bateau as a sensible means of transporting cargo.
Military and Commercial Cargo
Bateaux were cargo vessels, first and foremost. Supplies were usually packed in barrels, bales, or boxes, which were loaded into the bateaux for transport. The two most common types of bateaux in this area were the &qout;Schenectady” boat and the “Albany” boat. The “Schenectady” boat, which was 30 to 35 feet long and 6 feet, could carry 1 1/2 tons of cargo or 33 soldiers and their equipment. The “Albany” boat, which was 25 feet long and 5 feet wide, could carry 1 ton of cargo or 15 soldiers and their equipment. In addition to their cargo, these bateaux carried a standard crew of 3 men and their personal belongings, plus food and supplies enoough for a month&rsqou;s voyage.
Commercial cargo was primarily manufactured goods, moving westward to farms and settlements, and raw materials, moving eastward to population centers and seaports.
Mabee Farm Bateaux
“De Sager & Bobbie G”
Maritime Academy students, under the watchful eye of teacher Greg Pattison, constructed the Mabee Farm bateaux modeled after those built in Schenectady during the Revolutionary War.
The bateaux, the “De Sager” and the “Bobbie G”, are docked seasonally at the Mabee Farm dock on the Mohawk River. The bateaux have appeared in documentaries and films, including one on the Potomac River in Virginia for Greystone Films: George Washington, Man of Decision for the Mount Vernon Visitors Center. The bateaux also take part in the Mabee Farm’s annual re-enactment. The “DeSager” has also been sailed from Rotterdam Junction to Kingston for the “Burning of Kingston”. The “DeSager” has also participated in events at Herkimer Home, Waterford, Edward Island, and Schenectady’s Walkabout. The bateaux are cared for by volunteers, many of whom belong to the 2nd Albany Militia Re-enactment group.
A Property of the Schenectady County Historical Society
Mabee Farm Historic Site
1080 Main Street
Rotterdam Junction, NY 12150