In 1735, Fort Hunter, today just a half hour ride from Schenectady, was an outpost of colonial settlement. There Queen Anne had ordered the erection of the fort in 1711 at the behest of neighboring Mohawks. Included was a chapel that became a hub for various missionaries to the local Indigenous and European inhabitants.
Among the earliest was Rev. Thomas Barclay, the father of Henry Barclay, and in whose footsteps young Henry would follow. In 1735, with the ink barely dry on his Yale diploma, Henry took up his post at Fort Hunter as catechist (essentially, a religious education instructor). Following his ordination in England, he returned to his post as rector in 1738 , and remained in this capacity for the next eleven years.
Barclay tended a diverse congregation of English, Irish, and Dutch settlers, the fort’s enslaved Blacks, and, of course, the Mohawks to whom he was proselytizing. His handwritten “Register of baptisms, marriages, communicants & funerals” provides a material record of this work.
It’s a remarkable source for many reasons, ostensibly, because it documents Barclay’s work spreading Christianity to the local inhabitants. But perhaps more tellingly, the manuscript illustrates how the enlarging of Christendom helped establish and maintain relationships that promised more worldly benefits to British colonial interests. After all, this was a time of conflict in the New World, with British and French interests pitted against one another for dominion over their growing colonial possessions. A bond with indigenous peoples, thus strengthened through shared religious convictions, had clear strategic value.
The register’s sizable number of baptisms relative to other sacraments is especially evident though, and this imbalance has suggested to scholars something of the complicated nature of Indigenous Americans’ conversions. Overly simplified, Christianity did not necessarily replace existing religious belief systems but likely coexisted with them. It’s possible to speculate that this formed an fundamental weakness that facilitated some of the events considered below.
While much of the register’s importance is in informing how historians understand the broader cultural clashes taking place among colonial settlers and native peoples, there is at least one specific detail worth mentioning; historians are reasonably certain that among those baptizing their children are the parents of Joseph Brant, the Mohawk warrior and tribal leader who played an influential role during the American Revolution, and beyond. In the register, under July 18, 1741, Barclay noted that Peter Tehonwaghkwangeraghkwa and Margaret, his wife, baptized their son Jacob.
Since Brant was born in 1743, and the register covers this period, his absence is curious; however, that’s because he wasn’t born in New York but rather, Ohio. When Margaret gave birth she was at her tribe’s seasonal hunting rounds along the Cuyahoga River.
Returning to Barclay and his work at Fort Hunter, many extant histories only indicate that the Vestry of Trinity Church in New York appointed Barclay rector when he left Fort Hunter. The absence of any context leaves one thinking there was little external factors in the move.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. As King George’s War unfolded in the region, a rumor spread among the Mohawks in mid-January 1745 that, according to Barclay himself, “white people [from Albany] were coming with a considerable force to cut them all to pieces.”
True, or not, the traction it gained among the Mohawks speaks volumes about their tenuous faith in their British alliance. Although Barclay did not leave immediately, the damage to his reputation among the local Indigenous people seems to have been irreversible. He departed Fort Hunter the following year, in April 1746.
Perhaps contributing to this lack of trust, Mohawks were by this point acutely aware of that land was increasingly in European hands, regularly by duplicitous dealing. Barclay himself had acquired 300 acres near Fort Hunter that the Mohawks had sold to him for a mere five shillings in 1740, in part as a gesture of “love and esteem” for his work.
Learning that Barclay planned to sell the property following his departure, the Mohawks sought its return, arguing that it had been meant as a glebe (parish land for use by its presiding minister, not for his personal property). According to a 1795 letter from Barclay’s successor Rev. John Stuart, Barclay “applied to [the Mohawks] for a small Portion of land for a Garden and a Pasture,” and that “The Mohawks assigned the land in question to him for these purposes.” Stuart further explained that the Mohawks “would not permit a Layman to reside upon it,” hence their displeasure at his plans to sell it.
In the face of such pressure, instead of giving it back to the Mohawks, Barclay instead proposed the land as a gift to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, on the condition that he receive the cost of his improvements. Barclay never saw the money since he died in 1764 at 52 years of age but by the 1770s SPG had paid five hundred pounds to his estate and concluded the transfer. Suffice to say, the land never did return to the Mohawks.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts