This presentation is intended to shed some light on the locations of previously undocumented segments of colonial roadway that provided passage between the Mohawk Valley and the headwaters of the Susquehanna watershed.
I will draw on recent research that I have conducted as part of my work at the New York State Museum, studying the historical geography of inland navigation in the Early Republic with a particular focus on the canals and waterway improvements created by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company between the years 1792 and 1820.
It is the discovery of new information embedded in my research into transportation systems in the 1790s that unlocked the “secrets”about transportation in the 1750s that I will be revealing here.
It is no secret that New York State has within its geography some very significant confluences of early transport corridors.
Not only is the state crossed by an eighteenth century international waterway connecting the Hudson River with the Great Lakes at Oswego, but it also has within its borders a region of what might be called “portage” between the Mohawk and Susquehanna watersheds, the majority of the latter falling outside the southern limits of the state.
Two-hundred years ago, waterways served as the primary corridors of transportation, both military and civilian. The land routes that did exist were poor at best, and miserable the rest of the time.
But land routes, and land routes of vital importance, did exist in the mid-18th century, and this presentation will take a very close look at some of these in the eastern part of what would become New York State.
Depending on what map you examine, there were anywhere from three to eight major (for that time) roadways traversing the highlands between the Mohawk and Susquehanna. The most prominent was the one which departs the river at Fort Plain and runs southwesterly to the head of Otsego Lake, some 18 miles overland.
Although this road clearly existed as early as 1756, as evidenced by this map, it achieved its fame by being the portage route taken by the forces of the Clinton-Sullivan campaign of 1779 against the Iroquois in Pennsylvania and southern New York.
A fleet of over 200 batteaux and over 1,600 men had pushed up through the rapids of the Mohawk to the landing in the mouth of the Otsquago Creek at Fort Plain. A convoy of “500 waggons going steady” dragged the 200 boats overland to the top of Otsego Lake, where the expedition was once again launched, entering the waterway network of the Susquehanna, which it would then follow south into Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the best general map on which to trace early roadways in New York State is the one prepared in 1779 by Claude Sauthier (above).
Looking at the region in question, we see that this map reveals in some detail the general topography between the two watersheds and the routes of several roadways that cross the area.
Because the map is relatively late, place names and secondary features appear that make the matching of this map to the modern terrain easier than with maps drawn earlier in the 18th century, which are often abstract and over-simplified.
While such earlier maps may have served the military commanders of the time, they do not provide us the ability to connect the historic map to the modern landscape.
In case the geography shown on this map is mysterious, the place names of modern communities in the region are indicated here.
In addition, there are a number of salient features, or what we might call 18th century “landmarks” that provide anchor points for understanding and interpreting the road networks shown on this map.
We will now examine some of these landmarks, linking them from this map to the modern landscape.
The first and perhaps most significant feature is the Otsquago Creek valley, already mentioned. It is a major waterway that drains the uplands into the Mohawk, rivaled only by the Canajoharie Creek to the southeast. By following upstream to its headwaters, one reaches virtually the edge of the Upper Susquehanna watershed above Otsego Lake.
Through this valley runs a road, along the northwesterly side of the stream. It was along this road that the Clinton expedition ran its 500 wagon shuttle dragging 200 boats and provisions in the summer of 1779.
Certainly if this was not a major road before the expedition, it had been turned into one by the end of June, 1779. At that time, this was probably the biggest road in service west of Schenectady.
The valley of the Otsquago forms a dramatic cleft in the otherwise insurmountable escarpment that runs along much of the southern edge of the Mohawk valley.
Passage by water up the Otsquago is impossible. Passage by land is possible, but still difficult.
However, in the 1750s options for land passage across these highlands were limited and within that context, this route was one of the best.
Another prominent landmark, and one which makes a very nice anchor point for the road system we are looking at, is Lake Otsego - considered the head of Susquehanna navigation during the 18th century.
The destination of the Sullivan march across the highlands, this lake provided an opportune entry point, although passage out of the foot of the lake, at present day Cooperstown, still required a dam to raise a head of water, the release of which permitted the expedition batteaux to enter the Susquehanna River proper.