A Short History of Amsterdam, New York
When and how the first human settlers, ancestors of today's Native Americans, arrived in the vicinity is still debated; however, by the full onset of European settlement, the Mohawks of the Iroquois had solidified their hold on the region by pushing the Algonquian Mohicans across the Hudson River. Late in this first period, Dutch settlers begin the settlement of the Mohawk Valley, founding Schenectady in 1662. With the French in Canada unable to make lasting headway with the Iroquois, and the Dutch more interested in trade than further settlement, the land that will become Amsterdam remains a sparsely populated frontier well after the English conquer New Netherland in 1664.
During the early decades of the 1700s waves of Scotch-Irish and German Palatine immigrants begin to pour into the Mohawk Valley bypassing the Amsterdam area for points further west or in the Schoharie Valley: the land of the future city is rocky and steep; it's very close to the baronial holdings of the powerful Johnson family; there are fraudulent land claims hotly contested by the Mohawks. The few who do settle here are insulated from the worst effects of the American Revolution on the New York frontier: they don't represent a large target, the Loyalists and Indians are hesitant to raid too far east of the Schoharie Creek, and the Loyalist Johnson family is hoping to reclaim its property (intact) when the war ends. After the war, Veddersburg (as it is now known after an early family) grows very slowly, a handful of mills, shops, and stores to attend to the needs of nearby farming communities. For a long time Amsterdam is smaller than Cranesville, due east of it, which remains about the same size today as it was then. Very little changes except the name: tradition has it that in 1804 Amsterdam is chosen in honor of early Dutch settlers (it may have also been thought a good idea to take the same name as the recently created township in which it was located, hoping to become the seat of government).
Then, in rapid succession, come the Mohawk Turnpike, the Erie Canal, and the rail roads. What had hindered development - the steep drop to the river - now propels it with the force of a creek that drops 300 feet in its last three miles. A new wave of immigrants, ambitious young persons from farmed-out and overcrowded New England, comes to find opportunity. Soon mills crowd shoulder to shoulder on either side of the Chuctanunda to harness that power: not just to grind corn and saw lumber for local farmers, but to make products that can be cheaply transported throughout the region, country, and world, by the same means that inexpensively delivers raw materials. From these seeds will grow many manufacturers: of linseed oil, brooms, knit ware, buttons, iron goods, and above all, carpets: two of the world's most recognized brand names, Sanford-Bigelow and Mohawk, are Amsterdam born and bred. By 1832, the hamlet incorporates as a village to better manage the increasing growth; by 1885, the city is chartered. Waves of immigrants, now Irish, Italian, Polish, and Eastern European, arrive to take the new mill and derivative jobs. Construction of new homes, schools, stores and other businesses remakes downtown and pushes new streets out to the north, west and east, and the leaders of commerce and industry build new mansions beyond these. Rockton to the north and Port Jackson to the south are annexed.
Amsterdam becomes the seventh largest city in New York, and is home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the state.
Production in the mills slows during the Great Depression but does not cease, and World War II brings back the second and third shifts. The City matures and sons and daughters of immigrants take their place as community leaders, as the American economy booms. The city rises to the occasion and provides an excellent education for its children. Many become nationally known leaders in their fields: the actor Kirk Douglas is one, but there are others in politics, sports, science, labor relations, and other endeavors. And then the unimaginable - the mills begin to close, one by one, moving south and overseas to find cheaper labor and lower taxes. The children of the children of immigrants go off to college and do not return. Many of their parents depart also, and the population and tax base decline. Literally, the carpet is pulled up from under the City's feet.
Amsterdam attempts to recreate its industrial base, with limited success. Some firms - such as the aptly named Noteworthy Company (inventors of the litter bag) are established and thrive. Others do not. The tide of American manufacturing is running out and against the city.
In an attempt to draw people and business back to Amsterdam, the City and State began a program of urban renewal and arterial roadway construction, destroying much of the original fabric of downtown. Now, not only is there less to go downtown for, it's harder to get there. Once again, Amsterdam is somewhere to be bypassed on the way to somewhere else.
As the 21st Century dawns forces old and new are defining the true shape of post-industrial Amsterdam. Some have always been in play; abundant water and transportation, for example. Others are remnants of the industrial period: undervalued housing and commercial space and an extensive civil infrastructure. And there is a new wave of immigrants, many Puerto Rican, coming to seek refuge from the poverty and crime of larger cities.
As the torch passes from those who were here in Amsterdam's heyday, to those who come later for other reasons, so the focus becomes less about what was or how to recreate it, to what comes next.
The City's 2003 Comprehensive Plan described a program to recognize what remains constant and what has changed and to capitalize on the city's assets, revitalize its urban center, and attract new visitors, businesses, and residents. Many of its recommendations are now being acted on.
One thing remains certain from previous cycles in Amsterdam's history: while geography is a formidable force in determining growth and decline, most telling are human decisions about land usage. These have been and will continue to be the actions, good (improved transportation and civic amenities) and bad (barriers to ownership and development and misguided urban renewal), that determine how soon, how long, and how high the next growth period in the City's history will be.
For for more information about the history of Amsterdam, contact City Historian.
Robert Van Hasseln
- (518) 841-4336
- Hours: Friday, 9:00 AM - 1:00 PM