By WILLIAM SHANNON
Three hundred years before New York’s Safe Act, a much more dramatic gun grab, enforced personally by a New York governor, hit the residents of Germantown.
It was the spring of 1711 and about 1,500 Palatine Germans lived in four dense camps along the Hudson River.
The German refugees had been sent by England a few months earlier, but had received few of the supplies to settle the wilderness that they had been promised.
As told in Walter V. Miller’s book “History of 18th Century Germantown,” talk of dissention spread among the camps and John Cast, fluent in German and the head of the commissary supplying goods to the Palatines, overheard a fireside conversation among the settlers that he would recount in a letter to Robert Hunter, the royal governor of New York Province.
The Germans wanted to move and settle on land in the Schoharie Valley. Part of a Mohawk tribe, on a trip to England the previous year, had invited the Germans, upon seeing their sorry state, to settle the fertile Schoharie Valley. At least this was the claim some of the Germans made.
The Palatines did not have the right tools to clear the land of brush and roots or to establish gardens during their initial months in Germantown. They had also been promised sloops, canoes, hundreds of cows and horses, more clothing and medicines, almost none of which ever made it to them.
“Patience and hope make fools of those who fill their bellies with them,” one of the Palatines said, according to Cast, who wrote that they changed the conversation as they saw him approach the fire.
With the red flags raised by Cast, Governor Hunter personally came up to Livingston Manor and sent for a detachment of troops from Albany. Hunter, with British troops alongside him, ventured to one of the camps, listened to the concerns of the Palatines and told them they could increase the size of their residential lots.
But the Germans repeated their request to move to the Schoharie Valley and their need for farm tools and other supplies. They also urged Hunter to appoint someone to replace Cast, who, they said, told them he would “make slaves of them,” according to Miller’s book.
In the coming days, two stands by the Germans would lead to assertive action by British troops.
In the first, the Palatines armed themselves and grouped on a hill overlooking Livingston’s home near the mouth of the Roeliff Jansen Kill. Hunter and his small military force advanced and dispersed the Palatines, who a mile or so back into the woods toward their camp, “began discharging their flintlocks and making a demonstration,” Miller writes.
Governor Hunter sent for seventy additional troops from Albany.
In the continued discussions about the Schoharie Valley lands the Germans said had been promised to them, the Palatines demanded that they at least be allowed to send a convoy of three or four people to England to make an official appeal to Crown authorities.
With tension still mounting and threats of force from Governor Hunter, word came to the governor that a large group of armed Palatines had again gathered at a stream, (this time either on the Germantown side of the Roeliff Jansen, or possibly by the small stream known as Camp Creek).
With the additional seventy troops that had come from Albany, Hunter made an organized advance across the creek. The Palatines broke and ran without a shot being fired.
Hunter and the troops marched to the first Palatine camp and ordered them to turn over all their firearms. The order was complied with and the following day Hunter and the troops ventured to the other three Germantown camps and continued to demand all guns be surrendered.
In the months to come, some changes were made in the way the commissary was run. The storehouses that had been scarce with flour were restocked. How much of the three pounds of meat per week, a daily third of a loaf of bread and a daily quart of beer from Livingston’s grist mill and brewhouse actually made it to each Palatine, as described on paper, is unclear. But Cast did formally recommend to the governor that the Palatines be allowed to draw ahead on their rations.
The Germans had been sent by the Crown the previous fall after fleeing years of war-torn conditions in the Palatinate section of Germany.
Governor Hunter had arranged a deal with Robert Livingston (the great-grandfather of the drafter of the Declaration of Independence) to purchase 6,000 acres of wilderness, which would become known as Germantown. Here the Germans would be expected to produce pitch from fallen pine trees to use for sealing and repairing English ships. They started that venture in the months following the near-revolt, but funding was cut and the project was abandoned before any pitch was produced.
Many of the Palatines did go to the Schoharie Valley and negotiated a purchase of land with the Mohawks in 1713. Some eventually journeyed down the Susquehanna River into Pennsylvania and settled there. Others stayed and settled in Germantown.