A Latourrette/Mercereau Fable: The Schenectady Massacre
By John E. La Tourette
A sketchy history of the Mercereau family appears in “The Annals of Binghamton and of the Country Connected with it, from the Earliest Settlement,” by J.B. Wilkinson, first published in 1840 and reprinted in 1872. (Binghamton, New York, Times Association, 1872) As presented, it appears like it was taken from an oral tale or family tradition, rather than from some written, documented source. The story about the Schenectady Massacre on the night of February 8/9, 1690, appears on pp. 86-7 in the reprinted Binghamton, New York volume.
The massacre story also appears in the expanded and well-developed Mercereau Family Webpage by George E. Sawyer,
which shows the many marriages between the Latourettes and Mercereaus over a century or more beginning in 1693; in Mrs. Verna Jacob’s 1965 “Compilation”; and in Lyman Latourette’s “Latourette Annals in America” (pp. 6-7 and restated on p. 19, where Lyman seems to forget that he practically dismissed the story out-of –hand in his earlier discussion). It should be noted that the short version of the tale on the Mercereau Family Webpage is presented with skepticism about its accuracy.
It is appropriate to quote the earliest version of the Schenectady story which the author has found, as it appears in the Binghamton “Annals,” because the others merely repeat it either verbatim or in summary form:
“Mary (Marie), who married Mr. Latourette, was in the great massacre of Schenectady, in 1690. She was scalped and left for dead; all her children butchered by the Indians; her husband probably dead before, or killed in the same massacre. The nakedness of her skull was concealed and defended by a cap for the express purpose. She spent the rest of her days with her brother Joshua, who, it is believed lived on Staten Island also, and who was the maternal great-grandfather of Esq. La Grange, and the grandfather of Judge Mersereau; great –grandfather also of Peter Latourette, who early settled in Vestal, where his son Henry, and David Ross now own and live.” (“Binghamton Annals,” 1872, p. 87) The close family ties between the Mercereaus and the Latourrettes, found on the Mercereau family Webpage, are demonstrated in this quote.
In the course of pursuing this question, it was discovered
that the Mercereau family history, which is supposed to
include the Schenectady story, was in manuscript form in
the possession of a member of the family in the early 1930s
(noted by Charles W. Leng and William T. Davis in “Staten
Island and its People: a History 1609- 1929,” Lewis
Historical Pub. Co., 1930-1933). The author has not been able to track down this history, although there are some indications that it was available in a Binghamton, NY, library or historical center.
According to Leng and Davis, the family history appears in two other publications. The New York Genealogical & Biographical “Record,” Volumes 27 and 28 (1896 & 1897), carries four articles by Henry Lawrence Mersereau outlining the genealogy of the Mercereau family in America. Although the marriage of Marie Mercereau and Jean Latourrette is described in the first article (Vol. 27, No 4, P. 195), there is no mention of the Schenectady story. The same is the case in a story about the Mercereaus in Clute’s History of Staten Island. The four articles in the NYGB “Record” are more authoritative, exhaustive and complete than the short sketch in the Binghamton “Annals”. Even, Clute’s treatment of the family is more extensive.
There are a number of sources available which describe the
massacre and list the 60 victims who were killed and the
27 who were captured and taken back to Canada. One can
find many short histories and/or comments about the
massacre and particular family members on the internet. The
short booklet “The Story of Schenectady Massacre”
(Albany, N.Y. January 11, 1940), issued on its 250th
anniversary, describes the residence, background and fate
of each victim killed or captured. (See pp. 17-19) Many of
those killed were burned to death in their homes. Only one
woman who was killed, the wife of John Potman, appears also
to have been scalped.
The only reference to a person who may have been of French background is the following, “A French Girl prisoner among the mohogs (Mohawks) kild.” In this case, a French girl held by the Mohawks would be a captive as a result of the war between England and France, which followed the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688. In the English colonies, it was called King William’s War. The Mohawk Indians were allies of the Dutch who settled Schenectady, which was part of the New York Colony in 1690, and were enemies of the Indian tribes allied with the French. The French, under the Catholic King Louis XIV and their Indian allies, were to the north along the St Lawrence River. There were many skirmishes over the years between these forces leading up to the Schenectady massacre the night of February 8/9, 1690. It is likely the French girl prisoner was taken in one of these skirmishes by the Mohawks and was being held at Schenectady. She was probably Catholic, or regarded as such because of her association with the French forces based in Montreal, and certainly not a French Protestant refugee like Marie Mercereau. On this point, see the discussion below of the concerns of the French Protestant refugees about King Louis XIV’s designs on New York City.
For the interested reader, there is an internet posting which lists the names of the victims in alphabetical order, but without the detail, given in the 250th anniversary issue cited above:
It must be emphasized that Schenectady in 1690 was essentially a Dutch community with a Dutch Reformed Church and a minister who was killed in the massacre. The settlement was founded in 1661, with all the settlers coming from Holland except for Alexander Lindsay Glen. But even Glen had come directly from Holland after having moved there from Scotland because of religions reasons. Finding a French Protestant refugee or refugee family in 1690 among them would be somewhat unusual, raising some considerable skepticism about the tale in question from the start.
An understanding of the history of the period also would heighten this skepticism. The French Protestant refugees who came to New York City had escaped the persecution of Louis XIV in France. Many had found a temporary haven in England because of the sympathy of the English people. But until the “Glorious Revolution of 1688”, England was governed by James II, who described himself as “the most Catholic“ King of England. In summarizing the relief extended to the refugees, Charles W. Baird indicates “neither of the kings under whose auspices it originated- Charles II. and James II. –had any sympathy with the movement, or compassion for the people to be helped.” (See “Huguenot Emigration to America,” Vol., p.155)
Although welcomed by English citizens and the Church of England, the French Protestant refugees who fled to England were greatly concerned about their future fate under King James II. Charles II, who had reigned since 1649, died on February 6, 1685. Charles’s death bed conversion to Catholicism made him the first Roman Catholic King of England since 1558. He was succeeded on the same date by James II, who was closely allied with Louis XIV by religion and his marriage to Louis XIV’s adopted daughter, Mary of Modena, who, as Queen, was in line for the throne.
The statements by James II about his Catholicism and the threat that he might turn over French refugees to the forces of Louis XIV or otherwise threaten the practice of their religious beliefs raised considerable concern among the refugees. Thus, having just escaped the relentless persecution of Louis XIV, they were faced with another monarch who might do the same. This is one of the reasons why some refugees decided to move on to other countries or to the American colonies. This was perhaps also one of the reasons, among several others, why Pastor Pierre Peiret and Jean Latourrette from Osse, Bearn, decided to migrate to New York in 1687. (See the author’s “Jean Latourrette leaving Osse: Why and How?”) This reason is also mentioned by George E. Sawyer on the Mercereau Webpage cited above, for the Mercereaus and Pierre Masse, married to Elizabeth Mercereau, to come to the American colonies. One might speculate. Had they known that the “Glorious Revolution of 1688” would make James II the last Roman Catholic King of England, would they have risked the long and hazardous journey to the colonies? Otherwise, the descendants of Jean Latourrette and the Mercereaus might still be English subjects.
James II was forced to abandon his throne and flee to France on December 11, 1688. At the invitation of the English people, William of Orange and his wife, Mary, became king and queen. War followed between Louis XIV, King of France, and William III, the new King of Great Britain and Ireland. The conflict spread to the New World. As a result, the threat from Louis XIV’s long reach followed the French refugees to New York. It was as if the refugees had fled from England to escape “the most Catholic King of England,” only to be back into the crosshairs of Louis XIV’s determined and relentless pursuit of French Protestants. Louis XIV gave James II asylum in France and promised aid to recover his throne. At the same time, the King of France commissioned Count Frontenac to “build a new Empire in America,” with the first objective being to conquer the English colonies to the south of what is now Canada. The path of the French forces from Montreal, with their Indian allies, would be to Albany and Schenectady, and then down the Hudson to New York City, with a coordinated attack from the land and a bombardment from the sea. Frontenac left France in October 1689, too late in the year to carry out this plan, but after his arrival in New France, he carried out a number of attacks in what is now northern New York. Given the constant threat from the north and the information already known about the Frontenac plan, Schenectady should have been alert to the possibility of an attack on the night of February 8/9, but it appears from descriptions of the raid there were no guards posted at the gates to the stockade. Perhaps the bitter cold, snow and the blizzard blowing in that night may have given them a false sense of security. (There are, as already noted, many internet postings that can be accessed by the reader by searching the subjects mentioned here. The short history of the massacre, presented in the 250th anniversary booklet cited above, gives a good summary of the background and events leading up to and including the massacre.)
Frontenac’s plan to conquer New York had already been revealed by “praying Indians,” captured by the Mohawks, who were allied with the settlement at Schenectady and the English. Thus, the threat was known to people in New York City, well before the massacre. The French refugees in New York City were appropriately alarmed.
The fear among the French Protestant refugees in New York City about Louis XIV’s long reach and threat to them is documented in Alfred V. Wittmeyer’s lengthy introduction (88 pages) to the original 1886 printing of the “Registers of the Births, Marriages, and Deaths of the l‘Eglise Francoise a la Nouvelle York, from 1688 to 1804.” This introduction was written by Rev. Wittmeyer, the founder of The Huguenot Society of America, to give a history of French Protestants and the French Church in New York City. (This lengthy introduction is not repeated in the several later reprints of the “Registers, being reduced in them to three pages labeled as “From the Introduction.”)
Wittmeyer notes that even in New York before the “Glorious Revolution of 1688,” the French refugees’ “position under James the Second was far from being secure.” (Introduction, p. xxiv) He also cites the response in New York to the news that William and Mary had ascended to the throne on February 13, 1689: “one can readily imagine with what gratitude the refugees returned thanks to Almighty God on July 17, 1689, only a few days after the arrival of the news, for the accession of William and Mary.” (Introduction, p. xxv) Here, Wittmeyer is referring to an entry/announcement made by Pastor Peiret in the church records for a Wednesday service during which, in a fitting sense, the daughter of Elie Boudinot, elder and major church supporter of the church from its beginning in 1688, is baptized. (See “Registers”, p. 5)
This joy was short-lived when the news about Frontenac’s plans reached New York. Wittmeyer comments on the situation, as follows:
“ --- the reduction of New York was contemplated by the Count de Frontenac, who had received instructions to send back to France the refugees whom he might find there. The panic which this projected invasion of New York caused among the Huguenots may best understood from an extract of a letter written by one of them, Pierre Reverdy, to the Bishop of London. Its broken English renders its appeal only the more touching.” (Introduction, p. xxiv)
By having his letter addressed to the Bishop of London, Reverdy was appealing directly to the head of the Church of England, who had given the refugees in England religious, moral and financial support. Baird summarizes the various ways the refugees were supported in England, beginning with, “The Church of England extended to them a generous welcome.” (Vol. II, pp. 157-8) So it was logical to appeal to the Bishop of London to intervene with the new King William III to seek the required authority and forces to protect the French refugees in New York.
Wittmeyer goes on to note that the letter from Reverdy to the Bishop was dated December 30, 1689. (In the author’s paper, “Jean Latourrette leaving Osse: Why and How?”, Pierre Reverdy is identified as being one of the French refugees who came on the ship Robert to New York in the fall of 1687 with Pastor Pierre Peiret and, likely, Jean Latourrette.) A few sentences from Reverdy’s letter, in which the reference to the king is King William III, taken from Wittmeyer, clearly describe the threat as perceived by the French Protestants:
“The French for certain have a designe upon New York. If your Lordship would be pleased to procure the Kings letter to captain Jacob Leysler now Govrr there, until the Kings Goverr doth come to ordeer him secure all them that are against this King, and to incoregge him and the Councill to secure the place until Col: Slawter cometh, it would be very necessary: there 200 French families about New York which will be put to the torture if the French takes itt.”
(Wittmeyer, pp. xxiv-xxv)
Many of the French refugees arrived in New York in the years 1686-88, during the period of uncertainty under James II. Then the threat from Frontenac became even more real as a result of the ascension of William and Mary to throne. The refugees associated with Pastor Peiret, Jean Latourrette and the Mercereau family (with Pierre Masse, the husband of Elizabeth Mercereau) tended to cluster closely together in the small village of New York, at that time perhaps with a population of 3,000, for religious solidarity, mutual support and protection, and, basically, survival. This is a pattern that wave after wave of emigrants to America have followed down to today. Another group of French refugees clustered in New Rochelle, beginning in 1686-7, for the same reasons. (On this point, see Jon Butler, “The Huguenots in America,” pp. 146-7)
Given the circumstances of the recently arrived French refugees like Jean Latourrette and Marie Mercereau, it would be highly unlikely for one or two, or a single family to strike out on their own and leave the protection of the French community. This would be especially the case to go to Schenectady, a Dutch community dominated by the Dutch Reformed Church, with a different language and set of customs. Later, as the children and grandchildren of these refugees were assimilated into the broader American society, we see that the Dutch Reformed Church becomes an attractive alternative as all of the French churches in the New York area close or struggle to survive. But around 1690, this would not be considered as a viable option to those who had given up their homes, friends and most of their wealth and possessions to come to America to practice their Calvinist faith-based French Protestantism. Picturing Marie Mercereau and Jean Latourrette in Schenectady on the night of February 8/9, 1690, defies all logic.
Skepticism, or even extreme skepticism, about the story of the involvement of Marie Mercereau, and perhaps Jean Latourrette, in the Schenectady massacre, based on the considerations described here, does not provide the documentation to finally label this story a fable. Another step was necessary. Finding no reference to the names of Mercereau or Latourrette or other obvious French names among the stories about the Schenectady massacre or among the lists of victims killed or captured, or any stories of a woman who survived a scalping at the massacre, the author requested a search of the materials at the Schenectady County Historical Society. After a search of all the materials, Virginia D. Bolen, Archivist/Librarian, reports in a letter dated June 3, 2003: “I found nothing at all to support the story. I found nothing in the Massacre files or in any of our early Schenectady histories.”
The involvement of Marie and/or Jean in the Schenectady massacre is highly doubtful for several other reasons. Jean Latourette was not killed in the massacre. After her marriage, Marie Mercereau moved to Staten Island with Jean Latourette and had 8 children between 1693 and 1710. She didn’t live with her brother Joshua (Josue), although, according to the family Webpage cited above and other sources, he also moved to Staten Island with his family at about the same time. The Staten Island census, generally dated in 1706 and used to estimate Jean Latourrette’s date of birth as 1651, clearly indicates that Marie (listed as Mary) was a member of the Latourrette household along with Jean and the 6 children who had been born by that date. Finally, she certainly seems to have led an active life, not one in seclusion. (See below for a discussion of this census.)
It may remain a mystery as to how the tale of the massacre was spun, sometime between the actual event in 1690 and its inclusion in the Binghamton “Annals” in 1840. On the other hand, there was no excuse for the fable to be repeated over and over again by various people who cited the Staten Island census to estimate Jean Latourrette’s birth in Osse, Bearn, as ca 1651 and concurrently ignored the obvious fact that Marie (Mary) Mercereau was living on Staten Island with her husband and children and not with her brother. That fact alone should have led to some background investigation, as presented above, to determine if there was other evidence to support the tale.
SOURCES AND COMMENTS ABOUT THE STATEN ISLAND CENSUS
The Staten Island census can be accessed by the reader in
a posting on the internet by John Dux, dated March 18, 1999:
The reader should note the caveats associated with the description of this census, particularly with respect to the date of the enumeration, estimated by John E. Stillwell to be 1706, and the method by which it was taken. Dux also raises the question of the completeness of the census. The surnames appearing on the list also indicate a lack of understanding of French surnames by an English speaking census taker.
Dux’s introductory description indicates, based on earlier research, that the probable date of the census was determined primarily by the ages of the men at the time the census was presumed to have been taken. From some other information this author found, it is possible that the census was taken over a period of time and hence 1706 is itself an approximate date. On this basis, it is appropriate to indicate that Jean Latourrette’s birth date is about 1651, as most genealogical charts have indicated. It could be a few years earlier or later, as noted below.
Although the Latourrette name is entered in the census as “Turet”, it is clear that it is the family of Jean Latourrette (listed as John 55) and Marie Mercereau (listed as Mary). This is evident from the names of the 6 children under age 16 included as part of the census with the name “Turet”: David, John (Jean – for some reason listed twice), Peter (Pierre), Hester (Esther), Mary (Marie) and Susane (Susanne). We know that these 6 children were born between 1693 and approximately 1703/04 and that Henry and James were born after 1706, likely in 1708 and 1710. This family information helps to narrow the probable date of the census to the years between 1703/04 and 1708, probably making 1706 as good an approximation as any. In passing, it should also be noted that the name Mary, as a woman associated with “Turet” appears twice like John (Jean). This appears to substantiate the point made by Dux, “It is almost as if Mr. Garrison (the census taker) put the names down as he saw them in the street, or remembered them.” (Another possibility in this case is that two other people were living with the “Turets” – another adult woman named Mary and another male John under 16.) Also, it is obvious that Mr. Garrison was not familiar with French surnames. For example, in addition to “Turet” for Latourrette, the Chadeayne family name (sometimes written by Pastor Peiret as Chadine in the Registers of the French Church of New York, but signed as Chadeayne) is recorded as Shdin, Shadin and Shadine. The name of Belvealle or Belleville appears as Belvil. Anyone familiar with the Latourrette genealogy in America will understand these variations as the surname was written in many different ways in English over the years.
With regard to French families associated with Jean Latourrette and Marie Mercereau on Staten Island, there are some mysteries. Nowhere on the census list does the surname of Mercereau, or any variation similar to it, appear. This supports the question of the completeness of the census raised by Dux. Also, the entries for Chadeayne (Chadine) as Shdin, Shadin and Shadine, all found grouped together, involve both the issue of completeness and the method of determining the probable date of the census as 1706 by the ages of the adult males. The Chadeayne Webpages by Phil Chadeayne
indicate the senior Jean Chadeayne, the boat captain who brought the Huguenot colony to Rhode Island, died on Staten Island in May 1708 at age 66, yet he is not listed on the census, dated to 1706. The son Jean is listed as John Shdin at age 25. His date of birth, April 26, 1674, would indicate he would be around 32 in 1706. Similarly with Henry, who is listed in the census as 23. He has a birth date of January 27, 1678, making him around 28 in 1706. Or, alternatively, if these dates are accurate, it calls into question how male birth dates were used to estimate the census date as 1706.
On the other hand, because we know the approximate birth dates of the last 4 Latourrette children (1703-1710), this analysis suggests that Jean Latourette’s birth date could be as early as 1648-1649, or as late as 1653-1654, with 1651 as the mid-point of the range. Of course, for this to be the case, it also must be assumed that Jean knew his actual (or approximate) age when he was included in the census.