AT THE DEDICATION OF THE SCRIBA HOUSE AS A LANDMARK OF HISTORICAL
SIGNIFICANCE July 27, 1976
I am told it is proper procedure when
dedicating an historical landmark to ask someone to sketch
its history. I would think it to be prudent to ask someone
skilled with the tools of the historian. The planners of this
event were not astute enough to recognize that I am neither
historian nor scholar.
Having disclaimed any credentials for
this task, I have then been completely at liberty to take
whatever license goes with the fact that we stand on our property
and dedicate our house.
When Susan and I first came to Constantia
to consider the purchase of the Scriba Mansion, we were immediately
struck by the pride of its owners, Fred and Agnes Scriba,
in the history and tradition which flowed from its bricks
and mortar into the community.
Much of what I have to say by way of
history is a blend of what we were told by Fred and Agnes
and by Elizabeth Simpson in Mexico, Mother of Towns.
In 1788 the state of New York purchased
the lands west of the Hudson River from the Indians and began
to encourage purchase and settlement by)White men. Large tracts
soon came into the hands of land companies and speculators.
The British continued to hold Fort Ontario at Oswego until
1796. So migration of White settlers was delayed for several
years. The first inhabitant of the area appears to have been
a fisherman and hunter named Bruce who lived where Bruce's
Creek enters Oneida Lake. This Creek was later named Scriba.
George Scriba's naturalization papers
show his name to have been George Ludwig Christian Scriba
and not George Frederick William Augustus Scriba as shown
in some local histories. After he was naturalized Mr. Scriba
went only by the name of George Scriba.
On October 29, 1791 the Roosevelt’s
contracted to have their patent surveyed. The
work was to have been completed by the following June. Before
that survey could be accomplished by James Cockburn (in less
than six months) the Roosevelt’s
turned the purchase over to George Scriba to settle some outstanding
debts. The purchase price was either 4939 pounds or 5599 pounds
depending upon whether you accept the itemization of the account
or its summary. The transfers of the property were confirmed
by the State on December 12, 1794. Mr. Scriba's
copy of that deed is held by the family attorney in Oswego.
Three parcels were reserved out of
the half million acres as a result of treaties with the Indians.
Those tracts, one mile square, were on Oneida Lake and one
on either side of Fish Creek. The State also retained gold
and silver rights to the territory and five acres out of every
100 for highways. A condition of the sale was that there had
to be migration into the area of a Minimum of one family for
every six-hundred and forty acres within 7 years or the grant
would be void.
In 1793 Francis Adrian van der Kemp
purchased a portion located 4 to 5 miles east of Rotterdam
which consisted of approximately 1000 acres and became
an estate on which Mr. Van der Kemp resided and which he called
In 1798 the "particular list of
all lands, lots, buildings and wharves in the town of Mexico
... " listed six taxpayers in the town of Constantia
in addition to 162,477 acres assessed against George Scriba
at $2 per acre in the areas occupied by present day Amboy,
Constantia, West Monroe, Schroeppel, Volney, Scriba, New Haven,
Mexico and Parish. The census of 1801 does not list George
Scriba as the: head of a family although that does not, of
course, mean that the house could not have been here at that
He was not a Hollander as many versions
of the history of this area would indicate but was a German,
born April 25, 1772 in Vohl. He was employed in a banking
house in Holland before coming to the West Indies during the
American Revolution. He came to the neutral Dutch Island of
Saint Eustatius (this is probably the origin of the assumption
that he was a Hollander). In the West Indies he engaged in
the munitions trade supplying the American colonists.
Later he brought his profits and came
with his brother Frederick to New York City. He became a citizen
in May of 1784. He was twice married, his second wife was
the widow of his partner F. W. Starman who was the mother
of his only son, Frederick William. He was viewed by his contemporaries
as an honorable man with great integrity.
In 1790 George Scriba applied to the
legislature for permission to purchase not less than 2 million
nor more than 4 million acres of western land at no more than
20¢ per acre. He agreed to a down payment of $100,000
with another $100,000 in nine months. The total purchase price
of the property to be $800,000 to be paid in two years.
A senior partner in the banking house
of Scriba and Company he was reputed to have been worth 1.5
million dollars before he turned his attention to land speculation.
He was a founder of the Bank of New York and a Director of
the Mutual Assurance Company, the New York Western and Northern
Canal Company and the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company,
the latter of which was formed to improve transportation on
Lake Ontario and Seneca Lake and to build canals in the Little
Falls and German Flats areas and from Rome to Wood Creek.
While Scriba was waiting for a response
from the legislature on his petition to purchase land, John
and Nicholas Roosevelt bought 540,000 acres.
Mr. Scriba had already commissioned a surveyor by the name
of Benjamin Wright from Rome to survey the patent even before
the transaction was consummated.
On January 12, 1795 Scriba wrote a
letter to his agent John Jacob Werth instructing him to stop
construction of the dam and the mill awaiting his arrival
in the spring. He goes on to say, "The frame house which
I have build last year and contemplated for a store is to
(be) left undone until I come."
This suggests that the construction
on the house may have commenced as early as 1794.
By 1799 Mr. Scriba was beginning to
experience extreme financial difficulty. In 1803 he borrowed
from a European firm offering a mortgage on the patent of
6 per annum. He was at the same time plagued by very bad health.
By 1807 his 1.5 million dollar fortune
was reputed to have dwindled to some $300,000.
On January 30, 1821 Roswell L. Colt
accepted the homestead and Lots 114 and 115 for his claim
in the vast Scriba indebtedness, and gave George Scriba life
estate in the home. Later Colt started to return the homestead
back to Scriba as a gift. He later decided to convey the property
to Scriba's son Frederick William with life use guaranteed
to George in order to protect the property from creditors.
The deed for the re-conveyance of the property back to Frederick
William Scriba was received on April 25, 1822 on Scriba's
70th birthdate. George Scriba lived a virtual recluse in his
later years. He died August 14, 1836 in his 84th year and
is buried in the Constantia (Rotterdam) Episcopal Churchyard
which we are going to visit later this morning.
The 1793 journal of the Castorland
Company indicates that a party which visited Rotterdam "supped
and dined at the log house of Mr. Scriba." Incidentally,
the Castorland Company was also referred to as the Beaverland
Company - the word castor being the French word for beaver.
The June 1795 Journal of the Duke de la Rochefoucauld-Laincourt
reports that there were at least 20 houses and a grist mill
(which was not completed) in the village of Rotterdam.
In speaking of Mr. Scriba, the Duke
said, "He is now building a handsome house of joiners
work where he intends to keep a store ... " This was
in 1795. He goes on to tell what
a good business it is and quotes prices on brandy, rum and
flour (in that order.) There seems to be general agreement
that the frame store building was completed in 1796 because
goods were ordered from the Meyer Company of Herkimer, New
York on February 28, 1797.
As late as 1804 Scriba wrote on December
7th of that year to Jonathan Bedel that he wished to finish
the two story attic and house "to seal the first and
second stories with good planed and groven planks, with partitions
to be of planed planks, to put bases and sub-bases throughout
the first and second stories, eleven panel doors, hang them
and fix locks, latches and bolts, to case the doors and windows,
remove two windows and fix in the west gable and in lower
floor fill up the spaces, lay a double floor of rough planed
groved and jointed planks on the first floor, on the second
a single floor and in the garret a floor of unplaned but groved
planks, to overhaul the outside of the house and fasten clapboards,
to build a staircase from the first to second story with plane
bannisters and from the second to the garret, to fix those
already in with bannisters, to build four chimney pieces in
four rooms" - all for $175.
We think Scriba wrote of this house
but can we be sure? The letter was written in l804. Other
evidence suggests completion in 1796. And what of
the references to bannisters (plural) when there is only one
and have never been any more in the great house.
It is difficult for anyone who loves this magnificent home
to believe it was originally intended to be a store. When
she was doing the research for Mexico Mother of Towns, Elizabeth
Simpson came to the Scriba mansion as the guest of Fred and
Agnes (who are with us here today) and she reported that the
family disagrees with the theory that the house was originally
intended as a store. I might add, so does my wife. I'm not
so sure. I certainly can see how it could have been a store.
If you remove the two center walls which run north and south
and perhaps replace the great center stairway with a ladder
to the second floor you can begin to see how it might have
been intended as a store. Really, what difference does it
make? We know that George Frederick Scriba was a merchant,
munitions dealer and land owner of no small significance in
the history of Oswego and Oneida counties. We have been told
that he owned all of Oneida Lake and all of what is now Oneida
and Oswego counties. Versions differ - one million acres or
five-hundred thousand acres. Again, what is the difference?
No matter which version we accept or
believe the holdings are still beyond our 20th century comprehension.
None of us has any real grasp of what it
means to own land that stretches all the way from Lake Ontario
,to Oneida Lake and eastward to the Mohawk River and beyond.
This house which we set apart today is a symbol of that incomprehensible
wealth that placed the name of George Frederick Scriba, or
at least a reference to the Scriba patent, in the deed or
abstract of title of each of our neighbors in two counties.
The house was built in 1795, perhaps started as early as 1793
or 1794. I am satisfied as to the date and care not at all
that there are some who debate its vintage.
Great care went into its construction.
The house is 46 feet wide with giant hand hewn timbers supporting
its substantial weight. Five fireplaces provide distinctive
beauty and, of course, £or many years also heat for
the two front rooms on the first floor which we call our living
room and our music room, and the two front second floor bedrooms.
There is also a fireplace in my study which is on the northwest
corner of the first floor.
The center room on the north end of
the first floor was at one time divided into two rooms. The
kitchen ran across most of the back part of the house. The
center room which was entered from the front hallway was called
the apple room being the place where the family stored fruits
and vegetables and other food stuffs. A giant Dutch oven adorned
the north wall of the kitchen. The foundation of that Dutch
oven is still in place in the basement. An examination of
the roof surrounding the area where the chimney for the Dutch
oven used to go through reveals that at least once this magnificent
home was in danger of destruction by fire. The timbers and
roof boards on all sides of that opening are charred very
heavily. This is the only structural blemish we have discovered
and we believe that the classic profile which stands here
today is exactly as it was in the early 19th century when
the house was being completed.
A small barn stood in the area which
is now the lower Lawn on the north side of the house. That
structure was later moved by the family out closer to the
road and over the years has been a service station, and then
for many years served as the Post Office for this community.
It is now the antique shop which adjoins this property on
So here we stand in the shadow of history
to recognize the contributions of a man who built and lived
in this house. A house around which flowed the destiny of
people who were to populate some half million acres.
Why do we choose to recognize such
a landmark? Because it is a large, beautiful house? Yes. Because
it is representative of the architecture of the day and retains
its original historical integrity? Yes. Because until July
24, 1971, no other family name ever resided within? Yes. Because
it was built by a man who owned all of the land for as far
as the eye can see, even from an airplane at several thousand
We set it aside for all of those reasons.
And then, I think there is one more.
This Nation, this State and this County have finally come
to realize that we have a long overdue obligation to our children
and our children's children to preserve for them some of the
landmarks and traditions that so many of us have come to so
take for granted. So that 50
or 100 years from now, someone else, standing in this place
may be able to say, "We are gathered here once again
to pay tribute to the man who once had the vision of thriving
communities where heretofore there were only Indians and woodland.
We are here to pay tribute to the wisdom, ingenuity, courage
and resourcefulness of George Scriba and the countless other
George Scribas, many unheralded and forgotten, who braved
the wilderness to carve out their little part of what was
to become America as we know it today."
Hanford A. Salmon
Constantia, New York