In 1661, a group of Dutch merchants and fur-traders purchased land from the Mohawk Indians and established a village they called Schenectady, an Iroquois word meaning "beyond the pine barrens." It flourished as a site through which passed all goods destined for the hinterlands to the west or Albany and European ports to the east, as well as a trading post for visiting Indians and settlers.
In 1690 French-Canadian and Indian marauders burned the stockaded village to the ground, massacred most of its inhabitants and marched 27 prisoners back to Quebec in the first of the Colonial Wars that raged throughout the Mohawk Valley in the European struggle for control of the North American continent.
Native Mohawks encouraged the Dutch to resettle; by 1692, the area was once again a thriving fur-trading outpost and industrial and commercial center. In 1776 a third stockade wall expanded the village as Schenectady continued to prosper and remained in place for the next 25 years. During this period Schenectady received its charter and became incorporated as a city.
During the Revolution, Schenectady became a crucial link in the supply line for the Continental Army. Washington visited several times during and after the Revolutionary War. Local Union College traces its beginnings to 1779, when several hundred residents of upstate New York began the first popular demand for higher education in America.
Designed by the renowned landscape architect Joseph Jacques Ramee, its 1814 second campus was the first planned campus in America, predating the famous University of Virginia designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1817-22.
In 1819 the character of the city changed forever when a fire destroyed the many businesses, warehouses, and wharves built to service the traffic on the Mohawk River. Over 160 buildings were lost in the blaze, a devastating blow to the community. The business district slowly relocated from the Stockade area to State Street, nearer the new Erie Canal, which opened six years later in 1825.
The canal effectively eliminated Schenectady's role in the import/export of goods and isolated the Stockade from the growth being experienced by the rest of the city, leaving the area largely residential and saving it from later demolition in the name of progress.
Heavy industry soon began to dominate Schenectady's economy, first in the locomotive industry and later in the electrical industry with General Electric. The engines for the Civil War era U.S.S. Monitor were manufactured in Schenectady.
The many scientific advances based in Schenectady include the first steam powered passenger train in the U.S. (1826), the air brake for trains in 1869, the alternating current motor which enabled the expansion of the electric power industry, and a high frequency alternator that enabled the world's first radio broadcast of music in 1906.
Schenectady was also home to the first radio station in New York State, the first experimental television program broadcast in 1928, and the first regularly broadcast television program.
In the 1940s and 1950s, following a period of decline, residents became increasingly involved in efforts to preserve and restore the area. In 1962 the city council of Schenectady established The Stockade as historic district—the first in the State of New York.
It is one of the oldest and best-preserved neighborhoods in the United States; over a hundred architectural landmarks survive virtually intact, including more than 40 pre-revolutionary buildings, the largest collection in existence. The Stockade Historic District offers examples of nearly every architectural type, period, and style of residential and religious buildings dating from around 1690 to 1930.
Today Schenectady (population 61,821) boasts four historic districts. An annual Walk About features selected homes open for viewing and tour packages are offered. The Schenectady Heritage Foundation focuses preserving historic architecture through education, advocacy, and grants. This not-for-profit, volunteer organization concentrates on building conservation and neighborhood rehabilitation and stabilization.
Designated a Preserve America Community in April 2005.