Since the year 2000, our Department of History & Archives has worked on researching the history of the churches that have existed in the various towns in Montgomery County. Our first venture focused on those churches, past and present, in the Town of Minden. The second considered all of those congregations in Canajoharie. One particular congregation in that village that we came across while researching for the book intrigued me so much that I still have not been able to put it to rest, even four years later. That congregation was the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
I cannot put on a finger on my intrigue for this congregation that existed in my hometown almost one hundred-fifty years ago – maybe because I had never heard of a black church in Canajoharie in all of my years growing up there or maybe because very scant information seems to have been written about it.
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was formed as a distinct religious body in 1800 when a group of black members seceded from the first Methodist Episcopal Church on John Street in New York City. Feeling that they were not treated with the same respect and consideration as the others of the congregation, the black members wanted the privilege of holding their own meetings. The main doctrine emphasized by the AME Zions is, according to Bishop C.R. Harris in his 1922 history of the church, “That no race has the right to claim jurisdiction over any part of the earth to the detriment or exclusion of any other race.”
In 1855, there were 118 Black or Mulatto residents of the Town and Village of Canajoharie. Two years later, in January 1857, a group consisting of Jack Yates, Andrew Dunkle, George Gilbert, Francis Jackson and Thomas Lansing were named as Trustees of the newly incorporated African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. That October, the same group of trustees, for fifty dollars, purchased a lot of land in the village from Canajoharie attorney, Pythagoras Wetmore for the purpose “that they shall erect and build or cause to be erected and built thereon a house or place of worship for the use of the members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.” According to the deed, the lot was located on Cliff Street “bounded east by a lot formerly belonging to Thomas Van Allen south by Cliff Street & extending westerly on Cliff Street twenty seven feet and down the hill along Van Allens (now Christopher Coms) to a line with the wall across the lot being about 42 feet.”
A map of Canajoharie, found in our collection at the Department of History & Archives, dated 1857 shows darkened blocks and names for all of the other congregations in the village. Despite the AME Zion’s incorporation at the beginning of that same year, this church does appear anywhere on this map. There is, however, a darkened block on the north side of Cliff Street, almost directly across the street from the lot for the future St. Peter’s & Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, and adjacent to a lot owned by Pythagoras Wetmore. It is possible, and I strongly believe, that this was the site of the AME Zion Church.
Many hours of research have not gleaned a great deal of information on this congregation and its existence in Canajoharie. Although a deed was found in the Montgomery County Clerk’s Office where the property was purchased for the church, no deed could be located in which the same parcel of land was sold out of the church ownership. The church’s land ownership is referred to in the land transfers of other parcels adjacent to the AME Zion lot. George Gilbert, a church trustee, owned land at the bottom of the hill on what is now Mohawk Street. Peter Skinner, a well-known Black barber and longtime resident of Canajoharie, purchased land from David Zielley, property that was bounded by lands of the AME Zion Church. If Peter Skinner was a member of the AME Zion congregation, he was not at the time of his death in 1912 when Rev. W.M. Baum, Jr. of the St. Mark’s Lutheran Church officiated at Skinner’s funeral.
There are so many questions that arise from the lack of information surrounding this Canajoharie Church. How long did the church exist in the village? It was not named on the list of churches in the 1860 census or the 1869-70 Montgomery & Fulton County Directory.
Did this particular congregation, with proximity to the Erie Canal, have connections to the Underground Railroad? While slavery was still a thriving asset to plantations in the south, the AME Zion Church was noted for having a network of activists providing safety and secure passage to those seeking freedom from their lives of bondage. One of the most notable members of the AME Zion Church doing so was Harriet Tubman who played a significant role in the formation of the AME Zion congregation in Auburn.
Perhaps the secrecy that was vital to the clandestine efforts of those on the Underground Railroad, not only for the lives of the escaped slaves but also for those assisting in their passage, was the reasoning behind so little documentation of the Canajoharie congregation.
Or maybe the church existed in a time where there was still prejudice among the community? Although this argument is plausible, it may not be the case. Combing the pages of the Canajoharie Radii newspaper, I found an article in the Jan. 26, 1860 issue concerning a “donation visit” given in honor of Rev. James J. Scott, “pastor of the Colored Church.” The event was held at one of Canajoharie’s main lodging places, the Kirby House. Also, there is evidence of the existence of another AME Zion congregation in Little Falls that enjoyed an extended tenure over the last half of the nineteenth century. To date, no connection with the Canajoharie congregation has been established.
Dr. Milton Sernett, retired professor of history from Syracuse University will be on-hand at the 2007 Heritage Day, sponsored by the Heritage & Genealogical Society of Montgomery County, giving a presentation on the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement in New York State. Anyone interested in this topic is welcome to attend and, with any luck, he can answer some of my questions as well.
It may take me years, but I hope to find out more information about this AME Zion congregation in Canajoharie. If anyone has anything that they can add to my research, please feel free to contact out office or email me at: email@example.com .