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New painting depicts Colonial Johnstown

July 7, 2013 - Mohawk Currents

The following guest column appears in the July 7, 2013, edition of The Sunday Leader-Herald:


In January of 2012, my daughter Paris and I started searching for our early New York ancestors. Armed with few clues, some psychic intuition, the internet and a few misplaced family records that weren’t located for months, we took an amazing journey from Albany and Schenectady to Fort Johnson, Johnstown and back.

One result of this search is an exhibit of historical paintings I developed in collaboration with historians, archaeologists and museum experts. The exhibit, “Prominent Players, 1754-84,” will open Saturday at 2 p.m. and remain on exhibit through Aug. 24 at the Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction, Schenectady County. 

There are several portraits of historical figures in the show, including Sir William Johnson, Molly Brant, John Burgoyne and Philip Schuyler, as well as three historical scenes, including “William’s Street in John’s Towne, Winter, 1773.” This painting depicts the 241-year-old courthouse completed in 1772 by Sir William Johnson’s builders. Beside the courthouse is the two-story trading center and general store run by our fifth great-grandfather, merchant Robert Adems, who managed Sir William’s trading and potash factory and kept the baronet’s books for 27 years until his death in 1774. 

Next to the large wood-framed store is Robert Adems’ home, commissioned by Sir William and painted yellow at his direction, along with several other similar homes constructed for other professionals needed in his new town. Adems and his eldest daughter, Catherine, lived at the parsonage beside what is now the Colonial Cemetery until their William Street home was completed in 1769. Next to Robert’s house, you see the brick home of his brother, Dr. William Adems, a surgeon to Sir William who, like the baronet, came from Ireland. Dr. Adems came to the Mohawk Valley in the 1740s with his brother Robert and his bride, Susannah Callahan.

After visiting Fort Johnson and Johnson Hall last October and working with many historical experts for more than a year, I wanted the painting of Sir William Johnson’s fine new town to be depicted as accurately as possible in winter. The painting depicts the town bustling with people from diverse countries along with their Native American friends and allies who traded at Adems’ store and frequented homes including Sir William’s great hall.

Of his new town, Johnson proudly wrote in 1771: “The town is a mere thoroughfare, every day full of sleds ... which really makes the place more lively than Albany or Schenectady, who are suffering from want of snow.”            

We have come to love Johnstown, not only because our Irish Adems, Dutch Van Vorst and Scottish Urquhart ancestors lived there for generations, but also because of the historians who have shared so much information and knowledge with us. Johnstown City Historian Noel Levee, former Fulton County Historian Peter Betz, Fort Johnson Historian Jim Sparks and Schenectady County Historical Society Librarian/Archivist Melissa Tacke all helped to create this painting of Sir William’s main street. 

Noel Levee went one step further. He introduced us to cousin Bill Van Voast by email. Bill and his family live in Johnstown and descend from William Johnson Van Voorst/Voast, “born Monday morning about 1 o’clock, 17th July 1775,” a year after the baronet’s death at the start of the Revolutionary War.

William Johnson was the fourth son of John Van Voorst, a native boat builder from the Schenectady Stockade whose family had been in Albany and Schenectady since the 1640s, and Mary Adems, middle daughter of Robert and Susannah Adems of Schenectady, Fort Johnson and Johnstown. The couple had met while she was away at school with her sister Anne in Schenectady.

My daughter and I descend from William Johnson Van Voast’s little sister Susannah, also born during the war, in Johnstown, “on Saturday, about 9 o’clock p.m., 20th Sept 1777.”  

In May of 1780, John Van Voorst was captured in John Johnson’s terrible raid on Johnstown, and while historians and our family records state that John was held captive in Canada until the end of the war, we found evidence at the Johnstown Historical Society to the contrary. As Noel Levee was showing us our ancestor Robert Adems’ fancy shoe buckles and silver watch, Paris noticed that right below my nose in the same case is a bill to Robert Adems for an indentured servant. To our great delight, it was witnessed in beautiful script by Adem’s son-in-law John Van Voorst on January 9, 1782, nearly two years before the war ended.

John and Mary Van Vorst are buried in Schenectady. Mary died in 1787 a week after the birth and untimely death of their seventh child, Mary Ann Adems Van Voorst. Our records state that “the parents died quite young ... and the children came to Johnstown to live with their Grandfather Robert Adems and Aunt Caty.”

William Johnson Van Voast’s descendants remained in Johnstown, while Susannah married the Rev. John Urquhart, the first long-term minister after the war serving both St. Ann’s at Fort Hunter and St. John’s in Johnstown, 1796 to 1806. Urquhart, who graduated from both King’s and Marischal colleges in Aberdeen, Scotland, was also headmaster at the school in Johnstown and advertised for up to 10 boys who could receive room and board at their home. Young Enos Throop, who went on to become governor of New York, was one of his students.

I was asked what inspired me to paint William’s Street. This painting is a tribute to Sir William Johnson, who had the vision and fortitude to imagine and build John’s Town, and to our ancestors Robert and Susannah Adems, John Van Voorst and Mary Adems, and her sisters Caty Adems and Anne Adems Mulligan, Eliice, Yates.

I am indebted to William Johnson Van Voast and his sister Susannah Van Vorst for passing on their family history. William J’s granddaughter “Belle,” born in 1841 in Johnstown, wrote to Susannah’s granddaughter “Lutie,” born in 1838 in Essex, Conn. Neither cousin ever married, but they passed down the history to us in their letters, which were packed away for more than 100 years until we received them from my sister last summer.

This Saturday will be a momentous day for us. Several descendants of Susannah Van Voorst will meet fifth cousin Bill Van Voast and other descendants of William Johnson Van Voast at the exhibit opening at Mabee Farm. We will be proud to show them “William’s Street, John’s Town, Winter, 1773,” where generations of our mutual ancestors spent much of their lives.

Ruth Major lives on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. For more information about the artist and her work, see


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“William’s Street, John’s Town, Winter, 1773,” by Ruth Major.


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