What is a Sutlery?

      Sutler, derived from the Dutch word for someone who performs dirty work was the name given to the merchants who arrived on the heels of the British arm and sold what the redcoats wouldn't - or couldn't - provide at a frontier outpost.  With the permission of Military officials, Sutlers set up shop near a fort's gates, taking advantage of the isolated location to do a brisk trade with off-duty soldiers and officers.  A Sutler's inventory often included items such as tobacco, candy, hats, cigars, tea, sardines, dried fish, pineapple, cheese, molasses, canned goods, alcohol, kitchen items, sewing needles, bolts of cloth, blankets and ready made clothing, footgear, miscellaneous food, spices, writing equipment, china dishes, musical instruments, household furnishings, tools, hardware, personal items (razors, soap, combs, brushes, pipes, fish hooks, etc.), pins and buttons.  Even the quartermaster and surgeon would purchase small necessities such as vegetable seeds, tableware, cups, crocks, and other items that the army could not supply in a timely manner.  The Sutler could sell just about anything in his store (tent), but was expressly forbidden from selling ardent spirits (strong alcoholic beverages) to the enlisted men.  Doing so could mean the loss of a sutler's license.  The prices he charged for these items were to be posted and were determined by a Council of administration, which was made up of three officers (the commanding officer was not included on the council) plus a fourth who served as secretary.  Because they approved prices and items, the sutler went out of his way to do favors for the officers and extended them liberal credit lines.  Men often congregated at the store in the evenings for conversation and companionship.  The sutlers doing business here served as a precursor to today's convenience stores, post offices and USO's.  The store functioned as the camp bar.  One can readily imagine the need for artificial stimulation induced by the boredom and isolation of a frontier garrison life.  Beer and wine were the only alcoholic drinks permissible to sell to the enlisted men.  Drunken behavior was not tolerated in the store.
     Sutlers tend to be overlooked by history, but they begin the opening of a virgin area to the development of and the founding of the village then towns.  This is on the order of Michigan's Fort Michilimackinac, another 18th - century outpost where archaeologists have found hundreds of thousand of artifacts over the past 45 years.
     In 1755, as the last of the French and Indian wars heated up, the English arrived in force and built Fort Edward.  Within a few years, 15,000 British and Colonial soldiers were based here, including the famed Rogers' Rangers.  A five-year-long archaeological project in Fort Edward has unearthed the 250-year-old site of a merchant's establishment that sold wine, rum, tobacco and other goods to the thousands of soldiers who passed through this region during the French and Indian War, when Fort Edward was the largest British military post in North America.  This has yielded a museum's worth of 18th - century military artifacts over the decades, from musket balls to human skeletons.  But a Colonial soldier's daily lot wasn't all fighting and bloodshed.  They had their share of down time, and that's where the sutler came in, offering for sale two of the few diversions from frontier duty:  alcohol and tobacco.  Scattered about the site were various coins, thousands of broken and intact clay pipes and glass fragments from wine and rum bottles, evidence that the store doubled as a tavern.  The sutler store was a place where the soldiers could relax.  Most sutler stores had a pool table and soldiers could also play games such as checkers or dominoes.  The sutler also served as postmaster.  Soldiers would leave outgoing letters with him to be sent by freight wagon.  Incoming letters, while eagerly sought, could also be costly to the soldiers..  In the 1840s, post was paid by the recipient of a letter, not the sender.  The cost of receiving a letter varied, depending the distance involved.
      The first white settlement here was established in the early 1730s, when John Henry Lydius, a Dutch trader from Albany, opened a trading post.  His business thrived until it was destroyed during a French and Indian raid in the 1740's.
     A Sutler can also be a person who accompanies troops in the field or in the garrison and sells food, drink, and supplies.  The articles of war prescribed that persons permitted to sutler shall supply the soldiers with good and wholesome provisions or other articles at a reasonable price.  A sutler was considered a civilian by the government and officers were forbidden under penalty of court martial to involve themselves in the affairs of a sutler.  They maintained a wagon on the march or stalls and booths on station with their regiment or post.  The system was disliked by many officers, but if properly administered, seemed to function well.  Some argued that goods supplied by the quartermaster would be cheaper, but history shows that the military has often been unable to economically and efficiently purchase and transport its needs.  The 208th paragraph of the Army War Department's regulation states:  No sutler shall sell to an enlisted man on credit to a sum exceeding one third of his monthly pay within the same month.  Only debts due the government and the laundresses would be collected first.  Extending credit was a risky proposition because of the high rate of desertion.  A soldier could leave without paying his debts and since the desertion rate ran from 10%-25% per year, the sutler could go broke.  The sutler could put in claims to the government to collect unpaid bills, but often the soldiers' names did not appear on the muster rolls and there was no way of verifying that the men whose names appeared on the credit vouchers were actually in the Army.  The troops were usually paid before a change in station so that sutlers' accounts could be cleared.