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by Linda Roorda - Looking back on life 200 years ago

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Linda Roorda

Shearing the Flock

Spring is my favorite season, and the best time for the annual shearing of the homestead’s flock of sheep.  Having never observed this being done, I spoke with Trish and Steve Barrows in Candor who raise Jacob sheep. 


Steve prefers late April to shear their sheep, but said that many prefer to shear a bit sooner.  He learned to shear sheep with a few nicks and blood along the way – mostly on the sheep, not unusual.  He showed me his vet kit with all the accoutrements to sew up any cut made by the shears, pointing out that dental floss makes the best suture material because of its strength.  They have a set of old-fashioned hand shears, but it is obviously easier to use power tools.  Steve also said that “because of the dense lanolin in their wool, each of the Jacob sheep clogs up one set of blades while being shorn.” 


Trish shared her book with me on raising sheep, Your Sheep, A Kid’s Guide to Raising and Showing, by Paula Simmons and Darrell L. Salsbury, DVM.  I found it a helpful read, wishing I’d had a book like that as a teen to raise my lamb.  I also noted with interest in Your Sheep (pg. 52) that among the various reasons we fought for our independence from Great Britain in 1776 was the fact that King George had banned the colonists from buying wool-spinning machinery or sheep from Europe.  So, with typical American ingenuity and pride, we entrepreneurs got going and built our own cottage industries which led to the eventual industrial revolution.


But, back to our task at hand - shearing a sheep.  Specific holding positions are key to reduced struggling and, thus, less injury to the sheep and the shearer.  To begin shearing, position the sheep in front of you in the seated position.  To get a sheep sitting, not its preferred position, put your thumb into its mouth behind the teeth, bend the head to the right and across its back, lowering the sheep to the ground.  With the sheep resting in a sitting position, hold its upper body between your legs. 


Shearing position:




As you bend over your sheep, shear the belly, crotch and legs first.  Then, laying the sheep on its right side with your right knee at its brisket (chest), shear the wool from the rear leg, up across its side toward the ears.  Next, move its head back as you shear the neck and under the jaw.  Continue to shear up its back toward the head as you reposition the sheep between your legs and start to shear the remaining side.  It is also helpful to shear as close as possible in specific patterns for each area until all wool is removed.  Second cuts (going over the same area twice) are discouraged as they leave short pieces of virtually useless wool in the fleece.


A good source for a pattern of shearing cuts is found online here.


Shearing time is also a good time to check the health of each sheep.  By taking time to trim the hooves, give vaccinations (not available on the colonists’ farms), worm them, and check for external parasites or any skin infections, you will shepherd a flock of healthy sheep with valuable wool.


Once the fleece is off your sheep, you need to “skirt” it by spreading it out on a table made of wire racks. This process is to remove debris (i.e. vegetative matter, or VMs as is the common term), such as burdocks or other weeds, bits of hay embedded in the wool, etc.  Next, washing the fleece is vital, either by sending it to a mill for the complete process, or by doing this yourself.  Soak the wool for about 20-30 minutes in very hot soapy water several times to remove dirt and melt off the lanolin.  Trish warns, “Do NOT pour the lanolin-rich water down your drain - you will clog up your sewer system over time.” 


Do not agitate the wool at this stage.  When done soaking, gently squeeze out excess water and repeat a few more times.  With today’s modern technology, Trish Barrows said she puts the fleece into a pillowcase to wring the water out in the washing machine.  After the soaking/washing process, rinse the wool a few more times to remove the last vestiges of dirt, grime and soap that might still be embedded in the wool.  Finally, lay the fleece out on wire racks to dry where it will have good air circulation. 


Dyeing the dry wool can be done several ways.  I was surprised to read in Your Sheep that you can use Kool-Aid to dye the wool, but also bright-colored crepe paper in rolls (not streamers), dyes from craft shops, and Rit or Tintex commercial fabric dyes.  Trish showed me her binder from classes she had taken which displays her dyed wool with coloring based on various flowers and other items used in the dyeing process.  In fact, Trish told me, “It took about a large garbage bag full of Black-eyed Susan flowers and stems to dye ten small skeins various shades of yellows and browns!”  Other natural items for dyes include black walnut and butternut hulls, sumac for gray coloring, avocado pits for reds, while vinegar or other additives help vary the shading – for example, copper can give a greenish tinge.  “Basically, the more plant materials you have, the deeper the dyes,” Trish added.


Different sheep breeds also have different types of wool.  Some have a scratchy fleece, best for rugs, like the Scottish Black Face.  The softest wool, like Merino, is excellent for delicate clothing items, while a medium coarseness is good for those cozy-warm sweaters.  Trish stated, “There is a purpose for every type of wool.  Each sheep is even individual in coloring.  Our Jacob sheep have a medium wool, good for sweaters, hats and socks or mittens.”


Once the wool is dried after washing and dyeing, it’s a good idea to pick through it again.  “It seems you never get all the bits out of a fleece,” Trish added.  “When that’s done, you need to get the wool ready for spinning.  You can use hand cards which look like cat/dog slicker brushes.  They even out the wool into fluffy rolls called rolags.  [A rolag or roileag is a Scottish/Gaelic term referring to a roll of wool fiber which is used to spin into yarn.] 


Wool fibers are then pulled from the ends of these rolags and spun into yarn on bobbins (which look like big spools) by using a spinning wheel.  The yarn can then be wound into balls for knitting, or onto smaller bobbins for weaving.”


Small upright spinner:






Antique wool spinning wheel, also called a great wheel or walking wheel:




A great reference for life on the homestead which Trish recommended is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” book series, particularly “Farmer Boy.”  How well I remember reading this series and the TV show.  I retrieved my copy from the bookshelf to reread about the old days and old ways, including weaving.  And it all brought back memories of going to DeSmet, South Dakota while helping our daughter, Emily, move to Brookings, S.D. for grad school. 



The Ingalls homestead



It was exciting to have the opportunity to see the prairie land of the Ingalls’ original family homestead, visit their homes in DeSmet, and see photos and learn more of their history.We saw how they would have planted a garden, saw the field of wheat partly destroyed by the previous day’s hailstorm just like what the Ingalls dealt with, a soddy built into the bank, the group of trees which had surrounded their original house, watched a very young foal running and kicking up its heels with great gusto all around its Mama, and a replica of the house Pa built.  On the way back from the one-room schoolhouse, I even had the opportunity to take the reins on the mixed team of a black Percheron and a golden-brown Belgian.  Granted, they knew their way back to the homestead, but I thoroughly enjoyed driving them as I lay the reins on their necks to ease them through curves on the beaten path!






Prairie house. But not a "soddie" !

Linda Roorda

I have a few things in common with my mother, including a love of history.  And, the artwork of Currier and Ives is among our shared interests.  If truth be told, I’d frame as many of their lithographs as I could find to fill a room!  But, reality says otherwise…


Currier and Ives’ commercial artwork success was realized in images of newsworthy events of their day, along with lithographs showing an idealistic view of life simply as it was.  And, I think, what draws us to their work is the attention they paid to detail in not only farm life but city life.  They effectively left a vivid legacy in print of a long-gone era, an early Americana, which we look back upon with nostalgia for what seems to have been a simpler way of life. 


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Nathaniel Currier, Jr. was born March 27, 1813 at Roxbury, Massachusetts.  When he was just 8 years old, his father died suddenly.  As the second oldest of four children, he and his 11-year-old brother, Lorenzo, began working to help support their mother Hannah, 6-year-old sister Elizabeth, and 2-year-old brother Charles.  Working at a variety of odd jobs, it wasn’t until he was 15 that he discovered his life’s calling - as an apprentice for William and John Pendleton, lithographers in Boston.  At age 20, he left his home in Massachusetts for Philadelphia to work for M.E.D. Brown in his engraving and print shop.


A year later, in 1834, he began selling lithographs under the partnership name of Stodart & Currier.  Yet, only a year later, he felt confident enough to leave that business venture to work alone as “N. Currier, Lithographer.”  In 1835, “Ruins of the Merchant’s Exchange N.Y. ,”

 which depicted a fire that destroyed New York City’s business district, was so successful it sold thousands of copies in just a few days.  Thus, his was a successful shop making popular lithographs depicting newsworthy events.  His finished work was inexpensive, and gave illustration to events held locally and around the nation where photography would eventually take over.  But, more importantly, they were of such quality that his work was in demand by the public, proving his worth as the consummate lithographer. 


His 1840 lithograph with the long title of “Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington in Long Island Sound,” depicted the horrible fire which destroyed 143 lives on board the ship with only 4 managing to survive.  The lithograph’s immediate popularity netted Currier a weekly insert in the paper, “New York Sun.”  That same year, Currier changed his focus to become an independent print publishing firm. 


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The next change came in 1857 when the business name Currier & Ives began appearing on all artwork.  James Merritt Ives, bookkeeper and accountant to Currier, was asked to join as full partner with his business acumen.  A few years earlier in 1852, Ives (born March 5, 1824 in New York City) had married Caroline Clark.  She, in turn, was sister-in-law to Charles Currier, Nathaniel’s younger brother.  Though not an artist, Ives managed the firm financially and made Currier’s printing process more efficient.  He assisted as a hiring agent, able to interview and judge who would be best suited to join the firm as an artist.  With his innate ability to judge popular interests, Ives also helped chose which images to publish, moving beyond news events to the popular images which have brought so much acclaim to the firm’s repertoire.  See a compilation of their lithographs here. 


Over 72 years of the Currier & Ives partnership, at least 7500 lithographs were published.  Using well-known artists, roughly 2 to 3 new images were produced every week between 1834 to 1895.  Essentially more than a million prints were made, but not all were published publicly.  Lithographs were initially printed in black and then colored by hand in assembly-line fashion.  Later, with new techniques, full-color lithographs were developed with a softer look which more closely resembled a painting. 


“Currier and Ives was the most prolific and successful company of lithographers in the United States.”  Nathaniel Currier (d. 1888) and James Ives (d. 1895) left an unequalled legacy.  Their lithographs give a full representation of early American life, including “themes of hunting, fishing, whaling, city life, rural scenes, historical scenes, clipper ships, yachts, steamships, the Mississippi River, Hudson River scenes, railroads, politics, comedy, gold mining, winter scenes, commentary on life, portraits, and still lifes” … and various Civil War scenes, including President Abe Lincoln.  (See Wikipedia on Currier & Ives.)


With their passing, their sons took over the business until 1907.  By this time, however, technology had improved such that lithographs were no longer in demand as photography was more readily available.  Yet, today, the lithography artwork of Currier & Ives remains an absolute favorite among collectors of early Americana.


SOURCE:  Wikipedia - Currier and Ives.

NEXT: Shearing the Flock

 ~~ ~~


Harry T. Peters:  Currier and Ives: Printmakers to the American People (1942), is the authoritative work, containing 192 plates and an excellent introduction. Both Colin Simkin, Currier and Ives' America (1952), and Roy King and Burke Davis, The World of Currier & Ives (1968), contain useful introductions and reproductions. See also Currier's own Currier & Ives Chronicles of America, edited by John Lowell Pratt and with an introduction by A. K. Baragwanath (1968).
Read more here.



Linda Roorda

Hiawatha Island… The name alone brings to mind a land of legends and visions from a long-ago era.  Did the legendary Hiawatha ever frequent its shores?  Not likely.  But, it is presumed the Iroquois nation once used the island as part of their homeland.  Artifacts found in its soil from bygone eras have been donated to the collections at both Binghamton University and the Tioga County Historical Society museums. 


Hiawatha Island


The Big or Great Island, as it’s been called, comprises 112 acres in a beautiful tranquil setting.  A few miles east of Owego, New York, it’s surrounded on all sides by the Susquehanna River flowing west.  Once a bustling retreat for locals and tourists alike, it contained a beautiful three-story hotel and meandering sylvan paths with the island’s dock reached by steamboats throughout the summer months. 


Earliest records for the island note that Britain’s King George III issued a mandamus (a writ directing a lower court to perform a specific act) dated January 15, 1755, deeding land, including the island, to the Coxe family in exchange for their territory in Georgia, the Carolinas and the Bahama Islands.  By 1821, the Coxe family had surveyed and divided the land into small farms with the Big Island designated as lot no.120. 


Moving to Lounsberry in 1969, I did not pay much, if any, attention to Hiawatha Island during my high school years in Owego, NY.  However, about 15 years ago, I discovered a [supposed] ancestral tie that piqued my interest in the island’s history.  My earliest genealogical research found a McNeill family paper filed at both the Tioga County Historical Society in Owego and the Schoharie County Historical Society at the Old Stone Church in Schoharie, NY.  This paper claimed that a Ruth McNeil, b. 1782 in Weare, New Hampshire, was the daughter of my John C. and Hannah (Caldwell) McNeill of Weare, Londonderry and New Boston, New Hampshire.  Ruth was noted to have married Matthew Lamont(e).  (Note my specific use of one or two “L’s” in the McNeil versus McNeill name.)


This is where due diligence pays off in checking all genealogy resources yourself.  The person filing that family paper did not reply to my inquiry in 2002.  Digging deeper, I found and purchased a McNeil family history from the Montgomery County Historical Society in Fonda, NY simply to see if that family held clues to my own.  However, that historical writeup is about the family of John and Ruth McNeil of Vermont who lived in Fulton, NY, with that genealogy listing a daughter Ruth who the researcher was unable to trace further. 


From personal extensive research on my maternal McNeill family, it is proven that John C. McNeill and Hannah Caldwell married May 8, 1781, that their first daughter, Betsey, was born December 5, 1781, and that she was adopted by Hannah’s childless older sister, Elizabeth.  In checking late 19th century census records for Matthew and Ruth LaMonte’s children, they note their mother was born in NY, not NH.  With the above John and Ruth McNeil’s family history listing a child named Ruth of whom nothing more was known, I felt there was sufficient circumstantial evidence for Ruth (McNeil) Lamont to be their child rather than a daughter of my John C. and Hannah (Caldwell) McNeill.  Furthermore, John C.’s family did not contain the name of Ruth in any older or younger generations as does the Vermont McNeil family.  Of additional interest, my earliest ancestors and their descendants consistently spelled their name McNeill while John and Ruth’s descendants consistently used McNeil.


Matthew and Ruth LaMonte removed from Schoharie County to Owego, Tioga County, NY in the early to mid 1820s.  The second registered deed to the Big Island, dated June 23, 1830, is to Matthew and Marcus LaMonte. Matthew was the husband of Ruth above.  Their son Marcus had at least three children:  Abram H., b.1831 on the island, Susan Jane b. 1834 (as a teacher, one of her students at the Owego Academy was the young John D. Rockefeller), and Cyrenus M., b.1837.  Cyrenus purchased the Big Island in 1872 just before its commercialization commenced in 1874 with picnics and summer events. 


The earliest known birth on the Big Island was that of Lucinda (Bates) Lillie, born August 16, 1800.  It is also known that various squatters took up residence on the island, particularly when owners were absent, making good use of the fertile river-loam farmland. 


Another tie of note to the island is that of Ezra Seth Barden who was born in 1810 at Lee, Massachusetts.  In 1833 he brought his young bride, Catherine Elizabeth Jackson, to Owego where they set up their home on the Big Island.  She just happens to be a second cousin of U. S. President Andrew Jackson.


The LaMonte family had their main farm directly north of the island where Rt. 17C runs near Campville.  They retained a few acres on the island after selling the rest in 1831, selling that small balance of acreage in 1834.  From my previous research, the LaMonte family operated a ferry across the river to the island.  In 1840, with her five children, Mrs. William Avery Rockefeller (the former Eliza Davison) removed from Moravia, NY to Owego, renting a house on the LaMonte farm.  One of her sons, John Davison Rockefeller, Sr., 11 years old at the time, often worked for pennies a day on the LaMonte farm.  Born July 8, 1839 in Richford, NY, John D. Rockefeller, world-renowned founder of Standard Oil Company, went to the Court Street Owego Academy, was tutored by Susan Jane LaMonte at her home, and often kept in touch with her on his returns to Owego as an adult.  Another student of renown who taught at the Owego Academy was Benjamin F. Tracy, Secretary of the Navy under President Benjamin Harrison.


The former Owego Academy at 20 Court Street is an old brick building still very much in use, nicely remodeled, repainted, and well kept over the years.  It was in this Federal style building (built in 1827-28) where I began my secretarial career in 1972 as a high school senior.  I worked part time, then full time after graduating high school, for Lewis B. Parmerton, Esq., gaining valuable knowledge from his experienced secretary, Kathy.  My desk was at the second window to the left of the front door on the first floor, looking out on two tall buttonwood (sycamore) trees which are now gone.  The basement then housed the N.Y.S. Department of Motor Vehicles where I obtained my learner’s permit and driver’s license. 


I will also never forget the sale of a particular old building on Front Street along the river’s edge to Pat Hansen.  After all paperwork had been completed and signed, and Ms. Hansen had left, Mr. Parmerton stood in the office with us two secretaries, shaking his head, “I don’t know what she wants that old building for.”  Little did he, or Kathy and I, realize then, but Pat Hansen turned her building into the extremely successful store, “Hand of Man,” spurring on the revitalization and growth of Owego’s Front Street businesses which continues to this day!  I love poking around in the “Hand of Man,” enjoying the delicate and gorgeous one-of-a-kind gifts.


But, among the antiques in the Parmerton office was an oil painting of the Owego Academy, with two young sycamore/buttonwood saplings which stood in front of our office windows.  I cannot find a copy of this painting in an online search.  The building’s tin ceilings were high and ornate.  There were beautiful fireplaces, an old Seth Thomas pendulum clock, an 1850 map designating every road and building in Tioga County, and Mr. Parmerton’s office/library was lined with bookshelves filled to the high ceiling, rolling ladders needed to reach the upper shelves.  The floors were wooden, uneven and squeaky in places, with a beautiful dark wood banister going up the stairs to the second level.


In fact, taking the stairs to the upper floor, I had occasion to enter the office of two elderly attorneys, the Beck sisters. I remember Rowena Beck, the first woman lawyer in Tioga County. The sisters’ grandfather was Professor Joseph Raff who, in 1875, composed the Blue Tassel Quadrille for the start of a new season on the Great Island.  Of further interest, Sedore notes that Raff was the brother of Joachim Raff, an accomplished orchestral composer, who just happened to be “a personal friend of Franz Liszt and Hans von Bulow.”  (Sedore, p.23)  Small world indeed!  Little did I then know the history I was working amongst!


When speaking of the island’s early years, one must also include reference to Joseph Shaw DeWitt, or “Old Joe” as he was otherwise known.  Coming from Binghamton to Owego about 1841, he was an actor, fireman, businessman and restaurateur.  On the side, he made and sold cough drops in a box which looked much like the Smith Brothers box, along with cream candies, and beer.  He owned a restaurant on Lake Street, but it was at his hotel on Front Street in Owego which began the greatest period of Hiawatha Island’s history.  Here, on August 5, 1873, a number of businessmen met to form a stock company with the purpose of building a steamboat intended for trips on the Susquehanna River between Binghamton, NY and Towanda, PA.  They approached Cyrenus McNeil LaMonte, who had purchased the Great Island in 1872, and thus began the island’s “most flamboyant years.” (Sedore p.5) 


The Owego Steamboat Company had its first boat ready by the end of February 1874.  The “Owego” was 75 feet long, 26 feet wide, capable of carrying 200 passengers.  Unfortunately, she did not have the most auspicious start to her career.  Putting the “Owego” into the river with 20 men aboard on April 6th was the easy part.  All too soon, however, they realized her paddlewheels were too light and frequently simply stopped moving.  But, that was easy enough to rectify – a man lay down on top of each wheel house, pushing the paddle wheels with his hands to keep them working!  What a job that must’ve been!


Having finally gotten the “Owego” into deeper water, things only went downhill from there.  As they tried to bring her back to shore, someone misjudged and she stopped with a sudden thud on hitting the embankment.  This sent several of the men sprawling flat out on the deck.  Deciding to take the flatboat to shore (towed behind for emergency situations), the men got safely onto this small boat – only to find it couldn’t handle their weight, and it promptly sank.  With chagrin, their only option left was swimming to shore, likely glad it was the middle of the night with few fans around to observe the indignity of it all.


Sixteen days later, though, the “Owego” was steaming to Binghamton and back, and the Big Island was being cleared of brush where a dance hall and restaurant were to be built.  “Old Joe,” the first caterer, fed all picnickers who came to the island for its opening day on Wednesday, June 10, 1874.  Professor Raff’s cornet band provided entertainment on the “Owego”.  Ever the entrepreneur and entertainer, “Old Joe” was ready for customers wearing Indian feathers and war paint on his face, and dubbed his restaurant “Hiawatha’s Wigwam.”  Hiawatha Grove was the name for the eastern end of the island and of the train station on the opposite north shore (off Rt. 17C near Campville).  Soon, though, the Big Island began to be known by the name of Hiawatha Island thanks to the showmanship of everyone’s favorite businessman, “Old Joe.”


Over the ensuing nearly 20 years, the Hiawatha House hotel was built and eventually expanded to three stories with a dance hall, restaurant, and honeymoon suites, with its front balconies overlooking the river.  Gravel strolling paths were made, with small “arbors” built along the paths to sell confections, cigars and lemonade.  Games were played on the lawns of the island, and scull races were held on the river.  Clam bakes were also quite popular, as was the dancing held until the early morning hours, keeping the steamboat busy at the dock.  Many businesses and churches from local and numerous outlying communities soon found it a popular picnic destination spot over the years.


In 1875, a new and better dock was built.   It was 75 feet long with thirteen 16-foot-long piles driven to a depth of 10-1/2 feet.  Sedore comments that nine of these original piles are still visible when the river level is down.  This was another boom year for the island.  In September, the “Owego” was sold with plans in the works for a new steamboat, the “Lyman Truman,” bigger and better at 120 feet long.  She was launched March 9, 1876 from the riverbank just west of the Owego bridge, taking far longer to do so than expected.  She broke the ropes as she lurched forward, gliding about a mile downstream before being stopped and held in place.  Her engine and boiler were not yet completed; sadly, these, too, met with misfortune.  The day before the “Lyman Truman’s” launching, the boiler exploded while being tested in a machine shop on Hawley Street in Binghamton.  Parts flew upward and outward, some landing 500 feet away, another part embedded itself into the roadway, severing a gas pipe with noxious fumes filling the air.  Two people were killed instantly, a third soon died from his injuries, and ten others received various light to severe injuries. 


By mid May, the “Lyman Truman” had a new boiler in place, just in time for the island’s full season.  This was 1876, our nation’s centennial year, and celebrations were being held everywhere, with the island no exception.  A great loss, however, was the passing of “Old Joe” in April, but the island’s summer calendar moved forward.  The Hiawatha House hotel had just had its third floor added and was ready for the grand opening on June 7th of Hiawatha Grove on the Big Island.  About 2000 people came for the July 4th centennial celebrations on the island.  Even with a brief heavy shower, everyone was in high spirits.  The Declaration of Independence was read along with prayer, a song, and a lengthy speech.  Croquet and various lawn games were played, and bands provided music for dancing couples, along with a great deal of delicious food being consumed by those enjoying the day’s events. 


Every year, travel to the island was enjoyed by thousands.  There were other steamers like “Helen,” “Welles,”Glen Mary,” “Dora” and “Clara,” with the “Marshland” in use for the 1884 season after the “Truman” had been sold.  In 1883, the crowds virtually disappeared with the “Lyman Truman” having been sold, as complaints began surfacing of island/hotel mismanagement in 1882.  Now, with the “Marshland” operating in 1884, business picked up again with its 4th of July celebrations reportedly being better than ever with 3000 tickets sold for the day!  People were coming from as far away as Elmira, Carbondale, PA, Auburn, NY, Waverly, Candor, Cortland, and, of course, Binghamton, Owego and Nichols.  The Grand Army Association held its annual reunion of Civil War veterans with tremendous crowds attending.  In fact, by the end of the 1884 season, “the Hiawatha House hotel register [showed] that…people had come to the island from twenty-six states and nine foreign countries.”  (Sedore, p.85)


In August 1887, Cyrenus LaMonte sold the Big Island, now known as Hiawatha Island, to Dr. S. Andral Kilmer and Company of Binghamton who later sold his half to his brother, Jonas M. Kilmer, in 1892.  Apparently, Kilmer had stated he hoped to build a sanitarium on the island.  Though the 1888 season was a great success, the island was never again used as a summer resort.  The Big Island’s greatest days were unexpectedly silenced forever.


The Kilmers made no announcements or promises for opening the 1889 season.   The steamboats were leased or sold.  Boats were not allowed to dock at the island by the Kilmers, and no one was allowed entrance to the island to observe how their work was coming on the new sanitarium.  “The 1889 season came and went without the usual excursions to Hiawatha House and the grove.  There was no dancing, bowling or billiards.  Hiawatha was closed to the public.”  (Sedore, p.111)  Though small groups were occasionally allowed entrance to the hotel, the demise of the island’s success was obvious.  Instead, the Kilmer family used it as their private family retreat. 


Sedore includes an 1890 photo of the Hiawatha House (Sedore, p.121, fig.32).  Near the dock at the river’s edge, she stood tall, an elegant lady in white, an impressive four stories, with first and second floor balconies, and fourth floor dormers.  In 1900, the island was sold by Jonas Kilmer, and a succession of various owners filed through the property in the ensuing decades.  Hiawatha House was taken down in 1932 after falling into disrepair as other outbuildings either burned or collapsed with age.  Aerial photos from 1900, 1937, and 1955 show how few trees remained on the island.  From the highways today, it’s hard to tell what the interior of the island looks like beyond its border of trees along the river’s edge.  It has been used during the 20th century for private family retreats and camping to dairy farming. 


I also recall that Hiawatha Island went on the auction block on August 20, 1988 following financial difficulties by its then current owner.  Inquiries about purchasing the island came from Japan and the Arab countries, with an ad in the Boston Globe bringing ten phone calls in two days.  Having heard a local land developer intended to purchase the island to strip-mine it, the Historic Owego Marketplace, Inc., also known as the Hiawatha Purchase Committee (a non-profit group of Owego business people), decided to purchase the island to protect it.  They barely managed the successful bid at $351,000; yet, with a 10% buyer’s premium, the total purchase price was $386,100.  Ultimately, the final cost was over $700,000 with interest payments and other expenses.


Numerous people, volunteers, and businesses came together to help raise funds to pay off the purchase price, an accomplishment many thought impossible.  A good number of fundraisers were held, with Noel “Paul” Stokey (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame) coming to town to give a concert.  After four years, the fundraising group was able to pay back those who had kindly loaned money to the purchase committee.  An annual “Walk Through Time” was held on the island along with a Native American Pow-wow. 

When the Hiawatha Purchase Committee paid off their debt for the purchase in 1993, they turned their ownership over to the Waterman Conservation Education Center in Apalachin for perpetual conservation.  The purchase committee insisted on restrictions to keep the island in a natural state forever, and that the name would always be Hiawatha Island.  Waterman Center’s director, Scott MacDonald, has said, “From a naturalist’s standpoint, we preserved a very unique piece of land for the community.  It truly is the ‘jewel’ of the river.”  (Life in the Finger  “The Waterman Center plans to use the island for education classes on Native American civilizations, conservation, wildlife, and perhaps archeology.” (Sedore, p.220)   In 2006, a family of bald eagles was actually spotted living on this now-protected island!  And, I’m sure that many more eagles have made the island their home since then.


What a legacy the Hiawatha Purchase Committee has left us for the future.  In allowing the island to rest without commercial traffic, its use strictly limited under conservation guidelines, this gem of the Susquehanna once again shines in its natural state.


COMING NEXT FOR APRIL:   Currier & Ives, Lithographers Extraordinaire


BOOK SOURCE:  Hiawatha Island: Jewel of the Susquehanna by Emma M. Sedore, pub. Tioga County Historical Society, March 1, 1994.


Waterman Center

Hiawatha House

The Many Lives of Hiawatha Island, Summer 2008  by Bill Wingell

Owego Historic District

Linda Roorda

We all enjoy celebrating Valentine’s Day - a day set aside to express love and devotion to our special someone.  And what better way to do that than with a beautiful sentimental card, a dozen red roses, a box of chocolates, a piece of jewelry, perhaps an engagement ring, or a romantic candlelight dinner for two.


Valentine’s Day is not ours alone; it’s apparently been celebrated for centuries.  Shakespeare, Chaucer and others romanticized the holiday in their writings.  Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist of London life in the 1600s, noted there was elaborate gift-giving between the wealthy and elite even then.  We are perhaps familiar with stories that Valentine’s Day celebrations have their roots in honoring Saint Valentine, an early Christian martyred by the Romans.  Many contend the Christian holiday was initially established by the Roman Catholic Church to override the pagan holiday in mid February.  Evidence has been found in ancient records of the Catholic church to validate a celebration in memory of St. Valentine.  Though there may have been more than one man considered to be St. Valentine, Pope Gelasius I set aside the Feast of St. Valentine in 496 to honor its namesake who died a martyr on February 14.  This celebration of Valentine’s Day then became recognized as a special day to show Christian love to others, with the traditional color red symbolizing the blood of Christian martyrs. 


In America, sending special handwritten love notes became popular during the 1700s.  Papers made as Valentine greetings were first sold in the 1820s.  Actual Valentine cards with colored illustrations and embossed borders for mailing to a loved one became popular in England in the 1840s.  Then, fortuitously, Esther Howland, a student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, received one of these special cards made by an English company.  Since her father owned a stationary store, she decided to try her hand at making cards to sell.  As the cards increased in popularity, she employed friends to help handle the many orders coming in.  Eventually, her home town of Worcester, Massachusetts, became known as the center of American valentines.  Later, in 1913, Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri began mass production of their line of Valentine’s cards. 


Except…  not everyone saw the positive side to sending Valentine’s Day cards.  A critical editorial appeared in “The New York Times” on February 14, 1856:  "Our beaux and belles are satisfied with a few miserable lines, neatly written upon fine paper, or else they purchase a printed Valentine with verses ready made, some of which are costly, and many of which are cheap and indecent.  In any case, whether decent or indecent, they only please the silly and give the vicious an opportunity to develop their propensities, and place them, anonymously, before the comparatively virtuous. The custom with us has no useful feature, and the sooner it is abolished the better."  However, the general public felt otherwise and continued to send cards to their loved ones, an idea which grew exponentially.


After the Civil War, the practice of sending cards became a booming business for several card companies.  Cards varied in design ranging from the elaborate and expensive to the humorous and joking, though most were simple but beautiful cards priced reasonably for the average buyer.  Kate Greenaway, a renowned illustrator of British children’s books, designed Victorian valentines which became extremely popular.  I absolutely love her impressive artwork for the quintessential Victorian Valentine’s Day cards.  “Quiver of Love:  A Collection of Valentines” was published in 1876 to showcase Kate’s impeccable illustrations.  Soon, she was asked to illustrate cards for other holidays.  As word spread of her endeavor, sending cards to friends for any occasion became a growing tradition around the world.  


While sending Valentine’s cards became firmly established in the latter 1800s, another sweet Valentine’s Day tradition has been the gift of candy.  Whether it be the familiar candy hearts or a box of chocolates, the idea of giving candy became another popular method of bestowing special gifts on one’s beloved in the 19th century.  Candy hearts are still enjoyed today, especially by children, but folks of all ages appreciate the fun little sayings.  About eight billion candy hearts are made annually with new sayings coming out every year. 


Since chocolate has long been considered an aphrodisiac, it came as no surprise to read that chocolate has been used in the pursuit of one’s love for centuries.  Yet, the tradition of giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day apparently only began in the 1880s.  Richard Cadbury, a member of the famous English chocolate-making family, designed the first Valentine’s Day candy box during the Victorian era, often using his own artwork for designs.  Elaborately decorated boxes were prized during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.  They were often used for trinkets, jewelry or buttons long after the scrumptious chocolate had been devoured.  This popular elaborately-decorated chocolate box disappeared from production during WWII, and has now become a much-sought collector’s item. 


The red rose, a symbol of love and romance, has also been a very special gift to present to one’s true love.  The long-stemmed red rose that we know and love today was specifically created in the late 1800s, with millions of men presenting these beautiful red roses to their beloved every year.


Who among us can resist the love and romance of Valentine’s Day?!  Romantic stories warm our hearts of a happy young woman who receives an engagement ring from her beau, and of those who are married on this special day.  Thinking and planning something special for your loved one is as much fun as the excitement of watching them open their card or gift!


And so began the holiday traditions of a special day to proclaim our love.  Happy Valentine’s Day! 


NEXT:  Hiawatha Island of Owego, New York


My sources:  

Linda Roorda

In the middle of January’s freezing temps, wind, snow and freezing rain, we all need a little humor, don’t you think? Sorting through some papers recently, I found a story of my Dad’s that my siblings and I still talk about.  Well before passing away in April 2015, he’d told me how proud he was of my writings, while I told him I couldn’t tell a story like he could to save my life! 


My Dad was a consummate storyteller.  He got into character, and mimicked the voice and mannerisms of comedians he’d heard and/or seen when he drove truck over the road.  Telling humorous stories on himself and family, and us as kids, I’ve often wished he had written them down for posterity, but this is the only story he ever wrote out.  So, here’s to you Dad!  (And don’t miss the final Postscript section.)


As I drove, I began sharing some history of the land around Sussex, N.J. with my passengers. “This valley was purchased from the Lenni-Lenape Indians by ancestors of the people on whose farm I worked back in 1951.  They still own a beautiful home on the old road across from this stream here and to the right of that big wooded hill.”


There were three car loads of boys (ages 9 to 15) of the Northside Calvinist Cadet Club of Clifton, N.J. on their way to High Point Park in the northwest corner of New Jersey for the annual four-day campout.  It was the latter part of June [1967?], a crisp bright morning, and the boys were starting summer vacation full of vim and vigor.  I was one of three counselors and knew that relating interesting stories to these Cadets might keep their exuberance in check.


After telling some of the history of the area as it had been told to me, I started on a story of my own making.  We were now in sight of the High Point Monument.  Pointing to it, I said slowly, “And then, there’s the story of the old man who used to live in a log cabin near where that monument now stands.” 


“Well, c’mon, Mr. Visscher! What about him?”  “Yeah – what happened?”


“Well, it seems that after the Revolutionary War, when the Colonial soldiers making up Gen. George Washington’s Army were released from duty, some of them came up the Delaware River heading for their homes in the northeastern states.  The Delaware makes a left turn at Port Jervis, so some of them cut up over High Point Mountain.  The story has it that two of the soldiers were regular outlaws.  They accepted the old man’s hospitality then murdered him for his gold and burned the cabin to the ground with his body still in it.  The Indians living in the area at that time claim that since he wasn’t buried, his spirit or ghost comes back every year about this time looking for those soldiers.”


The car had become more and more quiet.  Now, one of the boys said, “How can they tell it’s the old man’s ghost?  There are always hunters and other people in the woods, ain’t there?”


“Oh sure, except – well, they think it’s the old man’s ghost because he’s carrying a blue light.”


There were hoots of derision, but just the same, one of them asked, “Do you believe in ghosts, Mr. Visscher?”


Reassuringly, I replied, “No, of course not!  Didn’t I say the story probably isn’t true?”


Sunday morning found us returning on the same road to Sussex for church services.  There were only two boys in the car who had been with me the preceding morning – and they insisted that I tell the story of the old man and his light to the Cadets who hadn’t heard it.  Although they didn’t realize it, this was as if it had been planned.


Mr. Hornstra and Mr. Wisse, our head counselor, had selected me to be in charge of initiation of the recruits who had joined the club during the year, and Monday morning found me putting finishing touches on my little project.  About 100 yards from camp on the old trail leading into the woods was a dead downed tree.  With the help of a few of the older boys, this was turned into firewood and the logs were stacked neatly right there.


Sitting around the campfire that night, Mr. Wisse got the gang telling ghost stories, and on request, I told the story of “The Blue Light” again.  As soon as possible after that, I melted into the woods and took up my post near that pile of firewood.  When Mr. Wisse thought I was ready, he told one of the recruits to get a few more logs from the stack on the trail to keep the fire going.


“Uh… but, Mr.Wisse… I don’t have a flashlight… and it’s kind of dark out there,” said one of the boys.  But, after much jeering and cheering, he finally started down the trail for the wood.  He was silhouetted against the campfire and the large gas lantern hanging in the fly (awning) over our dining tables, and he was moving slowly.


I was wearing blue jeans, black hat, and a dark shirt with the collar pulled up.  When he had covered half the distance, I fitted a blue glass lens from an old truck clearance light over the end of the flashlight and raised it high over my head.  Pointing it towards the recruit and turning the flashlight on, I moved slowly from behind a bush into the trail.  As soon as he saw the “Blue Light,” he stopped dead in his tracks, then whirled and shot back into camp screaming, “Bu-bu-bu-bu-blue la-la-la-light!  I seen the Blue Light!”  The boys went into an uproar and I went back behind the bush. 


Mr. Wisse tried to calm them down, but it wasn’t easy.  One of the recruits was running ‘round and ‘round the tables trying to see in all directions at once, and shouting over and over, “I’m afraid of that Blue Light!  I don’t want to be a Cadet!  I want to go home!”  Another of the boys disappeared into his tent where he was found a little later.  He was on his knees, crying and praying, “Oh Lord.  I’m not a soldier.  I’m just a Cadet.  Don’t let that Blue Light get me, Lord!”


Finally, Mr. Wisse said he would prove there was nothing to fear by getting a few logs himself.  He came out to me and said, “Ralph, you’ve really got them going.  They know you’re not in camp, but they don’t seem to get the connection.  Some of them are really afraid.”  After a hurried discussion, we decided he would bring all the boys out at once.


Going back into camp he said, “Boys, there’s nothing scary out there as far as I can see - what do you say we all go out and bring back that firewood?”


“Sure, Mr. Wisse, let’s go!  I’m not afraid!”  And so saying, one of the boys grasped Mr. Wisse by the sleeve - and in his excitement, almost put his fingernails through the skin on the counselor’s arm!


They all started down the trail together.  The older boys, who were beginning to put two and two together, brought up the rear.  This time, I waited until they were almost three-quarters of the way down the trail toward me before switching on the “Blue Light.”  Instant panic!  They stampeded back, nearly running over two of the bigger boys who got in the way.  Mr. Wisse admitted later that even though he knew it was me holding the light, all the hair on the back of his neck stood at attention!


The Cadets still talk about the scariest initiation they ever had – but at least one of the counselors still feels self-conscious in front of the boys’ fathers.


POSTSCRIPT - And where was the oldest of my younger brothers?  Still sitting by the fire, unconcerned about some ghost with a blue light, munching on goodies!  He’s inherited that blue light lens, and now he’s finally got the story to go with it!  As I wrote in my blog for The Poet's Chair, “Halcyon Days of Youth,” my father had been dairy herdsman for old Walter Titsworth in Sussex, NJ the year he graduated high school in Clifton, NJ.  Walter’s direct ancestor was Willem Abrahamse Tietsoort. 


A number of adults and children, including infants, were murdered by Indians one February night a few centuries ago, but Tietsoort and others survived the infamous 1690 Schenectady, N.Y. massacre.  Though severely injured, Tietsoort removed himself and his family from the Mohawk river area and purchased thousands of acres in the Port Jervis/Sussex region of Northwestern New Jersey from the Minnisink Indians as per legal documents.  Also of note from my research is that Tietsoort’s house had many similarities to the Dutch Mabee House on the Mohawk River in Rotterdam, N.Y., built late 17th/early 18th century, which I have toured.


Growing up, we kids loved visiting Walter Titsworth’s elderly daughters, Julia and Olivia.  They were just the sweetest little old ladies ever!  And I was fascinated with their Victorian home filled with so many beautiful antiques.  However, what makes the story even more interesting, is a little detail I discovered when researching every line of my mother’s ancestry – we never knew that my mother has ancestral ties to the Tietsoort family!  If only we’d known back then!! 

Linda Roorda

That old family quilt is not just for warmth and comfort.  In other words, it’s not just another blanket!  It has also been appreciated for its aesthetic beauty with intricate design and colorful patterns which complement the whole and draw the viewer in.  And, when admiring antique quilts, one can’t help but wonder about the women whose time, effort, and skill were put to work creating such a lasting family treasure.


Making quilts is among the ancient skills women used to keep their family cozy warm without central heat.  Centuries ago, quilts were typically nothing more than two layers of fabric lined with some sort of batting, or perhaps an old worn blanket… which is actually what I did when making my first quilt to save my weekly allowance.  All layers were stitched together, and provided a warm cover for the bed.  But, simple quilts were also made to use as hangings over windows and doors to help prevent cold drafts from entering the house and the warmth of the fireplace from escaping into the great outdoors.  Lighter summer quilts were also commonly made by simply combining a top and back without the warmth of an internal lining.


Initially, our Colonial ancestors kept themselves busy spinning and weaving, and then sewing their homemade fabric into clothing.  Men, especially of Irish and Scots-Irish descent, were excellent weavers in their time, as noted among my Caldwell and McNeill ancestors.  Eventually, from about the mid 18th century to the mid 19th century, women began making quilts which were not just for the utilitarian purpose of keeping their family warm.  They also began to expand their artistic creativity, sometimes taking years to make just one intricately designed quilt. 


There are many designs which have been expanded upon today with our modern time-saving devices.  But, back then, every step in making a quilt was done by hand, though some women today continue those traditional efforts, particularly the Amish and Mennonite.  Some of the earliest designs include the following:


  1. Whole cloth and medallion quilts – these were typically made from two large pieces of fabric, one for the top and one for the back, while the middle was perhaps an old blanket or other substance for a warm lining.  The design on the top fabric was often made by using cording or padding.  Hand stitching around the cords or padding created a raised design.

  2. Appliqué, or laid-on quilt – this was also usually made with two large pieces of fabric, one each for the top and back, with the difference being that small colored fabric pieces were then sewn onto the top to create a design, i.e. a flower and its petals.  Quilting was done around the edges of the appliquéd pieces, thus creating a set-apart design.  For this type of quilt, one needed a good deal of time, which wealthier women had.  The quilt’s popularity began to ease off in the mid 1800s due to the expense of fabrics and the time it took to create such beautiful quilts.

  3. Patchwork quilts – these were for everyday use, with purchased fabric or that obtained from worn-out garments.  The patchwork quilt is just what its name suggests, blocks or strips of fabric sewn together with a back and warm lining.  It was used as a blanket, not like the fancier appliqué quilts created for display.

  4. Medallion quilts – briefly mentioned above, they were of European design, brought to America by the Colonists.  This quilt typically features a central design with multiple borders around it in various patterns to complement the main motif and its colors. 


    The Amish immigrants from Europe to Pennsylvania and later the Midwest were not involved in quilting when they first arrived.  They preferred to use goose or duck down to make soft, cozy featherbeds and blankets.  Eventually, they began making quality quilts in specific designs and color schemes which have set their highly desirable work apart from others.  The Amish and Mennonite women also tend to continue the traditional quilting bees even today as they work on completing large quilts together.


    Quilting bees were begun by women in rural communities and outlying frontier settlements as they got together to help each other finish their quilts.  These “bees” were popular events, a way to socialize with good friends and catch up on the latest family news.  With the quilt stretched out on a frame, the women sat in a row on each side, and worked on stitching the layers together.  Other women cooked the main meals, often taking turns between sewing and cooking. 


    By the mid 19th century, the first treadle sewing machines appeared on the market.  What a time-saving invention they were!  If not the best way to quilt the fabric layers together, the machine could at least sew the patchwork quilt blocks or pieces together.  While an obvious time saver for the women, it still allowed them the chance to meet each other at the “bees” to complete their fine hand sewing.


    Interestingly, in 1917 during World War I, quilt making was encouraged by the U.S. government in order to save all factory-made blankets for the men going off to war.  As the project gained popularity, fancier quilt designs were made for fundraising events. 


    During the Great Depression, with money and so much more a scarce commodity, all fabric scraps were put to good use, often in pieced quilts.  But, another source of good fabric in this era was the all-purpose  feed sack from the local granary.  Many were the clothes sewn from feed sacks.  I heard that my dad’s mom also put them to use, as likely did my mom’s mother.  So, it was obviously only natural that these sacks would also be used to make quilts.  Now an heirloom, such quilts are a memorial to a family’s tough times when “making do” was vital.


    A few years later during World War II, signature quilts became popular.  Business owners and townspeople paid to have their names put on squares which were sewn together to make a memorial quilt.  Each quilt made within a community was sold or raffled off, raising funds to support the American Red Cross which provided aid to our soldiers.


    However, as time moved on, interest in quilting declined during the burgeoning 1950s and 1960s.  Considered an outdated and old-fashioned homemaker’s chore, quilt making was more often associated with eking out a living when times were tough.  It was just so much easier to simply go out and buy a blanket – why on earth would you waste time making one?!


    In my early teens in the late 1960s, not having knowledge of anyone making quilts, I developed an interest and attempted to make my own.  When I showed my dad’s mother the few small squares I’d put together, she promptly took me under her wing.  To my chagrin, she told me I was doing it all wrong; but then she kindly told me the correct way to go about making a quilt.  She even provided me with enough cotton fabric in different patterns for me to make a patchwork quilt for my own bed.  As mentioned in a previous blog at The Poet’s Chair, “The Master Tailor,” comment is made on my sewing interest which took off with an intensity at this time using my ca. 1905 treadle machine.


    Perhaps it was in celebrating our American Bicentennial in 1976 that, collectively, we looked back at how far our nation had come.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a renewed interest in quilting emerged in the younger generation, a generation desirous of rekindling those old-fashioned skills which our grandparents had used, with less focus on modern materialism.  I’ll definitely put myself in this category, as, since my teens, I’ve appreciated and longed for the simpler way of life from generations past.  I miss life on the farm from my childhood and when my own children were young.  But, in growing a huge garden to can and freeze a year’s worth of produce and sewing clothes for everyone, perhaps I really did venture into the world of homesteading skills more than I thought.


    Today, quilting is seen as a hobby and an art form by many women, not just a necessity.  It requires a precision with an attention to detail in cutting and sewing now as much as “back then.”  I have also renewed my interest in quilting over the last few years.  After making several more patchwork quilts during my 20s, I now enjoy the Log Cabin design in its various patterns.  I tried a small Lonestar (also called Star of Bethlehem) pattern for a pillow, and would like to use the design as the centerpiece of a Log Cabin quilt – one of these days!  I’ve seen some beautiful examples of these patterns online by the Amish and Mennonites.


    A few years ago while chatting with folks at a doctor’s office, I had the good fortune to meet a woman from my county who had taken first place nationally with her stunning large quilt.  Humble as she was about her award, her husband proudly showed me a photo of her quilt on display at the National Museum of Quilts in Kentucky.  Unfortunately, I do not recall her name, nor what her quilt looked like except that it was beautiful and obviously involved a tremendous deal of painstaking and loving handwork.


    If you are interested in further research, there are many online websites dedicated to preserving and enhancing the history of quilting, including free quilt patterns. 


    NEXT:  Valentine’s Day


    SOURCES: - Lone Star, Radiant Star, Star of Bethlehem, Texas Star

Linda Roorda

Headline News 1816

What newsworthy events might’ve made the big headlines 200 years ago?  As another year draws to a close, we once again take a look back at the news which our ancestors likely heard or read about in 1816… and perhaps even discussed in the local gathering place, the General Store.


A leap year, 1816 has been forever memorialized as “The Year Without a Summer.”  From my earlier Homestead articles, “Headline News 1815” and “The Great Snows,” 1815 had seen the volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora in Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).  After several eruptions in the few years preceding 1816, Mt. Tambora spewed even more sulfuric ash into the atmosphere creating an extensive debris field.  And, along with that debris, came a “dry fog or veil” which deflected the sun with its resultant global cooling. 


In North America, the U.S. was affected most from New England to New York and Pennsylvania, while eastern Canada and western Europe were also most severely affected.  With cooler temperatures and snow in summer (at least 10 inches in parts of New England that June with frost yet in July), crops did not grow well.  With insufficient food supplies for people and livestock, there was an extensive international famine and innumerable deaths in the above nations, including eastern Asia and the devastation of the vital rice crop.  


Cooler temperatures also put in motion an exodus from the northeast United States to the heartland as people sought better land for subsistence agriculture. Yet, despite the devastating effects of such a cold summer, there are positives to be remembered, namely in inventions which were intended to improve the lives of the populace.


It has been suggested that, with a lack of feed grains for the all-important horse this year without a summer, therein lay the incentive which prompted Germany’s Baron Karl von Drais to think outside the norm.  Ultimately, he came up with an alternative mode of transportation in the “draisine” or “velocipede.”  Made in either 1816 or 1817 depending on source, patented in 1818, it was the forerunner to our modern bicycle.  It was a two-wheeled bicycle upon which you sat while your feet did the walking or running, essentially attaining speeds which feet typically were usually not accustomed to reaching on their own.  Riders nicknamed this cycle the “hobby-horse,” though it was more dangerous to the rider and innocent pedestrian than the child’s stationary toy horse of the same name – simply for its lack of brakes.  Not only was it dangerous, but it was also an uncomfortable ride over both cobblestone and rutted dirt streets, and soon fell out of favor.  But, the active human mind being what it is, improvements were soon contemplated and implemented as the bicycle went through multiple stages of transformation.  Stay tuned in a few months for further history on this simple two-wheeled contraption that we take for granted.


As spring began to bud out, Rev. Richard Allen opened the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia on April 11.  This was the first church begun without the guidance of a church led and/or instituted by whites.  Born a slave in 1760, he had purchased his freedom by 1783.  Joining Philadelphia’s mixed congregation of whites and blacks at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, he rose to the position of assistant pastor.  With race limitations leading to frustrations, Allen and the Rev. Absalom Jones decided to start the non-denominational Free African Society dedicated to assisting black communities.  Later, in 1794, Allen was instrumental in helping other black Methodists start Bethel Church, the basement of which later housed passengers on the Underground Railroad.  In 1799, Allen became the first ordained African-American minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, founding the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816.  Commended as the church’s first bishop, his anti-slavery views would eventually influence men of renown like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr.


Barely a month later on May 5th, the American Bible Society was established in New York City.  It was their mission to publish, distribute and translate the Holy Bible, along with providing study aids.  The society’s earliest members also committed themselves to helping put an end to slavery.


In June, the Gas-Light Company of Baltimore, Maryland was formed (incorporated in February 1817) with the proposal that the streets of the city be lit by natural gas.  Later that same month, an ordinance was passed allowing the company to set out under the streets the appropriate conduits and conveyances necessary to bring gaslight to the city.  Gradually, the lamplighter lost his secure job of going from post to post throughout cities and smaller villages to light candles enclosed in glass.


The year 1816 also saw several inventions come into that day’s modern world.  England’s Francis Ronalds, a meteorologist and inventor, built the first working electrostatic telegraph using static electricity, sending messages through 8 miles of wire arranged within his home’s gardens.  Imagine that! You could send messages to a receiver set up elsewhere without needing a delivery boy.


Yet, it wasn’t until the 1830s that Samuel Morse’s telegraph work was perfected, followed in 1844 by his sending electrical signals via wire between Washington and Baltimore.  Ezra Cornell (of Cornell University), a famed construction engineer, set out the wire which carried Morse’s famous words, “What has God wrought?” and which began a whole new era of communication.


In the world of entertainment, and with the steady rains and cold temperatures of that “year without a summer,” folks were inclined to spend much of their time indoors.  In Switzerland that June, at an inn with a stunning view of Lake Geneva, a group of writing friends decided to have fun with a contest amongst themselves.  Determined to write the scariest stories, Mary Shelley (wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) came up with “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,” while Lord Byron wrote “A Fragment,” which prompted John William Polidori to write “The Vampire,” and which, in turn, became the forerunner to “Dracula.”


The milling machine, used for shaping metals, was invented this year by Simeon North of Connecticut.  He was a gun manufacturer, and his milling machine allowed for the manufacture of interchangeable metal parts, especially valuable in firearms.


Gun enthusiasts know well the name of Eliphalet Remington from Ilion, New York who formed the company bearing his surname. He manufactured firearms and, starting in 1873, the typewriter.  Little did I realize the history I held in my hands with an ancient Remington typewriter (very old, perhaps early 20th century) which my dad provided me in high school from an estate auction.  After much use for school papers, sadly, I believe it found its way into the trash after I left home to get married.


The year 1816 was an election year, just as it is now 200 years later.  On December 4, James Monroe of the Democrat-Republican Party was easily elected America’s 5th president, defeating the Federalist’s Rufus King.  And like today, Monroe’s presidency had its struggles.  The young nation hoped to promote a sense of unity within its borders after winning the War of 1812, fought with Britain who was intent on recouping her previous losses in the American Revolution. 


But, America was also embroiled in political dissension regarding the designation of free and slave states.  With the eventual Missouri Compromise of 1820 under Monroe’s presidency, Missouri was allowed to enter as a state with slave ownership. However, as I wrote in my Homestead article, “The Underground Railroad,” “The flip side of the compromise was that southern states grudgingly agreed to an exclusion of slavery in land north of what became known as the Mason-Dixon line…”  And the wounds of states’ rights began to fester until the eruption of America’s Civil War.


In 1817, Monroe ordered Andrew Jackson to attack the Seminole Indians in Florida which caused a constitutional controversy.  As Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams made a deal with Spain in 1819 whereby the U.S. acquired Florida and relinquished claims to Texas.  Monroe also dealt with economic issues which culminated in the Panic of 1819.  Following close on the heels of these issues, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 gave warning to European nations not to interfere with North or South American national interests. 


As the year drew to a close, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society became the first savings bank in the fledgling nation, opening its doors on December 2nd.  Nine days later on December 11, Indiana joined the Union as the 19th state, disallowing slavery within its borders.  And, to finish out the year, December 13th saw John Adamson of Boston, Massachusetts being awarded a patent for his dry dock design.  This provided the ability to repair ships conveniently up and out of the water.


It had been quite a memorable year by all accounts, but folks were also ready to allow the winds of change to blow in the beginnings of another new year for a fresh start.


And I wish each of you, my readers, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!


NEXT:  The Quilt


Historical Events in 1816:

Black History:

Richard Allen/AME Church:

Presidential election, James Madison:

Source: Boundless. “The Election of 1816 and the Monroe Presidency.” Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 21 Aug. 2016 from


Linda Roorda

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a short and simple speech, thought initially to be of little, if any, consequence.  Little did folks realize then just how stirring his words would become in the hearts of Americans since.  And so, we honor those who fought and died at the Battle of Gettysburg during the early days of July 1863 during America’s Civil War.


It was General William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army who said, “War is hell.”  America was in the midst of a raging hell among its own people.  Battle lines were drawn as the north fought the south.  Brother fought brother.  Cousin battled cousin.  One set of ideals clashed with another believed in just as fervently.  And, the first three days of July 1863 saw the Union and Confederate armies meet on land in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, with long-term repercussions. 


On our honeymoon in October 1974, my husband and I stood atop a ridge of rocky boulders overlooking well-kept open fields where men once fought.  In such a peaceful scene, we could hardly imagine the carnage of war that took place about 111 years earlier.  The North’s casualties (killed, wounded and captured) were estimated at about 23,000, while the South’s casualties were estimated at about 31,000.  By the war’s end in 1865, roughly 625,000 men had died, more than the total of Americans killed in WW I, WW II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War - combined.


Adding a personal touch to those who fought in the Civil War, my great-great-grandmother, Mary Eliza Leonardson (name anglicized from the Dutch Leendertse per documented research, which literally means Leonard’s son), b. abt. 1832, had two brothers who went off to war - John D., b. 1830 and Henry, b. 1840.  John D. enlisted December 1861, re-enlisted January 1864, and mustered out August 1865 having survived it all, while his brother Henry enlisted in January 1864 and was killed a year later in January 1865 at Petersburg, Virginia.


An extended relative, Robert McNeill (an older brother of my ancestor, Jesse), had two sons who went off to war - Chauncey, b. abt. 1819, and DeWitt C., b. 1845, both serving in the Northern Army.  Chauncey enlisted September 1864, went missing in action November 1864 in Tennessee, and died at Andersonville Prison March 5, 1865.  DeWitt enlisted September 1862, was captured September 1864, released March 1865, mustered out August 1865, returned home to Lyons, New York, and died of the effects of war in March 1868, leaving behind a young widow.  Though none of the above four men fought at Gettysburg, they were involved in other intense battles of America’s Civil War, with three paying the ultimate price.


On June 24, 1863, General Robert E. Lee led his army across the Potomac toward Pennsylvania, fresh from victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia.  On the 28th, he met Lt. Gen. James Longstreet in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania where they analyzed the Union Army’s move toward Pennsylvania.  Lee’s cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart, made an unwise decision to pursue the deep rear of the Union army.  This left Lee unaware of the Union troops’ exact location and how best to overpower them.  At the same time, as battle failures continued to plague the Union, President Lincoln made another change in commanders by replacing General Joseph Hooker with General George Meade.  On the 30th, Union cavalry scouts found the Confederates northeast of Gettysburg.  This prompted Gen. John Buford to send word to Maj. Gen. John Reynolds in Emmitsburg, Maryland to join him with all the Union troops he could muster as quickly as possible.


On July 1st, shots were heard to have been fired northwest of Gettysburg.  As more troops arrived, they took up positions on the ridges and along the dozen roads leading into town.  Union Maj. Gen. John Reynolds was shot and killed while Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday took his place.  (Though this Abner Doubleday is often reputed to be of baseball fame, he denied claims of inventing baseball. ) 


Confederates encountered and skirmished with the Dutch Corps (actually Deutsch, or German-Americans) which fell back.  This caused a chain reaction in the Union lines for about two miles with a retreat to Cemetery Hill, the northern rise of the two-mile long Cemetery Ridge south of town.  With the Confederates seeming to have won the day, Lee ordered General Richard Ewell to attack “if practicable.”  Not having the character of Stonewall Jackson, whom he had replaced and who would have attacked without fear, Ewell chose not to attack when he saw the Union soldiers fortified on the hill above his men.  Little did he realize what a difference he could have made if he had attacked and won, but…


As men in gray (Confederate) and blue (Union) converged on the region, and as fatigue set in after marching all day and night, they established their respective lines of defense.  With a long day of fighting behind them, Union troops barely held their positions after Ewell’s southern troops had failed to completely overtake their weakened northern defenses due to his own poor decision at Cemetery Hill.  However, with Gen. Meade arriving after midnight in the early hours of the 2nd, his men now lent their aid to back up the beleaguered Union troops atop Cemetery Hill.  They thus helped create a strong defense from which they hoped to repel the Confederates. 


As of July 1st and 2nd, successful Confederate forces had taken control of quite a bit of ground at the Rose Farm, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, the Trostle farm, the Devil’s Den, and Spangler’s Spring.  With Lee thinking the north had had its center weakened, he planned to attack them next with artillery.  He expected to follow that with an infantry attack led by George Pickett, while J.E.B. Stuart’s forces were to attack the rear of the Union army.


In the early morning hours of July 3rd, snipers began their attacks as another day of fighting commenced.  The Confederates had established defense works in town while the Union forces attacked from Cemetery Ridge.  During the attacks in town, 20-year-old Virginia (“Jenny”) Wade was shot and killed by a stray bullet while making biscuits for Union soldiers.  In her sister’s kitchen on Baltimore Street at the time, she was the only civilian casualty. 


At precisely 1:07 p.m. on the 3rd, two cannons were fired from Seminary Ridge.  This alerted the Confederates to intensify their attack toward a specific group of trees across the way atop Cemetery Hill.  Early that same afternoon, J.E.B. Stuart turned his cavalry around to attack the Union’s rear at Cemetery Hill where the flamboyant Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer could be seen leading his troops. 


When Union troops let the Confederates believe their guns had been knocked out, 13,000 to 15,000 rebel troops began marching across the open fields.  As they drew closer, the Union forces blasted them with everything they had.  For nearly two hours, there was near-constant firing of 250 cannons which created a deafening roar reportedly heard many miles away.  The sound of bullets whizzing through the air was mixed with the screaming of wounded men and horses.  Battle cries to rally the troops could be heard amidst the clashing of swords and bayonets in hand-to-hand combat, as men and horses lay where they fell only to be trampled in the melee.  Barely half the Rebel army survived the onslaught.  “War is hell…”


Despite the men in gray running low on ammunition, Maj. Gen. Pickett was given approval by Gen. Longstreet to lead what has since been known as Pickett’s Charge.  As Confederate soldiers marched resolutely across the open undulating ground toward the rise at Cemetery Ridge, 6500 Union soldiers defended their lines with devastating results.  The surviving Rebels and their reinforcements had no choice but to retreat after suffering about 6000 casualties, while the Union army wrested ultimate control of the battlefield that day.


July 4th saw a welcome cooling rain, but the summer sun with sweltering heat and humidity returned the following day.  The town and its environs were littered with the bodies of fallen soldiers and horses, never mind the stench of war.  Makeshift clinics were established in homes and tents or on the open field.  Amputations of battered limbs took place in an effort to save soldiers’ lives, but too often only served to hasten death in the weakened. 


As Lee retreated south on July 5th after losing more than a third of his men, Meade cautiously decided not to decimate his own troops any further by pursuing Lee.  He thus missed the opportunity to have crushed Lee’s retreating army, possibly ending the war much sooner than the two years of fighting that lay ahead of them, but…


Tillie Pierce, a young girl of about 15, was an eyewitness to the horrific battle scenes during the three days, including amputations of soldiers’ limbs in a clinic set up inside her friend’s house where she assisted.  Writing down her detailed memories, she published them 26 years later as a memorial to those who fought and gave their lives.


As the chill of late autumn gradually settled in, the people came together on November 19, 1863 to dedicate a cemetery for the men who had given their all.  President Abraham Lincoln was not the featured guest.  That distinction was given to Edward Everett, a highly revered speaker from Massachusetts.  In fact, though Lincoln had been invited, no one expected him to be there.  But, despite his son Tad taking ill, Lincoln insisted on going to this dedication in honor of the fallen heroes for whom he also mourned.  The crowd, estimated at about 15-20,000, listened with rapt attention to Everett for two hours.  President Lincoln then rose and, standing tall, spoke in his simple manner for less than two minutes.  As he concluded, the audience stood in stunned silence.  Lincoln said to a friend, “It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed.”  The following day, however, with all humility, Everett wrote to praise Lincoln for his short but eloquent speech.  Lincoln’s speech has ultimately been recognized as one of the best in all of American history.  Senator Charles Sumner even stated on June 1, 1865 in his eulogy of the slain President Abraham Lincoln that, “…The battle itself was less important than the speech.”


“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.


Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.


But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


Incomparable words written and spoken from the heart of a simple leader of men.


NEXT:  Headline News 1816


Lincoln’s speech source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler.  The text above is from the so-called "Bliss Copy," one of several versions that Lincoln wrote, and which is believed to be the final version.

Gettysburg battle sources:

Linda Roorda

Whaling was not a romantic venture by any means.  It stunk… literally and figuratively.


“Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”  (Thompson)  So said Ishmael after sailing in 1841 on the Nantucket whaler Pequod under Capt. Ahab.  “Moby Dick,” a novel by Herman Melville of Troy in New York’s Hudson Valley, piqued its readers’ interest in the world of sailing and pursuit of leviathans, those great and plentiful whales of yesteryear. 


Ishmael’s adventure on the high seas left him forever immortalized as the sole survivor of a whaling trip gone awry.  In this epic sail, Capt. Ahab’s obsession for revenge against the white whale which took his leg created an undiluted raging hate that destroyed himself and his crew.  And Melville’s romanticized whaling venture proved the very real fears of family and friends of whalers were not exactly unfounded.


When a whaling ship put to sea it might be gone for months to over a year or more at a time.  The trip was both boring and stressful, with frenzied excitement in the chase… but it was also an occupation filled with apprehension by living life so close to the brink of disaster.  Even the family left behind lived with constant fear… would their husband, father, or son be coming home, and when? 


Mariners and sailors of the open sea, who provided transportation of goods from one area to another, were both of the same ilk.  It’s a well-known fact they were hardy men of strong stock who braved the raw elements, loading and unloading ships, but they were also a loud and boisterous, fighting and swearing crew.  They were the backbone of commerce, providing the necessary resources to move foodstuffs and manufactured goods, but equally ready to defend a ship or nation from attack at a moment’s notice.


Mariners and whalers were vital to a growing world economy, just as today’s sailors or merchant seamen on cargo ships are.  And, in a sense, their traffic on the open sea can be likened to yesterday’s teamsters and trains and today’s tractor trailers which have been the mainstay of commercial transportation for the modern world’s products - always on the move.


But let’s imagine ourselves back in home port where we happen to notice a woman standing at an upstairs window, gazing out to sea… watching, waiting, longing and hoping.  Her man, the love of her life, the father of her children, is a-whaling.  It’s been almost a year since she last saw him.  There’s been no word of him or the whaling ship.  But wait… is that a sail peeking over the horizon… could it be his ship, or just another disappointment?  She waits, hope building, her heart pounding...  As the schooner sails into the harbor, she recognizes the sails, the colors, the bowsprit… it’s his ship!  But… is he on it, or did he lose his life in the whaling boat?  She dashes out of the house, through the busy streets, down to the docks… and finally spies that familiar stride coming toward her, as she collapses into his arms.


In another town, another woman watches and waits for her man… a mariner and landowner, a fairly wealthy man who put to sea from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  He’d struck quite a handsome figure when she first met him.  Hannah thinks back to those early days and how good he’s been to her.  She knows how much he loves her for he’s told her often, and brought her treasured gifts from his trips.  He’s a good man, everyone likes him, and she’s so proud of him. 


Just then, her unborn little one stirs, and his movements bring a smile to her face and joy to her heart as she tenderly wraps her arms around herself.  Comes the summer day when her little one is born, and she names him for his father, giving her surname as his middle name, not a typical gesture for Scots-Irish.  But, when her beloved John sails back into harbor, his dear wife is not waiting on the dock for him.  And little John will never know his beautiful mother who dies soon after his birth.  Eventually relinquishing his son to the care of his late wife’s parents, John returns to sea. 


Yet, neither will the little lad walk in his father’s footsteps.  He will never get to learn from his dad… for his father dies at sea in 1758, and there is buried.  He may have been part of the French and Indian War between 1754 and 1763... or, he may have taken sick and died at sea.  We don’t know.  So now, orphaned as a toddler, at so tender an age, little John C. is raised by his mother’s parents and marries his cousin, Hannah, who shared his mom’s name.  Within this story are interwoven documented facts of my ancestor, John Caldwell McNeill, the son of said mariner, John, of Londonderry and its environs in New Hampshire.  While John McNeill Sr. left behind personal belongings (some from his time at sea) and several properties as documented in estate papers, no documentation has been found to prove his own parentage. 


Though the sea has an unparalleled beauty all its own, it is also unforgiving and relentless.  And those answering its beckoning call with efforts to sail its wild forces will either become victor or the defeated. 


One of the most illustrious and admirable ancient occupations of the sea was found in the whaling industry.  With a knowledge rich in the history of the centuries-old business of whaling, Richard Ellis wrote in “Men and Whales” that “…it is only through the lens of hindsight that the whaleman's job becomes malicious or cruel…  Oil was needed for light and lubrication; baleen was needed for skirt hoops and corset stays.  That whales had to die to provide these things is a fact of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century life…"  (URL at end of article)


Whales provided much to a civilization which gave no thought to the decimation of such a magnificent creature.  Whaling was simply a way of life, meeting life’s necessary accoutrements.  Few men beyond the company owners became wealthy from the whalers’ dangerous efforts.  For initial research, I turned to the New Bedford Whaling Museum website.  


Whalers brought home:  

1) sperm oil from the blubber of sperm whales; a light straw color, it was used for lubricating, lighting and soap;

2) spermaceti or head oil, particularly from the sperm whale, is a pearly-white translucent waxy liquid at body temperature, the most valuable product used for top-quality candles, medicinal ointment, sizing for combing wool, and used through the 1960s for leather tanning, in cosmetics, textiles, and typewriter ribbons;

3) a darker whale oil from the right, bowhead and humpback whales was used for lighting, lubrication, food, tempering steel, in the headlamps of miners, and in soap;

4) baleen, or whalebone, was made of keratin (in fingernails, hair, hooves and claws) which hangs from the mouth of 14 whale species; it acts as a strainer for krill in seawater, providing many 19th century goods for which today’s plastic or steel has taken over, including buggy whips, carriage springs, corset stays, fishing poles, hoops for skirts, umbrella ribs, etc.; and

5) ambergris (black to whitish gray) which came from the intestines of diseased sperm whales, used as incense and medicine in ancient times, now used primarily as a stabilizer in perfumes.  (URL at end of article)


Many New England ports were home to whalers, most notably Nantucket, Rhode Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts, while San Francisco, California became the popular base for Pacific whalers.  New Bedford was the busiest and wealthiest port along the eastern coast from Maine to Delaware.  In 1857, New Bedford’s fleet of whalers peaked at 329 vessels having a collective value of over $12 million, employing over 10,000 men.


From the New Bedford Whaling Museum website, we learn that whaler Benjamin Tucker returned to port in 1851 carrying “73,707 gallons of whale-oil, 5,348 gallons of sperm oil, and 30,012 pounds of whalebone (baleen).  After expenses, the net profit of Benjamin Tucker's voyage was $45,320.  The usual share for the owners of a ship was between 60 and 70 percent.  In this case, between $13,596 and $18,128 would have been left to be divided among the captain and crew for several years of work.”  (URL at end of article)


I was then caught by surprise to learn from a friend that the North (aka Hudson) River in New York boasted a profitable home port for whalers putting out to sea.  Will Van Dorp has traveled New York City’s waterways, Hudson River, Erie Canal, Great Lakes except Superior, and St. Lawrence Seaway.  He has a captain's license, and works on a passenger vessel as an onboard lecturer.  He is also author/photographer of the blog Tugster, with photos and data on tugs and ships in what he’s termed New York City’s watery Sixth Boro.  In a recent conversation, Van Dorp shared with me the Hudson Valley Magazine’s April 2012 article on New York’s whaling industry.  “Hudson Valley Whaling Industry: A History of Claverack Landing (Hudson), NY,” written by David Levine, is an intriguing article which readily sent me off into further research.


New York’s North/Hudson River provided three home ports to a thriving whaling industry for a good 60 years.  It’s believed the North River was so named by the early Dutch who gave directional names to the waterways around Manhattan.  To confuse us even a bit, there are maps and old photos which indicate interchangeable usage of North and Hudson River for the entire river’s length.  Some retained usage of North River for only the southernmost portion between New York City and northeast New Jersey, while the Hudson River designation was intended for that section of river above and within New York state.  A 1990 Hagstrom street map of New York City still labeled it the North River, although Hudson River, in honor of the 1609 explorer on the Halve Maen (Half Moon), has been preferred since the early 20th century.


But, were it not for the British Parliament’s 1766 duties and taxes on their thriving colony’s exports of whale oil, there may not have been a Hudson River whaling industry.  Reacting in 1774 to the British Intolerable Acts, the Colonial Continental Congress banned trade with England.  Naturally, Britain retaliated by blockading its colony’s ports in New England, including the highly successful port of Nantucket.  They captured and destroyed the colony’s ships on the seas, and forced American sailors to work on British ships.  The result was that New England’s strangled whaling industry was essentially dead in the water.


As the Revolutionary War came to a close in 1783, enterprising businessmen began searching for new ports and good land away from the effects of war.  From Nantucket, Seth and Thomas Jenkins sailed in search of a protected port, well away from marauders of the sea.  Finding just what they wanted along the Hudson River at an old Dutch community, they purchased land at Claverack Landing, New York.  Renaming the town Hudson in 1785 after the intrepid explorer, Henry Hudson, thirty proprietors (New England whalers and businessmen) laid out the new city and helped establish the shops needed to support a thriving whaling industry.  Though the ocean was over 100 miles south, the port soon became “one of the most important whaling centers in the country.”  (Levine) 


By about 1819 or 1820, however, and just when booming growth marked it as the fourth largest city in New York state, the Nantucket Navigators’ last whaling ship put to sea.  A new Hudson whaling company was created in 1829, while competition down river soon saw other whaling companies established.  In 1832, the Poughkeepsie and the Newburgh Whaling Companies both sent whalers out, while the Dutchess Whaling Company in Poughkeepsie was established in 1833.  Yet, by about 1844, these highly profitable inland whaling companies also ceased to exist, and the industry as a whole began its slow decline with crude oil products taking over the market from whale blubber.  Though a relatively small city formerly known as Claverack Landing, Hudson had profited greatly from its flourishing whaling industry.  Essentially, that growth was relatively short-lived and smaller in volume in comparison to the resurgence of New England’s booming seaports at the edge of the sea.


So, what was involved in whaling to bring the goods back home?  Soon after putting out to sea, the men on a whaling ship typically took 2-hour turns high up “in” the crow’s nest on the mast.  (The crow’s nest was typically a simple structure or platform for men to stand on near the top of the mast to get a good look into the distance.)  The job of the man “in” the crow’s nest was to look for the spout of a nearby whale when it came up for air.  Knowing that each type of whale had a distinctive type of spout when coming up for air was important in determining whether to pursue or not.  And with the shout, “Thar she blows!” the crew was in business.


Passing key information down about the kind of whale and exactly where it had been spotted brought the captain, mates and crew assembling in the whaleboats.  The remaining crew, typically a cooper (who made and fixed wooden casks), blacksmith, carpenter, cook and steward, stayed behind to care for the ship and be ready for the returning whalers.  After launching their small whaleboats into the sea, rowing began in earnest to get the crew as close as possible to their intended prey. 


With the captain urging the men forward, their rowing efforts grew quieter the closer they came to the whale.  With its keen hearing, they were well aware that as they drew closer they could easily be crushed and drowned by the unpredictability of such a large leviathan.  The next danger they faced was in setting the harpoon, or whale iron, into the blubber of the whale’s back.  The harpoon was a long iron rod with either a single or double arrow-shaped tip which acted as a hook.  Once embedded in the whale, the harpoon’s attached rope, i.e. line, was allowed to play out its slack as the whale took off with a surge.

With the harpoon set in the large whale, the crew rapidly backed their boat away for their own safety.  As the wounded whale thrashed about in pain, it could irreparably damage their boat in a variety of scenarios.  The whale might escape if the harpoon wasn’t set deep enough.  It could also overturn and sink the whaleboat as it thrashed, leaving the men to flounder around at the mercy of the sea until their ship could find them which, unfortunately, wasn’t always the case.  It was not unusual to have several or all men lost during this part of the venture.


Then, while the whale swam easily near the water’s surface at speeds of up to 20 mph, the whaleboat began its wild ride, often being helplessly dragged and bounced along at the whim of the whale.  Sometimes, if they were taken too far, the mother ship was unable to locate the crew when they didn’t return in a reasonable amount of time.  As the whale swam and dove, the line usually “played out so fast that it smoked from the friction.”  And, if the whale dove deep and fast enough, the whaleboat could easily be taken down with it and all men lost.  Occasionally, a man managed to get tangled up in the fast-moving line and was all too quickly yanked out of the boat and often drowned.


As the whale tired, the crew turned the line around a short post in the boat to take up the slack, all the while slowly gaining ground on their victim.  The crew would then maneuver their boat closer for the kill.  As the men reeled in the line, the harpooner would go aft to steer while the boatheader came forward with a lance.  Standing and walking was an extremely dangerous position change in an unsteady boat, leading to the death of one or both men on many occasions.  Then, when in position, the boatheader plunged his lance into the heart or lungs to kill the whale. 


At this point, the crew again rowed their boat quickly away while intently watching the whale as it thrashed about.  When the whale had died and turned over, the men attached a line to a hole made in the tail, and the exhausted crew worked even harder to tow the dead whale back to their ship.  Unless the ship was nearby, rowing as they hauled behind them a good 50 tons or more of dead weight meant their prize was by no means easily brought in.


By the late 1850s, harpoon guns had been developed which were much more accurate and able to penetrate deeper than a man’s throwing strength could bury the harpoon.  Other explosive devices were used after 1865 in an effort to more effectively and safely defeat the great whales and prevent the loss of life and boat as in years past.


When the crew arrived back at the ship, the men worked in 6-hour shifts around the clock.  They had to complete the next phase as quickly as possible before frenzied sharks snatched up too much of their profit.  The whale was attached to the ship’s starboard (right) side with chains as the crew put a “cutting stage” (plank platform) atop the carcass.  Next, they stripped thick layers of blubber off the carcass with long spades.  Once these huge chunks were cut off, each weighing about a ton, they were hauled up on deck and cut into smaller, more manageable pieces.


Trying out, i.e. boiling or rendering, was the process that extracted oil from the blubber.  Initially done on shore, the crew began tackling this job on their ship by the mid 19th century.  Big iron pots were set up in a brick stove with fire beneath the pots.  As oil was rendered from the blubber, it was then cooled, put into wooden casks, and stored in the ship’s hold below deck.  Typically, one barrel equaled 31-1/2 gallons.  Once on shore, this oil would be strained, bleached, and sold as lamp oil.


With little of the carcass going to waste, the head of the whale was prized for it contained even more valuable oil than the blubber.  The top of the whale’s head held the purest oil called spermaceti, up to 500 gallons, and worth 3 to 5 times more than any other whale oil.  The lower half of the forehead contained additional oil which was boiled separately; it was less valuable than spermaceti, but still superior to the oil rendered from blubber.  The jaw and teeth were also saved and used by the crew to carve beautiful and delicate scrimshaw in their spare time.


But, processing the dead whale was virtually as dangerous as the hunt had been.  As the men worked, there was no way to avoid getting blood and oil on the wooden deck.  And, occasionally, someone slipped and fell overboard into the jaws of those ravenous sharks in the roiling waters below.  Other crewmembers might be crushed by the huge strips of heavy blubber, or injured by sharp harvesting tools.  At times, boisterous waves caused the ship to toss back and forth, sloshing boiling oil onto men, an injury they did not easily recover from, if at all.  And, there was even the rare occasion when fire for the rendering process spread and destroyed part or all of the ship.  Whaling was definitely not an easy job even for men at the peak of physical fitness.


Once each whale was processed and stored in barrels and casks below deck, the upper deck was scrubbed clean, and the men were back at their posts looking for the next whale.  Soon enough, “Thar she blows!” was heard from another watchman, and the entire process began again.  When the hold was filled to capacity, at times less so or even empty, the whaling ship returned to home port for a respite.  To more fully appreciate an in-depth experience of yesterday’s whalers, check out the New Bedford Whaling Museum website.  The information and illustrations are impressive in explaining a way of life unknown to us today.


But, beyond all the hard work, the whaling ship and her hearty crew retained a certain stench, an odor that never seemed to dissipate.  Simply put, whalers stunk!  Even though they scrubbed their ship clean after each whale was processed, the malodorous aroma permeated everything.  As the New Bedford Whaling Museum website noted, “It was said that a ship downwind could smell a whaleship coming.”


Again, while most whaling ships remained at sea for many months at a time, some were out for a year or several years at a time.  Not an arrangement exactly conducive to quality family life as we know it, theirs was simply an accepted way of life a few hundred years and more ago.  Occasionally, rather than remain alone at home for months or years at a time, some women sailed aboard whaling schooners which were then called “hen frigates.”  These women, alone or with children, were spouse of the captain or a crew member; they were lookouts, cooks, and nurse to crew members who became ill or injured.


Obviously, the whaling ship was a very welcome sight for many reasons as it sailed back into port after its time at sea.  As we look back in the mirror of hindsight, we understand the valuable resource whales were to the world’s economy.  But, we also realize the extent to which whales were decimated, and greatly appreciate those who began preservation efforts of these magnificent creatures of the sea.


NEXT:  Gettysburg’s Hallowed Ground


Source information for this article and quotes, except as noted, and illustrations can be found at the New Bedford Whaling Museum website:


Hudson Valley Magazine, April 2012, by David Levine, “Hudson Valley Whaling Industry:  A History of Claverack Landing (Hudson), NY.”


Columbia County Historical Society, Hudson River Whaling: (data and illustrations)


History of Whaling in the U.S.:


For pictures of the whaling industry, see “The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story”, by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:


Nautical terms:

Linda Roorda

Who was Thomas Machin, and why was he important to the American Revolutionary War efforts?  What was “The Great Chain” that he designed, mockingly called “General Washington’s Watch Chain,” and why would some big old chain be important to the war effort?  I had read about this chain years ago, but never delved deeper into the more complete history.  It wasn’t until I researched my maternal McNeill ancestors and discovered the family’s close ties to Machin that I took more than a passing interest. 


A granddaughter of my ancestor, John Caldwell McNeill, married a grandson of Thomas Machin (see end of article).  My friend, Jackie Turnquist (former Carlisle town historian), living in the John McNeill brick house built ca. 1835 in Carlisle, Schoharie County, NY took me on a drive past Machin’s property a few years ago.  It’s not that far from the McNeill property, a short distance into and near the county border, being part of Charleston, Montgomery County, NY.  Machin, a surveyor, staked claim to his land about 1797, a few years after my ancestor, John C. McNeill, settled his land in Carlisle ca. 1794.  In driving by Machin’s property, it was obvious, though, that the once-cleared fields on his farm have been reclaimed by a young and growing forest. 


With Thomas Machin a contemporary of John C. McNeill, I can imagine them sitting in front of the fireplace at either home as they reminisced about the “good ol’ days.”  Men are like that.  Not apt to talk openly about their time served in war, they will, it seems, open up more freely to a comrade-in-arms.  After all, they have something in common - a bond from battle not to be taken lightly.


But, there is interesting, albeit conflicting, information on the early life of Thomas Machin who was [supposedly] born March 20, 1744 near Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England.  Descendants have claimed his father was John Machin, a noted mathematician who passed his knowledge on to his [supposed] second son, Thomas.  (Jeptha R. Simms, “History of Schoharie County,” Chapter XIX, .)  However, J. L. Bell, who specializes in research of the pre-American-Revolution era, claims that cannot be correct.  Bell is unable to find documentation to prove Machin’s birth in or around Wolverhampton.  He also asserts from his research that Thomas Machin’s supposed father, John Machin, a distinguished professor of astronomy in 18th century England, did not marry nor sire children.  (see Bell’s blogs, The Early Life of Thomas Machin, and The Truth About Thomas Machin.)


According to Simms, Machin was apprenticed under a British canal builder, James Brindley.  Bell claims that is not easy to prove as Brindley was illiterate and, with minimal surviving records, it is difficult to attest to Machin having even been in Brindley’s employ.  However, Roorda feels this part of Machin’s life may well be accurate as it gives credence to being the source of skills which Machin put to good use in colonial America.


Simms further claims that Machin sailed for New York City in 1772, taking part in the Boston Tea Party in 1773.  Bell’s article, on the other hand, indicates that was quite unlikely.  The Tea Party plans were kept secret, and those involved would not have made a fairly newly-arrived Brit privy to their plans.  Furthermore, Bell avers he has not seen Machin’s name in any of Boston’s multitudinous pre-Revolutionary War records to which he has had access.


Simms’ notes on Machin’s early life state that he, Machin, “was engaged and wounded (in one arm) in the conflict on Bunker’s hill, while acting as lieutenant of artillery.”  Bell refutes Machin’s being part of the Colonial militia at Bunker Hill by referring to a study done by Thomas J. Abernathy of Col. Richard Gridley’s 1775 artillery regiment.  Apparently, Machin’s name is not listed in the American colonial records until he is commissioned in January 1776 as a second lieutenant.   However, what is not refuted is Machin’s presence at that battle.


Bell’s blog also quotes a “27 July 1775 entry from the journal of Lt. Richard Williams of His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment of Foot:  Last night Thos. Machin, soldier in our Regt. deserted when sentry on the fire boat in the river near the neck. he went off in the Canoe [to] go to this float, he took the other man’s firelock with him, as it was that man’s turn to lay down, this fellow will give them good intelligence of our Works, for he was a pretty good Mechenik & knew a little of fortification. he invented a new carriage for guns on a pivot &c. his books & instruments were sent for to the General’s.’”


Bell additionally notes that His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment’s muster rolls indicate Thomas Machin enlisted February 17, 1773 in Maj. Harry Blunt’s company while still in Great Britain.  A few months later, said company sailed from England for New York City; and, in 1775, the regiment was sent up to defend Boston from the local militia’s fomenting dissent.  Therefore, Machin was quite likely at the Battle of Bunker Hill which took place June 17, 1775 and could well have been wounded in one arm.  But, as noted in the journal entry above by Lt. Williams, Machin deserted his sentry post with the British and attached himself to his nation’s enemy over a month after the battle at Bunker Hill took place.


As evidence of Machin’s unequivocal acceptance into the Continental Army, Gen. George Washington documented that he had spoken with a “John [sic] Machin.”  Machin provided sufficient information for Washington to write “An Acct. of the Killed & Wounded in the Ministerial Army.”  Per J. L. Bell’s blog, Machin became a member of Washington’s first secret spy ring around Boston in July 1775.   Furthermore, Washington introduced Machin to his aide-de-camp, John Trumbull, so that he might provide them with diagrams of the British forts.  Machin also worked with Thomas Mifflin, the quartermaster general, and is believed to have been a scout on January 8, 1776 when the Continental Army attacked the enemy positions at Charlestown, all of which confirmed where his new loyalties lay.


On January 18, 1776, Machin was commissioned a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment under Col. Henry Knox.  Simms quotes verbatim innumerable letters which attest to Thomas Machin’s usefulness to Washington’s army, found in Machin’s private collection after his death.  Machin, an engineer, erected fortifications to defend the town and harbor of Boston from April 1776 through the following June.  He planned the Cape Cod Canal after the Seige of Boston, and later dammed Lake Otsego for Gen. James Clinton’s army to float down the Susquehanna River in order to join Gen. Sullivan at Tioga Point (now Athens, PA) for their August 1779 Campaign to Newtown where Machin took part in surveying.  (see “Battle of Newtown” on this Homestead blog at Elmira Telegram)


With Machin’s skill verified by having set up the fortifications around Boston, Washington chose him to secure navigation through the Highlands on the Hudson River to prevent British passage. 

"Head-Quarters, New York, 21st July, 1776.
"Sir--You are without delay to proceed to Fort Montgomery, or Constitution, in the Highlands, on the Hudson's River, and put yourself under command of Col. George Clinton, or the commanding officer there,--to act as Engineer in contemplating such works as are already laid out,--and such others as you, with the advice of Col. Clinton, may think necessary: 'Tis expected and required of you, that you pay close attention to this business, and drive on the works with all possible despatch. In case of an attack from the enemy, or in any action with them, you are to join and act with the Artillery on that station; and to return to your duty in the regiment as soon as you can be spared from the works. "I am, sir, your most humble serv't.  GO. WASHINGTON."
(Jeptha R. Simms, “History of Schoharie County,” Chapter XIX)  


Thus began Thomas Machin’s most famous act of service to his adopted homeland.  It was a vital and urgent necessity to prevent the British from traveling up the Hudson River to wrest control of New York’s interior for, if they controlled the interior, they would then subdue the balance of the “western frontier,” separating New York from the other colonies.  Machin’s incredible skill and integrity shone through his work in designing, setting up, and maintaining the Great Chain placed on the Hudson River. 


There were actually two chain booms and two “chevaux de frise” placed on the Hudson from 1776 to 1778.  Chevaux de frise have been used since medieval times to defend against an enemy.  They are simply a frame, perhaps just a log, which has many projectiles of iron spikes or spears protruding from the sides, a very effective impediment in preventing enemy advancement.  But, for the Hudson Highlands, the most effective barrier to passage north was the Great Chain.  Designed by Thomas Machin, its huge links were forged at the Sterling Iron Works owned by Peter Townsend in the Ramapo mountains of Warwick, Orange County, New York.  The chain was then transported in pieces to be put together at West Point, placed at The Point across the Hudson River to Constitution Island on April 30, 1778, and used until the war ended. 


In its entirety, the chain was reportedly 600 yards long with 2-foot long links which each weighed about 114 pounds.  Once the links were put together, short sections of chain were floated on logs downriver in late April to West Point.  When the sections were joined, the chain weighed 65 tons and took 40 men four days to put it in place over the river.  During the winter months, it was pulled up on shore and repaired, being returned to position on the river each spring when thaws had sufficiently melted river ice.


Though the Great Chain was never breached by the British, modern technology indicates it might well have been susceptible to a loaded vessel.  However, the British military at that time decided not to make an attempt at running the chain with the risk of losing a valuable ship and its cargo, thus proving the chain’s invaluable worth to the Colonists. 


See part of the Great Chain on display at West Point, overlooking the Hudson River.


(One of my younger brothers was a cadet at West Point until prior health issues returned, necessitating a medical discharge.  He, my father, and step-mother stood at the Great Chain memorial as shown in photo above.)


After this accomplishment, Thomas Machin was detailed to join the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign where he proved his able assistance in defeating the enemy at the Battle of Newtown.  The journal of Capt. Machin notes distance between towns which he had surveyed on this Campaign.  (see website in sources below, )


A footnote to Simms’ work regarding Newtown reads:  The route pursued as marked upon this map crosses Spring creek near the Tioga, into which it empties, twenty one miles from its mouth, and passing up the west side of that stream a few miles, struck the head waters of Seneca creek. The route continued some five or six miles along the west side of the creek, then crossing, was continued upon its eastern side with one exception at an angle, to ‘French Catharine's Town,’ situated in a bend of the creek three or four miles from its mouth. From Catharine's Town the route led along the east side of Seneca lake crossing at a little distance from the lake, twenty-five small streams which ran into it along its eastern shore. Eleven miles from the outlet, probably in the present town of Ovid, they destroyed an Indian village situated on the north side of a small creek, and called on Machin's map "Candia." Crossing the outlet of Seneca lake, the army proceeded westward, and a few miles from the lake destroyed ‘Kanadesago,’ the largest of the Seneca towns.”  (website listed below)


Machin later served at the Yorktown Campaign with his commander, Henry Knox.  After the war, he briefly minted coins for the new government at Orange Lake near Newburgh, N.Y. before removing to Charlestown, Montgomery County, N.Y. about 1797.  There, he continued putting his surveyor’s skills to use.  He was also a member of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati, the oldest society for officers of the Continental Army who had served in the American Revolution and for their direct descendants.


Machin died on April 3, 1816, age 72, at his home in Charleston, Montgomery County, New York.  He was interred at Carlisle Rural Cemetery in Carlisle, Schoharie County, N.Y.  This cemetery is on the same road a very short distance beyond the dairy farm where Roorda’s mother, Reba Tillapaugh, was raised.  Roorda photographed the two plaques placed at Machin’s gravesite for her own records which note:  “Thomas Machin, 1744-1816, Captain of Artillery and Engineer of national renown during Revolutionary War.  Supervised the making and laying of The Great Chain across the Hudson River near West Point.”  And, “W. Thomas Machin, Engineer, Washington’s Staff, Founding Father of Masonry in Schoharie County, First master Schoharie Union Lodge, Member Boston Tea Party, 1744-1816; Dedicated 1999 by Schoharie Valley Lodge #491.”  


Remember the McNeill/Machin family connection mentioned above?  Thomas Machin’s son, Thomas Machin, Jr. married Susannah (_?_).  Their son, James Daniel Machin, b. 10/08/1824, married Lucy Jane McNeill, b. 04/25/1825, on 10/04/1852 at Charleston by Rev. James N. Crocker.  Lucy was the daughter of John McNeill (older brother of Roorda’s ancestor, Jesse), son of John Caldwell McNeill.  By federal census records, James Daniel Machin and wife, Lucy, removed by 1860 to Chili, Hancock County, Illinois, and by 1900 were in Jackson, Lee County, Iowa; with descendants. (Roorda’s documented research)


NEXT:  Of Mariners and Whalers


My Sources: - Thomas Machin in “History of Schoharie County, and Border Wars of New York,” Jeptha R. Simms, pub. Munsell & Tanner, Albany, 1845, Chapter XIX (online).

Part I: - Bell, on Machin

Part II: - Bell, on Machin - Thomas Machin - The Great Chain - The Great Chain - The Great Chain Hoax (re: chain links “found” with claims of being part of Machin’s Great Chain across the Hudson, proven to be made in England and not part of the true Great Chain. - Battle of Newtown: “Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan Against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779 With Records of Centennial Celebrations.” - Journal of Capt. Thomas Machin, Captain in Col. Lamb's Second Regiment, N. Y. Artillery, Communicated by F. H. Roof. -Thomas Machin plaque at Carlisle Rural Cemetery.

Linda Roorda

The Battle of Newtown, 237 years ago, near present-day Elmira in Chemung County, New York was significant to the Revolutionary War.  It played a crucial, though seldom discussed, key role.  It was not a bloody battle, but it was instrumental in breaking up the power of the Six-Nation Iroquois Federation. 


For centuries the Iroquois Nation included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes.  In the early 18th century, the Tuscarora came north from what is now North Carolina to join their ranks.  As the Revolutionary War commenced, the Iroquois Federation tried to stay neutral.  In time, however, most of the Iroquois gave their loyalty to Great Britain while the Oneida and Tuscarora tribes chose to align themselves with the colonists who were seeking independence from the Crown. 


Under Thayendanegea (commonly known as Joseph Brant), the Native Americans (referred to by the Colonists as Indians) joined forces with Loyalists and attacked western frontier settlements just as they did those further east, particularly in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys.  They carried away prisoners, ruthlessly murdered and scalped adults as well as children, and burned and destroyed the crops and homes of Patriots in both outlying and established settlements. 


I am not here to open a discussion or pass judgment on the negatives and positives of the why, wherefore, and how regarding what was or was not done 200 to 400 years ago in our nation’s history by either the Native Americans or the white European settlers.  May I say, however, that conflict and conquering of other lands and peoples has been taking place since world history began.  Their times were not ours.  


The Chemung River valley basin and its surrounding hills near present-day Elmira were home to Indians for centuries, but by the 18th century the Iroquois were in residence.  Here was ample room to grow crops along the fertile river bottoms, and easy access to virgin forests filled with wildlife which supplied them with meat and valuable pelts as they hunted and trapped.  The rivers and streams provided them not only with an ideal means of transportation, but an abundance of fish. 


Atop a steep hill which overlooks the Chemung River and the Southern Tier Expressway (formerly State Route 17, now Interstate 86) is the Newtown Battlefield Reservation State Park, once part of the Iroquois’ territory.  The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Newtown was celebrated August 29, 1879 with the dedication of a monument on top of Sullivan Hill.  The area was designated a national historic landmark in 1965, with battle re-enactments held annually in the park.  I’ve wanted to observe the re-enactments to learn more about the battle, but have never managed to get there.  So, come along with me and we’ll learn together what happened all those years ago.


To understand what took place, though, is to know the precipitating chain of events which led to the small but important battle at Newtown.  In the early days of the Revolutionary War, both the British and the Colonists attempted to gain the loyalty of the Native Americans as noted above.  The ultimate decisions caused division among the great Iroquois Federation when the tribes split their loyalties.  The famed Iroquois’ leader, Joseph Brant, worked closely with the British stationed at Fort Niagara.  He frequently took to the warpath against the white settlers on the western frontier, but also back east in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys.  But the question begs to be asked, why?


Along with the vital convergence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the greater Albany region was of key importance in the Revolutionary War to both sides.  Schoharie County, part of western Albany County prior to 1795, has historically been considered “The Breadbasket of the Revolution.”  With its fertile lands, the area produced an abundance of crops which kept Washington’s armies well fed.  Thus, the area’s assets, the rivers for transportation and the productive land, became a root of contention among the Loyalists/Tories, or supporters of the Crown.  Their loyalties festered and erupted into violence and destruction against their neighbors and kin, the supporters of independence. 


In the early stages of war, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington, preferred that these vulnerable settlements use their own local militia to guard and protect against attack.  And repeated attacking was the game plan of marauding bands of Indian-Loyalist troops.  Often, “forts” of refuge for Patriots were established to escape these bands of Indians and Tories.  Among such forts is the old Dutch Reformed Church, now called the Old Stone Fort, home to the Schoharie County Historical Society in the town of Schoharie, New York which I have visited several times.  Its stone walls still exhibit a hole from the direct hit of a cannonball.


In May 1778, Joseph Brant set out on raids in Cobleskill (near my mother’s home town of Carlisle) and the neighboring frontier settlements.  Soon after, on July 3, 1778, Col. John Butler and his Loyalist Rangers joined Chief Sayenqueraghta’s Seneca and Cayuga Indians in an attack of Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley.  Settlers from Connecticut had established homes and farms along the Susquehanna River in this fertile valley, an area which also produced an abundance of grain for the Continental armies.  Here, at Forty Fort (a few miles north of the fort at Wilkes-Barre, but on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River), about 360 local Patriot militiamen were killed with over 200 scalped in the Wyoming Massacre.  (see website sources at end of article for further details)


That September, Patriot soldiers under Col. Thomas Hartley took their wrath out on the Seneca, Delaware and Mingo Indians by burning and destroying nearly a dozen towns on the Susquehanna, including Tioga (now Athens, PA) and Chemung (NY).  At the same time, Butler’s Rangers destroyed houses and crops on the German Flats up north in the Mohawk Valley.  This brought the Patriot militia back out to attack and destroy the Indian settlements at Unadilla and Onaquaga (now Windsor) along the Susquehanna River in New York.


To read William E. Roscoe’s “History of Schoharie County, New York” and other related books about the killing and destruction throughout the region is to gain a better understanding of the larger picture.  Indians were known among settlers; some were liked, others were feared.  The war cast a pall of deathly fear among residents of the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys - one’s loyalties were usually known, whether for the Crown or Independence, and often one’s life depended upon that knowledge.  Neighbor was pitted against neighbor, often against one’s own blood relatives.  My various direct ancestral families were Patriots with one Loyalist, while some extended relatives were killed or taken captive by the Indian-Loyalist bands.  I have also dined with friends at the George Mann Tory Tavern north of the town of Schoharie, beautifully restored to its colonial elegance, Mann having been a well-known supporter of the Crown during the War.


In November 1778, Butler’s Rangers, 320 Iroquois under Chief Cornplanter, and 30 Indians under Joseph Brant attacked Cherry Valley, northeast of Oneonta in Otsego County and northwest of Cobleskill in Schoharie County.  Encompassing the fort to ensure soldiers could not escape, the Indians began their massacre.  They killed and scalped 30 or 32 residents (numbers vary in reports, mostly women and children) and 16 soldiers.  An additional 70 to 80 adults and children (again, numbers vary in reports) were taken captive into Indian territory after the homes and crops had been completely destroyed.  More retributions followed from both sides with further loss of life, but the Cherry Valley Massacre was a devastating blow.  Something had to be done to stop this slaughter of innocents.




Gen. Washington was now convinced of the need for an offensive campaign against the British, Loyalists and Indians who held Forts Niagara and Oswego.  Settling on Maj. Gen. John Sullivan as commanding officer, Washington wrote Sullivan on May 31, 1779:  “The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of the Indians, with their associates and adherents.  The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners…as possible.  It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more…  You will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected.  Our future security will be in their inability to injure us…”  Essentially, a “scorched earth” policy was to be executed.


Thus, in August 1779, Washington sent Major General John Sullivan and his troops up the Susquehanna River from Easton, PA while Brigadier General James Clinton and his army traveled southwest from Canajoharie in New York’s Mohawk Valley down to Otsego Lake and to the Susquehanna River flowing west.  Known as the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign (or, Expedition), Washington’s goal was to destroy Indian ties to the British by decimating the Indian towns and supplies of corn, vegetables and fruit at their source.  It was this produce which not only kept the Indians well fed, but also the British army.  Sullivan and Clinton were ordered to then continue northward with their armies to capture the British forts at Oswego and Niagara in order to disrupt their military hold on the region.


On August 22, 1779, Sullivan and Clinton met at Tioga Point along the Susquehanna River (present-day Athens, PA).  With combined troops numbering at least 2300 to under 4000 (accounts I’ve read vary as to numbers), they traveled northwest along the Chemung River.  On Sunday, August 29, advance scouts found hidden horseshoe-shaped breastworks/earthworks about half a mile long.  Roughly 150 feet up the southeast slope of a mile-long hill (now called Sullivan Hill), these earthworks were within shooting range of the road and near the Iroquois village of New Town.  From this vantage point, those approaching the hill could be observed or ambushed before reaching the Cayuga Indian towns of Nanticoke and Kanawaholla where Elmira was later established. 



Newtown Battlefield military placements


At that time, the slope was densely covered in virgin forest.  At its base and to the east was a marsh, Hoffman Hollow, thickly covered with grass and trees.  Baldwin Creek ran through this marsh and emptied into the Chemung River (called the Cayuga Branch by Sullivan in his reports).  My online search of Google maps shows what is likely Baldwin Creek to be, surprisingly and confusingly, labeled the Chemung River as it flows under I-86 and empties into the main Chemung River.  What was then called Baldwin Creek runs near to and west of Lowman Road within the area still labeled Hoffman Hollow.


Manning the breastworks were 15 British troops, 250 Loyalist Rangers, and about 1000 Indian warriors.  The initial intent of Loyalist Major John Butler and the Iroquois chief, Joseph Brant, was to harass the Continental troops.  Sayenqueraghta and other Indian chiefs rejected that proposal, favoring instead attempts at luring the Continentals into a full ambush. 


One of the forward scouts for the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, Lt. Col. Adam Hubley, recorded the discovery of these breastworks that morning.  “On our arrival near the ridge on which the action of the 13th commenced with light corps, our van discovered several Indians in front, one of whom gave them fire, and then fled.  We continued…[and] the rifle corps entered a low marshy ground which seemed well calculated for forming ambuscades; they advanced with great precaution, when several more Indians were discovered who fired and retreated.  Major Parr… judged it rather dangerous to proceed any further without taking every caution to reconnoiter almost every foot of ground, and ordered one of his men to mount a tree and see if he could make any discoveries; … [and] he discovered the movements of several Indians… as they were laying behind an extensive breastwork. “ 

For more details, see:   


Learning of the breastworks’ locations through Lt. Col. Hubley’s findings, the Continental commanders knew there was an attempt in the offing to lure them into an ambush.  Moving cautiously forward into position, an initial attack on the breastworks came late that morning when Brig. Gen. Edward Hand put his infantry on the far side of Baldwin Creek.  From that position, they could easily fire into the enemy’s defense works. 


In early afternoon, Gen. Sullivan met with commanders under him to plan their next move.  Essentially, Sullivan’s men were to attack the fortified works of the enemy from the south and east with artillery and troops, while the men under Gen. Clinton were to attack the fortifications from the northeast. 


The 1st New Jersey Regiment under Col. Matthias Ogden, detached from Brig. Gen. William Maxwell’s New Jersey Brigade, slipped south and west along the Chemung River to come around to the right and rear of the Loyalist-Indian forces.  The New York Brigade under Brig. Gen. James Clinton and New Hampshire’s Brigade under Brig. Gen. Enoch Poor marched northwest through Hoffman Hollow toward the hill’s eastern slope where they turned to flank the British left.  At the same time, Sullivan’s Pennsylvania and New Jersey brigades stayed behind with the remaining light infantry companies.  Brig. Gen. William Maxwell’s 1st Brigade was to take aim at the center or face of the British breastworks.


Ten guns from the light infantry were placed near the road, ready to open fire on the defense positions and the land in between.  Once these guns began firing, Gen. Hand was to fake an attack on the center of the horseshoe breastworks while the brigades from the east were to turn inward, take the summit of the hill, and then turn to attack the left and rear section of the breastworks.  All together, with Maxwell’s artillery support, the goal of their three-pronged attack was to surround the defenseworks on the hill in a complete crossfire.


It was a detailed plan which was put together quickly, but one in which the troops readily proved their mettle.  The brief battle resulted in a significant defeat for the British Loyalists and Iroquois; however, it could have been much worse for them had it not been for unavoidable delays by the Sullivan-Clinton armies.  In maneuvering through the swampy ground of Hoffman Hollow, Poor’s and Clinton’s troops got bogged down.  This put the timing of the plan off, and caused enough of a delay that the Loyalist-Iroquois men escaped full encirclement and thus slipped the noose of an utter and complete defeat. 


In the meantime, Lt. Col. George Reid’s 2nd New Hampshire Regiment was to position itself to the left of Poor’s troops.  Unfortunately, with Reid’s men climbing the steepest part of the slope, they lagged behind the rest of the troops.  Joseph Brant took advantage of this opportunity to lead a counterattack with fellow Indians, almost completely encircling Reid.  Seeing this, the next regiment in line, the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment under Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn, turned around abruptly to fire into the enemy who were positioned downhill.  Clinton and his brigade, climbing up the hill from below and off to the right of Poor, saw these events unfold and sent his 3rd and 5th New York Regiments to Reid’s aid, further thwarting Brant’s attack.  [above military placements based on]


For a few hours, the peaceful valley and hills echoed with the blasting of cannons (ranging in size of up to six-inch field howitzers), the resounding shots of a few thousand muskets, and the strong acrid smell of gun powder with its residual smoky haze.  The sounds of gunfire combined with the hair-raising battle cries of Indian warriors must have reached a deafening pitch at its peak.  Naturally, there were losses and injuries on both sides.  But, with the realization that they were overpowered, Loyalist Major John Butler, Capt. Walter Butler, and the Iroquois chief Joseph Brant wisely cut their losses and withdrew.  With their troops, they retreated towards Newtown and crossed the river with the Continentals in pursuit, but without additional losses on either side. 


After the battle, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign continued on their way north through the finger lakes region, burning and destroying at least 40 Indian villages, reportedly destroying 160,000 bushels of corn and a significant quantity of vegetables and fruit which the Indians had set aside for winter.  By the end of September, the armies were returning to Morristown, New Jersey for the winter.


From Gen. Sullivan’s journal notes:

“Teaogo [Tioga], Sept, 30, 1779.

SIR:—In mine of the 30th ultimo to His Excellency George Washington, and by him transmitted to Congress, I gave an account of the victory obtained by this army over the enemy at Newtown, on the 29th August. I now do myself the honor to inform Congress of the progress of this army... The time taking up in destroying the corn, in the neighborhood of Newtown, employing the army near two days… I sent back all my heavy artillery on the night of the 30th, retaining only four brass three pounders, and a small howitzer; loaded the necessary ammunition on horseback, and marched early on the 31st for Catherine's Town. On our way we destroyed a small settlement of eight houses, and town called Konowhola, of about twenty houses, situated on a peninsula at the conflux of the Teaogo and Cayuga branches. We also destroyed several fields of corn. From this point Colonel Dayton was detached with his regiment and the rifle corps up the Teaogo about six miles, who destroyed several large fields of corn. The army resumed their march, and encamped within thirteen miles and a half of Catherine's Town, where we arrived the next day, although we had a road to open for the artillery, through a swamp nine miles in extent, and almost impervious. We arrived near Catherine's Town in the night, and moved on, in hopes to surprise it, but found it forsaken. On the next morning an old woman belonging to the Cayuga nation was found in the woods. She informed me that on the night after the battle of Newtown, the enemy, having fled the whole night, arrived there in great confusion early the next day; that she heard the warriors tell their women they were conquered and must fly; that they had a great many killed and vast numbers wounded…”


The Iroquois, who had supported the British by attacking settlements, killing and taking captives, and feeding the British military, were now forced further west to Niagara and northwest into Canada.  Under protection of the British forts, but without their winter food supply, many died from starvation, disease and the winter’s cold.  Yet, even John Butler, in correspondence that previous May, had referred to the fact that the Indians were not doing well, lacking in production of their own food supplies.


Although successful at Newtown, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign has often been referred to as a “well-executed failure.”  Congress congratulated them for what they had accomplished, but they were essentially not looked upon in a favorable light for their failure to take the British forts on Lake Ontario.  True, their armies destroyed the Indians settlements and crops throughout the finger lakes region, but Major General Sullivan stopped short of completing General Washington’s orders.  They had been ordered, and expected, to continue north to Lake Ontario and capture the British forts at Oswego and Niagara.


However, knowing their field artillery was limited to lighter guns, Sullivan and Clinton returned instead to headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey by the end of September.  In fairness to Sullivan, he realized he was not equipped with big enough artillery to take on the well-defended British forts; he and his troops would likely have been annihilated.  Also, in worsening health, Sullivan resigned command in November 1779 and returned to his home in New Hampshire.


With Sullivan not completing the balance of his campaign orders, Joseph Brant and his Indians returned to rejoin forces with the Loyalists in 1780.  Once again, they viciously attacked western settlements and the established communities back in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valley regions. 


These raids and massacres touched my ancestral families in that part of New York.  At Beaverdam (now Berne) near the Switzkill River on September 1, 1781, a British soldier led Loyalists and Indians in an attack on the Johannes Dietz family.  Johannes’ son, Capt. William Dietz, commanded the local Patriot militia, and was, therefore, a target of the Loyalists who engaged the Indians to make Dietz an example and put fear into the hearts of all other Patriot settlers.  After capture, William Dietz was forced to watch his elderly parents, wife, four young children and Scottish maid be killed and scalped.  Two young brothers who happened to be visiting from another family were also taken captive.  At Fort Niagara, Dietz died of a broken heart not long after arrival as witnessed by another captive from Schoharie County.  Capt. Dietz’s father, Johannes, was an older brother of my ancestor, John Hendrich/John Henry Dietz (referenced in Roorda’s Independence Day article at:  (see also “Old Hellebergh,” by Arthur B. Gregg, The Altamont Enterprise Publishers, Altamont, N.Y., 1936, p. 24; signed by Gregg, in Roorda’s collection)



(Painting by Jacob Dietz, son of Johannes, Courtesy of the Greater Oneonta Historical Society)


The final and most devastating attack was in the lower Mohawk Valley in October 1781 where everything over a distance of 20 miles was utterly destroyed. 


When the war was over and the colonists had won, Joseph Brant and other Iroquois settled land given to them by the British Crown on the Grand River in Quebec (now Ontario).  The area of Brant’s river crossing became known as Brant’s ford, later renamed Brantford.


Ultimately, the Newtown Battle, or Battle of Chemung, opened the narrow southern gate to settlers who had been forbidden from traveling through this part of Indian territory on their way to settling the western frontier.  For American soldiers who had fought in the Revolutionary War, the Chemung Valley drew many back who had taken part in the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. 


Certain to have admired the beautiful countryside in both Pennsylvania and New York while detailed there on campaigns, it was only natural former soldiers would seek its fertile land as their bounty award for service to their new government.  New England and eastern New York were considered heavily populated, with many regions too rocky for good farming.  Western New York was the perfect place to homestead with wide-open fertile land available to establish a new life.  With the soldiers settling this area, we can assume their descendants walk among us today, perhaps even unaware of their family’s history.


NEXT, IN SEPTEMBER:  Thomas Machin, the Brit who Deserted


My Sources:'s_expedition/473344 - Wyoming Valley Massacre – Newtown Battlefield photos


Linda Roorda

“…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”  What precious meaning these words have held as we take time to gaze backward to their origins.


We Americans love our 4th of July celebrations!  We especially enjoy big parades with lots of floats and marching bands.  We look forward to fireworks with their beautiful colors and designs exploding in the night sky.  We decorate our homes with flags and bunting.  And, we salute, or respectfully place our hand over our heart, as our nation’s flag is carried past us by military veterans in parades. 


As I contemplated our nation’s celebrations, I thought about the effort and sacrifice it took from many to give us the freedoms we so often take for granted.  We are thankful for all we have in America which many around the world do not enjoy.  But, I also wondered if perhaps we have forgotten all that took place a long time ago, and if this day has simply become a traditional fun holiday.  Though no nation or government has been perfect as far back as the beginning of time, the early days of a young nation’s beginnings provide perspective for us, this bastion of freedom.  So, it’s fitting that we ponder what part our ancestors played in the making of our great America some 240 years ago.  And, I might add, one of the best parts of researching my ancestors was the great lasting friendships I’ve made with other descendants.


Several of my ancestors served in the Revolutionary War in various capacities, some of whom I researched more extensively than others.  Originally, I did not plan to bring them into this article.  But, then it occurred to me that it would be fitting.  Knowledge of personal service and sacrifice often provides us with a greater understanding of the historical era and what our collective ancestors experienced. 


Numerous events, political acts, and taxes over many years led to the First Continental Congress meeting from September 5 through October 2, 1774 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  It was held to counteract the British Parliament’s Coercive Acts (commonly called the Intolerable Acts by the colonists) which were intended to punish the colonists for their Tea Party held in Boston’s harbor.  (see timeline at end of article)


But, among the early precipitators of the American Revolution was the import ban in 1774 against firearms and gunpowder enacted by the British government.  Next came the order to confiscate all guns and gunpowder.  The aptly named “Powder Alarm” took place on September 1, 1774 when Redcoats sailed up the Mystic River to capture hundreds of powder barrels stored in Charlestown.  Taking the event seriously, 20,000 militiamen turned out and marched to Boston.  Battle was avoided at that time, but ultimately took place the following spring at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.  Within these events lie the foundation of our Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as written by Thomas Jefferson in 1791: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”


The Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.  That very same day, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys seized New York’s Fort Ticonderoga from the British after traveling west from Vermont.


On June 14, 1775, delegates from the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army from colonial militia near Boston.  The next day, they appointed an esteemed and experienced military and civic leader, as commanding general of their new army, a humble man by the name of George Washington, congressman of Virginia.  Nearly a month later, Washington arrived in Boston to take command on July 3rd.  The Continental Congress then approved a Declaration of Causes on July 6th.  This proclamation outlined why the thirteen colonies should stand united against Great Britain’s political clout and military force.


Through these early years, and with pressing urgency, the great minds of the day began formulating a bold statement of the burdens the colonists bore from an overbearing government an ocean away.  Initially, the colonists were not looking to start a war; they simply wanted their concerns heard and addressed.  But, revolt would be a relevant term regarding that which was festering.  They felt the heavy hand of tyranny over them like a smothering umbrella with their king and his government’s over-reaching philosophy of “taxation without representation.”   


It did not take much for congressional delegates to think back and recall the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770.  Several colonials had taunted the ever-present British soldiers.  Reinforcement soldiers shot into the crowd killing five civilians, injuring six others.  Three years later, the Tea Act in May 1773 was followed by the Boston Tea Party on December 16th.  The year 1775 began with several new tax acts put in place; labeled collectively as the Intolerable Acts, they were Britain’s answer to their colonists’ unrest.  And then an auspicious delegation met in Virginia on March 23, 1775.  Those present were never to forget Patrick Henry’s speech and resounding words, “Give me liberty or give me death!”


Paul Revere’s midnight ride came the night of April 18/19, 1775 to warn of British ships arriving at Boston’s shores.  [From the interstate, I have seen Boston’s diminutive North Church tucked beneath the shadows of modern “skyscrapers,” and walked the upper and below-decks of the U.S.S. Constitution from the subsequent War of 1812 – with a sailor in period dress uniform talking on a telephone!]  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride” (“Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”) has been said to contain many inaccuracies; in reality, it was written 80 years after Revere rode out with several others on horseback, quietly alerting other Patriots, but it may also be that Longfellow simply wrote a flowing ode to Revere with embellishments as any poet is wont to do.



The British government was again intent on confiscating all weapons held by the colonists.  Bands of British troops were sent to confiscate ammunition stores in Salem, Massachusetts and part of New Hampshire.  Both times, Paul Revere, a silversmith, was among members of the Sons of Liberty who alerted townsfolk in advance of enemy troops, giving them sufficient time to hide weapons and frustrate the British military.


Desiring to alert citizens, Revere garnered assistance from Robert Newman, sexton at Boston’s North Church.  To warn that the Redcoats were coming from the shorter water route across Boston’s inner harbor, Newman hung two lanterns from the steeple window.  These lanterns were clearly seen by those in Charlestown, including the British, unfortunately.  Newman must have felt mounting fear as the Brits attempted to break into the church while he was still there.  Reportedly, he managed to escape capture by quietly sneaking out a window near the altar moments before enemy soldiers entered the church to begin their search.  And that very next day, April 19, 1775, the Minutemen and British redcoats clashed at Lexington and Concord with “the shot heard ‘round the world.’” 


Two months later, June 17, 1775 saw the Battle of Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) on the Charlestown Peninsula overlooking Boston.  Per military records, my ancestor John Caldwell McNeill was present as part of the Hampshire Line.  As British columns advanced toward American redoubts, the colonists were reportedly told by their commander, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”  The British were shot virtually pointblank and hastily retreated – twice.  It was not until the third advance by the British that the inexperienced colonists lost to a superior military force.  As the colonists’ limited ammunition ran out, hand-to-hand combat took place on that third advance.  The redcoats took control with greater troop numbers despite their loss of over 1000 men, while the colonists counted over 200 killed and more than 800 wounded.  Yet, the inexperienced Americans realized their dedication and determination could overcome the superior British military which, in turn, realized this little uprising was going to bring a long and costly war to the Crown.


The Battle of Bunker Hill, Howard Pyle, 1897


With pressure mounting, the congressional delegation met the next year in the City of Brotherly Love.  Here they commenced hammering out wording for what would thenceforth be termed a declaration of independence. 


“Monday, July 1, 1776, [was] a hot and steamy [day] in Philadelphia.”  In a letter to the new president of Georgia, Archibald Bulloch, John Adams wrote, “This morning is assigned the greatest debate of all.  A declaration, that these colonies are free and independent states… and this day or tomorrow is to determine its fate.  May heaven prosper the newborn republic.” (John Adams, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, NY, 2001, p.125.)  The delegates felt the tension amongst themselves in the debates and wording of their declaration, and the voting at the end of the day was not unanimous.  Their tension was heightened that evening as news reached the city that one hundred British ships had been sighted off New York, with eventually more than 300 joining the initial fleet.  The seriousness of what they were undertaking was felt by every man in the delegation for they knew their very lives were on the line.


July 2nd saw an overcast day with cloudbursts which let loose as the delegates met.  The New York delegates abstained from voting while others joined the majority to make a unanimous decision.  Thus, on July 2, 1776, twelve colonies voted to declare independence from Britain.  More than anyone else, John Adams made it happen.  His elation showed in writing home about the proceedings to his wife, Abigail.  “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.  It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”  (McCullough, pp. 129-130)


News spread like wildfire throughout Philadelphia.  A young artist, Charles Willson Peale, journaled that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”  (McCullough, p.130)   But, Congress still had to review what the delegation had written before an official statement could be made.


July 3rd blessed the city with a drop of 10 degrees after cloudbursts the day before.  Tensions had eased among the men, but still there was much work to be done.  More discussion and deliberation ensued as they reviewed the language of their declaration.  (McCullough, pp. 130-135)  Much had to be cut and reworded to make it a more concise document which then boldly declared, “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.  When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”  (


Benjamin Franklin offered encouraging and comforting words to the now-silent Thomas Jefferson whose many words were debated and cut.  When their work was finished, it was still Thomas Jefferson’s words, however, which have held a firm and tender spot in the hearts of Americans ever since.  To Jefferson goes the credit for writing “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”  (McCullough, p.130-136)



Thursday, July 4, 1776, dawned cool and comfortable.  The tension was gone from the weather just as it was now from among the men of the delegation.  Discussions were again held through late morning when a final vote was taken.  New York still abstained, but the other twelve colonies voted unanimously to support the hard work they had wrought in this Declaration of Independence.  Ultimately, the delegates from all thirteen colonies, including New York, signed the document in solidarity. (McCullough, p. 136)


Celebrations began on the 8th when the published Declaration was read to the public.  Thirteen cannon blasts reverberated throughout Philadelphia, bells rang day and night, bonfires were everywhere, and candles were lit in windows.  The news reached Washington and his troops in New York City the next day where the Declaration was read.  More celebrations sprang up as the crowds pulled down the equestrian statue of King George III.  (McCullough, p.136-137)  But, their elation was not long in lasting.


In reality, it would be several more years before celebrations of this magnitude would again be held.  In reality, though the hard work of writing such a declaration was finally completed, even harder efforts and sacrifices of thousands of men and boys on battlefields were about to begin.  In reality, the conflict about to begin would affect every man, woman and child living within the thirteen colonies in ways they could never have imagined.  And, ultimately, their great sacrifices gave rise to the freedoms which we enjoy and tend to take for granted today.


The lives of the men who signed this declaration were also forever affected.  If the new America lost its war for independence, every signer of the document faced charges of treason and death by hanging for actions against their king.  In signing, they gave “support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, [as] we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” 


There were 56 representatives from all thirteen colonies who signed, ranging in age from 26 to 70 (the oldest being the esteemed Benjamin Franklin).  Over half were lawyers, but the men included planters, merchants and shippers.  Most of them were wealthy men who had much to lose should Britain win.  Though none of them died at the hand of the enemy, four men were taken captive during the war by the British, with one-third of the signers being military officers during the war.  And, nearly all of them were poorer when the war ended than when it began. 


There was much at stake in the days and years ahead after the Declaration of Independence was signed and the war began in earnest.  Some men abandoned the battle lines, their friends, and what once seemed like worthy ideals, and simply walked home.  Many suffered untold pain and suffering as prisoners of war.  Many suffered deprivations of food and clothing along with disease and death within their own military camps.  Many fought family and friends in the same community as Patriot was pitted against Tory, i.e. Loyalist.  Schoharie County, New York, considered by historians to be “The Breadbasket of the Revolution,” provided an abundance of food for Washington’s northern troops.  To frustrate the colonists’ efforts, the British and their Loyalist supporters, including many Native Americans, destroyed and burned crops and buildings as they captured, killed and scalped settlers throughout the Mohawk and Schoharie Valley and on the western frontier during the war. 


In reality, we likely would not have won our independence if it were not for Washington’s spies.  Barely two months after the Declaration was signed, a 21-year-old Yale graduate by the name of Nathan Hale from Massachusetts eagerly volunteered to spy for Washington.  He intended to go behind enemy lines on Long Island and in New York City to infiltrate the British strongholds.  Instead, not being sufficiently familiar with the area and its people, and likely having a New England accent, he was caught and found to have sketches of fortifications and memos about troop placements on him.  Without benefit of legal trial, he was sentenced to death.  His requests for a clergyman and a Bible were refused.  Just before being hung on September 22, 1776 in the area of 66th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, Hale was heard to say with dignity, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”  (George Washington’s Secret Six, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2013, p.1.)


George Washington knew that he desperately needed spies, but he needed them to work in such a way that they would not be discovered.  His tender heart for his fellow countrymen deplored that even one should die for the cause of freedom.  Yet, he also knew that such loss was inevitable.  And, thus was born Washington’s spies so aptly named, “The Secret Six.”




Out of the realization that Gen. George Washington desperately needed spies, and hating to lose even one more life after the hanging of Nathan Hale, a ring of trustworthy spies was gradually pulled together.  Washington’s “Secret Six” included five men and one woman embedded within and around New York City and Long Island, each familiar with the land and its people.  They reported to Washington on British movements and military plans in a timely fashion. 


Because they knew the area, and were known by the people, they were readily accepted as they maneuvered amongst the enemy.  That is not to say, however, that they didn’t come close to being found out.  They lived in constant fear of such, not to mention the fear of losing their own lives and destroying their families in the process.  At times they were emotionally frail, depressed and despondent.  But, because of their passion for the freedom movement afoot, they came together for the greater benefit of all.


At one point, Washington’s army was entirely surrounded by the British in New York City.  With tips from his spies, and being a man given to much time and prayer with God, his troops managed to quietly evacuate the city under the cover of night at an area not under guard.  With dawn, however, came the realization that a large contingent still remained behind and would be very visible to the enemy.  An answer to prayer was soon forthcoming to allow the balance of his men and equipment to leave the city – an unexpected and extremely dense morning fog enveloped the area, allowing them to continue crossing safely over into Jersey with the British unable to do anything about the Continental Army’s escape from their clutches. 


Because of the work of Washington’s spies and the “important memos” he managed to have planted with false information behind enemy lines, the Americans were able to surprise the enemy at Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day night 1776 after the British had relaxed their guard and celebrated the day in style.  Needless to say, the Americans enjoyed a vital and rousing victory.


Because of the spies and their efforts, accomplished with great fear for their own lives and that of their families, warning was given to Washington of 400 ships arriving from England.  The spies’ insider knowledge that the British were planning to attack and scuttle the French ships and troops coming to Washington’s aid allowed him to turn the tide in a timely manner.  He was able to fool the British into thinking he was readying an imminent attack on New York City, causing them to leave Long Island Sound, thus allowing the French time to land and move inland to safety in Connecticut without battling the British at sea before they even disembarked.


Because of the spy who owned a print shop which seemingly supported King George, important plans were heard and passed on to Washington.  Other spies were privy to the upper level of command amongst the British military at parties in a particular merchandise shop and a certain coffeehouse.  A circuitous route was set up for their messenger across Long Island to Setauket where packets with concealed or innocuous-looking papers written in invisible ink and code were rowed to the Connecticut shore in a whale boat (while being pursued by the British) where another member took the seemingly innocent packet of merchandise and rode his horse overland to Washington’s camp in New Jersey.  At times, someone simply traveled out of New York City to visit relatives in northern New Jersey and met up with another dependable link to pass the information along to Washington’s headquarters.


Because of their courage and resolve, the spies assisted in uncovering the Crown’s Major John Andre` (who, himself, ran a British spy ring) as he worked with Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, American commander of West Point.  Despite a prior stellar military record, but due to personal bitterness, Arnold was in the process of handing West Point over to Andre` and the British.  Through a series of blundering mistakes, because of the spies’ knowledge given to Washington at just the right moment, and because of the quick thinking of a couple of patriotic guards on a bridge leading back into New York City, Andre` was captured and later executed.  Arnold’s hand-over was thus thwarted, although Arnold managed to escape behind enemy lines and ultimately fled to England.


Because of the supposed loyal British support by the owner of said print shop, a little book was obtained through his work as an undercover spy.  This inconspicuous little book contained key information on British troop movements at Yorktown, Virginia.  With important knowledge gained of the enemy’s military plans, Washington was able to redirect appropriate troops and ships to Yorktown.  General Cornwallis surrendered for the British on October 19, 1781 in an American victory where total defeat for the Americans would have otherwise taken place. 


Because they swore themselves to secrecy, no one knew the full involvement of all six spies, nor all of their names.  Only gradually over the last few hundred years has their identities become known, the fifth not confirmed until recently.  All five men are now known, but the woman’s identity is not; she is simply known as Agent 355.  It is believed she was captured and became a prisoner; but, there is no hard evidence by research even to prove that conjecture. 


The efforts of the six spies as they secretly obtained information and passed it along (devising their own specialty codes, using a unique invisible ink, and more) enabled them to maintain total secrecy.  Nor did they ever seek accolades for their work after the war was over.  And, the secrets to their successful accomplishments have been among the methods still taught and used by our CIA today.


In the interest of sharing the spies’ courage which undoubtedly helped us win the Revolutionary War, their story (as briefly described above) has been extensively researched and written by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger in George Washington’s Secret Six, The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution.  It was one of my Christmas gifts from my husband a few years ago, and I highly recommend it to other history buffs.  It’s a read you’ll find hard to set down!


While researching my ancestry over ten years ago, I purchased Revolutionary War pension application files of several ancestors who had served.  For those whose government files I did not purchase, their data was obtained from Schoharie County Historical Society, various Revolutionary War books, CDs, and documents proving their service.  Hoping that my family research might provide us a closer glimpse of the war through their experiences, I share their legacy.


1) Frantz/Francis Becraft/Beacraft, bp. 06/12/1761, Claverack, Columbia Co., NY - Private, 3rd Comp., 3rd Regiment, 1st Rensselaerswyck Battalion, Albany County New York Militia, on muster roll from Berne in 1782, 1790 census at Berne.  In an 1839 affidavit, Francis Becraft of Berne stated that he “served as a Private in a company commanded by Capt. Adam Dietz in the County of Albany...” Frantz/Francis married Catherine Dietz (sister of said Capt. Adam Dietz), my g-g-g-g-grandparents.


In researching my ancestors, I discovered I have a familial tie to the notorious Tory Becraft/Beacraft.  This man felt no remorse in aligning himself with Joseph Brant’s Indians to capture, kill and scalp Patriots throughout Schoharie County, known to have brutally killed and scalped a young boy in the Vrooman family who managed to escape the house after his family had been murdered.  After the war ended, Becraft/Beacraft had the audacity to return from Canada to Schoharie County where he was immediately captured by ten men.  In meting out a punishment of 50 lashes by whip, the men supposedly reminded him of his infamous acts against the community, his former neighbors.  Roscoe notes that death did not linger for him after the final lash, and his ashes were buried on the spot.  Of the ten men who swore themselves to secrecy, apparently only five are known.  (History of Schoharie County, William E. Roscoe, pub. D. Mason & Comp., 1882, pp.250-251.)  


However, in "Families (to 1825) of Herkimer, Montgomery, & Schoharie, N.Y.," a genealogical source on many early families by William V. H. Barker, it is noted that the Tory Becraft/Beacraft was Benjamin, born about 1759, brother of my ancestor noted above, Frantz/Francis Becraft.  If this is accurate and they are indeed brothers, they were both sons of Willem/William and Mareitje (Bond) Becraft.  Another source, “The Life of Joseph Brant – Thayendanegea…” notes Becraft survived his whipping and left the area (pg. 64), just as other undocumented sources indicate he survived and returned to Canada to live with his family.  So, I am uncertain as to whether Tory [Benjamin] Becraft actually died from his whippings or survived and left the area.


2) Johannes/John Berlet/Berlett/Barlet, b. 05/08/1748, Schoharie, Schoharie Co., NY – Private, Tryon County Militia, 3rd Reg’t, Mohawk District.  He married Maria Gardinier, b. about 1751; their daughter Eva/Eveline Barlett married Martin Tillapaugh, b. 1778, my g-g-g-grandparents.


3) Johann Hendrich/John Henry Dietz, bp 05/10/1722, Nordhofen, Vielbach, Germany – served in Lt. John Veeder’s Company, Rensselaerswyck, later under Capt. Sternberger’s Company at Schoharie.  He married Maria Elisabetha Ecker, bp. 1725; their daughter Catherine Dietz, b. 1761, married Frantz/Francis Beacraft above, my g-g-g-g-grandparents.


As per my upcoming article on Chemung County’s Newtown Battle, the Indian/Loyalist raids and massacres also touched my ancestral families in New York.  In Beaverdam (now Berne), New York near the Switzkill River on September 1, 1781, the Johannes Dietz family was attacked.  Johannes’ son, Capt. William Dietz was captured and forced to watch his elderly parents, wife, four young children and a Scottish maid be killed and scalped.  (see “Old Hellebergh,” Arthur B. Gregg, The Altamont Enterprise Publishers, Altamont, N.Y., 1936, p. 24; signed by Gregg, in Roorda’s collection from her father.)  Capt. William Dietz’s father, Johannes, was an older brother of my ancestor noted above, Johann Hendrich/John Henry Dietz. 


4) Johan Dietrich Dallenbach/John Richard Dillenbach, b. 1733 per cemetery records, Stone Arabia, NY; father Jorg Martin Dallenbach born Lauperswil, Bern, Switzerland, emigrated with 1710 German Palatines.  John Richard Dillenbach married Maria Mynard; their son Martinus took name of Martin Tillapaugh (my lineage), married Eva/Eveline Barlett as above.  Dillenbach reported for duty March 20, 1757 when Sir William Johnson called local militia out to protect Fort William Henry on Lake George for the British.  The Seven Years’ War, or the French and Indian War, began in 1754 and ended with the European peace treaties of 1763 during which year Dillenbach again reported to defend Herkimer with the Palatine District Regiment.


James Fennimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans about the siege of this fort.   Roughly 2300 colonial troops were protecting the British fort when the French arrived with about 8000 troops in August 1763 and heavily bombarded the fort.  With additional support troops not found to be on their way, the garrison was forced to surrender.  The men were to be protected as they retreated by generous treaty terms.  However, as the Indians entered the fort, they plundered, looted, scalped and killed about 200 colonials, many of them too sick to leave.  In desecrating graves of those who had died before the siege, the Indians exposed themselves to smallpox, taking the germs back to their homes.  The French destroyed the fort before returning to Canada.  Fort William Henry was reconstructed in the 1950s.  Visiting this fort in 1972 with the Lounsberry Methodist Church youth group, I was unaware at the time that my Dallenbach/Tillapaugh ancestor had walked that ground, having been involved in the siege and survived. 


5) Timothy Hutton, b.11/24/1746, New York City.  He married 2nd) Elizabeth Deline b.1760.  Their son George b.1787 married Sarah Wyckoff b.1793, my g-g-g-grandparents.  Timothy served as Ensign in Philip Schuyler’s Regiment of Albany County Militia, at defeat of Gen. Burgoyne in Saratoga October 17, 1777; appointed Lieutenant in New York Levies under Col. Marinus Willett; defended Schoharie County from burnings and killings by British, Loyalists and Indians.  This Timothy is not to be confused with a nephew of same name and rank, b. 1764, which many have done, including an erroneous grave marker in Carlisle, New York.  Sorting their military service out was part of my extensive thesis and documentation in researching and publishing two lengthy articles on the origins and descendants of this Hutton family in the New York Genealogical & Biographical Record in 2004-2005. 


My Timothy’s nephew William Hutton served extensively in the Revolutionary War throughout New York City, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley.  My Timothy’s nephew Christopher of Troy, NY served as Ensign, promoted to Lieutenant, member of the elite Society of the Cincinnati.  My Timothy’s nephew, Timothy Hutton b.1764, served as Lieutenant in New York Levies under Col. Willett, enlisting 1780 at age 16 in the Albany militia.  My Timothy’s nephews, Isaac and George (brothers of Christopher and the younger Timothy, all sons of George Hutton, my ancestor Timothy’s older brother), were well-known influential silversmiths over several decades of the Federal period in the late 18th/early 19th centuries in Albany.  Hutton silver is on display at museums in Albany, New York.


6) Johannes Leenderse (John Leonardson), b.06/18/63, Fonda, Montgomery Co., NY - enlisted as private in 1779 at age 16, Tryon County Militia, 3rd Reg’t; Corporal in 1781; served on many expeditions in the Mohawk Valley and at forts; joined Col. Willett’s company on march to Johnstown October 1781 in successful battle against enemy who had burned and killed throughout Mohawk Valley; re-enlisted 1782.  Married Sarah Putman b.1773.  Their son Aaron Leondardson b.1796 married 3rd) Lana Gross, parents of Mary Eliza b. about 1732 who married William Henry Ottman, my g-g-grandparents.


7) John Caldwell McNeill, b. 1755, Londonderry, Rockingham Co., NH - at Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) on Charlestown June 17, 1775.  As Sergeant under Col. Timothy Bedel of the New Hampshire Line, John bought beef to pasture and butcher as needed for the troops.  Bedel’s regiment joined “Corp.1, Co. 1, New York Reg’t” on mission to Canada against British; taken captive with his cousins and friends at The Cedars near Montreal, an island in the St. Lawrence; soldiers were stripped of clothing, belongings and food, and released in cartel negotiated by Gen. Benedict Arnold before he became a traitor.  John served at and discharged at Saratoga, NY.  He married Hannah Caldwell b.1762; removed to Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York ca. 1794; their son Jesse m. Elizabeth Ostrom, my g-g-g-grandparents.


8) George Richtmyer, bp 04/23/1738, Albany Co., NY – Captain from 1775 through end of war in 15th Reg’t of Albany Militia, defending Cobleskill and Middleburg, Schoharie Co., NY.  Married Anna Hommel; their son Henrich/Henry married Maria Beacraft (see above), my g-g-g-grandparents.


9) Hendrick/Henry Vonck/Vunck, b. 03/06/1757, Freehold, Monmouth Co., NJ - served as private and Corporal in New Jersey and New York City; carried papers for American Gen. Charles Lee; joined units marching to same area of Canada as John C. McNeill; on return became ill with smallpox with others at Lake George when news of the Declaration of Independence was made; honorably discharged; called to serve again at Sandy Hook, NJ; captured by the British at Sandy Hook, taken to a prison ship, then to the [Livingston] stone sugar house in Manhattan, then another prison ship, the Good___  (writing illegible on the early 1800s pension document, possibly Good Hope).  After “one year and one month” as prisoner, he was exchanged and released.  “Having suffered while a prisoner great privations and disease and in poor clothing and severely unwholesome provisions many prisoners died in consequence of their treatment.” (Per 1832 affidavit of military service for pension.)  Conditions suffered as a prisoner left Henry in poor health the rest of his life; removing later to Montgomery County, NY.  Married Chestinah Hagaman; their daughter Jane Vunck married James Dingman, my g-g-g-grandparents.


From 1776 to 1783 the British made use of decommissioned ships (those incapable of going to sea) as floating prisons.  At least 16 rotting hulks were moored in Wallabout Bay, the inner harbor along the northwest shore of Brooklyn, now part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Among the ships were the Good Hope, Whitby, The Prince of Wales, Falmouth, Scorpion, Stromboli, Hunter, and the most infamous HMS Jersey, nicknamed Hell by the men. (see websites below.)  Over 10,000 men, perhaps at least 11,500, died on these ships due to the deliberate deplorable conditions.  Men were crammed below decks with no windows for lighting or fresh air.  There was a lack of food and clothing, with vermin and insects running rampant, and a lack of other humane efforts to aid the ill, all leading to the death of thousands.


Prisoners died virtually every day, reportedly as many as fifteen a day.  Some were not found right away, their bodies not disposed of until days later.  Often, those who died were sewn into their blankets (if they had one) to await pick up by cart the next morning.  Many were buried in shallow graves along the shore (unearthed during major storms) or were simply tossed overboard, later washing ashore.  With development of Walloon Bay area over the last two centuries has come the discovery of their bones and parts of ships.  To commemorate these soldiers’ lives and what they gave in the fight for independence, the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument was built.  Located in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, it was dedicated on April 6, 1808 with improvements made to it several times since.  (see websites below)


At least another 5-6000 men died in the sugar houses, bringing the total who died as prisoners to more than 17,500 in the sugar houses and ships, more than double the battlefield losses.  Sugar houses were buildings meant to store sugar and molasses.  Affidavits by my ancestor, Henry Vunck, and friends note he was held for a few months in the “stone sugar house.”  This could only mean the Livingston Sugar House, a six-story stone building built in 1754 by the Livingston family on Crown (now Liberty) Street in Manhattan.  Demolished in 1846, buildings No. 34 and 36 are now on the site.  (see website below)


A second sugar house, the Rhinelander, a five-story brick warehouse, was built in 1763 at Rose (now William) Street and Duane Street.  This building was eventually replaced and is now the headquarters of the New York City Police Department.  A third, Van Cortlandt’s sugar house, was built about 1755 by the early Dutch family of this name at the northwest corner of the Trinity Church in Manhattan.  It was demolished in 1852.  (see website below)


10) Hans Georg Jacob Dubendorffer (George Jacob Diefendorf), b. 01/23/1729, Basserstorff, Switzerland – a Loyalist during Rev War, he left Mohawk Valley for Philadelphia and New York City, returned to a daughter’s home in Canajoharie, NY after the war rather than going to Canada.  A patriotic son disowned his father, taking his middle name (his mother’s maiden name) as his new surname, removing to Virginia.  George Jacob married Catharine Hendree; their son Jacob Diefendorf married Susanna Hess, my g-g-g-g-grandparents.


On February 3, 1783, the British government acknowledged the independence of the American colonies.  The next day, they formally agreed to halt all military operations.  A preliminary peace treaty was ratified in April, and Canada offered free land that summer to Loyalists who sought a new life.  Still, the British military maintained a presence in Manhattan.  When Britain signed the Treaty of Paris September 3, 1783 to end the war, the hated Redcoats finally and slowly began to abandon their New York City stronghold. 


Next would begin the task of establishing the government and president of this new nation, the United States of America.  George Washington rode into Manhattan on November 25, 1783 with his officers and troops, eight horses abreast.  At the same time Washington’s parade began, British soldiers and ships were setting sail for their homeland. 


Flags were joyfully waved, church bells rang in celebration, and cannons were fired in honor of those who had fought and for those who had given their lives, all for the independence of this fledgling nation.  The war had definitely taken its toll; but, on this day, great joy was felt in every heart for what had been accomplished.  And that is why we continue to celebrate our 4th of July heritage in style – as we remember and commemorate those who gave so much that we might enjoy so much.  And, I trust we will never forget what their efforts wrought for us.





George Washington’s Secret Six, The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2013.

History of Schoharie County, New York, 1713-1882, William E. Roscoe, pub. D. Mason & Co., Syracuse, N.Y., 1882; Paperback Reprint by Heritage Books, Bowie, MD, 1994, Two-Volume Set.

Life of Joseph Brant – Thayendanegea; Including the Border Wars Two-Volumes, by William L. Stone, pub. Alexander V. Blake, New York, NY, 1838. - Complete timeline of Revolutionary War - History of the Fourth Declaration of Independence, signers, etc. - Sugar House Prisons – HMS Jersey prison ship - Prison ships'_Monument - Monument to British prison ship martyrs


Timeline of Events before and during the American Revolutionary War:


May 10- British Parliament passes Tea Act

December 16- Boston Tea Party


July 12- Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs dies.

September 5- First Continental Congress meets


April 19- Battles of Lexington and Concord

May 10- Second Continental Congress meets; Rebels capture Fort Ticonderoga

June 14- Continental Army established

June 15- George Washington named commander in chief by Continental Congress

June 17- Battle of Bunker Hill

August 28- Continental Army invades Canada


July 4- Continental Congress declares independence

September 15- British occupation of New York City begins

December 26- Battle of Trenton


January 3- Battle of Princeton

July 9- George Clinton declared governor of New York

August 6- Battle of Oriskany

September 26- British occupy Philadelphia

October 17- Gen. John Burgoyne surrenders at Saratoga

December 19- Continental Army encampment at Valley Forge begins


May 8- Joseph Brant raids Cobleskill

June 18- Joseph Brant raids Springfield , New York

June 19- Joseph Brant raids Andrustown

July 3- Wyoming Massacre-  Butler’s Rangers and Native allies decimate local militia in Wyoming Valley

September 17- Joseph Brant and Butler’s Rangers destroy German Flats

September 21-October 5- American militia under Thomas Hartley attack Queen Esther’s Town and Tioga

October 2- American militia under William Butler attack villages of Unadilla and Onaquaga

November 11- Cherry Valley Massacre-  Joseph Brant and Butler’s Rangers destroy settlement at Cherry Valley


April 21- Goose Van Schaick massacre against Onondaga

July 22- Joseph Brant attacks Minisink

July 31- Sullivan begins march from Wyoming Valley

August 9- Clinton begins march from Otsego Lake

August 11- Sullivan reaches Tioga Point; Brodhead begins march from Pittsburgh

August 13- Battle of Chemung

August 22- Clinton’s forces join with Sullivan’s forces at Fort Sullivan (Tioga Point)

August 29- Battle of Newtown

September 13-  Butler’s Rangers and Native allies attempt final stand at Groveland ambuscade- Continental forces win

September 14- Sullivan’s troops reach Genessee

September 16- Brodhead returns to Pittsburg

September 30- Sullivan-Clinton’s troops return to Fort Sullivan (Tioga Point)


April 2-  Joseph Brant raids Harpersfield

April 24- Joseph Brant raids Cherry Valley

May 22- Joseph Brant raids Caughnawaga

June 23- Sir John Johnson raids Johnstown

August 1- Joseph Brant raids Canajoharie

September 11- Roland Montour leads Sugarloaf Massacre near Hazelton, Pennsylvania

October 15-19 Sir John Johnson conducts raids on Schoharie, Canajoharie, and Stone Arabia


October 19- Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown


April 19- Congress proclaims end of war

September 3- Signing of the Treaty of Paris

November 23- Disbanding of Continental Army

December 23- Washington resigns his commission

Linda Roorda

Here comes the bride!!  What a breathtaking and beautiful illusion in white she makes on the special day of her dreams… walking down the aisle on the arm of her father to the music of her choosing… as her groom waits patiently, or perhaps anxiously, at the altar…   


June is traditionally the month of weddings.  Over two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire’s deity, Juno, was considered the goddess of marriage and childbirth, making June an auspicious month in which to wed your beloved.  I prefer to think of this month as one of more consistently clear warm weather, with beautiful blooming flowers readily available.  But, there are numerous other reasons why couples decide on what date to set their wedding.


I wanted a summer outdoor wedding; but, since my sister was engaged first, I felt it was appropriate she set her date before mine.  With her marriage the end of August, we settled on late October as that would give Ed and his dad time to get all the crops in on the farm before we left on our honeymoon.  We had great weather for October 26, 1974; and, virtually every year since, we’ve had a touch of Indian Summer around our anniversary.


When we got married, blood tests were required before the marriage license could be purchased from the county clerk.  There were certain traditions we have all followed, be it for a church wedding, an outdoor or lawn wedding, a small private ceremony at home, or a simple marriage at the local justice of the peace.  But, what most of us don’t know is where and how many of our customs began, including that of what we consider the traditional white wedding gown.  


And then there is the old poem, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” which every bride likes to follow… or used to!  An English rhyme dating back to 1898, it was intended to bring the new bride good luck.  Something old for me was the strand of faux pearls from my paternal grandmother’s jewelry collection, which my daughter, Jennifer, wore for her wedding.  The new item was, of course, my gown which I made on my ca.1905 treadle sewing machine.  I borrowed the handmade flared and layered slip which my grandfather’s sister, Rena, had made for her daughters’ weddings.  But, for the life of me, I have no idea what I might have worn with blue… though come to think of it, there might have been a small blue ribbon on that slip.  I do remember that I’d had that poem covered though!


The “Old Country” customs of Europe were brought to Colonial America by various ethnic immigrants.  The Dutch and Germans preferred their worship services held in their native tongue, so naturally weddings also took place in their native language.  As other ethnic groups emigrated to America, they brought along their own customs and language, falling back on them as much as possible.


But, that did not mean every old tradition was faithfully followed on this side of the Atlantic.  Many customs were abandoned when the familiar was not readily available, necessary nor appropriate.  Dowries were given among the wealthy, but this tradition soon saw its demise as more and more residents of colonial America could not afford such a luxury.  We were an unsettled nation, raw in the forming, with a harsh frontier just outside the city limits.  Many traditions devolved into simple and impromptu affairs, often based on the lack of availability of the old and familiar. 


The age at marriage has changed over the centuries, but essentially is not that different.  Most women married by their late teens and early 20s while the men married from late teens to late 20s.  Some did marry sooner, particularly on the frontier, as early as their mid teens.  However, keep in mind that families were often large, with 6 to 15 or more children, depending on the health and longevity of the mother.  Far too often though, as I encountered while researching my ancestors, early death came to not only the young mother from childbirth and her children from disease, but the father might also succumb to health problems or accidental death at an early age.  With an early demise, the widowed spouse often remarried fairly quickly – women for the support of a husband, and men in need of a woman to care for his home and children. 


It has been said that only slightly more than half of Colonial America’s children grew to adulthood; those who did survive, suffered through far more diseases than our children will ever encounter in today’s vaccinated society.  [See this author’s Homestead column, Diseases of Yesteryear, at]  Often, a family lost at least one or more children due to a host of diseases.  Again, while researching cemetery records, I sadly noted one family lost five children within days of each other, and I can only presume it was due to disease.


The early Dutch adhered to many of their familiar customs throughout New Netherlands.  But, with the arrival of a multitude of nationalities there and in older New England settlements, they gradually released their firm grip on former standards, and acquiesced to this new land with its melded ways.  But, regardless of one’s nationality, one major custom was the publishing of “banns” (i.e. proclamation) upon engagement, said engagement being nearly as binding as the marriage itself.  Originally decreed by Roman Catholic Canon Law 51 in 1215, banns were made more precise by the Council of Trent in 1563.


Betrothal or engagement was a serious legal matter, a solemn pledge, with the gift of either a ring or coin being given to the bride-to-be.  A dinner party was usually held for the families involved, as their families and friends shared in the happy announcement.  Next, after the required parental approval, banns were publicly announced of the couple’s intent to marry.  Often, the time frame from engagement to marriage didn’t exceed much more than a month.  What was the point in a lengthy engagement anyway?!


Banns were made on three consecutive Sundays before the wedding date, announced by the pastor from the pulpit during a worship service.  Church records of banns provide an excellent documentary source in genealogy research as proof of a marriage, especially when there is no extant record of the marriage.  Once engaged, and the banns had been announced, it was very difficult to “call off” the marriage unless there was solid evidence to do so, and even then fines might be levied against the offending party.


Banns were often phrased similar to the following:  "I publish the banns of marriage between (Name of party) of the Parish of........ and (Name of other party) of this Parish.  If any of you know cause or just impediment why these persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it.  This is for the (first, second, third) time of asking."


Yet, with a growing laxity toward laws of the Old Country, a law was passed in New Amsterdam on January 15, 1658 which read:  "Persons whos [sic] banns have been published must marry within one month, or show cause to the contrary, under a penalty of 10 guilders for the first week and 20 guilders for each succeeding week.  No man or woman shall be at liberty to keep house as married persons, before they are legally married, on pain of forfeiting 100 guilders, more or less, as their quality shall be found to warrant, and all such persons may be amerced anew therefor[sic] for every month, according to the order and custom of our Fatherland.”


As more and more immigrants gradually moved out of New Amsterdam and into the deeper hinterlands of New Netherlands, away from the city environs of eastern New England, and to the frontiers of the new United States of America, banns were taken over by marriage bonds and civil licenses.


Beyond those legal matters, there was much to do before a wedding.  Once friends were chosen as bridesmaids, they helped decorate the bride’s home where the wedding feast would take place, and helped dress the bride the day of her wedding.  More often than not, the marriage took place in church, particularly in the cities.   In rural areas without a church building, the marriage took place at the home of the bride.  The front parlor, a room set aside for special occasions, was the perfect setting for weddings and later funerals.  My mom’s family had such a room in their big house in Carlisle, NY.  There was also a parlor in the c.1830s McQuigg house built where our house now stands.  The front parlor was able to be closed off by sliding pocket doors; it, too, was likely used only for company and special occasions. 


Colonial weddings were also not the elaborate or ostentatious affairs we might see among today’s wealthy, but rather a simple ceremony with only close family and friends in attendance, and normally before noon.  An English custom was to throw shoes at the happily married couple for good luck!  And, the couple typically gave each other a special gift to celebrate their marriage, another custom still in vogue today.


The bride wore a new dress or gown of any color, or perhaps simply her best dress, depending on what her family could afford.  If the family were poor, any style or color “best dress” was appropriate.  The bride’s dress or gown was usually silk, satin or velvet, even muslin, typically black in color so it could later be worn in mourning.  In fact, it wasn’t until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 that brides began to desire a pristeen white gown.  Prior to that grand wedding, white was not chosen as it was a more expensive fabric, and obviously hard to keep clean amidst the colonial milieu.  The white dress or gown would not be worn on many occasions afterward, if at all, whereas their “best” dress could be worn frequently thereafter – all in the interest of saving what precious little money they did have.  Topping off her dress, a stylish bonnet or veil was a must, even when gloves and fan might not be used.


The groom dressed in the fashion of the day with waistcoat/vest and trousers, as good an outfit as he, too, could afford.  He also had groomsmen to assist him and to be responsible for his bride’s ring, which he might or might not receive in turn from his bride.


After the wedding, there was the happy celebratory feast for family and friends, including dancing and games.  It might range from a simple “breakfast” repast, or be a more elaborate fancy meal or buffet set out for the guests.  Again, this was typically held at the home of the bride even if the marriage took place in a church.  It was considered very poor taste to tell the bride congratulations (as that might mean she was lucky to have even had a proposal) while it was certainly appropriate to congratulate the groom for having won the heart of such a beautiful bride. 


The traditional wedding cake seems to have begun in the medieval period when breaking a wheat cake over the heads of the bridal couple was intended as good luck for a fertile future.  Many children filling the home was the goal of most every young couple.  It is also believed the tradition of a tiered cake came on the scene with the three-layered cake designed for Queen Victoria’s wedding reception, and for those of her daughters and nieces from the mid-19th century onward.  The typical wedding cake a few centuries ago was a spiced fruit cake with alcohol to act as a preservative.  It was quite unlike our light and fluffy white cake which we decorate with beautiful flowers, pillars and cascading fountain, creations which I once used to enjoy making and decorating, too.


Music and dancing were also very much a part of the wedding reception, like that at many of our modern weddings.  The music might range from the simple to the elegant, from piano or violin/fiddle, to part of an orchestra for the wealthy.  The dance was often simply a mild form of country dance until the waltz became very popular after 1810 through the balance of the 19th century.


A honeymoon might be taken if the couple could afford it.  Like my and Ed’s parents (who did not have a honeymoon with farm chores waiting), many of our ancestors often had farm chores that kept them from going away for their “dream vacation” until years later… perhaps after the children had grown up.  It was also considered good luck to pelt the bride and groom with rice and shoes as they left for their honeymoon – and for happiness and fertility!  The destination of one’s honeymoon was kept a secret, sometimes even from the bride.  Some of the wealthier in the 19th century took a groomsman along, entrusting to his care all their baggage and tickets to be purchased for train or boat to their destination.


Thinking back on what traditions we might have followed, I was actually late arriving to my wedding – being at the mercy of four younger brothers, some of whom did not quite fathom why their big sister wished to get to church on time!  And then my dad showed the propensity to a lead foot until I informed him, “I’d like to get there alive!”  We had an 11 a.m. wedding followed by the then-current custom of being driven around town by my sister and her husband with horns blaring!  We returned to a buffet luncheon, and a simple, but elegant, tiered cake made and decorated by our friend, Dorene.  Music and dancing was not a tradition we adhered to, but we chatted with the many friends and relatives who came to celebrate with us.  As we left the church/reception hall, we were pelted with rice, one photo showing my 4-year-old youngest brother, Ted, bringing his arm waaaay back for a good hard throw at his oldest sister!


Back home, after changing into traveling clothes, I discovered my car would not start; it just churned and churned.  With my husband legally blind, I was the designated driver and rather disconcerted over this unexpected problem.  I thought we had hidden my little ’74 Nova well away from prying hands behind the barn!  But, thank goodness, my father’s brother-in-law, a gas station owner/mechanic in Clifton, NJ just happened to know what to do – but then I learned he was the one who had removed wires from the distributor cap to prevent my car from starting!  We all had a hearty laugh as I realized I should have known my Dad would be the instigator!  My sister and her husband even wrote “Just Married” in soap on the rear window.  And then, with many hugs and kisses and happy wishes, we were off – for a week of beautiful fall weather in Lancaster’s Amish country and the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Civil War battleground.


All in all, though some of the old customs and traditions have changed somewhat over the decades and centuries, what remains is enough to make each wedding as unique and memorable as the bride and groom themselves!


NEXT:  Independence Day, Parts I and II



Colonial weddings -

Wikipedia --

Victorian weddings

Dutch New York by Esther Singleton, published by Dodd, Mead and Company (originally), 1909: #32: DUTCH MARRIAGE, by Carolyn B. Leonard

Linda Roorda

Part I - The Old Steam Trains / Part II -  Interview with a modern train engineer.

Who among us isn’t fascinated by the steam trains of yesteryear?  As the big locomotives and cars rumble past, you can’t help but wonder where they’ve been and where they’re headed.  To feel the pulsing ground vibrations of an old steam engine as it chuffs down the track, to see huge billows of smoke and steam with cinders and ash in the air, to smell the smoke and oil, and hear the blowing of the whistle and clanging of the bell all make the heart beat just a little faster!  The train’s a’comin’!


Constructing model trains was a hobby of my dad’s, along with setting up a track and miniature town for display.  I remember watching him when I was in kindergarten as he built a passenger car with its tiny pieces.  In the mid to late 1960s, I also enjoyed it when he took us kids on the annual drive to a small, non-descript building in Carlstadt, New Jersey.  There, our eyes were opened to a whole ‘nother world as both O (1/4” scale) and HO (1/8” scale) gauge trains were set up in working displays.  And, many a youngster has been thrilled to open the much-anticipated Christmas gift of a model train set like these!


At the Carlstadt Model Engineers Association’s display, the HO-gauge trains run through small towns, farming communities and mountain passes – with sound effects of the old locomotives.  It’s not huge by any means, though it encompasses two rooms, but it’s a fantastic setup nonetheless.  Check out their website for photos, videos and further information:


My dad, Ralph Visscher, was born to Dutch immigrants in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but grew up in Clifton, New Jersey next to the train tracks, where he developed his love for the old steam engines.  Clifton had two train stations – one for the Erie Railroad and one for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad.  Eventually, they consolidated as the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad in 1960.  We lived opposite the closed Erie station in the latter 1960s, a great playground for us kids; but, it has since been demolished like many others, the loss of a priceless piece of history.


In speaking with my father while writing this article in 2014, he told me, “Steam engines were doing a great job, getting better and better, especially when the Big Boy locomotives were developed and used out west.”  He told me their wheel designation was 4-8-8-4, which I’d learned from my research so I knew exactly what he was talking about.  He explained, “They had a front 4-wheeled truck to stabilize the engine on the curves, followed by 8 driving wheels, another set of 8 drivers, and a rear 4-wheeled truck underneath the engine’s firebox with the tender car coupled behind that.  Tenders carried the train’s fuel [coal, wood or oil] and water.  The Big Boys were used to pull freight cars a mile or more in length over the western mountains.” 


In the 1940s after World War II, he added that it was determined diesel engines could do a better job and go faster than the old steam engines.  “But, actually, a steam locomotive could accelerate faster from a standing start than diesels, which were slower to get started; once they got up to speed though, the diesels could travel much faster than steam engines.”  By 1950, he said, the railroad companies had switched all their locomotives to diesel.  “But, now and then you might see a rare steam engine being used on the track just because it was available.” 


My dad also explained that steam locomotives needed a tremendous amount of water to create steam from the burning fuel.  For example, in The Great Book of Railways, I learned that the Big Boys used “22 tons of coal and 44 tons of water every hour.” (p.20)  Clean-burning anthracite coal from Pennsylvania mines was used to fuel steam engines in the eastern U.S. with coal from Wyoming used for the western trains.  I was surprised to hear my dad say that oil was also used for trains out west because of the availability, but with the proximity of oil wells that makes sense.  “And, water tanks,” he added, “were set up every so many miles along with places to take on more coal.  Some trains used extra tenders to carry additional fuel needed for their run.  And, sometimes, to get a train up a mountain, more than one engine was coupled together to haul the freight cars up, or they used pusher locomotives at the rear of the cars.”


And then my dad, who never passes up the opportunity to tell a good story, shared this one about a well-seasoned engineer running a steam locomotive with a long line of cars.  They’d just hired a new young fireman on the crew.  As the train pulled up to a water tower, the engineer placed the tender exactly in position to take on water.  Pulling the chain on the gantry (crane), the young fireman filled the tender.  When he was done, he released the chain, took a look in the tender to check the water level and fell in, yelling for help, paddling to stay afloat, wondering how long it would take for them to get him out of there.  After a while the old engineer strolled back to see what was taking so long.  Peering into the tender, he pondered the sight that met his eyes, and calmly said, “You know, son… you don’t need to tamp the water down!”


I have to admit – I really enjoy researching and writing articles for the learning I gain in the process, but this article was one of my absolute favorites as it meant so much to my Dad who was on Hospice at the time of this writing (passing away in April 2015).  And it carries with it childhood memories of time spent with my dad at the train shows.  So, come along and together we’ll learn the history of those grand old iron horses, the steam locomotives.


Looking back to the start of the 19th century, life was moving forward at a relatively slow pace.  The times still invoked thoughts of the century past in every-day life, but now there was a sense of optimism in our new nation.  And, if they could only have known of the many improvements to come in the new century, they’d have shaken their heads in disbelief, just as our view backward amazes us at how far we’ve come.


Since the invention of the wheel, man has been contemplating how to make a better wheel or vehicle to transport all manner of goods.  England’s mines were the backdrop for development of the early steam locomotives by some of the best engineers in the late 18th to early 19th centuries.  Beginning in February 1804, Richard Trevithick’s locomotive invention hauled iron and passengers, followed by locomotives for racked/cogged rails (trains with a center driving wheel which engages with the racked or cogged rail for climbing steep grades) as designed by John Blenkinsop in 1812.  The next year William Hedley’s Puffing Billies came on the scene (the first smooth-wheeled locomotives), with George Stephenson’s steam locomotive of 1814 designed to work at a typical colliery (British deep-pit coal mine).  [The Great Book of Railways, pp.8-9]


On a side note, the above research regarding Hedley’s Puffing Billy trains brought to mind a favorite children’s song that perhaps others remember.  Down by the station, Early in the morning, See the little pufferbellies, All in a row.  See the station master, Turn the little handle [we sang throttle], Chug chug, puff puff, Off they go!”  Supposedly written by Lee Ricks and Slim Gaillard in 1948, the words go back to a 1931 Recreation magazine, with a tune similar to Alouette; and first popularized by Tommy Dorsey.  (Wikipedia)


American ingenuity took a little longer than the Brits to work itself up to full steam.  With the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company forming in 1823, the intent was to construct and operate canals between New York City and the coal mines near Carbondale in northeast Pennsylvania.  Eventually, the idea of locomotive power became their focus as a more efficient means of transporting both coal and passengers.  With that in mind, the D&H engineers took a tour of England’s renowned locomotive factories to gauge what would best meet their needs. 


This tour led the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company to order the first steam locomotives for use in the United States.  Built in England in 1828 by Foster, Rastrick & Company, the Stourbridge Lion was shipped over in pieces and reassembled at New York’s West Point Foundry.  Ready for its first official run on August 8, 1829, it was meant to carry coal from the mines near Carbondale to the canal at Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Weighing about 7-1/2 tons, however, it was too heavy for the wooden track, a definite disappointment as the engineers had sent requirements to England for a locomotive weighing not more than 4 tons.  However, by the early 1830s, steam locomotives were being built in the United States.


Col. John Stevens, the “father of American railroads,” set up an experimental track by 1826 on his property in Hoboken, New Jersey to prove the viability of a steam locomotive operation.  In 1830, Peter Cooper built the first American-made steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb, which ran on common track.  The public was additionally impressed when George Pullman invented the Pullman Sleeping Car in 1857, improving passengers’ over-night travel.


With much of our early transportation dependent upon beasts of burden over roads which were not of the best quality (see Homestead article No. 5, Traveling From Here to There), or by boats on the rivers and lakes, a boon developed with the construction of numerous canals.  Following close on the heels of New York’s Erie Canal debut in 1825 (see Homestead article No. 24, Clinton’s Ditch, aka The Erie Canal) was the burgeoning development of the railroad.  With a good percentage of engineers graduating from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, their knowledge was put to active use in surveying, planning and developing the railroads.  With their expertise, many of these West Point graduates soon became presidents and officers of the various railroad companies. 


Each state soon began granting charters to these newly-formed railroad companies.  Among the earliest to be chartered was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) in 1827.  Intended to run between Baltimore and the Ohio River, its first section opened May 24, 1830.  New York’s Mohawk & Hudson Railroad was incorporated in 1826, and began operating in August 1831.  Its first locomotive was the DeWitt Clinton, named for the former governor of canal fame.  The Saratoga & Schenectady Railroad followed soon after with its opening in June 1832.  Even then, ideas were being discussed regarding laying longer track from New York to Buffalo; but, it was a delicate subject as the state was heavily in debt for the Erie Canal which had just opened in 1825.  


Throughout the succeeding decades, many small railroad corporations merged to operate more efficiently.  In particular, the New York Central, headquartered in New York City, eventually became the main consolidated corporation in the northeast and Midwest as it merged with more than half a dozen other companies.


Innumerable side tracks were laid to meet the transportation needs of outlying regions as freight was shipped more efficiently than previously.  Towns vied for the opportunity to be on a rail line or spur, able to ship products out from a nearby hub rather than the expense of taking goods to a station many miles away.  Some towns were established after track was laid.  Stations built in towns on the line included water towers there and along the route to replenish the locomotive’s need to create steam and thus power.  The public found it convenient to take a passenger train for a trip to the next town or hundreds of miles away.  It sure beat the slow horse and buggy!


But, a major issue began to build as train schedules were based on differing times in towns along any given route.  To bring this under control, the railroads determined standard time was of vital importance.  At noon on November 18, 1883, standard time zones for both American and Canadian railroads began.  Prior to this date, both nations were riddled with innumerable differences in time across the countryside.  The vast differences stemmed from the use of “high noon” as each town clock was set depending upon when the sun was at its peak above their town.  Obviously, the discrepancies in time caused a nightmare for train schedules, and standardized time was the only logical answer.  Without government approval, the powerful railroad companies established four standard time zones which remain close to those still in use.  In 1918, Congress formalized the arrangement, putting the railroads under the Interstate Commerce Commission.  Prior to America’s adoption of standard time, the Great Western Railroad had established standard time in Britain beginning in 1840, with virtually all railroads adopting London time by 1847.


It should also be mentioned that tracks were also built to different size specifications.  Northern railroads typically used a standard 4 ft 8-1/2 inch or 4 ft 9 inch wide track.  This was based on English track dimensions and the fact that U.S. railroads expected to import more British-made locomotives.  This was the gauge used by George Stephenson (British inventor above) for his locomotives simply because he was familiar with this track width from a local mine near Newcastle.  As it turns out, that gauge was used for the mine track just because it was the common width of local ancient Roman roads in England.  It was next determined by measurements taken at excavations in Pompeii and elsewhere that ancient Roman roads were made for a standard chariot wheelbase of about 4 ft 9 inches or slightly less!  And that is how 4 ft 8-1/2 inch rails became the industry standard.


The early American railroads like the Baltimore & Ohio and Boston & Albany set their rails at 4 ft 8-1/2 inches, the Pennsylvania R.R. used 4 ft 9 inches, the Erie and Lackawanna both used 6 ft 0 inch tracks, Canada used a 5 ft 6 inch gauge, while Southern U.S. rails were set at 5 ft 0 inches. 


Obviously, the discrepancies prevented trains from running on certain track, necessitating standardization throughout the industry.  I found it interesting to learn that for 36 hours over two days commencing May 31, 1886, thousands upon thousands of workers pulled spikes from all west-bound tracks in the South, moved the rails in by 3 inches to 4 ft 9 inches, and immediately replaced the spikes. Thus, as of June 1886, all North American tracks were capable of running locomotives built for standard 4 ft 8-1/2 inch rails.


Impressive tunnels, bridges and viaducts were also designed and constructed to carry trains over stunning views of open water or above valley floors between steep mountain cliffs.  With the need for better materials, wrought iron rail was produced in England by 1820.  Following this, steel in America became available in the mid-1800s with the process improved in England by 1860.   


Naturally, the feasibility of a transcontinental track came under discussion and planning for several years before it became reality.  With the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 under President Lincoln, healing began for a war-torn nation as the north and south pulled together in a common goal after the Civil War.  The idea alone of a main railroad line from one ocean to the other across an entire continent was exhilarating!  Thus, the Central Pacific Railroad toiled westward over the plains and up the eastern Rockies while the Union Pacific laid its track eastward out of California, over and through the western side of the Rockies. 


Meeting at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869, the Golden Spike was nailed into the track in an exciting celebration.  In honor of the occasion, the Union Pacific’s No. 119 and the Central Pacific’s No. 60 (Jupiter) steam locomotives met face-to-face with a single railroad tie width between them.,_Utah


“Celebration of the meeting of the railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869.”


This event was the conclusion of several years’ worth of investment in time spent planning, designing, and doing the hard physical labor of laying track.  Many an immigrant, particularly the Irish and Chinese, found work in this venture.  Across the plains and through tunnels blasted out of the seemingly impassable Rocky Mountains, the rails moved inexorably toward each other with much of the original roadbed still in use today. 


The meeting of tracks thus created a transcontinental railroad connecting innumerable side tracks and spurs from all across the nation.  It was where the east met the west, no longer necessitating travel for months by wagon train from the Mississippi River to the Oregon Trail and points along the west coast.  Nor did it require a lengthy sail by ship through dangerous seas around the horn of South America to reach our nation’s western lands.  


Closer to home, Sayre, Pennsylvania housed the extensive Lehigh Valley rail yard.  Completed by 1904, it held the second largest factory of its kind in the world.  Large cranes were in place to lift a locomotive and move it anywhere.  With nearly everyone in Sayre working in one way or another for the railroad, it’s been said that the huge factories were noted for building or rebuilding one steam locomotive every day during peak production.  In fact, between 1913 and 1921, the factories at Sayre built over 40 K-class locomotives.  (The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, p.181.)


Along with a growing railroad industry came the need of medical services for injured railroad workers. Robert Packer Hospital, established with railroad money, was named for Robert, son of Asa Packer who was the director of Lehigh Valley Railroad.  The hospital’s adjoining Guthrie Clinic was modeled after Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic.  Donald Guthrie, MD, a graduate of Mayo, was appointed Superintendant and Surgeon-in-Chief of Guthrie Clinic (named in his honor), taking up his position in January 1910.


Headquartered in New York City, the Lehigh Valley Railroad made an obvious impact on our region’s economy.  Begun as the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company in the 1820s, it once held a monopoly in the mining and transporting of coal.  In order to break its monopoly, the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad was incorporated in 1846.  In 1853, under Asa Packer’s expert management, this mouthful of a company name became known simply as the Lehigh Valley Railroad.   One of its passenger trains, the Black Diamond Express, with an Atlantic 4-4-2 locomotive, held quite a reputation.  Known as the “Route of the Black Diamond” (named for the clean-burning anthracite coal it carried), the track ran from New York City, west through New Jersey to Easton, Pennsylvania, northwest past Wilkes-Barre and through numerous switchbacks to climb the mountains on its trip northwest to Sayre, Pennsylvania, then into New York by going north to Van Etten, northwest to Geneva, and finally west to Buffalo. 


Beginning in 1876, the Lehigh Valley Railroad “took control of the newly reorganized Geneva, Ithaca, and Sayre Railroad, started by Ezra Cornell of Ithaca.  The famous university that he founded in 1865 would fill regular and special trains with college students and their families for decades.  Special excursion trains were often set up with tiered-bleacher seating on flat cars for passengers to watch crew races on Cayuga Lake as the train kept abreast of the scullers. (History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, p.126)  The line to Geneva provided the Lehigh Valley a means to construct their own line into Buffalo, but its grade out of Ithaca to Geneva was too steep for heavy freight trains to travel.  A diverging route was planned from Van Etten (then known as Van Ettenville) to Geneva along the east side of Seneca Lake.  In 1892, the new bypass was open and the line was also completed from Geneva to Buffalo.  The original route from Van Etten [through Spencer] to Geneva via Ithaca was now used for passenger trains and local freights.”  Lehigh Valley Railroad Historical Society -


With a new luxury train scheduled for its first run on May 18, 1896, the Lehigh Valley Railroad ran a contest to name the train.  With over 35,000 entries received, the winner was Charles Montgomery, a hotel clerk from Toledo, Ohio.  His submission, Black Diamond Express, “was considered most befitting the premier train of a railroad whose history and revenues were so closely intertwined with anthrocite.”  [The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, p.152]


“Running from New York City to Buffalo, the Black Diamond was promoted as a train of luxury.  The 315-foot long train was the fastest in their fleet.  The Black Diamond had chefs on board who were skilled in culinary arts.  Complete kitchens had every facility present for ‘preparing and serving substantials and delicacies in most appetizing fashion.’  Day coaches were outfitted with plush velvet chairs, a large comfortable smoking room, and lavatories for both men and women.  The last car seated 28 passengers and included a parlor and an observation platform.  It was equipped with plate glass windows at the rear and wicker chairs for passenger pleasure.  Touted by the Lehigh Valley as ‘The Handsomest Train in the World,’ the roadbed it traveled soon became known as “The Route of the Black Diamond.”  Because of its appeal to newlyweds on their way to Niagara Falls, the train was nicknamed the ‘Honeymoon Express.’”  (The Lehigh Valley Historical Society took much of its information from the book, The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, pp.152-153]

Of course, accidents occurred for all railroads and the Lehigh Valley was no exception.  Its second worst passenger train wreck took place on August 25, 1911.  As the No.4 train headed east out of Buffalo, it derailed on the Canandaigua Outlet Bridge because of a broken rail.  One passenger car rolled over onto its side, while two others fell into the creek 40 feet below with 29 killed and 62 injured.


Built in 1916, a 30-bay roundhouse and turntable just south of Manchester, New York was used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad on its route to and from Buffalo.  With the train yard seeing a decline in freight traffic during the post-World War II era, its doors closed forever in 1970.  Once considered the largest in the world, the Manchester Yard employed over 1000 people during its peak years.  In the mid-1960s, my dad had taken us kids on a ride to see the train yards along the Jersey shore.  Touring a round house, I can still envision the locomotive inside as it was turned onto a different track.  Fascinating stuff!

In the decades after World War II, as better and more modern means of transportation came onto the scene with trucks traveling over better paved roads and planes reaching distant destinations in only hours, the old trains and their tracks began disappearing.  Lehigh Valley passenger service also declined, ending with the Black Diamond Express making her final run with her sister train, Star, on May 11, 1959.


The famous Black Diamond Express on the Lehigh Valley

Above photos and article extractions obtained from by Lehigh Valley Railroad Historical Society


As bigger and better locomotives were built throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, record speeds were reached at or above 100 mph.  The first train ever to record a speed of 100 mph was the Empire State Express of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad on May 9, 1893 on a run between Rochester and Buffalo, NY.  Great Britain’s famous Flying Scotsman hit 100 mph in 1934, while the British Mallard reached a record 126 mph pulling 245 tons in 1938.  Just recently, on February 25, 2016, the Flying Scotsman returned to the tracks in England, fully restored.  Retired in 1963 when diesel engines took over, she spent a number of years pulling tourist trains along the western coast in the U.S.  Press release:


Sandwiched in the years between two world wars, the largest steam locomotives were built in both America and Europe.  In the U.S., engines were often coupled together to provide strength for running with longer lines of loaded freight cars strung out behind, especially as they traversed the mountain passes of the western states.  Then, in the early 1940s, the American Locomotive Company (Alco) in Schenectady, New York built 25 of the largest locomotives ever.  They were dubbed “Big Boys,” intended for hauling freight over the western Rocky Mountains.  


In August 2013, Big Boy Engine No. 4014 was prepared for return to the Union Pacific’s Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming from a Pamona, California museum.  Expected to begin its journey in April 2014, it will be pulled by several modern locomotives.  Following complete restoration over the next several years to full working condition, it will be put back on the line for excursions.  [An internet search of Big Boy No. 4014 will provide photos and videos of this magnificent locomotive.  Follow the story of this steam engine at: ]


Over time, the amount of coal needed to fuel these big steam engines contributed to their demise.  In order to stay competitive with OTR (over-the-road) truck transportation and by plane, diesel and electric engines were designed and implemented.  Germany’s Rudolph Diesel designed the first successful engine in 1897 which bears his name.  By 1912, the first successful German-built diesel locomotive was also in use.  Simply put, I learned that diesel operates differently by using an oil injection as compared to a gasoline-powered engine with spark plugs. 


Freight cars in America have often been pulled by several locomotives coupled together, providing greater strength than a single engine.  Modern locomotives are designed with diesel engines and electric generators which help them reach top speed much quicker than a simple diesel engine alone.  Thus, the  “world’s first streamlined diesel-electric [locomotive was] a Denver-Chicago express” which began running in 1934.  (The Great Book of Railways)


With the invention of electricity, it wasn’t long before the great inventors put it to use in operating trains.  Electric trains are connected to an overhead electric wire/cable which provides power.  The first electric tram, designed by another German, Werner von Siemens, was on working display at the Berlin Trades Exhibition on May 31, 1879.  His brother, Sir William Siemens, settled in England and designed the first electric railroad which began running in 1883 in Northern Ireland.  It was not until 1890, however, that London’s first electric railway began operating in underground tunnels.  London’s Metropolitan Railway soon became the world’s first subway in 1863 by using underground steam trains.  Following these world firsts, America’s first electric railway was put to use in 1895 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with electric locomotives pulling steam trains through tunnels under Baltimore, Maryland.  (The Great Book of Railways)


And, of course, we also have subways and elevated rails which provide convenient transportation beneath and above city streets.  In the latter 20th century, travel by traditional passenger train declined.  There are, however, some passenger lines still in operation, including scenic excursions, just as there are freight lines providing an important transportation option.  Locally, we can watch a freight train pass through Van Etten and Spencer.  I do enjoy the days when I can clearly hear its whistle and the sound of the heavy engines and cars clicking and creaking over the rails as it passes through our community, reminding us of the halcyon days of long ago.


At the end of every freight train was the red caboose.  These cars were used until safety laws were relaxed in 1980 at which time improved safety monitoring devices were implemented.  Cabooses provided shelter and cooking facilities for the crew who were needed to switch or shunt a train or individual cars onto another track.  This was dangerous work as men could become injured or run over when coupling or uncoupling the cars.  The crew also kept an eye out for any shifting of loads in the cars, or damage to equipment and freight, or axles that might be overheating.  The cupola on top helped them keep an eye out for problems on the track or with the cars. 


Scattered around the U.S. are many old steam locomotives available for excursion rides, along with several train museums to showcase “the way it was.” 


Tours and information:

Video - in the engine of a working 19th century steam locomotive in Nevada:

Steam train footage in western U.S.: 

The Strasburg Railroad/Pennyslvania Dutch country: 

Video - Strasburg Railroad plowing the line:

Arcade, western New York steam train rides:

Delaware River Railroad excursions from New York state:

Steamtown USA, Scranton, PA:

Tioga Scenic Railroad Excursion from Owego, NY:

Video Owego and Harford Railroad, Newark Valley:

Historic train rides, New England:

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, western North Carolina:

My sources:

The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, “The Route of the Black Diamond,” by Robert F. Archer, Howell-North Books, Berkeley, CA, 1977.

The Great Book of Railways, by David Roberts, Ray Rourke Publishing Company, Inc., Windermere, Florida, 1981.  and - history of Sayre with photos of trains - world railroad records and firsts, plus more - old steam engine photos - history of the Big Boy - more on the Big Boy trains – history of track gauge - the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad


Part II - Interview with a modern train engineer.

I thought it would be interesting to include an interview by a modern train engineer, Scott Brown, the son of our friends, George and Sandy.  By e-mail, Scott provided some great information to my questions.


I wondered how someone became an engineer, or even chose this profession, and what specialized training was necessary.  Scott explained, “My dad was and still is a fan.  He’s driven a steam engine; I have not done that, but I’d like to.  Ever since I was little, I wanted to work on the railroad.  I realized that dream after I was discharged from the Navy.  I happened to be in the unemployment office in Covington, Virginia when I overheard one of the clerks mentioning CSX was hiring.”  [To those unfamiliar, CSX Transportation stands for Chessie and Seaboard, a merger in 1986 of Chessie System and Seaboard System Railroad.  Chessie stands for Chesapeake.]


Scott went on to say that he “was hired December 11, 1995.  I went to brakeman school in Cumberland, Maryland for two weeks and returned to Virginia for a couple months of on-the-job training.  Then I went to conductor school in Richmond, Virginia for another two weeks.  I was promoted to conductor upon completing another couple months of on-the-job training.  [After] I had been a conductor for two years, I was told in September 1997 to report to engineer school.  That school lasted for approximately 5 weeks in Cumberland, Maryland.  Upon completing engineer school, it was another six months of OJT before I was actually promoted to engineer.  Anyone can go to to see if they are hiring in your area, which is most likely the case.  We have been hiring nonstop now for the better part of a year.”


I asked Scott what his responsibilities included as an engineer.  There are a lot of gauges in an engine, so it’s definitely different than driving a truck.  There is one major difference between driving a truck and operating a train though; there's no steering wheel.  You would be surprised how many people ask me that ‘How do you steer it?’ question.” 


Okay, in all honesty, I had wondered that as a child and asked my Dad while writing this article, giving him cause for a hearty laugh!  As my Dad explained, it’s all centrifugal force.  Since I did not fare well in science class, he also explained that the wheels are built with an inward tilt, i.e. toward the center.  In addition, they are made with a flange/lip that helps keep them on the track.  The rails as well have an inward cant to them to match the wheels of the car.  As the train travels down the rails, the right speed keeps the cars dutifully following behind and appropriately taking the curves – unless, of course, something disturbs the equilibrium to cause a crash.


Scott said, “The biggest thing I can think of on how to describe driving a train is to know the territory you run over.  Every train is different - different as in weight, length, engine, and even weather has an effect.  Knowing where your train is in relation to the territory you’re on is key to how you run the train. Learning how to handle the train over the different territories we have is mostly repetition.  The more you do it, the better you get at it.  We are also responsible for inspecting our locomotives and making sure everything is in working order on them before we leave the terminal.  There are many rules and regulations we have to abide by as well, far too many to go into detail about.   But, I think the most important part is safety.  I want to go home the same way I came to work, with all my fingers and toes.  This industry is very unforgiving.  Everything we work with, on, and around is extremely heavy.  One slip-up or distraction can cost you - at the very least a finger or a limb, or at worst can cost you your life.”


The best part of his job, Scott said, is that he gets “to see a lot of incredible sunrises and sunsets.  I also enjoy watching the seasons change every year.  The pay and benefits are pretty good, too.   But, the worst parts are the long hours, no set schedule, long hours away from home, incompetent management, horrible van drivers, and did I mention long hours?”


Regarding accidents, Scott has never had a crash with his train. However, a tragic accident occurred when “a girl committed suicide using my train a few years ago.  She stepped out of a field, right into the middle of the track I was on, and turned her back to me.  I hit her at 50 mph.  That was probably the worst day of my career.  There was nothing I could do to prevent it.”


“As an engineer I've never been involved in a major derailment,” Scott added.  “As a conductor I was involved in a minor one caused by myself.  It was entirely my fault, not checking the position of a switch and room behind some cars I was coupling into.  I broke a switch that was not properly lined and derailed a car at the end of a dead end track.  That was in 1996.  Since then nothing major has happened.”


Scott pulls freight cars that can vary in number from 10 to as many as 200, in length from 200 to 15,000 feet, with a combined weight anywhere from 500 tons to 22,000 tons. 


I next asked Scott about rail yards and working roundhouses, which I’d seen in Hoboken, New Jersey on the shore across from New York City in the mid 1960s.  “The large yards here in Chicago are extremely busy.  There are always cuts of cars moving from here to there, always engines moving around to various spots to take outbound trains to leave, and there are always trains coming in.  The only active roundhouse I know of is the Indiana Harbor Belt in Hammond, Indiana.  I don't think that CSX has one on the entire system.”


I wondered about the signal signs along the rail route and what they mean.  Scot replied, “The signals are what govern us on how to move the train.  A green light, or clear signal, allows us to proceed at maximum speed.  A yellow, or approach signal, tells us we have to prepare to stop at the next signal.  Red,  depending on if it's an intermediate or an absolute, tells us either to proceed at half the range of vision and be able to stop short of any obstruction or to stop completely.  As far as signs go, the most common ones are the whistle posts and others for speed restrictions.”


I love to watch a train, hear the whistle, count the cars, and pace my car with the train if the track is parallel to the road just to see what its traveling speed is.  I remember our fascination as kids as we watched trains and waved to the engineer or brakeman.  Scott also said he loves to watch trains.  “There’s just something about them that captures our imagination!  Some kids wave, some nowadays just stare and aren't sure what to think, some adults wave with only one finger, but most still wave with all five.”


Scott added a few wise words of warning as his final thoughts:  “The only other thing I can think of is to please wait at railroad crossings.  If your route takes you across a busy set of railroad tracks, leave earlier for your destination.  Something that weighs 3 million pounds, moving at 50 miles per hour, does not stop fast.  It can take a mile or more for something like that to stop.” 

Linda Roorda

Just mention the Underground Railroad and the words evoke images of slaves huddled together, speaking in hushed tones, making plans with great fear and yet tremendous hope… of those with unspoken plans to escape entirely alone… of lonely walks through the dead of night… of traveling with extreme vigilance in broad daylight… of being concealed under the false bottom in the bed of a wagon carrying produce, hay or bricks, etc… of stowaways hidden aboard ships bound for northern cities… of being hidden in a home or barn until it was safe to move on again… all while living under the overwhelming fear of discovery at any moment by both passenger and conductor/stationmaster alike.

In reality, the abolitionist movement took tremendous faith and courage on the part of every participant on this train of sorts.  Most often, it was facilitated by one’s faith in God and knowing that, as the U.S. Constitution says, “all men are created equal…”  There was a spiritual impetus in seeking emancipation for a people who should not be held captive as someone else’s possession, regardless of how ancient the tradition of slavery might have been. 

But, it also took bravery and self-sacrifice for a seemingly “hodge-podge” system to thrive in secrecy while operating within plain sight of those vehemently opposed to its intrinsic value.  Unfortunately, many who considered themselves “good Christians” were just as adamantly opposed to freeing the slaves. 

Abolitionists were involved in an act of civil disobedience like no other, punishable by fines and/or imprisonment upon discovery, never mind the slave who was disciplined/punished in varying degrees of severity, even to death.  With all of that at stake, how did the “underground railroad” ever manage to pull out of the station on such successful clandestine lines?


Slavery has been around for centuries, essentially not long after recorded world history began, even recorded Biblical history… not that that makes it right.  It was a well-established entity in the “old world” long before it arrived on America’s shores when, in 1619, a Portuguese trading ship sold 20 slaves to the English settlers at Jamestown.  (Bordewich, p. 15)  It was an institution already prevalent in England, as was the indentured servant.  Though the indentured servant was eventually able to claim freedom by paying off his debt, not so the typical slave.  Slavery was also well established in both the north and south of the burgeoning colonies before the leaders of the day rallied to seek our nation’s freedom from British rule.  

It is also of note that roughly “two thousand American and British ships were engaged in transporting between forty thousand and fifty thousand Africans to the Americas every year” during the 18th century.  (Bordewich, pp.17-18)  In fact, it was this tremendously profitable venture which fed England’s industrial revolution of the 18th century.  (Bordewich, p. 17)

An ocean away, England’s Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (citation 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73) was enacted by Parliament on August 28, 1833 to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  It all began in 1772 with a ruling by Lord Mansfield in the Somersett Case that slavery could not be supported by law, thus setting free a particular slave.  By 1783, as our nation’s war for independence was concluding, a movement to abolish slavery and the slave trade was just beginning within the British Empire.

With the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (enacted in 1808), slave trade effectively ended; unfortunately, slavery, itself, was not done away with.  As the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron began patrolling the ocean off the coast of West Africa, they greatly reduced the slave trade.  Yet, the trade continued with some captains tossing slaves overboard to avoid or reduce their fines.  “Between 1808 to 1860, the West Africa Squadron captured 1600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.”  Many freed blacks were then removed to Jamaica and the islands of the Bahamas.


In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was established by William Wilberforce, a former member of Parliament.  Having become an evangelical Christian in 1785, Wilberforce carried on a 20-year fight against the evils of slavery.  In 1787, after meeting with a group of British abolitionists, he recorded in his diary that his life’s purpose was to end the slave trade.  In parliament, becoming a leading abolitionist, he saw his cause through to the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.   He continued to support the full abolishment of slavery even after his retirement from parliament in 1826.  When his efforts were rewarded with passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, slavery ended in almost every corner of the British Empire, and Wilberforce died just three days later.

In the meantime, it was the notorious 18th century captain of a slave ship, John Newton, who realized the gravity of his evil ways as a foul-mouthed captain of ill repute when he, too, converted to Christianity.  Captured and pressed into service for the Royal Navy in 1743 at a young age, he led a hard life, once being whipped on board ship for attempted desertion.  

In March 1748, Newton called out to God during a severe storm when his ship almost sank.  Every year thereafter, he recalled March 21st as the anniversary of his spiritual conversion to Christianity.  (Parker, p.12)  Though he continued in the slave trade despite his new-found faith, he treated others better, refrained from certain vices, and worked his way up to become captain of his own slave ship.  Newton felt he was doing nothing different from other Christians at the time in both owning and selling slaves, eventually retiring from the sea in 1754.

Yet, it was Newton who later penned the words to one of our all-time favorite hymns, “Amazing Grace” –  “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”  (Parker, p.15)  Written in December 1772 for his congregation’s New Year’s Day service, he gave the world a monumental hymn, the evidence of God’s grace in his life.  (Parker, p.13) 

In 1788, Newton published a pamphlet, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade,” describing the appalling conditions of slave ships.  He apologized for “a confession, which…comes too late…  It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders."  Newton also became an active supporter of Wilberforce’s campaign to end the slave trade.  Newton died December 21, 1807.

The mistreatment of slaves was universally known.  Being in the hold of a ship was difficult enough of a trial for they were typically pressed in together with barely enough room to move.  Sickness and death, being tossed overboard for infractions, jumping overboard in suicide, or being jettisoned overboard as unnecessary cargo were just some of the fates awaiting the slaves en route.  Then, being put on the auction block under close inspection, they were forced to endure yet more humiliation.  In addition, there were often agonizing family separations of spouses and of parents and children. 

Any slave found guilty of infractions (from some simple error, to running away, to murder) was punished, some more severely than others.  Should a slave not perform up to expectations, he or she often met with discipline.  Floggings or whippings, branding, mutilation of the ears or hands, cutting off of the ears or hands, hanging, overwork, and many other unsavory forms of punishment were meted out as seen fit by frustrated, angry and authoritative owners.  Man’s inhumanity to man was evidenced in untold suffering, too despicable to enumerate in this article, something which we cannot begin to fathom or contemplate.  To their credit, however, there were those who treated their slaves in exemplary fashion and whose slaves in turn were loyal and faithful servants, albeit still in a fateful bondage.


And yet, this evil was part of normalcy in a long-ago era.  We are able, with hindsight, to see the injustice forced on other humans through our modern ideology and spiritual insight.  Then, it was considered part of the established way of life, a substantial and valuable labor force.  Their times and understandings were so different from our perspectives.  There were those who saw the inequalities inherent within the slave trade even then, despite popular opinion to the contrary; and, gradually, the early abolitionists’ ideas took root and grew from their understanding of God’s inherent biblical truths.

Slaves began to arrive in New Netherlands as early as the 1630s; and, over the next few decades, the Dutch West India Company brought even more slaves to New Amsterdam’s docks.  The company was more interested in the labor that slaves could provide, not so much perpetual ownership.  The Dutch West India Company made significant profits from the slave trade, albeit not so much in New Netherlands as in Brazil and the Caribbean islands. 

Though the Dutch did not believe that whites and blacks were equal, they tolerated the blacks among them, whether slave or free.  And, though they, too, owned slaves, the Dutch lived a dichotomy by believing “it was morally wrong to buy and sell human beings…”  (Shorto, p.273)  Many, like Stuyvesant, felt their slaves were lazy and worthless, and treated them sternly.  Yet, there were many Dutch settlers who freed their slaves after several years, believing that they had worked long and hard enough and were deserving of freedom.  

Increasingly, New Netherland slaves were granted their freedom (manumission) by their owners between 1644 and 1664.  (Shorto, p. 273)  When the British took over New Amsterdam in 1664, its population of about 1500 included roughly 375 slaves.  This was less than the 500 slaves in New Netherlands as of 1650, and more than those in both Virginia and Maryland.  (Foner, p.28)   Yet, sixty years later, the numbers had increased as 1446 slaves are found on the 1810 census in New York City, though only 518 remained enslaved ten years later.  (Foner, p.43-44)  Among the blacks of early New York, former slaves owned property and hired whites to work for them, while slaves were even able to file suit against their European white neighbors for infractions committed.  (Shorto, p.273; Foner, p.28) 

The Dutch allowed slaves to move about without fear of their running away, promoted their Christianization in the church, and established fathers as heads of their own households, not typically available to Southern slaves.  Additionally, under the Dutch, not all slaves were held in as firm a grip as the Southern plantation owners were wont to do.  Instead, some of the Dutch treated them as extensions of their family, later assisting them by granting their freedom along with helping some obtain land on which to settle.


However, that is not to say there weren’t run-away slaves even in 17th century New Netherlands where free blacks provided safe havens for fugitives on their farms.  Connecticut and Maryland offered freedom to escaped slaves, refusing to release them back to their previous owners.  (Foner, p.30)

While researching my early New Amsterdam (New York City) ancestors, I discovered records of the Dutch Reformed Church contain baptism and marriage records of slaves.  The same was true of some other early church records throughout the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, including the greater Albany-Rensselaer-Schenectady area of New York State.

By about 1700, Samuel Sewall of Massachusetts Bay Colony is noted to have written one of the earliest denouncements of the institution of slavery: “It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs, and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all their outward Comforts of Life.” (Bordewich p.52)  He also quoted Psalms 115:16 to support his anti-slavery belief, “God hath given the Earth unto the Sons of Adam, And hath made of One Blood, all Nations of Men, for to dwell on the face of the Earth.”  (Bordewich, p.53)

Also, as early as about 1750, a Philadelphian, Anthony Benezet (a former French Huguenot), was known to have tutored blacks in his home for at least twenty years, educating them so they could hold down good jobs and be of benefit to society.  Benezet’s work convinced Benjamin Franklin and many others that the philosophy of abolition and education was truly a worthwhile venture in assisting the plight of free blacks.  They also began to understand that it was slavery which denigrated the blacks to remain less than what they were truly capable of achieving.


Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, embodied the dichotomy of a struggle endemic within our nation as a whole in dealing with the issue of slavery.  Acknowledged in his writing of the U.S. Constitution is the biblical premise that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with the inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”  Though he himself owned slaves, he struggled with how to end the institution of owning another human being.  He called it a “hideous evil,” while at the same time seeing blacks as an inferior race and necessary to a superior way of life.  (Bordewich, p.34) 

In 1784, Jefferson, as a member of the Continental Congress, helped draft a plan for settlers of the nation’s new lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.  The plan was meant to prohibit slavery in all western territory.  Then, defeated by only one vote, hopes were dashed for preventing the spread of slavery.  Out of this dichotomy which the nation struggled with, Jefferson wrote he “feared that the continuation of slavery would inevitably lead to bloody rebellion and race war.”  (Bordewich, p.34)  How right he was.


But, long before that bloody civil war began, there was a movement afoot to assist slaves in escaping their plight rather than turning them in to the law for bounty money, or back to their masters for certain discipline, aka punishment.  In addition, most northern states had passed helpful laws by 1800 for the gradual abolition of their slaves. 

The Fugitive Slave Act enacted by the United States government in 1793 was followed by state laws passed to aid the free blacks.  But, the 1793 act also allowed slave owners, and especially kidnappers, to obtain legal papers for returning fugitive slaves in the North back to their owners in the South.  With the Fugitive Slave Act, legal authorities could issue warrants to arrest any black, even if legally free, thereby granting immunity to slave hunters and kidnappers.  Kidnapping of blacks, both free and fugitive, went unabated as it was often difficult to prove one's legitimate freedom.  Free black children were kidnapped and spirited away into slavery, often into the deep South, never to see their family again.  New York’s Manumission Society provided helpful legal assistance, but their efforts were often trumped by claims of kidnappers in front of clerks who simply did not care that they might be sending the wrong person into slavery.  (Foner, pp.50-51) 

Then, bursting onto the scene with a great labor-saving device, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin that same year of 1793 propelled the southern cotton industry prodigiously forward.  Yet, while the machine contributed to the growth of cotton, it also enhanced the expansion of slavery.  In 1800, there were just under 900,000 slaves recorded in the U.S.; this grew to around 1.2 million by 1810, increasing to just over 2 million by 1830.  By the time the Civil War began, it is estimated there were about 4 million slaves in our nation.  (Bordewich, p. 43) 


It wasn’t until 1799, after the Revolutionary War, that New York State passed the Gradual Emancipation Act.  They were “the next-to-last northern state to do so,” with New Jersey waiting until 1804.  This law was meant to free slave children born after July 4, 1799, but it had no bearing on current adult slaves.  In actuality, these “free” children would not be truly free until men had served 28 years as apprentices or indentured servants for men, or 25 years for women.  A subsequent law enacted in 1817 freed all slaves born before 1799, but that did not even take full effect until July 4, 1827.  And, all too often, the law was ignored as slaves were still brought into the north by their southern owners. 

Subsequently, in March 1820, Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to pass a law to defeat the purpose of the Fugitive Slave Act.  In other words, slave hunters and kidnappers in Pennsylvania could face felony charges for their actions, be levied with a fine up to $2000.00, or spend up to 21 years in prison.  (Bordewich, p. 136)

Six years later, Quaker influence reinforced the law by making it even more difficult for a slave owner to "retrieve" his former property without a legally executed warrant and sufficient court witnesses for corroboration.  These laws effectively gave the green light to those Pennsylvania citizens involved in underground activity to act without fear of reprisal, especially in the rural areas near their southern state line, though it still necessitated that they operate discreetly.  In the northern states, the blacks were considered free, but they kept one eye always alert, aware that at any time they could be tripped up, caught and taken south.  (Bordewich, p. 136)


During the early half of the 19th century, the dreams of slaves for freedom continued to grow.  In answer to these dreams came certain whites, along with free blacks, more than willing to assist them in gaining such freedom, despite threats and actuality of their own arrest and imprisonment.  Unfortunately, in the summer of 1800, a plan for a major rebellion by slaves was discovered in Virginia.  Hundreds of blacks were arrested despite the lack of solid evidence, and twenty-six were executed for their supposed involvement.  Any free black who traveled without proper authorization was arrested and fined, or sold back into slavery.  Even those with freedom papers were kidnapped and sold unless another white was willing to fight and/or pay for their rights.  The laws were still not conducive to assisting the free blacks, let alone aiding those who sought to obtain their freedom.  The efforts to provide help to fugitive slaves took a great amount of personal conviction and determination to go against the norm.  (Bordewich p.44) 

Soon enough, the percentage of free blacks in northern cities began to rise dramatically – some were free by manumission (released from slavery by their owners), others escaped bondage during the Revolutionary War, some fought with the colonial troops during the war and were thus rewarded with freedom, while others were simply fugitives who had made their way north.   In the northern cities, the former slaves were treated as near equals by people who believed slavery was truly an evil.  In short order, the fugitives realized they could disappear among their new-found friends, especially in areas settled by other free blacks.  (Bordewich, p.45)


Almost by accident, it was the Quakers who initially led the early abolitionist work in the City of Brotherly Love… Philadelphia.  How fitting!  Theirs was a clandestine activity based on their religious faith and a belief they were honoring God by assisting the slaves to freedom... while most of the rest of the nation believed it was criminal activity to harbor and assist a runaway slave, thus punishable by law. 

As a group, it was the Quakers who held to a higher standard of education amongst their own people, men and women alike, and this naturally extended to the blacks whom they helped rescue.  With education, the blacks proved they were quite as capable as the whites in every endeavor, a novel idea to many who otherwise felt they were an inferior race.

As a fairly new Quaker, Isaac Hopper joined Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Abolition Society in April 1796.  He was appointed to assist the city’s black poor in obtaining jobs and education for their children.  His contacts in both the black and white communities at large were crucial to the overall success of his work.  In 1801, he was given a more demanding job of navigating the legal system in assisting the victims of kidnappings, those being denied their liberty illegally, and those who were in the city illegally as runaway/fugitive slaves but were seeking refuge.  And thus began an earnest assistance to those fleeing the bonds of slavery.

In the early 19th century, Hopper and his friends managed to find safe homes and jobs for fugitives locally in Pennsylvania, or in parts of New England.  Hopper worked fearlessly, tirelessly, and surreptitiously to help untold hundreds flee the bonds of slavery, all while living under threats against himself and those who assisted him.  He, with other Quakers, and some Methodists and Baptists who joined their ranks, felt morally bound by their faith in God to do everything within their power to help these poor people… one by one.  It was this kind of cooperation that enabled the men in the Abolition Society and their non-member friends (including wives behind the scenes) to aid the fugitives as they were passed from one home to another until they reached a safe destination.  Along the way, they were fed, clothed, sheltered, protected, and assisted in assimilating into northern society as free people.

And so, in due course, the Quakers essentially became the feet of the abolitionist movement.  Without realizing they were creating a “railroad” of sorts, they set up a series of safe homes/havens along various routes.  In this way, escaped slaves could travel safely from the southern slave states into the northern/northeast free states, and often on into Canada to begin a new life. 


In the south, a group of abolitionist Quakers from Nantucket, a whaling port in Massachusetts, led the anti-slavery movement known as the North Carolina Yearly Meeting.  They met in the town of New Garden, N.C. and became instrumental in assisting slaves on their way north.  One young lad from this Quaker group, Levi Coffin, heard his father speak kindly to men in a “coffle” (i.e. gang of slaves chained together).  Retaining an understanding in his heart of the inequality and devastating effect on the men being led away from their families, this incident played a major role in young Levi’s life. 

By about 1808, the NCYM Quaker members began owning slaves in a trusteeship for the sole purpose of granting their freedom in assisting them northward.  Some of these Quakers removed to the border states, i.e. lands north of the Ohio River, taking their “slaves” with them.  Once in non-slave-owning territory, the trusteeship slaves were given their freedom or assisted in reaching better locations in the northeast or in Canada.  Three routes were typically used in this order of preference:

1) traveling “through the Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky…crossing the Ohio River at Cincinnati;”

2) crossing “the mountains through Flower Gap, and [continuing] via Lexington, Kentucky, to the Ohio;”

3) and “the Virginia route, [which] was initially rough and steep…until they reached the Kanawha River in what is now West Virginia, where they could transfer to flatboats for an easy voyage to the junction of the Ohio River at Gallipolis.”  (Bordewich, p.68)

The North Carolina Manumission Society formed in 1814 at the same Quaker town of New Garden.  In 1818, they combined efforts with the American Colonization Society.  Together, they sought to return the blacks to Africa and help them re-establish colonies there.  By the time the company had dissolved with the advent of civil war, less than 15,000 blacks had sailed to Liberia since the British haven efforts in Sierra Leone had been aborted.  But, it did not take long for word to get out, and slaves began to quietly seek the assistance of the Quakers in and around the New Garden area. 

As young Levi Coffin matured into adulthood, he and his brother, Vestal (and later his son Addison), began formulating plans to remove slaves through the hostile southern country to the safety of northern free states.  The Coffin family was prominent in the early beginnings of the southern “railroad,” with Levi being involved extensively after his brother’s death at age 34.  Levi is also considered the most successful man with his brave and fearless ability to assist slaves on their journey north.  His work was so effective, in fact, that slave hunters considered him “president” of the Underground Railroad.  (Bordewich, p. 254[e] Levi Coffin photo caption)


An incident in about 1817/1818 brought the abolition movement to a head when a free black, Benjamin Benson, was kidnapped in Delaware by a slave trader, John Thompson.  Benson was brought to the New Garden area in North Carolina and sold.  When another slave learned what had happened, he alerted Vestal Coffin who, in turn, notified the authorities back up in Delaware.  The state of Delaware, home to many Quakers, authorized Coffin and two other men to represent Benson in court.  When Thompson learned that he would be arrested for what he had done, he quickly sent Benson off to Georgia where he was again sold.  In court, Thompson claimed Benson did not exist and won his case.  Not to be deterred, Vestal Coffin and friends managed to prove Benson truly existed, had been captured as a free man by Thompson, and sold.  Under court order to bring Benson back, Thompson complied, at great personal cost, and Benson once again became a free man.  (Bordewich p.72)

With this and a similar simultaneous case, it became evident that there existed a high level of assistance for slaves... and word continued to spread.  It also appeared that the North Carolina Quakers were familiar with the efforts by their Philadelphia Friends in transporting slaves to freedom.  Yet, “no blueprint for the network that the Coffins and their associates created survives, no map showing routes of escape, no list of safe houses.”  (Bordewich, p.73) 

The work of the “underground railroad” was all done by word of mouth… knowing those along the way who were willing to assist the blacks to freedom in the north… and those willing to provide a safe haven, willing to harbor a slave despite the threat of law.  It took great courage to retain one’s wits and calmly outsmart the slave bounty hunters/traders for the journey northward was fraught with danger lurking at every turn.  But, the work also took a firm determination of will and a belief that what they were doing in these acts of civil disobedience was ordained by a higher power… that they were doing God’s will in helping to free the slaves.

The nation itself, however, became embroiled in a bitter dispute over new states and their right to own slaves or not.  In 1820, Congressional debate raged on both sides of the proverbial political aisle.  Sen. Nathaniel Macon from North Carolina insisted that if restrictions were imposed on slavery, “[it] could only lead to a national catastrophe.”  (Bordewich, p.80)  Henry Clay from Kentucky felt that “the spread of slavery into western territories would actually benefit the slaves themselves…reducing whites’ fear of free blacks…”  He also felt the institution of slavery would “fade away from natural causes.”  (Bordewich, p.81) 


Still, the overriding question remained whether Congress had “the power to restrict slavery when it admitted a new state to the Union.”  To compromise, Missouri became a state which allowed slave ownership.  The flip side of the compromise was that southern states grudgingly agreed to an exclusion of slavery in land north of what became known as the Mason-Dixon line as it extended westward.  Ultimately, the compromise angered men on both sides of the argument rather than appeasing anyone, and there the matter festered.  (Bordewich, pp.80-83)

From Boston in 1831, William Lloyd Garrison led the way with strong anti-slavery convictions in his first issue of “The Liberator,” America’s first abolitionist newspaper.  “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.  On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation… I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD.” (Bordewich, p.106-107) 

In August that same year of 1831, Nat Turner, a slave from Virginia, led a bloody revolt against whites as the assailants horrifically killed 60 men, women and children.  Turner was executed after his confession, while up to 200 additional slaves were killed in retaliation without proof of their involvement.  (Bordewich, p.105)  This event only led to further restrictions on the slaves in every way possible, making life often more unbearable for the slaves as a whole. 

The next year, 1832, Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society.  The New York City Anti-Slavery Society was established in 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society in December of the same year, with the New York Vigilance Committee forming in 1835.  The cause which Garrison and others so avidly promoted garnered not only American but now international support.


Just as the abolitionists began to speak out more fervently against the evil of slavery, so the “railroad” become more active.  Yet, blacks who reached the northern free states continued to live in fear that even those who were kind to them might, in reality, recapture them at any moment for bounty money.  And, more often than not, those men and women traveling north went without spouse and family – it was simply too difficult a journey to escape together.  After earning enough money, they attempted to purchase freedom for their loved ones, or hired someone to bring their loved one(s) safely north, albeit not always successfully.

As noted above, though there were no definitive routes north, there were typical avenues – with a different path for each person or group going north so as to avoid capture.  The slaves often had little to no knowledge of what to do, or how and where to go in order to obtain the freedom for which they pined.  They often heard “through the grapevine” of who to contact for assistance, but fear of recapture and “discipline” lay over their heads like a death pall.  Because of that fear, and the fear of never seeing their family again, many refused to escape their bondage even when offered the chance.

Most fugitives traveling alone had no direction except to follow the north star.  At times, their wait for clouds and bad weather to clear held the inherent risk of being recaptured.  One slave eventually made it north after traveling farther south, mistakenly thinking he was going north.  For each, the desire for freedom was so strong that they willingly took chances to flee, despite the very real risk and fear of capture.  At times, they relied on meeting someone willing to assist them, some kind soul who could direct them to the next person willing to help move them northward.

They traveled silently from one place to another, through rough terrain of forest, marshes, creeks and rivers, and into towns where professional slave hunters and informants lurked.  Whether alone or with a “conductor,” they carried very few possessions, wearing out their clothing and shoes (if they were lucky enough to have even one pair) from briars and simply walking, being fed, clothed and hid along the way by the kind souls at various stops on the line.

Gradually, the numbers of people willing to assist the fugitives grew over the decades as multiple routes with safe havens became available.  Each successful step on the journey took the wit and cunning of those willing to give of their time in offering respectful assistance to another human.  It also took ingenious ways to hide the fugitives and assist them from point A to point B to point C and so on until their destination was reached.  The fear of being found out and of being reported to authorities was overwhelming at times to most, if not all, participants on both sides.  For the conductor on the railroad, it might mean a steep fine or jail time, while for the slave it would mean punishment and the possibility of being sold into the “deep south,” far away from family and friends, or even death.

Even the abolitionists who assisted fugitives were at times beaten, stoned, egged, fined and served time behind bars for their work.  It was simply their absolute convictions of faith which enabled them to endure their own hardships in order to help another human being.  It was not easy being involved in this “openly clandestine” business to aide fugitive slaves.  That is, many people knew exactly who was involved in the conveyance of fugitives on the road to freedom.  At times, the slave hunters knew who was providing aide, keeping an eye on their activity, while those either on the sidelines or involved in transport knew who to direct fugitives to for assistance.  But, out of fear for their lives and those of the people they assisted, utmost secrecy was crucial when there came a knock at the door from a fugitive seeking help.


As we noted earlier, most of the early conductors on the Underground Railroad were Quakers, but their early numbers steadily grew to include Methodists, Presbyterians and many other faiths.  (Bordewich, p.139)   Both preachers and abolitionists spoke publicly despite threats against themselves as they made inroads into the hearts of Americans.  William Lloyd Garrison was one such man who influenced untold thousands of people with his abolition work, as did others who shared his sentiments.  Obviously, their stand was unpopular as the news media proclaimed them "fanatics, amalgamists, disorganizers, disturbers of the peace, and dangerous enemies of the country."  (Bordewich, p.144)  Riots during convention meetings and attempted murder of abolitionists were not uncommon.

From these abolition society meetings, there arose many men who embodied the best and richest of society including Lewis and Arthur Tappan of Manhattan, Gerrit Smith, Robert Purvis and James McCrummel, two free blacks who formed the Philadelphia Vigilance committee, "one of the most efficient underground operations in the country."  (Bordewich, p.144)  Women, like Lucretia Mott whose impassioned speech was a novelty to most men, began to express themselves publicly.  The poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and even Beriah Green, president of New York's Oneida Institute, the nation's first racially integrated college (Bordewich, p. 144) joined the ranks.  William Lloyd Garrison penned the "Declaration of Sentiments" which defined the principles of the abolitionist movement and those involved with the Underground Railroad until America’s civil war.  And yet, so many more were involved which this column simply cannot begin to enumerate.

But, there were also black men who reached the forefront in speaking against the cruelty of slavery.  One of them was a former slave himself, Frederick Bailey.  In 1838, he left behind his common-law wife, Anna, as he escaped from Baltimore to freedom in Philadelphia and then went on to New York City, two of the most important northern freedom cities.  Meeting with men who could assist him, help was obtained for Anna to travel north where they were reunited and married.  Encouraged to change his name, he became Frederick Johnson.  Then, bound for Newport, Rhode Island, he presented a letter of introduction to Nathan Johnson, a prominent black man who would next assist them.  Noting that Johnson was a very common surname among blacks in New Bedford, Massachusetts where they were to settle, Bailey again changed his name – to that of Frederick Douglass, destined to become one of “the most famous African American of his generation.”  (Bordewich, p. 181)   Douglass became a much sought-after speaker on the abolitionists’ circuit throughout America, also having the ear and admiration of President Abraham Lincoln.

Josiah Henson escaped the bonds of slavery with his family, removing to Canada where they could truly be free in every sense of the word as Canada refused to surrender former slaves to the United States.  In 1827, Secretary of State Henry Clay wrote the Canadian government seeking an agreement to return fugitive slaves.  Months later, the Canadian government determined “it is utterly impossible to agree to a stipulation for the surrender of fugitive slaves.”  (Petry, p.48)


Freedom for the blacks in the north was still often less than what white society enjoyed.  Henson was a born leader, a man who knew how to manage his affairs while assisting others.  Struggling to survive in a strange land, Henson worked hard and ultimately owned land in Colchester, Canada, all while observing what it required for black communities to prosper.  He, too, became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, assisting many slaves northward to freedom.  His life’s example was used by Harriet Beecher Stowe as “Uncle Tom” in the book which propelled her to fame and which did so much more to propel the abolitionist movement forward.

Another slave, a brave young mother, left her husband and children behind in the dark of night, carrying her young infant tightly in her arms.  It was the winter of 1838, and she left knowing that a slave trader was trying to buy her or her infant, separately.  Though fearful of dying in the cold, or breaking through the Ohio River ice and drowning, she knew she had to try.  Along with her infant, she carried a flat board.  As she crossed the river, she repeatedly broke through.  Pushing her baby up onto the ice, she climbed out with the use of the plank.  Slowly she crept across the ice by pushing the baby ahead of her and using the board to move herself along, pulling herself up on it when she fell through the ice.  Finally, reaching the northern shore, she collapsed, freezing cold and utterly spent, but on the free side of the river.

What she did not know was that a slave hunter had been watching her, and she was about to be captured.  But, as he approached her, the man’s heart inexplicably softened when he heard her baby’s soft cry.  Instead of capturing her for reward money, and returning her to meet certain punishment at the hands of her master, he unexpectedly told her, “Woman, you have won your freedom.” (Bordewich, p.215) 

On bringing her to the village, he pointed out a farmhouse in the distance, a haven of safety and rest, a home on the Underground Railroad.  Assisted by the Rankin family in fleeing onward into the arms of freedom, she became the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Eliza.”  Her treacherous crossing over the ice-covered Ohio River became “the most famous rendering of a fugitive’s escape ever written.”  (Bordewich, p.216)


Written in the Victorian era, and considered a romanticized version of actual events, Stowe’s 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly,” accomplished a tremendous feat.  It not only brought respect to the abolitionists and their moral outrage at slavery, but it shed favorable light on the secret operatives of the Underground Railroad.  On the other hand though, it greatly angered those in the pro-slavery camp.  Stowe’s very popular book prompted President Lincoln to remark when greeting her at the White House that she was “the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.”  (Bordewich, p.370)

But, knowledge of Stowe’s story left Harriet Tubman unimpressed.  Refusing to go with friends to see a play in Philadelphia based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Tubman stated, “I haint got no heart to go and see the sufferings of my people played out on de stage.  I’ve seen de real ting, and I don’t want to see it on no stage or in no teater.”  (Bordewich, p.373) 

Despite her husband’s threat to report her should she ever escape, Tubman (born ca.1821) left him behind in 1849.  She quietly fled during the middle of the night to the home of a white woman who had previously proffered help should she desire it.  From Dorchester County in eastern Maryland, she both walked alone and was taken 90 miles north into Pennsylvania with the kind assistance of many along the way.  She crossed into the land of freedom as the sun rose, remembering always that “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free.  There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”  (Petry, p.101)

Though of short physical stature, Tubman was a woman capable of hard physical labor, proud to swing an axe like a man, preferring outdoor work over women’s housework.  Having known much hardship as a slave, having been lent out in early childhood, having been whipped and beaten repeatedly, and having had her skull bashed in by a thrown keg meant for a fleeing man, Tubman knew how to survive.  And, ultimately, she gained great success on the stage of life in assisting her people to their freedom.

With an unassuming yet authoritative air about her, Tubman had the ability to pass virtually unnoticed through the towns of Southern slaveholders, hiding her identity, “stealing” away numerous slaves on the road to freedom.  But, that is not to say she didn’t face difficulties in helping slaves escape their bondage.  It was not an easy venture for any free black, even with proper papers, to maneuver around in slave territory without being apprehended.  Known to live in constant dependency on God during those times, Tubman is quoted as saying simply, “I tell de Lawd what I needs, an’ he provides.” /

When she brought out her brothers and some of their friends from Maryland, they stayed briefly in her parents’ barn where her father fed them.  Hesitant to see their mother for fear emotions would give them away (Tubman had not seen her mother in several years), they left quietly, walking along muddy roads in the rains, circuitously through the woods to get around towns, eventually arriving at the homes of northern abolitionists.  They arrived in Philadelphia and were given aid by her friend, William Still, of the Vigilance Committee.  Still put Tubman and her fugitives on a train to New York City where Sydney Howard Gay gave assistance, putting them on another train to Albany, then Rochester, and finally taking a boat across Lake Ontario to St. Catharines, Canada.  Canada – where so many fugitive slaves endeavored to establish a life in true freedom, often becoming wealthy in owning their own land and businesses. 

William Still, a free black and secretary for the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee (the former Vigilant Committee), kept meticulous records of fugitive slaves and their conductors.  Still published a book in 1872, “The Underground Railroad,” from his extensive trove of information on the fugitives and their experiences.  (Foner, p.226)  In turn, Still was in contact with men in New York City who, like Sydney Howard Gay, also kept detailed records of the fugitives they assisted.  The extant records left by such men are among the limited but solid evidentiary proof of those who traveled the elusive and secretive Underground Railroad.  Messages between offices or stops were disguised as to the real purpose, known only to those involved on the “railroad.”  One such example reported by a visiting abolitionist was Still’s telegram to Gay of “‘six parcels’ coming by the train.  And before I left the office, the ‘parcels’ came in, each on two legs.”  (Foner, p. 164)

Tubman was called “Moses” by her people (Foner, p.191), “General” by John Brown (Bordewich, p.418) of Harper’s Ferry fame, and “Captain” by Sydney Howard Gay in New York City when he documented those whom she brought north to his office.  Her bold courage and ability to successfully travel unnoticed among the “enemy” was reportedly unparalleled among “conductors” on the “railroad.”

By the time the Civil War began, Tubman had traveled 13 times into the South since she escaped bondage in 1849.  She is believed to have brought out at least 70 fugitives, among them her siblings and parents, possibly indirectly assisting an additional 50 in leaving on their own.  (Bordewich, p.351; Foner, p.190)  Supposedly, over 300 slaves were brought north on 19 trips by Tubman as claimed by her first biographer, Sarah Bradford; but, these figures are believed to be greatly inflated based on contemporary study of known records.  (Bordewich, p.351)

With the advent of civil war, Tubman became restless, feeling the need to do more for her people.  She then became a nurse, cook and spy for the Union in South Carolina, becoming “the first woman in American history to lead a detachment of troops in battle.”  (Bordewich, p.431, Foner, p.225) 


The abolitionist issues in Stowe’s book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” also brought legitimacy to the women’s rights’ movement which sprang to life in the 1840s and 1850s.  Men who championed their tenets nationally included Horace Mann, Rev. Harry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Gerrit Smith (the cousin of Elizabeth Cady).  Women whose beliefs embodied not only the values of abolition but women’s rights included Lucretia Mott, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Abby Kelley Foster, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Elizabeth Oaks Smith, Paulina Wright Davis, Lucy Stone, Antoinette Brown, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman.  These are just a few of the many whose belief in equality for the blacks seemed to naturally extend into rights for women who were unable to legally own property or to vote.  But, even the cause of women’s rights created division within the nation just as the abolitionists’ work had done.

And yet, these turbulent times were about to become even more turbulent.  During the 1850s, issues arose about the need of better funding for the work of the abolitionists and the Underground Railroad.  Increased funding was sorely needed to help meet needs of slaves who fled northward to freedom, and to assist them once they were free.  Disputes also erupted as to whether enough was being done to rid the nation of slavery as a whole.  And dissension even arose amongst the white and black abolitionists during this period.  Blacks felt the whites were not doing “enough to combat racial prejudice,” while the whites “were appalled by the controversy.”  (Foner, pp.182-183) 

Many white abolitionists felt they had willingly placed their lives, their family, and their property on the line to follow their heart’s leading to assist the slaves, asking nothing or little in return.  To be vilified as not doing enough to help the plight of the black man was abhorrent to them.  Yet, it was part of an attitude which strained and tore apart friendships between white and black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass in Rochester, NY and Sydney Howard Gay of New York City.  This was evidenced by neither man giving credit to the other in their documentation regarding the other’s work with fugitives, including those who had come to Gay and were then forwarded to Douglass on the “’route to freedom’ via Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Syracuse, and Rochester.”  (Foner, p. 182)

To compound these issues troubling the nation in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted as part of a compromise with the South.  Instead of healing the animosity between the North and South, the law created a wider chasm.  In effect, if you were convicted of assisting or harboring slaves, the law came down hard with oppressive fines and/or imprisonment.  But, on the other hand, if you were the runaway slave, you could be shot upon capture, whipped or sold into the deep South and a life of hard physical labor.  With injustices evident to all within the legal system, this law began turning the tide in favor of abolition as more and more northerners realized that, if the slaves truly were being treated well, they would not be fleeing in droves.  (Petry p.114)

Then, in January 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed each western territory to vote on the legality of owning slaves.  With slavery expanding in the west, men in free states felt they could not compete in business against slave labor.  Pro and con passions ignited in the western states, often erupting in severe violence amongst settlers of the frontier.


In the midst of these contentious arguments, the Underground Railroad continued to operate with even more speed and efficiency than before, and, at times, even more openly.  Fugitives went north alone, in pairs, in groups, by foot, on horse, with or without a carriage, by train, by boat – with or without a conductor, and with or without a disguise.  They hid in the crawl space underneath houses, hid in tiny rooms, and hid in the woods and swamps until help could arrive to safely conduct them north.  During the financial Panic of 1857, James Miller McKim of the Philadelphia underground office was reported to say, “Other railroads are in a declining condition and have stopped their semiannual dividends, but the Underground has never done such a flourishing business.”  (Foner, p.212)  At about the same time, a Richmond, Virginia newspaper asked, “Is there no way to break up this ‘railroad?’”  (Foner, p. 215)

After John Brown’s failed insurrection attempt at Harper’s Ferry in September 1859, President Buchanan blithely urged all Americans to “cultivate…feelings of mutual forbearance and good will toward each other” as he seemingly ignored the deepening rift between the North and the South.  (Bordewich, p.427)

Before elections in the fall of 1860, debate upon debate was held as the option of state secession was also discussed.  Southern newspapers began warning that if Lincoln were elected president, they expected the Fugitive Slave Act would not be followed, and the Charleston “Mercury” opined in October that “the underground railroad would operate ‘over-ground.’” (Foner, p.218)  

Then, to the pleasant surprise of some and the disgust of others, Abraham Lincoln was elected president on November 6, 1860.  Though Lincoln intended to hold the country together as one nation, he would not end slavery nor was he inclined to end the Fugitive Slave Law.  He did, however, wish to amend the law so that no free black could ever be forced into slavery. 

With feelings running high, Southern states began to secede from the Union after South Carolina was the first to leave on December 20th.  Together, they formed the new Confederate States of America.  Shortly thereafter, federal troops arrived at Fort Sumter in the bay outside Charleston, S.C. to defend federal property.  With ongoing dispute between the Union and the Confederacy over ownership of Ft. Sumter, President Lincoln faced a dilemma in how to respond.  After Lincoln ordered aid sent to the federal troops at Ft. Sumter, the Confederate Army opened fire on the fort early in the morning of April 12, 1861.  And so began the American Civil War…

In Washington, Congress claimed in July 1861 that the war’s intent was in preserving the Constitution, not “overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions” of the states.  (Bordewich, p.430)  It may have been Congressional intent not to disturb the institution of slavery; but, in actuality, the issues of war were deeply entangled within the secession states regarding the maintaining and furthering of the bonds of slavery for the South’s financial prosperity.

Later that year, however, a turning point arose when Gen. Benjamin Butler at Fortress Monroe in Virginia (an attorney in New York before the war began) refused to return fugitive slaves to a “foreign nation,” as the Confederacy was now considered.  The federal government’s war department then conveyed a mixed signal.  “Butler was ordered not to deliberately interfere with the ‘servants’ of peaceful citizens, but [he was] permitted to allow ‘contraband’ slaves into his lines and put them to work.”  (Bordewich, p.430)   This order effectively put the U.S. government right in line with the Underground Railroad’s mission.


Thus, with war, came an accelerated flow of fugitive slaves by the thousands from the south as they crossed openly into northern free states.  President Lincoln let it be known that those who had crossed that line by coming to the U.S. Army for refuge were now entirely free.  Many former slaves who had settled in Canada also began returning to the U.S., some joining the Northern Army with others simply looking for work.   (Foner, p.223) 

Indeed, with the advent of civil war, the New York City abolitionist newspaper, “Principia,” stated that “because of wartime prosperity, all the railroads in the North were ‘doing a flourishing business’ except one – the underground railroad [which] ‘now does scarcely any business at all...’”  (Foner, p.224)

After so many sacrifices were made to escape the bonds of slavery, and with the nation’s first civil war, clarity was ultimately expressed when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.  Freeing all slaves (except in Maryland and Kentucky which had not seceded), his proclamation essentially proved that the work of the Underground Railroad was done.  The abolitionists had accomplished what they’d set out to do.  They had gained freedom for all enslaved African Americans, the fulfillment of the dreams of thousands upon thousands when their work began inauspiciously so many decades ago.

At President Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, he stated, “…These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest.  All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.  To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war… It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged… With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” 

Afterward, Lincoln asked Frederick Douglass what he thought of his speech.  Douglass replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”   (“Absence of Malice,” Adapted from “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech:  The Second Inaugural,” by Ronald C. White, Jr., Smithsonian, April 2002, p.119)

Ultimately, all former slaves received their full legal freedom with passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in April 1870.  They could now appreciate their hard-won liberty; and yet, they continued to struggle for their rights over the next century, culminating with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Harriet Tubman, former slave, a free and fearless woman, died March 10, 1913 in her hometown of Auburn, New York.  She was essentially the last survivor of an unprecedented era, famed conductor on the Underground Railroad, having lived her life to help others attain the very freedom she had gained.

Fittingly, the town of Auburn erected a monument to the auspicious career of this amazing woman:  “In memory of Harriet Tubman.  Born a slave in Maryland about 1821.  Died in Auburn, N.Y., March 10th, 1821.  Called the Moses of her People, During the Civil War.  With rare courage she led over three hundred negroes up from slavery to freedom, and rendered invaluable service as nurse and spy.  With implicit trust in God she braved every danger and overcame every obstacle.  Withal she possessed extraordinary foresight and judgment so that she truthfully said “On my underground railroad I nebber run my train off de track an’ I nebber los’ a passenger.”  (Petry p.241-242)  [As noted above, the figure of 300 blacks is considered an exaggeration.  lar]


Locally, Tioga County, New York can lay claim to involvement in the Underground Railroad.  But, as historian, Ed Nizalowski, noted online, “…as is the case in so many other parts of the country, actual documentation and credible evidence for involvement can be very difficult to verify.”

According to Nizalowski, Hammon Phinney, of the Baptist Church in Owego, NY, was a strong leader among local abolitionists.  Meetings in Owego, as elsewhere, throughout the 1830s and 1840s were rife  with “wild confusion and violence.”  Frederick Douglas was forced to cancel speaking engagements “for fear of his physical safety” in 1840, though he did return in 1857, and Garret/Gerrit Smith was hit with eggs.

Nizalowski’s research uncovered four homes on Front Street in Owego which are known to have been involved in the Underground Railroad – Nos. 100, 294, 313, and 351.  “At 294 Front Street, a building once owned by the Eagles Club, a brick lined tunnel had been found running along the north wall.”  He also stated that No. 351 Main Street “has the best evidence for being a station for fugitive slaves.”  It was owned previously by Judge Farrington, “a prominent Abolitionist,” and by Hammon Phinney, with the house having “a hidden space in the cellar.”  Nizalowski avers that Phinney’s work as a stationmaster was learned primarily when the property was sold.  “In 1867 when the Hastings family bought the property from Frederick Phinney, Hammon's son, the new owners were told that the home had served as a station for fugitive slaves.  This story was passed on for over 100 years.  The best evidence for Hammon being a stationmaster comes from his obituary that appeared on March 3, 1898 where it also states that his home served as a station.  This is one of the few written references from the 19th century identifying a specific individual.”

There were Tioga County homes in Newark Valley, Berkshire and Richford which may well have been involved in the Underground Railroad as Nizalowski pointed out.  Often, local history is only gained through stories passed down within families which attest to involvement in the underground.  But, there was definitely assistance and support for abolition work throughout the county, both financially and physically.  Nizalowski’s report at this website is well worth the read:


Elmira in Chemung County, New York had slaves prior to 1827, the year slavery legally ended in New York State.  This website notes that the 1820 federal census shows two Elmira businessmen owned a total of 13 slaves, while the 1830 census notes there were about 300 “free colored people.” With some local churches voicing their anti- slavery sentiments in 1840, former slaves began arriving via the Underground Railroad, finding Elmira to be a safe haven. 

A section of Elmira, called “Slabtown,” was built up by about 1850, a reputable settlement, so named because of the slab wood used to build their homes.  It was not a slum, but located in the center of Elmira, “bounded north by the Lackawanna Railroad, east by Lake Street, south by Clinton and west by the Chemung Canal - later old State Street.” From this community, free blacks stepped forth into numerous occupations, their children able to obtain a quality education with successful lives of their own.

The John W. Jones Museum is being established in Elmira and commemorates a fugitive slave who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad.  “Jones was born a slave June 21, 1827 on a plantation in Leesburg, VA.”  On June 3, 1844, Jones, age 27, came north with his brothers, George and Charles, and two other men.  They walked from Virginia to Elmira where his mother had told him “there is no slavery.”  Jones, a sexton for the Elmira First Baptist Church, owned property at the corner of Davis Street and Woodlawn Avenue in Elmira.  His house is being restored as a museum to preserve his legacy.

Barbara S. Ramsdell wrote in 2002 for The Jones Museum website, quoting Arch Merrill’s book, “The Underground, Freedom’s Road, and Other Upstate Tales.”  “Jones quietly took command of the Underground in Elmira, a gateway between the South and the North.  It became the principal station on the ‘railroad’ between Philadelphia and the Canadian border.  Jones worked closely with William Still, the chief Underground agent in Philadelphia, who forwarded parties of from six to 10 fugitives at a time to Elmira...  The station master concealed as many as 30 slaves at one time in his home, exactly where he never told.  He carried on his operations so secretly that only the inner circle of abolitionists knew that in a decade he dispatched nearly 800 slaves to Canada.”


As I discovered while researching and reading various books and websites noted below, the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad are also intertwined with the beginnings of the Women’s Rights Movement.  It was a time in history when many good church people were not inclined to confront the evils of slavery; it was just the normal way of life, or so they believed.  And the place of women was in the home or in a limited number of occupations, often not being given as good an education as their brothers.  It was an era when those opposed to owning another human clashed definitively with those opposed to slavery’s demise.  Were it not for the ardent religious beliefs and persistence of the abolitionists, men and women, white and black, who carried on their work despite great opposition, slavery might have lasted far longer in this nation than it actually did.


 NEXT:  The Old Steam Trains



*Abide With Me, A Photographic Journey Through Great British Hymns, by John H. Parker, New Leaf Press, Green Forest, AR, 2009.

*Bound for Canaan, The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement, by Fergus M. Bordewich, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2005.

*Gateway to Freedom, by Eric Foner, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2015.

*Harriet Tubman, Conductor on the Underground Railroad, by Ann Petry, Harper Trophy of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York, NY, 1955.

*The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto, Vintage Books Edition, New York, NY, 2005.








*“Absence of Malice” (Adapted from “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech:  The Second Inaugural” by Ronald C. White, Jr.) in Smithsonian, April 2002, p.119.

*The Underground Railroad in Tioga County, A Piece of History With Many Gaps to Fill, By Ed Nizalowski -

*Elmira, Chemung County -

* John W. Jones Museum, Elmira, NY - “Our purpose is to preserve… related artifacts in memory of his role and the roles of others in the Southern Tier involved in the Underground Railroad and the American Civil War.”


Linda Roorda

Johnny Appleseed

I’m sure we’ve all heard of Johnny Appleseed and those apple seeds he planted “everywhere.”  The 1948 Disney movie, “Melody Time,” and their 2002 version, “American Legends,” both include a short story about him with a simple upbeat song:  “The Lord is good to me, And so I thank the Lord, For giving me the things I need, The sun and rain and an apple seed, Yes, He’s been good to me…” 


But who was this legendary man?  Not many Americans know the real story behind the myths perpetuated in film, song and verse.  And, since I didn’t know much more about Johnny Appleseed other than the fact that he went around planting apple seeds, I thought it was about time I did a little research. 


John (not Jonathan, his youngest half-brother’s name, as some websites call him) Chapman was born September 26, 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts.  But, he died far from his birth home, an apparent pauper, near Fort Wayne, Indiana in mid-March 1845.  He may have died the 11th, or the 18th, or was it the 17th?  Accounts vary, rather indicative of his life, but his obituary was dated March 22, 1845 in the “Fort Wayne Sentinel” of Fort Wayne, Ohio. 


He was a simple man, walking virtually everywhere in bare feet, even in inclement weather, wearing baggy pantaloons and a coffee sack from which he’d cut holes for his head and arms.  He often wore one or more hats on his head, including a cooking pot with a handle, and carried his belongings in a satchel on his back. 


Then, one dreary evening when the precipitation coming down was a bitter cold mixture of rain and snow, he appeared at the door of the William Worth home, friends with whom he’d stayed before.  After satisfying his hunger, he shared his usual news “right fresh from heaven” with the family (Means, p.1) –  the truths within the Bible as seen through his eyes and those in the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg as was his favorite past time.  He was a faithful disciple of Swedenborg’s religious philosophy, carrying the church’s books and pamphlets with him and eagerly expounding upon his favorite issues to anyone available to listen, for this was “…in many ways, the driving force of his life.”  (Means, p.6) 


Chapman apparently awoke the next morning with a fever from an infection which seems to have settled in his lungs.  He died within days, or was it just hours, of what was then called the “winter plague” which could have been anything from pneumonia to influenza.  And, apparently he died with his face the picture of serenity as the Worth family and their physician later pointed out.  (Means, p. 2) 


Chapman was a simple and gentle man, not one given to drunkenness or fighting.  He was very much at home in the wilderness, preferring the untamed wild country to the inside of a cabin.  But, at times he did appreciate the hearth of those who welcomed him inside their home - that is, when he chose to enter.  Interestingly, he was accepted by virtually everyone with whom he came in contact despite his odd and uncouth appearance - from the Native Americans to the domesticated early settlers and the wilderness frontiersmen.  He was respected as an odd eccentric, a larger-than-life character wherever he went.  He had an uncanny ability to be “here one minute, gone the next.”  (Means, p. 3) 


The famed Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, born and raised in Lancaster, Ohio, may have known Chapman, or perhaps just knew of him, as Chapman passed through the area while Sherman was still in his teens.  After Chapman’s death, Sherman is purported to have said, “Johnny Appleseed’s name will never be forgotten… We will keep his memory green, and future generations of boys and girls will love him as we, who knew him, have learned to love him.”  (Means, p. 4) 


Born in 1774 as above, Chapman was the second child of Nathaniel and Elizabeth (Simons) Chapman.  His father was a member of the Minutemen Militia and fought at Bunker Hill.  Both families have ties to the very early New England settlers, with descendants of Chapman’s mother’s extended Simonds/Simons family known to include the George Bush family. 


While Nathaniel Chapman was off fighting the war for independence that summer of 1776, his wife gave birth to their third son, Nathaniel, on June 26.  On July 16, however, Elizabeth succumbed to an illness already affecting her as she had written in a letter to her husband earlier that month.  Barely two weeks after her death, her tiny infant son also died.  There must have been intense heartbreak felt by the two young siblings left behind.  With their father at war, it has been presumed their mother’s family took them in.


With very little documentation of their early childhood, we only know that little Johnny and his older sister, Elizabeth, are next found with their father and step-mother in Longmeadow, south of Springfield, Massachusetts by about 1781.  Into a very small house, about 400 square feet, Nathaniel Sr. moved with his new wife, Lucy.  In time, ten more children joined the family.  The assumption can only be that of a home in utter chaos and squalor as the older children helped to care for the newer infants.  From this noise and chaos, it appears John Chapman escaped with his half-brother, another boy named Nathaniel, Jr.


Again, though we know very little of Chapman’s growing up years, he and Nathaniel Jr. are found about 15 years later (about 1796) in far western Pennsylvania.  The western frontier was just beginning to open up with wilderness land ready for settlement by Revolutionary War veterans.  How fortuitous when, in 1792, the Ohio Company of Associates (actually formed in Massachusetts, among other companies with land deals) began to offer one hundred acres of land free to anyone desiring to settle the “Donation Tract.”  This land encompassed about one hundred thousand acres of wilderness beyond Ohio’s first white settlement in Marietta, used to help create a buffer zone between the white settlers and the warring Native Americans.  There was one catch, however, to obtaining this free land:  you had just three years in which to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees as proof of your intention to settle the land.  (Means, p.8-9)


Chapman, with his uncanny ability to know where frontier settlements were likely to spring up, would trek into the wilderness, often along fertile river bottoms, stake out his claim and clear several acres to plant the apple seeds he had obtained from cider mills.  He usually surrounded his plantings with a brush fence, though that did not always keep the small seedlings from being destroyed by critters and river flooding.  In a few years, a small apple orchard would be waiting the arrival of settlers.  However, he did not profit much from property he sold.  Quite often, he simply used up whatever profits he’d made to buy and care for abused horses he saw on his travels.  He also had a habit of just giving away seeds or young trees to those who couldn’t afford to pay much, if anything, for them.  (Means, p.9)


Chapman’s eccentricities abound, promoting a mythical aspect to his life story.  Supposedly, he had been kicked in the head by a horse, perhaps in his twenties, suffering a skull fracture that required he be trepanned – that is, he had a portion of skull bone removed to alleviate pressure on his brain from internal hemorrhaging.  Some have contended there might be validity to this story to explain some of Chapman’s oddities.  Again, even this accident cannot be proven beyond that which W. M. Glines of Marietta, Ohio claimed.  (Means, p.13)


And so, into Pennsylvania, John (23 years) and Nathaniel (about 16) traveled – whether by foot, by horse, or by canoe no one knows for certain.  Nor can various authors’ claims of various routes be proven beyond doubt.  Regardless of how they arrived, John and Nathaniel planted apple seeds in the ground which they’d obtained in apple mash at cider mills; their intent was to plant seeds to prove their land throughout the wilderness.


Their first plantings were made in what later became Warren County of northwest Pennsylvania during 1796 to 1799.  Proof of their travels here is recorded in various journals and records at trading posts along the Allegheny River between Warren and Franklin.  At some point before the turn of the new 19th century, John and his half-brother Nathaniel parted ways for reasons unclear to historians.  John Chapman is recorded in various land deals, buying and leasing, signing promissory notes to family members, and selling land and apple seedlings all through the early part of the 19th century. 


It should also be noted that, by planting apple seeds, Chapman’s trees would not grow fruit true to the parent apple.  Unless limbs are grafted onto sturdy root stock, apple seeds will revert to growing into one of thousands of varieties from their unique genetic coding, making apple tree propagation by seed totally unreliable.  Among logical explanations for Chapman’s planting of apple seeds for fruit trees have been his desire to quickly establish ownership of the land his seeds were planted upon, knowing that whatever type of apple was produced would simply be pressed into cider.  Notably, this beverage was consumed more often as hard cider at a time when liquor, hard cider and wine were used in large quantities by adults and children alike.  Thus, Chapman’s apple trees would be a welcome addition to any homestead on the frontier.  (Means, p.97)


Another important part of Chapman’s mystique was his religious devotion to Swedenborgianism and the so-called New Church founded in 1787 in Britain after Swedenborg’s death.  In fact, after visiting Ohio settlements in1801, Chapman became a convert and devoted disciple, leaving literature for settlers, often announcing himself with the words, “Here is news right fresh from heaven for you.”  (Means, p.121)  Armed with his own philosophy of not harming anything or anyone, plant, animal or human, Chapman was ready to share his religious beliefs with anyone who would listen… an avid missionary, as noted by the New Church.


Briefly, Swedenborgianism was founded by the Swedish scientist and philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).  In 1768, Swedenborg was tried for heresy.  In 1770, he and his followers were ordered to cease their teachings.  Swedenborg claimed to have psychic gifts, saw visions, and believed he was given special revelations directly from God.  He imputed his own philosophy into the divinely inspired words of Scripture to propagate his own beliefs.  Swedenborg also denied the triune character of God, believed that Christ was born with inherent evil from His mother, denied the personality of Satan, denied that Christ’s death was a substitution or atonement for our sin, and denied that Christ arose from the dead.  (Sanders, p.167)  Thus, he was in opposition to the doctrinal tenets which are the substantive foundational components of the Christian faith.


Moving over into Ohio not long after the turn of the 19th century, Chapman is found planting his apple seeds from Steubenville and Wellsburg near the eastern border of Pennsylvania to Dexter City north of the Ohio River, Marietta on the Muskingum River to Newark on the Licking River.  He purchased or leased land in several northern counties as well, including Knox, Richland and Ashland.  Later, he also covered ground in Indiana.


Chapman roamed far and wide in wilderness territory, always with an eye for a good place to put his seeds in the ground, having that keen ability to discern where new settlements were most likely to spring up.  In early September 1812, he began to merge into myth during a period of hostile Indian attacks with counter-attacks by the white settlers.  Chapman apparently ran 26 miles each way, in bare feet, from house to house in the middle of the night through the wilderness to yell out a warning to settlers that the Indians were on the warpath.  He, more than anyone else, knew the trails like the backs of his hands from his own meanderings and plantings.  With this singular feat, he alerted settlers of an impending attack by the Indians; though the Indians lay low for a brief period, they eventually overtook the settlers in a deadly surprise attack.


Ohio was then a wilderness fraught with an overabundance of wild animals to be on the lookout for, along with murders and scalpings by Indians in retaliation for various events by the whites as they saw the loss of their territory.  It was also a time of hard, back-breaking physical labor for settlers to get their acreage up to par in order to earn a living from the land.  In this lifestyle, men and women both lived, on average, only to about age 35, though occasionally much longer.  And in this wilderness, Chapman lived as a modern, unkempt “John the Baptist.”  He was dressed in assorted rags, with long and scraggly hair and beard, with not exactly a pleasant aroma about him, and with dark eyes that seemed to sparkle and glow in the excitement or passion of his conversations.  In the wild, he typically ate “honey, berries, fruit, some cornmeal for mush, [and] milk whenever it was available.”  (Means, p.168) 


He was seen to walk barefoot in snow and on ice; he stuck pins and needles into his feet without flinching.  In fact, the mid-19th century poet, novelist, and Ohio native, Rosella Rice, wrote that neither she nor her childhood friends made “fun of the man [or had] sport at his expense… No matter how oddly he was dressed or how funny he looked, we children never laughed at him, because our parents all loved and revered him as a good old man, a friend, and a benefactor.”  (Means, pp. 176-177)


In 1805, Chapman’s father and step-mother moved with several of their younger children from Longmeadow, Massachusetts to Duck Creek on the Muskingum River near Marietta, Ohio.  If they had hoped for it, the welcome mat was not put out by their “long lost” son.  Chapman’s father died only two years after arriving, but there had not been the usual happy family visits one would have expected between father and son.  Instead, Chapman appears to have continued to keep his distance from his family except on rare occasions.  Many thoughts fuel the speculation as to why, including the fact he had signed two promissory notes to family members without any documentation as to whether he paid his debt off or not.  Perhaps he and his step-family did not get along.  No one knows for sure why he kept his distance from them.  Let it be said, however, that being with his family wasn’t anathema to him; rather, his on-the-move personality simply didn’t fit to make him into someone he was not, as in someone who would stay on the homestead, tending to the fields, animals and family. 


In his later life, Chapman’s work of planting both apple seeds and the New Church’s “fresh news” was considered to be that of an “extraordinary missionary…” by the Swedenborg church hierarchy.  “Having no family, and inured to hardships of every kind, his operations are unceasing.  He is now employed in traversing the district between Detroit and the closer settlements of Ohio…”  (Means, p.192)  In an 1821 letter regarding Chapman’s desire to trade land for religious books of the faith, something the church could not do, a Daniel Thunn called him “the Appleseed man…”  A Reverend Holly wrote in a letter dated November 18, 1822 that Chapman was a man in Ohio “…they call…John Appleseed out there…”  This is considered the first written record of the name given to an eccentric man who gradually evolved into the myth we call Johnny Appleseed.  (Means, pp.192-193)


As elusive and eccentric as he was in his lifetime, so he was in death.  While the actual circumstances and date surrounding his death are somewhat sketchy, it comes as no surprise that his actual burial plot is also now unknown.  Several witnesses stepped forward and claimed they knew where he was buried, including a self-proclaimed grandson of his half-brother Andrew - until it was determined John Chapman did not have a half-brother by that name.  However, it wasn’t until 1916 that the Indiana Horticultural Society chose an area at the top of a grassy knoll to forever be known as Chapman’s burial site.  Here, in Fort Wayne, an iron fence was erected with a plaque that reads as simple as the man was:

John Chapman

Johnny Appleseed

Died 1845


Near Dexter City, Ohio is another monument.  It stands seven feet tall, and is built with stones brought from every state in the nation.  This plaque reads:

“In Memory of John Chapman,

Famous ‘Johnny Appleseed…’

Without a Hope of Recompense,

Without a Thought of Pride,

John Chapman Planted Apple Trees,

And Preached, and Lived, and Died.”

(Means, p.227)


After his death, his estate was appraised with salable assets including one gray mare, 2000 apple trees in Jay County, 15,000 apple trees in Allen County, and multiple parcels of land.  With the sale of all he had to show for his life, Chapman’s estate was valued at $409 (about $9,300 in 2011), not exactly pittance.  However, every cent of it was eaten up by back taxes along with other unpaid bills owed to family and friends.  Rather symbolic of how Chapman lived his life… with little true income or money in his pocket, living off the land and largesse of friends and strangers, nothing ostentatious about him.


It is also interesting to note that Howard Means (author of Johnny Appleseed:  The Man, the Myth, the American Story) was able to trace several plots of land on which Chapman had established orchards, but which have now become part and parcel of very modern cities, minus the orchards, of course.


Many stories of Chapman/Appleseed have been proven false by Means’ extensive research as he ferreted out the details behind the stories.  Various contemporaneous writings have also set forth romanticized versions of Chapman’s life which were then carried on into the 20th century, perpetuating the myths about the man.


In attempting to explain an element of Chapman’s eccentricity, Means recalled that he had once worked with a psychiatric response team in Washington, D.C.  Here, he found legally insane people often dressed in odd rags and tattered clothing and who smelled terrible – as eyewitnesses claimed of Chapman.  Means found it interesting that the eyes of many seemed to glow as they talked, just as it was said Chapman’s did.  These people clearly heard voices in their heads, often with acting-out behavior in response to the voices.  Chapman also told his listeners he was given revelations directly from God.  Means feels that Chapman meets the modern definition of insanity and shared “the old adage [that] if you talk to God, it’s prayer.  If God talks to you, it’s schizophrenia.”  (Means, p.274)   Whether Chapman/Appleseed was schizophrenic or otherwise insane is not mine to determine, but merely to pass along as explanation.


This was not the direction I expected Johnny Appleseed’s story to take.  However we look at the life of Johnny Appleseed (aka John Chapman), he was a man who respected everyone he met, who harmed no one, not even a mosquito (putting out at least one fire rather than cause the death of more insects, per one eyewitness).  He was an eccentric man who has loomed larger than life, yet a man about whom we have known very little… with often that little bit being erroneous.


Among other authors who have worked at fleshing out the myths and stories behind the elusive Chapman/Appleseed, Means has done a remarkable job to give us the clearest picture possible of John Chapman’s life.  While pointing out what is merely conjecture versus documented fact, to prove or disprove various and sundry reports, the colored stories and facts of Chapman’s life come alive.  And therein we discover the enigma of one for whom truth has evolved into romanticized myths regarding a simple man we’ve all admired… Johnny Appleseed.


NEXT:  Underground Railroad



Johnny Appleseed:  The Man, the Myth, the American Story, Howard Means, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2011.

Cults & Isms, Ancient and Modern, formerly issued as Heresies Ancient and Modern, by J. Oswald Sanders, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1948; Revised and Enlarged, 1962.


Linda Roorda

On a hill looking south over Owego stands a white marble obelisk, visible from across the river when the leaves are down.  Its prominence denotes the Evergreen Cemetery, and specifically marks the grave of a young Mohawk Indian maiden.  The site chosen for her memorial displays a stunningly beautiful panorama of the town below as the Susquehanna River winds its way through the midst of what was once thick virgin forest.  And it’s not too difficult to imagine the Native Americans who once lived and traveled this waterway through the beautiful and fertile land.

The elegant 17-foot tall monument was erected by private donations from the good people of Owego and other cities after the young woman’s death.  Her epitaph reads:  “In memory of Sa-Sa-Na Loft, an Indian Maiden of Mohawk-Woods, Canada West, who lost her life in the Railroad Disaster at Deposit, N.Y., February 18, 1852, Aged 21 years.”  [Searles, p.29]

A carved wild rose with a broken stem and missing leaf is on the back of the monument.  Facing west are the words, “By birth a daughter of the forest, By adoption a child of God.”  Sa-Sa-Na is buried at the foot of this elegant monument, facing the sunrise to the east.  [Searles, p.29]

Several websites about Sa-Sa-Na include the words from a poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.”  This poem, with its origins in dispute, was confirmed in 1998 by Abigail Van Buren to have been written by Mary Elizabeth Frye in 1932:  "Do not stand by my grave and cry... I am not there, I did not die." 

Many are the visitors who have reported hearing a voice softly singing while they sit upon a bench in front of the wrought-iron fence which surrounds and protects her gravesite.  If the singing be nothing more than leaves gently swaying in the breeze, the ambience denotes a quiet and peaceful setting.

Sa-Sa-Na (Indian equivalent of the English Susannah) Loft was a direct descendant of Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), the Mohawk chief who had caused much fear and destruction during the Revolutionary War.  With the colonists’ revolt against the British Crown, most of the Iroquois nation felt their alliance with Britain was key to stemming the tide of colonists who were taking more and more of their ancestral lands.  Maintaining his ties to the Crown, Brant (commissioned a Colonel) led numerous attacks on various communities within New York. 

When the war for independence began, many of the Iroquois nation in the Mohawk Valley region of New York removed to what was called “The Mohawk Woods” in the township of Thayendanegea/Tyendinaga on Canada’s Salmon River.  The Loft family, living near Canajoharie, was among those who fled the Mohawk Valley for the safety of Canada.  [Searles, p.8-9] 

After Britain’s loss to the new American nation, more Iroquois resettled on Canadian soil given to them by the Crown (as did white Loyalists from within New York state).  On May 22, 1784, twenty canoes holding fifteen Indian families under Capt. John Deserontyon landed on the shore of the Bay of Quinte for their land reserve of 92,000 acres.  The township of Tyendinaga (i.e. Thayandanegea, Joseph Brant’s Mohawk name) is west of Kingston in Hastings County; more specifically, it is west of Deseronto and east of Belleville along the Salmon River on the northeastern end of Lake Ontario.  Others followed Joseph Brant to what became known as Brant’s Ford on the Grand River, now Brantford, Ontario, Canada.  This community is about 25-30 miles west of Hamilton and Burlington, both of which are situated on the far western shores of Lake Ontario. 

A venerable warrior and revered chief of his people, Joseph Brant was born somewhere along the Ohio River in 1742.  His father died when he was still an infant, while his widowed mother, Owandah, raised her family with, presumably, assistance from their tribe in colonial New York.  Mary/Molly Brant, Joseph's older sister, became the common-law wife of Sir William Johnson.  As the British Superintendant of Indian Affairs, Johnson played a major role in supporting the Crown during the late 18th century in the province of New York.  He was also an instrumental force in helping educate the illiterate Brant.  At age 14, Brant left home to become a student at Moor’s Indian Charity School in Connecticut (the forerunner of Dartmouth College) under Dr. Eleazer Wheelock.  Returning home with an education, Brant attained new roles in leadership of the Iroquois and as the head of his own family.  After the death of his first two wives, Peggy/Margaret and Susannah, he married Catherine Croghan in 1780 with whom he raised a family of seven children.



With his natural attributes well suited to the role of chief and leader of the Iroquois nation, Brant was instrumental in securing peace treaties after the Revolutionary War between the United States government and other Native American tribes.  Having already proven himself a worthy warrior not only by his bravery in battle but as a leader of his people, he now proved his prowess as politician and diplomat.  But, more importantly, Brant also encouraged his people to settle their disputes and end the warfare against the ever-expanding white frontier settlements.  He then devoted the balance of his life to missionary work, including the raising of funds to build the first Episcopal church in Canada. 

Appreciating his own education, Brant believed there was much to learn from the whites and their patriarchal society, which differed from the traditional Indian matriarchal society.  He felt that, for the Indians to survive, they would need to incorporate more of the methods used by whites not only in their agricultural future, but in virtually every other aspect of life.  Having become a Christian (Anglican/Episcopalian) and a Freemason, Brant also believed in educating their own youth so that they, too, could succeed like the white man as the world around them continued its progressive change.

His last words to his adopted nephew show how committed he had become to the intellectual and spiritual advancement of his own people:  “Have pity on the poor Indians.  If you have any influence with the great, endeavor to use it for their good.”  Brant died on Nov 24, 1807 at his home in what is now Burlington, Ontario.  He is buried at Her Majesty’s Chapel of the Mohawks (originally St. Paul’s, built in 1785), the oldest Protestant church in Brantford, Ontario, with a memorial statue erected in 1886 to his memory. 

And into this heritage was born Sa-Sa-Na Loft.  From a Canadian biography of her brother, George Rok-Wa-Ho Loft, four children were born to Henry Loft and his wife Jemima (or Ya-Go-We-A, also their youngest daughter’s name).  Direct descendants of Brant, the Loft children’s maternal ties were of the unmixed Mohawks living in the township of Thayandanegea/Tyendinaga near the Bay of Quinte.  Henry’s father, David Loft, was a St. Francis Indian (Abenaki tribe) while Jemima was a Mohawk. 

Sa-Sa-Na’s older brother, Rok-Wa-Ho (George Rokwaho Loft), married Ellen Smith, also a Mohawk.  They were parents of Frederick Ogilvie Loft and William Loft, both of whom have continued Brant’s legacy in promoting the betterment of the Mohawk Indians as a whole. 

Growing up on the reservation known as The Mohawk Woods in the township of Tyendinaga on the Salmon River in Ontario, Canada, the Loft children received a good education through the work of the local mission school.  Understanding the importance of meeting the spiritual needs of his people, Brant had had several books of the Bible translated into their native language, including Genesis and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, along with the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and other Christian writings.  Through the local mission’s efforts, the Loft family and children also converted to Christianity.

With the two older Loft children having been educated at the mission school several miles away from home, they then taught Sa-Sa-Na at home.  The wife of the Episcopal minister in Kingston also gave music lessons to train Sa-Sa-Na’s beautiful voice, who in turn taught her younger sister, Ya-Go-Weia, all she knew. 

In their longing to help provide a quality education and to Christianize more of their people, Rok-Wa-Ho and his two younger sisters, Sa-Sa-Na and Ya-Go-Weia, commenced a singing tour in New York state.  Since their oldest sister was married at the time, she remained home with their widowed mother.  Traveling to raise funds to help educate their people, their efforts were rewarded in helping to eventually build a church within their own community. 

On February 15 and 16, 1852, the Loft siblings arrived at Owego, New York where the sisters gave two concerts, and received a warm welcome from the townspeople.  Sponsored by Judge Charles P. Avery, they stayed as guests at his home on Front Street in Owego.  Avery was a man with considerable interest in preserving local Indian history within colonial Tioga County, and thus his support of the Lofts.

The siblings next traveled east to Deposit.  At the Oquaga Theater, they gave another sacred concert on February 17th.  They were well received at both towns just as they had been at other stops throughout New York, and were greatly admired for their efforts to assist their indigent nation back home.

In Deposit the next day, February 18th, while their brother purchased tickets at the station, the sisters boarded the passenger train and took their seats.  Unbeknownst to everyone, just eight miles away on the same track, an engineer lost control of his freight train at “The Summit” [also called Gulf Summit], the peak of a steep downgrade [from my knowledge of the area, I presume this to be part of the summit of Belden Hill on Rt. 7.]  Knowing what the end result would be, the engineer jumped the train as it gained unrelenting speed on its headlong run down the track.  Hearing an alarm sounding for the fast-approaching runaway train racing toward their standing train, both sisters managed to jump from their car onto the station platform.  Unfortunately, as she jumped, Sa-Sa-Na lost her balance and fell backward onto the car they’d just left, being crushed and scalded to death as the freight train crashed at that very instant with a horrendous slam and explosion of steam.

The Owego Gazette for Thursday, February 19, 1852 included this brief notice:  “Frightful Rail Road Accidents.  Deposit 18, 1852.  Freight Train East ran in to mail train going east at this station today, and one person, the elder Indian girl killed.  One lady from Great Bend badly scalded.  One man badly injured.  Freight train coming down the summit became unmanageable.  No others injured.”  [Both Miss Susan Wisner, 18, of Goshen, Orange County, NY and Patrick Moony from Susquehanna, PA died soon afterward from their injuries.  [Searles, p. 105-107, The Deposit Courier, Feb. 21, 1852.]

Sa-Sa-Na’s funeral was held in Owego on February 20, 1852 “with impressive services at the Episcopal Church, and at the grave [with] Rev. Mr. Watson officiating.”  [Searles, p.108, The Owego Gazette, February 21, 1852] 

A lengthy obituary of Sa-Sa-Na by the Hon. Charles P. Avery was included in the small handbook, “Memorial of Sa-Sa-Na.”  [Searles, p.83]   A poem written by W. H. C. Hosmer titled simply, “Lament of Sa-Sa-Na” was read at her funeral.  [Too lengthy to include here, it can be located online.]  The obituary, sermon and poem were included in an 1852 memorial pamphlet which was entitled, “To the memory of SA-SA-NA- LOFT, noble, lovely, self-devoted – early mourned; and to those who love and cherish her memory, these brief pages are dedicated.”  [Published at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.] 

Great crowds gathered to show their grief in support of the surviving siblings.  They had become very fond of the three Indian youths and their endeavors to raise funds for the education of their tribe.  The deeply saddened Rok-Wa-Ho is quoted as saying, “One half the burden of the load is lifted from our hearts” following the great kindness shown to them by Owego’s citizens.  [Searles, p.33, excerpt from Star-Gazette Sunday Telegram, May 19, 1985]

A memorial service subsequent to that in Owego was held at St. Thomas’ Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on February 29, 1852, with a sermon given by the rector S. H. Norton.  He referenced Ecclesiastes 3:4:  “A time to weep and…a time to mourn.”  [Searles, p.89, from the booklet “A Memorial of Sa-Sa-Na, the Mohawk Maiden…”]

“The Deposit Courier” of Wednesday, February 25, 1852 included a poem “In memory of Miss Sasaneah Loft, the Indian Singing Girl, a victim of one of the late fatal accidents on the N.Y. and Erie Railroad:

‘To her Father, the ‘Great Spirit,’

The forest child has fled; -

Sharp was the arrow, brief the pang

That laid her with the dead!

But yesterday, and she was here

Gay as the fawns that bound

In sportive grace and joyousness

Her woodland home around…

Long, long, in sylvan solitudes

Will sound the tale, I ween,

How the Great Spirit called to heaven

Their bright, accomplished queen.’

From the Oxford Times, Feb. 21, 1852.”

[Searles, p. 118, The Deposit Courier]


Intending to return his sister’s body to Canada for burial, Rok-Wa-Ho was persuaded by Judge Avery to allow her remains to be placed in the Avery vault at the Presbyterian Church on Temple Street.  A committal service for her was held the following spring at Evergreen Cemetery on the hill above Owego. 

With letters of administration from Surrogate Court, Judge Avery sued the railroad company on behalf of Sa-Sa-Na’s family.  Receiving a payment of $2000.00 in September 1852, he turned the money over to the Loft family.  In receipt of these funds, they were then able to provide for “publication of religious books, in the Mohawk language, for the education and Christianization of the Mohawk people at the reservation in Canada.”  [Searles, p.25-26, from Deposit Courier Magazine, March/April 1957.]

To provide a monument at Sa-Sa-Na Loft’s burial site, the Owego women raised funds locally and from communities as far away as Albany, Auburn, Binghamton and Oxford where the Loft siblings had given concerts.  When sufficient funds were received, a beautiful white marble obelisk was purchased at cost, $201.58 (for a monument valued at the substantial sum of $400), from the Owego Marble Factory of G. W. Phillips who obtained the shaft and bases from Vermont’s Rutland Quarry.  This monument was erected in May 1855 as a lasting memorial to the young woman with whom the community had fallen in love.


Photo from NYS

Little known to the rest of the world, Mohawk Indians apparently arrive each spring at Evergreen Cemetery to pay their respects to the memory of Sa-Sa-Na.  At times, the chief attends in full Indian dress.  “As is the custom of the Indians they arrive and leave quietly and, unless someone happens to be in the vicinity of the monument at the time, no one is the wiser for their tribute.”  [Searles, p.8-9, “Still visited by Her People, the Saga of Sa-Sa-Na Loft”  in “An Owego paper, date unknown, from the scrapbook of Ruth S. Tilly.”] 

How fitting that, at least in the past, a quiet and unassuming tribute has been paid each year by the Mohawks to the memory of Sa-Sa-Na, one of their own… a moving tribute to a kind and compassionate young woman who ventured forth with the simple and noble ambition of raising funds to further educate more of her beloved people… her enduring legacy.

And so, closing my eyes, I visualize the solemn occasion as the chief arrives bearing a visage of serenity.  Slowly and quietly he walks to the edge of Sa-Sa-Na’s grave.  Head bowed, he pauses to contemplate… and to remember all he’s heard about this young woman in stories passed from generation to generation.  As he lifts his eyes toward the sun, his own face shines with a joy for one so young whose tender heart touched so many… one whose life ended far too soon… but one who left a lasting legacy of love and concern for her people.  And with hands raised to the sky, he thanks the Great Creator for blessing their nation with the beauty of Sa-Sa-Na’s spirit.


NEXT:  Johnny Appleseed



Book:  Sa-Sa-Na Loft, Owego’s Indian Maiden, A Historical Anthology, compiled by Marilyn T. Searles, 2001 (held at Coburn Library, Owego, New York).

Linda Roorda

The Great Snows

While our dreams of a white Christmas were locally dashed this year with unseasonably warm temperatures, I'm sure we've all heard at one time or another the saying that goes something like this - "You know, you young ones have it so easy.  When I was a kid, we walked to school...(uphill both ways)!  We got 3 feet of snow, and the wind was just a’howlin’, but we walked to school!  No snow days for us!"  And how about the age-old saying "It was so cold that…" (which I'll finish with) "…the milk froze before it reached the bucket!"  (For the uninitiated, that’s with hand milking of cows from ages ago.)  Ah, the good ol' days!


But there really were some great snows "back then."  I remember a few blizzards over the decades, and I ain't that old!  As we have all seen, severe winter storms, or the great nor’easters, can wreak considerable damage to a widespread area.  Heavy snow is often accompanied by strong winds whipping the snow around, causing very poor visibility.  And that spells danger on today’s busy highways.  If it comes early enough in the fall or early spring while leaves cling to the trees, we know all too well the damage such a heavy wet snow can cause as limbs and trees come down.  In recent years, we’ve been witness to severe nor’easters and heavy lake-effect snows just to the east of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, until their waters freeze over sufficiently.


As a teen, I immersed myself in innumerable books about the western frontier and the hardy pioneers.  When blizzards struck the plains states, it often came with disastrous consequences, especially if no forethought was given to venturing out into its fury.  If you left the house to tend livestock without having a rope to guide you between buildings, or at least a rope tied to the house and around your waist, the swirling snow and limited visibility could easily cause you to become disoriented.  Once the path was lost, you could wander aimlessly until fatigue set in and you collapsed, with death following soon after in the bitter cold. 


While researching my genealogy, I read about an early 19th century woman in Schoharie County, New York who had ventured out into a snowstorm.  Leaving a friend’s house to walk home on her own, the storm worsened and overtook her.  She simply disappeared, not being found until the following spring by a passerby walking along the road.  Having hunkered down under some bushes in an attempt to protect herself from the storm, she met an untimely demise, and froze to death.  So sad…


And then my husband, Ed, gave me a good chuckle when he reminded me of Paul Bunyan and the great blue snow.  I love this “Minnesota Tall Tale” about Babe the Blue Ox as retold by S. E. Schlosser:  “Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue.  Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard.  People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.  

Paul Bunyan went out walking in the woods one day during that Winter of the Blue Snow.  He was knee-deep in blue snow when he heard a funny sound between a bleat and a snort.  Looking down, he saw a teeny-tiny baby blue ox jest a hopping about in the snow and snorting with rage on account of he was too short to see over the drifts.  

Paul Bunyan laughed when he saw the spunky little critter and took the little blue mite home with him.  He warmed the little ox up by the fire and the little fellow fluffed up and dried out, but he remained as blue as the snow that had stained him in the first place.  So Paul named him Babe the Blue Ox.”  Read more at:


Yes, there really is such a thing as blue snow!  It’s caused by the depth of the ice/snow crystals which have stacked up, limiting the light that filters through.  When looking down into a deep snow, it typically seems blue.  At shallower depths, the full light spectrum is absorbed, reflecting the sun’s rays and making the snow appear white.  At greater depths, more red light is absorbed, thus creating a blue appearance to the deeper snow or ice pack.  When the snow absorbs various minerals, they, too, can cause the snow to be tinted in an array of colors.


So let’s go back a few centuries to the first recorded “Great Snow” in America’s history.  It happened between February 27 and March 7, 1717 when we were still under British authority.  Before the great storm began in the province of New York and greater New England, the snow on the ground already measured 5 feet deep in many places with drifts up to 25 feet by the end of January.  Considered the “benchmark” with which to compare other blizzards, this great nor’easter is believed to have been caused by volcanic ash from the 1716 eruptions of three volcanoes in Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines.   (Wikipedia, Great Snow of 1717)


Records indicate Boston received 40 inches in this particular storm of 1717, with areas north of the city having up to 60 inches of snow dumped on them.  Residents of Hampton, Massachusetts reportedly left their houses from second-story windows, indicating the snow depth was at least 8+ feet.  Some areas were measured to have gotten 10-12 feet of new snow.  Most post roads were impassable until the middle of March.  (Post roads were main thoroughfares between cities, so named for being heavily-traveled postal/mail delivery roads, and which have become many of our modern state/interstate highways – see Homestead article “Traveling From Here to There” at )


Learning of the 1717 Great Snow reminded of this past year’s nor’easters that heavily blanketed New England, particularly Boston.  However, that city’s deep 7 or 8 feet of snow was spread out over several storms, not all at once as in 1717.


Since documented weather sources did not exist as we know them today, most reports from that era have come to us from writings and records kept in private journals of families in cities and on farms.  Many cattle and livestock were lost due to the cold and impressive drifts which covered available food sources.  It was reported that 95% of the deer population died out in this 1717 storm, with many communities establishing protective measures to replenish the deer.  Orchards were also severely damaged as animals ate whatever branches remained exposed above the deep snow.


Nearly one hundred years later, there were at least four major volcanic eruptions which took place between 1812 and 1814, each adding to the atmospheric dust build up.  These included La Soufriere on the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean, Awu in Indonesia, Suwanosejima on the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, and the Philippines’ Mayon volcano.  As volcanic ash was carried along by air currents in the stratosphere, the sun’s warming rays were prevented from reaching the earth, thus contributing to cooler temperatures virtually around the world.  Then came the major eruption in 1815 of Mount Tambora in Indonesia which added even more ash to overload the debris field already floating along on the world’s air currents.  (See Homestead article, News Headlines 1815, for more about the 1815 eruption at:


This series of volcanic eruptions caused the 1816 severe cold which left the northeast United States abnormally cold and frozen.  Apparently, there was a record low level of solar activity following the above series of “major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest known eruption in over 1300 years.”  Often called the “year without a summer,” global temperature drops contributed to major food shortages as crops were destroyed.  (see Wikipedia’s “Year Without A Summer”) 


The most severe effects of this cold were felt by residents of New England, the east coast regions of Canada, and some areas of western Europe.  A “dry fog” was seen consistently in the eastern U.S. throughout the spring and summer of 1816.  It was reported that this strange “fog” reddened and dimmed the sun with both wind and rain being unable to dissipate the strange “stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil.”  Hard frosts in May 1816 killed most crops at higher elevations with snow falling on June 6 from Albany, NY to Maine.  (Wikipedia)


In May 1816, at the Shaker village near New Lebanon, NY, Nicholas Bennet wrote that “all was froze” and the hills were “barren like winter.”  Temperatures did not rise above freezing for most of that May with the ground being completely frozen June 9th.  Apparently, the ground had thawed sufficiently by June 12th for the Shakers to replant the crops which the cold had destroyed.  But by July 7th, crops again ceased to grow from the unseasonable cold.  The Berkshire Hills of far eastern New York and far western Massachusetts reported frost on August 23, as did most of the upper northeast.  (Wikipedia)


One Massachusetts historian summed up the great disaster this way: "Severe frosts occurred every month; June 7th and 8th snow fell, and it was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots .... In the early Autumn when corn was in the milk it was so thoroughly frozen that it never ripened and was scarcely worth harvesting.  Breadstuffs were scarce and prices high and the poorer class of people were often in straits for want of food.  It must be remembered that the granaries of the great west had not then been opened to us by railroad communication, and people were obliged to rely upon their own resources or upon others in their immediate locality.”  (Wikipedia)


Ice on lakes and rivers was noted as far south as Pennsylvania throughout July and August.  Temperatures often ranged from normal or above-normal to near freezing within hours.  This was not a hardship per se` for the people or even the livestock; what held the real disaster was the effect the cold had on crops.  The severe cold limited plant growth into harvestable crops.  With there being few roads, navigable waterways (no Erie Canal yet in 1816) and no railroads to haul crops either in or out of the towns, what crops did survive until harvest commanded exhorbitant prices.  And, in a trickle-down effect, with insufficient crops to feed not only livestock but people, prices on related foodstuffs rose steeply, affecting all available grains, meats, vegetables, and milk, etc.


The effects of crop damage were felt not only in America, but all throughout Europe.  There were food riots in England and France, though Switzerland fared the worst with the government declaring a national famine emergency.  Even China suffered a national famine due to the failure of their rice crop.  The disruption to the atmosphere also caused severe storms with abnormal rainfall and flooding throughout Europe.  Cold weather and crop damage contributed to the Irish potato blight and resultant famine during that time period with typhus erupting as an after effect.  With roughly 100,000 dying between 1816 and 1819, the effects of such weather ultimately became the impetus behind the great Irish emigration.  While Europe, itself, suffered approximately 200,000 deaths due to the severe famines as per a BBC documentary.  (Wikipedia)


The next great blizzard, “The Great White Hurricane,” hit northeast America during March 11-14, 1888.  Snow totaling 20 to 60 inches fell heavily over various areas of the northeast.  Parts of New Jersey and New York got up to 40 inches.  Massachusetts and Connecticut had up to 50 inches dumped across their states, while northern Vermont got “only” about 20-30 inches.  Just as we see today, some areas not far removed from heavy snowfall received much less or very little.  Reportedly, 58 inches fell in Saratoga Springs, NY, 48 in Albany, 45 in New Haven, CT, with 22 inches in New York City.  Winds in this storm were reported over 45 mph, causing drifts from 30 to 50 feet high, though wind gusts of up to 80 mph were recorded in some areas.  Official sustained winds in New York City were apparently at 40 mph while Block Island recorded 54 mph wind gusts.  This storm shut down rail traffic, not to mention preventing folks from leaving their homes for about a week in many areas.


This great storm also downed the multitudinous telegraph lines, obviously limiting communication, with transportation by rail also being shut down for days.  More than 200 ships were either grounded or wrecked, along with the loss of many lives.  There were, however, a few positive results to come out of such severe weather.  New telegraph lines were laid out underground to protect them from future storms.  A subway system was begun in earnest beneath the city of Boston, opening September 1, 1897.  “In 1967, a Boston Globe writer remembered, “I was there in person [during the 1888 blizzard], a five-year-old.  I can recall flattening my nose against the windowpane and wondering whether my father was going to make it.  He did.  But other dads were found dead in deep drifts by rescue parties.”  (, 1897 “Boston Built America’s First Subway…”) 


New York City’s subway system was not begun until March 1900 in Manhattan, opening on October 27, 1904.   Both Boston and New York City’s systems helped their respective cities combat the effect major storms took on each city’s transportation.  They were also a boon to the burgeoning sea of humanity going to and from various points on already congested city streets for normal business, not to mention providing a more reliable system for bringing vital food and merchandise to local stores.  


As a child, I remember my mother, Reba, talking about a big blizzard in Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York.  She believes it was 1945, but I wonder if it wasn’t the “Great Blizzard of 1947.”  She told me that while growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for them to get two feet of snow in big storms.  A dairy farmer, her father was also Carlisle’s highway superintendant and didn’t have sufficient equipment to handle this particular storm.  School was closed for three weeks due to the height of drifts blocking the roads.  With many of the county snowplows broken down, the county’s only huge snow blower was used to open most of the roads.  I have my mother’s photo of it in operation by their farmhouse on Rt. 20.  The driver followed electric poles and wires to know where a road was in order to clear it.  My mother also recalled that horses were able to get through unplowed areas where vehicles obviously couldn’t go


My father, then in his early teens, recalls the same blizzard in Clifton, Bergen County, New Jersey as it shut down the city.  Growing up, I heard this story and how bitter cold it was as he and his dad walked home (from where he could not recall when I wrote this article a few months before his passing).  In any event, my dad was so cold and numb that, thinking only of getting back to their warm house, he hurried as fast as he could go through the heavy snow, leaving his father trailing behind.  Needless to say, when he arrived home without his father, his mother was very worried about her husband until he finally walked through that front door.


Beginning Christmas Day, the storm of 1947 is often described as the worst blizzard since 1888.  It was a storm of an unusual direction as it came inland from the Atlantic and moved steadily westward into the Midwestern states.  It was unpredicted, bringing the northeast region of the U.S. to a rapid halt.  Without the typical high winds of a blizzard, the snow descended continuously and quietly.  When it ended the day after Christmas, there were 26 inches in New York City.  Buses, cars and trucks were stranded on the roads everywhere, subways could not function, and vehicles parked along the streets were buried by the heavy snowfall, and then buried even deeper when the plows came through.  Drifts and plowed snow piled up over 10-12 feet high further hampered city traffic. 


Moving inland, the snow fell in higher amounts.  Traffic in suburban and rural areas also became an issue as delivery vehicles carrying food, coal and firewood were unable to make it through highly drifted roads.  Many people were housebound for days before being able to get out again.  As above, my mother recalled drifts closing all the roads in Schoharie County.  With her father highway superintendant for the town of Carlisle, they could only wait for the county’s one huge snowblower to clean Rt. 20 and the side roads.


I remember two blizzards in my childhood, one being the winter of ’65-’66 in Clifton, NJ after moving there from the East Palmyra area of New York in February 1965.  The air raid siren sounded to let us know school was called off.  It seemed like we got 3 feet of snow, but I don’t know that for sure.  A friend I wrote to back on the farm in East Palmyra where we had lived said they got 5 feet.  I just remember there was a lot of it, way over our knees, with strong winds.  Being the energetic former farm kids we were, my sister and I (ages 10 and 11) shoveled out the sidewalk for an elderly couple across the street.  We were even paid $2.00 for our hearty efforts which we didn’t expect, quite a tidy sum back then when allowance was only 10 cents/week.  But, several hours later, the sidewalk was completely filled in by the howling winds.  To this day, I’m ashamed that we did not go back and re-shovel their sidewalk after the storm had cleared.


The second big blizzard I recall was the winter of ’69-’70 after moving to Lounsberry, NY on Saturday, August 18, 1969, the weekend of Woodstock.  (In fact, we drove north out of Jersey on Rt. 17, encountering very slow and heavy traffic with hippies everywhere on the four-lane.  I did not understand what was going on until a few months later… a very sheltered teen was I!)  But, it seems we got 3 feet of snow that winter as it piled high against the back door as I struggled to get to the barn to care for my mare and chickens.  I also recall my dad just made it home in his 18-wheeler before the roads were officially closed, leaving his tanker at the Lounsberry Truck Stop, driving his Kenworth home.  Once again, my sister and I took shovels in hand to clean out the driveway – this time with our dad’s assistance, and without compensation.  It was just part of life and the expected family chores.


And, yes, there have been many blizzards since then over the years, locally and elsewhere throughout New York and New England.  And with the snow has often come the bitter sub-zero temperatures to cause more headaches.  How well Ed and I remember frozen pipes one year while living in the trailer before our house was built in 1982, and the inevitable frozen pipes and cows’ water bowls in the barn that he and his dad, like any other farmer, had to deal with in the winter.


I’m sure many of my readers also recall the storm of ’47 among many other blizzards.  And then there were the Great Snows of 2014/2015 with Buffalo and Boston’s record depths of snowfall.  I’d love to hear your memories of winters past…


NEXT, IN FEBRUARY:  Owego’s Indian Maiden, Sa-Sa-Na Loft

Linda Roorda

Merry Christmas!

I think Christmas is everyone’s favorite time of year, especially a white Christmas!  Right?!  Even shopping has begun on earnest, just the day after Thanksgiving.  But, many of our current traditions either changed dramatically or began only in the 19th century.  Writing in the “Broader View Weekly” in December 2012, I explored the origins of many of our American Christmas traditions, and how others celebrated around the world.  And I thought it would be fitting to repost this updated column from the former “NewsFromTown” website in honor of our traditional Christmas celebrations.


December 6th is a day my/our Dutch ancestors would have celebrated Saint Nicholas Day, part of traditional European Christmas celebrations for centuries.  The Dutch word “Sinterklaas” for Saint Nicholas is considered the origin of our American “Santa Claus” with Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore helping to make him who he is today.  The earliest writing in America of a figure resembling our modern Santa can be found in Washington Irving’s satire of Dutch culture.  In “History of New York” published in 1809, Irving writes in chapter IX:  "At this early period…hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve…is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children." 


Clement C. Moore immortalized St. Nicholas in “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.”  In this ode to St. Nick, he appears on December 24th, Christmas Eve in America, not the original St. Nicholas Eve of December 5th in Europe.  Moore’s poem, published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper on December 23, 1823, promotes a new appearance to the original lean St. Nicholas:  “He had a broad face and a little round belly…He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…[with a] "sleigh full of Toys" [and] "eight tiny reindeer…[as] Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound."  The two original reindeer names of Donder and Blixem were later changed to Donner and Blitzen.  Once again, the Dutch influence in the former New Netherlands was involved as “donder” means thunder and “bliksem” means lightning. 




While Irving and Moore both present the jolly gift giver as Saint Nicholas, political cartoonist Thomas Nast is considered the first to refer to “Santa Claus” in his illustration for the January 3, 1863 edition of “Harpers Weekly.”  President Lincoln had requested that Nast depict St. Nicholas visiting the Union troops.  Nast’s illustration shows Santa Claus sitting on his sleigh at a U.S. Army camp, handing out gifts in front of a “Welcome Santa Claus” sign.


Another treasured tradition of our modern Christmas is Charles Dickens’ short story, “A Christmas Carol,” written as a commentary on the greed of Victorian England.  Available in book stores the week before Christmas 1843, it sold very well, never being out of print since.  Scrooge has the distinction of being one of the most well-known literary characters.  But, what do we care… Bah, humbug!


Our decorated Christmas tree comes from German traditions with Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert putting up the first decorated tree at Windsor Castle in 1841.  Based on illustrations of this event published in America in 1849, Christmas trees then became fashionable on this side of the “pond.”  Small candles were used to light the tree, with popcorn and cranberry strings typically used for decoration.


From the religious aspect, Christmas celebrations differed in many ways based on national origin   I found it interesting to learn that Christmas celebrations were outlawed in Boston by the Puritans in the mid to late 17th century with fines for violations, while the Johnstown, Virginia settlers enjoyed their merry celebrations under Capt. John Smith.  After the American Revolution, Americans looked down on English traditions, including Christmas.  Apparently, Congress was even in session on December 25, 1789!  In fact, Christmas did not become a federal holiday until Congress declared it such on June 26, 1870. 


By the late 19th century, celebrating Christmas was made popular through children’s books and women’s magazines.  Church Sunday School classes began encouraging celebrations, and families were decorating Christmas trees with everyone “knowing” Santa Claus delivered gifts on Christmas Eve, traditions which have been carried on into the 21st century.


Other popular traditions we all look forward to include decorating our homes and trees, baking scrumptious special treats, singing carols, and either making or shopping for just the right gift for each special person on our list.  But, alas, the years have also taken a simple celebration in honor of Jesus’ birth and made it into a highly marketed holiday, one often filled with ostentatious materialism.  Personally, I prefer to step back to the simpler traditions of my Dutch ancestry and childhood home, one without “all the trappings” and media frenzy.


With my dad being a first generation Dutch-American, we veered from Dutch tradition in some ways.  We maintained Christmas Day with a morning church service and a big family dinner; but, our gift-giving was held the Saturday before Christmas, not the Dutch traditional day of December 5.  My first and last adoration of Santa Claus came the Christmas I was 5 years old when Santa visited my grandparents in Clifton, New Jersey.  We three little granddaughters shyly sat on his lap to share our wants.  Afterwards, my grandmother took us to an upstairs window to watch Santa and his reindeer leave.  All I saw was a car with red tail lights driving away between the snowbanks.  At that moment, I was crushed and disillusioned, and just knew there was absolutely no Santa Claus because, despite dressing the part, he did not have a sleigh and reindeer!


After all, everyone’s favorite reindeer is Rudolph with his nose so bright!  Supposedly written by Robert L. May for his daughter when her mother was dying of cancer, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was actually written in 1939 for his employer, Montgomery Ward, as a Christmas book given out free to customers.  Though May’s wife did die around the time he wrote the story, he read it to his 4-year-old daughter as he worked on it simply to ensure it held a child’s interest.  With memories of his own childhood, May decided on a tale with roots in “The Ugly Duckling” and the taunts he had suffered as a child.  Poor Rudolph was ostracized by other reindeer for being different, having an obvious physical abnormality… a glowing red nose.  No one else had one!  Regardless of his defect, Rudolph thrived under his parents’ love, overcame his disability and the taunts to became a responsible young deer!  And then one foggy night, Santa noticed how Rudolph’s nose shone through the dark, and asked him to lead the team of reindeer pulling his sleigh on Christmas Eve!  How excited and honored Rudolph must have felt!


We’ve all been blessed with special Christmas memories over the years.  While visiting my mom at Elderwood, she shared that her mother had always put up and decorated a large Christmas tree in their front parlor.  It was a big change for her to learn that her new husband was not so inclined to such ostentatious displays due to his more austere Dutch upbringing.  With limited decorations and no trees until my mid teens when my dad finally gave in to the pleading of his six kids, I have found it difficult to step out of that mold.  Yet, I have enjoyed putting up a tree with lights and decorations when our three children were young.  And now, since my mother-in-law gave me her ceramic tree the Christmas before she passed away, I am honored to share her generosity in this smaller and simpler display.


My favorite Christmas memory was when my husband, Ed, farmed with his dad.  With finances tight, I usually sewed clothes for all of us.  But, one year I also made doll beds for each of our children by taking free soda boxes from the local grocery store, gluing the bottoms together, and covering them with wood-grain contact paper.  My step-mother gave our three children a Cabbage-Patch type girl or boy doll she had made, while my grandmother sewed clothes and blankets for each doll.  And our kids could not have been happier! 


Our local churches do not have a Christmas morning service like Ed and I grew up with, though we have enjoyed the local Christmas Eve candlelight services and singing of favorite carols.  We also began a tradition of reading the Christmas story with our children before they opened gifts on Christmas morning. 


And another favorite of our family has been the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Charles M. Schulz.  With the busy holiday shopping extravaganza and commercialization, I think we sometimes lose a little of the wonder of that very first Christmas.


“Narrator:  It was finally Christmastime, the best time of the year.  The houses were strung with tiny colored lights, their windows shining with a warm yellow glow only Christmas could bring.  The scents of pine needles and hot cocoa mingled together, wafting through the air, and the sweet sounds of Christmas carols could be heard in the distance.  Fluffy white snowflakes tumbled from the sky onto a group of joyful children as they sang and laughed, skating on the frozen pond in town.  Everyone was happy and full of holiday cheer.  That is, everyone except for Charlie Brown…”


“Charlie (to Linus):  ‘I think there must be something wrong with me.  I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.  I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.  I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel…’”


“Later, after a day of frustrations, Charlie says:  ‘I guess you were right Linus; I shouldn’t have picked this little tree.  Everything I do turns into a disaster.  I guess I don’t really know what Christmas is about.  Isn’t there anyone who understands what Christmas is all about?’”





“Linus:  ‘Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.’  [Walking to the center of the stage, Linus speaks:]  ‘And there were in the same country Shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone ‘round about them, and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not!  For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you.  You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.’  And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’”  [Luke 2:8-14]


And, for me and my family, that’s what Christmas is all about…  Merry Christmas to all!


NEXT IN JANUARY 2016:  The Great Snows


Linda Roorda

Happy Thanksgiving!

If you know me well, you know that fall is not my favorite season.  Oh, don’t get me wrong - I enjoy the bright colors of leaves, the beautiful crisp blue sky, the cooler temps, the lack of stifling humidity, and the pungent odor of smoke revealing the type of wood burning in a well-run woodstove.  But, the darkening and shortening days with leaves fluttering down to mulch the earth as they leave behind the stark contrast of bare tree limbs against a grayed sky tend to bring on a sadness for me.  I much prefer spring and the emergence of new life.


Still, I cannot miss the fact that time and the pace of life is slowing down.  There is more time to focus on home and family projects, hobbies (like sewing quilts), writing blogs, and preparing for my two favorite holidays – Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Even tho my mood may sink a bit on a dark and dreary day, I still get excited to see the first big snow and watch the birds at my feeders.  Fall is also when I find time to reflect on a year of many blessings as I begin to write our Christmas letter and remember the dear friends who will be the recipients.


But, it’s also the time of year that we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving and remembering the first celebration of thanks just a few centuries ago.  On Thanksgiving Day, we realize once again that we have so much to be thankful for.  God has blessed us all in so many ways, yet we often (me included) tend to take much in life for granted.  And I cringe every time I hear this special day called Turkey Day, instead preferring to think that deep within each of us is a heart of thanksgiving for all the blessings showered upon us each and every day.


As a nation, we treasure the story of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving celebration at Plimouth Colony in 1621.   (The Pilgrims of Plimouth are not to be confused with the Puritans who settled the Boston area; they are each of different religious backgrounds.)  The original Mayflower passengers numbered 102, with about 50 crew members, when they set sail for the intended destination of the Virginia Colony.  Blown northward off course, they arrived in 1620 to a barren landscape amidst cold and bitter November winds and snows. 


These hardy souls struggled to survive as the ravages of disease took a toll on board ship where they wintered.  Only 53 passengers and half the crew remained alive in the spring.  This left a straggling group of humanity to emerge from winter’s stark bleakness to face the early days of spring.  But, the days were bright with hope and promise as the warming sun nudged green buds alive on plants and trees.  They had survived!  And, with God’s help, they were determined to succeed in their endeavor in this new land.


Building huts within the protection of a fort and its cannon, they moved from the hold of the ship to life on shore.  They learned to grow vegetables and hunt wild game and fish.  Native Americans who had befriended them were of great assistance in teaching the best methods for growing their gardens, and hunting and fishing.  At the end of harvest in October 1621, a feast was held for three days, traditionally considered the first Thanksgiving.  From records kept, 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans attended this great feast.


By 1623, their failed communal farming effort had been given over to the more productive privatized family farming.  With an abundant harvest following a drought and subsequent beneficial rains, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving that same year:  “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forest to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience; now, I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November ye 29th of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor, and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”


The Pilgrims’ annual tradition was followed in 1630 by the Puritans’ first celebration, in 1639 by settlers of Connecticut, and in 1644 among the Dutch of New Netherlands.  Each group also set aside an annual day of thanksgiving in future years. 


By the 18th century, various colonies designated a day of thanksgiving for military victories or bountiful crops.  In December 1777, a national day of thanksgiving within all thirteen colonies was declared and set aside by General George Washington after British General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga.  On October 3, 1789, President Washington set aside the first Thanksgiving Day, and proclaimed such a day again in 1795.  Since then, a national day of thanksgiving was proclaimed by future presidents, but not necessarily annually.  It was President Abraham Lincoln who established a national Thanksgiving Day to be held on the last Thursday of November 1863.  Since then, Thanksgiving has been observed annually.  However, change again took place in 1941 when President Franklin Roosevelt set the fourth Thursday of each November as the official date, and there it has remained.


What foods were on the menu for the first Thanksgiving Day feast in 1621?  From writings kept, the Wampanoag Native Americans killed five deer.  The colonists shot wild fowl – likely geese, ducks and turkey.  Indian corn was used since what we know as field and sweet corn were not yet available.  Jennifer Monac, spokesperson for the living-history museum at Plimouth Plantation, has said they “likely supplemented their venison and birds with fish, lobster, clams, nuts, and wheat flour, as well as vegetables such as pumpkin (not in pie), squash, carrots and peas.”  However, what we consider traditional foods for our Thanksgiving dinner (mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pumpkin pie) were not found on their table – these foods had not even been introduced into their diet yet!


What sets this day apart for you and your family?  What makes your heart thankful?  What special memories or traditions of Thanksgiving Day do you share with family and friends?  I’d love to hear your memories!


I remember Thanksgiving as a family day, whether it was during my childhood or with my husband and our children.  When I was a small child, my dad had farm chores; but, we always attended a morning worship service.  In my late teens, and no longer on the farm, he often took us hunting.  For my husband, Ed, every holiday was wrapped in never-ending milking and farm chores, continuing after we married. 


I also especially enjoyed the big dinners after church at my dad’s parents’ home in Clifton, New Jersey in my early teens.  With her Dutch accent, my grandmother always welcomed us at the door with her cheery “Hello, Dear!”  My grandfather, a general contractor, had fully shed his accent, though they both spoke Dutch when we grandkids were not to know the content of their conversation!  And I well remember their food-laden table, surrounded by their three children and spouses, and all of us grandchildren. 


Thanksgiving Day also brings to mind the quintessential painting by Norman Rockwell of the family gathered around the table - Grandma setting down the large platter of turkey, eagerly awaiting Grandpa’s carving.  I began a fun tradition of naming our birds either Sir Thomas or Henrietta, depending on size.


Growing up, our children always enjoyed watching the Thanksgiving Day parades.  I often had to work this holiday in years past, and looked forward to coming home to the delicious aroma of turkey dinner begun by my husband and children.  Now, with our two remaining children grown and married, and each with two children of their own, they celebrate with their respective spouse’s family.  Ed and I now celebrate with a small quiet dinner or join his sister and her family.  And then, we eagerly anticipate Christmas and the return of our family.


Thanksgiving Day also never fails to remind us of those who have left behind an empty chair and a hole in our hearts – our oldest daughter, both my husband’s parents, and my dad.  Yet, sweet memories of their love cast a warm glow over all. 


With thankful hearts for the many blessings God has so generously bestowed on each of us, I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving Day!


NEXT:  Merry Christmas!


My Sources:


Linda Roorda

The Tugboat

Following close on the heels of Robert Fulton’s steamboat came the hardy tugboat.  The first steam tug, built by John and Charles Wood, “Paddle Steamer Tug” (or, P. S. Tug), slid smoothly down the slipway November 5, 1817 at Scotland’s Port Glasgow.  And life in port has never been the same! 


Earlier this year, I became reacquainted with my childhood friend, Lucy (Van Dorp) Knape.  Years ago, she and her husband, John, sailed around the world on “Maraki” with their four young sons.  Now, in retirement, Lucy and John are doing it all over again.  Starting in August 2013, they sailed from Lake Michigan to Lake Erie and into New York’s Erie Canal, then down the Hudson River, into the New York harbor, and out to sea.  I’m impressed as I read their blog of all the places they sail to.  Lucy’s great descriptive narratives and photos share the culture, food and people of faraway places some of us can only dream about.  Check out her blog at:


Also becoming reacquainted with her brother, Will Van Dorp, I learned he had quite an interest in tug boats.  With photos and near-daily updates, his blog, “Tugster” (, keeps track of tugs and ships within New York’s "sixth boro", his term for the busy harbor and waterways of New York City and the eastern Jersey shore.  For five months in late 2014, Will worked as a deckhand and instructor on the Erie Canal tug, “Urger”.  He kindly accepted my request to do an email interview to share his experiences with us.




Since Will grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Marion, Wayne County, New York, I wondered what sparked his interest in boats, specifically tug boats.  As he explained it, their farm “was in a community not far from the Erie Canal [which meanders through nearby Palmyra and Newark], so that's part of it.  But a more important reason for the interest stems back to family stories from life along the rivers and canals in the Netherlands.  As a teenager, my father used to milk cows outside by hand while looking upward at workboats going by in the canal.  A tugboat is a work vessel, not that much different really than a tractor on a farm.”


It should not surprise us that canal boats and canal building are as natural to the Dutch as is breathing.  It’s a way of life for the hardy Netherlanders with much of their land below sea level.  Their ability to hold back the sea by an extensive dike system, and water travel throughout the nation by numerous interconnecting canals, was the engineering inspiration to which we turned when building New York’s Erie Canal.  (see my Homestead article, “Clinton’s Ditch, aka The Erie Canal” at:  - scroll down to the article)


Van Dorp initially began his blog,, out of his experience as a volunteer on museum boats in New York City’s waterways.  He would take photos to help remember and understand what he was observing as a participant.  “My routine was to take some pictures and then look up online what I could find about each boat.  The more I knew, the more I wanted to know.  The blog got responses as well, so I was hooked.  I've put up over 2800 posts in over 8 years and have just passed the 1.5 million hit mark.”


After volunteering on floating museum boats, he next decided to spend several months in the latter half of 2014 as a teaching deckhand on the Erie Canal tug, “Urger”.  Van Dorp explained that “by the time I was offered the Erie Canal deckhand position, I had been paying close attention to workboats long enough that I was ready from the boat point of view.  Also, back in 2003, my wife, Elizabeth, and I had traveled by our boat from Long Island to Lake Ontario by way of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal.  It's quite the pretty trip; and, ever since, my attention has been caught by any news from along the canal.”  


“Urger” was built as a steam tug in 1901 by Johnson Brothers Shipyard and Boiler Works in Ferrysburg, Michigan.  Originally named the “Henry J. Dornbos” for a well-known Dutch-American businessman, she was touted by the Detroit Free Press as “one of the finest fishing boats in the local…fleet.”  Deemed to have “considerable more power than was required for a fish tug,” Urger was often used in rescues on the Great Lakes before establishment of the U. S. Coast Guard.  (McFee, p. 140)  See for original photo of the H.J. Dornbos.


Sold to New York State in 1920 or 1922 (depending on source), she began service at Waterford on the New York State Barge Canal as fleet tug No.44, Urger, now “one of the oldest operating tugs in the nation.”  (McFee, p. 140)  Working on the Barge Canal for over 60 years, Urger has pushed dredges and hauled scows on the state’s canal system along with assisting in other maintenance work.  During her career, she was refitted with a diesel engine to replace her hearty old steam engine, and her wooden structure was rebuilt in steel.  (McFee, p. 140) 


Just as tugs and ships are recycled to live again beyond their initial purpose, Van Dorp learned as a teaching deckhand that the Erie Canal essentially had three lives.  He explained that “there have been three versions of the Canal.  We call them "Clinton's Ditch," completed in 1825, the enlarged Erie Canal completed in the 1860s, and the Barge Canal completed in the 1920s.  The first two versions of the canal connected cities like Rochester and Syracuse, and were largely responsible for helping to develop them.  The Barge Canal - which we called it when I was growing up in the 1960s - avoided some downtown areas.  For example, today’s Erie Boulevard in Syracuse used to be the Erie Canal.  Later, the canal there was filled in and paved over.  The Barge Canal also incorporated rivers like the Mohawk and a large lake (Oneida Lake) into the channel.”


Today, the entire system is called the New York Canal System as it includes the smaller interconnecting canals, though most people continue to call it either the Erie or Barge Canal. – Refurbished Urger with photos. - Photo of Urger underway on the Erie Canal. - Scroll down the page through these Tugster posts to travel the Erie Canal with Van Dorp, a teaching deckhand on Urger. - Tugster post on culvert road, i.e. canal passage above a paved road.  Amazing construction!


Retired in the mid 1980s from working the Barge Canal, Urger returned to service in 1991 as the “flagship of the fleet of vessels operated by the New York State Canal Corporation on the 524-mile Canal System.”  As a “teaching tug,” she heads out every year to represent the Barge Canal with stops at a number of communities on the canal system.  At these designated stops, her four-member crew interacts with students and adults to share the canal’s illustrious heritage with them.


During Van Dorp’s five months’ tour as a teaching deckhand on Urger, there were three other crew members aboard the teaching tug including a second deckhand, an engineer (also from Van Dorp’s home town), and the captain - the boss.  As a deckhand, Van Dorp simply did what the captain needed done.  His responsibilities meant that he “handled dock lines as we started out each day and returned to the dock.  Sometimes that meant painting the boat.  We also cleaned the boat regularly.  And, in reduced visibility conditions, I assisted the captain in keeping Urger in the channel of deep enough water.  Our tug was 72 feet in length and drew 8 feet of water.  It was powered by a 19.5 ton diesel engine.  And, as an educator, my job was to talk about water pollution and how folks enjoying the canal could avoid contributing to pollution.”


Responsibilities on Urger differ from that of a 19th century tug or canal boat.  Early canal traffic, as explained in my Homestead article “Clinton’s Ditch, aka The Erie Canal,” would include boats hauling freight or passengers between towns.  Towpaths were used for four-legged power, often with young boys/teens working as hoggees.  As a hoggee, they either walked or rode a horse while leading horses or mules who, in turn, were connected to the boat by ropes.  The hoggees also used poles to help push the boat away from shore or from danger in the canal, perhaps floating debris, or to prevent collision with another boat.  Time was key in transporting goods to market; and, unfortunately, if a boat were late or delayed, it was not uncommon for the young hoggees to be blamed and whipped for the problems. 


Canal life was rough in its early days.  But, there were positive influences with family boats.  Often, the wife of the captain was on board to do the cooking, providing hearty meals for the crew and/or passengers enroute to another town.  Van Dorp wrote that “Urger has a galley (i.e. kitchen) on board with a gas stove and a refrigerator.  We could have cooked, but the four of us had quite different ideas about food, so we mostly ate near docks along the canal.  Many towns have developed marinas to provide services to passing boaters and tout nearby restaurants.  Some examples of towns with great canal-side services are Little Falls, Illion, Sylvan Beach, Phoenix, Seneca Falls, Lyons, Fairport, Spencerport, Brockport, and Medina.  Lyons and Little Falls were my personal favorites.”


In the early half of the 20th century, canalers still made a living working the Barge Canal with their families on board.  Some who were born into canal families developed a life-long love affair with the canal.  Evamay (Mousseau) Wilkins was one of them, along with her husband, Herb Wilkins.  Their experiences as children and adults were not that different from canalers in the 19th century – except, of course, there were no hoggees walking the horses towing the barge.  However, most of the families working the canal when Evamay and Herb were children had already left by the time they returned as newlyweds.


In 1955, a reporter described life on a barge:  “Whole families traveled on the Erie boats, even as they do today on the boats that ply the Barge Canal.  Each boat had a cabin aft for the captain and his family and a bunk house forward of the hatches for the two or three hands.  Clothes hung on a wash line, an ample, comfortable looking woman, obviously the captain’s wife, sat in a rocking chair reading a motion picture magazine, a small child brown as a beach baby played with toys in the restricted area between the hatches.”  (McFee, p.146)


Evamay grew up with her siblings on a self-propelled canal barge which her parents operated.  After marrying Herb Wilkins in 1939, they set up their first home on a canal barge hauling grain and other goods.  As a child, she and her siblings spent winters in school with children of other barge families when their parents docked their barges at Pier 6 on New York’s East River.  As soon as the canal was cleared of ice to open up for passage in the spring, the canalers and their families were back at work hauling goods throughout the state, unfortunately not always a profitable line of work.  And, the children continued their schooling with informal lessons on board.


Some of the many goods traversing the Barge Canal included corn and grains from the Great Lakes going east, paper from Canada, fuel oil (the largest quantity of any item ever shipped), scrap metal, molasses, iron ore from the Adirondacks, sand from New Jersey to foundries, sugar from Cuba, coal, iron and steel products, cars, ice and ice cream, toys, linoleum, tea, beer, knit goods, underwear for soldiers in France during W.W. I, gravel/stone, lumber, bagged cement (100,000 tons received per year by Mohawk Valley Cement Company - 82 tractor trailers would have been needed to carry what one barge held in one trip!  (McFee, pp. 191, 196, 173-197)  …and, well, just about anything else! 


As Evamay recalled, families often slept where they could on a barge.  One family with 12 children put some of the little ones to bed in drawers built into the walls.  She and her siblings played on top of the cabin, but not on the deck which was a more dangerous location.  Sometimes, they were allowed to play in a section of the hold that was empty, but that was not always safe.  They had toy tugs and barges made by their father.  She also recalled when her one-year-old brother fell off the deck into Lock 17 at Little Falls, which apparently held the deepest water of all locks.  Her father dove in immediately and saved the little tyke.  She also shared that, during the prohibition era, her parents brought liquor back from Canada to sell to friends in the New York harbor.  When inspectors came on board, little Evamay could be found sitting on her chamberpot over the hiding place; and, of course, the inspectors would not disturb the little child!


With cramped living quarters, Evamay baked their meals on board using an old coal stove.  Not always getting the best results, she simply tossed her burnt efforts into the canal and tried again, while her husband would wonder why the flour supply went down so fast!  Another chore on board was laundry.  Typically, canal families would leave a bucket or tub of water (either clean canal water or rain water collected for this purpose) in the sun to heat up.  Once the water had warmed up, they washed the laundry, and hung it on lines stretched across midship.  Fittingly, after a full life as a canaler, Evamay’s husband, Herb Wilkins, died while working on a canal tug in 1969.  (McFee, pp.145-169)


Sections of original towpaths can still be seen in many places alongside the canal – if you know where to look.  Occasionally, you will see remnants of the path, including where it was long ago reclaimed by either forest or grass and weeds.  But, in many places where the path still exists, it has been kept up and put to good use.  Van Dorp explained that there are “many miles of the old towpath still intact, especially from Lockport and nearly to Rochester.  Walkers and bicyclists use the towpath now.”  What a great way to enjoy this bit of New York history!


When Urger tied up at various docks along the Erie Canal, the two deckhands would meet pre-arranged audiences to talk about the history of the canal, the technology, and pollution.  Van Dorp noted that Urger’s “audience was 4th graders, because 4th grade students learn about New York state history.  For kids who go to school anywhere along the canal, what better way to study what was probably the biggest influence of how New York State developed than by connecting it to a boat that, between the 1920s and 1985, [actually] worked on the canal.   Though she did work on the Erie/Barge Canal, Urger was built in 1901 in Michigan as a steam-powered fish tug.  The other deckhand talked about history of the Erie/Barge Canal, while I talked about water pollution and things that even 4th graders can do to avoid polluting the canal and similar waterways even while enjoying the surrounding parkland.”  In interacting closely with the students in this teaching manner, an indelible impression was likely left that will enable them to be conscientious users of watersheds which include the great canal system.


As above, the three distinct eras of the Erie Canal’s existence were also explained in my Homestead article, “Clinton’s Ditch, aka The Erie Canal.”  An impetus for the original Erie Canal was slow and cumbersome overland travel and poorly-kept roads between the cities of New York.  The canal was projected to be a boon to commerce and passenger travel alike.  But, it became apparent fairly soon after the canal opened to boat traffic in 1825 that it was not deep enough, nor wide enough, for the extremely busy traffic which the canal almost immediately acquired.  A series of enlargements was thus begun in 1835 so that the canal could accept boats with a deeper draft. 


As the canal was deepened and widened, it was able to accommodate more cargo on larger boats.  But, in 1900 when New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt encouraged its expansion, the state’s residents had already slowed their use of the Erie Canal.  This popular waterway connected Albany with Buffalo at the far western end of the state.  At the end of the 19th century, however, the railroad tracks that ran nearby gave the canal stiff competition.  People and goods which had once traveled extensively by water now used the faster and more efficient rail system. 


With the completed canal enlargement, even bigger commercial vessels were able to traverse the state’s waterways.  The Barge Canal System, so named with its 20th century improvement, “was such an engineering marvel when it was being built between 1903 and 1918 that it frequently was compared to the impressive Panama Canal, which was being constructed at approximately the same time with much more publicity.  The Barge Canal, however, is ten times longer than the Panama Canal and includes many more structures, some equally world famous.”   (McFee, p. 18)


Van Dorp was also surprised to find out “how little many people really know about the whole network of canals that were built in the 19th century to move products to market and immigrants from New York City to the Great Lakes and farther west.  Examples of the smaller canals include the Chemung Canal, Chenango Canal, Black River Canal, and Genesee Valley Canal, and several more.  The current official name for the canal is the New York State Canal System, because it is composed of the Erie Canal, the Oswego Canal, the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, and the Champlain Canal.”


Navigating the canal locks is another fascinating feat.  These locks raise or lower the water depth inside the lock chamber, allowing the boat to “climb” a waterway which traverses hilly land – in order to bypass waterfalls.  Van Dorp told me that “the canal is a very complex system that involves lots of dams and locks.  Water is moved entirely by gravity, not by pumps.  There are also several aqueducts which move a waterway over either another waterway or over land.” 


When the Erie Canal was first built, the “locks were 90 feet long and 15 feet wide.”  ( allowed for a boat no larger than 60 feet long and 7 feet wide with a shallow draft of 3-1/2 feet.  When the canal was enlarged between 1835 and 1862, the number of locks was reduced from 83 to 72 while the lock size increased to 110 feet in length with an 18 foot width, and a 7 foot depth.  In 1870, some locks were widened to 20 feet.  Then, in 1884, it became apparent that the locks needed to be lengthened even more to accommodate larger boats and “double-headers” (two boats connected to each other).  By 1885, the length of one of Lock No. 50’s chambers was doubled to 220 feet, making uncoupling of these boats no longer required.  And, by 1891, many more locks had been doubled to accommodate the ever enlarging boats which were then traversing the canal waters.


As further enlargements took place during 1903 to 1918 for what became known as the Barge Canal, the number of locks was reduced to its current 35.  The 20th century locks were increased to a length of 328 feet, a width of 45 feet, and a depth of 12 to 14 feet.  Thus, today’s modern boats of up to 300 feet long and 43.5 feet wide can easily pass through these upgraded locks. and


While researching to write my article “Clinton’s Ditch,” I’d read that all boats on the Erie Canal are under speed limits to reduce wave impact to the shoreline and reduce damage to the overall canal foundation/construction.  Van Dorp explained that “the largest problem in the canal is silting, especially in places where another waterway with faster current deposits silt into the canal.  Silt makes the canal more shallow, and deeper draft boats, like Urger, hit bottom.  Another maintenance issue involves the canal walls in places where the canal is higher than the surrounding land.  There are a lot of places like that.  A breach in the wall would cause flooding of surrounding lands and buildings.  Of course, the locks themselves with their valves and doors need continual maintenance.  An unexpected problem in the valves has been that the invasive species of zebra mussels has moved in.  They reproduce wildly and need to be scraped out each year or else they’d just plug up the valves.”


What we do miles and miles away from the canal affects the quality of its water, never mind our own local water tables.  Rainwater and melting snow runoff carry pollutants of many kinds into our waterways.  Open bodies of water are no longer the pristine drinkable source they once were a few hundred years ago.  It is, therefore, up to us to be careful about what we do on land with an eye toward protecting our water, one of life’s natural and vital necessities.  Pollutants affect not only the visual ambience of a waterway, but the wildlife making up its ecosystem. 


Gliding along on the Erie Canal must make for a beautiful trip.  I’ve seen many online photos as well as Van Dorp’s photos of beautiful adjacent farmland, forested shorelines, and towns nearby.  Observing the wildlife which calls the canal and its environs home provides us with endless pleasure.  Though Van Dorp said he “loved the many beautiful stretches of the Canal, seeing all the bald eagles was sublime.  When I was growing up, I recall hearing that only a few eagles were left and they lived in faraway places like Alaska.  Now there are lots along the Canal.  One area, around the Montezuma Wildlife Preserve, might have the most.  One day I saw 12!”


The hard-working tugboat on canals and rivers has perhaps been under appreciated by us landlubbers.  I recall that, after moving to Clifton, NJ from farm life in Wayne County, NY in 1965, my Dad would take us on day trips around northeast Jersey and New York City, including the shipyards along the Jersey shore.  There we saw huge ships loading or unloading containers and cars with tugs hard at work, plying the harbor waters.  These trips were his way of showing us a world beyond our home.  He also built a toy model of a tug for one of my brothers.  Attaching it to the end of fishing line, my brother spent hours playing with his tug on Clifton’s Racies Pond.  He’d startle those who reached out to grab the tug; it seemed to have a life of its own, gliding away from their grasp as Charlie reeled it in!


I enjoyed the harbors where we were surrounded by the cries of seagulls, the toots of tugs as their heavy engines chugged while they pushed barges and nudged or towed the big ships, the deep mournful sound of foghorns, and watched the waves as our ferry took us across the Hudson River into New York City.  A port is a whole ‘nother world… often a colder and windier world than inland, but a very active one. 


Though enjoying the water, I have a healthy fear and respect for it - I almost drowned as a 10-year-old on Green Pond, a lake in northern Jersey, while being pulled on a towboard.  When the wake from my uncle’s boat flipped me over, the board hit my head.  Floundering around under water, expecting to drown, my feet hit solid ground.  I stood up and opened my eyes to find myself standing waist deep in the “middle” of the lake!  All of which has left me with a very real fear of water – though I’m drawn to paddling a canoe on quiet waters or “swimming” only with floaties in shallow water.  Trust me, I’m not putting out to sea anytime soon!


You could also say that what has always amazed me about tugboats is their brute strength.  I could never understand how those little boats had the ability to tow a ship or push heavy-laden barges.  So, my own research led me a little deeper into understanding how they function.  First, I needed to acquaint myself with the language of the seaman/mariner or harborman.  A few of these I already knew, but I’m not going to admit those which I didn’t!


Aft = near or toward the stern/rear of a ship

Anchor = device to hold a boat/ship in place

Anchorage = place appropriate for anchoring

Barge = a boat without power of its own

Berth = a dock

Bow = the forward/front part of a ship

Dock = or berth, is an area where a ship loads/unloads freight or passengers;

Hawser = rope or cable used to moor a ship

Moor = to secure in place by cables or anchors

Mooring = the cables for, or the place of mooring, i.e. docking

On the nose = pushing by the bow

Pier = a dock, where a ship loads/unloads freight or passengers.

Port = left side when facing the bow/front of a ship, so named for the side a ship docks at.

Prow = the very front of a ship

Single screw = a single propeller

Starboard = right side when facing the bow/front of a ship

Stern = the rear or hind part of a ship

Twin screw = dual propellers

Towing on the hip = a dangerous tow but necessary, tying a barge or boat alongside the tug

Windward = toward the wind

For a great in-depth maritime glossary resource, Van Dorp referred me to John Doswell’s website:


Like their counterpart the steamboat, tugboats have gone through a series of changes including the conversion about 1870 from sidewheel paddles to rear propellers.  The first tug to be powered by a diesel engine was the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) No. 16 built in 1924.  Prior to diesel, the steam engines were fueled by wood which transitioned over to coal, to oil-fired boilers, and finally to diesel engines about the same time locomotives changed over from steam. 


Initially powered by steam, tugs have rightly been called the workhorses of the harbor.  Though small in size, and operating at a slow and steady speed, tugs have much more strength than first glance would give them.  Harbor, or “yard” tugs maneuvering around inside the quieter harbor waters might be as short as 50 feet, while tugs which are used out to sea can be up to 250 feet long, including those carrying supplies to and from oil rigs.


On the other hand, most barges are boats without an engine of their own and obviously require a tug to push or tow them whether on the Erie/Barge canal or in New York’s harbor.  Some barges are self-propelled with their own engines and don’t require assistance from tugs.  The ubiquitous tugs also carry work crews with their equipment and supplies to and from harbor construction sites, to and from oil rigs, and to and from various berths in port to deliver goods from one point to another.


With cables attached from tugs to the stern and bow of a ship, along with tugs trailing on the sides as necessary, they are called a “ship assist.”  Tugs are key to bringing a ship into port or assisting it on leaving its berth to head back out to sea.  The sheer size of a ship makes it difficult to turn itself easily in harbor.  They are also important in rescuing ships during storms, and towing or guiding ships into the protection of the harbor.


Especially useful are tugs guiding a ship into harbor where the depth and hazards are unfamiliar to an ocean captain, or where continuous shifting of the harbor floor creates ongoing challenges.  The winter of 1818 finds the earliest record of a tow involving a steam ferry, the Nautilus off Manhattan, towing a ship from Charleston into the busy New York harbor.  There followed several other tows by the Nautilus that winter, with the same service being provided in other U.S. ports.  Winter, with its frozen waters and other channel challenges, presented hazards to ocean-going sailing vessels, finally prompting their willingness to accept a tow and assistance into harbor to dock.  In 1828, the steamer tug, Rufus King, was the first tugboat built specifically for towing ships to and from dry dock in the New York harbor. 


The earliest tugs resembled typical “flat” paddlewheel steamboats, without the upswept bow and lower stern which we think of with today’s typical tugboat design.  As Van Dorp explained, “the high bow is to prevent water from coming over.  In fact, the difference between inland/river/canal tug design and those, like Urger, designed to work on the big lakes like Ontario and Michigan [versus those] out in the ocean is the low front vs. the high upswept bow.”


The older tugs had woven rope bumper mats hung from the bow and along the sides to protect them from damage by vessels they were towing or pushing, and gave them stability as they worked.  Today, “bow fenders” are usually made of rubber, or simply tires cut to fit the bow, with whole tires often seen hanging from a tug’s sides.  But, back in the “old days,” fender mats were woven from rope which had seen better days.  “A coil, or multiple lengths of manila, were bound together and then covered with a woven jacket of rope.  Over these bow fenders it was customary to spread a woven rope mat, into the surface of which were tied long hanks of rope threads.  These whiskers, as they were called, added padding to the bow fender; but, more importantly, they increased the surface area of the bow when it was pushed against the side of a ship or a barge.  They helped keep the bow from sliding along the side of the object being worked against.”  Apparently, these woven bumper mats were good for only about 3-4 years when hung over the bow and given heavy usage.  (Matteson, p. 221)


By the middle of the 19th century, the tugboat business had become vital to ships entering and leaving any harbor.  Nearing the end of the century, however, tug work was not as profitable a business with about 590 tugs plying the waters of New York’s harbor.  Many tugboat companies quit the business either due to a lack of profit or as aging owners retired.   


But, among the many successful tug companies still operating today are those begun by two Irish immigrants, Michael Moran and James McAllister.  Moran emigrated from Ireland in 1850, owned a canal barge by1855, and by 1860 had become part owner of the tug, Ida Miller.  Surviving heavy competition for over 150 years, the Moran Towing & Transportation Company still operates 81 tugs, 25 of which are in and around the New York harbor.  (Matteson, p. 97)


James McAllister, who worked on sailing barges in the late 1860s, purchased a small tug in 1876, the R. W. Burke.  By 1929, McAllister and his son owned a fleet of 110 lighters (which tow light barges) and 10 tugs.  Losing nearly everything during the 1930s’ Great Depression, the McAllister company has returned to prominence with 74 tugs, 21 of which are based around New York.  (Matteson, p. 97-98)  Photos of both Moran and McAllister tugs at work are regular features in Van Dorp’s Tugster blog at


By 1929 (New York harbor’s peak years were from 1900 to 1950), there were over 700 steam tugs (more than 800 tugs in total) plying the waters.  With an in-flux figure currently of roughly 200 tugs per Van Dorp, they continue actively “hauling barges of grain, nosing ocean liners into their berths, coaxing ferries through drifting ice or pushing garbage scows to landfills in Staten Island.”  (“Boats with Attitude,” by Liesl Schillinger, a review of “Tugboats of New York” by George Matteson; pub. December 4, 2005: )


The future of the New York harbor tugboats was, unfortunately, greatly affected in 1929 when the Great Depression set in.  By 1933, New York’s port business had been cut in half from its previous annual high of 27 million tons.  But, by 1941, however, port business had climbed to 31 million tons, only to crash again with the advent of World War II.  Yet, by 1943, the port reached another nadir, matching that of the 1929 pre-Depression era with the New York harbor ultimately doubling its volume of business in 1968 from that of 1929.  (Matteson, p.209)


Needless to say, there have been many causes to the ups and downs of harbor business over the years.  The railroads and over-the-road trucking were also affected during World War II with the very real danger of German U-boats cruising near our eastern seaboard.  Unfortunately, post-war harbor tug work never returned to its previous heyday.  Among other factors in the decline was the invention of refrigeration as homes no longer needed Hudson River ice; this profitable business had involved about 80 barges per week in and out of New York City alone.  Cement blocks were also now favored over brick made by companies along the Hudson.  The Hudson River brick-making businesses gradually shut down as a higher grade of exterior bricks was brought in from North Carolina and Belgium.  (Matteson, pp.209-214)


Though tugboats are no longer as numerous within the New York Harbor as they once were, they are still very much alive and hard at work assisting ships coming in and going out, and just working around inside the harbor.  Like the locomotive, tugs carry with them an aura of pride in their maritime history. "The tide comes in, then the tide goes out…  Every one of them was built for a purpose, worked a long, arduous career and was then retired…" Matteson wrote.  "To put it more fancifully, the boats steamed their way up [and] then dieseled back down.”  (Matteson, p. 209)


And, like the decrease in New York’s harbor freight necessitating less use of the hard-working tugs, so has the Erie/Barge Canal freight traffic declined over the years.  In fact, the New York Canal System seldom sees commercial barge and ship traffic these days, if at all.  Instead, the canal system now promotes recreational visits and pleasure boating, with some of the ancient towpaths restored for use as bike and hiking paths as Van Dorp described above.


Having fished as a child with my Dad on the Erie/Barge Canal at Palmyra’s Lock No. 29, I, too, have fond memories of the canal.  And someday I would love to paddle a canoe on a quiet section of the canal, or take a boat cruise down the canal, just to enjoy today’s quiet and placid natural scenery as compared to the noisy bustling of yesteryear’s commercial traffic…


NEXT:  Thanksgiving



A Long Haul, The Story of the New York State Barge Canal, by Michele A. McFee, pub. Purple Mountain Press, Ltd, Fleischmanns, New York, 1998.

Tugboats of New York, An Illustrated History, by George Matteson, pub. New York University Press, New York and London, 2005.

Linda Roorda

Fulton's Folly

Wind in the sails and manpower behind the oars have been the typical means of moving watercraft forward for as long as the history of mankind has been recorded.  Additionally, animals or manpower walking on a towpath along the shoreline of navigable bodies of water have also provided the necessary momentum to transport any manner of goods or people from here to there.


So, it was with a piqued, albeit mocking, interest followed by unequivocal excitement that the world took notice of the first river steamboat.  Built in 1807 under Robert Fulton’s direction, the North River Steamboat (or simply the North River or Clermont) plied the waters of the North River (later renamed the Hudson) with great success between New York City and Albany, New York.


Built under the collaboration of Robert Livingston, a wealthy investor and politician, and Robert Fulton an inventor and entrepreneur, the venture was soon mocked by skeptics.  After all, how could such an innovative boat, propelled by a steam engine, actually work?  “Fulton’s Folly!” their critics laughingly called it.  It’ll be a failure, they assured themselves.  Nothing like this can possibly succeed!


Born November 14, 1765, Robert Fulton grew up on a small farm near Little Britain, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  His father, who died in 1774, had been a close friend of Benjamin West, the painter.  Already in Robert’s early life he showed talent for inventions such as making “lead pencils, household utensils for his mother, and skyrockets for a town celebration.”  He even made his own hand-operated paddlewheel to use in a rowboat, and built a rifle with his original bore design.


At 17, Fulton left the farm for Philadelphia to learn a trade under a jeweler and put his art talent to work by painting miniature portraits.  On his own time, he continued to improve his overall artwork.  While working in the City of Brotherly Love, Fulton met Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait he painted, and was gradually introduced to many distinguished men from America’s early days.  Establishing a market for his drawings and paintings, he was able to help support his widowed mother financially.  Eventually, he purchased his own farm in Hopewell, Pennsylvania, and moved his mother and family there before he embarked for Europe in 1787 at age 23. 


Though welcomed by letters of recommendation, London’s upper society did not find Fulton’s paintings worth comparing to the best Europe had to offer.  It didn’t take long, though, for his inquisitive mind to become familiar with the recent inventions of propelling boats using a steam pump and a single mechanized wheel.  Soon, he began experimenting on his own.  After much trial and error, he decided that several paddles set in a revolving wheel at the rear of the boat would work even better than the original design he had encountered.


Realizing that his career as an artist was not to become the successful path he had envisioned, Fulton put his talent into engineering, specifically designing canals.  In 1796, he wrote “Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation” which was based on his futuristic vision of numerous small canals extending and interconnecting to create an efficient means of inland water transportation.  His extensive details for bringing boats up to higher elevations were impressive, if not before their time, and a precursor to the Erie Canal’s success.  Though the British built a few bridges based on his designs, they were definitely not prepared to accept this foreigner’s concepts of an efficient canal.


Continuing to experiment with his engineering acumen, in 1801 Fulton designed a submarine, the Nautilus, capable of diving underwater for 25 feet.  In 1804, he achieved success for the British Navy with subs that proved they could dive and surface properly, in addition to blowing up a test craft from a sub.  Both France’s Napoleon and the British admiralty were interested in Fulton’s submarines; but, unfortunately, they were skeptical of putting his ideas to the ultimate test at sea with lives at stake, and declined to include his submarines in their navies.


During this same time period, Fulton began to work on steamboat ideas which had been floating around in his mind for years.  His 1803 launch of a steamboat on the River Seine in Paris failed as the boat sank virtually immediately from the heavy weight of its engine.  However, building a second boat with a better design later that year, he proved a steamboat could definitely operate successfully.


Returning to the United States on the coattails of his 1806 European steamboat success, Fulton was awarded a $5,000 grant by Congress to work on his ideas.  Though not the inventor of steamboat technology (which is credited to John Fitch), Fulton had different concepts on how the technology could best be used.  He also had a goal to put his improved steamboat into commercial operation.  Thus, in the winter of 1806-1807, Fulton’s first steamboat began construction in New York City at the Charles Browne shipyard with a steam engine made by Boulton and Watt in Birmingham, England. 


For those who sail (including my friend Barb who has been among the crew on the rebuilt War of 1812 Lake Erie Brig Niagara) and are familiar with the terms, the North River Steamboat was 142 feet long, 14 feet wide with a maximum height of 62 feet, having a draught of 15 feet 9 inches, displacing 1210 tons, a paddle wheel on each side with each being 4 feet wide and 15 feet in diameter, maintaining an average speed of 4.7 mph.  See:



I admit to being confused by discrepancies in the above measurements per research of various reports online compared with those recorded by Fulton.  He noted that “[his] first steamboat on the Hudson’s River was 150 feet long, 13 feet wide, drawing 2 feet of water, bow and stern 60 degrees:  she displaced 86.40 cubic feet, equal 100 tons of water; her bow presented 26 feet to the water, plus and minus the resistance of 1 foot running 4 miles an hour.”


And yet a third set of dimensions is given online in “Robert Fulton, His Life and Its Results” by Robert H. Thurston from 1891.  Fulton’s first American steamer (“Clermont/North River”) which he intended to use to transport passengers and goods up and down the North River (renamed Hudson River) was “…133 feet long, 18 feet beam, and 7 feet depth of hold.  The engine was of 24 inches diameter of cylinder, 4 feet stroke of piston; and its boiler was 20 feet long, 7 feet high, and 8 feet wide. The tonnage was computed at 160.  After its first season, its operation having satisfied all concerned of the promise of the venture, its hull was lengthened to 140 feet, and widened to 16.5 feet, thus being completely rebuilt…”


The North River “also carried two masts with spars, rigging, and sails, likely a foremast with square sail and a mizzen mast with fore-and-aft sail (spanker), with the steam engine placed amidships, directly behind the paddle wheel's drive gear machinery.”


The editor of the Nautical Gazette, Mr. Samuel Ward Stanton, recorded that "The bottom of the boat was formed of yellow pine plank 1.5 inches thick, tongued and grooved, and set together with white lead.  This bottom or platform was laid in a transverse platform and molded out with batten and nails.  The shape of the bottom being thus formed, the floors of oak and spruce were placed across the bottom; the spruce floors being 4 x 8 in. and 2 feet apart.  The oak floors were reserved for the ends, and were both sided and molded 8 inches.  Her top timbers (which were of spruce and extended from a log that formed the bridge to the deck) were sided 6 inches and molded at heel, and both sided and molded 4 inches at the head.  She had no guards when first built and was steered by a tiller.  Her draft of water was 28 inches."


Most often called the Clermont after the North River estate of the boat’s financier, Robert Livingston, the day finally arrived when Fulton’s North River Steamboat was ready to be launched.  August 17, 1807 saw the steamboat set to begin its intended trip up the North River from New York City to Albany. 


Considerably different from all other traditional sailing vessels of the era, this boat was outfitted with a steam engine and upright (not slanted) smokestack as developed by Watts and reworked by Fulton.  The North River had a paddlewheel halfway back on each side, a flat bottom with walled sides, and a square stern (rear).  How odd she must have looked to bystanders! 


As the North River was readied to begin her voyage with Captain Andrew Brink at the helm, crowds gathered to watch.  Imagine Fulton’s consternation when the steam engine stalled fairly soon after it was started.  With the steam engine belching forth a horrendous noise, it spewed out flames within a thick, dark smoke.  The people lining the shores laughed and mockingly called this strange apparition “Fulton’s Folly.”  Apparently, most expected it to explode any minute or roll onto its side and sink to the river bottom.  But, half an hour later, Fulton and his crew had the problem fixed and the North River began her maiden voyage with the paddlewheels turning and splashing in tandem. 


After traveling 150 miles north from New York City in only 32 hours with an over-night stop, North River reached her destination in Albany, taking just 30 hours for the return trip.  Fulton wrote to the editor of the “American Citizen” (a reputable newspaper of New York City in the early 1800s):  

“…As the success of my experiment gives me great hopes that such boats may be rendered of great importance to my country, to prevent erroneous opinions and give some satisfaction to my friends of useful improvements you will have the goodness to publish the following statement of facts: - I left New York on Monday at one o'clock, and arrived at Clermont, the seat of Chancellor Livingston, at one o'clock on Tuesday time, twenty-four hours; distance, one hundred and ten miles.  On Wednesday I departed from the Chancellor's at nine in the morning, and arrived at Albany at five in the afternoon: distance, forty miles; time, eight hours.  The sum is one hundred and fifty miles in thirty-two hours - equal to near five miles an hour.  

On Thursday, at nine o'clock in the morning, I left Albany, and arrived at the Chancellor's at six in the evening.  I started from thence at seven, and arrived at New York at four in the afternoon: time, thirty hours; space run through, one hundred and fifty miles, equal to five miles an hour.  Throughout my whole way, both going and returning, the wind was ahead.  No advantage could be derived from my sails.  The whole has therefore been performed by the power of the steam-engine.  

I am, Sir your obedient servant, ROBERT FULTON.”


While the North River was publicly acclaimed as the first successful commercial steamboat, Fulton also wrote to his friend, Joel Barlow, “I had a light breeze against me the whole way, both going and coming, and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam engine.  I overtook many sloops and schooners…and parted with them as if they had been at anchor.  The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved.  The morning I left New York…while we were putting off from the wharf, which was crowded with spectators, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks.  This is the way in which ignorant men compliment what they call philosophers and projectors.  Having employed much time, money and zeal in accomplishing this work, it gives me, as it will you, great pleasure to see it fully answer my expectations.”


In his 1870 book Great Fortunes, James Dabney McCabe quoted a former resident of Poughkeepsie who described the scene of the North River’s passing:  “It was in the early autumn of the year 1807 that a knot of villagers was gathered on a high bluff just opposite Poughkeepsie, on the west bank of the Hudson, attracted by the appearance of a strange, dark-looking craft, which was slowly making its way up the river.  Some imagined it to be a sea-monster, while others did not hesitate to express their belief that it was a sign of the approaching judgment.  What seemed strange in the vessel was the substitution of lofty and straight black smoke-pipes, rising from the deck, instead of the gracefully tapered masts that commonly stood on the vessels navigating the stream, and, in place of the spars and rigging, the curious play of the working-beam and pistons, and the slow turning and splashing of the huge and naked paddle-wheels, met the astonished gaze.  The dense clouds of smoke, as they rose wave upon wave, added still more to the wonderment of the rustics.”


Passenger service began in earnest on September 4, 1807 at a cost of $7 per ticket.  Scheduled to leave New York City each Saturday at 6 p.m., returning from Albany every Wednesday sharply at 8 a.m., the North River took about 36 hours for each leg of the journey.  She made scheduled stops at various towns along the North/Hudson River, enjoying complete success with no other ships like her in operation at the time.  


During the winter months of late 1807 and into 1808, the North River Steamboat was rebuilt to refine and enhance her capabilities.  Because the federal government had lost her original registration, the second document listed the owners as Livingston and Fulton with her name as North River Steamboat of Clermont.  The North River’s extensive rebuilding included a widening by four feet to make her more stable, with an enlarged tiller.  A poop deck and other changes were added topsides, including a roof to cover the exposed engine house midships.  It was also decided to enclose her twin paddlewheels above the waterline to quiet the splashing and to prevent floating debris from being picked up and tossed at and damaging the hull.


With considerable commercial success financially for Livingston (who died in 1813) and Fulton, the North River Steamboat was followed by Car of Neptune in 1809 and Paragon in 1811.  The North River was retired from service in 1814, with a model on display at the Hudson River Maritime Museum.  Fulton died of pneumonia February 24, 1815.  By that time, however, he had built a total of 17 steamboats with an additional six more being built to his specifications by other ship builders.  As of 1819, nine steamboats were operational on the Hudson River; by 1840, however, that number had grown to more than 100 commercial steamboats plying the river waters with the steamboat era in full swing.


And therein lay the genius of Fulton’s Folly.  Although John Fitch was the inventor of steamboat technology, Robert Fulton’s genius was in knowing what the needs of the market were, and how to adapt a product to meet those needs and excel in the field.  “Fulton’s Folly” proved to be not only a success story but a technological vision that projected well into the future of the 19th century.


NEXT:  The Tug Boat (including an interview with a teaching deckhand on the Erie Canal tug “Urger”).


My Sources:


Linda Roorda

Repost from October 2014 – Clinton’s Ditch, aka The Erie Canal


First proposed in 1807, digging of the Erie Canal was finally begun at Rome, New York on July 4, 1817 with Gov. DeWitt Clinton breaking ground.  That was only fitting since he was the moving force behind completing this monumental feat.  When the entire length opened on October 26, 1825 from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo and Lake Erie, the Erie Canal was an engineering marvel of its day.  Mockingly called Clinton’s Ditch or Clinton’s Folly, others considered it the Eighth Wonder of the World at its completion.  But, why and how did this venture begin?


Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant in Rochester, had been sent to debtor’s prison after going bankrupt in trying to get his product to market.  While in prison, he dreamed of a better way to transport goods.  In 1807, he began writing a series of articles in the General Messenger newspaper with his details of a proposed canal route, along with the costs and benefits of such a venture.


Hawley’s cause was taken up by various politicians who, in turn, promoted the idea in Washington, DC.  However, President Thomas Jefferson scoffed and called the proposal “a little short of madness.”  Not to be deterred, in 1810 the promoters presented their idea to New York State Senator DeWitt Clinton, a well-respected politician and former mayor of New York City.  With Clinton’s support for the canal as state senator, the measure passed the New York Legislature.  Clinton then gained the people’s vote by becoming governor in 1817, with a second term concluding in 1822.  As governor, work on his legacy began in earnest even though some mockingly called it Clinton’s Ditch or Clinton’s Folly.  Otherwise, more appropriately known as the Erie Canal, it was so named for Lake Erie into which it drained.  and


Ultimately, the Erie Canal made New York a leading port and financial center of the world at that time.  It was a critical supply route for the North during the Civil War, and hastened social and economic changes for our young America.  DeWitt Clinton had said of New York City, The city will, in the course of time, become the granary of the world, the emporium of commerce, the seat of manufactures, the focus of great moneyed operations.  And before the revolution of a century, the whole island of Manhattan, covered with inhabitants and replenished with a dense population, will constitute one vast city.”  Quite a visionary he was, to say the least!


During the 18th and 19th centuries, populations and a good transportation network were typically confined to the coastal regions.  As discussed in a previous article, roads were typically not conducive to good travel, let alone rapid travel.  Roads were muddy from rain or winter’s snow melt while the deeply rutted roads remained embedded with hard-packed ruts when the surface dried in the summer heat.  They were also rocky, marshy, and often riddled with holes from digging wildlife and local roaming hogs. 


The Erie Canal’s completion was in an era when goods were still transported by pack animals, by draft animals pulling a wagon, and by smaller river boats with portage (manual carrying of boats) between rivers.  There were no steamships or railroads available yet.  Around 1800, it took about 2-1/2 weeks to travel over land from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio, and about 4 weeks to reach Detroit, Michigan. 


With its total length extending for 363 miles, the Erie Canal was longer than any other canal in Europe or early America.  Cut through deep rock and passing through marshy swamps and heavily wooded forests from Albany to Buffalo, aqueducts were also built to carry water over rivers and steep ravines.  The Erie Canal allowed for faster travel for people and merchandise from New York City, up the Hudson River to Albany, from there by canal to Buffalo and Lake Erie, and thus to points beyond on the far western frontier.  Thus, with the canal providing “rapid” transport between New York City and the Great Lakes, transportation time and expense were drastically cut in the process. 


The canal was also an obvious boost to the population growth of western New York.  My extended McNeill relatives and their families are proof of that as they removed from Carlisle, Schoharie County to settle the towns of Lyons, Clyde and Savannah in Wayne County where they farmed or worked in factories.  Another McNeill branch, with a son named DeWitt Clinton McNeill, apparently used the Erie Canal as they traveled back and forth between Wayne County, New York and Dundee, Monroe County, Michigan. 


As a child, living in Wayne County, my dad took us fishing on the Erie Canal at a lock near Palmyra.  I can still picture a boat coming through the lock in my mind’s eye over 50 years ago. 


Originally, 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep, the canal was able to float boats which carried 30 tons of freight.  It included 18 aqueducts to take the canal over ravines and rivers, had 83 locks, and rose 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie at Buffalo’s shore.  From 1835 to 1862, it was enlarged due to the almost immediate overcrowding on the original canal.  That expansion brought the canal up to 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep, able to handle boats carrying 240 tons, while reducing the number of locks to 72.  As they dug, dirt and rock were piled on the downside to form a 10-foot wide towpath, with the dirt creating a berm to hold back the water on the other side.  Barges were pulled by horses or mules with a driver called a hoggee (HO-gee, young boys or men).  Then, in 1903, the Barge Canal was begun which is still in use today.  Finished in 1918, it followed a new route in many areas and did not need a towpath since many boats of that era were self-propelled.





It should also not come as a surprise to anyone that the advanced engineering technology necessary for the canal’s construction came from the Netherlands.  The Dutch had implemented their knowledge of building canals and holding back the sea for centuries, and were the obvious engineering source of choice. 


As the canal was built, the men also encountered not only daunting barriers in the mountains but infection.  Malaria killed over 1000 in one hot and humid summer season alone. 


In 1823, the Niagara Escarpment in far western New York required five locks be built in a 3-mile distance to carry the canal over the solid rock.  Draft animals pulled a “slip scraper” (similar to today’s bulldozer) in order to move the dirt and rock.  The canal was lined with stone set in clay while the bottom was lined with clay.  (Examples of the original structures still stand, available in photos online; see end of article.)  Aqueducts were built to redirect the flow of water with one being 950 feet long, spanning 800 feet of river.  The stonework required the expertise of German masons who later went on to construct innumerable buildings in New York City, while the crews and engineers on the canal acquired new expertise as skilled laborers in their own right.


Often, families lived on canal boats where the father was the captain, and the mother cooked and cleaned for the family and the working crew.  When old enough, children often became hoggees, walking alongside or riding the mules and horses to lead them at a steady gait.  Today, the Erie Canal and Barge Canal are used for pleasure boats, fishermen, and hikers and cyclists who follow the former towpaths where the hoggees, mules and horses once walked.


Thousands of Americans and Europeans used this new waterway for its speed and ease of traveling across the upper midsection of New York state.  Commerce expanded rapidly as the canal provided a quicker and cheaper means of transporting many types of goods and foods to towns and cities along its route.  Many travelers recorded their observations and experiences in journals, and sketched or painted scenes along the way which were often published in journals and popular magazines as they expounded on the novelty of this new mode of transportation.



George Harvey: Pittsford on the Erie Canal, 1837 ... courtesy: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester  -

For the full version of this painting, go to


One such traveler who kept a diary of his journey (later published) was 20-year-old Jonathan Pearson who traveled the Erie Canal in the summer of 1833.  On July 25th, he wrote:  “I have often heard that riding on the canal is the most unpleasant way of conveyence [sic] and that the country is uninteresting ... but I never was more agreeably disappointed, for I must say that it is thus far one of the most pleasurable jaunts of my life.”  And,The moon is waxing toward her full and every heart beats for joy at the noble scene.  How pleasant too, to see the brilliant lamps of numberless boats passing and repassing upon the smooth unruffled surface of the Canal, to hear the song of the jolly boatman or driver-boy, to see the boats sweeping by freighted with the riches of the West.”  Jonathan Pearson, Diary, July 25, 1833


At Little Falls that same day, Pearson had written:  “This part of the Canal was very expensive and difficult because for nearly two miles it was made by blasting a hard flinty rock from the precipice on the one hand and building a wall from 20 to 30 ft. high on the other.  Here are five [locks] within a mile and across the river is built a beautiful aqueduct leading to a basin from which all the goods of the village are landed. This aqueduct is built in the most durable manner on three arches, one main arch and two smaller, but of how long a spring, I know not. The limestone of which it is built is very fine cut and cemented in the most compact manner. It is really a beautiful work, uniting the conveniences of art with the taste of architecture.”  (for an engraving of the Little Falls canal section see


The impressive narrow channel passage at Little Falls brought comments from many others, including 

Simon A. O'Ferrall in 1832:  “The crages (sic, craigs) here are stupendous - irregular and massive piles of rock, from which springs the lofty pine and cedar, are heaped in frightful disorder on each other, and give the scene a terrifically grand appearance.”


Others were impressed by the amount of noise and activity which rapid growth brought to many canal towns on its route:  “Rochester.  The site of this flourishing city of 12,000 souls was in 1812 a field of stumps!  Now it's as matter-of-fact a town as the union contains, with full compliment (sic) of churches, markets, inns, mills, banks, and bustling mortals."  (David Wilkie, 1837)


The canal had originally gone through downtown Rochester and crossed over the Genesee River in an aqueduct.  With the enlargement of the canal, this aqueduct was replaced because the original leaked; the improved aqueduct exists today as the Broad Street Bridge.  When the Barge Canal was built, it bypassed the city of Rochester, going through the Genesee River south of the city instead.


Later, on August 11, 1833, Pearson penned his honest observation of the coarse life among canalmen:  "On the canal there is no Sabbath.  I must say that I never witnessed so much immorality and vice, profanity and drinking in the same length of time before in my life.... Canal men are ... as a whole ... a coarse and untaught set of vagabonds whose chief delight is to carouse and fight." (Jonathan Pearson, Diary, August 11, 1833 -


The journalist, Professor Jonathan Pearson, was born in 1813 at Chichester, New Hampshire and died in 1887 at Schenectady, New York.  He graduated in 1835 from Union College at Schenectady, remaining there as a professor of chemistry and natural history.  He also gave an extensive amount of his time to research the history and genealogies of families in the Schenectady and Albany, New York areas.  His documentation provides a wealth of family data for the genealogist in books on the early settlers of Schectady and Albany, particularly the Dutch.  Genealogies of the First Settlers of the Ancient County of Albany from 1630 to 1800 (first published in 1872), and Contributions for Genealogies of the First Settlers of the Patent and City of Schenectady, from 1662 to 1800 (first published in 1873).  He also contributed numerous articles to both the New England Historic and Genealogical Register and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, along with many volumes on the early records of both cities, including “Early Records of the City and County of Albany, and Colony of Rensselaerswyck, (1656-1675)  Translated from the original Dutch, with notes ( published 1869).


I can confirm the incredible amount of effort Pearson put into his work above, invaluable genealogical resources for that area of New York, used in my personal family research.  One should always seek records as close to original sources as possible to prove what is published, and I found him to be accurate in his work.  To an avid genealogist, his work makes for an interesting read of colonial life with many ancient records written in archaic 17th and 18th century language.


The inspiration for this article was a book given to me by my friends, Hugh and Kathy, “A Pair of Winners.”  By Jane G. Wilson (published by author in 2000), it was written after she researched her ancestors and discovered their intriguing story.  She learned her great-great-grandfather, a successful businessman, had left Connecticut with his family in 1828 after selling everything he owned and purchasing land in Rochester, New York.  Mysteriously drowning in the Hudson River, his body and money were never found.  Wilson researched the route the widow traveled with her children to settle their land in Rochester.  This book gives an accurate description of travel on the Erie Canal, including the good and the bad.  They encountered hoggees, young boys, who had been beaten but expected back on the job soon afterward.  Characters on the canal could be evil and rough, but many others proved to be kind and caring. 


Travel back in time as Wilson’s words describe her ancestors’ journey.  “The riverfront at Albany, where the Erie Canal joined the Hudson River, was a center of activity.  Men were in a hurry to check bills of lading, sign up freight, and attract passengers.  Above the din of high-pitched steamboat whistles, low horns of canal-boats, dogs barking, and horses whinnying, church bells chimed the eleven o’clock hour.  In the harbor the stubby canalboats from upstate New York nestled among the tall sailing vessels from across the ocean.”  (Wilson, p. 1)  As passengers on the Sally D, the family ate hearty meals prepared by the captain’s wife.  But, Wilson also describes the whipping of a ten-year old hoggee in one town.  When attempts were made to stop the whipping, the captain angrily informed the bystanders that the boy had made their boat late which in turn was sufficient reason for the whipping. 


After completion of the Erie Canal, six lateral canals were eventually built to provide routes for extended market availability.  They did not provide optimal service for as long as the Erie Canal, but included:

1) Chenango – Binghamton to Utica

2) Black River – Lyons Falls to Rome

3) Oneida Lake – Oneida Lake to Higginsville

4) Crooked Lake – Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake

5) Chemung – Elmira to Seneca Lake

6) Genesee Valley – Olean to Rochester.


The Genesee Valley Canal (125 miles long with 112 locks) ran through the small village of Houghton where my three children went to college.  “Packet boats provided passenger service from Rochester to Olean.  Pulled by four to six horses, these packets managed speeds up to 6 miles an hour.  Stage coach drivers sometimes added to the pleasure (or anxiety) of their passengers by racing with the passenger boats.  During winter months… some of the boatmen, often rough men, spent their time at the taverns in the area.  Racing horses on the mile-long stretch of straight flat road south of Houghton Creek was a favorite recreation.  Because of this pasttime, the community was sometimes called Jockey Street.”  (And You Shall Remember… A Pictorial History of Houghton College, by Frieda A. Gillette and Katherine W. Lindley, pub. Houghton College, 1982, pp. 19-21.)


In 2000, for the 175th Anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal, the Mandeville Gallery of Union College, Schenectady, New York put together an exhibition in three parts entitled "Monument of Progress."  Rachel Seligman, Director/Curator of the Mandeville Gallery, included paintings and prints from many collections.  The exhibition ran from September 4 to October 29, 2000, with a portion later traveling throughout New York State.  It offered viewers an opportunity to see original engineering drawings of the Erie Canal with prints and descriptions of canal sights, while providing insight into the complex structures of the canal by those who built it.


* Erie Canal Images - Old prints, paintings, and postcards -

* Traces of the Old Erie Canal - Photographs of the remains of old Erie Canal sites and structures, primarily those from the enlarged Erie Canal era (post 1862) -

* Tour the Old Erie Canal - A journey from Buffalo to Albany by a clickable map of the Erie Canal path, incorporating material from both the Images and Traces sections above with additional material -

* Erie Canal Cruises – the site provides data, with the Colonial Belle available for narrated informational cruises and relaxing dinner cruises -


Next for November:  The Lost Skill of Putting Food By


My Sources: - Canal History - DeWitt Clinton  175th Anniversary

Linda Roorda

What were the memorable news events of our ancestors’ days some 200 years ago?  What concerns did their world have?


Perusing the daily newspaper has been a favorite pastime for many of us, and it was no different for our ancestors during the last few centuries.  However, we’re more apt to read the news online with today’s rapidly expanding technology as compared to the age-old newsprint in hand.  We also seem to know the world’s affairs almost as soon as they happen, thanks to the new technology, far different from the time it took for news to travel about two hundred years ago.  And so, I thought it would be interesting to review the historical background of a few noteworthy events which made the headlines back in our ancestors’ days.


January 8, 1815 – British defeated at New Orleans; War of 1812 already concluded –

The British were intent on destroying that upstart of a nation across the pond and bringing the rebels back under their control.  In 1803, they began forcing American sailors to serve on British ships.  Eventually, the U.S. had no choice but to declare war on Britain in 1812.  The Americans won decisively at the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813 (see this column’s article at:; but, losses soon followed for the U.S., including the burning of Washington, D.C. in August 1814.  In September 1814, the Americans won the Battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain, followed by another win later that month at Baltimore, Maryland.  There, at Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key wrote our nation’s anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”


Still, the King’s men were intent on hampering or taking over the young nation’s ports of call along the Gulf, particularly the strategically important seaport at New Orleans.  Though those involved were unaware war was officially over, this battle proved the United States of America was quite capable of defending itself. 


Maj. General Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory,” a former Revolutionary War prisoner of the British, told his wife, “I owe to Britain a debt of retaliatory vengeance; should our forces meet I trust I shall pay the debt.”  Jackson, who had successfully blocked British forays along the Gulf Coast for the past year, now faced Britain’s highly-respected Lt. General Sir Edward Pakenham and his 8,000 men, many of whom had helped defeat Napoleon in Europe just the year before. 


Jackson, on the other hand, commanded an army of about only 4,500.  His men included “army regulars, frontier militiamen, free blacks, New Orleans aristocrats, Choctaw tribesmen.”  He had also gained the assistance of Jean Lafitte’s Baratarian pirates who were more than familiar with the Mississippi River’s myriad outlets into the Gulf of Mexico. 


On December 23, Jackson made an effective nighttime attack on the British.  He then had his men build up and defend the inner Rodriguez Canal and surrounding earthworks.  The Redcoats expected to easily defeat the “dirty shirts,” their name for the undisciplined militia, but skirmishes on Dec. 28, 1814 and Jan. 1, 1815 did not end with their taking a clear upper hand. 


Pursuing a two-pronged frontal attack on Jan. 8, 1815, expecting an easy win, the British instead met strong resistance as they advanced on Jackson’s line of defense.  When the British Col. Robert Rennie and his men overtook an American defensework, Rennie was shot and killed as the Americans retreated.  Without leadership, Rennie’s own men began to scatter in retreat, mown down by heavy fire from what they had all considered to be a worthless ragtag army.


Pakenham’s men faced an even more difficult situation than Rennie’s.  While the British continued to advance, American cannon bore down on the ranks of Redcoats with deadly fire as frontiersmen took aim with devastating accuracy.  During the melee of defeat and retreat amidst brave attempts to move forward, Pakenham and his unit took direct fire with the death of this fearless leader within minutes of his being wounded.  Although his troops managed to take an American artillery position, it was too late.  Within a brief 30-minute period, the British troops found themselves recoiling under the heavy loss of over 2,000 men, including commanders, while less than 100 men were killed among Jackson’s untrained troops.


As the British retreated to the safety of the Gulf of Mexico’s open waters, Andrew Jackson returned to the heart of New Orleans.  There, the city celebrated by playing “Yankee Doodle” in his honor.  Jackson addressed his men after the battle and “hailed their ‘undaunted courage’ in saving the country from invasion…”  And Washington, D.C.’s newspapers called him “the national savior.” 


The War of 1812 has gone down in history as essentially a tie; but, Jackson’s victory was considered the winning conclusion to the war by the people, with his fame later propelling him into the White House as president.  Above quotes and battle history based on


Listen to Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” from 1959 with great historical paintings:


January 30, 1815:  Burned U.S. Library of Congress Reestablished –

On this date, President Thomas Jefferson sold his prized personal library to reestablish the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  The first library was set up by President John Adams; and, with books ordered from London in 1801, the first library catalog of April 1802 included 964 volumes.  When the British army invaded Washington, and burned the Capitol twelve years later during the War of 1812, there had been some 3000 volumes in the Library of Congress.


When Jefferson learned of the tragic loss of the government’s library, he wrote his friend, Samuel H. Smith (a newspaper publisher), requesting that his own library be tendered as replacement.  With a library consisting of between “9 and 10,000 volumes,” Jefferson was willing to accept whatever price Congress offered, noting that "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from this collection . . . there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer."  (Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith. September 21, 1814. Manuscript letter. Page 2. Manuscript Division (210) 


With Jefferson’s library called the “largest and finest in the country,” the U. S. government purchased 6,487 volumes from the former president in January 1815.  However, there was a second fire in 1851 which destroyed roughly two-thirds of the 55,000 volumes it then held, with the loss of about two-thirds of the original Jefferson library.  In just a few short years, most of the books that had been lost were once again generously replaced by Congress.


February 15, 1815:  A Treaty of Peace –  

Boston’s Columbian Sentinel, Wednesday morning:

“PEACE – SAFETY, and the Prospect of returning COMMERCE, and PROSPERITY…  On Monday morning last, a few minutes before Eight o’clock, we received by an Express in Thirty-two hours from New-York, the following Letter, which was immediately issued from this office in a Handbill: -


To Benjamin Russell, Esq. Centinel Office, Boston &c.

New-York, Feb 11, 1815, Saturday evening, 10 o’clock.

Sir, I hasten to acquaint you, for the information of the public, of the arrival here this afternoon, of His Britannic Majesty’s sloop of war Favorite in which has come passenger, Mr. Carroll, American Messenger, having in his possession A TREATY OF PEACE between this country and Great Britain, signed on the 24th December last.  Mr. Carroll… showed to a friend of mine… the pacquet containing the Treaty, and a London newspaper of the last date of December, announcing the signing of the Treaty.

It depends, however… on the act of the President to suspend hostilities on this side…

This city is in a perfect uproar of joy, shouts, illuminations, &c. &c.”


Another column in the above newspaper entitled, “Late From England” noted breaking news under the caption “Great And Cheering News:”   “That a TREATY OF PEACE between the United States and Great Britain was concluded in Ghent, the 24th December; was RATIFIED by the Prince Regent the 30th; reached New York on Saturday evening last; was no doubt received in Washington yesterday; will probably be laid before the Senate today...”


I find interesting the length of time it took for the courier to reach Boston from New York City.  Little wonder that the War of 1812 continued being fought for several months past the signing of said treaty.


April 5-10, 1815:  Eruption of Volcano on Mt. Tambora, Indonesia  (Indonesia is a large island southeast of Vietnam, south of the Philippines, and west of Papua New Guinea)


Sailors for the British East India Company were at anchor on Benares in the port at Makassar of Sulawesi on April 5, 1815.  They were witness to the first eruption of Indonesia’s Mt. Tambora.  Thinking they had heard cannon fire from the south, they sailed off to investigate, thinking pirates might be making raids from hidden coves.  Finding nothing over a three-day search, they returned to port.  Five days later on the 10th, however, the world’s largest volcanic eruption ever recorded took place.  This time, the Benares’ captain reported that their ship was “rocked back and forth in the calm waters of the harbour” by the loud concussive explosions.  He also noted that “it was apparent that some extraordinary occurrence had taken place.”  What an understatement that was!  Mt. Tambora had just exploded… big time!


Benares again sailed off to investigate the massive explosion.  Leaving Makassar on April 11th, they found they were soon enveloped by utter and complete darkness in the middle of the day.  “’I never saw anything to equal it in the darkest night; it was impossible to see your hand when held up close to your eyes,’ the captain wrote.  When a thin and dirty daylight returned the following morning, it showed a foot of ash lying on the deck of the ship, and before long they were creeping through great mats of floating pumice and broken trees.  On 18 April they finally sighted the devastated coastline of Sumbawa, and came ashore on an island that had changed beyond all recognition.  Large ships had been tossed high above the tideline; the thick cloaking of forest had been scorched to a grey wasteland, and houses had collapsed under the weight of the falling ash.  But the biggest change of all was in Tambora itself:  the top 1,500 metres of the mountain had simply vanished.”


The amount of ash spewed into the atmosphere/stratosphere caused global climate change which affected the entire world.  Thousands died as a direct result of the eruption due to disease and famine from the far-reaching effects of ash pollutants on global weather.  The unusual weather patterns that ensued in 1816 made for a difficult growing season with crops not reaching harvest stage, even here in the American Northeast.  It was known as the year without a summer, affecting many nations around the world.


Coming in January 2016, this Homestead column will feature “The Great Snows” including the after effects of Mt. Tambora’s eruption following other volcanic eruptions, all of which caused a major global climate change.  We haven’t seen anything like it in our modern world of ever-changing climate patterns.


Painting of Chichester Canal, showing the vivid sunsets caused by the volcanic aerosols of Tambora. J.M.W. Turner / Public Domain).


July 9, 1815:  First natural gas well discovered in the U.S. –

Today’s Charleston, West Virginia was home to the first natural gas well.  Drilling for salt brine, Capt. James Wilson never expected the fire that blazed up from the well!  By 1816, the city of Baltimore was using natural gas to light street lamps.  But, not until 1841 did William Tompkins put the natural gas to use with his salt furnace to evaporate the brine to make salt, as other manufacturers in the region found ways to make various products from the natural gas.


Natural gas was not unknown throughout the Appalachians.  Early settlers to the region who arrived in the 1600s noticed the surreal natural “burning springs,” as did George Washington while traveling through the mountains in 1770.  Oil and gas were discovered together in 1806 in what is now West Virginia, with the same year seeing the first custom gas drilling tools being manufactured.  Natural gas was also discovered in 1821 at Fredonia, NY, being used in burners for the first time to light a home’s interior on June 4, 1825 for a reception held in Gen’l Lafayette’s honor.


Natural Gas Timeline:


June 18, 1815:  Napoleon Concedes Defeat at Waterloo – Allied forces led by Wellington, and supported by Prussian troops under Blucher, force Napoleon’s surrender.


Known as “one of the greatest military strategists in history,” Napoleon came to fame during the French Revolution of the late 1790s.  Though France had come to the aid of the newly-formed United States during its own Revolutionary War, the U.S. decided it had no choice but to declare neutrality during the French Revolution.


Defeating most of Europe by 1799, and taking control of the French government, Napoleon became emperor over a vast domain with his 1804 crowning at the Notre Dame Cathedral.  However, his power began to wane in 1812 when he lost Spain to Britain’s Duke of Wellington.  Following complete defeat in 1814, Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba.  Managing to escape in 1815, he once again set himself up as a leader in France.  The Frenchmen who opposed him then formed the “Seventh Coalition” which joined with other allies, including Austrians, Russians and Prussians, coming under Wellington’s command of British, Dutch and German troops.


Overseeing his new Grand Army, Napoleon was determined to defeat the allied forces by isolating each army to rout them individually.  As he engaged the western allies, the Prussians joined the fray from the east.  On June 16th, Napoleon’s troops defeated the Prussians led by Gebhard von Blucher at Ligny in what is now Belgium.


Sending about 33,000 men east to ensure the Prussians went home in defeat, Napoleon was left with about 72,000 men.  With this sizeable contingent, he planned to attack the line held by the Duke of Wellington on Sunday, June 18.  With troops numbering about 68,000, Wellington was positioned to defend the small village of Waterloo, south of Brussels (now in modern Belgium, then part of the Netherlands).  Making a tactical error in not taking advantage of his own position and timing, Napoleon did not order an attack until late morning… apparently so the wet ground could dry.  As the Prussians dodged the French army, they swung back around to the west and rejoined the allied forces later that afternoon.


Under French Marshal Michel Ney, Wellington’s troops were hit hard.  It was Napoleon’s intent to keep Blucher’s Prussians from joining Wellington, thus forcing Wellington back toward the sea.  Instead, Napoleon faced a renewed attack by the returning Prussians, making him unable to send sufficient men to aid Ney’s attack on Wellington.  This, in turn, gave Wellington the ability to regroup and repel the French.  As the allied forces faced them along the western front, and with the Prussians’ renewed advance from the east, Napoleon’s army felt the squeeze.  Thrown into disarray, they began a confused retreat. 


It has been believed that Napoleon was exhausted and not in good health at the time of this battle, which contributed to errors in his normally highly-skilled military leadership.  With defeat at Waterloo ending his one hundred days of rule, Napoleon surrendered at Rochefort and voluntarily left France as King Louis XVII returned to the throne. 


Though once imprisoned himself by Napoleon, Marquis de Lafayette attempted to arrange for Napoleon to sail to America, France’s former ally.,_Marquis_de_Lafayette  Instead, the British sent Napoleon into exile on the island of Saint Helena.  There, Napoleon died at the relatively young age of 51 in May 1821, the cause of death believed to be stomach cancer.  In 1840, his body was returned to Paris for a “magnificent funeral… conveyed through the Arc de Triomphe, and entombed under the dome of the Invalides.”


December 15, 1815:  Rossini Commissioned to Write Il Barbiere di Siviglia (or, The Barber of Seville).


Italy’s Gioachino Rossini was hired to write the score for this two-act opera which opened at the Teatro Argentina in Rome on February 20, 1816.  “The Barber of Seville” has been considered “one of the greatest masterpieces of comedy within music.”  Two hundred years later, it continues to remain a very popular opera.


Rossini’s opera was composed for the play by French playwright, Pierre Beaumarchais.  The two-act play centers around Bartolo who wants to marry his niece, Rosina, for her inherited wealth.  Falling in love with Rosina, the wealthy Count Almaviva, woos Rosina.  Not meeting requirements set by Bartolo to marry her, Almaviva enlists the local barber, Figaro, to assist him in pursuing Rosina.  Disguised as Lindoro, a poor music student of Basilio (a friend of Bartolo), Almaviva freely enters the home to give Rosina music lessons and proposes to her.  Then, while shaving Bartolo, Figaro removes the key which unlocks Rosina’s window.  With Bartolo making false accusations against Lindoro, Bartolo makes Rosina angry enough with Lindoro (the disguised Count Almavivia) that she promises to marry Bartolo (her guardian) instead.  However, that night, Almaviva and Figaro enter Rosina’s window using the key.  Convincing Rosina that Lindoro is actually the wealthy Almaviva who loves her, they are married just moments before Bartolo arrives.


This comedic play as we know it today was set in the era before the French Revolution, and was meant to “…[unveil] the hypocrisies of powerful people and the sneaky methods that workers devise to deal with them.”


Unfortunately, the first performance of Rossini’s opera was a major failure.  The audience reacted with booing and hissing just like we might hear today.  It’s believed that was due to Giovanni Paisiello filling the audience with his own supporters as he had composed the original play which premiered in 1786.  However, Rossini’s opera met with great success at its second performance, and continues to be the favorite to this day over all other compositions.


And I couldn’t resist wondering how many of my readers recall “The Rabbit of Seville” from the great Looney Tunes’ film featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd – one of my favorites!  Check out:

Cartoon film clip:

Background of the cartoon:


And such were the highlights of the evening news in a long ago era!


NEXT:  Fulton’s Folly (Robert Fulton’s Steamboat)




Linda Roorda

– Colonial Homestead Cuisine


What foods and meals did our ancestors eat?  After all, most of them didn’t shop at a local grocery store or have our modern conveniences with which to their cook meals.  They couldn’t just turn the burner on, or set the oven to just the right temperature.  But, they had perfected cooking techniques over a fire, with warming or baking ovens built into some fireplace chimney walls.  They didn’t require a menu of fancy fare… a plain and simple hearty meal, with enough to satisfy the hungriest soul amongst them, was all that was needed.


The earliest Puritan New Englanders apparently felt that eating was a practical matter with only a few occasions, like funerals and weddings, where they would indulge in large feasts.  Along with an abundance of game roaming the forests, they had arrived to a land of plenty which included a wide variety of berry bushes and fruit trees in those same woods.  They also found streams, rivers and an ocean which supported many varieties of fish.  When in need, they certainly didn’t have far to go to gather sufficient food for a satisfying meal.


Typically though, daily fare for our early ancestors in America included baked beans and pease porridge (similar to our split pea soup of water, salt and pork) eaten with a dark, coarse bread – a rather hearty affair.  Vegetables were usually boiled with meat, hence the familiar and popular New England boiled dinner of ham, potatoes, carrots and cabbage or other vegetables.  They were placed in a large pot with water to simmer all day over the fire so the family could go about taking care of their labor-intensive chores.  For all intents and purposes, this was much like today’s menu of a no-fuss hearty stew simmering all day on the gas or electric stove, or the ever-popular Crock-Pot filled with a delicious dinner cooking all day with little effort on our part.


As the colonists held onto familiar traditions from the Old World, they often ignored newer foods.  Thus, regional foods were established as the eastern seaboard grew more populated and cities sprang up.  The Quakers in the mid-Atlantic/Delaware region boiled much of their food, including “pop-robbins,” which were balls of batter made from flour and eggs boiled in milk.  Apple dumplings were another familiar fare in the Delaware Valley, a region specializing in puddings and dumplings.  Cream cheese originated with Quaker cooking.  Not a true cheese, it was warmed cream allowed to stand between cloth until it solidified.  Dried beef was another popular Delaware Valley fare, added to puddings and dumplings.  When we were farming, we occasionally enjoyed a lunch of dried beef in a white sauce served over toast with vegetables on the side.


With the arrival of the earliest German immigrants, their cooking contributed to what we fondly call Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.  (This is a misnomer as the name originates from the word Deutsch for the German homeland, and has nothing to do with the true Dutch or Netherlands.)  In Pennsylvania Dutch country, the region’s scrapple has become a popular staple.  Also called “pot pudding,” it is made from meat scraps and grain/flour. 


After a cow was butchered for the freezer, my mother-in-law, Minnie, used to make a rich, scrumptious Dutch (Netherlands) dish which is similar to German scrapple, but called Balkenbrij (pronounced balkenbree).  Fried thinly sliced, it was delicious topped with maple syrup, albeit very rich and I could only stomach one slice at a meal.  My husband grew up on it and loved it, but it was given mixed reviews by our kids.


Balkenbrij/ Scrapple:

1 lb. each ground beef, pork sausage, and liver

Buckwheat flour

Place unground meat in pan.  Add just enough water to cover.  Cook until meat is tender.  Grind liver until fine.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Return liver to pan with water and other meats, bring mixture to boiling point.  Thicken with buckwheat flour and stir until a very stiff dough is formed.  Spoon dough into loaf pans, pat down.  Refrigerate (or frozen for later use).  When cool, slice thinly, and fry until edges are crisp.  Not knowing my mother-in-law’s recipe which she’d made from memory, I referred to my book of Holland-America’s finest by Carol Van Klompenburg, “Delightfully Dutch, Recipes and Traditions,” Penfield Press, Iowa City, IO, 1984, p.72.


The “backcountry” of the northeastern frontier was settled in the early to mid 1700s by mostly British, along with Scots-Irish who were often poorer than the typical British immigrants.  Their breakfast usually consisted of toasted bread, cheese, and leftover meat or vegetables from the previous day.  Their diet also included a mush made with soured milk and boiled grains.  Clabber (similar to yogurt) was made from soured milk, a typical breakfast dish despised by the true Britisher.  Oatmeal mush was popular, as was the griddlecake, or the true-Dutch wafel/waffle which came to America with the 1620 Pilgrims, who had come to enjoy them while living for a time in Holland.  And who among us today doesn’t enjoy a warm pile of pancakes smothered in maple syrup, or fruit and whipped cream covering a hearty waffle! 


Breakfast “back then” did not typically include the eggs we have come to consider as a hearty staple.  It wasn’t until after the Civil War that eggs for breakfast became a popular menu item.  In fact, it wasn’t even until 1897 that the first recipe for an egg sandwich was published in a cookbook.  


Bacon, itself, did not become the perfect complement to eggs until the 1920s.  It took Edward Bernays, a native of Austria and nephew of Sigmund Freud, with his advertising psychology to bring the two together.  It was he who convinced us to use disposable paper cups instead of glassware, and that fluoridation of drinking water was safe.  Calvin Coolidge hired him to run his re-election campaign in 1924.  With a profitable portfolio, the Beech-Nut Packing Company approached Mr. Bernays to help them sell more bacon.  Bernays asked a physician friend if a hearty egg and bacon breakfast would be healthier for the public.  This doctor in turn wrote to thousands of medical colleagues who were only too happy to affirm one of their own.  With this “study” published in newspapers and magazines around the nation, Americans were encouraged “to eat a healthier breakfast – namely ‘Bacon and Eggs.’”  And so a breakfast tradition was born!


The potato, made a popular side dish by Irish immigrants, did not find its way into northeast America until the 18th century.  A hearty staple, the potato can be fixed many ways, including in today’s breakfast casserole.  Mutton became less popular as pork dishes began to thrive.  Salad greens remained a nice complement to the New World’s supply of corn, beans, gourds and squash.  And, hearty dishes of stews, soups and pot pies are still favorites of the northeast.


Typically, our homesteaders ate from wooden or pewter trenchers (French tranchier), used since medieval times.  Originally, a piece of stale bread was cut into a square shape and used as a plate.  They ate with two-tined forks, large spoons or hunting knives.  Glass dishware was not welcome on the frontier homestead for the simple reason that it obviously broke easily.  Cleanliness was lacking, and dirt exposure was considered healthy.  In reality, isn’t exposure how we become desensitized to germs and bacteria?  But don’t take me wrong – I don’t plan to add a little extra dirt to my next meal!


Obviously, meals were far different from ours of today.  The following gives us an interesting peak into the “average meals” of a colonist’s typical day:  "Most New Englanders had a simple diet, their soil and climates allowing limited varieties of fruits and vegetables.  In 1728 the Boston News Letter estimates the food needs of a middle-class 'genteel' family.  Breakfast was bread and milk.  Dinner [i.e. lunch] consisted of pudding, followed by bread, meat, roots, pickles, vinegar, salt and cheese.  Supper was the same as breakfast.  Each family also needed raisins, currants, suet, flour, eggs, cranberries, apples, and, where there were children, food for 'intermeal eatings.'  Small beer was the beverage, and molasses for brewing and flavoring was needed.  Butter, spices, sugar, and sweetmeats were luxuries, as were coffee, tea, chocolate, and alcoholic beverages other than beer."  (“A History of Food and Drink in America,” Richard J. Hooker, Bobbs-Merrill Company: Indianapolis, IN, 1981, p. 67) 


A common dish was spoon bread which existed well before the recipe was published in an 1847 cookbook.  It’s a souffle-like starchy cornmeal “pudding.”  Here is the first published recipe from the “Carolina Housewife,” by Sarah Rutledge on page 28:  "Corn spoon bread - One pint of corn flour; boil half to a mush; add, when nearly cold, two eggs, a table-spoonful of butter and a gill of milk, and then the remaining half of flour.  Bake on a griddle, or grease a pan and drop in spoonfuls."


Cookbooks for the housewife were available by the 19th century, though certainly not as plentiful as those residing on today’s kitchen shelf.  “The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion” by Eliza Smith (originally published in London, England in 1727) is considered the first cookbook ever published in the United States (in 1742 by William Parks of Williamsburg, Virginia).  This book “contained not only recipes, but also directions for painting rooms, removing mildew, and home remedies for treating ailments, such as smallpox.”  The title page describes the book as a “collection of several hundred of the most approved receipts, in cookery, pastry, confectionary, preserving, pickles, cakes, creams, jellies, made wines, cordials.  And also bills of fare for every month of the year.  To which is added, a collection of nearly two hundred family receipts of medicines; viz. drinks, syrups, salves, ointments, and many other things of sovereign and approved efficacy in most distempers, pains, aches, wounds, sores, etc. never before made publick in these parts; fit either for private families, or such publick-spirited gentlewomen as would be beneficient to their poor neighbors.”  An original 10th edition of “The Compleat Housewife” from 1741 is in the reference library of the Wayne County Historical Society at Lyons, New York per Wikipedia.


All in all, it does sound as though our ancestors ate quite hearty with their fresh home-grown meat or bounty from the wild, and vegetables and fruit.  They also consumed more animal fat than we do, but it was surely needed as they burned far more calories working hard outdoors at any number of manual labor tasks than we do sitting behind our desks, something to which any of today’s farmer can also testify to.  I well remember feeding my husband’s hearty farmer’s appetite! 


Today’s prepackaged and fast-food diets are notably full of empty calories and sugars which carry inherent health issues.  So, in this sense, I prefer the old ways, wishing I had the time and ability to once again grow and can or freeze the annual supply of vegetables and fruit like I once did, along with home-grown beef, pork and chicken for the freezer.  Ahh… that sure made for a satisfied feeling as the cold wintry months approached!


NEXT:  1815 Headline News


SOURCE:  In researching our ancestors’ cuisine, my main source has been Wikipedia’s “Cuisine of the Thirteen Colonies.”

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