William J. Vredenburgh

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Much has been said about the wealth and prominence of Skaneateles residents and visitors, but none of today’s luminaries can hold a candle to William J. Vredenburgh. To begin, Vredenburgh was a man who liked to get his mail. In 1804, he became the Village’s first Postmaster, using his considerable influence to have the position created and bestowed upon himself because he disliked waiting for his letters to come from the post office in Marcellus.

In spite of his impatience, he was said to be a perfect gentleman, about six feet in height, with a “handsome and commanding” face. At one time, he owned most of the land on which the Village of Skaneateles now stands. He built the first mansion overlooking the lake. He was connected all the way to the U.S. capital. He even raised the dead.

:: The Merchant ::

William J. Vredenburgh was born to Marytje Van Vredenburgh (1734-1773) in what is now New York City on April 18, 1760, and baptized two days later at the Reformed Dutch Church. His father, John William Van Vredenburgh (1730-1794), was a maker, seller and cleaner of beaver hats. William was the third of six children. Three brothers died in infancy; two sisters survived. When William was 13, his mother died and soon after his father went off to war, taking up arms against the British, serving with the New York State Militia and Continental Army. At the age of 17, William himself enlisted in Captain Peter Van Renssalaer’s Company, serving as a private.

After their enlistments were completed, William and his father returned to the city of New York and went into business together on Stone Street, near the lower end of Broadway, supplying provisions to the shipping trade.

On July 26, 1784, Vredenburgh married Elizabeth Townsend at the Reformed Dutch Church. In the years to come, Elizabeth bore him four daughters who thrived and two sons who died in infancy.

In 1785, William went into partnership with John Currie, selling consignments of goods on commission to ship’s captains, everything from flour and butter to planks, nails and buckskin breeches. By 1788, William was in business for himself, selling and buying goods along the Atlantic coast, from New York south to the Carolinas.

:: The Land Baron ::

Vredenburgh added to his merchant’s income by speculating in land owed to veterans of the Revolution. The young republic, strapped for cash, had promised its officers and soldiers tracts of property in return for their services. But the promised land was not surveyed, no roads or rivers led to it, and much of it was occupied by native Americans, who, having lived on the land for centuries, were a little hazy on the notion of land ownership if not overtly hostile to new arrivals in funny hats who claimed to “own” the land.

Not surprisingly, former soldiers often preferred ready cash to a distant tract of land, enabling speculators like Vredenburgh to buy their land at a substantial discount. Vredenburgh made a great deal of money, often re-selling lots for twice what he’d paid for them within six months. A student of U.S. history, Tom Henry, notes, “It was a cutthroat business that created strange partnerships and bitter enemies, as well as producing incredible fortunes.” One such fortune was William Vredenburgh’s.

In the autumn of 1789, Vredenburgh pulled strings and obtained from the U.S. Treasury lists of names of officers and soldiers from Virginia and North Carolina, with the amounts of pay due them. Several speculators were probably involved in this venture, and it is said that the sums due the soldiers were misrepresented, with claims being purchased at a fraction of their value. Vredenburgh employed a man named James Reynolds as his agent; Reynolds’ activities in Virginia caused such an outcry that they prompted protective legislation against such predatory practices. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who was allied with Vredenburgh in principle if not in person, urged George Washington to veto any legislation that would protect veterans and limit speculators. Those today who use their wealth to influence legislation and generate more wealth would certainly recognize Vredenburgh as a kindred spirit.

By 1792, Vredenburgh owned 45,600 acres in New York alone, in addition to land in other states and territories, and he decided to spent two months exploring his New York holdings. After sailing up the Hudson River to Albany, he followed a wagon road west to Whitestown (near what is now Utica). From there, trails led west and south into the wilderness; they were too narrow for wagon or sled, and just barely wide enough for a man on a horse. It would not have been an easy journey, but Vredenburgh’s life had not been easy up to this point, and if anything, he was persistent.

It was probably on this trip that Vredenburgh first saw Skaneateles Lake. It was also during this time that he began his relationship with the native American members of the Six Nations, to whom he became known as Gan-ha Gan-ge Gu-ahna: “The Great Clear Sky.”

:: The Colonel ::

Vredenburgh had remained active in the New York Militia. In 1786, he rose to the rank of lieutenant, followed by promotions to 2nd Major in 1796, 1st Major in 1797, and Lt. Colonel of the 5th regiment in 1802. He retained the title of Colonel for the rest of his life. Family tradition holds that, on April 30, 1789, in New York City, he led the parade that brought George Washington to his inauguration, a procession that his three-year-old daughter Maria witnessed from the balcony of the family home on Broad Street.

Outside of family lore, William L. Stone’s History of New York City lists the leaders of both Washington’s arrival and inaugural processions, making no mention of William Vredenburgh in either. But the inaugural procession did consist of “detachments of the State troops” and it did pass down Broad Street, so one can believe that Vredenburgh, if not leading the way, was at least present and resplendent on the latter of the two great days.

:: The Importer ::

By 1793, Vredenburgh’s merchant business had prospered. He was building, buying and chartering ships for foreign trade, importing wine, raisins and figs aboard “The Goddess of Liberty” from Malaga, Spain; mahogany, turtles and plantains from Honduras and Guadaloupe; tea, silk, ginseng and porcelain from China. Records show he was partial to port and sherry by the cask, gin by the case, barrels of beer and bottles of porter, Souchong tea, olives, and cheese — including at least one “Double Gloster” that weighed 23 pounds. And we know that a “long delayed East Indiaman” returned with carved ivory, fans, silken jackets, sandalwood and fine china with Vredenburgh’s W.J.V. monogram set in a wreath of roses.

It was in the course of this foreign trade that Vredenburgh met a young Englishman named Charles J. Burnett, who was in trade in Portugal and Spain. They became friends, and eventually relations.

Vredenburgh also spent his money on a “gentleman’s farm” outside of New York City in Newtown, Long Island. He was growing more and more “disinclined” to stay in New York City, which was often beset by epidemics of cholera and yellow fever.

:: Widowed & Remarried ::

On July 14, 1798, Elizabeth Vredenburgh died, leaving her husband with four young daughters: Maria, who was 13; Eliza, 8; Cornelia, 5; and Evelina, 3. But Vredenburgh was not a single parent for long. In Newtown, Vredenburgh met Mary Rozier Gilzean, an English woman of culture and refinement whose husband, William Gilzean, had been stricken by a fever he had contracted in Jamaica. Gilzean was able to return to New York, but the fever proved fatal in September of 1798, and in April of 1799, the widow and the neighboring widower were married.

One of the first things Vredenburgh did for his new wife was to help recover her share of the estate in Jamaica when her late husband’s brother, John Gilzean, died in Montego Bay. Mary’s share included a slave named Rose, who was brought to New York and served as a nanny to Vredenburgh’s children. In the years to come, Mary would add three sons to the Vredenburgh family: William T., John Varick, and Edward Rozier (who was born in Skaneateles).

:: The Move to Skaneateles ::

In 1798, when the village hosted just a few log huts and one frame house, land speculator Judge Jedediah Sanger was selling lots for $8 apiece. Vredenburgh began buying. By 1801, lots were going for $60, and Vredenburgh bought more. The next year he purchased Jesse Kellogg’s farm, 110 acres at the outlet of Skaneateles Lake, along with Kellogg’s share of the saw and grist mills for $5,000. Eventually, Vredenburgh bought the remaining 120 acres of Skaneateles — between the outlet on the west and what is now Onondaga Street on the east — from Judge Sanger for $4,000.

Vredenburgh was ready to move to Skaneateles, but he needed a house for his family. A man named Ebenezer Hawley was in charge of the task, and in April of 1802, he wrote to Vredenburgh complaining of difficulties. All the available “labouring people” were employed building a turnpike. (This was probably the Old Seneca Turnpike, built between 1800 and 1802, which passed just north of the village.) But Hawley suggested that Vredenburgh buy a small house already begun on Levi Sartwell’s property as a temporary shelter. Sartwell was a carpenter; he was building a house “under a large elm tree near the corner of Jordan and Academy streets.”

In the spring of 1803, Vredenburgh pulled up stakes in New York City, selling his “Greenwich (Village) place” — 21 city lots near what is now 14th St. & 6th Avenue — to John Jacob Astor for $1,650. In May, the Vredenburgh family set out for Skaneateles, beginning the journey by boat up the Hudson River.

In a book published in 1917, six years after the author’s death, E. Reuel Smith, a descendant of Vredenburgh, described the family’s departure:

“There was the Colonel, as he had come to be called, alert and active, dreaming of the vast possibilities of the future; of forests and streams to be subdued, of mills and foundries to be built, of triumphs in the halls of legislature, of shrewd wisdom and doubtful law upon the bench. And his wife, elegant and still beautiful, lost in thought of all she was leaving behind, of the dear distant home in old England, of her young married life in the tropics, of the beauties of her ‘Paradise’ among the blue hills of Jamaica whose blissful monotony was broken alternately by wild tornadoes or still more dreaded insurrections, of the dissolution of the Gilzean firm, the removal to New York, her widowhood, her remarriage, her social position in the metropolis — which even then considered itself great — her associations with all that was proudest, wealthiest and most refined, with the Varicks, the Van Dykes, the Hoffmans, the Ten Eycks, the Clintons, the Roosevelts and the Hamiltons.

“And there were two (sons) to be thought of, watched over by the tall, stately Rose, picturesque with her bright ear-rings, her dark skin, her eyes flashing with a mingling of pride and almost tigerish affection for her little white charges and for her own not over dark boy who like his mother had been handed over to Mrs. Gilzean, as one of the assets of the dissolved firm, to be taken to New York, but not to be sold.”

On May 6th, the entourage arrived in Albany for a stay of 11 days. On the 17th, they made a day’s journey to Schenectady. Two of Vredenburgh’s daughters were sick: Eliza with scarlet fever and Maria with a toothache. To help out, Vredenburgh purchased a “Negro girl named Susan” for the sum of £65. They reached Utica on the 18th and stayed there until the 22nd; it was the last outpost of civilization.

The remainder of the journey could not have been easy. On the plus side, it had been ten years since Vredenburgh’s first visit to Skaneateles and since that time a turnpike of sorts had been cleared through the forest.

The closest account of travel at that time comes from a Dr. Coventry who in August of 1806, traveled from Utica to Cazenovia, and wrote:

“The road we traveled is thirty-eight miles from Utica, eight miles from Petersburgh. The last twenty miles very hilly, most through wood, turnpike badly made and in bad repair, narrow and rutted. No pains taken to level the knolls, although the toll is double twenty-five cents for horse and shay.”

We know that the Vredenburghs’ trip took three weeks or less, because on June 19th a member of the family (probably Maria) wrote to Charles Burnett in New York City telling of the family’s safe arrival. Ebenezer Hawley was supposed to meet the family in Skaneateles, but he had gone a week earlier, leaving a letter reassuring the family that all was in hand. Wagons were to be sent for their belongings; Levi Sartwell’s house was almost ready.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, on July 5th, Charles Burnett received the letter of June 19th, telling him of the family’s safe arrival. A man in love, Burnett became a U.S. citizen on July 22nd, left for Skaneateles in August, and on September 29th was married to Vredenburgh’s eldest daughter, Maria, in the front parlor of the Sartwell house.

The Sartwell house, of course, would not do long for a family of this size or station.

:: The Mansion ::

For his mansion and grounds, Vredenburgh had chosen 20 acres on a hill overlooking the lake. However, the site was already occupied by a cemetery holding the earthly remains of 16 deceased residents of Skaneateles. But when money talks, even the dead walk. On a day marked by silence in the village, the remains were carefully moved to a private burying ground on the John Briggs farm, out near “The Red House.”

Detail man that he was, Vredenburgh had done a great deal of work on the house before moving to Skaneateles. He obtained architectural plans in New York City. In October 1802, he contracted with Araunah Phelps to dig and lay the foundation with 250 tuns of stone to be brought “in the course of sledding next winter.” The foundation was to be laid out so the house faced the four points of the compass.

In the spring of 1803, Vredenburgh ordered seeds for vegetables and herbs, and fruit trees from Albany and Schenectady, for the house’s gardens. In March of 1804, a professional gardener who went by the unpromising name of Mr. Dullard arrived from New York City with his wife, his gardening tools, cuttings, roots and more seeds. Dullard laid out the orchards and gardens, and grew spectacular vegetables; he took such overwhelming pride in his gardens that he was referred to locally as “The Governor.”

Vredenburgh contracted with Daniel McMillan and Joseph Pierce to build the house, for the sum of $1,650, “to be done equal in goodness to any work now in Utica.” The frame to be 50 feet long and 40 feet wide and the posts 25 feet long with a pediment roof. The foundation and cellars being ready — thanks to Phelps and his 250 tuns of stone — the frame was raised in September of 1803.

The raising of the frame occasioned a celebration, and because Vredenburgh was famed for his liberality, it was well attended. A table was built under a grove of trees and spread with “all the delicacies and substantials attainable at the time, including all kinds of liquors and the choicest wines.” Among the guests was the chief of the Onondagas and a band of Indians, who camped on the grounds for several weeks.

But once the party was over, the party was over. As lumber was harvested from his forests, Vredenburgh set up dry-kilns to cure the wood; the first two kilns burnt to the ground. Mr. McMillan, the contractor, went missing, and in the summer of 1804 the house was still not closed in, in spite of Vredenburgh’s employing 30 carpenters. Charles Burnett took over the management of the project, with the incentive that once it was complete, he would have the Sartwell house to himself and his bride.

The bills hinted at progress: in December of 1804, a bill for “conductor pipes;” in April 1805, for glass, white lead and brushes, and marble facings. James Trowbridge was paid $50 for removing tree stumps. Jonathan Watson carted thirteen loads of furniture from Albany. Barnabas Hall and his yoke of oxen earned $1 a day plowing, scraping and hauling timber from Earll’s mill.

In 1805, the Col. and Mrs. Vredenburgh spent time in Manhattan, perhaps to enjoy some refined society and get away from the house.

With the departure of Mr. and Mrs. Dullard, Vredenburgh brought in Samuel Litherland, who came to Skaneateles with his wife, he to tend the garden and she to keep house. Vredenburgh quickly discovered that Litherland was also a cabinetmaker, and put him to work on the house and its furnishings. One of Vredenburgh’s proudest possessions was a sideboard that Litherland crafted from all of the different woods native to upstate New York. Litherland also made all of the doors, including those of mahogany, which were hung on silver hinge plates. The floors were made of clear pine “without a knot or a blemish.”

The Summer of 1806 was trying in many ways. Drought and grasshoppers withered the gardens. The house was still not complete. On June16th, while Litherland and another carpenter, Isaac Selover, were laying the pine floors, the sun was eclipsed. It was the famous Dark Day of 1806. Animals returned to their barns. Men, women and children stood outside and gaped at the sky. But not William Vredenburgh; he lit candles so Litherland and Selover could keep working. He wasn’t stopping for anything.

(Mary Vredenburgh, a bit less businesslike, wrote in a letter, “What did you think my friends of the Great Eclipse? With us it was total Darkness, the stars were out, the fowls went to roost & the Dumb Creation appeared struck with awe at the great reverse of Nature, it was the most awefully grand sight that can be imagined.”)

In August of 1806, a storm with hail as large as walnuts “carried away the plastering in the new House.” But finally, the house was completed, and it was an extraordinary house, about fifty feet square, two stories high with a gable on each side.

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The rooms on the first floor were 15′ in height; on the second floor, 12′ in height. The dining room overlooked the gardens on one side and the lake on the other. Every room had a large fireplace. Large, wide hallways ran the length of both floors. A winding mahogany staircase connected the floors.

On the back of the house was a porch with stately pillars. It was all surrounded with one thousand feet of picket fence, with padlocked gates. In addition to Mr. Dullard’s gardens and orchards, first-growth trees graced the grounds, including an elm tree 20′ in circumference. A barn was built with hand-scored timbers and shutters held in place by hand-forged hinges.

The kitchen, servants quarters and storerooms were in the cellar, all built of red brick.

(Shortly before Helen Ionta, the Town of Skaneateles Historian, died, I had a conversation with her about Vredenburgh’s house. She recalled chatting, many years previously, with an elderly woman who as a little girl had played in the cellars. Smiling, Helen told me, “She said they went on forever.”)

Outside, a network of ditches fed four cisterns, at least one of which was 10′ square and deep, to supply water for household needs and the gardens and “to allay the menace of fire.” These were supplemented by three deep wells. A large brook, which originated in a swamp to the north of the village, flowed by the rear of the house. A rustic bridge spanned the brook, and the water then disappeared into an 80′ stone tunnel — built with a keystone and high enough for a tall man to stand in — that carried the water to the lake, passing by the site of the present St. James Episcopal Church.

(The tunnel is believed to be long gone, but the brook returns during torrential rainfalls. Three times in 11 years I have seen it flowing in waves from behind the garage and down the drive of 105 E. Genesee Street, the house to the west of the original mansion’s site, built in the path of the old brook in 1885. The torrent was as wide as the drive and easily four inches deep, flowing out into Genesee Street and turning right, downhill towards St. James, disappearing into the first and second storm drains it encountered.)

The name Vredenburgh means “Castle of Peace” and in Skaneateles, William Vredenburgh finally had his castle, the finest house west of Albany.

:: The First Postmaster ::

On another front, Vredenburgh made swifter progress. Since his arrival in Skaneateles, he had been forced to send someone to the nearest post office, in Marcellus, to pick up his mail. He was unhappy with the effort and the wait, and wanted his mail to be delivered. His solution was to call for a post office in Skaneateles and propose himself as the ideal postmaster.

In November of 1803, Charles Burnett wrote from New York to his wife Maria, “have shown your Papa’s letter about the Post Office to Mr. Ten Eyck who will attend to it as soon as he has an opportunity to see DeWitt Clinton.”

Why DeWitt Clinton? After just a year as a U.S. Senator, DeWitt Clinton had resigned in the summer of 1803 to become the Mayor of New York, a more influential post at the time. This office did not allow him to appoint postmasters, but Clinton was tied to everyone who had influence. His uncle, New York Governor George Clinton, for whom he acted as personal secretary from 1789 to 1795, was just months away from assuming the office of Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s Postmaster General was Gideon Granger, a grand piece of work, a land speculator on an epic scale. While in Washington, Granger served as absentee landlord for half of Ohio, where he was buying and selling land at profits that are breath-taking even by today’s standards. Granger was also buying land in Canandaigua, New York, and probably felt a kinship with Vredenburgh, a fellow upstate New York land speculator.

And so, in 1804, at the behest of a friend of a friend of a friend, Granger appointed Vredenburgh as Deputy Postmaster at Skaneateles. The certificate was signed by Granger and bore upon its seal a figure of Mercury, with the motto, “Sigill. Mag. Gen. Nunciorum.” (Sigillum Magnum Generalis Nunciorum, i.e., The Great Seal of the General of the Messengers). The results of the appointment were felt immediately. Letters now traveled from New York City to Skaneateles in eight days, “two less than before.”

Up to this time, many letters were conveyed by hand, passed from traveler to traveler. When sent by U.S. mail, a letter cost 17 cents from New York to Albany, and 20 to 40 cents from New York to Skaneateles. The office of postmaster remained in the hands of Vredenburgh (1803-1813), then a close friend, John Ten Eyck (1813-1817), and then Charles Burnett (1817-1843), his son-in-law, for 40 years, through the administrations of Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren and Harrison.

:: A Man of Religion ::

When residing in New York, Vredenburgh held a pew at the Trinity (Episcopal) Church, in lower Manhattan at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street. The first Trinity Church having been destroyed by fire in 1776, and the second building not consecrated until 1790, it is likely that Vredenburgh also attended services at the parish’s St. Paul’s Chapel. His rector would have been the Rev. Dr. Samuel Provoost, and for a time George Washington was a fellow parishioner. His first daughter, Maria, was baptized in Trinity Parish on November 4, 1785.

When Vredenburgh moved to Skaneateles in 1803, he was “saddened by state of religion in the Village.” Vredenburgh held services in his home (the Sartwell house that eventually became the home of Charles and Maria Burnett). Samuel Litherland, Vredenburgh’s gardener and carpenter, also played a role in the religious life of the village. He was described as a blameless, religious and amiable man who read the lessons at church services and was especially sought after for burial services.

When his own home was completed, Vredenburgh held Sunday services in the upper hallway, open to the people of the village and presided over by visiting clergy. In 1807, St. Peter’s Church was organized in nearby Auburn, and Vredenburgh served as a Warden. Although Vredenburgh was never a member of St. James Episcopal (founded three years after his death), he donated the land on which it now stands, and services were held on the spot, prior to the organization of the church, in a small, yellow, wood structure that functioned as a church, a store and the post office. Vredenburgh, Burnett, Litherland and John S. Furman served as lay readers when there was no visiting clergyman to officiate.

:: The Politician ::

Vredenburgh had been a supporter of New York Governor George Clinton, and spent his own money to print and circulate campaign literature and host rallies where music, cannon salvos and free beer appealed to voters. After coming to Skaneateles, he served as a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1804-5 and again in 1808. It is said that his “First Motion fees” of $4.50 were occasionally paid in barrels of whiskey or a tub of hog’s lard. Vredenburgh was a member of the New York State Assembly for Onondaga County, in 1805 and 1806, and lived in Albany in the winters while the legislature was in session.

:: Life in the Village ::

Mary Vredenburgh wished she had more visitors and looked forward to friends who were stopping on their way to Niagara Falls. She could not find a housekeeper. Sukey, the slave maid, ran away, probably returning to Schenectady. In Skaneateles, servants of the time lived in and were treated like family. The Vredenburgh family, “being more aristocratic,” wanted servants who were not treated as equals, and hence had to import them from the city of New York, and had some difficulty finding girls who were willing to go to “the Far West.”

We do know that the Vredenburghs found a cook. E.N. Leslie wrote, “Mr. Vredenburgh brought from New York a black wench as cook. The children were all afraid of her and ran as soon as she made her appearance in the streets.” (I wonder if the object of fear was actually the tall and tigerish Rose, described by Reuel Smith, who came to Skaneateles from Jamaica, via New York, rather than the cook.)

:: The Yachtsman ::

Vredenburgh wanted a boat to sail on the lake, a yacht on which he could entertain those of his friends who came through Skaneateles while traveling west. During the winter of 1811-12, he chose the wood he would need from the surrounding forest, and in the spring of 1812 he traveled to New York to find a ship’s carpenter who could come to Skaneateles to design and build the boat. The carpenter was found and hired, and together with local men began work on the boat.

But the trip to and from New York had taken too much out of Vredenburgh and he died on May 9, 1813, before the boat was completed.

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He was just 53 years old. He was buried in what is now Lake View Cemetery. His monument, one of the first in the village, was brought up from New York; the slab of stone over his grave reads, “Sacred to the Memory, W.I. Vredenburgh, who departed this life May 9, 1813, Aged 53 Years. Life’s uncertain. Death is sure. Sin’s the wound. Christ the cure.”

The epitaph was a common one on tombstones of the time, in England and New England, but in this case it served an uncommon man. One wonders how much more he would have shaped the Village had he lived to a ripe old age.

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Revolutionary Soldiers, Resident or Dying in Onondaga County, N.Y. by William M. Beauchamp; Syracuse, The McDonnell Co., 1913, pp. 226-227; The Papers of Thomas Jefferson edited by Julian P. Boyd; “History of the Town of Skaneateles” by Dwight H. Bruce from Onondaga’s Centennial; Boston History Co., 1896; pp. 977-1015; “Bygone Days in Skaneateles” by Mrs. Wells A. Hardwich, 1933; History of Skaneateles and Vicinity: 1781-1881 by E. Norman Leslie (Auburn, N.Y., Charles P. Cornell, n.d.); Skaneateles: History of Its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times by Edmund Norman Leslie (New York, Press of Andrew Kellogg, 1902); Notes on the Vredenburgh and Burnett Families by E. Reuel Smith; New York, Knickerbocker Press, 1917; History of New York City by William Leete Stone (1872); Records of the Reformed Dutch Church in New Amsterdam and New York; notes of the Rev. William Beauchamp.

My thanks also to the indispensable Larry Mark Vredenburgh, Dr. Melissa Conway and Tom Henry.

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:: Epilogue: The Boat ::

Vredenburgh’s yacht was purchased by others from Charles Burnett and finished in 1816. It was 42′ in length, 10′ beam, and rigged as a sloop with mainsail and jib. It was launched from where St. James’ Episcopal Church now stands. The boat was christened “The Four Sisters” in honor of Vredenburgh’s daughters.

:: Epilogue: The Mansion ::

After Vredenburgh’s death, Judge Daniel Kellogg bought the mansion and grounds in 1815 for $7,800. Kellogg kept faith with Vredenburgh’s vision for the house, bringing in floor-to-ceiling mirrors for the drawing room, at $1,000 each, as well as crystal chandeliers, carpets of French velvet, blue satin brocade curtains, silver tea sets from Paris — one for each of the Judge’s three daughters — sofas and bookcases in the hallways, and family portraits by Charles Loring Elliott. One servant did nothing but tend the fires in the various fireplaces all day. In 1825, Kellogg hosted Daniel Webster in May, and the Marquis de Lafayette in June.

There was a three-acre apple orchard and vegetables grown in a glass greenhouse. The first tomatoes in Skaneateles were grown here, and were thought to be strictly ornamental until one of Kellogg’s sons ate one and survived.

Upon Judge Kellogg’s death, the house was occupied by his daughter, Mrs. George F. Leitch. After her death, the house was allowed to run down. It was let to “a poor tenant” who apparently built a fire in a broken chimney and burnt the house to the ground on August 24, 1872. Three men — a grandson of Kellogg, a local carpenter and cabinet maker — managed to save some of the mahogany doors from the burning house.

In 1836, a writer in the Albany Journal had noted, “Whoever lives to see that house taken down will see timber enough to build at least three houses of equal size in modern style.” Sadly, it went up in smoke. A new home was built on the site, using some of the stone salvaged from the ruins of the mansion. It stands at the northwest corner of Onondaga and Genesee Streets today.

To Proceed Faithfully

I cannot tell you the names of the first postmen to pass through Skaneateles, but I am sure they were on foot, running rather than walking, wearing moccasins, men of the Iroquois Confederacy carrying messages.

The Confederacy was a nation of tribes – Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks – bound together by law, a long east-west trail, and extraordinary messengers. Running in relays, these men could convey a message from the “eastern door” of the Mohawk tribe, near what is now Albany, to the “western door” of the Seneca tribe, near Buffalo – 240 miles in all – in just 70 hours.

Lewis Henry Morgan, an anthropologist who wrote about the Iroquois, told of messengers running in pairs “through the forest, one behind the other, in perfect silence.” After sunset, they navigated by the stars. They were iron men. During the Revolutionary War, one runner left Tonawanda at daybreak to carry word to Avon, 40 miles distant, and returned by noon. Settler James Emlen wrote in his 1794 journal that one of Chief Cornplanter’s runners, Sharp Shins, covered the 90 miles from Canandaigua to Niagara between sunrise and sunset.

The Confederacy’s Great Law provided explicit instructions for those who served. A messenger was bound “to remember his errand, to turn not aside but to proceed faithfully to his destination and deliver his message according to every instruction.”

Important news, such as the death of a chief or a call to a meeting, was spelled out in a belt of wampum – white and purple beads made from shells – to be interpreted and read aloud by the carrier when he arrived at his destination. It was then the duty of those who received the message to send out new runners to other localities until everyone had been notified.

Indians carried “our mail” as well. When Europeans first came to North America, they found the best way to send a letter into the interior was to entrust it to a native American. The Indians had three qualities that recommended them: They were fast, they didn’t get lost, and they didn’t read the letter.

White men, on the other hand, were famous for reading the letters of others, often aloud at every stop they made. Letters were the only news media in the wilderness, and were commonly treated as public property. Some arrived at their final destination so smudged with fingerprints and worn by countless refoldings that they could no longer be read. And so, in the wilds of our young nation, Indians were the postmen of choice, until the post office caught up with those settlers living on the frontier.

The first settlers arrived here in the summer of 1794 and organized mail service was not too far behind. A post office opened in Onondaga Hollow on April 1, 1795, and then another in Marcellus on April 17, 1797. Mail was brought to Skaneateles on foot from these post offices. One of the earliest carriers was a young man named Isaac Sherwood, whose stage coaches would one day carry mail from one end of the state to the other. But that is another story.

* * *

The Iroquois constitution, the Great Binding Law, the Great Law of Peace, was created some time between 1390 and 1560, and recorded in belts of wampum. (It was first written down in English in 1880.) The law brought peace to the warring tribes and laid down the rules that would govern them for centuries. The following passages relate directly to messengers:

3. When there is any business to be transacted and the Confederate Council is not in session, a messenger shall be dispatched either to Adodarhoh, Hononwirehtonh or Skanawatih, Fire Keepers, or to their War Chiefs with a full statement of the case desired to be considered. Then shall Adodarhoh call his cousin (associate) Lords together and consider whether or not the case is of sufficient importance to demand the attention of the Confederate Council. If so, Adodarhoh shall dispatch messengers to summon all the Confederate Lords to assemble beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.

23. Any Lord of the Five Nations Confederacy may construct shell strings (or wampum belts) of any size or length as pledges or records of matters of national or international importance. When it is necessary to dispatch a shell string by a War Chief or other messenger as the token of a summons, the messenger shall recite the contents of the string to the party to whom it is sent. That party shall repeat the message and return the shell string and if there has been a summons he shall make ready for the journey.

33. When a Confederate Lord dies, the surviving relatives shall immediately dispatch a messenger, a member of another clan, to the Lords in another locality. When the runner comes within hailing distance of the locality he shall utter a sad wail, thus: “Kwa-ah, Kwa-ah, Kwa-ah!” The sound shall be repeated three times and then again and again at intervals as many times as the distance may require. When the runner arrives at the settlement the people shall assemble and one must ask him the nature of his sad message. He shall then say, “Let us consider.” Then he shall tell them of the death of the Lord. He shall deliver to them a string of shells (wampum) and say “Here is the testimony; you have heard the message.” He may then return home. It now becomes the duty of the Lords of the locality to send runners to other localities and each locality shall send other messengers until all Lords are notified. Runners shall travel day and night.

40. When the Lords of the Confederacy take occasion to dispatch a messenger on behalf of the Confederate Council, they shall wrap up any matter they may send and instruct the messenger to remember his errand, to turn not aside but to proceed faithfully to his destination and deliver his message according to every instruction.

41. If a message borne by a runner is the warning of an invasion he shall whoop, “Kwa-ah, Kwa-ah,” twice and repeat at short intervals; then again at a longer interval.

***

Sources: The Early History of the Colonial Post-Office, Mary E. Woolley, 1894; “History of the Town of Skaneateles” from Onondaga’s Centennial, Dwight Bruce, 1896; The Constitution of the Five Nations – or – The Iroquois Book of the Great Law, Arthur C. Parker, Bulletin 184, University of the State of New York, April 1, 1916; Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition, Peter Nabokov, 1981; Wampum Fact Sheet, State Education Dept., Albany. NY, 1989; Northeast Indian Quarterly, Spring 1990.

Nathan Kelsey Hall

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If President Zachary Taylor had not made some bad choices on the 4th of July, 1850, I wouldn’t be writing about Nathan Kelsey Hall, Postmaster General of the United States of America, who managed to be born in both Skaneateles and Marcellus.

But first to Taylor. In 1850, our nation’s formal Independence Day ceremonies called for the President’s presence at the site of the Washington Monument. The day was “sweltering,” but Taylor wore a black high-collar suit. Seated in the sun for hours, he chose to remain hatless. When the speeches finally ended, he returned to the White House and consumed an entire bowl of iced cherries and a pitcher of iced milk in an effort to cool off. Accounts differ, but we can be fairly sure the ice and unwashed fruit were tainted with cholera or typhoid, and that the repast alone would have been enough to upset anyone’s stomach.

Taylor was soon stricken with severe cramps. Doctors diagnosed heat stroke and gastroenteritis, then bilious fever, typhoid fever and cholera morbus, an acute indigestion which caused his stomach and intestines to twist. His doctors bled him, dosed him with opiates and quinine, and gave him more ice to suck on. Although a hero of the Mexican War, Taylor was no match for an army of ailments and physicians. In five days, he was dead, and Millard Fillmore was President.

This was not part of the plan. Vice President Fillmore had been added to the ticket to help carry New York State. He did not even meet the President until they arrived in Washington, where they quickly established that they did not like one another. Taylor swiftly closed Fillmore out of his administration, and even denied him patronage appointments in New York, which he instead granted to Fillmore’s bitter enemy, William H. Seward.

Millard Fillmore had been pushed off the stage. And would have remained there, if not for the black suit, the cherries and the milk. With Taylor suddenly dead, a forgotten man became the President of the United States. Taylor’s cabinet resigned and Fillmore named his own. For Postmaster General, he chose Nathan Kelsey Hall.

Nathan Kelsey Hall was born on March 10, 1810, at the farm of Nathan Kelsey, where his parents, Ira and Catharine Hall, lived. Their landlord and benefactor was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and a founder of the first church in Marcellus. His “substantial” farm was on West Hill, two miles west of the village of Marcellus. (In 1830, the site of Nathan Hall’s birth became part of the newly formed Town of Skaneateles, hence the towns share him as a native son.)

Early in life, Nathan Hall learned the abiding nature of friendship and the temporary nature of family. In the autumn of 1814, when Nathan was four years old, his three-year-old brother, Ira Jr., died and was buried in the Marcellus Village Cemetery. Less than three weeks later, Nathan’s mother died as well. Catharine Hall was just 26. Four years later, when Nathan was eight, his father left him with the Kelseys and moved west.

Nathan’s family was gone, but in a sense his home was intact. He would live on the Kelsey farm for his first 16 years. Young Nathan was schooled at the Onondaga Valley Academy, and when he reached adulthood, left the Kelseys to rejoin his father on the Niagara Frontier. Living just outside Buffalo, Nathan’s father tanned leather and made shoes. Nathan showed no gift for either. After a few other odd jobs, he began to study law. His first mentor was a man ten years his senior, a lawyer named Millard Fillmore.

Fillmore also was a son of the Finger Lakes, born in a frontier cabin in Locke (now Summerhill) in Cayuga County on Jan. 7, 1800. Fillmore studied at an academy in New Hope, where he met his future wife, Abigail Powers of Moravia. They married in 1823, and Fillmore set up a law office in East Aurora. In three years, he had a large enough practice to hire a clerk, and the lad he chose was sixteen-year-old Nathan Hall, who joined him on May 1, 1826.

Professionally and personally, Fillmore and Hall worked well together. They came from the same area. Both had risen from difficult circumstances. Each saw in the other someone they could trust. They shared the same values, the same work ethic.

In 1830, Fillmore and Hall began to practice law in Buffalo. Both thrived in business and politics, holding a succession of local and state offices. Elected to Congress for three terms, Fillmore was added to the Whig’s presidential ticket in 1848 to attract New York voters. As we have seen, Fillmore was meant to help win the election, and then disappear. But for the black suit, the cherries and the milk.

Once appointed Postmaster General, Nathan Hall remained true to form; he was honest, methodical, loyal. After requesting bids for the making of postage stamps, he actually gave the job to the firm best qualified. That many histories mention the contract points to the fact that it was a stunning development.

One biographer, James O. Putnam, noted of Hall:

“His integrity was almost of a romantic type; no importunity of friendship, no precedents of favoritism could ever bend him from the most inflexible observance of his role of duty… in his award of contracts for printing and mail services… he never knew any difference between friends and foes and had no eyes for anything but the most advantageous offers for the government.”

During Hall’s term, he oversaw the reduction of postage to three cents for domestic letters sent up to 3000 miles. He later noted:

“That the revenues of the Department have been perennially diminished by these reductions cannot be denied; but it is believed that this diminution has been slight in comparison with the public benefits which have followed.”

Hall, like Benjamin Franklin, our nation’s first Postmaster General, saw the Post Office as a service to the people, as an important way of linking the states, of forging its far-flung citizens into one nation. Under the stewardship of men like Franklin and Hall, there was no mention of the Post Office being self-sufficient or run like a business. Sadly, the presidents and postmasters of the present era have set this notion aside, and speak about “postal subsidies,” when they are necessary, as signs of failure. But when, one asks, did the Center for Disease Control last show a profit? Is the White House running in the black? How about Congress? But I digress.

As President, Fillmore was left to secure passage of five measures dealing with slavery. Known as the Compromise of 1850, the measures delayed the onset of the Civil War but ended Fillmore’s political career. The Whig Party, miffed by his actions, refused to nominate him for a second term in 1852.

When it became obvious to Fillmore that his party had no interest in seeing him remain in the White House, he found for Nathan Hall another federal appointment, this one for a lifetime. Hall was confirmed as United States District Judge of the Northern District of New York on August 31, 1852. He presided in Buffalo for the next 22 years. He was not a legendary jurist. He was slow to come to a decision, analytical rather than creative, but the worst his contemporaries could say about him was that he was so honest he found it difficult to believe that anyone would ever lie to him.

In 1874, in the florid style of the day, James O. Putnam noted:

“He was born for friendship and he abounded in those little offices of kindness which are among the sweetest solaces of life. He made our burthens lighter by his love, and we went from his presence with fresh courage and renewed strength for life’s weary march.”

In his unpublished autobiography, Hall said:

“That much of my success has been due to my own efforts, I feel bound to say in encouragement of those who shall come after me, while I admit with thankfulness and gratitude that much more has been due to the kindness of the Universal Father who cast my lines in pleasant places.”

Judge Nathan Kelsey Hall died in Buffalo on Monday, March 2, 1874, after keeping to his bed on a Sunday, weary from overwork. The following Sunday evening, after a short illness, Millard Fillmore once more joined his trusted friend and partner. In Forest Lawn Cemetery, the Fillmore and Hall family plots are side by side. The two great friends, Millard Fillmore and Nathan Kelsey Hall, rest just steps from one another.

* * *

My thanks to John P. Curtin of the Village of Marcellus Historical Society, and Janice Burnett, Office Manager at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, N.Y.

Also: Nine Mile Country, Kathryn C. Heffernan, Visual Arts Publications, 1978, p. 239; The Marcellus Village Cemetery – An Epigraphic Record 1980-1985, Florence Coville Brock and Mary M. Losky, 1986; “The Postal Service of the United States in Connection with the Local History of Buffalo” Read Before the (Buffalo Historical) Society January 6, 1865, by the Hon. Nathan Kelsey Hall and Thomas Blossom; “Nathan Kelsey Hall” Read Before the (Buffalo Historical) Society March 30, 1874,  by the Hon. James O. Putnam; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Air Mail in Skaneateles

On a pleasant Thursday morning, May 19, 1938, a bit after 11:30 a.m., Skaneateles Postmaster Walter Herrling and 1,000 pieces of important mail left the Village via Onondaga Street, bound for the Frank T. Evans farm, home of the Pine Grove Dairy. Herrling did not have a large delivery for Mr. Evans. Rather, he had come to meet local pilot Eugene Horle, out in the fields beyond the barns, to make history.

The occasion was National Air Mail Week, a celebration of 20 years of U.S. air mail. The week before, Postmaster Herrling had advertised in the Skaneateles Press, inviting everyone in the Village to take part. Each letter carried through the skies would bear a special cachet, rubber-stamped in purple ink, and the U.S. Post Office had issued a new 6-cent air mail stamp for the occasion.

Airmail

Because Eugene Horle did not keep a plane in the Village, he had to fly in before he could fly out. Assuming he landed safely in the open field, he would load the plane with its precious cargo and lift off for Syracuse about noon. One can imagine that Herrling was a little nervous, wondering whether Horle might be late, or worse.

Horle himself was not at all worried; he was licensed by the government (#2904), had 12 years of flying experience and exuded optimism. On the other side of the ledger, he was said to be something of a nut. According to the unvarnished assessment of one of his contemporaries, “First he was a nut about motorcycles. Then he was a nut about airplanes. Then he became a religious nut.” In 1938, Horle was past motorcycles but not yet flying with the angels.

For this flight, the confident Horle had obtained “a special plane of the latest type.” He estimated it would take six minutes to fly from the Evans’ farm to the Syracuse airport. There the letters from Skaneateles would join with those from other small towns to be sent “to all corners of the world.”

From the air, the farm was easy to find, just east of the Village, a big open space out behind the house and barns. Horle was on time at both ends of the flight. Syracuse Postmaster Edmund L. Weston wrote him a letter of congratulations which Horle shared with The Skaneateles Press along with the news that he hoped soon to have a plane of his own that would be available for rides and lessons.

Horle was a tireless promoter. Ten years earlier, he had tried to turn the newly bequeathed Austin Park into the Skaneateles Airport. Clarence Austin’s will stated that the land “shall be held and kept perpetually as a public park for the use and good of the people.” But less than six months after Austin’s death, Horle claimed the benefactor really meant the land could be used “for any purpose the town should see fit” and added that because Austin had known aircraft pioneer William Boeing, he would have approved. In the Village at least, this is the first recorded instance of a pilot attempting to hijack a park.

But I digress, and must be on to another point: The flight of Eugene Horle was not our first brush with air mail history. Around 1930, an earlier U.S. air mail flight had also landed in the field behind the Pine Grove Dairy. Grace Evans McKnight, the youngest of the seven Evans children, wrote a letter on June 4, 2001, and described what happened:

“About that time, when the gov’t started to fly the mail, I was walking home from school – maybe 4-5 p.m., an overcast sky – poor visibility. A single-engine plane flew low as I was nearing home, and I ran to see it land on my father’s farm. The pilot walked to our house, and phoned Syracuse, and they came for him and the mail.”

In addition to recalling the flight conditions, Grace even remembered the name of the pilot whose trip was cut short by bad weather: Merle Moltrop. (This Pennsylvania native was already something of an aviation celebrity. In 1927, he had flown the first air mail from Pittsburgh to Cleveland.) The next morning, when the skies had cleared, Moltrop came back to the Evans farm and flew the plane away.

As for Miss Evans, she would eventually marry another pilot who landed in her busy backyard. She wrote:

“Most important to me was the plane flown by David T. McKnight, who landed in the dark – we drove cars down to the field with lights on where he was to land (a newly mowed hay lot). He had left Long Island after work – had never been to Skaneateles – not many flying hours – and he made a perfect landing! The farmers didn’t appreciate this at the time! This was about 1933.”

The flying courtship was successful. Grace and David were married in 1936.

* * *

My thanks to Paul Trabold and Grace McKnight for their memories.

An envelope from the day, signed by the postmaster and the pilot, with a plate block of the airmail stamps.

The Sin of the Sherwoods

We are told that Isaac Sherwood weighed 380 pounds, so you might think this is a piece about gluttony, or perhaps sloth. But Sherwood was the most industrious of men. With his son, John Milton Sherwood, and partners across New York State, he built the Old Line Mail, a system of stage coaches that carried passengers, freight and mail from Albany to Buffalo. He founded the Sherwood Inn in 1807 and lived in Skaneateles; in 1823, John became the head of the firm and made his headquarters in Auburn.

The sin of the Sherwoods, which uncorked a furor in its day, was a flagrant and repeated violation of one of the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” — Exodus 20:8-10

Isaac and John Sherwood, whose coaches ran seven days a week, were Sabbath-breakers. And the man who pointed out their sin to the public was Josiah Bissell Jr. of Rochester. A wealthy merchant, Bissell was also an elder of the Third Presbyterian Church, President of the Rochester Tract Society, President of the Rochester Sabbath School Association and a member of the Monroe County Bible Society. Meetings he attended were known for “animated and protracted discussions.” At a meeting of the local Sabbath school association, he declared that they should place a Bible in every home in the United States. Most of all, Bissell was a committed Sabbatarian, believing in the strict observance of the Sabbath in business and public life.

In February of 1828, Bissell and a group of Sabbatarians met in Auburn and decided that the best way to reclaim the Lord’s Day was to start a line of stage coaches and canal boats that would not run on Sunday; this was to be called the Pioneer Line. The goal was two-fold. First, the Pioneer Line’s ascendancy would put an end to the unholy desecration of the Sabbath by the Old Line Mail. It was “the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ… it must prevail,” the founders noted.

However, retaking the Sabbath was only a first step. The Pioneer Line, if successful, could win the U.S. Mail contract and renegotiate it to forbid the carrying of mail on the Sabbath. The new contract would then serve as the model for all U.S. Mail contracts, across the nation, and bring the Federal government under the will of God.

But first, the Pioneer Line had to vanquish the Old Line Mail. To begin, the Pioneer Line promised superior service — the coaches would travel faster, arrive sooner, and its employees would neither drink nor swear. Next, Bissell excoriated the Sherwoods, their partners, employees and riders as un-Christian. He made heavy use of the Rochester Observer, a newspaper in which he was a partner. “Choose ye THIS DAY,” he wrote in a typical salvo, “whom ye will serve, whether the God of Heaven, the God of Truth, and the God of the Sabbath, or the proprietors of the Old Line!” His opponents were infidels, enemies of religion, swindlers, rogues, and dancing-masters (!).

At the same time, aroused Sabbatarians bombarded Congress with petitions and editorials declaring that a man’s stand on the Sunday movement of the U.S. Mail was a test of his Christianity. Bissell also indulged in gamesmanship, acquiring for the Pioneer Line the use of the hotel in Auburn where the Old Line Mail stabled its horses, and putting them, quite literally, out into the street. John Sherwood, however, swiftly made other arrangements and then commenced building his own hotel.

On the road, the Pioneer Line sought to win with speed. Unfortunately for their horses, Bissell’s Christian charity did not extend to the animal kingdom. Lame, injured and exhausted horses had to be replaced by more and more of their number. As the Pioneer Line’s costs soared, its supporters sagged. Congressmen and travelers found little to love in Bissell’s “my way or the highway to Hell” attitude.

A letter to the Rev. Samuel C. Aikin, by one Dolphus Skinner, largely reflected the public view:

“I advise you to break off all connection and intercourse with Josiah Bissell, Jr., of Rochester. For he is really, in my opinion, too despicable and scandalous a character for any man of reputation, honor or standing in society to have any communion or intercourse with whatever. True, he professes a great deal of piety; so did the ancient hypocrites, but I do not believe he possesses one spark of vital religion, the religion of Jesus. And I candidly believe his mad career will end in disgrace to himself and all who continue connected with him. He certainly out-Herods Herod.”

Within three years, the Pioneer Line had run itself into the ground. In 1831, Josiah Bissell and his fellow investors sold what was left to John Sherwood and walked away. The war was over. In his attempt, Bissell had lost $30,000; others he had persuaded to invest lost tens of thousands more. Bissell died that year, at the age of 40. His estate was insolvent.

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John Milton Sherwood

The Old Line Mail prospered, but by 1838 its coaches were being rendered unnecessary by the new railroads, in which John Sherwood was a wise and early investor. Isaac Sherwood died in 1840. That year, John Sherwood left stage coaches and railroads behind and took up farming; he was content and successful. He died in 1871, having survived Josiah Bissell by 40 years. In John Sherwood’s eulogy, one speaker said, “In his prime he was a superior man in every business relation or capacity. His mind like his body was gigantic.”

* * *

Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate (Utica, N.Y., Sept. 25, 1830); Settlement in the West: Sketches of Rochester (1838) by Henry O’Reilly; The Lives and Reminiscences of the Pioneers of Rochester and Western New York (1854) by John Kelsey ; Memorial volume of the first fifty years of the American board of commissioners for foreign missions (1862) by Rufus Anderson; The Journal of the New York State Agricultural Society (1873); The “Old Line Mail”: Stagecoach Days in Upstate New York (1977) by Richard F. Palmer; Canals for a Nation (1993) by Ronald E. Shaw; Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelism (1996) by Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe.