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.


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.


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