The Livingstons of Skaneateles

I want to tell you about John W. Livingston of Skaneateles, and the famous writer he once hosted at his estate on East Lake Road, but first I feel the need to illuminate the Livingston pedigree.

You no doubt recall John Livingston (1714-1786), “The Loyalist,” a wealthy merchant from New York who remained loyal to England during the American Revolution. His son, John William Livingston (1754-1830), also a Loyalist, served as a Captain in the King’s American Rifles. Capt. John W. Livingston was blessed with a son of his own in 1778 and named him John W. Livingston.

The loyalist Captain Livingston also had a daughter, named Eliza; in 1801, Eliza married a U.S. Navy surgeon named Dr. William Turk; they had a son who they named John William Turk. In 1842, John William Turk married a cousin, Mary Augusta Livingston, one of three daughters of his mother Eliza’s brother, our own John W. Livingston (1778-1860). The following year, the young Turk legally changed his name to John W. Livingston, thus becoming his uncle’s namesake as well as his nephew and son-in-law. I have no idea how they tagged their Christmas presents.

With that made clear, I can go back 50 years to pick up the thread of the narrative:

Our John W. Livingston (1778-1860) was for a time an officer, like his father, but in the new American military rather than the British-American military; he served as a Captain of Artillery and Engineers from 1798 to 1804; as an engineer, he selected sites for fortifications on the frontier of the new republic. After resigning his military commission, John married Julia Adel Broome (1780-1844), daughter of John Broome, a New York City importer of tea, china and silk. Julia Broome Livingston’s sister, Sarah Broome, married James Boggs. In 1808, John W. Livingston and James Boggs, brothers-in-law, went into business together, forming an auction house, Boggs & Livingston, in New York City. They were, by all accounts, wildly successful.

At the beginning of the War of 1812, John W. Livingston returned to the military and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel; for a time he served as adjutant to the Governor of New York, Daniel Tompkins, whose Lt. Governor was John Broome, Lt. Col. John W. Livingston’s father-in-law. It was a small world.

:: Skaneateles ::

At the war’s end in 1815, Lt. Col. John W. Livingston was appointed U.S. Marshal of the Northern District of New York and took up residence in Skaneateles, living in a large house with beautiful grounds on the eastern shore of the lake, just a mile south of the village.

The land and house already had a history of their own. Military Lot No. 44 was given to one John Shultz in payment for his military service during the American Revolution. The land was uncleared and there were no roads leading to it, so Shultz, like many other soldiers, sold his land to a speculator, in this case Judge Jedediah Sanger, our first developer. In 1801, Col. Sebra Brainerd and Ebenezer Pardee bought the land from Sanger for $500, and built two log cabins and a barn.

In 1807, they sold the newly cleared farm to Gershom Hall for $1250. Two years later, Gershom and his wife Keziah entered into an agreement with their son Loammi Hall and his wife to work the land together and raise “a good and sufficient house” in which both their families could live. (Students of Biblical names will of course recognize Gershom as the firstborn son of Moses and Zipporah, Lo-ammi as the eldest son of the prophet Hosea, and Keziah as the second daughter of Job to be born after his restoration from affliction.)

In 1815, Col. Livingston paid the Hall families $4,750 for the house and farm, and moved in with his wife and two daughters — Julia and Adele. (A third daughter, Mary Augusta, was born after the move to Skaneateles.) Among their personal effects were a pianoforte which Julia’s father, John Broome, had imported from London, and a silver pitcher made by Paul Revere.


As an officer of the government and a wealthy man, John Livingston was an important person in the community. In 1816, when St. James’ Episcopal Church was organized, he was named as one of the vestrymen; also that year, when money was raised to build a new dam at the outlet of the lake, John W. Livingston was one of signers of the deed.

:: The Visiting Writer ::

In 1827, young Adele Livingston had a visitor, Nathaniel Parker Willis, a student from Yale who was on his “grand tour” prior to graduation. Willis was already recognized as a poet, and was on his way to building a great reputation as a man of letters and, also, as a guest.

A jaunty and aristocratic lad, Willis found the Livingston home to be a “little palace of cultivation and refinement” in the wilderness that was then upstate New York. In a later work entitled Edith Linsey, Willis cast the home as Fleming Farm. In the chapter called “Love in the Library,” he described the Livingston sisters as “quite too pretty to have been left out of my story so long,” and noted that they “were more indulgent, I thought, to the indigenous beaux of Skaneateles than those aboriginal specimens had a right to expect.”


A sketch of young Nathaniel Parker Willis

Together, Adele and Nathaniel went horseback riding around the lake, and Willis later gave us this glimpse of the home’s interior:

“There was a long room in the southern wing of the house fitted up as a library. It was a heavily curtained, dim old place, with deep-embayed windows, and so many nooks, and so much furniture, that there was a hushed air, that absence of echo within it, which is the great charm of a haunt for study or thought.”

It was, however, a family connection who would ultimately win Adele Livingston’s heart. A young clerk at Boggs & Livingston, named Joseph Sampson, had worked his way up through the company, which in 1830 became Boggs, Sampson & Thompson. In 1831, Adele settled her affections upon Mr. Sampson and they were married in Skaneateles, at home, by The Rev. Samuel W. Brace, a Presbyterian.

:: Back to New York City ::

Joseph and Adele Livingston Sampson settled in New York City where their fortunes flourished. In 1837, Adele’s parents returned to New York City as well, leaving Skaneateles after John retired from his duties as U.S. Marshal.

In 1840, Joseph Sampson bought the New York mansion of banker Samuel Ward for $70,000. No less an authority than John Jacob Astor remarked at the time that he hadn’t known there was any one in New York who could afford to pay such a price for a residence. Joseph Sampson could. It was said of him, “His clearness of vision in business matters made his advice most valuable to those associated with him, while his even temperament prevented his losing his head in times of panic and financial trouble.”

On August 23, 1841, Joseph and Adele were blessed with the birth of a daughter. Eight days later, on September 1st, Adele Livingston Sampson died. Joseph Sampson named his daughter Adele Livingston Sampson.

:: The Second Adele ::

The second Adele Livingston Sampson had no connection with Skaneateles, but her story bears telling. The New York Times once observed of her, she “was not very pretty, but she was very chic, and, moreover, had a large fortune.” The fortune came from Joseph Sampson, her father, whose fortunes continued to thrive; he was a founder of The Chemical Bank of New York, and a successful investor. He sent Adele to the Priory School for Girls in Pelham Manor, N.Y., and then abroad for “finishing.”

In 1862, Adele married Frederick W. Stevens; they had four children, and Mrs. Stevens became a notable society hostesses; she summered at Newport and rode to the hounds with the Westbury hunting set. In 1872, her father died and she inherited almost his entire fortune, becoming one of the richest women in America. She had fond memories of her school, the Priory, and in 1883, when it closed, she bought the building and grounds; nine years later, when her daughter became Mrs. Frederick H. Allen, she presented the estate to her as a wedding gift.


The Priory in Pelham Manor

And then, delicious scandal. The New York Times breathlessly recounted:

“… early in the season, it was whispered, then rumored, and finally boldly stated that Mrs. Stevens’ name had been stricken from off the society list, and that she had gone to Europe to join no less a person than the Marquis de Talleyrand-Perigord, leaving husband and children behind. It was then remembered that the Marquis, who himself was a married man, having married Miss Bessie Curtis, of the old Boston family of that name, and who had visited New-York and Newport in 1876 and again about 1881, had evinced so decided a preference for Mrs. Stevens’s society that some gossip was provoked at the time.

“The fact that Mrs. Stevens, however, should have gone so far as to leave home and family for a Frenchman of no particular personal attractions, the Marquis being short and rather stout and decidedly ordinary-looking, and being moreover supposed to be deeply in debt, and a man having wife and family, occasioned the utmost sensation and surprise.”

Adele was ostracized from New York society, and went her own way. In 1887, she divorced her husband and married the Marquis de Talleyrand-Perigord; his elderly uncle, the Duc de Dino, abdicated his title making the Marquis the new duke and Adele a duchess. Henry Adams, in a letter of 1907, spoke of meeting the banished Adele while visiting a friend’s chateau in France:

“I went down with the Jones’s and tumbled headlong into the arms of the Duchess Sampson. The last time I was in the same room was with Mr. and Mrs. Fred Stevens and Mr. & Mrs. Fred Jones, somewhere about the year 1880. Since then, I doubt whether any relations have existed. The moment was more than hazardous, but passed off without a shock. Never have I seen so melodramatic a situation, and not a sign of it betrayed.”

In 1912, Adele Livingston Sampson Stevens, the Duchess de Dino, died in Paris; she left more than $1,000,000 to her four children, in equal shares, as well as shares in the trust fund established for her by her father.

:: Julia Livingston Tappan ::


Julia Livingston Tappan, circa 1852

Circling back in time: The eldest of the three lovely Livingston sisers, Julia, in 1828 married Henry P. Tappan, a graduate of the nearby Auburn Theological Seminary, which was then training young men to be clergy on the frontier. Tappan was a clergyman for a time, then taught philosophy at various colleges before becoming the first president of the University of Michigan in 1852. Although the University thrived under Professor Tappan, he was fired by the Board of Regents in 1863. The ten regents, of whom only two were college-educated, thought Tappan put on “lofty airs” and one in particular objected to his drinking wine with dinner. After his firing, an “act of savage, unmitigated barbarism” according to The American Journal of Education, the Tappan family moved to Europe, and never returned.

:: Nathaniel Parker Willis ::

Having survived his visit to the wilds of Skaneateles, N.P. Willis went on to a glowing literary life. In the elegant circles of Boston, he would be “much admired and caressed.” As a publisher and editor, he was a friend to every major American writer, including Emerson, Lowell and Hawthorne, as well as England’s Dickens and Thackery. Willis was the first to publish Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven.” (Poe once noted charitably, “Willis… he’s not quite an ass.”) As a writer, Willis was one of America’s most popular and best-paid.

In 1832, he went to Europe; his travel writings were collected as Pencillings by the Way. One biographer noted, “He wrote in the tone and style of a young prince.” His titles say it all: Inklings of Adventure, Loiterings of Travel, Dashes at Life with a Free Pencil, People I Have Met, Fun Jottings. Sadly, Willis’ frothy light writing did not wear well, nor did his image. As he aged, the soft, straying forelock of his younger days evolved into glued curls, and he was said to be, in Walt Whitman’s words, “the horror of photographers,” who could but fail to capture his fleeting youth.

Willis Brady

Nathaniel Parker Willis, photographed by Mathew Brady

But he was not forgotten by his peers. When he died at the age of 60, the bookstores of Boston closed for his funeral service, and his pallbearers included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

:: The House ::


Alone among our players, the home still stands. After the Livingston family, the house was occupied by a retired New York merchant, Dyer Brainerd. Of the house and its new tenant, William Beauchamp, in his Notes on Other Days in Skaneateles, wrote, “His old home, with its fine thorn hedge, was long one of the most noticeable near Skaneateles, and many were the pleasant entertainments that occurred there.”

A succession of private owners lived in, altered, and restored the house, and sold off large pieces of the estate. Briefly in the early 1950’s, the house was used as a restaurant named Gnarlehedge House, open during the summer for luncheon and dinner, with a House Museum for its guests. Since 1956, the home has again been a private residence.

:: Sources ::

Nathaniel Parker Willis (1885) by Henry A. Beers; “Nathaniel Parker Willis” in Some Noted Princes, Authors & Statesmen of Our Time (1885) by James Parton; Prose Writings of N.P. Willis (1885); “Married To Her Marquis” NewYork Times, Jan. 27, 1887; “Duke and Duchess Part” New York Times, April 4, 1903; “Mrs. Sampson’s Will” New York Times, July 26, 1912; Crowding Memories (1920) by Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich; “The Story of Gnarlehedge House,” circa 1950, from the collection of the Skaneateles Historical Society; Historic Pelham website; Henry Adams in a letter to Elizabeth Cameron, June 1907; Gnarlehedge House advertisement from the Finger Lakes Lyric Circus theater program, June 24, 1952. And my thanks to Barbara Semans for corrections to an earlier draft.


2 thoughts on “The Livingstons of Skaneateles

    • By gosh, it really could be. “…as an engineer, he selected sites for fortifications on the frontier of the new republic.” And those men have surveyors’ equipment. Can’t say for sure, but it’s a real possibility. Thank you!

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