Matthew Beach and William Wood

Yonder comes the boat of Woods and Beach, the two solitary dwellers of this region. It is rather a singular coincidence that the only two inhabitants of this wilderness should be named Woods and Beach. I should not wonder if the next comers should be called ‘Hemlock’ and ‘Pine’.

Joel Tyler Headley, The Adirondack or Life in the Woods 1

Beach and Wood’s presence on Indian Point literally put Raquette Lake on the map.  A fact revealed by one of the earliest depictions of Raquette Lake in J. H. Young’s 1845 map of New York State.   The map shows an almost wholly inaccurate depiction of an un-named Raquette Lake, to the southwest of Long Lake. However, it contains a nearly accurate rendering of Indian Point prominently jutting out from the west side of the lake.

1845 Map and Insert

Indian Point was the focal point of the first map of Raquette Lake because Beach and Wood were the center of hospitality for the earliest adventurers travelling through the region. Professor Ebenezer Emmons in 1840, John Todd in 1843, Joel Tyler Headley in 1844-1846.  The tales told by these writers and the early surveys drawn by them undoubtedly contributed to this depiction of Indian Point on the 1845 map. Our knowledge of Beach and Wood come from the writings of these and later prestigious visitors.

Pioneering Settlers

Matthew Beach was the elder of the pair, nearing sixty and almost two decades senior to William Wood when they settled on Indian Point. Both men were Vermonters who appear not to have sought out the Adirondacks as much as fled civilization in the early 1830’s. Headley noted that:

One of them was once a wealthy manufacturer; but overtaken by successive misfortunes, he at length fled to the wilderness, where he has ever since lived. There is also a rumor, of some love adventure—of blasted affections followed by morbid melancholy—being the cause of this strange self-exile. 2

They originally made their livelihood in the region as trappers, according to Henry Jarvis Raymond. Raymond [founder of The New York Times newspaper and Lt. Governor of New York at the time] visited with them in 1855, remarking “They became so fond of the country and the life that they finally settled there, –clearing their land gradually, never troubling about securing their title *, living together in a bark shanty, which with progress of the age grew into a log hut, and obtaining their living mainly by hunting and fishing.” 3  Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 7.32.48 AM

 

I have yet to find any photographs of Beach and Wood. However, a vivid picture of each is drawn from the writings of their visitors.

C.W. Webber’s describes Beach in The Spirit of the Times in 1849 as:

The old white haired veteran, yet stalwart and hearty, whose step is still elastic, and eye—eagle-like—bright as ever—coarsely dressed, with a true hunter like air…appeared, indeed, no ordinary woodsman…I found Beach quite intelligent, he has picked up much information in one spot or another, and, no doubt, no small amount from Naturalists who, having occasion to visit that country for the sake of geological exploration…have made his hut their quarters. 4

 

William James Stillman, describing an 1855 visit in The Crayon said Beach:

is a man of very interesting character, the noblest example of the backwoodsman I have ever seen, simple and pure in feeling as a child. He was a volunteer at the [War of 1812] Battle of Plattsburg, the bloody character of which contrasted strangely with his quiet and gentle deportment. 5

In 1868, B. F. De Costa wrote in a history of Beach:

Matthew Beach, though possessing little book-learning, had nevertheless, acquired a valuable kind of culture. He was a shrewd observer of character, and seldom erred in his judgment of men. He studied closely the habits of animals of the forest, and was a careful student of nature. 6

References to William Wood in the region, place him living with two other bachelors in a house at Herreshoff settlement to the west of Old Forge in 1832. Wood was a witness to the 1833 infamous murder of an Indian named Drid by Nat Foster (a story for another time). 7  At this early date, Wood was a whole man, given that court testimony during Nat Foster’s trial make no reference to the unusual physique and manner of mobility noted in later histories of the man.

In 1849, David Read (co-owner with Farrand Benedict of Township 40) wrote in a letter to Joel Tyler Headley: 8

David Read W Wood description

 

Raymond remarked about Wood that, “He wears immense shoes—more like boats than brogans—and with these, stumps through the woods at a marvelous pace.” A letter to The Spirit of the Times describing a Constable family trip through Raquette Lake in 1843 said Wood was, “frequently carrying 70 lbs. on his back, and in winter had rather the advantage of him, as with a thick covering of moose hide, his knees answered the purpose of snow-shoes.” 9

The year of Wood’s accident is a mystery. The historian Edith Pilcher claims the accident occurred when Wood fell into the Independence River while returning to his home near Old Forge. Pilcher attributes his survival to being found half-frozen by the very same Nat Foster, whose life Wood had perhaps spared with his evasive testimony during Foster’s murder trial. Local Indian friends of Wood are said to have amputated his legs and nursed him back to health. 10  Given he was whole at the time of the Nat Foster-Drid incident, Wood’s misfortune must have occurred after 1833. The absence of Beach’s character in these stories leads me to conclude that this tragedy befell Wood prior to their joint residence on Indian Point.

The exact year of Beach and Wood’s arrival on Indian Point is also unknown, but it appears to have been between 1835 and 1839. The 1843 Constable family trip described in The Spirit of the Times mentions the “two old hunters who had lived here about eight years” –meaning 1835. Joel Tyler Headley wrote extensively of his 1846 visit with Beach and Wood stating “the two hunters that occupy [two huts] the only inhabitants that are or have been on the shore for the last nine years.” This would correspond to 1837. Stillman in 1855 states that “Mr. Beach has lived here seventeen years”, fixing 1838 as the date. At the second-ever town meeting of Long Lake in 1839, William Wood was elected Assessor and Matthew Beach was elected Commissioner of Common Schools. 11   It is likely that the two were then living together on Indian Point. Therefore, I believe Wood’s accident occurred sometime between 1833 and 1838.

A Hut in the Woods

In 1840, Prof. Ebenezer Emmons and J. W. Hill stayed with Beach and Wood in their hut while surveying the Raquette Lake region for the Survey of the Second Geological District of New York State. 12  During this survey, Hill drew a sketch of their hut that was later published in Headley’s book.

1849 Birch Pt sketch

Various visitors described the hut shown here in their Adirondack writings. In 1843, John Todd wrote in Simple Sketches, “They have built the hunter’s lodge of bark, and adorned it with the antlers of many an old stag, and many a trophy of the art and skill of man over the instincts of the forest.”

Webber said the hut was “of such peculiar and original construction that few would imagine it, at first sight, a human habitation.” Webber provides this description of the hut’s interior:

Webber hut interior

Stillman later noted by 1855 “The rude cabin which he [Beach] first built has grown gradually into a comfortable house.”

Hunters and Trappers

As one of today’s summer folk, it is hard for me to imagine the almost solitary year-round life of Beach and Wood on Indian Point. Their existence depended upon the land as revealed by Webber’s description of “a shed, connected with the hut, presented within a goodly array of deer skins, barrels of salted ‘lakers’, and strings of the same kind of fish, smoked; while lying around on different sides, were traps of all sizes, from such as were capable of holding a bear, to mink traps.”

Contemporary newspaper articles write of Beach and Wood hunting wolves, deer and moose. In The Mammals of the Adirondack Region, a story appears told by John Constable of Wood “trapping a very large beaver in the fall of 1837, in a pond northwest of Indian Point on the Raquette. Wood carried his boat to the pond and paddled twice around it, searching carefully for signs, without going ashore. At last he discovered fur upon the root of an old birch that projected into the water. Here he placed the trap, attached to a float, and on the second day found the beaver in it.” 13   This was noted, at the time, to be one of the few remaining beavers in the Central Adirondacks.

In 1861, William Wood played a part in killing off the last (at the time) family of moose in the State of New York. In July of that year, a sow moose was killed at the South Inlet of Raquette Lake and the artist A. F. Tait wounded a bull calf moose while jacking deer at night on the Marion River.   This wounded moose eluded Tait in the darkness but was later killed in August by Wood. That fall, the last of this moose family was felled along the Marion River near Raquette Lake by a shot from a Long Lake guide named Palmer. 14

Headley described their long, harsh winters:

When the snow is five feet deep on the level, and the ice three and four feet thick on the lake, and not the sign of a human footstep any where to be seen, the smoke of their cabin rises in the frosty air like a column in the desert—enhancing instead of relieving the solitude. The pitch pine supplies the place of candles, and the deep red light from their humble window, at night, must present a singular contrast with the rude waste of snow, and the leafless forest around them.

Their leisure hours they spend in preparing the furs they have taken, and in tanning the deer skins, of which they make mittens…When a quantity of these mittens are made up, Beach straps on his snow shoes, and with his trusty rifle in his hand, carries them out to the settlements.

Adirondack Farmers

Reading of these exploits brings back childhood memories of watching Grizzly Adams on TV, but they did not subsist on hunting, fishing, and trapping alone. What truly astounds me is that they cleared a ten-acre farm on Indian Point.

Webber described their farm in 1849:

I observed quite a respectable garden on the west side of the hut, in which were some 18 or 20 currant bushes, laden with their ripened fruit, interspersed with red raspberry bushes and wild cherry trees—besides cabbages and potatoes in a flourishing condition. On the other side of the hut, towards the lake, was a little patch containing pea vines, then in blossom.

A. P. Edward’s 1852 survey report to the NY State Assembly said they “have a large patch of potatoes, and have cut hay sufficient to winter from 8 to 10 head of cattle, and that too unaided by the plow.” 15

Stillman in 1855:

found a comfortable house, with cattle grazing around, and an enclosure in which a few flowers and some vegetables were growing. There were tomatoes not yet ripe, beets, cabbage, and in the field outside, a scattered growth of turnips of immense size. I pulled up one, a flat, white turnip of the common kind, which measured 24 ½ inches round, and weighed five pounds. The luxuriance of the soil seemed wonderful—the ‘herd’s grass’ stood, on the shore of the lake where the clearing was old, six feet high.

Parting of the Ways

Although they both shared Indian Point, they did not always live together according to Raymond.

He [Wood] and Beach in course of time disagreed, for in any part of the earth, no matter how secluded, two persons are enough for a quarrel; and a clearing of ten acres, even in a wilderness a hundred miles through, affords ground enough for a local dissention. So finding they could no longer live together, they agreed to divide their fortunes and have nothing to do with each other.

Just when this disagreement and separation took place is a puzzle. I suspect that the separation occurred between 1844 and 1846. We know that John Todd found them living together in 1843. Headley’s writings from 1844-1846 are contradictory; one letter speaks of two huts while another describes a winter scene shared together in one cabin. David Read’s letter of 1849 clearly uses the plural “dwellings” and C. W. Webber’s 1849 visit makes no mention of Wood and finds Beach living with a man of 38 who Webber describes as a “rather tall and thin figure”, most undoubtedly not Wood.

The best description of William Wood’s separate cabin comes from the diary of James McEntee, who visited in 1851.

We found his home a very comfortable one, and though rude, exhibited the unmistakable traces of neatness and industry. The house is built of logs with a bark-covered porch in front, and standing on a gentle elevation about fifty yards from the lake. 16

McEntee sketched the hut in his diary:

Wood's Cabin 1851 Jervis McIntee

Courtesy of the Adirondack Museum.

 

As the years progressed, Beach aged gracefully, yet nonetheless came to require assistance. Raymond remarked that, “Beach has grown old—being about seventy, but he is still hale and hearty, he cannot shoot quite so far as he could once, he says, with the same certainty of hitting his game.” Beach invited Amos Hough of Long Lake to live with him and tend to his farm. (It is likely that Hough was the man that Webber found living with Beach in 1849.) 17

In 1856, Beach deeded his 25 acres to Amos Hough on condition that the latter take care of Beach until his death. 18   By 1860, Beach was living in the home of John Plumley in the Village of Long Lake. Plumley was Hough’s son-in-law, having married Hough’s eldest daughter Zobeda. He took on the family obligation and cared for Beach until his death in 1862. 19

John Plumley, who later became “Honest John” –the Adirondack Guide made famous by Reverend William H. H. Murray in his book Adventures in the Wilderness, not only played a part in Beach’s life. He also purchased William Wood’s 25 acres on Indian Point when Wood left Raquette for Elizabethtown in 1859. 20  Wood had found love with Celia Ann Whitman (almost a quarter century younger than Wood). Their daughter Lydia was born in 1857 on Raquette Lake. They wed in 1858 and settled in Elizabethtown or Westport where another daughter was born in 1860. William Wood died in 1868. 21

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s