Over 130 years ago, the writer Nessmuk (George Washington Sears) visited my great-great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher on Indian Point in 1883. Two weeks ago, I received an email from Will Madison, the great-great-great-grandson of Nessmuk. Will is retracing the canoe journey of his ancestor and arranged to meet me at Indian Point this past weekend. Please enjoy this video of our rendezvous and click at the end to support and share the campaign. Or contribute directly at http://igg.me/at/50acres
My last article identified the most likely location of the original cabin built by Matthew Beach and William Wood in the mid-1830s. Wood remained on Indian Point until 1859, but sometime between 1844 and 1846 he had a falling out with Beach and built a separate cabin (shown in this 1851 sketch from Jervis McEntee’s diary).
I began a new search to determine where Wood’s cabin had stood, using the 1851 sketch as a starting point. I feel confident in saying that the mountainscape in the background of the sketch is unmistakably Bluff Hill, which rises above the Bluff Point peninsula of Raquette Lake. So where would one see this particular view?
One might expect that each man’s cabin would have been located within their individual parcel when they obtained legal title to their lands in 1849. The image below shows that Beach was deeded 25 acres to the right of the yellow line, encompassing both tips of Indian Point. Wood was deeded 25 acres in a rectangular parcel between the red and yellow lines. My theory of the location of Beach’s cabin has it on Beach’s property, so Wood’s cabin should have been within his rectangular parcel.
However, after carefully canoeing along the shores of the inner bay between the two tips of Indian Point and along the south shore of Indian Point, I can unequivocally state that the view captured in the McEntee sketch could not have been seen from within Wood’s 25 acre parcel. The only potential location would be at the very back of the inner bay but Needle Island obscures the view of Bluff Hill from that vantage point.
Why would Beach and Wood divide the end of Indian Point in a way that did not correspond to where the men’s cabins were located? The answer comes from looking at the Township 40 Map of 1900. Notice that most of the straight edges of the property parcels are all lines that run parallel to the diagonal boundaries of Township 40. In 1773, Ebenezer Jessup was charged with surveying the boundaries of the Totten & Crossfield Purchase and segmenting the area into townships. The reason why the township’s west and east boundaries run North 27◦ West rather than straight north-south has been lost to history. Nevertheless, it appears that in giving legal title to the men, Farrand Benedict and David Read chose an easier surveying technique to divide the land into equal 25 acre parcels, without regard to the location of the cabins.
This realization opens up the possibility that Wood’s cabin actually existed on what was legally Beach’s land. McEntee was not the only visitor who wrote about Wood’s cabin. In 1855, Henry Jarvis Raymond, the founder of The New York Times and NYS Lt. Governor, wrote of his visit to Indian Point.
[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 dissension. So finding they could no longer live together, they agreed to divide their fortunes and have nothing to do with each other. Wood moved into a hut, half logs and half bark, some fifty rods from Beach.
Fifty rods is 825 feet. From where I believe Beach’s cabin to have been, I ventured roughly that distance in each direction seeking to see if any point gave a view similar to the McEntee sketch. I found it at what our family calls Hawks’ Point (named for the family of Ken Hawks, current owners of Watch Point on North Bay, who camped here for many years). The view from here has a very close resemblance to the sketch.
Surely this was the location of Wood’s cabin. I was convinced until I read the entirety of Jervis McEntee’s diary from his 1851 visit. McEntee said of Wood’s cabin, “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.” A cabin 150 feet back from the lakeshore on Hawks’ Point would be in a marsh and no longer have a view of Bluff Hill.
McEntee also states that, “Wood was not at home but we saw him coming over the lake soon after we reached his house…he had just now returned from ‘Blue Mountain’.” This could be interpreted to mean that they were able to see Wood coming north across Beaver Bay up from the mouth of the Marion River. There is no such view from Hawk’s Point.
McEntee also commented that he had “stopped at Wood’s and got our clothes and some meal and potatoes. We heard three or four rifle shots in the direction of Beach’s, and rowing over there we found a skiff and a birch bark canoe and met Beach and an Indian at the landing.”
If Wood’s cabin had been on Hawks’ Point, Beach could have shouted over the water the short distance from his landing and would have not needed to fire gunshots in the air to get McEntee’s attention.
Levi Wells Prentice’s 1877 painting titled “Raquette Lake from Wood’s Clearing” alludes to another possible location for Wood’s cabin. Prentice actually painted at least three versions from the same sketch. I believe the one shown below helps to identify where the sketch was drawn.
I believe the sketch was drawn at a spot (marked with a white star below) on a small inner cove at the far east end of the southern tip of Indian Point while looking south. The peninsula on the left of the painting is Woods Point, where William Wood’s brother Josiah lived. Osprey Island appears to the right across a small channel from Woods Point. The far shoreline is not actually the southern shore of Raquette Lake but rather Long Point. The mountainscape in the background shows the Blue Ridge, Wakley, and Metcalf mountain ranges that lie south of Raquette Lake.
If one looks due east rather than south from here, you do see a view of Bluff Hill similar to the McEntee sketch. Sitting on the porch and looking south from here, you would see William Wood “coming over the lake” as he “returned from Blue Mountain”. The distance from Beach’s cabin and the fact that I believe Wood left a windbreak of trees to the north of his cabin (seen in McEntee’s sketch) would explain why Beach had to fire gunshots in the air to get McEntee’s attention. Finally, there are stone piles that appear to be corner foundation points found where I believe Wood’s cabin to have been.
Warren Reynolds recalls his father showing him the remains of William Wood’s cabin when he was a small boy in the 1930s. Only a corner joint of rotting timbers remained. Warren’s father claimed that his friend Billy Wood, one of Wood’s descendants, originally showed him the site. These remains were not anywhere near the tip of the southern fork. Instead, this cabin had been located just to the west of the line dividing Beach and Wood’s properties on the southern fork but closer to the inner bay of Indian Point.
The second contradiction is Henry Jarvis Raymond’s 1855 comment that Wood’s cabin was “some fifty rods from Beach”. The location near the tip of the southern fork is almost 100 rods away from Beach’s cabin.
My research of our family’s property deed revealed a clue that might explain these contradictions. In 1854, Matthew Beach sold a 4.75-acre parcel to Albert and Gardner Eldred. The boundaries of this small parcel, in blue below, enclose the area where I believe William Wood had his first cabin. Either Beach forced Wood out of his cabin or perhaps by 1854 Wood had already begun to court Celia Ann Whitman, whom he married in 1858 after fathering their daughter Lydia in 1857. Did he choose to build a more suitable cabin to raise a family in, within the boundaries of his legal property?
Based on Reynolds’ recollection and the supposition that Henry Jarvis Raymond visited this second cabin in 1855, I have marked an approximate location around fifty rods from Beach’s cabin. It is likely that Wood occupied this cabin from 1854 until 1859 when he moved to Elizabethtown. Today the sites have modern construction or disrupted landscapes that preclude a more in-depth ground search for evidence, but I feel confident in my conclusions.
Alvah Dunning was perhaps the most famous of Raquette Lake guides, alleged to have helped lead the first excursion of sportsmen to Raquette Lake at age eleven. Born in Lake Piseco in 1816, he lived there until 1860 when his neighbors’ rightful condemnation of his abuse of his wife forced him to flee. 1 From that moment, he chose to remove himself from society in favor of the freedom of the wilderness. Yet civilization’s constant barrage upon him eventually brought him to a tragic end.
Reverend Thomas Wall described the man from his 1856 excursion to the region:
Dunning…is a very close imitation of some of [Fenimore] Cooper’s models [of the Leatherstocking Tales]– silent, stealthy in movement, full of resources; he could almost speak the language of the animals. I have seen him, by a peculiar chipper, call a mink from its hiding place in the rocks and shoot it, and have known him to bring a deer back into the water by bleating and making the noise of wading. Dunning was a true sportsman, never allowing more fish or game to be taken than was needed…Indeed, his excellence, when in his prime, was so generally known that it excited much of the enmity with which he was regarded by some, for if he could be had he was always first choice. 2
Dunning’s woodsman skills were learned from his father, “Scout” Dunning, who had served under General William Johnston and perfected his woodcraft during the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution. These skills served Alvah well as he fled civilization for Lake Lewey and later settled in Blue Mountain Lake. 3
According to Dr. Arpad Gerster, the growing attraction of wealthy sports to Blue Mountain Lake soured the tranquility that Dunning sought. 4 My great-great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher began visiting Blue in 1862 seeking his own solitude and yet he represents the first wave that drove Alvah further west. Ironically, GHT followed Alvah’s footsteps to the same spot 15 years later driven by the growth of tourist hotels on Blue.
Several sources state that Dunning lived at Indian Point on Raquette Lake between 1865 and 1868. My research indicates that he likely squatted in the first of two cabins built by William Wood, the one nearest the very tip of the southern fork of the peninsula. During this time, ownership of the cabin and a small parcel of land surrounding it changed between Albert Eldred and John Plumley, both of whom lived elsewhere. Plumley lived in Long Lake and being well acquainted with Alvah, it is conceivable that he allowed this use of his land by Dunning. 5
Of his many clients, we know that one visitor of note in the summer of 1865 was Fred Mather, who later became the fisheries editor of Forest and Stream magazine. For two weeks, he stayed with Dunning on Indian Point and fished for trout in Raquette and Brown’s Tract Inlet. 6
Mather later described him in his book My Angling Friends;
Only men who possess strongly marked personalities are capable of making strong friends and as equally strong enemies…it seems that Alvah is well liked by sportsmen whom he has served…Others dislike him, and among Adirondack guides he is, for some reason, the most unpopular man in the woods.
The enmity of other guides was also stoked by Dunning’s fierce belief in his right to unfettered use of the land and to kill game any time of year. Mather writes of visiting Dunning again in 1882 when Alvah complained;
Times is different now, an’ wus. In them days nobody said a word if a poor man wanted a little meat an’ killed it, but now they’re a-savin’ it until the dudes get time to come up here an’ kill it, an’ some of ’em leave a deer to rot in the woods, an’ on’y take the horns ef it’s a buck, or the tail ef it’s a doe, just so’s they can brag about it when they go home, an’ they’d put me in jail ef I killed a deer when I needed meat. I dunno what we’re a-comin’ to in this free country. 7
Although praised and sought after by the wealthy for his guiding skills, Dunning did not return the appreciation, complaining to Mather,
These woods is a-gittin’ too full o’ people fer comfort—that is, in summer time ; fer they don’t bother the trappin’ in the winter; but they’re a-runnin’ all over here in summer a-shootin’ an’a-fishin’, but they don’t kill much, nor catch many fish ; but they git in the way, an’ they ain’t got no business here disturbin’ the woods. 8
There is no small irony in the fact that the writings of Mather, in Forest and Stream, brought an even greater number of adventurers into the Adirondacks. Forest and Stream became a prominent voice championing the forest conservation and game regulations that infringed upon Dunning’s freedom.
Dunning continuously moved around the area. He allegedly purchased Osprey Island on Raquette Lake from John Plumley in 1868, sharing the island with Reverend Adirondack Murray to the early 1870s. 9
He then built a cabin at Brown’s Tract Inlet and later the one shown below on an island on Eighth Lake.
Mather attempted to remain in contact with Alvah as late as 1896 according to this classified placed in Forest and Stream.
While Mather and other writers in the popular press always expounded on Dunning’s expertise, they also often portrayed the man as a simpleton, condescendingly alluding to his lack of understanding that the earth is round, the reasons for tides, and giving Alvah’s voice a foolish dialect.
A popular fable about Dunning claims that he sold his vote for President Grover Cleveland in the fall of 1892 in exchange for two boxes of Cleveland Baking Powder. The true story is more complex but equally amusing. Dunning had guided for Cleveland in the summer of 1892. Prior to Cleveland’s second inauguration in March of 1893, the Fort Orange Club of Albany, NY, hosted a celebratory dinner for the president-elect. James Ten Eyck, President of the Club and owner of a rustic lodge at North Point on Raquette Lake, contacted Ike Kenwell to procure the freshest trout for the dinner. Kenwell, who had previously owned the Raquette Lake House at Tioga Point on Raquette Lake, contracted Alvah Dunning for the task. Dunning caught 35 pounds of brook trout through the frozen ice of Shallow Lake. Rather than be paid for the trout, Alvah decided to make a trade. Erroneously believing the newly inaugurated President was associated with the Cleveland Baking Powder company, he wrote:
Dear Sir: Some time ago Ike Kenwell asked me to get you twenty-five pounds of brook trout. I done so. He offered to pay me, but I did not take any pay. Just now I am out of baking powder and would be very much obliged if you would send me some.
President Cleveland graciously sent two cases of one pound boxes to Alvah. 10
News of his exploits often made the press. In the winter of 1894 came a report of his unfortunate death. Forest and Stream magazine reported that Alvah had fallen on the ice of Raquette Lake and cracked his skull. He was brought to William S. Durant’s Camp Pine Knot where a doctor attending him said he would not recover. The magazine lamented “That such a man should, after long years of peril by field and flood, come to his death by a fall on the ice such as one might get on Broadway, is one of the ironical phases of fate.” 11 Fortunately for Alvah, the news of his demise was premature and he recovered to live another eight years.
His actual death was equally ironic. On the night of June 13, 1902, the 86 year old Alvah Dunning spent the night in a hotel in Utica, NY. Continuing their condescending tone, the press reported that Dunning died because he “blew out the light” on the gas lamp in his room and was asphyxiated by the gas. A more accurate account is given in Forest and Stream magazine, which noted that the cock on the gas lamp was left one quarter open. It appears that Alvah had closed it enough so that the flame of the lamp died but that he did not seal the valve shut. 12
Modern civilization, which he had sought to escape all his life, tragically ended that life.
Prior to his visit to Matthew Beach and William Wood’s cabins on Indian Point in 1855, Henry Jarvis Raymond was instrumental in securing the funding from the New York State Assembly to make the necessary infrastructure improvements to turn the Raquette River and the Moose River into public highways for the transportation of logs through the vast wilderness of the Adirondacks. Here is a reprint of the 1850 NYS Assembly committee report which led to this achievement as published in the March 1, 1850 edition of the New York Morning Courier.
a line of text is missing from the bottom edge of the newspaper
After much toil and labor in rowing, in consequence of a strong head wind, we reached the lake at its eastern extremity. This accomplished, our next business was to find the establishment of Beach and Wood situated on some point on the opposite shore. By fortunate conjecture, our guide struck upon the right course and soon landed on Indian Point at the residence of the above named gentlemen. Here we determined to remain till we had thoroughly explored the region. 1
Thus Prof. Ebenezer Emmons described his arrival on my family’s land in 1840, captured in this sketch of Beach and Woods’ cabin by John William Hill.
Emmons was continuing his efforts, begun in 1837, as director of the Survey of the Second Geological District to study the mineralogy, geography and geology of 10,000 acres across northern New York State. 2
In his 1838 report Emmons wrote:
The cluster of mountains in the neighborhood of the Upper Hudson and Ausable river, I propose to call the Adirondack group, a name by which a well known tribe of Indians who once hunted here may be commemorated. 3
Emmons’ term for the high peaks region was adopted and expanded to describe all of the area now known as the Adirondacks.
However, Emmons’ impact on the region is not limited to its name. In the summer of 1837, he led the first recorded ascent of the tallest mountain in New York and named it Mt. Marcy, in recognition of Governor William Marcy who appointed him to lead the survey. 4
Emmons was a true renaissance scholar who took a winding path through various disciplines before taking the helm of the survey. Born in 1799 in Middlefield, MA, his fascination with the natural world began early. According to an 1896 biography published in Popular Science Monthly,
The doors in his room were covered with bugs and butterflies pinned on when he was a small boy. His mother often used to say: ‘Eb, why do you always have your pockets filled with stones? I have to mend them every week. 5
Emmons enrolled at the age of fifteen to study botany at Williams College, graduating in 1818. He then attended Berkshire Medical College and became a practicing physician in Chester, MA. In 1824, he began his pursuit of geology at the Rensselear Institute (RPI), a member of the first graduating class of 1826. That year, he published his Manual of Mineralogy and Geology, which became the instructional text at RPI. He returned to Williams to chair the Natural History department, while spending part of each year teaching chemistry and obstetrics at the Albany Medical College. 6
While traveling with Williams College President Hopkins and Hopkins’ brother Emmons’ enthusiasm for discovery got the better of him according to the 1896 biography.
Emmons asked his friends to turn aside with him to visit a certain cave. They consented to the delay, although the brother was on his way to be married, and waited just within the entrance of the cavern while Emmons penetrated to its inmost depths. After a time they heard the excited cry, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it! And out rushed the geologist, bearing triumphantly a muddy fragment of rock. 7
Governor Marcy selected Emmons to lead the geologic survey because of his preeminence in the field best expressed a century later by Cecil J. Schneer.
If we were to limit our study to the selection of any single individual as principally responsible for transformation of American geology it would have to be Professor Ebenezer Emmons. Emmons’ work served as a model and a standard for the geologic-stratigraphic surveys for the rest of the United States. 8
While Emmons’ work left an imprint across the country, some of his impacts on the Adirondacks were short-lived. During the 1840 expedition, Emmons travelled through the Eckford Chain of Lakes, named for Henry Eckford who originally surveyed them in 1811. Emmons named the individual lakes for Eckford’s daughters: Lake Janet (Blue Mt. Lake), Lake Catherine (Eagle Lake) and Lake Marion (Utowana Lake). For a short time, Blue Mountain was called Mt. Emmons. Today the Marion River is the only piece still carrying the name Emmons gave it. 9
The long-term impact of Emmons on the Adirondacks has more to do with the language and art work in his Survey reports. His writing romanticized an idyllic location that previously had been portrayed as cold, swampy and dreary. His reports were accompanied by some of the first drawings to show the public the majestic beauty of the Adirondack mountains, lakes and streams.
He gave an attractive description of Raquette Lake, which others ascribed to the region as a whole.
The view of the lake from [Indian Point] is also fine, and it is no exaggeration to represent it as equal to any in the northern highlands of New York. The waters are clear but generally ruffled with the breeze. It is well supplied with lake trout, which often weigh twenty pounds. The neighboring forests abound also in deer and other game. Hence it is finely fitted for the temporary residence of those who are troubled with ennui or who wish to escape for a time during the months of July and August from the cares of business or the heat and bustle of the city. To enable the traveler or invalid to make the most of the situation, a supply of light boats are always on hand for fishing and hunting, or for exploring the inlets and neighboring lakes which are connected with the Racket [sic]. 10
Historian Philip Terrie places Emmons in the context of his times.
Emmons understood that America would follow western Europe down the path of industrialization, and he knew that the beauty and opportunities for spiritual renewal offered by the Adirondacks would be an invaluable treasure in a state where mills and smokestacks were even then beginning rapidly to replace forests and farms. 11
However, Emmons also promoted the economic exploitation of the natural resources within the Adirondacks. According to Terrie, Emmons had a vision of an “intensely populated and cultivated landscape” that embodied within one man the conflict between natural preservation and resource use, which still confounds us today. It is probable that the indomitable pioneer spirit of Matthew Beach and William Wood and early settlers of Long Lake and similar hamlets caused this vision to flourish as Emmons described.
We found that Indian Point was situated about midway in the lake between its southern and northern extremities and projecting far into it towards the northeast. It contains four or five hundred acres of excellent land, a warm, rich soil, as it appeared from the fine state of vegetables which were growing in the garden, and which were in an equal state of forwardness with the same vegetables growing on Lake Champlain. 12
Beach and Woods’s farm consisted of several acres of crops and hay pasture for up to ten cattle. But, theirs was a deceptively impressive subsistence farm. Though most Adirondack soils and the climate would not support expansive cultivation, their farm likely owed its success to two centuries of soil enrichment through burning and cultivating of root crops by Native Indians for their seasonal hunting parties.
Emmons’ experience on Indian Point affected his overall vision for the region. Fortunately for us, his connection to Indian Point did not alter the lake’s name. Had Emmons chosen to re-name the lake, we might know it today by the aboriginal name recorded in his report, Lake Fobullangamuck.
A JOURNAL DEDICATED TO MY FELLOW TRAVELERS IN AUGUST, 1858
Wise and polite,–and if I drew
Their several portraits, you would own
Chaucer had no such worthy crew,
Nor Boccace in Decameron.
We crossed Champlain to Keeseville with our friends,
Thence, in strong country carts, rode up the forks
Of the Ausable stream, intent to reach
The Adirondac lakes. At Martin’s Beach
We chose our boats; each man a boat and guide,–
Ten men, ten guides, our company all told.
Next morn, we swept with oars the Saranac,
With skies of benediction, to Round Lake,
Where all the sacred mountains drew around us,
Tahawus, Seaward, MacIntyre, Baldhead,
And other Titans without muse or name.
Pleased with these grand companions, we glide on,
Instead of flowers, crowned with a wreath of hills.
We made our distance wider, boat from boat,
As each would hear the oracle alone.
By the bright morn the gay flotilla slid
Through files of flags that gleamed like bayonets,
Through gold-moth-haunted beds of pickerel-flower,
Through scented banks of lilies white and gold,
Where the deer feeds at night, the teal by day,
On through the Upper Saranac, and up
Pere Raquette stream, to a small tortuous pass
Winding through grassy shallows in and out,
Two creeping miles of rushes, pads and sponge,
To Follansbee Water and the Lake of Loons.
Northward the length of Follansbee we rowed,
Under low mountains, whose unbroken ridge
Ponderous with beechen forest sloped the shore.
A pause and council: then, where near the head
Due east a bay makes inward to the land
Between two rocky arms, we climb the bank,
And in the twilight of the forest noon
Wield the first axe these echoes ever heard.
We cut young trees to make our poles and thwarts,
Barked the white spruce to weatherfend the roof,
Then struck a light and kindled the camp-fire.
The wood was sovran with centennial trees,–
Oak, cedar, maple, poplar, beech and fir,
Linden and spruce. In strict society
Three conifers, white, pitch and Norway pine,
Five-leaved, three-leaved and two-leaved, grew thereby,
Our patron pine was fifteen feet in girth,
The maple eight, beneath its shapely tower.
‘Welcome!’ the wood-god murmured through the leaves,–
‘Welcome, though late, unknowing, yet known to me.’
Evening drew on; stars peeped through maple-boughs,
Which o’erhung, like a cloud, our camping fire.
Decayed millennial trunks, like moonlight flecks,
Lit with phosphoric crumbs the forest floor.
Ten scholars, wonted to lie warm and soft
In well-hung chambers daintily bestowed,
Lie here on hemlock-boughs, like Sacs and Sioux,
And greet unanimous the joyful change.
So fast will Nature acclimate her sons,
Though late returning to her pristine ways.
Off soundings, seamen do not suffer cold;
And, in the forest, delicate clerks, unbrowned,
Sleep on the fragrant brush, as on down-beds.
Up with the dawn, they fancied the light air
That circled freshly in their forest dress
Made them to boys again. Happier that they
Slipped off their pack of duties, leagues behind,
At the first mounting of the giant stairs.
No placard on these rocks warned to the polls,
No door-bell heralded a visitor,
No courier waits, no letter came or went,
Nothing was ploughed, or reaped, or bought, or sold;
The frost might glitter, it would blight no crop,
The falling rain will spoil no holiday.
We were made freemen of the forest laws,
All dressed, like Nature, fit for her own ends,
Essaying nothing she cannot perform.
In Adirondac lakes
At morn or noon, the guide rows bareheaded:
Shoes, flannel shirt, and kersey trousers make
His brief toilette: at night, or in the rain,
He dons a surcoat which he doffs at morn:
A paddle in the right hand, or an oar,
And in the left, a gun, his needful arms.
By turns we praised the stature of our guides,
Their rival strength and suppleness, their skill
To row, to swim, to shoot, to build a camp,
To climb a lofty stem, clean without boughs
Full fifty feet, and bring the eaglet down:
Temper to face wolf, bear, or catamount,
And wit to trap or take him in his lair.
Sound, ruddy men, frolic and innocent,
In winter, lumberers; in summer, guides;
Their sinewy arms pull at the oar untired
Three times ten thousand strokes, from morn to eve.
Look to yourselves, ye polished gentlemen!
No city airs or arts pass current here.
Your rank is all reversed; let men or cloth
Bow to the stalwart churls in overalls:
_They_ are the doctors of the wilderness,
And we the low-prized laymen.
In sooth, red flannel is a saucy test
Which few can put on with impunity.
What make you, master, fumbling at the oar?
Will you catch crabs? Truth tries pretension here.
The sallow knows the basket-maker’s thumb;
The oar, the guide’s. Dare you accept the tasks
He shall impose, to find a spring, trap foxes,
Tell the sun’s time, determine the true north,
Or stumbling on through vast self-similar woods
To thread by night the nearest way to camp?
Ask you, how went the hours?
All day we swept the lake, searched every cove,
North from Camp Maple, south to Osprey Bay,
Watching when the loud dogs should drive in deer,
Or whipping its rough surface for a trout;
Or, bathers, diving from the rock at noon;
Challenging Echo by our guns and cries;
Or listening to the laughter of the loon;
Or, in the evening twilight’s latest red,
Beholding the procession of the pines;
Or, later yet, beneath a lighted jack,
In the boat’s bows, a silent night-hunter
Stealing with paddle to the feeding-grounds
Of the red deer, to aim at a square mist.
Hark to that muffled roar! a tree in the woods
Is fallen: but hush! it has not scared the buck
Who stands astonished at the meteor light,
Then turns to bound away,–is it too late?
Our heroes tried their rifles at a mark,
Six rods, sixteen, twenty, or forty-five;
Sometimes their wits at sally and retort,
With laughter sudden as the crack of rifle;
Or parties scaled the near acclivities
Competing seekers of a rumored lake,
Whose unauthenticated waves we named
Lake Probability,–our carbuncle,
Long sought, not found.
Two Doctors in the camp
Dissected the slain deer, weighed the trout’s brain,
Captured the lizard, salamander, shrew,
Crab, mice, snail, dragon-fly, minnow and moth;
Insatiate skill in water or in air
Waved the scoop-net, and nothing came amiss;
The while, one leaden got of alcohol
Gave an impartial tomb to all the kinds.
Not less the ambitious botanist sought plants,
Orchis and gentian, fern and long whip-scirpus,
Rosy polygonum, lake-margin’s pride,
Hypnum and hydnum, mushroom, sponge and moss,
Or harebell nodding in the gorge of falls.
Above, the eagle flew, the osprey screamed,
The raven croaked, owls hooted, the woodpecker
Loud hammered, and the heron rose in the swamp.
As water poured through hollows of the hills
To feed this wealth of lakes and rivulets,
So Nature shed all beauty lavishly
From her redundant horn.
Lords of this realm,
Bounded by dawn and sunset, and the day
Rounded by hours where each outdid the last
In miracles of pomp, we must be proud,
As if associates of the sylvan gods.
We seemed the dwellers of the zodiac,
So pure the Alpine element we breathed,
So light, so lofty pictures came and went.
We trode on air, contemned the distant town,
Its timorous ways, big trifles, and we planned
That we should build, hard-by, a spacious lodge
And how we should come hither with our sons,
Hereafter,–willing they, and more adroit.
Hard fare, hard bed and comic misery,–
The midge, the blue-fly and the mosquito
Painted our necks, hands, ankles, with red bands:
But, on the second day, we heed them not,
Nay, we saluted them Auxiliaries,
Whom earlier we had chid with spiteful names.
For who defends our leafy tabernacle
From bold intrusion of the travelling crowd,–
Who but the midge, mosquito and the fly,
Which past endurance sting the tender cit,
But which we learn to scatter with a smudge,
Or baffle by a veil, or slight by scorn?
Our foaming ale we drank from hunters’ pans,
Ale, and a sup of wine. Our steward gave
Venison and trout, potatoes, beans, wheat-bread;
All ate like abbots, and, if any missed
Their wonted convenance, cheerly hid the loss
With hunters’ appetite and peals of mirth.
And Stillman, our guides’ guide, and Commodore,
Crusoe, Crusader, Pius Aeneas, said aloud,
“Chronic dyspepsia never came from eating
Food indigestible”:–then murmured some,
Others applauded him who spoke the truth.
Nor doubt but visitings of graver thought
Checked in these souls the turbulent heyday
‘Mid all the hints and glories of the home.
For who can tell what sudden privacies
Were sought and found, amid the hue and cry
Of scholars furloughed from their tasks and let
Into this Oreads’ fended Paradise,
As chapels in the city’s thoroughfares,
Whither gaunt Labor slips to wipe his brow
And meditate a moment on Heaven’s rest.
Judge with what sweet surprises Nature spoke
To each apart, lifting her lovely shows
To spiritual lessons pointed home,
And as through dreams in watches of the night,
So through all creatures in their form and ways
Some mystic hint accosts the vigilant,
Not clearly voiced, but waking a new sense
Inviting to new knowledge, one with old.
Hark to that petulant chirp! what ails the warbler?
Mark his capricious ways to draw the eye.
Now soar again. What wilt thou, restless bird,
Seeking in that chaste blue a bluer light,
Thirsting in that pure for a purer sky?
And presently the sky is changed; O world!
What pictures and what harmonies are thine!
The clouds are rich and dark, the air serene,
So like the soul of me, what if ‘t were me?
A melancholy better than all mirth.
Comes the sweet sadness at the retrospect,
Or at the foresight of obscurer years?
Like yon slow-sailing cloudy promontory
Whereon the purple iris dwells in beauty
Superior to all its gaudy skirts.
And, that no day of life may lack romance,
The spiritual stars rise nightly, shedding down
A private beam into each several heart.
Daily the bending skies solicit man,
The seasons chariot him from this exile,
The rainbow hours bedeck his glowing chair,
The storm-winds urge the heavy weeks along,
Suns haste to set, that so remoter lights
Beckon the wanderer to his vaster home.
With a vermilion pencil mark the day
When of our little fleet three cruising skiffs
Entering Big Tupper, bound for the foaming Falls
Of loud Bog River, suddenly confront
Two of our mates returning with swift oars.
One held a printed journal waving high
Caught from a late-arriving traveller,
Big with great news, and shouted the report
For which the world had waited, now firm fact,
Of the wire-cable laid beneath the sea,
And landed on our coast, and pulsating
With ductile fire. Loud, exulting cries
From boat to boat, and to the echoes round,
Greet the glad miracle. Thought’s new-found path
Shall supplement henceforth all trodden ways,
Match God’s equator with a zone of art,
And lift man’s public action to a height
Worthy the enormous cloud of witnesses,
When linked hemispheres attest his deed.
We have few moments in the longest life
Of such delight and wonder as there grew,–
Nor yet unsuited to that solitude:
A burst of joy, as if we told the fact
To ears intelligent; as if gray rock
And cedar grove and cliff and lake should know
This feat of wit, this triumph of mankind;
As if we men were talking in a vein
Of sympathy so large, that ours was theirs,
And a prime end of the most subtle element
Were fairly reached at last. Wake, echoing caves!
Bend nearer, faint day-moon! Yon thundertops,
Let them hear well! ’tis theirs as much as ours.
A spasm throbbing through the pedestals
Of Alp and Andes, isle and continent,
Urging astonished Chaos with a thrill
To be a brain, or serve the brain of man.
The lightning has run masterless too long;
He must to school and learn his verb and noun
And teach his nimbleness to earn his wage,
Spelling with guided tongue man’s messages
Shot through the weltering pit of the salt sea.
And yet I marked, even in the manly joy
Of our great-hearted Doctor in his boat
(Perchance I erred), a shade of discontent;
Or was it for mankind a generous shame,
As of a luck not quite legitimate,
Since fortune snatched from wit the lion’s part?
Was it a college pique of town and gown,
As one within whose memory it burned
That not academicians, but some lout,
Found ten years since the Californian gold?
And now, again, a hungry company
Of traders, led by corporate sons of trade,
Perversely borrowing from the shop the tools
Of science, not from the philosophers,
Had won the brightest laurel of all time.
‘Twas always thus, and will be; hand and head
Are ever rivals: but, though this be swift,
The other slow,–this the Prometheus,
And that the Jove,–yet, howsoever hid,
It was from Jove the other stole his fire,
And, without Jove, the good had never been.
It is not Iroquois or cannibals,
But ever the free race with front sublime,
And these instructed by their wisest too,
Who do the feat, and lift humanity.
Let not him mourn who best entitled was,
Nay, mourn not one: let him exult,
Yea, plant the tree that bears best apples, plant,
And water it with wine, nor watch askance
Whether thy sons or strangers eat the fruit:
Enough that mankind eat and are refreshed.
We flee away from cities, but we bring
The best of cities with us, these learned classifiers,
Men knowing what they seek, armed eyes of experts.
We praise the guide, we praise the forest life:
But will we sacrifice our dear-bought lore
Of books and arts and trained experiment,
Or count the Sioux a match for Agassiz?
O no, not we! Witness the shout that shook
Wild Tupper Lake; witness the mute all-hail
The joyful traveller gives, when on the verge
Of craggy Indian wilderness he hears
From a log cabin stream Beethoven’s notes
On the piano, played with master’s hand.
‘Well done!’ he cries; ‘the bear is kept at bay,
The lynx, the rattlesnake, the flood, the fire;
All the fierce enemies, ague, hunger, cold,
This thin spruce roof, this clayed log-wall,
This wild plantation will suffice to chase.
Now speed the gay celerities of art,
What in the desert was impossible
Within four walls is possible again,–
Culture and libraries, mysteries of skill,
Traditioned fame of masters, eager strife
Of keen competing youths, joined or alone
To outdo each other and extort applause.
Mind wakes a new-born giant from her sleep.
Twirl the old wheels! Time takes fresh start again,
On for a thousand years of genius more.’
The holidays were fruitful, but must end;
One August evening had a cooler breath;
Into each mind intruding duties crept;
Under the cinders burned the fires of home;
Nay, letters found us in our paradise:
So in the gladness of the new event
We struck our camp and left the happy hills.
The fortunate star that rose on us sank not;
The prodigal sunshine rested on the land,
The rivers gambolled onward to the sea,
And Nature, the inscrutable and mute,
Permitted on her infinite repose
Almost a smile to steal to cheer her sons,
As if one riddle of the Sphinx were guessed.
Few fully understand what the Adirondack wilderness really is. It is a mystery even to those who have crossed and recrossed it by boats along it avenues, the lakes; and on foot through its vast and silent recesses…In this remote section, filed with the most rugged mountains, where unnamed waterfalls pour in snowy tresses from the dark overhanging cliffs…the adventurous trapper or explorer must carry upon his back his blankets and heavy stock of food. Yet, though the woodsman may pass his lifetime in some of the wilderness, it is still a mystery to him. 1
Verplanck Colvin, Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey
Between 1872 and 1900, perhaps no man traversed the Adirondacks more than Verplanck Colvin. Russell Carson said, “With limitless enthusiasm and boundless devotion, he was exploring, surveying, mapping, and sketching the mountains, valleys, lakes and streams of the region, and writing voluminous reports and papers about them.” 2 Through his sheer personal will, he succeeded in lobbying the state legislature to appropriate funds for the Adirondack Survey and appoint him to the task. His explorations led to the discovery of Lake Tear of the Clouds as the source of the Hudson River and the first accurate elevations for Mt. Marcy and dozens of other regional peaks.
To map and describe this wonderful region, correcting the errors of early surveyors, and thus furnish a most important contribution to the physical geography of the State, is of course the primary purpose of undertaking the survey. But Mr. Colvin’s elaborate and interesting reports have been largely instrumental in calling the attention of the public to the attractions of the Adirondack wilderness both for the sportsman and the general tourist, and to the importance of taking any measures that may be necessary to preserve it forever as a mammoth pleasure ground. 3
1880 Editorial in The Cultivator and Country Gentleman
Indeed, Verplanck Colvin’s speech at Lake Pleasant in 1868 is credited as the first public advocacy for the preservation of the region as a state park. His later correspondences and reports illustrated his argument:
The Adirondack wilderness contains springs which are the sources of our principal rivers, and the feeders of the canals. Each summer the water supply for these rivers and canals is lessened…The immediate cause has been the chopping and burning off of vast tracts of forest in the wilderness, which have hitherto sheltered from the sun’s heat and evaporation the deep and lingering snows, the brooks and rivulets, and the thick, soaking sphagnous moss which, in times knee-deep, half water and half plant, forms hanging lakes upon the mountain sides…It is impossible for those who have not visited this region to realize the abundance, luxuriance and depth which these peaty mosses – the true source of our rivers – attain under the shade of those dark northern evergreen forests…The remedy for this is an Adirondack park or timber preserve. 4
While Colvin’s impact on the creation of the Adirondack Park is his most lasting achievement, his development of new survey techniques and technology should not be overlooked. It his efforts to unravel the mystery of the forest through detailed mapping that I find fascinating.
Triangulation is the process of determining the location of a point by measuring angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline, rather than measuring distances to the point directly. Colvin used this method to map the Adirondacks using a series of mountain top signal stations.
Colvin was not one to avoid harsh and arduous effort in his attempts to map the Adirondacks. Notably, he did not retire to his Albany office in the dead of winter but rather used the frozen lakes to his advantage.
In February 1877, he came to Raquette Lake, as described by The Colvin Crew based on his field notes,
to establish a horizontally measured sub-baseline that could be used to strengthen his primary triangulation network of the Adirondack Mountains. This necessitated finding two points on the shore of Raquette Lake that would allow for the longest possible distance measured. Additionally, both points had to be visible from West Mountain and Blue Mountain. Following standard procedure, Bolt 69 was set on the south shore of Raquette Lake at a location known as Otter Point. With the ice cleared of snow, vertical wood stakes were set into the ice to act as guides in keeping the tape straight. The 1,000 feet long steel “ribbon” was then stretched northerly with metal “ice blocks” being used at the intermediate chaining points for a total distance of 14,571.95 feet. The northerly terminus of this line was marked with a copper plug set in a small rock located at the northeast end of Needle Island. 5 [approximated in the author drawn map shown below]
Observations from the end point of such baselines to the mountain top signal stations required Colvin to devise two tools that advanced the accuracy of his methods. The Stan Helio is a spinning pyramid of shiny tin plates that reflect sunlight, providing a bright flash that could be seen in the daytime from twenty-five to thirty miles away with the naked eye and even farther through a telescope.
Being able to see the mountain top signal stations from wherever his surveying teams were working was one piece of the puzzle. The other is for the surveying teams to accurately know exactly where they were when they observed the nearest signal station.
Determining a location’s longitude and latitude whether by the arc of the sun in day or by stars at night requires that one know the precise time of observation. The accuracy of Colvin’s surveying depended on all of his field teams synchronizing their timepieces to Albany’s Dudley Observatory time.
Here my research took an interesting turn when I discovered that Colvin’s solution to time synchronization involved my family. In August 1876, Colvin established an observation station on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake. It was from here that he first observed the use of a nighttime powder charge flash signal that would communicate the accurate time to surveyors far afield. As he described
A supply of powder for the signal station time-flash had been sent to the mountain, and at a little before 9 P.M. we took up our station on a point commanding in the day-time view of the distant peak, and prepared to compare our watches with the chronometer signal. As we counted the seconds a bright flash illuminated the darkness, showing the mountain-top fairly, as lit by distant lightning. We found our time accurate, and were now satisfied that this method of distributing the Observatory time to the parties would be an entire success if the atmospheric conditions were favorable. 6
I was intrigued to know why Colvin would have used Thacher Island, when a point along the shoreline would have served just as well and eliminated the effort of rowing boxes of equipment out to the island. I knew that Colvin was from Albany, but did he know the Thacher family? My early hopes of a connection seemed dashed by viewing Colvin’s Reconnaissance Map of Tallow or Blue Mountain Lake, which incorrectly spelled our name as Thatcher. A family friend would never commit such an error.
I delved deeper into the accuracy of the map and found that the spelling was an inaccurate correction made by the printer. In Colvin’s own handwritten field notebooks, he repeatedly spells the name correctly.
Triangulation uses math to discover what cannot be readily seen and measured by comparing different points in relation to a baseline. I wondered whether an analogous method of drawing connections between points in time in the lives of Verplanck Colvin and the Thachers might answer my question.
The history of Albany provided the first clues. Verplanck Colvin and John Boyd Thacher were both born in 1847. Colvin’s father Andrew J. Colvin was the State Senator from Albany in 1860-1861 (the same seat occupied by JBT twenty-three years later) at the same time that George Hornell Thacher was the Mayor of Albany; both were prominent Democrats. 7 So their fathers were clearly acquainted, but did the boys know each other? Hilary Johnson King, archivist of Albany Academy, discovered that both boys were classmates in a group of forty students for three years (1858-1861). 8
The Thachers began to explore the Adirondacks in 1862 and established their summer home on Blue Mountain Lake in 1867. Verplanck Colvin began his explorations of the region in 1865. We have no correspondence or other evidence that John Boyd Thacher and Colvin were more than acquaintances in their youth. Colvin does not make reference to the Thachers in describing his earliest camping trips to the region, and yet it is hard to believe he did not consult with the first family from Albany to establish a base in the region.
I found that JBT’s and Colvin’s lives repeatedly intersected throughout the years.
All of these intersecting points prove that the two men knew each other, but were they friends? Only after JBT’s death do I find evidence that it would appear so.
In 1869, Colvin was the first to bring national attention to an area of scenic beauty and scientific value with his writing and hand-drawn illustrations in Harper’s Magazine 14
To those who desire to escape for a day from the oven-like city in summer; who wish to enjoy a scramble among the romantic cliffs, in shady woods, beside cool mountain brooks and waterfalls; to view spots sacred to legends of wild Revolutionary days, of Tory and Indian depredation, naming place, precipice, and mountain…
One might think that Colvin was once again writing about the Adirondacks here, but the quote continues…
to gather the fossil corals and shells… to visit and explore known caves… among the cliff ledges, the “Indian Ladder” region of the Helderbergs offers superior inducements.
The Helderberg Escarpment lies about twenty miles to the west of Albany and a two hour drive in 1869 when Colvin used the site as his training ground. The cliffs and fields served as a laboratory where Colvin perfected the self-taught surveying techniques that he applied to the Adirondacks. 15
Beginning in 1903, John Boyd Thacher purchased 300 acres along this escarpment to preserve its invaluable fossil record and intrinsic scenic beauty. After his death, JBT’s wife, Emma Treadwell Thacher, donated the lands to create what today is known as John Boyd Thacher State Park. 16
We might easily assume that Colvin influenced JBT to preserve these lands. However, unlike my previous “triangulations”, no assumption is required here. Within the 1915 annual report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, a description of the 1914 Dedication Ceremony for the park lists Verplanck Colvin as one of eight dignitaries who enjoyed lunch with Mrs. Thacher at her Altamont estate prior to the ceremony. 17
This is notable for two reasons. None of the numerous daily newspaper articles describing the ceremony mention Colvin’s presence, and he did not speak at the ceremony itself. Having been unceremoniously and a bit scandalously fired from his state position in 1900 by Governor Teddy Roosevelt, Colvin faded into a life of obscurity, became depressed and lived in hermit-like seclusion in his home in Albany. 18
His respected place of inclusion in Mrs. Thacher’s plans for the dedication is, I believe, proof of a lifelong friendship with John Boyd Thacher and furthermore, evidence that Verplanck Colvin deserves credit as the father of two glorious state parks.
Honest John Plumbley [sic], the prince of guides, patient as a hound, and as faithful, – a man who knows the wilderness as a farmer knows his fields, whose instinct is never at fault, whose temper is never ruffled, whose paddle is silent as falling snow, whose eye is true along the sights, whose pancakes are the wonder of the woods…
Reverend William H. H. Murray in Adventures in the Wilderness 1869.
Murray is widely credited with bringing the masses to the Adirondacks. The historian Warder Cadbury said, “Murray quite literally popularized both wilderness and the Adirondacks.” “Murray’s Rush”, the onslaught of tourists who rushed to the mountains in response to his book, gave rise to the claim that the Adirondacks are the birthplace of the American vacation.
John Plumley* is the man who brought the Adirondacks to Murray, serving as his guide through his adventures.
Following the similar Adirondack migration of fellow Vermonters Matthew Beach and William Wood, Plumley’s father moved his family from Shrewsbury, Vermont, to Long Lake in the 1830s. John was younger than ten when he arrived and quickly befriended an older boy, Mitchell Sabattis. Like Sabattis, John became an active guide at the age of twenty-one.
Plumley was the first guide to introduce Beach’s Lake to Dr. Benjamin Brandreth. In 1851, Brandreth purchased 24,000 acres surrounding Beach’s Lake (now called Brandreth Lake) to form the first private preserve in the region. Plumley served several years as caretaker for Brandreth Park and constructed many of the cabins within the park. The last photo taken of Plumley in 1899 shows him seated at the feet of what was believed to be the last wolf killed in the Adirondacks.
There are two strings that tie Plumley to the fifty acres of Beach and Wood. As a young man, Plumley married Zobeda Hough, the daughter of Amos Hough. In 1856, Matthew Beach deeded his 25 acres on Indian Point to Amos Hough on condition that Hough would care for Beach until his death. Although Hough sold the land the same year to a land speculator named Marshall Shedd, from 1856 to1859, Hough and Beach still lived in his cabin on Indian Point. However in the 1860 census, Beach is found living in the Long Lake home of John Plumley, who had assumed his father-in-law’s obligation. Plumley also purchased William Wood’s 25 acres on Indian Point, owning the land from 1859 to 1864.
Hough and Plumley’s intimate familiarity with Indian Point led to a most remarkable rendezvous that occurred on these shores in the summer of 1873. Using Adirondack Murray’s book as a guide, a group of 25 women traversed the Adirondacks from four directions to meet at Indian Point. They were a group of teachers and students from a women’s academy in New York City founded by Amanda Benedict, the wife of Farrand Benedict’s younger brother Joel.
While not the first group of women to explore the Adirondacks, this expedition was clearly the most ambitious. The 16 Adirondack guides employed by the expedition included several of the most prominent guides of Adirondack history: Mitchell Sabattis and his son Charlie, John Cheney, William Higby, James Sturgess, Alvah Dunning, and Plumley.
One group travelled from Lake Champlain along the Saranac River and Raquette River to Raquette Lake in the company of Amos Hough. Another entered the region from the west, following the Moose River into the Fulton Chain of Lakes where Plumley guided them through to Raquette. A third group followed a path similar to Sir John Johnson’s escape north from Lake Pleasant, approaching Raquette Lake from the south. The forth group departed Ticonderoga and followed the Schroon River, and then hiked west to meet the rest.
The expedition’s final destination was Blue Mountain Lake, or as the women called it the “Lake of the Skies” (also the title of Barbara McMartin’s wonderful book detailing the expedition). All four groups rendezvoused at Raquette Lake’s South Inlet Falls on June 11th, then spent four days camped near the site of Beach’s cabin on Indian Point prior to continuing to Blue Mountain Lake on June 15th.
A number of places could have served for their base camp, perhaps Big Island or Woods Point, which both lie between South Inlet and the mouth of the Marion River that leads to Blue Mountain Lake. Indian Point was out of their way and double the distance from South Inlet. Hough and Plumley must have proposed the use of their former property for the base camp.
When John Plumley died in 1900, the Rev. William H. H. Murray wrote in the journal Woods and Waters:
He taught me a faultless knowledge of the woods, the name and nature of plant and herb and tree, the languages of the night, and the occultism of silent places and soundless shores…He had a most gentle and mannerly reticence and that sweetest of all habits in man or woman – the habit of silence. He could look and see, listen and hear, and say nothing… His knowledge of woodcraft was intuitive. He knew the points of the compass sensationally. He was an atom whose nature mysteriously held it in reciprocal connection with the magnetic currents of the world. In the densest woods, on the darkest nights, he was never bewildered, never at fault… He was the only guide I ever knew…that could not in any circumstance lose himself or his way.
They tell me he is dead. It is a foolish fashion of speech and not true. Not until the woods are destroyed to the last tree, the mountains crumbled to their bases, the lakes and streams dried up to their beds, and the woods and wood life are forgotten, will the saying become fact. For John Plumbley [sic] was so much of the woods, the mountains and the streams that he personified them. He was a type that is deathless. Memory, affection, imagination, literature – until these die, the great guide of the woods will live with ever enlarging life as the years are added to the years, and the lovers of nature and sport multiply.
And so here I do my part to breathe life into the memory of Honest John Plumley.
* John’s last name appears with and without the “b” in various written histories. However, the legal deeds to his property on Indian Point spell his name without the “b” and thus I have adopted that standard.
The legend of Sir John Johnson’s role in naming Raquette Lake has been written and re-written for more than a century. Below is the earliest source I have found, from the 1891 New York State Forest Commission Annual Report. 1
Its name is founded on a bit of history, hitherto traditional. During the War of the Revolution, a party of Indians and British soldiers, under command of Sir John Johnson…passed through the wilderness on their way from the Mohawk Valley to Canada. It was in the winter time, and, on reaching this lake, the party was overtaken by a sudden thaw, which made further travel on snow-shoes impossible. As the Indians and soldiers did not want to carry their snow-shoes, or raquettes, as they termed them, they piled them up and covered them over, making a large heap that remained there many years. The expedition had reached the South Inlet when the thaw set in, and it was there, on a point of land, that the pile was made… Old Mr. Woods, the pioneer settler of Raquette Lake, heard this story from the Indians themselves, and often pointed out to hunters the decaying fragments of the raquettes.
Believing that “Old Mr. Woods” refers to William Wood, I was intrigued to unravel the mysteries of this folklore. Wood was known to be close friends with local Indians, and the passage continues with a reference to Woods “in company with ‘Honest John Plumley’, Murray’s celebrated guide”. Wood sold his land on Indian Point to Plumley in 1859. 2
This folklore makes for a wonderful story, but two doubts are raised.
1) The passage infers that Wood saw the decaying fragments of the raquettes as late as the 1850s, about 75 years after being discarded. How would these fragments have survived so long?
2) Sir John Johnson actually fled Johnstown in late May, not “in the winter time”. Why would snowshoes have been necessary?
Unraveling possible answers to these questions has led me to propose a new theory regarding the timeline and method of Sir John Johnson’s escape.
Nowadays, the ice-out has never been later than the first week of May, and snow cover is gone from the woods by then. However, from 1550 to 1850 a period of significant cooling, termed the Little Ice Age, occurred with three particularly cold intervals, one during the American Revolution. In David Ludlum’s Early American Winters 1604-1820, weather records reveal five Northeast snowstorms occurred in May or June between 1773 and 1777, suggesting that snowshoes in late May is not a literary exaggeration. 3
Exaggerations of other details of Johnson’s escape are quite common, however. The description offered by William Stone in his 1838 book The Life of Joseph Brant-Thayendanegea has been repeated so often as to take on the air of fact. 4
After nineteen days of severe hardship, the Baronet [Johnson] and his partisans arrived at Montreal in a pitiable condition – having encountered all of suffering that it seemed possible for a man to endure.
This notion that Johnson’s trek to Montreal took only nineteen days does not hold up under scrutiny, and Stone offers no citation. Johnson did not keep a military diary of these days in the woods. Historians have not found any primary sources written during the actual escape. Various historians have, however, pieced together the presumed route that Johnson took. The most accepted path is one proposed by J. Yates Van Antwerp, Johnstown Historian, in 1937. 5
According to Van Antwerp, Johnson’s party headed northeast from Johnstown to his family’s summer home, the Fish House on the Sacandaga River, then northwest along the river, passing north of Lake Pleasant and through the West Canada Lakes region to Raquette Lake. They then followed the Raquette River to Long Lake. North of Long Lake they turned northwest, crossing over to the source of the South Branch of the Grasse River, which led to the St. Lawrence and on to Montreal. The total distance is approximately 300 miles. A 19 day trip would mean they averaged almost 16 miles a day. This is highly improbable.
The Continental Army averaged such a pace on the Washington-Rochambeau march from Dobbs Ferry, NY, to Yorktown, VA, in the summer and fall of 1781. 6 Johnson’s party snowshoeing narrow Indian trails and bushwhacking in sections could not have matched an army moving with horses and wagons over open roads.
While there are no primary sources from the escape, there are contemporary letters that shed light on the possible reason for Stone’s 19 day estimate. The only direct information of the escape comes from a letter written by Sir John Johnson to his brother on January 20, 1777. 7
Upon my arrival at St. Regis with my party consisting of one hundred and seventy men who were almost starved and wore out for want of provisions, being nine days without anything to subsist upon but wild Onions, Roots and the leaves of Beech Trees [A], I was received in the most friendly manner by the Indians who informed me that the rebells were still in possession of La Chine and Montreal… I proposed to them to go off immediately and attack the former Post. They seemed very hearty, and desired that I would send to Capt. Forster at Oswegatche [Ogdensburg], for two field pieces, which had they had taken at the Cedres, which I did and in a short time received one of the field pieces with a Sergeant, one Artillery Man and three Volunteers, with which I set out after many delays [B]… I was joined by the Indians of the Lake of two Mountains, with many Canadians, but upon my arrival on the Island of Montreal, I was informed that the Rebells had abandoned both places the day before, and that the 29th Regt. had taken possession of Montreal. [C]
This portion of the letter reveals many details of Sir John Johnson’s timeline. The British had retaken possession of Montreal on June 17th [C], so Johnson arrived in the city on June 18th. 8
Three letters serve to identify May 21st as the date of his flight from Johnstown. 9
- On May 18th, Johnson wrote a letter from Johnson Hall to General Philip Schuyler of the Continental Army in Albany.
- On May 19th, Col. Dayton arrived at Johnson Hall to arrest Johnson on the orders of Gen. Schuyler and found Johnson had fled into the nearby woods.
- On Wednesday, May 22nd, Dayton wrote “Sir John, with upwards of three hundred persons, several of whom are said to be armed, attempted on Tuesday morning to make his escape through the woods to Canada.”
Therefore we know for certain that the entire trip from Johnstown to Montreal actually took 29 days. (May 21 – June 18)
If we work backwards from June 18th, we can estimate when he probably arrived in St. Regis, about 67 miles south of Montreal. Marching with a field piece on open roads to Montreal would have taken a minimum of four days. So the earliest Johnson could have departed St. Regis would have been June 14th.
Prior to departing St. Regis, Johnson had to regain strength from his ordeal in the woods and wait for the arrival of the field piece from Ogdensburg. It is difficult to know how long Johnson stayed in St. Regis. The request for and delivery of the field piece from 45 miles away in Ogdensburg [C] would have taken at least four days. Johnson says he “set out after many delays” after the arrival of the field piece.
If his time in St. Regis had stretched to six days, then the end of his arduous ordeal through the Adirondacks and his salvation among his Indian friends would have come on June 8th, nineteen days after departing Johnstown – perhaps the true origin of Stone’s 1838 account.
Even if we accept that the trek from Johnstown to St. Regis took 19 days, we still know very little about the trip itself. How many miles per day could Johnson’s party have advanced through the snow-covered forests between Johnstown and Raquette Lake? One proxy comes from the details on Adirondack Forum of a through-hike by snowshoe of the Northville-Lake Placid trail in the winter of 2006-2007. The group on that expedition averaged five miles per day. 10 At only five miles per day, it would have taken Johnson 14 days to reach Raquette Lake, requiring them to travel over thirty miles on each of the remaining five days to reach St. Regis.
Of course, the NLP through-hikers were not in fear of a pursuing army. Snowshoe trekkers advise an average of one mile per hour when planning a winter hike. 11 If we assume Johnson’s men pushed themselves ten hours per day, at that pace the time is shortened to seven days. Even so, they then would have had to maintain a pace of over thirteen miles per day from Raquette Lake to St. Regis. While snow cover and snowshoes no longer slowed them, we also know that in the last nine days they were subsisting on wild onions, roots and leaves. [A] Could they have maintained this significantly increased pace as their strength was failing them and the spring thaw yielded to mud season?
If Johnson intended to complete the trek on foot, why did he not follow the long established Mohawk trail which passes to the west of Raquette Lake and leads to the source of the Oswegatchie River? (see Why Indian Point?)
If Johnson’s party were seeking to avoid discovery, why would they create a pile of snowshoes on a prominent point upon the shores of Raquette Lake as opposed to hiding the pile further back in the forest?
What follows is pure conjecture that cannot be proven but does provide answers to these questions while not contradicting any known facts. While he may have originally intended to march to Montreal, I believe during the hazardous trek to Raquette Lake, Johnson realized it would not be possible. I think he sent word to St. Regis to send a group of Mohawks to aid his escape.
The Iroquois were noted for their use of relay runners who collectively communicated messages over eighty miles in a day. 12 According to William Stone in The Life of Joseph Brant-Thayendanegea, Brant claimed that Mohawks were sent south from St. Regis to aid in Johnson’s escape. 13 Sue Herne of the Akwesasne Museum of the St. Regis Reservation says that today’s Mohawk oral history corroborates this story. 14
Just as Johnson appears to have communicated northward, it would appear that he intentionally created a campaign of misinformation to throw the Continental Army off his track. Col. Dayton believed Johnson was traveling west to Niagara via Oneida Lake. He based this on comments from Sir John Johnson’s wife and testimony of an Oneida Indian on May 23rd who claimed a flotilla of bateau boats were awaiting Johnson at Oneida Lake. He also received intelligence that a road had recently been marked from Johnson Hall to Fort Brewington on Oneida Lake. 15
I believe Mohawk runners could also have brought the news to Johnson that Gen. Schuyler’s scouts had reported finding no trace of them and claimed that the trail to the north was impassible. 16 This would have allowed Johnson time to alter his plan.
Johnson already had three Mohawks guiding his men north when they left Johnstown. 17 However, Van Antwerp’s account speaks of 25 Mohawks aiding the escape. 18 I believe the additional Mohawks were sent south from St. Regis to construct elm bark canoes at Raquette Lake so Johnson could continue his escape by water. Switching to water transport here rather than continuing on the familiar Mohawk trail to the Oswegatchie River, Johnson saved his party another thirty miles of arduous hiking through the forest.
The Iroquois were known to primarily use elm bark canoes. In contrast with birch bark canoes, an elm bark canoe could be built in as little as two days. The process is similar to building a spruce bark canoe (see Mitchell Sabattis-Boatbuilder). Given the cold weather during Johnson’s escape, it was likely necessary to use boiling water to strip the bark from the trees. This slower process might have stretched the construction time to four days. 19
The travel times of the Iroquois using elm bark canoes on various water routes in 1656-1657 are detailed in early records of Jesuit missionaries, which indicate the Iroquois travelled an average of 45 miles per day downstream and 20 upstream. 20
I estimate that Johnson’s party could have travelled 20 miles per day from Raquette Lake through Long Lake and the small streams and portages to the source of the Grasse River, covering this distance in approximately three days. Given their weakened physical condition, I will conservatively estimate a pace of only 35 miles per day paddling downstream on the Grasse River, arriving at St. Regis in another three days.
Therefore, by water and portages the Johnson party could have made it from Raquette Lake to St. Regis in six days. This leaves thirteen days between fleeing Johnstown and when they departed from Raquette Lake. If four days were devoted to building the canoes, a snowshoe trek pace of only eight miles per day would have been sufficient to reach Raquette Lake in nine days.
I believe the pile of snowshoes was placed on the lakeshore because that is where they departed in the elm bark canoes. The pile was covered up by the waste from the canoes’ construction. After 75 years of decomposition of this waste layer, the remnants of the snowshoes were still visible to William Wood.
I am entering a phase where I have to once again spend significant time researching new stories about these fifty acres. For that reason, I am going back to publishing completely new stories only once a month. Interspersed between those original works I am going to republish excerpts from the stories of Adirondack writers from the 19th Century. From the tale of L.E. Chittenden’s 1846 travels with Mitchell Sabattis and some unfortunate traveling companions, I bring you a portion of Adirondack Days – Untried Companions in the Wilderness – Their Perils and Experiences.