Adirondack Murray’s Guide Honest John

John Plumley Photo

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.

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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.

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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.

—- Sir John Johnson’s Escape —- A Tale Retold

SJJ portait 2

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?

raquettes

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.  

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)

SJJ full route

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.

canoe_bark1825

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.

SJJ Possible Route

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.

END NOTES

 

Mitchell Sabattis – Boatbuilder

When I walk the land around Matthew Beach’s original hut and William Wood’s shanty, I imagine the Abenaki Indian guide Mitchell Sabattis pulling into their landings in a canoe or guideboat made by his own hand. Indian Point was a waypoint for many a traveler boating through the Central Adirondacks.

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1890 Engraving of a photo of Sabattis by Seneca Ray Stoddard

While it is impossible to know how often Sabattis visited these acres, we have written record of at least 3 occasions: his trips with Joel Tyler Headley in 1844-46, accompanying C. W. Webber in 1849, and an expedition of women who explored the region in 1873 (beautifully told in Barbara McMartin’s book To the Lake of the Skies)

Sabattis guided for my great-great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher in 1862 as they explored the region from a base camp Sabattis had on Crane Point on Blue Mountain Lake. However, even if Thacher travelled to Raquette Lake as early as 1862, it is unlikely that he spent a night on Indian Point.  Sabattis maintained a campsite from 1852 to 1877 on Watch Point according to Ken Hawks, who now owns the property.

A member of the St. Francis tribe of Abenaki Indians, Mitchell Sabattis was born in Parishville, St. Lawrence County in 1823. He began to accompany his father Captain Peter Sabattis on hunting expeditions at the age of seven.  At eleven, he was one of the earliest settlers in Long Lake, moving there with his father in the early 1830’s. Over a life of 83 years, he and his wife Elizabeth raised five sons and a daughter. He was a founding member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Long Lake. In 1865, he raised funds to build the church where he frequently played the violin, sang and preached.  When not working as a guide he tended to a 20-acre farm on his 160-acre homestead.

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Image of Sabattis on Long Lake near Sagamore Hotel in 1886 – History of the Adirondacks. A. Donaldson. 1921.

Much has been written about Sabattis as the legendary Adirondack Guide, but I am intrigued by his abilities as a boat builder. The historian Alfred Donaldson claimed that Sabattis created the first guide boat around 1849.   Subsequent historians have debated different people as the originator of the idea for the guideboat’s design. Nonetheless, Hallie Bond says in Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks, “The guideboat did not spring full-blown from the forehead of Mitchell Sabattis, or anyone else for that matter, but Sabattis, living in the center of early guideboat development, may well have had a hand in its evolution.”

The earliest tale of Sabattis describes his skill in building another type of boat – a spruce bark canoe like the one shown here.

In 1843, John MacMullen and his friend Jim R. were rescued along the Raquette River by Mitchell Sabattis, who was travelling with two men (one is presumed to have been his father Peter), two women and a baby.   For one day all eight crammed into Sabattis’ birch bark canoe, which barely stayed afloat with the water only three inches below the gunwales. Upon reaching a cabin on the shores of Tupper Lake, Sabattis decided to construct a spruce bark canoe to carry four of the men. MacMullen described the process in The Evening Post of New York in 1880:

This kind of craft is made of a single piece of bark while a birch canoe is made of many pieces fastened together. The process of making our canoe was very interesting. A fine large spruce tree about a foot and a half in diameter was chosen that grew in an open space near the river and had fifteen feet of good thick bark without break or knot-hole. The tree was cut down, [they] relieved one another in the work, a ring was cut through the bark along the trunk. ‘Spuds’ were made, and the whole clear sheet of bark, fifteen feet long and four feet wide, was laid upon the ground with the inner side down.

[Captain Peter Sabattis] then cut away a slender triangular piece of the thick outer bark, about six inches at the base and about three feet from each end, leaving the flexible inner bark to fold over so that when the corners were brought together and the ends closed up the bow and stern might both be somewhat higher out of the water, and the sides need not sag out so much in the middle.

The ends of our boat were sewed up with the roots of the spruce tree. These slender roots or rootlets can be had of six feet in length and running from a quarter of an inch down to a point. The smaller part is taken to use as thread. A hole is made in the bark with a sharp stick and the rootlet thus inserted… The spruce gum is used to make the inside of the seam water-tight. Thus this tree supplied for our boat bark, thread and gum…

Long, narrow pieces of cedar… fifteen feet long by two inches wide, and only three quarters of an inch thick, [were] split almost as smoothly as if they had been sawed. These pieces were used as gunwales and tied on with strips of tough and flexible bark passed through punched holes. Strips of wood thin enough to bend were cut just of the proper length and then forced in so that they followed the curve of the boat, their strong crosspieces also ran athwart between the gunwales to stiffen the craft…This ‘naval construction’ took the best part of two days.”

Discussing the origins of the Adirondack guideboat, John Duquette wrote in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: “To avoid the solid weight of a skiff or dory, it was necessary to experiment with a skeletal frame sheathed with light but strong material. The frame consisted of a bottom board with ribs that were bent or steamed to fit an outer shell. Ribs that were bent had a tendency to warp which resulted in a distortion of the hull. An alert Adirondacker noticed that an uprooted spruce tree disclosed a natural crook where the root grew out from the base of the tree. Here was a strong resilient piece of wood in a shape that required no bending.”

While a spruce bark canoe does not use solid pieces of spruce root wood for ribbing, Sabattis would have been keenly aware of this unique attribute of the spruce tree’s roots. He is as likely a candidate as any other to be the one who contributed this innovation to the design of the Adirondack guideboat.

(watch a video of the recent construction of a spruce bark canoe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6V-v7mVymo )

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

Why Indian Point?

6 Indian Point red yellow and cabin

Matthew Beach and William Wood settled on the lands to the east of the red line. John Boyd Thacher purchased the portion to the east of the yellow line. The small red dot is the location of the little red cabin built in 1910.

Echoing across time, this question can be asked three ways.  Who were the Indians of its namesake?  Why did Matthew Beach and William Wood choose it for their home? Why was John Boyd Thacher enticed to buy these acres?

According to local lore, Indian Point was the site of an Indian settlement.  The earliest such reference was made by Joel Tyler Headley in The Adirondack: or Life in the Woods, published in 1849.

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Most research does not support the idea of large, permanent  Native American settlements within the Adirondacks.   However, evidence points to the Adirondacks being used as a seasonal hunting ground for the Iroquois, Huron and Algonquin Indians.  Four clues point to the area of Raquette Lake being under the control of the Mohawk Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy or Ho-dé-no-sau-nee (People of the Long House).  This map of the Six Nations of the Iroquois shows the Mohawks’ territory beginning to the west of Raquette Lake and expanding east to Lake Champlain. (Enlarge the map by clicking on it and read the text to the right of the compass rose)

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Guy Johnson’s 1771 Map of the Country of the VI Nations. New York State Museum.

Another clue is that the lands which would become the Totten & Crossfield Purchase (which includes Raquette Lake) were originally purchased by the British Crown from the Mohawk Nation in 1771.   The British had purchased the lands from the Mohawks for 1,000 pounds and sold it to Totten & Crossfield for 40,000 pounds in the same year.  (And you thought flipping real estate was a modern invention!)   Although this land sale took place, the Mohawk Nation later continued to claim the lands and use them until a peace treaty between the newly formed United States and the Iroquois was signed in 1794. 2

In Adirondack Pilgrimage, Paul Jamieson makes the argument that the Albany Road (sometimes referred to as the Old Military Road) constructed for the War of 1812 actually followed the path of an Iroquois trail which dates back to the 1600s.  Jamieson mines the first person writing of a Jesuit Priest named Joseph Poncet who was captured by Mohawks in 1653.  Poncet’s description combined with Jamieson’s research and that of Stephen B. Sulavik in Adirondack: Of Indians and Mountains 1535-1838 yields my approximation of the heavily travelled Mohawk trail which passed just to the west of Raquette Lake, traveling from the Mohawk River Valley to Canada.   The foot path led through the forest to the Oswegatchie River by which the Indians canoed to the St. Lawrence River.

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Beyond the evidence of this Mohawk trail passing close to Raquette Lake, the only other history which directly connects the Mohawk Indians with the lake is the escape of the Tory Sir John Johnson from Johnstown to Montreal in 1776.   His Mohawk guides brought him through the woods to the shores of Raquette Lake and then by canoe north to Canada, a tale which will be retold in a future chapter.

This scant evidence implies that the Mohawks were well acquainted with Raquette Lake for over a century.  But did they have an encampment on Indian Point?  There are no contemporary written histories which specifically speak of the use of Indian Point by the Mohawks.  My conjecture is based on descriptions of how large hunting parties of Mohawks would travel from their year-round villages along the Mohawk River to encampments in the Adirondacks from November to late January.

Father Isaac Jogues is another French Jesuit priest who was captured by the Mohawks in 1642, and his writings describe a hunting expedition departing from the Mohawk village of Ossernenon along the Mohawk River:

If we can assume that such a winter hunting camp existed on Indian Point, why did the Mohawks choose this location along the almost one hundred mile shoreline of Raquette Lake?  I believe it is the geography and topography which influenced their choice.

According to Lewis Morgan in the League of the Ho-De-Nau-Sau-Ne or Iroquois, “For three quarters of a century, from the year 1625 to the year 1700, the Iroquois were involved in almost uninterrupted warfare [with other Indian nations]…from about the year 1640 to the year 1700, a constant warfare was maintained between the Iroquois and the French.”  The 18th century brought ever greater conflict between the Mohawks and Europeans over control of Adirondack territory for the lucrative beaver fur trade. 3

In this context, the Mohawks would have benefited from siting their winter hunting camp in a location on Raquette Lake which could be defended and from which they could observe any approaching enemies.  Indian Point possesses a unique geological feature called the Crags, a series of three rock outcroppings at the top of the ridge line on the peninsula.  At an elevation of 2000 feet, even today one can see all the way to South Inlet, and anyone approaching from the Marion River or Brown’s Tract Inlet would be seen at least an hour before they could land on the shores of Indian Point.  To the northwest, one can see Sucker Brook Bay.

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USGS Raquette Lake Quadrangle Map

While today the tree cover does not provide a view to the northeast, images from the 1800s indicate that the Crags were almost clear of trees and it is highly likely that a lookout stationed there in the 1600s and 1700s would have also been able to see anyone rounding Bluff Point to the northeast of Indian Point.

Drawing from Craggs

Looking South from the Crags – a wood cut printed in Wallace’s Descriptive Guide to the Adirondacks. 1872.

Seneca Photo from Craggs

Photo from the Crags by Seneca Ray Stoddard. circa 1880.

While the Crags may have led the Mohawks to choose Indian Point, where along the shores of the peninsula was the hunting camp?  As the camp would have been used mostly from November to late January, I suspect a location sheltered from the worst of the cold winds blowing across Beaver Bay or North Bay.   Either of the two protective coves would have served well, the cove near Hen and Chickens Islands or the little bay between the two points on the eastern tip.

An understanding of the size and description of a hunting camp helps to create a theory as to where on the peninsula it was located.  Father Jogues’ description implies that a family clan headed by a Chief would likely all relocate to the winter hunting grounds.  The villages in the Mohawk River Valley  would each have several Long Houses.  Each Long House would be the home of a family clan.   The length of the Long House and the number of fire pits within the Long House would relate to the number of families.  An account of Dutch explorers encountering a Mohawk village in 1644 described one Long House of eighty paces in length being home to a Chief, 40 men and 17 women. 4

The Mohawks’ method of hunting deer illustrates the need for a very large hunting party.  Father Jogues experienced the hunt firsthand, “They beat up the stags and the elks from their coverts, and drove them headlong toward the fences that strecthed between the trees and into the narrowing alleys of the traps, were they could easily be slaughtered.  They tracked the animals over the rise and fall of the mountains, and had the zest of dropping them with musket or arrow or javelin.”

Morgan in League of the Ho-De-Nau-Sau-Ne or Iroquois, provides an even more detailed description of the hunting method:

The construction of a V-shaped fence that stretched two to three miles on a side would have required significant manpower.  If the Indian “settlement” on Indian Point was a winter hunting camp, it likely was the temporary home to at least fifty or more people.

A young Mohawk woman named Kateri Tekawitha described one style of temporary shelter used in a winter hunting camp in the late 1600s.

This depiction has been faithfully recreated by Barry Keegan, an expert in primitive Native American structures, in his construction of a traditional wigwam on the shores of Prospect Point on Blue Mountain Lake.

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A traditional wigwam hunting-lodge constructed at Prospect Point on Blue Mountain Lake by Barry Keegan. Photo by Jerry Krasnick.

According to Keegan,  “South of the Adirondacks, wigwams were usually dome shaped and often sided with elm bark; north of our region they tended to be conical, like squat-shaped tepees with birch bark as the siding of choice. The Adirondacks are right on the border between those two types and probably both were in use here, at the very least as seasonal hunting camps.” 5

Father Jogues’s writings appear to describe the second style, “There the [women], under the direction of the men, threw up the three slanting poles of the hunting-huts and tied them at the top and sewed the bark and skins firmly about the triangular frame.”

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A conical teepee style hunting lodge from creaturehomes.blogspot.com

The “hunting-lodges of bark and close-woven boughs” referred to by Kateri or the bark tee pee style described by Jogues appear to have housed a small family of five to ten people.   To accommodate upwards of fifty to one hundred people, the winter hunting camp on Indian Point would have required up to ten lodges.  The annual construction of these lodges for over a century would have established significant forest clearings on Indian Point.

My theory that the hunting camp was on the shores of the little bay nestled within the eastern tips of Indian Point is tied to the reason I believe Matthew Beach and William Wood chose to settle at that spot.  My theory echoes one regarding land use in the Adirondacks first promoted in the late 1800s in an article in the New York Times.

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“The North Woods of Old” The New York Times. May 11, 1890.

The site of the Mohawk hunting camp would not have been open land by the 1840s. The majority of the Mohawk Nation relocated to the St. Lawrence River Valley on both sides of the New York/Canadian border after the Peace Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794 between the Iroquois Confederacy of the Six Nations and the new government of the United States. 6   Although Mohawks continued to come down from Canada into the Adirondacks for hunting in the early 1800s, it is likely that secondary forest regeneration began to take hold of the area of the hunting camp on Indian Point.

Beach and Wood were not simply hunters and trappers.  They also cleared ten acres of cropland to grow potatoes and vegetables.  When they first travelled the shores of Raquette Lake in search of where to stake their claim, Beach was nearly sixty years old and Wood was in his early forties.  I am sure they had a strength and vigor beyond what this author is capable of at 46, and they were accustomed to hard physical work.  Nonetheless, knowing that they intended to clear the land for farming, an area previously cleared by over a century of indigenous use yielding a young secondary forest would have been easier for Beach and Wood to clear with fire and axe than the surrounding primary forest of large diameter trees with deep rooted trunks.

young secondary forest

Young secondary forest

Old growth primary forest

Old growth primary forest

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Beach and Wood chose the twin tips of Indian Point because of the land use potential derived from the remains of the Mohawk hunting camp.  Conversely, the purchase of this land by John Boyd Thacher is puzzling in that it appears that he never really used the land.  It was his father George Hornell Thacher who built and frequented the mysterious original cabin, and yet the title to the land was always only in JBT’s name.  Could it be that JBT was motivated to buy the lands for their historical value?

JBT was an industrialist and politician but also an historian and scholar.  He was a renowned authority on Christopher Columbus and a collector of over 5,000 books and manuscripts from the 15th century, which his widow donated to the Library of Congress.  Among his varied interests, he showed a keen appreciation for the Iroquois Confederacy.  His collection included the original 1630 signed contract between the Iroquois and the Dutch for the sale of the land upon which the city of Albany was built.   At Albany’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1886, then Mayor JBT gave an eloquent speech welcoming a delegation from the Caughnawaga tribe and honoring the Iroquois Confederacy as the blueprint for our democratic form of government. 8

In 1893, he purchased four historically important Iroquois wampum belts. 9   The Hiawatha Wampum Belt was created in the 1500s to commemorate the union of the Five Nations of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas into the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois Confederacy.  To the Iroquois, this wampum belt is equivalent to the original copy of the Constitution of the United States.

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Hiawatha Wampum Belt

The George Washington Wampum Belt commemorates the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794 which brought peace between the newly formed United State of America and the Iroquois Confederacy.

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George Washington Wampum Belt

The other two wampum belts commemorated the first encounter between the Iroquois and European explorers in the 1500s and their encounter with Samuel Champlain in 1609.

Given John Boyd Thacher’s clear respect and appreciation for the culture of the Iroquois Confederacy in his later years, I do not think it unlikely that as a young man of thirty he would be attracted by the folklore of an “Indian settlement” that once graced the tips of Indian Point.

Found and Lost

Discovery brings with it a joy and a moment of satisfaction which spurs fresh pursuit of the truth.  My cousin Stephen FitzPatrick was afflicted with curiosity by these initial blog postings, a compulsion to learn truths that our ancestors lived but failed to share with us.  A piece of the puzzle had always been in his hands but he did not know it.  Prompted by my last chapter, Stephen searched through boxes of his mother’s memorabilia and found this:

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Courtesy of Stephen FitzPatrick

The photo is dated 1910, the year of construction according to our family’s oral history.  Could this be the first photo of the little red cabin?  Our previous research had narrowed the window in time to between 1905 and 1918.  This would appear to squeeze the date of construction to a mere five year period between 1905 and 1910.

It was time to see what evidence I could find of the Thachers on Indian Point between the pages of books, newspaper articles and letters.  Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 5.47.05 AM

The power of the internet still amazes me with its ability to bring over 100 years of history into focus in the comfort of my “fortress of solitude”, the name given by my wife to the corner of our dining room where the iMac sits with stacks of books, photos and articles cluttered around it.  Through hours of endless searching, a strong trail of evidence emerges which charts the family’s footprint on Indian Point and describes the cabin.

The earliest hint of the family’s use of Indian Point comes in this account from an adventurer camping on Tioga Point.  He speaks of a camping party across the water enjoying the summer of 1877.  I believe it must refer to George Hornell Thacher Jr., who at the time would have been 26 and single, and his friends.

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Excerpt from Camps and Tramps in the Adirondacks. A. Judd Northrup. 1880.

As both points at the tip of Indian Point were once owned by Matthew Beach, the reference to Beach’s Point does not clarify where this encampment was.  However, “charmingly located among the birches” is an apt description of its namesake and the “boulder out in the water” clearly describes what we call “The Big Rock” on the north side of Birch Point.

Big Rock

An encampment of twenty-six must have covered what little ground exists on Birch Point with tents and primitive lean-tos, leaving no room for a one room cabin that sleeps only two.   The little red cabin came thirty-three years later, but the breadcrumbs are there in the pages.

My great grandfather George H. Thacher, father to the five brothers, hosted two prominent clergymen at the cabin.

Exhibit B

Exhibit A – Troy Daily Times

I found an article which appears to refer to the first John Boyd Thacher and a “fine lodge” on Indian Point.

Exhibit A - An article in the New York Times describing a steamboat tour of Raquette Lake

Exhibit B – From an article in the New York Times describing a steamboat tour of Raquette Lake

The famous wilderness writer George Washington Sears, who used the pen name Nessmuk, spoke of visiting the cabin in his book Woodcraft.

Exhibit B - From the book Woodcraft by Nessmuk (George Washington Sears)

Exhibit C – From the book Woodcraft by Nessmuk (George Washington Sears)

What incredible luck to find actual contemporary newspaper and literary evidence that corresponds to the time period of the cabin’s photographic evidence.  On first impression, that is exactly what I thought I had found.  Alas, nothing is ever simple.

Exhibit A was published in 1880 and George H Thacher is not my great grandfather but my father’s great grandfather, the patriarch of the Thacher family.   Exhibit B was published in 1881.  “Ex-Mayor Thacher of Albany” refers also to the patriarch of the family and not his son John Boyd Thacher, who likewise was mayor.  Exhibit C was published in 1884.

Further research turned up…

Albany Evening Journal. June 5, 1881.

Albany Evening Journal. June 5, 1881.

Essex County Republican. May 26, 1884.

Essex County Republican. May 26, 1884.

Despite our love of the little red cabin, it strikes me as odd that a one room structure would be described as “a fine lodge”, a “fine residence”, a “cottage” and a “beautiful camp”.   The lodging described in these excerpts appears to have accommodated a family and hosted prominent guests.  And what of the photographic evidence that shows no cabin existed in 1905?  Our family knows of no stories, nor paintings, nor photos of this previous Thacher cabin on Indian Point.

I began with a search for the origins of the little red cabin and have satisfied my curiosity with the photo from 1910.  Now a new mystery emerges.   When and where was this newly discovered original cabin built and what happened to it?