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
In my last piece regarding when the mysterious Thacher Cabin was built, I cited numerous newspaper articles and books that referenced the cabin’s existence. However, none of them clarified where the cabin was built. Previously reviewed maps of Raquette Lake gave no indication and no photos or drawings of the cabin have been found.
I chose to begin my search by focusing on the one visitor to the cabin for whom historical records might exist. In Aber and King’s History of Hamilton County, it is written that the priest Rev. Henry Gabriels performed Catholic Mass at the Thacher Camp from July 11th to the 14th in 1878. Gabriels later became the Bishop of Ogdensburg. In the hope that this early mass in the Adirondacks might be of historical significance, I contacted the archivist of the Diocese of Ogdensburg looking for any original documents or photos of Gabriels’ visit.
Imagine my surprise when the archivist sent me the following photocopy from notes that he found:
“North Point Inn”? Could I be wrong in my assumption that the 1878 cabin was built on our family’s land on Indian Point? The North Point Inn was located across North Bay from Indian Point. My mind raced as I retraced my steps looking at all of the newspaper articles and books.
One New York Times article had said “There’s ex-Mayor Thatcher of Albany’s place,’ said the Captain of the little steamer, pointing to a fine lodge on the north shore.” Did he mean the north shore of Raquette Lake and not the north side of Indian Point?
I then realized that when Nessmuk wrote of visiting the cabin, he simply wrote “a gentleman by the name of Thatcher (sic) who has a fine residence on Raquette Lake.” No mention of Indian Point whatsoever, just my assumption.
Fortunately, my heart rate eventually was calmed, after a day of frantic research turned up this from Seneca Ray Stoddard’s 1880 edition of The Adirondacks Illustrated:
Once again confident of the cabin’s existence on Indian Point, I now tried to discover where on the land it was situated. I began by reviewing the property deeds. In 1876, John Boyd Thacher purchased two parcels on the tips of Indian Point. He paid nine dollars an acre to Marshal Shedd for roughly 25 acres. This first parcel is all the land to the east of the yellow line shown below, except for the area to the east of the blue lines. JBT paid twenty-two dollars per acre to a William W. Hill for this second parcel of only 4.5 acres.
Eureka! Why would JBT pay more than twice per acre for the second parcel? Could it be that it contained an existing cabin? Was this the location of what became known as the Thacher Camp?
Alas, let me just say that there exists another explanation as to why JBT paid a high price for the second parcel. As the deed indicated that William W. Hill was from Albany, I thought it best to see if there was any connection between Hill and the Thacher family. Perhaps a higher price was paid as a favor to a friend.
Indeed, I found that William W. Hill and John Boyd Thacher were 33 degree Freemasons and both members of the Albany Chapter of the Rose Croix. William W. Hill was an amateur entomologist whose collection of over 10,000 specimens of butterflies and moths was donated to the New York State Museum. Hill was also an officer of the Albany Institute. JBT had much in common with Hill’s scientific and preservationist inclinations and I have no doubt in claiming them to be more than mere acquaintances.
This explanation does not completely eliminate the possibility that there was an existing cabin within Hill’s parcel. However, an epiphany came to me that argues against George Hornell Thacher establishing his camp on the southern shore of Indian Point.
No fewer than five newspaper articles and Nessmuk’s book speak of George Hornell Thacher’s love of lake trout fishing. Anyone who knows Raquette Lake understands that in summer, one fishes for lake trout exclusively in North Bay, where the depth provides the cold water desired by the trout. It is logical that GHT would have built his cabin along the north shore of Indian Point.
Indeed, a fish tale would prove to be the conclusive clue. On July 10, 1879, the Weekly Saratogian published:
So clearly the Thacher Cabin was somewhere along the north side of Indian Point, but where?
Early in my research, the Adirondack Museum Librarian Jerry Pepper had shown me a hand-drawn map of Raquette Lake. The museum did not know who created the map or when it was created.
The map has an X marked next to the word “Camp”, written in cursive, on the end of Birch Point.
As this is the location of our family’s little, red one room cabin built in 1910, I assumed at first that this map was from the early nineteen teens. However, further analysis revealed a different conclusion.
In addition to the geographic locations marked in ink, the map has the names of various camps written in pencil along the shore. There are two distinct sets of handwritten notations, one in cursive and one in block letters. Based on the time period in which each of the named landmarks existed, the cursive notations predate those in block letters. The comparison of the dates reveals that the notation for the “Camp” on Birch Point reflects the year 1881 or 1882.
It would appear that the first Thacher Cabin was built in 1878 very near if not actually on the same ground where our little red cabin still stands today. What I would give for any photos that show the tip of Birch Point, even in the background, taken between 1878 and 1885.
Whenever and wherever the original Thacher cabin was built on Indian Point is my holy grail. Delving into the details of the few literary mentions of the cabin might yield clues. This visit by Nessmuk was published in 1884; however, it makes no mention of when the encounter actually occurred. I needed to learn about this man called Nessmuk.
Nessmuk was the pen name of George Washington Sears. In his youth, he had been befriended by a young Narragansett Indian named Nessmuk (“wood drake”) who taught him hunting, fishing, and camping. Later he took the Indian name for his pen name and its English translation for the name of his first canoe. His book Woodcraft was first published in 1884 and remains in print today as one of the most widely read guides for the bushcraft and wilderness survival community.
According to the editor Dan Brenan in The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears, “At the age of 59, a little more than 5 feet tall, weighing less than 105 pounds, and weak with acute pulmonary tuberculosis, Sears decided to see if the Adirondack lakes and forests could improve his health. Since Sears was so small and weak, he could not carry the usual heavy guide boat over the carries between the lakes of the Fulton Chain. He persuaded J. Henry Rushton to build him solo canoes that he could carry.”
Nessmuk published accounts of his three trips through the lakes and streams of the Adirondacks in a series of letters to Forest and Stream magazine: “Cruise of the Wood Drake” (1881), “Cruise of the Susan Nipper” (1882), and “Cruise of the Sairy Gamp” (1883).
The high regard and esteem in which Nessmuk was held by his readers is evident in the editorial published by Forest and Stream to promote the creation of a memorial for him.
So when did this renowned writer meet my great-great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher at his “fine residence” on Raquette Lake? Three clues appear to reveal a possible date.
Nessmuk’s habit appears to have been to write not about what transpired on the day he put pen to paper, but about his adventures in the preceding days. This combined with the fact that often only the date of publication in Forest and Stream is known for most letters, makes it a challenge to date the actual occurrences of which he writes.
In a letter published on August 9, 1883, he describes his travels through the Fulton Chain prior to his arrival at Raquette Lake. That letter does identify that it was written at Raquette Lake on July 27, 1883. If one is to assume that Nessmuck would choose a day of idle and not a day of arduous paddling to compose his letters, it is likely that his letter of July 27th was written on the day he later described in his letter published on August 16th.
In a letter written while at Paul Smith’s and published August 23, 1883, Nessmuk tells of his visits to various private camps on Raquette Lake.
Notice the repetition of the text in bold within both letters. I believe Nessmuk is describing the same day in two different letters. Given that the Raquette House was directly across from the original Thacher Camp on Indian Point, I am fairly confident that the two men made their acquaintance on July 27, 1883.
The Sairy Gamp that carried Nessmuk to this rendezvous with my ancestor is described by Forest and Stream fisheries editor Fred Mather:
I can only imagine that this fateful visit might once have been the topic of an encounter between Fred Mather and John Boyd Thacher, GHT’s son. Although no evidence exists to corroborate it, I suspect such an encounter did happen and would have been described like this in Forest and Stream,
To entice you to seek out Nessmuk’s writings, I have reproduced one of his stories,
Enjoy one of his poems from his book of poetry Forest Runes published in 1887.
Events on these Fifty Acres of Beach and Wood
These points in time reveal some of the stories, of import and of good sport, that are yet to unfold in this blog.
Indian Point is used as a Winter hunting encampment by the Mohawk tribe.
The tory Sir John Johnson camps at Indian Point during his harrowing 19 day escape to Canada.
At a pond northwest of Indian Point (Lone Pond or Cranberry Pond?), William Wood traps the last beaver seen alive in the Adirondacks until they were reintroduced in the beginning of the 20th century.
Matthew Beach and William Wood became the first permanent settlers of Raquette Lake with their cabin built on Indian Point. Exact date undetermined.
Professor Ebenezer Emmons, first surveyor and the person to give the region the name “Adirondacks”, repeatedly stays with Beach and Wood while surveying the area.
Joel Tyler Headley writes in his 1849 book The Adirondac – Life in the Woods of visits with Beach and Wood during his earlier explorations with guide Mitchell Sabattis.
J.H. Young publishes the first map of New York State that shows a body of water in the location of Raquette Lake. Only Long Lake to the north is named on the map and the drawing of Raquette Lake is almost completely inaccurate except for the detailed, near accurate depiction of Indian Point.
Beach and Wood purchase from Farrand Benedict legal land titles giving them each an equal share of the 50 acres they have occupied on Indian Point.
Beach deeds his 25 acres to Amos Hough of Long Lake contingent on Hough taking care of Beach until his death.
Hough sells the 25 acres to land speculator Marshall Shedd Jr. allowing Beach to still reside there.
John Plumley, -“Honest John” – famed guide of Adirondack Murray purchases William Wood’s 25 acres.
Matthew Beach goes to live in Long Lake in the home of John Plumley, who as Amos Hough’s son-in-law has taken over the family obligation to care for Beach.
In July at the South Inlet of Raquette Lake, William Wood shoots and kills the last moose seen alive in the Adirondacks until they were reintroduced by W. Seward Webb on his private preserve at the end of the 19th century.
Mitchell Sabattis guides George Hornell Thacher on his first exploration of Blue Mt. Lake and Raquette Lake at the suggestion of Joel Tyler Headley, Thacher’s old friend from Union College days.
Alvah Dunning – one of the most notable of Adirondack Guides – squats on the south side of the southern fork of Indian Point.
John Boyd Thacher purchases an island in Blue Mt. Lake to build a lodge for the use of his father George Hornell Thacher.
Verplanck Colvin, Superintendent of the Adirondack Land Survey from 1872-1900, as a 21 year old seeks the advice of his old childhood friend John Boyd Thacher as he plans his early explorations of the Adirondacks.
Renowned landscape artist Arthur Tait spends the summer in Matthew Beach’s old cabin. He sketches here the paintings he named “The Adirondacks” and “Deer in the Woods”.
Amanda Benedict, the sister-in-law of Farrand Benedict, organizes the first major all female expedition of the Adirondacks. Four groups of women botany students traverse different routes starting from Schroon River, Saranac, Lake Pleasant and Moose River to converge at Indian Point. The women and 16 of the most famous Adirondack Guides are brought together at one time on these acres.
John Boyd Thacher purchases Matthew Beach’s 25 acres from Marshall Shedd Jr.
Verplanck Colvin establishes an observation station for the Adirondack Land Survey on Thacher Island in Blue Mt. Lake. He uses it to test a new technique for synchronization of time among survey field teams separated by great distance within the Adirondacks.
First written description appears of George Hornell Thacher Jr., age 26, camping on Birch Point with a large group of young friends.
Levi Wells Prentice, famed landscape artist, sketches from a vantage point within these acres the scene later depicted in his painting “Raquette Lake from Wood’s Clearing”.
Reverend Henry Gabriels conducts Catholic Mass at the “Thacher Camp” on July 11, 12, 13, 14. This is one of the earliest Catholic missions within the central interior of the Adirondacks. At the time, Rev. Gabriels is the President of the St. Joseph Seminary in Troy, NY. He later became the Bishop of Ogdensburg – the Diocese covering all of the Adirondack region.
The Map of the New York Wilderness by Colton-Ely in the 1879 edition superimposes the name “Thatcher” written across the whole of Indian Point. Earlier editions of the same map lack this detail.
George Hornell Thacher Sr. begins his annual summer visits to the Thacher Camp staying in a “fine lodge” that pre-exists the current little red, one room cabin that is there today. The location of the original cabin and its subsequent disappearance by 1886 is a mystery that drives my on-going research.
George Washington Sears – a famous outdoorsman and author who penned articles and books under the name Nessmuck – visits with George Hornell Thacher at Thacher Camp during his Cruise of the Sairy Gamp. This exchange is included in Nessmuck’s book titled Woodcraft.
John Boyd Thacher, as New York State Senator representing Albany, fights for funding to expand Verplanck Colvin’s role to oversee an expanded New York State Land Survey.
John Boyd Thacher in his role as Senator joins a unanimous vote to pass the Forest Preserve Act which is the first step toward the eventual creation of today’s Adirondack Park.
George Hornell Thacher Sr. dies.
John Boyd Thacher invites the Spanish Duke of Veragua, a direct lineal descendant of Christopher Columbus, to attend the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and arranges for him to travel through the Raquette Lake and Blue Mt. Lake region on a trip hosted by Verplanck Colvin.
John Boyd Thacher dies.
George Hornell Thacher Jr. inherits the Thacher lands on Indian Point and builds the little red, one room cabin.
George Hornell Thacher Jr. donates the use of the land for the month of August to the first annual State Forestry Camp of the State College of Forestry at Syracuse.
Two young boys of British Aristocracy are hosted at Thacher Camp and their guide is later paid with a barrel full of fine English china which legend says now lies at the bottom of the Needles Channel.