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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Schenectady’s Jewish Immigrants: Acculturation and Preserving History

By Dr. Harvey Strum of The Sage Colleges


Jews comprised one of the largest immigrant groups to arrive in the United States from 1870-1924 until Congress closed the doors to large scale immigration for forty years with the passage of the National Origins Act. Congress wanted to limit Jews, Italians, Poles, and other immigrants from eastern and southern Europe considered racially inferior and unfit to become real Americans. Driven out of the Russian Empire by the pogroms of 1869, pogroms of 1888-82, May Laws of 1882, the expulsions of 1891, and the pogroms of 1903-1905, one third of the six million Jews in the Russian Empire left for America in search of religious tolerance, economic opportunity, political freedom, and to escape Russian captivity. Pogroms in Jassy, Romania in 1899 and fifty Moldavian towns in 1907 encouraged 150,000 Romanian Jews to leave. Draconian laws on Jewish economic activities dating from the 1880s further spurred their departure. Because of overpopulation, starvation, and limited economic opportunities, 500,00 Jews---about one quarter of the Jewish population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire left for the United States. A smaller movement of Jews from Russia, Romania, and Austria-Hungary fled eastward to Palestine, starting the Zionist movement. However, the clear majority of Jews from Eastern Europe preferred the promised land of New York City, Philadelphia, or Schenectady.

Schenectady in the 19th century and early 20th century attracted Irish, German, Jewish, Italian, Polish, Greek, Armenian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian immigrants. Studying how Jewish immigrants adapted to Schenectady and the United States provides us with insights into the immigrant experience in upstate New York. Historians of the Jewish experience have tended to focus on New York City and paid less attention to the settlement of Jews in the smaller American cities. Jewish communities developed the Capital District of New York in Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Saratoga, Cohoes, Amsterdam, Gloversville, Nassau, and Hoosick Falls.

Looking at the institutions and organizations created by Jewish immigrants to Schenectady allows us to understand how immigrants developed strategies to adapt to their new homeland while seeking to maintain their identity, culture, and values brought from Europe. To what degree did the children and grandchildren of immigrants abandon what the immigrant generation valued in the process of becoming Americans? To what degree did Jews seek to maintain the religious identity and cultural norms of their ancestors? Jewish immigrants constantly renegotiated how they defined Judaism and Jewish identity in America. Ever since the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 Jews have grappled with the same questions---how to maintain a Jewish identity, whether to cling to separate religious, ethnic, and social values, and how to navigate between their Jewish identity and Americanization. For Jews living in New York City or Schenectady, they faced a constant ongoing renegotiation of identity. As a tiny minority that makes us about two percent of the American population how did Jews avoid total assimilation into American society? The organizations created by Jewish immigrants and their descendants suggest how Jews in Schenectady answered this question.

“Oyster Bay’s Color Line”


 By Richard White  

“Oyster Bay’s Color Line”

This was the title of The New York Times’ article on Monday, July 11, 1904 regarding the ejection of an A.M.E Zion pastor from a local, white barbershop the previous Saturday in Oyster Bay, New York. Rev. James T. Gaskill—misnamed “Gaskin” by the much of the press—was from another church, and traveled to the Bay to preach the Sunday sermon. In fact, by September, he would be appointed church’s new pastor. He wanted a shave, but could not have imagined the civil rights commotion that would ensue. The wire service recorded in more detail what happened next.

The Elmira Star Gazette and Free Press, for example, published this wire story also on July 11. After waiting in line for his turn, the pastor was informed by the barber who declared that “your color is against you,” and was refused service. Rev. Gaskill appealed to the proprietor, saying “I insist, sir, as a Christian and a gentleman, that I be shaved.” There are two versions of what occurred next. The clergyman said that he left the shop when the owner threatened him with a club. Witnesses, on the other hand, denied this. In any case, the pastor immediately sought recourse.

The Times’ article points out that he appealed to Justice of the Peace, Walter Franklin, whose answer was not a legal remedy. He stated that the “law was on his side, but for the peace of the community and the welfare of the local [Zion] church, to drop the matter.” The Free Press’ wire service article indicates that the minister did more than seek some sort of intervention from the Justice—he asked specifically for a warrant for the arrest of the barber. No warrant was issued, and Rev. Gaskill did not mention anything about the case in his sermon the next day.

News regarding the minister’s ejection spread quickly, and there were intense feelings among Oyster Bay’s black residents. The point of view of the church’s Deacon, Thomas Leads, illustrates these emotions. The Times quotes him as saying “we are not decided what we should do, but we will not let this matter rest as it is, on the advice of Justice Franklin. However, after careful thought and prayer, Rev. Gaskill proposed a new approach, and it held sway.

The Free Press presented Pastor Gaskill’s view of the case in own words:

I regret very much that this thing happened in the president’s own town. While I do not believe in the social equality of the races—that is, I do not believe in the social intermingling of the races—I do believe, with President Roosevelt, that honesty and integrity should make all men equal, at least in public places. This affair, however, had nothing to do with the president, and I do not wish to connect him with it in any way. It is something that might have happened anywhere.


So, Rev. Gaskill was a polite man who did not want to impugn President Roosevelt—who was at his home in Sagamore Hill at the time—whose interest in civil rights was, in part, tentative. There is no record in the press of any reaction to the incident by the President.

One year later, on July 26, 1905, Rev. Gaskill did get to meet the President. On July 26, 1905, Huntington’s Long-Islander briefly discussed the meeting earlier that week. The Reverend was joined by Bishop James Walker Hood, an occasional advisor to TR. However, there was no report on their discussions.


About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

Activity, Passivity, Spontaneity:
Understanding Whig Ideology, 1836-1840


By Chris Lang

After news of his defeat for the presidential candidacy arrived in December of 1839, Henry Clay sent a letter on the final day of the Whigs’ first national convention offering his “best wishes” and “cordial support” to whatever ticket the party put together (Remini 553). As the letter was being read aloud, many delegates in the audience listened with relief and gratitude, praising the statesman’s magnanimous character. At the exact hour of his defeat, however, Clay had been drinking with several friends at the nearby Brown’s Hotel, clinging to the belief that Whigs would never actually reject him. According to one observer, the more he drank, the more he reassured himself. “Open and exceedingly profane in his denunciations of the intriguers against his nomination,” the report went, he started swearing “in words befitting only a bar-room in vulgar broil” (554).

As the night went along, Clay’s behavior became more outrageous. When two strangers entered the hotel dressed in black, Clay allegedly walked over to a well-stocked sideboard and poured several drinks for them. “Gentlemen,” Clay retorted, “for aught I know, from your cloth you may be parsons, and shocked at my words. Let us take a glass of wine” (554). Dejected, torn, and clearly inebriated, Clay walked across Pennsylvania Avenue to his boardinghouse to await the arrival of friends from Harrisburg. When they entered his room, and found him sitting in a chair, they told him of Harrison’s victory. Immediately, Clay jumped out of his seat and started cursing, swearing, and pacing back and forth. “Such an exhibition,” one reported, “we never witnessed before…and we pray never again to witness such an ebullition of passion, such a storm of desperation” (554). Stamping his feet as he paced, he finally burst out: “My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them!” (554).

Clay’s outburst described above came after a long, hard fought campaign for the Whig presidential nomination. It was one of the first major elections to be highly organized, and it was carried out in a time when “running” for office was considered somewhat suspect, if not downright inappropriate, for a truly “republican” democracy. Throughout his campaign, Henry Clay would publicly deny having any motives of personal ambition to win his party’s nomination, yet beneath the surface, as we can see from his outburst, this was clearly not reflective of his true private thoughts and feelings.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

“Klan Condemned By Legion Post As Un-American: Endicott-Union Members Adopt Smashing Resolve Against Kluxers.”

By Richard White


This was the title of the Binghamton Press’ article on October 23, 1924 regarding the anti-Klan resolutions which were adopted the night before by American Legion Post 82. Endicott was a village adjoining the Town of Union along the Susquehanna River in the Southern Tier of New York, and Binghamton was the area’s major urban center. In the post-war era, the Legion and the K.K.K. differed dramatically on this country’s search for “100% Americanism.” In fact, it reached the floor at the Legion’s national convention in 1923 in San Francisco where Resolution 407—also called the "Michigan Resolution" --was adopted. As quoted in the November 16 issue, of The American Legion Weekly, it condemned “any individuals or organizations which create or force racial, religious or class strife among our people….” However, it deliberately did not mention the K.K.K. by name in order to
avoid a direct confrontation.

When Post 82 was organized in 1919, the “Invisible Empire” was growing nationwide but was not established in the village. In 1922, one year before the Klan formed a chapter, or klavern, in Endicott, the Post composed dramatic anti-Klan letter to its community which was addressed to the Village Board. According to a local newspaper, the News-Dispatch on December 7, the letter—which was read out loud by the Village President--- stated that the Post “stood firmly by true Americanism and declared itself opposed to the type of people who called themselves Americans and hid behind masks.” However, the Legion could not prevent the Klan from gaining a growing, and active, Klan affiliate in its hometown.

On February 20, 1923, the Endicott-Bulletin reviewed the establishment of the Klan in the village, noting that it was “enlisting members here with unremitting efforts….” Cross burnings on surrounding hills became common, as did fully robed Klansmen’s dramatic interruptions of Sunday services at selected churches to make donations. By August, 1924, the Klansmen felt strong enough to nominate two supporters to the Union-Endicott School Board which ended in a near riot, and defeat of the Klan supported nominees. By the early Fall, Post 82’s Commander Leslie Toft became determined to investigate any K.K.K. involvement within the Post. “The question of Klan influence…has been brewing for some time, and it was decided to bring it to a climax,” wrote Binghamton’s The Sun on October 23. The Commander planned to go beyond the Michigan Resolution and directly confront the local Invisible Empire.

Toft’s resolutions unleashed an attack against his Post’s adversary, declaring forcefully that ”…we condemn…as unchristian, un-American and contrary to the teachings of the Bible and the Constitution… the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan…. Therefore, we condemn such societies as the Ku Klux Klan because we believe they would try and render fruitless all the sacrifices made for the further tolerance, brotherhood and respect for the law of God and man for which the Legion stands.” In fact, when the remains of African-American Private Kenneth O. Nelson—who was killed in action in the Argonne Forest—was returned to Endicott in 1921, Post 82 provided a funeral with military honors including a volley from its firing squad, and taps. (However, local black veterans were excluded from the area’s veterans’ organizations, and formed a separate unit named after Private Nelson in nearby Binghamton in 1924).

But how would Toft answer “the question of Klan influence” in the membership? For the 75 assembled members, there would be a “rising vote”—that is, a person must stand to register his approval of the resolution. The vote was overwhelmingly supportive—only three members did not stand. But while the klavern’s direct influence on Post 82 was small, it gained momentum over the next few months.

In February, 1925, there was a regional Klan convention, or klorero, in Endicott at which there were thousands of its robed followers. However, there was no need for the local American Legion to articulate its opposition to the Kluxers and their views because of Post 82’s “smashing resolve” in October, 1924. This action aptly illustrates Californian Charles Kendrick’s words at the convention in San Francisco as recorded in the November 9 issue of the Legion Weekly: “I do not favor the Legion actively combating such movements as the K.K.K. because to do that only tends to dignify them…This, however, does not prevent a forceful denunciation on the part of the Legion, and when this is done no further action should be taken.” In the early Twenties, Post 82 expressed forcefully its Americanism.



About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

Samuel Blackwell: Sugar Refiner and Abolitionist

By Joelle Million

Of historical interest primarily as the father of pioneering physicians Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, Samuel Blackwell was a New York sugar refiner and abolitionist during the six years between his immigration to the United States in 1832 and his death in 1838. During that period, he operated his own small sugar refinery and briefly managed what was “said to be the most extensive sugar refinery in the city if not the country.”1 Bringing his ardent support for the abolition of slavery from his native England, he joined New York’s nascent anti-slavery movement, became an early member of its Vigilance Committee, and succeeded, according to his own account, in experiments to produce high-quality beet sugar, which he hoped would strike a significant blow to American slavery by undermining the profitability of slave-grown cane sugar. The establishment of a refinery to manufacture beet sugar, however, was halted by his untimely death at the age of forty-eight.

Midway through Blackwell’s New York residency, as the nation was moving toward the financial crisis that would become known as the Panic of 1837, fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Blackwell and her twelve-year-old brother Sam began keeping diaries. It is primarily these diaries, supplemented by surviving contemporaneous correspondence and family records, that form the basis for understanding Blackwell family history and dynamics during this period. However, Samuel Blackwell was, as son Sam noted, “uncommunicative concerning his business affairs.”2 The children’s lack of knowledge and understanding of their father’s activities, as well as the subjectivity and incompleteness of what they recorded, have permitted scholars to make assumptions and draw conclusions about Samuel Blackwell that details in other sources, not easily discernable or accessible before the digital age, do not support.

Questionable interpretations include

— That although Blackwell had been a prosperous refiner in Bristol, his New York businesses failed, he incurred considerable debt, and he subjected his family to persistent financial insecurity, even poverty;

— That he suffered a moral conflict between his antislavery principles and a profession dependent upon slave labor, and therefore sought, or was open to, an avenue for leaving the profession; and

— That his interest in beet sugar led to no significant action or result.3

By filling in some of the holes in the puzzle of Blackwell’s business affairs, this paper attempts to clarify his intentions and the results of some of his ventures, thus presenting a basis for reviewing Blackwell’s influence on his family.

“Only God Can Make a Tree”
A History of Lewis County’s Hough Memorial Forest

By Mitch Fidler 

 
“Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree”. When American poet Joyce Kilmer penned these lines in February of 1913 he was no doubt inspired by the power and beauty of one of God’s greatest gifts to man. Since he wrote the poem at the family residence in Mahwah, New Jersey, scholars believe he was motivated by the well-wooded lawn of the family residence that overlooked the forested Ramapo Valley. The forests of the Black River Valley have likewise motivated people from Lewis County. The New York State Conservation Department entitled Martinsburg native Franklin B. Hough the Father of American Forestry. His son, Romeyn, published a fourteen volume masterwork , American Woods, a book that remains invaluable to silviculturalists. Lewis County’s first Forester, Castorland native Theodore P. Woolschlager, has done more than most, on the local level, to advance the importance of forests and to honor the memory and contributions of the Houghs. Ted Woolschlager was the driving force behind the creation of Lewis County’s Hough Memorial Forest

The elder Hough’s contributions to forestry are enormous and well known to many in the area. An 1843 graduate of Union College, Hough began publishing scientific writings shortly thereafter. He obtained his MD in 1848, but was drawn more to research and writing. By 1862 he had published histories of St. Lawrence, Franklin, Jefferson and Lewis counties. He returned to medicine as a surgeon for the 97th NY Infantry during the Civil War. In 1855 and 1865 Hough oversaw the compilation of the New York State census. This is where he noticed an alarming decline in the availability of timber in that ten year period. Hough then began to lobby Congress on the dangers of deforestation and to regulate the use of forests and establish forestry schools. His 650 page Report on Forestry (1877) was widely read and in 1881 the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Division of Forestry. Lewis County’s F.B. Hough was chosen to be the first United States Forester.

Hough’s second son, Romeyn Beck Hough, is also a noted student of botany and forestry. He obtained degrees from Cornell University and studied medicine at Columbia. Like his father he set aside the practice of medicine to be a writer. In 1888, three years after his father’s death, he published the first volume of tree studies titled American Woods. This work, totaling fourteen volumes and featuring twenty five trees each, is invaluable to botanists, technical schools, libraries and industry because it identifies properties, use and distribution of 354 varieties of trees in the U.S. and Canada. Hough provides three samples of each tree studied in the form of a wafer-thin, translucent slice. This slicing machine itself became so popular that a factory was built to produce them after Romeyn obtained his patent. R. B. Hough died at his summer cottage on Brantingham Lake in 1924. In 2009, appraiser Ken Sanders valued a complete set of American Woods at $30,000.

To honor the memory and contributions of the Houghs, Theodore P. Woolschlager planned the Hough Memorial Forest in New Bremen. Ted was Lewis County’s first Forester. He grew up on the family farm on the Merz road in Castorland. He graduated from Carthage High in 1913. He then attended one year of teacher training at a normal school and taught for two years in Castorland. He then enrolled in the college of Forestry at Syracuse University but was drafted in 1917 as the U.S. prepared for World War One. He served in the78th Infantry Division. He finished college in Syracuse in 1922 and began a twenty nine year career with the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture. His specialty was pathology where he studied tree diseases in New York and cartography where he created property maps so that regions could manage their forests now and in the future.

It is only in his retirement that Ted planned and carried out the creation of the Hough Memorial Forest in New Bremen. In 1958, Mr. Woolschlager had recently completed a project on picnic area with stunning views of water falls on Fish Creek as it tumbles towards the Black River. This popular 105 acre tract in the Town of Greig is known as Singing Waters. He then turned his attention to a 61 acre parcel then for sale as part of the Sam and Mary Kieffer estate located one mile east of the hamlet of New Bremen on St. Rt. 812. Theodore encouraged County leaders to purchase the aging sugar bush with the specific purpose of creating an arboretum and encouraging botanical study. This area would not be like Singing Waters with its 100 camp sites. This property would host forty two, one acre plots in checker board fashion each planted with a different tree species. Eventually there were sixty different varieties. The plots are labeled for study and observation. On many occasions Hough Forest has become an outdoor classroom for local schools and colleges. This focus on learning would certainly have delighted the Houghs.

Mr. Woolschlager called the memorial project an “experimental forest”. It consisted of native and introduced conifers and hardwoods. Most of the trees were grown from seed collected by the County Forester in seed beds at the Lowville State Nursery at Dadville. Some of the seeds were western varieties sent East by Woolschlager’s son, Hawley, a forester in Washington State. Other tree species came from exotic seeds collected by Ted. The first trees were planted in the fall of 1958. Visitors today can see labelled examples of sugar maple, soft maple, red oak, white oak, white pine, Austrian pine, white spruce, Norway spruce, black walnut, white ash, Japanese Larch, red cedar, elm, yellow poplar, white cedar, red pine, blue spruce, silver maple, black locust, Norwegian maple, Jack pine, hemlock, horse chestnut, butternut, yellow birch, white birch, gray birch, tamarack, Scotch pine, hickory, beech, Douglas Fir and balsam fir. The old sugar bush hardwood was thinned out in 1975, the balsam fir stands were selectively cut in the 1990’s and some of the red pine was harvested after falling over in 2004.

On July 1, 1963 dignitaries and citizens gathered to dedicate the arboretum to the memory Franklin and Romeyn Hough. Folks have enjoyed the scenic walking trails there ever since then. Later County Foresters have kept the significance of the forest alive, especially Randy Kerr. He wrote several articles about Ted Woolschlager’s efforts and organized work details at the site. In 1990, the County Highway Department built a gravel road leading into the forest and the County Historical Society assisted in the replacement of the identification signs. Some of the original signs can be seen at the Historical Society. This fitting tribute to Lewis County natives with a national impact remains a treasure to be enjoyed by all for generations to come.

Tentanda Via Est
An Episode of Yankee Ingenuity in Lewis County History

By Mitchell D. Fidler

“The way must be tried, or, in the Latin, “tentanda via est” is a phrase no doubt familiar to people who have faced the challenge of transforming nature’s resources to meet a particular human need. One could envision a Roman engineer uttering it while designing one of their magnificent public buildings; or even Edison as he experimented with over a hundred substances to find a suitable filament for the light bulb. Tentanda via est also appears on the coat of arms of the Family Wetmore. Residents of Northern New York may connect this family name to Lafayette Wetmore, one of its most industrious citizens. Time and time again, Mr. Wetmore applied his motto “tentanda via est” to dozens of enterprises during the economic development of nineteenth century Lewis County.

Before settling in the hamlet of Crystaldale in New Bremen Township, the Wetmore family lived in Hartford, Connecticut since the seventeenth century. Perhaps it was amidst this environment where the family acquired its sense of mechanical inquisitiveness that produced other notable New England inventors such as Eli Whitney, John Deere and Eliphalet Remington. Lafayette displayed his interest in mechanics at a young age. He turned his mother’s kitchen stove into a forge as a teenager. He helped erect a Baptist church in town before his twentieth birthday. He also demonstrated his level of industry as a young man. He obtained a thrashing machine and hired himself out in season. In the eighteen eighties he had built his own blacksmith shop in Crystaldale. His thrashing business created the opportunity to obtain his first patent in 1886. This document gave him complete control over the manufacture and sale of a “sheaf table and stand for thrashers”. This device allowed a person to stand on the machine safely and guide its operation and certified him as an inventor. At his shop in Crystaldale he also produced a portable sawmill. This structure was taken to Moose River Settlement in 1888 to construct the “Wooden Legged Railroad” to Minnehaha, near Old Forge. This enterprise was unique in so far as the 20-mile line was made entirely of wood. Lafayette Wetmore sawed the ties and rail from local forest products. There were many who believed an operation constructed in this fashion would not be successful, but it served the region for five years making two trips a day, one hundred fifty days per season. Surely, in this matter, Wetmore contemplated his family motto: “the way must be tried.”

Also in the 1880’s, Wetmore married, had children, became widowed and married again. Additionally, he changed his occupation from blacksmith to sawyer and moved his family to the Tug Hill town of Martinsburg. The blossoming of his business enterprises marked this period in his life. Between 1880 and 1902 Wetmore became a successful lumberman, eventually owning over 2,000 acres of forestland. Wetmore specialized in sawing barn beams. He maintained three logging camps and employed over ten men at his sawmill. In the nineties, as a mill town sprang up around his enterprises, Wetmore applied to Washington DC to have a post office erected thereby officially establishing the hamlet of Wetmore, NY. The next year he brought phone service to Wetmore when his workmen set poles and strung wire over the ten miles distance from Lowville. This certainly must have had an expediting effect on his business.

In the last few years of his time in Martinsburg, Lafayette developed perhaps his most crowning achievement. The Wetmore Electric Company was created in early 1898 when he purchased a coal-fired electrical generating facility near Lowville. Wetmore quickly realized that harnessing hydro power or white coal from the regions swift running rivers would be a far more efficient method of producing electricity. To that end, he built the Belfort Hydro-Electric Plant in the township of Croghan. This was the first hydroelectric facility in northern New York. Wetmore built a field stone powerhouse on the bank of the Beaver River in the hamlet of Belfort in which he placed a turbine capable of generating 400 kilowatts per hour. He then set poles and strung wires a distance of fourteen mile to Lowville where he was under contract to supply the village with electricity to operate their street lights. This transmission line was labeled the longest in the world for about one year. The field stone powerhouse is still in use and the original turbines were used until the nineteen forties. Wetmore’s son Deane managed this and the other power plants in the area for many years’ afterwards. Since then twelve other electricity-generating facilities have established along the Beaver River; imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

In 1902 after his electric company reached a solid footing, Wetmore moved his family to Lowville to engage in other business enterprises more closely associated with the development of forest products. While a son-in-law ran the sawmill in Martinsburg, Wetmore partnered with Steven Nevin to establish an iron works and to manufacture steel wood pulp machinery, slab barkers, centrifugal pumps and, his ever-famous Deer River Plow. To utilize wood products from his timberlands, Lafayette began another business in Lowville in 1905 by manufacturing what would be known as the Wetmore Folding Table. These were a compact but sturdy piece of furniture similar to a card table and included patentable features. They became very popular and, due to a contract with the S&H Green Stamp Company, were sold in every state in the U.S and overseas. To expand production and to overcome transportation difficulties, Wetmore built a new factory in Glenfield in 1907. The Glenfield and Western Railroad connected his sawmill in Martinsburg to the New York Central at Glenfield as there was no rail service from Martinsburg to Lowville. The same year he built the Otter Creek Power facility to provide electricity to his new Glenfield Manufacturing Company and the residents of Glenfield. The new plant was able to expand it production to include more variety of tables, furniture dowels and knitting mill bobbins. Wetmore moved his family into a new house at Glenfield in 1909, but he would not enjoy life there for a significant time as he died of pernicious anemia while doctoring in New York City in January 1910.

Most people would agree that at age 53 an inventive person had many more cards to play—many more “ways to be tried”. One of Wetmore’s ideas that never came to fruition was the construction of a monorail connecting the villages of Croghan to Lowville. Despite a shortened life, Lafayette Wetmore’s prolific inventiveness earns him a special place in the annals of Lewis County. As the region’s economy transforms itself in the 21st Century, entrepreneurs would be well advised to consider the Wetmore family maxim “tentanda via est”.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Dangerous Interlude: Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge’s Rebel Raid on Fort Saint George, November 23, 1780
and Culper, or The Spy

By Michael Mauro DeBonis

It is late November, in 1780. The City of New York and its adjacent territory of Long Island have been under total British military control since the autumn of 1776. It was then that British General Lord William Howe chased American General George Washington and his ragtag ranks of bluecoat battalions from the Isle of Manhattan and its neighboring vicinities of Staten Island and Long Island. Despite the rebel army being outgunned and out-manned by their British opponents, Washington skillfully flees from upper Manhattan north to Westchester County (Tallmadge, 13) by crossing the Harlem River, and he miraculously keeps most of his body of Continental troops intact.

Much of New York City mysteriously burned to cinders during the American withdrawal to the mainland (Rose, 35). But, one fact remains plainly glaring and undisputed… the principal portion of the British Army is in command of Manhattan and its suburbs, and Britain enforces its presence in these dominions with martial law (Rose, 47-48).

In spite of this humiliating defeat at the hands of the British, Washington and his Continental Army fight on. Between the end of December of 1776 and early January 1777, Washington defeats the British forces in the New Jersey Battles of Trenton and Princeton (Rose, 42). American morale is no longer depleted. Yet the American goal of independence in 1780 has not been achieved.

New York City is the headquarters of British Military Intelligence. And in order for Washington to defeat the British, he needs to be able to read his enemies’ minds. In the fall of 1778, he decides to create a spy network that will be first-rate and that will put all others to shame. It will be called the Culper Spy Ring (Rose, 75) and it will be operated from three locales: New York City, Connecticut and Setauket, Long Island.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

From Riches to Rags: One man’s experience in the slums of New York

By Nell Darby

When you think of the emigrant experience in New York, and the reasons individuals had for coming to America in the 19th century, what do you think of? In England, the focus is on the poverty-stricken coming to the ‘new world’ to start again, to seek their fortunes, and to escape the miserable conditions of their old homes. Of course, the experience for many on reaching the ‘promised land’ was not what they hoped for; by the end of the 19th century, the Danish-born reporter and photographer Jacob Riis was talking to emigrants who now lived a wretched life in the slums of the Five Points area, only a step away from complete destitution. Many of these were immigrants, and their lives were lived on a day-to-day basis, wondering where the next meal was coming from. Riis noted the peripatetic nature of some families’ lives, shuttling between lodging house, police station and workhouse - where at least they knew they would get fed. Many of the area’s early immigrants had fled the famine that devastated so many lives in Ireland, and throughout the mid to late 19th century, a substantial proportion of the area’s residents continued to be either Irish-born or of Irish origin. These were people who had little left for them in their homeland, where poverty was what they had known before, and where America represented the possibility of improving themselves. These are the people who have been written about and studied. Yet one man left his home country as a middle-class, educated, 19-year-old, and ended up dying in New York as a destitute, drunken, broken man. His experience showed that America could break as many dreams as it made.

In 1856, the local newspapers in Oxford, England, recorded the death of an 83-year-old accountant, who had been active in local politics. John Harper was a Londoner by birth and ancestry, his family living in the same square as Dr Samuel Johnson, the creator of the modern English dictionary. He had a long life, dying at 83 years old, after breaking his leg. But what was significant about his death was that a reference was made in the death notices to ‘publish this in the Colonial newspapers’. This was the death of an elderly man who had spent his entire life in England; why was his family keen to ensure that the death was publicised overseas? The reason lay with his second son, John Ambrose Harper.

Harper family (credit: Nell Darby) – this image shows the author’s grandfather, John Harper, as a boy 
(front row) and behind, in the bow tie, is his father Seth. John Ambrose Harper was Seth’s uncle

New York State White Caps of 1905

by Richard White


“We have portrayed, in Motion Pictures, in a most vivid and realistic manner, the methods employed by the ‘White Caps’ to rid the community of undesirable citizens.” This was a statement from an advertisement in the New York Clipper on October 14, 1905 for a new movie called “The White Caps” which depicts graphically a husband’s drunken attack on his wife, and the tactics of these moral crusaders and nighttime raiders used to deter him from making another attack. Since the late 1800’s, this movement produced locally organized vigilante squads—usually men but on occasion women -- who wore white hoods when they operated outside of the law as shown in the movie. While the movie was art imitating life, the reality in New York in 1905 was that White Caps were actively engaged in missions of morality in the small towns of Darien Center, Rhinecliff, Penfield, and East Syracuse.

In the quiet hamlet of Darien Center in Genessee County in early February it appears that there were no White Cap operatives. The arrival of one or two families from Batavia prompted their quick formation. According to Batavia’s The Daily News on the 27th, the newcomers “were too lazy to work and were begging through the neighborhood.” On two occasions they were “white-capped,” or confronted in person, by the newly formed band, and “ordered to leave town.” Although these White Caps were recently organized, the movement’s methods were well-known, and the new people left in a hurry. This appears to be the only case of the year in which legal action was taken against the rioters. Two of them who were somehow recognized were “arraigned on a charge of riot” but were released when no one appeared to testify against them. A few months later another White Cap morality foray materialized in a Hudson Valley village.

In July in Rhinecliff in Dutchess County, a mob of White Caps was formed to deal with a wife-beater. The Rhinebeck Gazette observed on July 8 that “there comes a startling tale from Rhinecliff that the picturesque little station village has a band of ‘whitecaps’ duly and properly capped and all its own.” Their solution to this public shame was a beating of the man, Thomas McElroy. One week later, the newspaper published a letter that summed up the situation when the author wrote “Rhinecliff is noted for its peaceful and quiet citizens, and there is no danger of any person being molested in any manner if they behave themselves.” As usual, White Caps sought a solution outside of the law in the form of summary punishment as they would near Rochester in the Fall.

The White Caps of Penfield in Monroe County knew that Allen Decker had acted badly when he induced a married woman in late October to leave town with him—in fact, she brought along her two children. They went to Niagara Falls where Decker was arrested - apparently on a warrant from a judge in Penfield—on a charge of petit larceny for stealing the children’s clothes. Upon his return to face the judge he was fined and released. Vigilante justice awaited him on February 28 when the town’s White Caps dragged him out of the house where he hid. According to the Monroe County Mail, Allen suffered two humiliations. First, he received “a liberal coating of warm tar” (other sources indicate that feathers were then applied). Second, he was “conveyed to the village mill pond, where a rope was tied about his body to prevent his escape, and he was then thrown into the water and given a good sousing. Pulling him out of the water he was ordered to leave town and he obeyed the order with alacrity.” Within a matter of days in a small village in Onondaga County, there would be a reason for action by the self-appointed morals marauders.

In East Syracuse, there was one planned, and one unplanned, attack by the locale’s White Caps. Their intention was to thrash a husband for wife beating after he became indignant when she tried to dissuade him from seeing another woman. On November 9, The Syracuse Journal described how they gave Frederick John Smith a beating that “he will not likely soon to forget.” However, circumstances arose that spurred another beating when the “other woman,” Mrs. Clark Teft, became involved. Teft rushed to the scene carrying a club, and a few of the White Caps turned on her which resulted in “severe injury to her nose.” These brave, hooded men forcefully stoppeda woman from interfering with their operation.

In 1906, there was no sequel to “The White Caps,” although groups of them in real life continued their reign of terror in New York for a few more years. In August, for example, they covered a man with green paint and feathers due to his relationship with a married woman in East Syracuse. Other communities where they organized and operated that year include Jordan, Tonawanda, and Milton.

About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Frederick Douglass in Whitney’s Point, 1880

by Richard White


Frederick Douglass
“Bear with me kindly, for my voice is broken, and my throat is ragged and sore.” These were the words of the famous orator, Frederick Douglass, on October 22, 1880 in Whitney’s Point (now known as Whitney Point) as published a few days later in the weekly Broome Republican. In spite of a sore throat, he spoke to hundreds of people in “front of the academy” for two hours on an almost sacred topic to him — to rally voters to the Republican Party in this Presidential election year. Douglass had often stated, “The Republican Party is the ship, all else is the sea.” In the Point and elsewhere, he addressed crowds of all races about the seaworthiness of this “ship.”

For the second year in a row, the Republican State Committee selected him to campaign around the State on behalf of its candidates. After all, not only was he skilled speaker but also a devoted Republican. In fact, in 1879 in Binghamton, he addressed a crowded Ouaquaga Hall on behalf of the Party, and its gubernatorial candidate, Alonzo Cornell.

The Binghamton Daily Republican offers the most thorough coverage of this event in its October 23 issue. Most of Douglass’ speech in the Point extolled the virtues of Republicans. After all, he declared, “thanks for the magnanimity, humanity, and greatness of the Republican Party, I am an American citizen.” A “grand procession” led by people carrying flags and banners, and “a large cavalry company,” took Douglass to the stage where “a vast audience” awaited him. Not surprisingly, local Democrats were anxious. Earlier on the 22nd , the Binghamton Daily Democrat demeaned Douglass, stating that he only supported Garfield in order “to hold onto a good thing four years longer” in regard to Douglass’ position as U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia. The newspaper concluded by suggesting that “Fred., although not a full-blooded white man, has more brains than all the [unreadable] law combined in the county.” But Douglass was at least used to such derision, and worse.

His opening remarks were patriotic, and not partisan-- Frederick Douglass profusely praised America. The Daily Republican recorded Douglass's words, some of which were,

“Ours is a great land. We see its greatness manifested in its commerce….in agriculture, invention, and the cultivation of the high arts. But it is greater in nothing than in the recognition which it bestows upon the rights of its people. We are here to exercise this afternoon one of its rights—the unchecked freedom of speech.” 

Later, he reasoned why voters must consider Republican office seekers. “Parties make candidates….Whatever may be said in behalf of a candidate it is better to know and understand the party that supports him. Parties are the assimilation of moral conditions….and principles of a people. ” Douglass must have praised to his Party’s nominee for President, James Garfield — as he would at a rally in New York City on October 25—but the Daily Republican’s coverage does not say so. (The local Democratic newspapers do not offer follow-up coverage on this rally).

Douglass did not stay in Broome County for long. His schedule required a political stump speech the next day in Woodhull in Steuben County. In Whitney’s Point, though, he illustrated why he was sometimes called “Old Man Eloquent,” especially for his devoted support of the Republican Party.


About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War HistoryThe Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

Friday, February 10, 2017

“No Man’s Land” Revisited


The New York and Vermont State 1814 Border Monument and
 the 1904 Marble Obelisk on Washington County Route 153.
By William A. Cormier
Salem, New York Historian

When James and Marilyn Alcott, residents of Beattie Hollow Road, invited me to visit the deteriorating Beattie Hollow boundary monument with them, I realized that another chapter regarding “no man’s land” needed to be written.

Few people remember the long-standing, and sometimes violent, border disagreement between New York and Vermont. In particular, the land of the Town of Rupert, Vermont, bordering Salem and Hebron, was hotly contended. In fact, the boundaries between New York and her other neighboring states and Canada were contested for many years until properly surveyed, agreed upon by the surveyors of both sides, and officially approved by their respective legislatures. New York agreed to the boundary on June 8, 1812; Vermont agreed to the boundary on November 6, 1812.

According to The History of New York State, Book I, Chapter I, Pt. III, by Dr. James Sullivan, once the boundary survey had been approved, markers were to be placed every mile along the boundary of Canada, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, until uniformity was decided upon as to the placement and type of the monuments, monuments were of various sizes, shapes and materials.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Joseph Belt Case’s Impact on NYC’s on Black Residents, 1848

By Richard White

“The case has caused a great deal of excitement among the colored population, the Court room and the avenues being densely crowded…” This was the reportage in New York City’s Morning Courier on December 27, 1848 concerning the case of alleged fugitive slave from Maryland, Joseph Belt, before State Supreme Court Judge, John W. Edmonds, at City Hall. The case intensified African American sentiments so much that they held a meeting on Christmas night to record their concerns.

The case arose from the seizure of an alleged runaway slave beginning on December 20, and the quick action the same day by Judge Edmonds to prevent his forced departure. Judge Edmonds’ hearings began three days later in order to allow attorneys time to prepare. In Gateway To Freedom (2015), Eric Foner describes Belt’s chief attorney, John Jay II, as emerging “as the city’s leading lawyer in fugitive slave cases”(page 112). Jay’s studious arguments, and Edmonds’ sympathy for Belt, resulted in the defendant’s freedom on December 29. However, “the colored population” did more than pack Edmonds’ courtroom. They staged a rally, which has been a neglected aspect of the Belt case.

Led by a civil rights activist, Jeremiah Powers, a protest meeting was organized in Terence Hall on Church Street on December 25, no doubt due to the pressing nature of the case. As Chairman, Powers orchestrated the writing a five-part resolution that underscored their anger, as reported the next day in the New York Tribune. Section 1, for example, emphatically declares that the kidnapping of Belt “is an alarming outrage upon all the social and civil rights and guarantees of the citizens of New York.” Section 2 states that the case “affects the security of every colored man, woman, and child in the City.” Sections 3 and 5 refer to the principles “of the process of law” and ”due process” in any case like Belt’s. However, when these two legal principles are ignored, then Section 4 mandates that “no colored person ought to allow themselves to be arrested as a slave upon any conditions whatsoever: at the risk of life itself….they should deem it a question of life and death, to be settled on the spot….” This pointed language entails no reading between the lines.

Edmonds’ decision to free Belt sparked a display of deep relief that was covered across this State. On December 30, for instance, the Geneva Gazette, described the final scene as follows: “[Belt] was borne in triumph from the City Hall by a large company of colored people who rent the air with acclamations of joy,” and apparently left the City. Due to circumstances in New York City at the time, a black man was not enslaved, and freedom prevailed.

About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.