History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Its Legends and its History
by Max Reid
New York and London G. P. Putman's Sons
The Knickerbocker Press, 1901
with illustrations from photographs by J. Arthur Maney
Chapter IX Guy Park and Fort Johnson
Sir William Johnson, when he built Guy Park mansion for his nephew, Guy Johnson, and his wife, Mary, the second daughter of Sir William, set apart a mile square of his large tract of land to be connected therewith. The easterly line of this farm formerly extended to the sand hole on west Main Street and the westerly line to the creek that runs into the river near Steadwell Avenue in the city of Amsterdam. He also gave to his daughter Nancy, the wife of Colonel Daniel Claus, a similar tract of land, extending from said creek west, until it met the mile square of the Fort Johnson farm at Dove Creek, which runs from a ravine through Jacob Lepper's farm, near the brick schoolhouse on the turnpike at Fort Johnson.
It is of this ravine that I wish to speak at this time. The mouth of this gorge has, in the course of many years, been widened by the stream spoken of (which at times becomes a furious torrent), leaving a fertile flat of a number of acres, protected from the storms and cold winds by the hills and forests which almost surround it; but being open to the south, it receives the benefit of the light and heat of the sun, tempered somewhat by cool breezes which blow from the upper ravine in the rear. The hills on the west are at an elevation of about two hundred feet above the Mohawk River, being on the five-hundred-feet level. North of the flat the creek winds through these wooded hills with many an abrupt turn.
Crossing the creek to the western bank, in a recent visit to this place, we ascended to the highest point of the hills on the west, with "painful steps and slow," and were well repaid for our labor. We found ourselves on a comparatively level plateau, except that at the outer edge of one side is a higher ridge extending north and south, while from the outer edge of this ridge is a very steep declivity tot he creek far down below, on account of the mounds that were scattered over its surface.
But instead of mounds we found excavations, and from the nature of the holes we were somewhat in doubt whether to call them graves or cornpits. By cutting into the side of one of the excavations (which was about three feet deep and straight down) we laid bare a strata of discolored earth, mixed with bits of charcoal. The plateau is surrounded by steep declivities except at one point, where it connects with the cleared farm land to the west. From the ridge spoken of, there are three separate "hogsbacks" running to the west, north, and northeast, and extending to the creek, which makes a sharp turn to the west at this point. Although these ridges are found on nearly every ancient Indians site, with a trail leading from the top of a hill to a ravine below, it is hard to believe that the acclivity of their trails could be more inaccessible than those spoken of above. The ridges are from ten to twenty feet high, and about two feet broad on top, but are so steep that great danger would attend any attempt to descend from above without flexible shoes or bare feet and a very steady head.
Our guide, Mr. Jacob Lepper, informed us that he had been familiar with this spot from boyhood, and that the mounds were plainly discernible the last time he visited this spot, about six years ago. The numerous excavations that we found would seem to indicate that an extended examination had been made, but by whom, or with what results, I have been unable to ascertain. The cultivated plateau to the west comprises the farms of John and Spencer Sweet. Many relics have been found on these farms, particularly in a field north of the farm buildings.
Mr. John Sweet exhibited to me quite a number of prehistoric relics which were the remnants of an extensive collection gathered by his father in the early years of his life, one of which was a half of a gorget, or banner stone, as the ceremonial stones are called. The fragment was about four inches long and two inches wide, of highly polished variegated stone, and when whole must have resembled a butterfly with its wings spread, a hole one-half inch in diameter extending lengthwise through that part which would represent the body of the insect. Numerous arrow-points, drills, and spears of flint were also in the collection.
Returning through the wood from the ridge, we passed to a lower level, which has the appearance of having been partly cleared, and were shown a partially walled-up excavation about fifteen feet square, evidently the cellar of a primitive log cabin of some early hunter or pioneer. Near by, in a ravine, is an excellent spring, which probably furnished water to this long resident of the forest.
It is known that large numbers of Indians of the Six Nations frequently visited Sir William Johnson at Fort Johnson, may of whom undoubtedly found rude shelter on the flats and in the woods around his mansion, but it must be remembered that the savage visitors, at that period, had been familiar with firearms and metal tools for more than a century, and the finding of rude flint implements in this locality would seem to indicate a previous occupation. The surroundings are of the character usually chosen by the Mohawks for their villages and hunting-grounds, namely, streams, springs, wooded hills, and extensive flats for their rude husbandry. The only ford across the Mohawk for miles east or west in close proximity to the valley of the Kayaderos Creek, together with the extensive flat lands in this vicinity an fertile islands in midstream, would also seem to point to this locality as a place of probable occupation by the early Mohawks, although it may or may not have been a palisaded castle.
All the land from Steadwell Avenue for six miles along the Mohawk west and for a mile and a half north was comprised in what was called the Wilson and Abeel patent. This patent was one of the earliest transfers of land in the town of Amsterdam, being dated February 22, 1706. This property came into the hands of William Johnson soon after he established "Johnson settlement" (afterwards Warrensbush) on the south bank of the Mohawk, about one-half mile below the river ridge at Amsterdam, in 1783.
It would seem from a letter to his uncle and patron, Sir Peter Warren, dated May 10, 1739, that his purchase was made previous to that date, and that it displeased Sir Peter, who feared he would remove there and neglect the store at the settlement.
Johnson wrote to him that he had no design of removing to his new purchase, having made it, he said, for the purpose of securing a valuable waterpower, on which he proposed erecting a grist mill. In less that three years, however, Johnson erected the Fort Johnson mansion and removed his family to it.
The first covering to the roof of Fort Johnson was probably of shingles, as Johnson did not order the lead covering, which was purchased in London, until the year 1749. Whenever I look at that old stone building, my thoughts revert to the time when, as a young man of twenty-four years, he selected this spot to build himself a home, and I wonder, for whom did he build it? Was it for Catherine, his housekeeper, or maid-of-all-work, to whom, at this period, he was not married, or was it for a home for the young girl he loved in the little Irish town which was his birthplace?
In the early years of his manhood he had fallen in love with a pretty Irish girl. History is silent about her name or family. We are merely told that "at the age of twenty-two he fell in love with a young girl whom his parents would not permit him to marry." Sir Peter Warren, his uncle, hearing of his experience, offered him the position of agent of his recently acquired estate on the Mohawk River, comprising what is now know as the town of Florida. Perhaps this offer came when he was depressed at the thought of never being able to marry the girl of his choice, and in a fit of despondency he accepted it as an opportunity to bury himself in the wilds of the New World, and perhaps make for himself a name and a fortune. He is described as being a tall, robust young man, full of animal life and spirits, manly and commanding in his deportment. Arriving at the port of New York, in 1738, he immediately found his way to the valley of the Mohawk, and the same year erected a storehouse and dwelling on his uncle's estate, near the present residence of Walter Major, east of the river bridge in the city of Amsterdam. It was to this dwelling that he brought Catherine Weisenberg, whom he had purchased of his neighbor, Lewis Phillips, for sixteen pounds. It is said that at some period before her death he married her, but no record of their marriage has ever been found, although he speaks of her in his will as my beloved wife Catherine.
The old building at Fort Johnson stands today, a monument to the pluck, energy, and ambition of young William Johnson, and will undoubtedly remain as such after his wooden baronial mansion at Johnstown has crumbled to dust. Very few historians have given any extended account of his early life at Warrensbush; in fact, very little is known, except what can be gathered from a few letters from his uncle, Sir Peter Warren. That he erected a storehouse at Warrensbush and engaged in trade with the Indians and white settlers, is well known, and that he also had charge of the estate, and occupied himself in selling lots or farms, and in the arduous labor of clearing the land of the forests, are matters of record.
From a letter dated Boston, November 20, 1738, from Sir Peter to William Johnson, we learn that in addition to forming settlements for his uncle, he was also clearing land for himself. The letter advises him that, "the smaller the farms, the more land that will be sold, and the better the improvement will be. I hope you will plant an orchard in the spring." "As you have great help now, you will girdle many trees." In a note in W. L. Stone's Life of Sir William Johnson, the method of girdling trees is described:
The operation consists in making a deep circular cut around the trunk of large trees, which draws off the sap and causes the trees to die in the course of a couple of years. The trunks and limbs becoming dry, are readily subject to the action of fire, and the foresters are thereby often relieved of much heavy labor, while by the absence of foliage, the earth has already been partially warmed by the sun, and is in respect of decaying roots, rendered much easier of cultivation.
On of the sources of revenue of the colonist was potash, obtained by burning forest trees that were cut down to clear the land, and leaching the wood ashes. An average of two tons to the acre was obtained. A market for the potash was found in Europe, at a fair price.
Both W. L. Stone and W. S. Griffis made statements in regard to William Johnson at this period of his life which are not correct. Stone merely quotes from a statement made by the late Thomas Sammons, but does not endorse it. Sammon's statement, which Griffis repeats, was that "young Johnson was wont to ride to mill on horseback to Caughnawaga, distant from Warrensbush fifteen miles." Griffis writes of this period: "That his [Johnson's] eye was keenly open to every new advantage or possibility of progress was seen in his buying, as early as 1;739, after one year's residence in the valley, a lot of land across the Mohawk [the Fort Johnson property] on which ran a stream of water, the Chuctununda Creek [?], with abundance of potential mill power. To ride horseback with bags fifteen miles to Caughnawaga [?] every time meal was needed, was too much loss of time." The facts are these: Lewis Groot's mill at Cranesville was only two miles from Warrensbush, and was established in 1;730. Caugnawaga was only ten miles away, instead of fifteen, and did not have a grist mill until after 1751, which was the date that Dowe Fonda moved from Schenectady to the place afterwards know as Dutch Caughnawaga. As Johnson erected his grist mill at Fort Johnson in 1744, and Groot's mill, built in 1730, the only grist mill west of the Schenectady patent, was only two miles away, it is plain that Griffis's statements are somewhat mixed.
The settlement on the Kayaderos Creek was formerly called Mount Johnson, but when the place was threatened by the French, in 1755, it was fortified, and in 1756 named Fort Johnson. During the last few years the place has been called Akin. While we can appreciate the desire of a family to perpetuate its name, we cannot help a feeling of regret that his old, historic spot, from which Sir William Johnson ruled the savage Iroquois, does not continue to bear the name which he gave it, and by which it was known for a century and a half.
It was on these flats that William Johnson first met Molly Brant (whose home was at the Canajoharie Castle). W. L. Stone gives the date of this meeting as 1746, Griffis, 1759. The former date is nearer correct. Stone assumes that Catherine was dead at that date, because she was not mentioned in a letter written by Mr. James Wilson, of Albany, dated November 26, 1745, inviting William Johnson to make his home at his (Wilson's) mother's house, until all fears of French invasion were dispelled. Stone says: "The entire silence of this letter in regard to Mrs. Johnson, and the appropriation of only a single room for his occupancy, induces the supposition that she much have died previous to the time when it was written. Still this is merely conjectural, and, to say the truth, but little can be ascertained respecting Mr. Johnson's domestic relations for several years of this portion of his life.
An examination of the records at the Montgomery County clerk's office at Fonda, in order to ascertain what disposition was made of the lands of Sir John Johnson, Colonel Guy Johnson, and Daniel Claus, reveals the following facts: First that the Guy Park mile square was formerly the Hoofe patent, granted to Henry Hoofe December 12, 1727, and the Daniel Claus property and the Fort Johnson mile square were parts of the Wilson and Abeel patent, granted to Ebenezer Wilson and John Abeel, the father of the celebrated half-breed Cornplanter who was on General Washington's staff during the Revolution. This patent was granted February 22, 1706, but it is thought that the patentees did not settle on it. The records show that it was subsequently included in the Kingsland or Royal Grant to Sire William Johnson.
|An Old Colonial Mansion. Guy Park, Amsterdam, 1763.|
We are unable to find the name of the purchaser of the Fort Johnson property from the commissioners of forfeiture, but we find that in 1800 the property belonged to Jacob C. Cuyler and Johns C. Cuyler, who sold to Jeremiah Schuyler on February 22, 1817. Schuyler conveyed to Johns J. Van Schaick, January 8, 1820; Van Schaick to George Maxwell, December 14, 1824; Maxwell to George Smith, January 26, 1826. George Smith died intestate August 26, 1828; the property was then divided into nine parcels and all sold between 1836 and 1844.
Old Fort Johnson, Mount Johnson, Akin, 1742
Historic Fort Johnson see how Fort Johnson appears today.
Typists note: All three of these residences have been restored in the century since this book was written.
|Johnson Hall, Johnstown, 1763|
|Johnson Hall, Johnstown, as it appears today.|
The Fort Johnson mansion and the land adjoining was purchased by Dr. Oliver Davidson, and subsequently sold to Almarin Young, who afterwards sold it to the present owner, Ethan Akin.
The Daniel Claus property, which embraced about eight hundred acres, was sold by the commissioner of forfeiture to James Caldwell, October 16, 1786.
Guy Park was conveyed by the commissioners to John Taylor and James Caldwell, who conveyed to Daniel Miles, July 6, 1790; Miles conveyed to Sarah and James McGorck in 1800; McGorck to John V. Henry in 1805; John V. Henry to Henry Bayard; Bayard to James Steward in 1845 or 46.
After the flight of the Johnsons and previous to the act of attainder and confiscation in 1779, the Fort Johnson mansion was occupied by Albert H. Vedder, the Daniel Claus residence by Col. John Harper, and Guy Park by Henry Kennedy.
Guy Park was built in 1766 and was originally constructed of wood. It is said that this building was burned by being struck by lightning and was replaced with the present stone structure or, rather, the main part of it. In general appearance and construction it was similar to the mansion at Fort Johnson, being well built with irregular blocks of limestone and the usual substantial walls, having the deep recessed windows that are so often seen in Colonial buildings. The roof was four square and must have had the same appearance as the former roof of Queen Anne's parsonage at Fort Hunter. The appearance of the front and rear of the house was similar, both having a long, wide piazza. A wide hall ran through the centre of the house, broad, winding stairs leading to the broad hall of the floor above. The rooms were spacious and well finished, with paneled wainscoting, and must have impressed the beholder in those primitive days with the thought of grandeur. We may try as much as we can to imagine that it was constructed on the same general plan as Fort Johnson, still there was something about its proportions that must have mad it more pleasing to the eye than that somber building.
Mr. James Stewart must have been a man of taste, and had a proper conception of the fitness of things when he made the necessary changes in the building after purchasing it. While retaining the old building he made such changes and additions to it that today it is one of the most attractive and I might say the only colonial mansion in the Mohawk Valley. There are a few other old buildings, but none of them impresses one at once with both age and beauty as this one does. Surrounded as it is by green fields and stately elms, and with a background of the Mohawk with its wooden islands and the hills with their evergreen slopes, one would almost expect to see the birchen canoe of the painted Mohawk gliding by, or hear the war cry of the Algonquin in the woods in the rear, were it not for the rattle and roar and rumble of the Empire State express, while the West Shore on the opposite bank adds to the uproar with shrieks that would make the red man green with envy.
J. R. Simms, in Frontiersmen, speaks of a visit to this building and of a conversation with henry Bayard in 1846, who was then the owner and occupant. "After the revolution it was for years a public house known as a stage house. The front room on the east side of the hall was the bar room. While occupied as an inn the house was literally surrounded by sheds--a custom of the times--to accommodate the large wagons then transporting merchandise and produce."
The building is said to have been built by mechanics from Europe, probably by Samuel Fuller, the architect of Johnson Hall, Johnstown.
Tradition says that in one of the rooms at Guy Park a ghost resembling the then deceased wife of Guy Johnson occasionally appeared, to the great annoyance of the credulous Kennedy family. Even in the daytime they were more than once alarmed. About this time a German, a stranger to the family, called there and seemed very much interested in the ghost story and expressed a willingness to pass the night in the "spook room," asking if the spook resembled Guy Johnson's wife. Being told that it did and receiving permission to occupy the room at night he retired early, saying that he was well armed. Before daylight a commotion was heard in the haunted room followed by the report of a pistol.
The family thus aroused procured a light and upon entering the room found the stranger up and dressed. He declared he had seen or heard the ghost and had discharged his pistol at it. He concluded that he would not go to bed again, ordered his horse and left before daylight, saying on his departure that the family would not again be annoyed by that ghost, and it never was.
The mystery of the ghost has been thus explained. Many valuable articles were undoubtedly left behind by the Tories in their hurried flight to Canada, who expected to soon return and recover them, but when they found the prospect of return cut off they attempted to obtain them through the mystery of superstition. An attempt was made by a female agent, who was thought to be the ghost of Guy Johnson's wife, to obtain possession of family treasures by taking advantage of the credulity of the occupants of the building, but she not succeeding a male agent was employed with greater success. Through Mrs. James Stewart, in 1879, Mr. Simms, in company with Geo. S. Devendorf, obtained a key to this mystery. One the west side of the hall were two rooms. In the corner room on its west side was a fireplace of the large old-fashioned kind, and on each side of it the room was wainscoted in panels from floor to ceiling. The space over the mantel was also covered with carved paneling. In this ceiling, on each side of the fireplace, were small closets several inches deep and several feet long with a door which closed with a secret spring. In one or both of these, it is supposed, were placed some valuable papers and jewelry, of which the stranger was undoubtedly aware, and was also familiar with the secret spring. Having once gained access to the room and obtaining possession of the treasurer he departed, and having no more use for the ghost it departed also.
When Mr. James Stewart remodeled that part of the house the chimney was removed and with it the ceiling, not only disclosing but forever destroying those little secret chambers.
The floors of this building are all of pitch pine and the house for the period was exceedingly well constructed. It is said that at a subsequent period a quantity of leaden window weights were found buried in the orchard west of the house, probably put there to prevent the Whigs from using them to mold into bullets.
Mary Johnson, daughter of Sir William, married Lieut. Guy Johnson in the spring of 1763. He was born in Ireland, was a nephew of the baronet and came to live with him early in life. He was long associated with Sire William as his deputy; and was made commissioner of the Indians at Sire Williams' death in 1774. He, too, went to Canada prior to the flight of Sir John and his retainers. He died in London March 5, 1788, whither he had gone in straitened circumstances to petition for relief, in lieu of his forfeited estates in Tryon County. His wife is said to have died in Canada a short time after she went there.
An item in the will of Sire William Johnson defines the western boundary of the original Guy Park mile square and the eastern and western boundary of Colonel Claus's estate. He bequeaths to "Daniel Claus the tract of land where he now lives, viz., from Dove Kill to the creek which lies about four hundred yards to the northward (westward) of the now dwelling place of Colonel Guy Johnson." (The Guy Park mansion.) About eight hundred acres.
The creek called Dove Kill crosses the turnpike near the residence of Obediah Wilde at Fort Johnson, the other creek spoken of (which had been erroneously called Dove Creek) runs near the dwelling place of the late Abram Marcellus on the Boulevard.
The Fort Johnson tract was originally a mile square and was conveyed as such by the successive owners until after 1836, when it was divided by the heirs of George Smith into nine parcels and sold between 1836 and 1844.
At present about twenty acres of land and the stone mansion is all that is left of the Fort Johnson mile square.
It is said that when the stone mansion was built in 1743 it was called Mount Johnson, at which time a grist mills was erected. A portion of the walls of this mill has in late years been incorporated in a part of the Morris mills in the rear of the Fort Johnson building. Harold Frederic's description (in his book In the Valley) of the place in 1757, after it was fortified, is undoubtedly correct. He makes his hero say: "It could not be seen from the intervening hills, but so important was the fact of its presence to me that I never looked eastward without seeming to behold its gray stone walls with their windows and loopholes, its stockade of logs, its two little houses on either side, its barracks for the guard upon the ridge back of the grist mill, and its accustomed groups of grinning black slaves, all eyeballs and white teeth, of saturnine Indians in blankets, and of bold-faced traders," to say nothing of squaws and children.
There were always plenty of squaws and children at the fort in war time, as Sir William often took care of the families of the warriors when they were on the war path.
Did you ever hear of an Indian working? Can you imagine an Indian making mortar or carrying a hod or perhaps digging a trench?
An article in one of the daily papers, however, a few days ago, said that Poles and Indians were employed to pick the cranberry crop in Wisconsin. The Indians move their teepees and families, and were liked better as laborers than the Poles, because they took whatever pay was given them without grumbling, but would not begin work before nine o'clock and would quit at four, no matter how pressing the work was, and would pay no attention to the orders of the overseers.
Fort Johnson has its ghost story also, although in this case its color was black instead of white, and is now supposed to have been one of Sir John Johnson's slaves, who probably returned to obtain valuables that had been left behind at the flight of the household.
Mr. Almarin T. Young, who was born at Fort Johnson in 1852, says that the northwest room in the rear of the house upstairs was always called the "spook room," and as a child he never went inside of it.
The interior and exterior are practically the same as when vacated by Sir John Johnson. Of course its stockade of logs that formerly surrounded the building and the two little forts in front were destroyed years ago, probably soon after the last French War, but the house presents the same appearance that it did when erected. The covering of the roof has been replaced by one of the substantial slate, but the old timbers and the high peak and the dormer windows with their small panes of glass have been retained. The size of the building is forty feet deep by sixty feet front and rear, two stories high, with lofty attic.
A broad hall extends from front to rear, with large rooms on each side, which, together with the hall, are ceiled with paneled wainscoting. The stairs, with their slim balusters and diminutive hand rail of mahogany, would detract somewhat from the spacious hall and the grand room on the west, if we did not know they were only another evidence of the colonial period.
We can easily imagine such a building being presided over by a Dutch matron of colonial days, with snowy cap and kerchief, but the thought of Molly Brant and her dusky brook and a crowd of her slovenly relatives scattered through these grand rooms seems somewhat out of place.
On Sunday morning in December, when the sky was dropping huge flakes of snow, which vanished as they fell on the wet, muddy streets of the city, but emphasized the bright green of the belated spears of grass among which they lodged, I accepted the kind invitation of Mr. Theron Akin to visit the old Fort Johnson mansion left vacant by the family of his father, Mr. Ethan Akin in its annual flitting to more congenial quarters in New York City.
On such an errand it would have been more in keeping, perhaps, if we had trudged along on foot or horseback, rather than to have taken passage in an electric car of the nineteenth century. Being a very stormy Sunday the little hamlet was quiet, and no human being was visible except ourselves when we passed the gate and up under the bare branches of the aged trees in the grove in front of the house, the gray walls of which frowned upon us as though they were aware of their antiquity.
Approaching the front of the house we paused a moment to gaze on the slab of brown stone in front of the main entrance, the edges of which had been dressed by a carver's chisel into an ovolo molding, giving the slab the appearance of having been prepared for the top of a small tomb or sarcophagus such as are frequently seen in old cemeteries. For whom beside Catherine Weisenburg would Sir William have prepared this stone? The man who discovers her grave (which is supposed to be somewhere near the west side of the building) would deserve and receive the praise of the antiquarians of the Mohawk Valley.
We enter the house from the rear or north side, and pass at once into a broad hall which extends from front to rear. We have heard no sound since alighting from the car, except our own voices, the swish of the waters of the Kayaderos swelled to a torrent, the soughing of the trees, and the dismal drip, drip, drip of the storm without. The closed shutters, the dreary appearance of a house unoccupied, and the antique appearance of the surroundings carry me back a century and a quarter to the flight of the household of Sir John Johnson, and, as I become more accustomed to the dim light, I almost expect to see a scarlet coat with gilt lace and the blanket or moccasin of an Indians, hurriedly left behind.
This hall is grand in its proportions, being thirty-five feet long, fifteen feet wide, and perhaps ten feet high, with paneled walls and broad oaken stairway with plain mahogany baluster and rail leading to the lofty attic above.
The large room on the west side of the hall, with its lofty paneled walls and broad, deep windows, seems to have been, and undoubtedly was, a room built for Sir William's use, his reception-room.
And I almost expected to see him seated at his desk in the center, with implements of war and the chase adorning the walls, giving audience to the rude soldiers and savages of those primitive days. Opposite this room is another room of nearly the same dimensions, but having the appearance of being designed for a parlor or drawing room. Back of these rooms are two long, narrow rooms whose dimensions seem to have been sacrificed to swell the size of the grand rooms in front.
The rooms and hall on the second floor correspond with those below except that the paneling is confined to one end of the room and forms closets on each side of the wide and deep chimney, and seems to suggest some secret recess or closets the same as were found in the Guy Park mansion. In the southeast room is found a quaint addition to the fire place--a primitive cast-iron heating apparatus which is practically an open iron fireplace, and bears on its face there words:
Ross and Bird's Hibernian Furnace, 1783.
The two long and narrow rooms in the rear are dreary with their bare, white, plaster walls and low, dark wainscoting of cherry birch. The windows are broad and deep, the sash with small panes of glass, and covered with inside shutters of cherry birch. One of these rooms, the northwest, is the haunted room spoken of before, but what particular antics the ghosts perform I have been unable to ascertain.
I found the lofty attic very interesting indeed. Its large size and massive timbers, its two rows of dormer windows and lofty peak, its floor made of broad boards (from twelve to fifteen inches wide), the rough, hand-made wrought nails, the bare chimneys of small Holland brick, and the "lookout" window at the very peak, made a fitting superstructure to the quaint rooms below.
The roof was formerly covered with sheet lead, which will account for the heavy timber sued in its construction. This lead, together with the window weights, was used for bullets during the Revolution. The lead covering of the roof was replaced with shingles, but the window weights were never replaced. Subsequently the shingles were replaced by the substantial slate roof of the present day.
From the attic we descended to the cellar. When the building was constructed about one-third of the cellar was used as a kitchen and separated from it by a thick stone wall, making the room of about twenty by thirty feet. On the east side was a massive brick oven and fireplace, used for cooking. The floor of the kitchen was covered with stone slabs and the room was lighted by the door and two small windows about twenty inches high. The four large chimneys are supported by arches about five feet high, four feet wide, and four feet deep. These arches or vaults were closed by massive wooden doors and used for various purposes. At some time, probably when the house was constructed, a narrow room about thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide was cut off from the main cellar and very likely used as a dining-room for the servants. The descent in to the cellar was made by a steep, winding stair, and probably was not used very often, as the kitchen was entered from the outside.
I have often wondered why tradition did not point to some tragedy connected with this old building, but recently I have found one of murder with all its horrors. It comes to me from two sources, both agreeing on the main points.
Sometime near the beginning of the present century a building used as a store stood where Mr. Shepard's residence stands now, on the corner east of the creek, about opposite Fort Johnson.
This building was afterwards removed to Amsterdam village and erected on a lot east of the sand hole on West Main Street. It was a low, one-and-a-half-story house, with square, white pillars in front, the main part of the house being painted an impossible shade of heliotrope.
Tradition says that a poor, worthless fellow, somewhat under the influence of liquor, went into the store one night and got into a quarrel with the storekeeper, who, in a fit of anger, struck the fellow on the head with a poker. The fellow staggered out of the store into the darkness of the light.
A friend of the storekeeper who was present when the blow was struck said to him: "That was a terrible blow you struck that fellow; you had better go out and see what has become of him."
He did so, and found him a short distance away, dead. With the assistance of his friend the body was carried to Fort Johnson, his residence, placed in the cellar and in a cask of whiskey until the ice in the river broke up, when it was rolled to the river and sent floating on its way to the sea.
The other version is as follows:
The drunken fellow, whose name is said to have been Joe Burke, instead of being struck with a poker, struck the storekeeper and fled, pursued by the angry merchant with a gun, who saw the fellow enter Fort Johnson and pass up the stairs toward the attic. Just as Burke reached the attic stairs the merchant fired and killed him, his blood spattering the staircasing. The body was removed to the cellar and buried under one of the vaults, which was probably used for storing spirituous liquors. The matter was hushed up and is only known now by tradition.
Leaving this gruesome tale with you to receive or reject, I will tell another story which had the element of comedy in it instead of tragedy. It is said that a daughter of Dr. Oliver Davidson, at one time an owner and occupant of Fort Johnson, wrote the following poem, which many persons who read this may remember to have heard in their youth:
Sale of Old Bachelors.
I dreamed a dream in the midst of my slumbers,
And as fast as I dreamed it was coined into numbers;
My thoughts ran along in such beautiful metre
I'm sure I ne'er saw any poetry sweeter.
It seemed that a law had been recently made,
That a tax on old bachelors' pates should be laid.
And in order to make them all willing to marry
The tax was as large as they could well carry.
The bachelors grumbled and said, "'T'was no use,
"T was horrid injustice and cruel abuse."
And declared that to save their own heart's blood from spilling
Of such a vile tax they would ne'er pay a shilling.
But the rulers determined their scheme to pursue,
So they set the old bachelors up at vendue.
A crier was sent through the town to and fro
To rattle his bell and his trumpet to blow,
And to call out aloud as he went on his way
"Ho! forty old bachelors sold here today!"
And presently all the old maids of the town,
Each one in her very Best bonnet and gown,
From thirty to sixty, fair, ruddy, and pale,
Of every description, all flocked to the sale.
The auctioneer then at his labor began
And cried out aloud, as he held up a man,
"How much for a bachelor! Who wants to buy?"
In a twinkle each maiden responded, "I! I!"
In short, at a highly extravagant price
The bachelors were all sold off in a trice.
And forty old maidens, some younger, some older,
Each lugged an old bachelor home on her shoulder.
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