James Beatty, Esquire, of Ballycanew,
County Wexford, His Irish Origins
and American Descendants.
JOHN D. BEATTY
Fort Wayne, Indiana
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE CROSSING
John Beatty was eighteen years old in 1792 when he made his first crossing to the new world. His reasons for wanting to make such a journey can now only be surmised. Perhaps he had grown up hearing his father’s friends discuss the American Revolution, comparing it favorably with the aspirations of the Irish Volunteers. Perhaps he had read for himself some revolutionary tracts, such as those by Thomas Paine, and heard of the economic opportunity afforded those who desired to immigrate. In either case, his curiosity was piqued. He resolved to learn once and for all if America was where he wished to invest his inheritance and launch himself in a profitable career.
Obtaining permission from his father was essential to the successful fulfillment of his plan. James Beatty, upon hearing the boy’s arguments in favor of such a journey, seemed favorable to the proposition, although he gave John strict instructions to return to Ireland and discuss with him his career plans, regardless of his first impressions. Only then would John receive his full inheritance.
Of this first voyage in 1792, little is known. General John Beatty wrote that his grandfather “obtained the parental permission to visit America, spent a year or two in Philadelphia, traveled over New England, and finally concluded to settle in Norwich, Connecticut.” John felt at home in Connecticut, whose terrain was not unlike that which he had known in County Wexford. New England’s rolling hills and fields, stone farm houses, and sea coast villages harkened back to the landscape of his boyhood. Situated on the banks of the Thames River more than fifteen miles inland from New London, Norwich was nonetheless an important coastal town, and even though he was only eighteen, John realized the commercial possibilities extant in the area. John liked what he saw. Before he settled permanently, however, he thought it best to heed his father’s advice and return to Ballycanew for his inheritance. He “resolved to return to Ireland, submit the plans he had formed to his father, and obtain the means necessary to enable him to engage in business. This he did in the spring of 1796.”
John’s enthusiastic impressions of the infant republic proved sufficient to win his father’s approval. James granted the boy the remainder of his inheritance and entrusted his youngest son, Dempster, to John’s care. Dempster, then fifteen years old, was to be placed in a proper trade once the two reached Philadelphia. In the autumn of that year, John and his brother booked passage on a vessel bound for America, taking their final goodbye of their Irish homeland.
Of the ship that brought the two brothers across the Atlantic, there exists no record, save that it probably departed the quay of Dublin in early September, 1796. By the late eighteenth century many sailing vessels regularly ran from Dublin to Philadelphia, laden with Irish and especially English luxury goods. If this particular vessel were typical, it probably carried a cargo of teas, linen, china, fine clothing, and a variety of British-manufactured products. Passengers were permitted to occupy those portions of the ship not used for cargo and thereby augment the revenue of the ship owner, but their comfort was not central to the purpose of the merchant vessel. The captain usually made a few cabins available at a premium price, then sold whatever space was left in steerage. General John Beatty relates an unusual story concerning his grandfather which occurred shortly before the ship left Dublin. Before the passengers were permitted to board, they stood for a time with their belongings on the quay. As they gazed at the ship which would be their home for the next six weeks, John’s attention was diverted to a group of three young ladies and a gentleman, who, by certain chance, were also waiting to board. “Observing the party intently for some time,” wrote the General, “(John) pointed out one of the young ladies to a companion, and said very emphatically, ‘There is my wife.'” The General fails to record Dempster’s response to this exclamation, but surely he must have mocked his brother for making this suggestion. How, in fact, could John choose a wife before ever having met her?
But John was determined to remain true to his word, at least by his grandson’s account. Why not a shipboard romance, so he must have reasoned. He knew only too well the boredom inherent in a six week voyage from his two previous journeys. For day after day, all one could see as far as the horizon in every direction was blue water. The sky changed, but seldom the sea. Nor was the ship itself particularly pleasant. Ship rations consisted of dried biscuits and salted meat, and this, coupled with the heaving of the ship as it was tossed by wind and waves, made much of the voyage an exercise in preventing the onset of nausea. Accounts vary as to how John met the girl. An obituary in the Sandusky Register published many years after John’s death stated only that an acquaintance sprung up on shipboard,” but makes no further mention of detail. General John Beatty’s account remains equally uninformative on this subject. James A. Ryan, a Sandusky newspaper columnist, seems to reflect a fertile imagination in relating a story that John remained timid in introducing himself until all on board were imperiled by a terrific storm that threatened to destroy the vessel. Fearing all would be lost, he ventured to engage the girl in conversation. One has reason to doubt this tale, however, since it appears no where among the family accounts. Moreover, the characterization of John Beatty as unassertive seems contradictory with his known character traits. Indeed, Ryan himself may have revealed the story’s apocryphal nature, for in a later account he altered it to hold that John met the girl “one day while strolling on the deck of the ship.” All that one knows for certain is that John did meet the girl. Upon introducing himself, he discovered her name was Mary Cooke and that she was traveling to America with her brother, William, and sisters Eleanor and Sarah (or “Sallie”). It must have seemed evident to John that Mary was both poised and well-born. She was the daughter of James and Nancy (Irvine) Cooke of Creve Hill, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Her father was a land owner of some means, who, upon the death of his wife, had sold most of his holdings and removed to the residence of a daughter at Breakley in the parish of Aughaluchan, County Tyrone. Mary’s mother was a descendant of Christopher Irvine of Castle Irvine, County Fermanagh, who had founded a prominent and wealthy gentry family in the region. Nancy was a daughter of William and Nancy (Alexander) Irvine, and sister to Brigadier-General William Irvine, who had served with considerable distinction under Washington during the American Revolution. Mary’s connections in America were enhanced still further by two other uncles, William and Jacob Cooke, who were also veterans of the Revolution and well-respected land owners in the vicinity of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Upon their arrival in Philadelphia, Mary and her family planned to contact their relations and perhaps settle at Lancaster.
Although Mary’s connections in America remained stronger, John possessed the advantage of having already toured the American coast extensively. He related to her his experiences and told her of his plans to settle in Connecticut. The relationship grew in its intensity. Ryan writes that “the brief acquaintance soon developed into friendship, the rolling waves sang songs of love in a manner which was understood, and before the ship landed in port they were engaged to be married. The ship docked some time in mid October. John wasted little time in finding a minister who would conduct the ceremony, and on Saturday, October 22, 1796, their marriage became official.
The city before them differed strikingly from the port which they had left. Unlike Dublin, whose Georgian brownstones gently graced St. George’s Street and Merrion Square, Philadelphia was comprised of a great diversity of architectural styles and building materials. The occasional clapboard house found on Chestnut, Market, and Fifth Streets seemed unusual to the foreign eye. In Ireland, nearly every structure was built of brick or the ever ubiquitous field stone. Brick also predominated in Philadelphia, although it was red, rather than brown, in color. Still more strange to these Irish were the many spires and cupolas that were perched atop churches and public buildings of all sizes. They created a provincial quality, an air of novelty, as if the city had been built only recently by craftsmen inferior to those in Dublin.
In 1796, Philadelphia, with a population of 55,000, was the largest city in the United States and was still its capital, although plans had been drawn to build a new federal city” on the banks of the Potomac in northern Virginia. On Chestnut Street stood the State House, where the nation had both been conceived and born through the ratification of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Senators and Congressmen continued to gather in the old building, and another congressional session had just commenced at the time of Dempster and John’s arrival, George Washington remained the nation’s president, though only a month earlier he had submitted in written form his Farewell Address , in which he admonished Americans from making foreign alliances which could “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition.” With Washington’s retirement to Mount Vernon, Philadelphia and the rest of the nation was preparing for its second presidential election, which John Adams, the vice president, was favored to win. As Irish immigrants accustomed to an entirely different political system, John and Dempster would have to learn the ways of the new Republic.
Philadelphia, in spite of its provincial air, was still the most cosmopolitan city the United States had to offer in 1796. If John Beatty and his family walked along the docks on the Delaware River, they would have seen a variety of colorful and exotic goods being unloaded from the cargo holds of foreign ships. Merchants imported everything from “tea and cocoa, China silk and ivory fans to Spanish oranges, French soap balls or South Carolina rice.”
Young men and women, newly-arrived from Ireland, Germany, and Scotland, indentured their services to the highest bidder as payment for their voyages. When the market opened on Wednesdays and Saturdays, extending down Market Street to the river, one could find for sale a variety of fish, fresh meats, and produce. Among the voices of the shoppers one could hear the brogues of Scotsmen mingled with the drawls of Virginia planters. One could see ladies dressed in fine silks, Quakers clad in peculiarly plain coats and hats, and Negro slaves in burlap rags unloading their masters’ goods.
There was also much about the city which the foreign eye would have found distasteful. Politically, it was a hot-bed of radical thought. Revolutionaries and reactionists from all parts of the western world gathered in Philadelphia’s taverns, at best to discuss and compare philosophies, at worst, to plot treason. Vicious arguments often erupted, both verbally and in the form of political pamphlets. Here also was the center of opposition to the Federal party of Washington. Political satirists such as Peter Porcupine lashed out harshly at the pro-British, proaristocratic sentiments of Alexander Hamilton in favor of Thomas Jefferson’s pro-French, democratic ideals. Supporters of the latter often met in secrecy, and were often confused with the revolutionaries who frequently held sympathetic views. With the infant government of the United States still awaiting its second chief executive, murmurs of dissent combined to produce a climate of insecurity and suspicion.
Still more distasteful was what residents called the “foul pestilence” which emanated from drainage ditches and the city’s only sewer under Dock Street. In an era which knew nothing and cared little about personal hygiene no one attempted to regulate the disposal of human waste in a sanitary fashion. Sewage was often dumped randomly in ditches and alleys, spreading germs and emitting an extremely foul odor during the warm months of summer. In 1793, and again in 1796 and 1797, Philadelphia was visited by yellow fever and another mysterious plague which was widely blamed on the “pestilence.” Thousands died. Thousands more fled the city, especially during the summer months. Because John had probably experienced some of these unpleasantries during his previous visit, he was eager to leave the city with his wife and move to Connecticut. First, however, he had to find a suitable trade for young Dempster. After some discussion, it was decided that the boy would become a cabinetmaker- a trade for which Philadelphia had earned a well-deserved reputation. No record exists of Dempster’s apprenticeship, its duration, or the name of the craftsman for which he worked. In post-revolutionary America the older, traditional form of apprenticeship whereby a youth was virtually indentured to a craftsman for a period of years had begin to wane. Such bonds became increasingly a purely economic, rather than social, relationship. Journeymen resided for a time with their employer, learned their trade, and departed; no longer did the master possess absolute control. One Philadelphia cabinet-maker, Samuel Aston, was served by forty-nine men in five journeyman positions between 1795 and 1803. Upon learning their trade, these craftsmen succeeded in launching productive careers, finding that demand for their services was widespread. Many, indeed, learned their trade in Philadelphia, and afterward removed to Connecticut. For this reason, John may have encouraged Dempster in this calling. By 1800, he had become a successful cabinetmaker in Norwich.
Mary’s siblings did not long reside in Philadelphia either. William Cooke removed to Washington D. C. shortly after its construction and was residing there in 1808 when he was named as an administrator (along with John Beatty) of the estate of his father in Ireland. Still later he moved to Lancaster, Kentucky, where, according to General Beatty, he was one of its original proprietors. He married and had a daughter, Sarah, both of whom died in the cholera epidemic of that town in June and July, 1833. Eleanor Cooke, who was a year younger than Mary, remained in Pennsylvania and married in l804 one James Forsythe, son of Andrew and Agnes (Longhead) Forsythe, a prosperous merchant family in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter the couple moved to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, and still later joined John and Mary when the two families moved west to Ohio. Sarah or “Sallie” Cooke resided with John and Mary in Connecticut. She is mentioned as unmarried and living in New London at the time of her father’s death in 1808. Of her marriage there exists no record, and indeed she may have returned to Ireland to join another sister, Elizabeth, who did not immigrate.
John and Mary removed to Connecticut in 1797, settling first in the town of Hebron in Tolland County. Here Mary gave birth to their first child, a daughter Ann, on August 8 of that year. The following year they moved to Norwich, where John purchased a home and invested his inheritance in a shop which sold provisions for ships. In time, his investment would prove wise. Life in Connecticut was not without its hardship, yet it seemed to John by 1800 to offer some promise of success. As the Beattys approached the new century, they did so with some trepidation, but also with the expectation that their future in New England would be bright.
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE NEW ENGLAND YEARS
John and Mary Beatty moved to Norwich, Connecticut in 1798. They purchased land in the southern part of the town in an area known as “the Landing” and located near the Wharf-Bridge. Here John proposed to “become a ship chandler and open a small shop, which would not only furnish nautical provisions, but would sell a variety of imported goods. In addition to high expectations that his business would prove successful, John also brought with him his mother’s zeal for Methodism. Almost immediately he set about to form a congregation of fellow believers, which he, as a lay minister, could officiate. In his latter ambition he found modest but measurable success. Edgar F. Clark, in his Methodist Episcopal Churches of Norwicht Connecticut, writes:
In 1798, a small class was formed at the Landing, greatly upon the encouragement furnished by the arrival of Rev. John Beatty and his wife, from Ireland. Their house, which was speedily opened for divine worship, was situated near the Broadway Church. Although the greatest concentrations of Methodists in Norwich were located to the north, John did find a sufficient number in his neighborhood to organize a small association for worship and Bible study. In addition to John and Mary, at least fifteen persons were known to have joined, including: Sarah Hull, her daughter Martha Geer, William Geer, Mary Tabor, Mary Jeffers, Edward Ewen, Lydia Ewen, Alfred Carpenter, James Miner, Lydia Miner, Sarah Edwards, Anna Joy, and a Mrs. Elderkin. Two years later, in 1800, John moved his family, which had grown with the birth of another daughter, to another house on Water Street. This house, according to Clark, was not suitable for meetings, so the small congregation transferred its gathering to the upper floor of the Old Masonic Hall on the same street. John was joined by his brother-in-law, William Gurley, and family, and together the two “dispensed the ‘Word of Life’ to a devoted company.”
The arrival of Gurley was particularly welcome to the Landing class, since he was the first ordained minister to serve its small congregation. Prior to his departure from Liverpool, William had taken care to obtain testimonials from a number of Methodist acquaintances in England and Ireland. Upon presenting these credentials to the American church, he was promptly given a license to preach, Arriving in New York on September 5, 1801, he brought Susannah and his daughter Ann Clarissa to New London, but after a brief residence joined John in Norwich to assist in the class. His popularity grew. Several times he was offered an itinerancy, but declined, due to the desire to remain with his growing family. His persistent but modest reply was always, “You have better men.” Nevertheless, Gurley was frequently called upon to preach in many neighboring towns within a radius of twenty miles. Monies generated from such duty were meager, and perhaps nonexistent. Hence, William established a silversmith shop in the town much as John did a store, advertising his craft as early as 1804.
It was John Beatty, however, whose impression upon the townspeople remained most vivid. The Reverend David N. Bentley, who would play a prominent role in the development of the Methodist-Episcopal Church in Norwich, was but a young man at the time John formed his class at the Landing, but even decades later at the age of ninety-one he would recall to General Beatty: (John) formed the first class in what was then called the Landing, where, at his house, the circuit preachers held their meetings. In those meetings I received my first religious impressions, and joined his class on probation. Mr. Beatty was a remarkably generous, kind-hearted man. I have known him to give to a poor destitute widow the last dollar from his pocket. He was not an economical man, and was somewhat negligent of his business affairs. He sustained, while a resident in Norwich and New London, an excellent Christian character, beloved and respected by all denominations. John did earn a reputation, at least among his fellow Methodists, as a Samaritan. According to L. B. Gurley, John frequently “obtained the release of debtors from jail by paying their debts.” His home was always open to the needy, and John was ever an outspoken advocate of reform when he perceived society to be unjust. Some years after residing in Connecticut, he prosecuted a young boy in his employment who had stolen a box of candles from his store. As General Beatty relates: Indignant at this manifestation of natural depravity in one so young, he had the thief arrested at once and arraigned before a magistrate. A witness appeared who testified that the boy was guilty as charged, and Beatty being called to prove the value of the property stolen, swore that the candles ‘were worth four dollars, every penny of it.’ The case was a clear one; the boy had no defense. Under the law respecting petty offenses at that time in force in Connecticut, where the property stolen was valued at four dollars and upward, the penalty was whipping at the post. The magistrate was about to pass sentence, when Beatty realized for the first time the terrible nature of thepunishment. His anger by this time cooled, a reaction at once took place, and a feeling of pity for the boy supplanted every other emotion. Springing to his feet, with streaming eyes and trembling voice, he said: ‘If it please your honor, I desire to correct my testimony. I did swear that the candles were worth four dollars, but I omitted to add that that was the retail price. As the boy took a whole box, I will put them to him at three dollars and thirtythree cents.’ The boy was not whipped.
Yet in spite of John’s good deeds, there was much about him and his co-religionists which roused the suspicions of the prudish, Yankee townspeople of Connecticut. In many respects the Methodists of New England faced many of the same prejudices that their counterparts endured in Ireland. Almost always they were denied access to large meeting halls for their religious revivals, forcing many to hear their preachers in corn fields or apple orchards. In so doing, their faith lost considerable respectability in the eyes of the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, whose ancestors had founded Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay.
These religious revivals, when they did take place, were often scenes of unbridled enthusiasm and emotionalism, leading Puritan observers to brand Methodism as unwholesome. Fainting spells were common among members during these services, as was a similar phenomenon known as “losing strength.” In the latter instance, persons would collapse but retain consciousness. They were described by their brethren as having entered a state of “indescribable rapture. During a revival in New London in this period, twenty persons collapsed to the floor and lay helpless for three to five hours after hearing the preaching of Elder Washburn. At Norwich, two persons collapsed and lay incoherent for seventy hours, yet the meeting continued with people coming and going in spite of it. When not in a prayer meeting, the Methodists were easily identified (and ridiculed) by the simplicity of their attire and manners. Women discarded all ornamental dress and instead donned simple cottage bonnets and plain dresses. One writer of the period noted that “it was a strange thing to see young women casting aside their feathers, their ribbons, and their high, airy looks, and the young men their shoe buckles, hat-bands and jolly manners. The Methodists remained undeterred by this ostracism and preferred to separate themselves into a sect which they believed brought them closer to God.
John Beatty was ostracized from his townspeople perhaps more for his Irish heritage than for his faith. The anarchy which had erupted in Ireland during the Rebellion of 1798 led many in America to fear a similar insurrection on this side of the Atlantic. Some suspected all Irishmen, regardless of their religion, of being revolutionaries with designs to overthrow the infant United States government. Speaking out in Congress for limitations on Irish immigration were Harrison Gray Otis and Robert Goodloe Harper, both of whom admonished Americans to beware of “Wild Irish” in their midst. It was during this climate of suspicion that Congress enacted in the summer of 1798 a series of laws designed to keep all undesirable elements of society in check. Included among them were the Alien Act, the Sedition Act, and the Naturalization Act. The first of these, the Alien Act, gave the president broad powers to deport any alien in the United States deemed offensive; the second, the Sedition Act, made it a crime to criticize the federal government or to slur in any way the reputation of the president. It was the Naturalization Act, however, which most directly affected the Beatty family by denying them a place among their peers. The act forbid the naturalization of any immigrant for a period of fourteen years. Thus, neither John nor Dempster could hope to become citizens until 1810.
More than anything else, the passage of these acts and the social stigma of being Irish aroused by them kept John from being fully a part of his community. As an alien he could not vote and could not participate in local town meetings. Largely because of this ostracization, John pledged his support to the Democratic- Republican party of Thomas Jefferson, which actively opposed the alien measures.
Young Dempster concurred with his brother’s political philosophy, and, as the election of 1800 approached, became an outspoken and vocal supporter of Jefferson. Perhaps he had been converted to the Jeffersonian faction in one of the taverns of Philadelphia where opposition to the Naturalization Act and the Federalist Adams administration was most strident. Certainly for him the choice in the election was clear (although he still could not vote). Jefferson was widely known to be sympathetic to immigrant groups, and his political philosophy embraced the notion that government should pose the least interference possible in the lives of its citizenry. America, according to Jefferson’s ideal, should consist of a nearly pure democracy with minimum property qualifications for voting. He praised the farmer, the self-sufficient provider, as the foundation of his idyllic republic, and like Washington, he warned of becoming entangled in foreign intrigue. This view of America appealed to Dempster, and he embraced these tenets all of his life. Even after his death his son Ross would remember Dempster as “a warm politician of the Jeffersonian school. As he became more comfortable with the American political system, he must have become more confident as well with the words of a popular pro-Jefferson campaign ditty of 1800:
Here strangers from a thousand shores,
Compelled by Tyranny to roam,
Shall find amidst abundant stores,
A nobler and a happier home.
Rejoice! Columbia’s Sons, rejoice!
To tyrants never bend the knee,
But join with heart and soul and voice,
For Jefferson and Liberty.
Dempster had probably moved from Philadelphia to Norwich by l800, and he was probably among the male members of his brother John’s household listed in the federal census of 1800. There he took up the trade of a cabinetmaker as he had studied in Philadelphia. He found modest but not overwhelming success, for he was never wealthy during his stay in Connecticut. In l806, when he was twenty-five, he fell in love with twenty year old Cynthia Robinson of Norwich. Their romance must have proved startling, if not annoying, both to Dempster’s Methodist siblings and to Cynthia’s Federalist Yankee family. Cynthia’s father, Elias Robinson, was a conservative merchant in the city; her maternalgrandfather, the Reverend Park Allyn, was pastor of the Strict Congregational Church of North Groton. From the perspective of such an established household, Cynthia’s marriage to a young Irish Methodist with pro-Jeffersonian sympathies was nothing short of scandalous. Yet on August 11, 1806, Dempster and Cynthia presented themselves before Walter King, the town clerk, and presented proof that they had been married on that date.
The couple set up housekeeping in Norwich, but almost from the start their marriage was doomed to unhappiness. In the four years from 1806 to 1810, Cynthia gave birth to two children. The eldest, born in l807 was a daughter, whom the couple named Deliah. Another child died in infancy, and this was probably a son, Leonard. The backgrounds and attitudes of the young couple collided. By l810 Dempster yearned to move west to the Western Reserve of Ohio; Cynthia, who had spent all her life in the comfort of New England, refused. The circumstances surrounding the couple’s marital problems, however tantalizing to the historian, remain unknown today. In any case, by l811, Dempster took his daughter and joined his sister Susannah’s family on their trek westward. Two years later Cynthia married again to one Orrin Shoals of Norwich. No record exists to show that Dempster ever obtained a divorce. Perhaps because of the unpleasant stigma inevitably attached to such a proceeding, he decided to wave this formality.
John, too, was dissatisfied with Norwich. In 1803 he moved from the Landing and journeyed several miles southward to the city of New London, one of New England’s most important Atlantic ports. There he opened another shop which sold nautical provisions to ship owners and a variety of imported goods to the public. This venture proved highly successful. New London’s importance as a port was enhanced considerably during the first decade of the nineteenth century with the rise of the whaling industry. Vessels from around the world docked in New London’s harbor, bringing with them many exotic goods from India and the Orient. These John often took in trade for nautical supples and permitted him to offer a large and diverse stock to his unseafaring customers.
It has often been asserted that John became the owner of several ships while living in New London. James A. Ryan asserts in The Town of Milan that John “engaged in business commercial as well as the owner of several fine sailing vessels.” He adds that John also “became a super cargo officer on ships that traded into India and the Orient, and in a few years time accumulated quite a fortune.” David Campbell, editor of the Sandusky Register and a personal acquaintance of John in his later years, gave a similar account in which he asserted that John “became the owner of several vessels engaged in the ocean trade to foreign ports, in the prosecution of which he visited many foreign cities and was several times in Oriental ports.” Campbell also agreed that John’s endeavors proved successful and that his family “lived in a corresponding style of comfort and elegance.
Both of the above assertions lack support from any of the accounts written by John’s grandsons, General John or William Gurley Beatty. This fact does not prove that Campbellfs and Ryan’s stories are spurious, but one should weigh them with careful scrutiny. No record exists among the documents of the New London Historical Society to support the ship owner claim, and deeds signed by John in the period of 1809 to 1815 describe him only as a “merchant in the city of New London.” Whatever his occupation, it seems clear that he became highly successful, with General Beatty asserting that his grandfather “acquired … a handsome fortune.”
John purchased a large home in New London, although its appearance and location remain a mystery to this writer who has been unable to secure copies of the relevant Connecticut deeds. Campbell described it later as “elegant,” but his knowledge of its existence was not first hand. He lived in comfort, if not luxury, continued to remain active in the Methodist church, and raised a family of ten children. His six daughters included Ann, Elizabeth, Sarah Rickie, Mary Cooke, Susannah, and Jane Stockman, all names with popular associations in the family. Of his four sons, James, Leonard, William Asbury, and John Wesley, William died in infancy.
In spite of his apparent success, John soon grew weary of life in New London, just as he had in Norwich. With time he had come to realize the restrictions inherent in New England’s culture. Connecticut seemed too stifling, too prejudicial, too seeped in tradition to accommodate significant change. His financial gains did not by right guarantee him a place in Yankee culture; his Irish ethnicity excluded him, except for an intimate circle of co-religionists. By 1809 John was looking for a change–a chance to expand his wealth and begin anew. Opportunity abounded. As with many of his neighbors, John fixed his eye westward as a possibility for realizing his unfulfilled dreams.
CHAPTER NINE: WESTWARD FEVER
It is difficult to imagine the perception which an early nineteenth century New Englander held for the wild lands of the frontier, which seemed to extend endlessly beyond the western boundary of Pennsylvania. For some, it held a romantic appeal. Its soil was rich and fertile, its forests virgin, lush, and primaeval, abounding with game and inhabited by mysterious but noble savages. To others, the west offered the potential of material reward. Its ground seemed rich in mineral-wealth; its rivers and lakes presented the potential speculator with untold commercial possibilities. For still others, the appeal of the frontier seemed more visceral. Here before them was a vast stretch of territory, much of it little known and explored, yet fresh, unspoiled, and new. It afforded the dreamer the more basic opportunity of beginning again, of earning for himself a chance for a new life solely on the basis of labor from his own hands. In the west he could acquire a farm and, in time, achieve the wealth and status he was denied in a more crowded and competitive New England. At least, such was his perception of reality, albeit perhaps naive.
Connecticut had maintained a claim on a section of these western lands ever since colonial charters of the seventeenth century granted territorial rights extending westward indefinitely. By 1786, however, this impractical view had been modified with Connecticut’s acceptance of a tract of land 120 miles long north of the forty-first parallel of latitude and bounded on the east by Pennsylvania, and north by Lake Erie. This tract came to be called the Connecticut or Western Reserve, an area today which comprises more than ten counties in northern Ohio along the Lake Erie shore. Within the Reserve a tract of a half million acres was set aside on the very western edge, an area today comprised of Huron and Erie Counties, which were designated as relief for persons in Connecticut who had suffered from the fires and devastation of the British during the Revolutionary War. The land soon earned the appellation of the “Sufferers’ Lands” or more popularly, the “Firelands” on account of the persons for whom it was reserved.
Late in 1808 or early l809, John and Dempster Beatty became captivated by the Firelands and the economic potential they represented. For John, they afforded some diversion from his weary and routinized life in New London; for Dempster, they offered an escape from an unhappy marriage. Little is known how the two brothers first became aware of the western land or how their curiosities were first piqued. Certainly there abounded newspaper accounts and local stories describing the natural beauty of the forests of the Reserve, its rich soil, and its lakes and rivers, providing convenient means of transport. Moreover, there were many families living in their respective neighborhoods who held claims to the Firelands and, being unwilling to leave their homes, were prepared to sell these claims at what the brothers perceived to be extremely affordable prices. For the price of a small Connecticut farm, hundreds of acres could be had in the Firelands.
Of the two brothers, only John possessed the financial means to speculate in land on a large scale basis. As he sat by his fireside in New London, he became convinced, as General Beatty later noted, that by purchasing large tracts of wilderness he could lay “the foundation of an estate that would not only make him independent for life, but become a splendid inheritance for his children. Thus on February l4, l809 he made his first of what would become a long series of speculations in Firelands wilderness. For $800, he acquired from John S. Miller of Waterford, Connecticut 2,628 acres in the towns of Oxford, Avery, and Lyme in the county of Huron, Ohio. The following May 13, he and Mary bestowed full power of attorney upon Almon Ruggles, speculator, land agent, and surveyor of the Firelands who had spent the previous year devising a detailed map of the Western Reserve. Dempster followed his brother on September 8 of that year with a more modest purchase of 300 acres in Section Two of Canterbury Township from John Way of Norwich, Way allowing Dempster “to take his pick or choice out of my land after said land is divided and my part set off unto me, or to choose out of my land any where in said section not as yet taken up by any other.”
In the following year, 1810, John commenced speculating in earnest. From seven persons whose families had received Firelands claims, John purchased over 1,600 acres at a cost of nearly $2,000. Significant in these purchases was not the amount of land he acquired, for he had obtained more in only two purchases the previous year. Rather, it was John’s efforts to scour New London County countryside in an effort to locate land claims that led him to commit himself to the process of land speculation that would come to affect, and eventually alter, the course of his life. It became more than a hobby; it was now his vocation into which he would channel all of his energies. The sizes of his purchases during these years “varied with the economic backgrounds of the claimants. From John Hallam of New London, son of John Hallam, Esquire, a sufferer, John paid $1,000 for an unspecified number of acres in the fourth section of the town of Huron. From William and Elizabeth Gale, he paid only $130 and received a tract of 215 acres in the same township. He spent considerable effort obtaining the claims of the Harris family heirs of New London for land in the town of Avery. Ezra and Dyer Harris relinquished their claim to 175 acres in the fourth section of Avery for $100, while Elizabeth, Thomas, Betsey, and Fanny Harris, and their sister, Amelia (Harris) Butler, parted with their claim of 80 acres for only $50. From one old man, Nicholas Darrow, who had personally lost property to the British, John obtained 30 acres in Canterbury for only $20.
As the amount of John’s property holdings grew, John came to realize the importance of making an inspection tour of his property in person. In the spring of 1810, an expedition was organized, consisting of Almon Ruggles, Judge Jabez Wright, Thomas James, and John Beatty. The four planned to travel first to Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where they would be joined by James Forsythe, John’s brother-in-law, and then journey into the wild land itself to determine for themselves the quality of the soil, the amount of timber, and the accessibility of the natural waterways. Ruggles, who had mapped the Firelands, would serve as their guide.
The four men accompanying John were the product of differing backgrounds, and each had his own ambition for the section of the wild lands he had purchased. Ruggles, originally from Danbury, Connecticut, was only twenty-nine in 1810. Born in poverty, he had received only six months of formal education. He had obtained his first book by money earned from catching wood chucks, tanning the skins, and braiding them into whip lashes for market. He made his first visit to the Firelands in 1805, and returned again as surveyor with Jabez Wright in l807. At that time, he determined to purchase large tracts of land along the Lake Erie shoreline in what is now Vermillion Township which he named “Ruggles Beach.” There he built a very elegant brick house, became a justice of the peace, shop keeper, judge, and state legislator. He later amassed a considerable fortune, but was widely respected for his generosity and philanthropy.
Jabez Wright, like Ruggles, was also well-acquainted with the Firelands and proved to be of considerable assistance to Forsythe and Beatty in their prospecting expedition. Born in 1780 at Copenhagen, New York, Wright, more than Ruggles, held the lofty ambition of being a successful land agent, developer, and speculator. At an early date he became the exclusive agent of William Winthrop of New York City, and his nephew William H., who had acquired title to the bulk of Huron Township. In prosecuting the wealthy Winthrops’ claims, Wright hoped to make a fortune himself in prospected land. In 1822 he would build the first brick house in Huron Township, one mile west of the Huron River. Like his friend Ruggles, whose niece he married in 1811, Wright became a judge and state legislator. He fulfilled much of his dream of becoming wealthy, but died tragically one night in 1840 when he fell off a river embankment and plunged into the Huron River.
The ambitions of Thomas James were more humble than Ruggles or Wright. James, an Irishman, had settled in New London at an early date, but like John Beatty, became determined in leaving New England for the wilderness of the Firelands. James wished only to procure “a good tract of valuable land,” examine his holdings to insure they met with all his expectations, and return with his wife Jane and family at a later date. James had initially procured a large tract of land in section four of Perkins Township, but John Beatty was so taken with James’s choice that he induced him to sell 474 acres at a cost of $325. James agreed to allow John a three year mortgage, the document being duly witnessed by Wright and Ruggles while on the expedition.
James Forsythe, like John Beatty, did not know quite what to expect from the prospecting expedition. John had doubtlessly convinced his brother-in-law of the profit to be had in wild land in letters written during his initial enthusiasm for the Firelands in l809. Finding a willing recipient of his salesmanship, John induced his brother-in-law to join the expedition as it passed through Northumberland County on its way to the western Pennsylvania border. The party stopped at the land office at Steubenville in Jefferson County, Ohio, where Forsythe obtained deeds to land in Oxford Township.
The party left Northumberland on June 3, l8l0, passed through Pittsburg, and arrived at Cleveland on July 3. Forsythe later remarked that this “Forest City” was small, “there was not a good looking house in it, and but few of any kind.” Here John met with a misfortune which nearly cost him his life. As Forsythe related many years later:
“After some trouble we crossed the Cuyahoga River. John Beatty stayed behind a little to settle the ferryage, and in crossing in a canoe, after we had got some distance and out of sight, the canoe rocking, and he, not acquainted with such a boat, fell out and narrowly escaped being drowned.”
General Beatty described the same incident in his biography of his grandfather, and related it more closely with his grandfather’s personality, which he knew well from his boyhood:
“After his friends had gone some distance beyond the river, and out of sight, he undertook to cross in a canoe. He had read of these frail barks, had occasionally seen them, but had never before attempted to handle one. He took it for granted, however, that what a savage Indian could do well, a civilized Irishman could do better, and so embarked with great confidence. But soon after getting under way, and when fairly in the current, the canoe commenced rocking, and finally upset. This was a contingency as unexpected as disagreeable. The original navigators of these boats always made provision for such accidents by leaving their clothes behind them, if they had any to leave. Mr. Beatty, omitting to think of this, and encumbered with boots and coat, was in extreme danger of being drowned, but by dint of much kicking and vigorous praying, and possibly equally vigorous swearing, he succeeded in escaping the perils of the flood and rejoining his companions.”
The party crossed the mouths of the Vermillion and Huron Rivers on sand bars, and inched their way into the forests by means of marked trees and Indian trails. James went directly to his land in the fourth section of Perkins, while Ruggles, Wright, Forsythe, and Beatty prospected for more land. They found several families of squatters who had erected temporary structures on land in their neighborhoods, but these were but transients who moved further west after two or three years. It has already been related that John became quite taken with land in the township of Perkins, and when he returned to Connecticut at the end of the summer, he began to devote his speculation efforts to the acquisition of property in this township.
In criticizing his grandfather, General Beatty lamented John Beatty’s naivete in believing that the wilderness could be so easily subdued and made profitable.
“This investment in wild land would doubtless have been an exceedingly profitable one had Mr. Beatty remained in Connecticut, prosecuted the business in which he was engaged, paid taxes, and patiently waited until others had settled and developed the country. But he was not content to do this, and the enterprise, promising as it seemed to him as he sat dreaming over it by a pleasant fireside in New London, proved to be the great mistake of his life. It led to the abandonment of a pleasant home for the discomforts of a rude cabin, the delights of civilization for the rough trials of pioneer life, the excellent schools of New England for the irregular and poorly taught schools of the border.”
After his expedition, John became convinced not only that he should invest, but also personally settle the lands he had acquired. He was, however, fully unprepared and unknowledgeable of the hardships and privations inherent in uprooting trees, building a cabin, killing game, cultivating soil, and all other necessities of survival in a wild and uncivilized landscape. Still, he proceeded in land speculation upon his return with the greatest zeal.
Already having convinced his brother Dempster of the profits to be had in the Firelands, John also succeeded in enticing William Gurley to abandon his business and ministry in Norwich for the lure of the wilderness. Like John, Gurley knew little of what to expect. As L. B. Gurley observed:
“Mr. Gurley supposed, as do most foreigners, that to own a farm is to be independent. He had scarcely the remotest idea of the state of things in the wild, unbroken forests of the west. Of the hardships, deprivations, and dangers at that time especially incident to pioneer life, he knew nothing. He associated with the idea of a farm verdant lawns, blooming orchards, and fields of waving grain. True, he knew his land was uncultivated; yet a little labor, and it would bud and blossom as the rose.”
Gurley purchased from his wife’s brother a tract in Lyme Township, although of what exactly it consisted is not known, for the deed has not survived. He also purchased a wagon, secured the necessary supplies, and at four o’clock in the afternoon on a September day in 1811, he, his wife Susannah, and five children (Ann Clarissa, Sarah, Leonard B., Elizabeth, and William Dempster) entered upon their journey. Dempster and his daughter Deliah in all probability joined the expedition, although L. B. Gurley, who was then a boy of seven, makes no mention of them at this juncture in his father’s biography. He does assert later, however, that his uncle resided with the family in 1812.
That evening at ten o’clock, the party stopped at an inn for the night. Gurley, as was his custom, did not omit “to have family prayer before retiring to rest.” L. B, Gurley realized the fatefulness of the journey, for he noted that “a full moon rode high in the heavens” on the first night, and that all the way “the great comet of 1811 hung its blazing banner on the western sky” as if portending the scenes of blood which soon followed.”
The party reached Albany, New York with only minimum difficulty, but thereafter westward the roads proved extremely difficult to travel. Five axeltrees, according to L. B. Gurley, were broken along, the way. In order to avoid the inferior trails of the forest, much of their trek through Ohio was accomplished by travel on the sand beaches of Lake Erie. To get around large boulders which projected into the water, Gurley often found it necessary to bring the teams into the lake at some distance from shore. As L. B. Gurley later remembered :
“In one instance the whole family narrowly escaped destruction, as a rising gale swept the waves over the bottom of the wagon, wetting the goods, and came well-nigh driving team and all on the rock, where they would inevitably have been dashed to pieces.”
After a journey of over eight weeks, the party finally reached Huron County on November 14, 1811. Upon reaching the mouth of the Huron River, the family probably sailed by crude barge down the slow waters to its land in the township of Oxford. Dempster probably remained with his sister’s family here, in spite of his ownership of a rather large tract in Canterbury Township.
Oxford Township had been only sparsely settled by 1811, and Dempster and William found very little trace of civilization. Several families had formed a small community by the name of Bloomingville, some seven miles inland from Sandusky Bay, but there was little about this settlement of a few cabins that one could call a town by the New England definition. To the north there stood a dense forest, unbroken from Oxford Township to Sandusky Bay; to the south stretched a vast prairie of waving grass and abounding with herds of deer, wolves, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens. L.B. Gurley recalled in particular the huge flocks of wild geese preparing for their autumnal flight southward, sweeping in circles around the heads of his family members. Indeed, all accounts of early settlers on the Firelands remain uniform in their description of the surrounding forests and prairies abounding with game. In Perkins Township, where John Beatty would eventually settle, large packs of wolves often gathered in the night and together sent forth a continuous mournful howl until the early dawn. Deer were so plentiful that a pioneer could often shoot several merely by standing in the doorway of his cabin. One could frequently count herds of more than eighty deer in clearings, grazing the tops of newly fallen trees. During one winter, a storm dropped more than two feet of snow, followed by several more inches of freezing rain. Many deer became imbedded in the snow, allowing two hunters with dogs, to kill over seventy-five deer in one day.
L. B. Gurley became enraptured by the beauty of the natural landscape as a boy of seven, and he carried with him his memories of its majesty long after the Firelands had been settled and cultivated. Particularly impressive were the prairie fires. In an address before the Firelands Historical Society in 1862, he related a part of his impressions from his youth:
“It is impossible adequately to describe in words the grandeur of the prairie on fire in those days. Imagine a line of fire, like a vast army extending for miles, approaching with the speed of a running horse, accompanied with a sound like the roaring of the sea. Tufts of grass borne on the wind like blazing rockets fell in advance, hastening the rapidity of the march; and when, to secure their property, the people kindled a “back fire,” so called, to go out and meet the coming enemy, it was grand to see the encountering forces meet-waving on high their fiery banners and rolling on their columns of flames, until meeting, they flash, tower, and die away, leaving only a smoldering ruin behind.”
Reverend William Gurley was also taken by the splendor of his new home, he, according to his son, having “enough of the romantic in his disposition to enjoy these scenes.” Susannah remained far less enthusiastic of her new life, being unaccustomed to the labor and seclusion of pioneer life. She did however, find charming “the cordial union and mutual friendship” of all her neighbors within ten miles.
William and Dempster chose to build a cabin at the edge of the prairie south of Bloomingville. L. B. Gurley neglects to describe it in any detail, other than that it consisted of “rude, bark-covered logs, clapboard door with wooden hinges, the stickchimney, rough puncheon floor, and paper windows.” Doubtless it was a very modest structure, constructed entirely without nails and with the assistance of neighbors who already possessed some knowledge of the cabin-building craft. Dempster’s skills as a cabinet-maker must also have proved invaluable in hewing the timber to its proper dimensions and assembling the final structure.
In constructing a cabin in the wilderness with only a minimum number of tools and supplies, the pioneer had to observe several measures. First, timber had to be cut at the desired length and hauled to the cabin site. This could usually be accomplished by several men, and Dempster and William probably had little difficulty in procuring the necessary logs from their own land. Next, the word would go out in the neighborhood that a cabin raising would take place on a given day. Men, women, and children from several miles would assemble at the cabin site in the early dawn hours, the men bringing their tools, the women preparing food and plenty of whiskey for refreshment. The men would divide into teams, each one electing a captain to superintend the construction. A crude foundation of stone was laid, side logs were placed atop the blocks, notches were cut for the sleepers to rest in, and posts at each corner were erected by what were termed the “corner men.” Then, log by log, the building materials were fit into place and the cabin took shape. The pioneers also devised a crude form of roofing, consisting of small logs or saplings laid length-wise and covered with threefoot long shingles or “shakes,” fastened into place by wooden pegs. A chimney and hearth were constructed out of “cats and clay,” with “cats” being a term applied to a framework of small sticks, cut to regular size, and heavily daubed and plastered with clay. Greased paper served as the cabin’s only natural source of light, allowing only a translucent amount of the sun’s rays into the cabin. The finished structure probably comprised only one room, consisting of a large all-purpose area with an open hearth, and a loft as a sleeping quarter for the children.
The Gurleys did bring with them some of their furniture from Connecticut, and in this respect their household fared better than many others. Among the items they transported by wagon were several feather beds, carpet, table furniture, dishes, and William’s library of considerable size. Dempster may have manufactured additional furniture after the family’s arrival, including benches, stools, cupboards, and other essential household articles. Kitchen ware included several sizes of kettles, iron and wooden cooking utensils, crockery, pewter, and baskets. The family never lacked silver, due to William’s skills as a silversmith, although silver as a commodity became, exceedingly scarce on the frontier, and William eventually all but abandoned his former trade.
In spite of these few comforts from their former home, adaptation to life on the frontier involved considerable effort. No longer could the families shop in the stores of their former New England neighborhoods for food and luxury goods. In these early years on the frontier, nearly every article desired was produced at home or derived from one’s own land. A new diet was perhaps the most difficult facet of their new environment to which they had to become accustomed. None of the pioneers owned livestock. Meat was obtained by hunting, venison and wild turkey being the most common foodstuff. This was usually supplemented with wild berries, sweetmeats, and, after the first corn harvest, johnnycakes and mush, or corn bread made from coarsely ground flour. Honey was the only available sweetener. L. B. Gurley recalled that, as a boy of eight, he and his father went bee hunting one February morning, in the hope of locating a bee tree with a suitable store of the precious sweetener. One such tree was marked, and the following day several neighbors volunteered to “take it up.” With axes in hand, the tree was split open, bursting forth a large supply of the honey within. The bees made little effort defending their comb, and father and son returned home with “a ———
copied at the Firelands Historical Society, Norwalk Ohio
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