1829, Part 2
New York City / State Timeline
from Eagles Byte by David Minor
Year-by-year tracing the growth of the early days of the Republic
James Stuart obviously enjoyed his 1829 Hudson River excursion and a short while later boarded the sidewheeler North America a second time. Up to this point Stuart apparently hadn't made the acquaintance of many local notables. That would change on this trip. He was traveling up to West Point with a friend who promised to introduce him to General Sylvanus Thayer, the military academy's commandant. Stuart's unnamed friend seems to have known quite a few people. As the steamboat made its way up the lower Hudson he introduced the European visitor to Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchell. A former New York State militia surgeon general, Mitchell had founded and edited the first professional medical journal in the U. S., served in Congress, and helped found New York City's Anti-Slavery? Society, whose work had come to fruition in the state just two years earlier.
Within five minutes, in a round-robin of "have you met...?", Mitchell had introduced the Scotsman to Dr. David Hosack, another New Yorker who didn't seem to know the term 'relax'. A graduate of Princeton University, he studied in both New York and Edinburgh. Returning home he built up a busy practice, numbering among his patients both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. He'd been the attending physician at the 1804 duel between the pair - that must have brought back memories of Stuart's own encounter in Scotland seven years ago - and was with Hamilton at his deathbed. He had helped found Bellevue Hospital and The New-York? Historical Society. He'd even started a botanical garden partway up Manhattan Island. In existence between 1801 and 1811, the Elgin Botanical Garden property would one day, far in the future, host Rockettes high-kicking in unison every Christmas season.
He was headed upriver now to visit his more recent real estate venture, the former property of another physician, Dr. Samuel Bard, at the village of Hyde Park, beyond West Point on the other side of the river. The 540-acre estate would later pass through the hands of John Jacob Astor, who in turn would sell it to Frederick William Vanderbilt, grandson of the man we met few week ago running a fleet of ferries out of Manhattan. You can visit the house today.
As the two men chatted Stuart learned that Hosack, while at the University of Edinburgh thirty years ago, had met some of Stuart's relations, who have been very kind to him. "I presume my relatives in Scotland may have given the worthy Doctor some hints as to the plan of his medical studies when he was in Edinburgh, or may have pointed out to him a fit lodging, or had the pleasure of his company at dinner half a dozen times or more." Whatever the reason, Hosack offered Stuart the hospitality of his home whenever he wished it and also to provide whatever financial services and assistance he might recquire.
Stuart was also introduced to the former and current commanders of cadets - Major W. I. "Old Hant" Worth, and Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock. The conversation soon turned to the difference between European and U. S. hotels; in the former one was never told in advance what the rates were (including for meals) and had to wait for check-out to find what one owed. Never seemed to catch on here - for some strange reason.
We'll storm the Point next time.
When Virginia Military Institute superintendent Francis H. Smith got up to address his fellow West Point alumni on June 12, 1879, he recalled his arrival as a new student back in 1829, probably a few weeks after James Stuart paid his visit. Smith caught the steamer Constitution at Cortlandt Street in New York at 5 PM and arrived at West Point half an hour before midnight. "The steamer did not stop. Her speed was slackened, and the passengers with their "West Point baggage" were put ashore by a small boat, guided by a connecting line from the steamer, and by which the boat was drawn back after landing her passengers."
One source, by the way, reports that the boiler of the Constitution had exploded at Poughkeepsie, back in 1825, killing two people. The vessel was later converted to a tow boat and renamed Indiana. If true, either Smith was mistaken about the name fifty years later, or the conversion took place after 1829 and the Constitution had earlier returned to service.
Whatever the case, coming back to James Stuart's account, he doesn't mention being put ashore in a smaller boat, but the practice was common by this time. In 1866 historian Benson Lossing reported that all visitors were met by a sentinel who recorded their names on a slate, to inform the superintendent of the arrival of any VIPs, so Stuart's name may have been sent on ahead.
Along with other visitors he checked into the 64-room West Point Hotel, opened earlier that year at Trophy Point, "where we found a party of sixty people, and an excellent dinner, and a particularly good dessert of fruit. ... Very little wine was used, and the party were all out of the dining-room in less than an hour. Soon after dinner, we waited upon Colonel Thayer, who showed us every sort of attention, and would not allow us to accompany him to visit the establishment until we had wine and cake with him." Fifty years later Francis Smith remembered Thayer as a tough-minded but fair commandant, recounting, "I met Col. Thayer in Newport, R. I., the fall after graduation. We were stopping at the same hotel. I involuntarily drew back as he entered the room. He was smoking a cigar (no cadet ever saw Col. Thayer smoke a cigar). He came forward with a smile (no cadet ever saw Col. Thayer smile)."
Of Thayer, Stuart wrote, "We had the pleasure of partaking of a most excellent breakfast with him next morning. The houses belonging to the establishment are plain and good, and nothing can be more beautiful than the parade, a handsome piece of level ground in the heart of the high lands, at an elevation of about 200 feet above the Hudson river." Among the other sights Stuart might have seen on his visit were the brand-new hospital and Band Barracks, the latter joining the North and the South barracks, and the 1813 mess hall and chapel. The guests would also have visited the Cadet's Monument. Shaped like a castle and formed of light brown hewn stone, it had been erected eleven years earlier, in memory of Canadian-born graduate Vincent M. Lowe, accidentally killed here by the discharge of a cannon in January, 1817. And, atop a ridge to the west, perched the remains of Fort Putnam, built in 1778 to protect the anti-warship artillery on the plain below.
More on the Gibraltar of the Hudson next time.
When James Stuart visited the West Point MIlitary Academy in the late summer, the class of 1829 had graduated and moved on to their first postings. At the top of that class had been Charles Mason, who would go on to become the guiding force behind the forming of the US Weather Bureau. Directly below him in class ranking was a young man who would return in 1852, after service in the Mexican War, to run the academy for three years before going on to make a name for himself at military encounters from Harper's Ferry to Appomattox - a young Virginian named Robert Edward Lee. One of his brigadier-generals, Joseph E. Johnston, would rank 13th.
Stuart may have missed these future personages, but among the 250 cadets enrolled at the time he might have unknowingly spotted future Confederate general John B. Magruder (Class of 1830) or future president of the College of William & Mary Benjamin S. Ewell (Class of 1832). Stuart remarked briefly on the course of studies. "The young men are educated in all the branches of military science as well as in the minutić of tactics, comprehending the duties of a private soldier as well as those of the highest officer. They are required to encamp for six weeks every year, that they may be thoroughly instructed in all the details of the camp. Their discipline is very strict." He also sets down a brief history of West Point, from the American Revolution through Benedict Arnold's betrayal.
After taking breakfast with commandant Sylvanus Thayer (Class of 1808) and admiring his extensive library, Stuart continued his tour of the academy, including the classrooms, the student library, the barracks, and the new monument at cliff's edge to the Polish general Thaddeus Kosciusko, who had fought on the colonists' side during the Revolution, designing many of the works here at the Point and relaxing by cultivating a garden on the premises.
Stuart gives no details of his journey back downriver, not even mentioning the newly completed state prison at Sing Sing that he had passed on last year's journey across the state. He would make a few more excursions out of bucolic Mount Vernon, including several to New Jersey, usually passing through Manhattan, but he didn't overlook the growing city at the island's southern end. He was in town on Thursday, June 4th. The double-hulled steam frigate Fulton, built during the War of 1812, and put into Hudson River service afterwards, was moored in the East River, 200 yards off the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with about 60 people aboard. It was the dinner hour and the ship's officers were dining in the ward-room amidships. Up forward a gunner in his mid-fifties, appointed to the post just the day before, went forward into the magazine for powder to fire the evening gun. Apparently he failed to follow instructions to place his candle behind a glass partition. It was his last mistake. Most of the ship's timbers were quite rotten, magnifying the resulting damage. The officers and several guests were thrown against the ward-room walls, sustaining minor injuries, even as all their furniture completely disintegrated. Many guns went over the side. Masts flew into the air, which quickly filled with other ship fragments, soon picked up by hundreds of small boats. Luckily for the survivors the magazine had only contained three barrels of powder. Even luckier were the 62 crew members who had shipped out for Norfolk, Virginia, just two days before. Even so, close to forty people died that day. Not being an eyewitness, Stuart only briefly noted the disaster.
At the end of August, 1829, James Stuart and his wife shifted one village eastward, from Mount Vernon to New Rochelle, on Long Island Sound. Perhaps it was the Episcopal chapel, Mount Vernon's only church, that prompted the move. Stuart reported, "There was less exertion on the part of the clergyman who officiated here, than in any other place of religious worship where I have been in the United States, and the consequence was precisely what was to be expected, that, although the situation of the chapel was in the neighbourhood of New York, and in a neighbourhood thickly peopled, there was a greater number of empty benches than I have observed anywhere else."
He learned of a boarding house over near the Sound and paid a visit. The building was actually a villa overlooking a wide lawn easing down to the water's edge, owned by a Mr. Weyman, described by Stuart as a "American gentleman of considerable landed property". Part of the property was apparently today's Weyman Avenue. The gentleman did not live in the villa, but in a nearby cottage, hiring an Englishman to operate the villa establishment. Stuart dropped by for a visit. All of the boarders were fellow Britons which made a favorable impression: "I liked the place so much, that we removed thither while the weather was still very warm, on the 28th of August." By this time two visiting foreigners, businessmen from South America and France, had moved in. Mr and Mrs. Weyman would often drop by for a meal and the Stuarts were soon very much at home.
Stuart also found both of the local churches—one Episcopal, the other Presbyterian—very much to his liking. The latter had grown out of the French or Huguenot Church of New Rochelle's original settlers; the village had at that time been named for it's counterpart in France. Stuart usually joined the Presbyterians, presided over by a Reverend William Stebbins. Stuart was in attendance one stormy Sabbath when Stebbins was out of town and unable to get back in time. His substitute was kept away by the severe weather. When the circumstances were announced the congregation didn't panic, much to Stuart's admiration. "At length Dr Smith, one of the elders, a very respectable physician here, whose acquaintance I remember with pleasure, rose, and . . . gave out a psalm from his own seat, without going into the pulpit. Afterwards he prayed at great length. In the meantime, he had sent home one of his daughters for a volume of sermons, one of which he then read. A second psalm, given out by him, was sung; and the service was concluded by a prayer from Mr Lister, a farmer in the neighbourhood, another of the elders;—the whole without any fuss or exertion."
One other Sabbath Stuart made his way beneath the village's poplar trees to the Episcopal church for a special confirmation service, officiated over by the state's bishop John Henry Hobart —he was the founder of Geneva College (later Hobart and William Smith Colleges) upstate. He was also the bishop who'd refused to speak at De Witt Clinton's funeral last year. His topic on the present occasion was, "Many are called, but few are chosen." When the bishop was called to his spiritual home about a year later, New York's current governor Enos Throop, ignoring the slight to his predecessor, attended the funeral.
© 2008, David Minor