Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Livingstons' Lost Powder Mill

 Historian Geoff Benton recalls the Robert the Judge's gunpowder mill, part of the patriarch's effort to support the Patriot Cause in the early stages of the American Revolution.

            April 19, 1775 was a Wednesday.  Nothing ever happens on a Wednesday.  Of course that morning British regulars marched out of Boston, through Lexington and on to Concord to seize gunpowder and weapons from the colonists.  As you may be aware, the expedition did not go well for the regulars, resulting in hundreds of casualties and the entire city of Boston being out under siege.

            The expedition does highlight the importance of gunpowder in the colonies at this time.  Prior to The French and Indian War there were several mills producing gunpowder in British North America but after the war most were closed or abandoned until there was only one mill producing gunpowder in the colonies.  In 1774 King George III made it illegal to import gunpowder to his troublesome colonies.  So gunpowder became even more valuable as the colonists were looking to stock up at the same time the British were trying to keep it out of their hands.

             Within a few weeks of Lexington and Concord Judge Robert R. Livingston had decided he would provide gunpowder for the defense of the colonies himself.  On May 5, 1775 he wrote to his son (the future) Chancellor Robert. R. Livingston who was then on his way to Philadelphia to take a seat in the Continental Congress.  The Judge had heard a rumor that there was salt peter, the most difficult of the three ingredients of gunpowder to obtain, in Philadelphia.  As a side note, the fact that he was looking for gunpowder ingredients 17 days after Lexington and Concord says he was probably building his powder mill before the first shots were fired.  Two more letters to the Chancellor on June 19 and June 26 show the gun powder mill beginning operation.

            Livingston’s powder mill was the first mill built in New York though it would be joined by a second a few months later.  It was most likely built along the Saw Mill creek in Red Hook, Dutchess County, approximately 6 miles from Clermont.  The Judge wrote to the New York Congress, on October 9, 1775, of stopping a messenger from going back six miles to the mill before he knew if any powder was ready.

            The gunpowder produced at the Judge’s powder mill was very important for the early war effort.  Livingston sold powder to Tryon County for the defense of the frontier.  He also sold powder to New York to be used to defend against attacks by Native Americans.  Perhaps the biggest order went to Fort Ticonderoga, where General Philip Schuyler was planning the invasion of Canada which would eventually be taken over by the Judge’s son-in-law General Richard Montgomery. 

            The powder mill also had the important task of making damaged powder usable again.  When Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen took Fort Ticonderoga from the British they found much of the fort’s powder stores had become damp.  All of this powder was sent to Livingston.  Additionally all of the damaged powder in Albany was gathered up in late 1775 and sent to Livingston to be saved if possible.

           To this end Livingston ordered a furnace room constructed to dry wet and damp powder faster.  This may have doomed his mill.  Sometime between a last letter about the mill on November 4, 1775 and his death on December 9, 1775 the mill exploded.

            The mill was so important that John Jay, Robert Treat Paine and the New York Congress all encouraged the Chancellor to rebuild the mill, as his father had planned to do, as quickly as possible in letters which also offered their condolences for his passing.  Of course the Chancellor was too busy to focus on that project, however his brother John took over and had the mill rebuilt by February 1776.

            Later that year John built a second powder mill lower in Dutchess County, near Poughkeepsie.  The last reference to the upper powder mill appears to be in 1777 when some powder was stolen from the mill by loyalists.

Our Fellow Bloggers: More About Merinos

I just caught this post from The Farmer's Museum about Merino sheep.  They mention some other early sources of merino sheep in America--including sheep smugglers.  Hmmmm...

Meet the Sheep:

Friday, May 24, 2013

When Did Girls Get Married?: A Review of Two Centuries of Livingston Marriages

It often seems to me that there is a feeling out there that women "back then" married very young.  It slips out often during casual chatter when I guide tours, "Oh she didn't get married until X age," someone says, "That was old for back then."

As is often the way, this is partially true and partially exaggerated.

For one thing "back then" is a pretty broad term when you're talking about Clermont history.  From Robert the 1st Lord's arrival in New York to Alice Livingston's death in 1964, we cover 290 years of history--and a lot can change in social customs during that time. 

The second problem is "they."  I can't really speak to the whole population of the American continent (rich and poor, rural and urban, north, south, German, English, Native--you get the idea), but I can at least look at the Livingston marriages.  Livingstons were a family of Dutch and English origin, extremely wealthy, and centered in the northeast--primarily New York's Hudson Valley.

Okay, now that we've got that narrowed down, I can turn my Old Reliable: the Livingston Family Genealogy.  This big, thick book holds the most complete listing of Livingston births and deaths in existence.  It's still not totally complete, but I've been adding to it in pencil for years.  Since it doesn't actually have marriage dates in it either, I add those when I find them.

It's these pains-takingly-added notations I will primarily depend on today.  Some guesses can also be made from the birth of the marriage's first child.

We'll start with the mid 18th century marriages.  Margaret Beekman was 18 when she tied the knot with Robert R. Livingston Sr in 1742. (It was an arranged marriage, but rather a passionate one.  The two had eleven children together.)  Her husband's cousin Sarah Livingston (b. 1725) had her first baby at age 24 so assuming that everything was planned (so to speak), she could not have been married any older than age 23.  Using the same method, cousin Catherine Livingston (b. 1734) could not have been older than 19 and another cousin Alida ( comes in around age 18.  Cousin Philip "the Signer" married his Ten Broeck wife Christina (b. 1718) when she was 22 in 1740.

The next generation in the late 18th century has similar ages, although there are two notable extremes that I'll get to in a minute: Philip's son (unfortunately named "Philip Philip") married his wife Sarah when she was 19, and Sarah Livingston married John Jay (at right) when she was 17 in 1774.  Joanna may have (b. 1754, also from the Manor side--Henry's daughter) married Paul Schenk as late as 26 years old, since her first daughter was born in 1781.

Then there are some of Margaret Beekman's eleven children:  The Chancellor's wife Mary was 18 or 19.  Brother Henry Beekman married his wife when she was 18.  Gertrude tied the knot in 1779 at age 22.  Sister Alida (b. 1761) married a Revolutionary war veteran in 1789 at the age of 28.

The latest age at marriage in this brood is the oldest sister Janet who pined for her love Richard Montgomery until he finally married her at age 30 in 1773.  Sadly, their marriage lasted only 3 years as he was killed early in the American Revolution.

The youngest bride was their brother Edward's wife, Louise D'Avezac de Castera Moreau.  Although Louise was 18 or 19 when she married Edward in 1805, she was a widow at that point, married for the first time at the age of 13 (though her memoir seems to suggest that this young marriage was a function of her Caribbean upbringing).

Proceeding on to the next generation in the early 19th century! Ah the era of high-waisted Empire dresses and Jane Austen.  The Chancellor's girls were married to Livingston cousins: Edward Philip and Robert L.  Betsy was 18 or 19 (at left) and her sister Margaret Maria was 17 or 18.  Cousin Harriet took a risk and married Robert Fulton at the age of 24 in 1808 (the marriage was a rocky one).

It was another cousin, Serena Livingston, who spurred me to write this blog.  Serena got married in 1816 or 17--of that we are fairly certain--but her birth date is listed in the genealogy as 1804.  Given that every other Livingston girl seems to have waited until at least 17, marrying off a girl as young as 12 seems highly unlikely.  Other records seem to suggest that her birth date may be as early as 1795--which I have to say gave me a sigh of relief--making her as old as 21 or 22 when she got married.  I'm going to hope for her sake that this is the case since her marriage was particularly tumultuous.

So all my evidence thus far points to Livingston girls of the 18th century getting married primarily in their late teens and early 20s with a few notable exceptions.  Social changes in the Victorian era however, lead to later marriages, which amongst other things also lead to smaller families (try Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America for more information).  Pushing forward into this time period unfortunately I find fewer marriage dates have been recorded in my book so I'll have to make more guesses based on the birth date of the first child.  I've just been subtracting a year from the child's date of birth, which is admittedly "iffy," but it gives us an idea at least of the latest age at which they were married.  Nevertheless 17 -year-old brides seem to drop off the map after the 1830s, and even 18-year-olds are harder to find. 

Betsy and Edward Philip had quite a number of children, though they lost several sadly.  Their daughter Margaret was 20 when her first daughter was born in 1828 so was about 18 or 19 when she got married.  By the same method, her sisters Elizabeth (at left) and Mary look to have been 20 and even 26 respectively.  Their brother's wife (a Livingston cousin named Cornelia, below at right) was about 20.  Brother Edward's wife Susan de Peyster was 33 when she had her first child, and children followed every 2-3 years thereafter, leading me to believe it was not infertility but a marriage as late as 31 or 32 yeas old that lead to such late births.

Betsy's granddaughter Elizabeth (b. 1830) seems to have married at age 23 or 24.

Margaret Maria's children don't have a lot of productive marriages for me to work with, but I see first children at ages 21 and 22 so marriage dates not later than 20 and 21 in the 1820s and 30s.  Her granddaughter Mary (b. 1847) appears to have been around 20 or 21.

Going on at this rate I run the risk of just turning into a list of names and ages so I'll have to call it quits.  Suffice to say, Victorian-era marriages were often taking place later in women's lives, while earlier 18th century marriages were focused on getting girls settled by their late teens and early 20s.  Exceptions were present in both time periods.  Livingston girls were not generally slaves to custom.  While a few girls took the plunge before their 18th birthdays, more Livingston girls waited a little longer to find the right partnership (at least they hoped) before diving in.

So there it is.  Compared to today when the average age at first marriage for American women is 26.9, girls were getting married off earlier.  There were a lot of reasons for this, but they are not divulged in my big thick book o' genealogy, and it would take a whole additional blog entry to really explore the topic.  But it is worth noting, the next time you say "Boy, they got married young back then," that the age at first first marriage changed for Livingston girls over the centuries, and that there was no hard-and-fast rule about how old you should be.  Just like today there was a pressure to find a mate, but flexibility for the person and their situation was still allowed. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Mystery of Serena

There are lots of Livingstons, and each one has a story.  There are so many different Livingston lives in the family tree that even after eight years, I am often surprised when a new one lands in my lap.

That was the way when I received this mysterious letter from Brian Cushing at a Kentucky historic house called Locust Grove:

"I work with Historic Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky. One of the first generation to grow up here, George Croghan, married Serena Livingston, daughter of JR Livingston, ca. 1816-17. I am currently designing a special exhibit on George Croghan's life and, while he is incredibly well documented in extant correspondence, etc, we have very few letters and comparatively little specific information on Serena. We know that the marriage was very troubled, three of their seven children survived, her property was officialy secured as hers in 1844 so that George could not make use of it to pay debts, etc., and that she wound up in San Francisco sometime after George left for the Mexican War in 1846. Does Clermont have any documentation on Serena that may help us paint a more complete picture of her life and side of the story?"

Well then!  I have to admit, the notion of a "troubled marriage" had me curious.  I went to my usual "first source," A Portrait of Livingston Manor, and here is what I found:

Serena was Chancellor Robert R. Livingston's niece.  According to the Livingston Genealogy, Serena was born in 1804, the daughter of Robert's brother John R. (at left) and his delightfully pretty second wife Eliza (below at right).

Serena grew up in New York City and likely spent time in the Hudson Valley with her Livingston family as well.  Her uncle the Chancellor was firmly ensconced at Arryl House; her aunt Janet was all set up in Montgomery Place by 1805.  Other aunts, uncles and distant cousins were scattered around the area as well. 

Portrait also mentions Serena's marriage to George Croghan (pronounced "Crawn"--I've apparently been mispronouncing it for years), but nothing of interest beyond that.  Case closed.  Mystery of the "troubled marriage" yet unsolved.

But then I received a message back from Brian at Locust Grove, and the story got even more interesting:

George, born in 1791, was a hero of the War of 1812.  Apparently he'd shown great promise in the military and was a bit of a celebrity.  He and Serena were married were married in 1816 or 17.

Wait--what?  Do the math.  George was about 24.  He was established financially and appeared to have a good career ahead of him. 

But Serena, SERENA was born in 1804.  That would make her as young as 12 when she got married.  That's seems very young, especially amongst the Livingstons who usually let their girls mature a bit before marrying them off.  Her cousins, Margaret Maria and Betsy, were married when they were about 17 and 18.  Her uncle's wife Nancy Shippen was 18.  Her aunt Gertrude was 22.  Cousin Harriet Livingston Fulton was also 22.  Her aunt Janet (who admittedly married late) was 30.

You get the idea.  Either someone got a date wrong somewhere (see updated post about Serena's age here), or Serena was the youngest Livingston marriage I've yet encountered.  Let's be charitable and say that was born early in 1804 and married late in 1817, making her almost 14 (the image at left shows Serena in her early teens, possibly around the time of her marriage).

At any rate they stayed in the Hudson Valley for as much as a year or two, where young Serena would continue to have the support of her family.  And then they moved to New Orleans and bought a plantation:

"They had the plantation by 1819; supposedly the climate and circumstances did not agree with Serena. We can't be sure what she knew of George's activities beforehand but when he attempted to sell the plantation to a Mr. Bell from New York in 1824, it slowly became apparent to everyone how badly George had been managing his affairs. The horses were dying and emaciated and the sugar works had never been completed because George never payed the workers; one had even gone to debtor's prison for his inability to pay his own debts because of having not been paid by George. By Louisiana state law, there was a lien on the property due to George's non-payment. Caroline Bell described George and Serena as leaving the area by night by boat to escape the sheriff. They went to Kentucky, where a militia captain guaranteed George's safety (apparently against extradition).  George was still a celebrity due to his August, 1813 defense of Ft. Stephenson. It's no wonder Serena was impressed when he showed up in New York in ca. 1816."

So let me get this straight.  Serena, now at the ripe-old age of 20, and responsible for two young children (she had already lost 4 in infancy), escaped with her husband in the dark of night.  Did the children go with them on this daring escape?

I'm willing to bet that this is not what Serena had bargained for--or what her parents had expected when they married her off to a prominent war veteran.  It took only five years for George to run the plantation into the ground.  For the first three years, her uncle Edward was not too far away at a plantation in New Orleans.  Had anyone known?  Surely dieing horses would be visible.  Had George ever let on about the state of things?  Did Serena ever write of these troubles to her family?  If she did, the papers were surely burned to maintain privacy.

And the story continues.  George somehow managed to go back--though Serena didn't or wouldn't join him:

"Against his older brother's advice and with the help of Andrew Jackson, George was Postmaster of New Orleans beginning as early as 1824 but certainly by 25. Somehow, he was able to go back without facing the consequences he fled from but he was struggling to settle the financial catastrophe left by the plantation deal. Serena eventually joined him in New Orleans; this time, they got to live in the city in a house provided by the Post Office.

It was during this time that George was wrangling with William Henry Harrison over what he felt was insufficient recognition for his actions at Ft. Stephenson. He was also looking for a way into a high ranking position in the army and accepted the office of Inspector General in February 1826; his reputation seems to have suffered by this point. Before he could leave New Orleans, however, there was an audit of the Post Office which revealed that George had been embezzling funds.

Here George's life seems to take a serious nosedive.  Not knowing his status or how on earth he ever got to this state of affairs (and maybe he didn't either), I can only view the next chapter of his life with compassion for both him and Serena:

Correspondences at that point seem to indicate that George attempted suicide but references to it are often vague.  By December of 1826, Serena was caring for George in Philadelphia and referred to him recovering from the "wounds" on his arms. Since she referred to plural wounds, I believe this indicates he attempted to cut his wrists. Serena seems to have been instrumental in keeping the whole thing quiet and George got to keep his job with the army.

What followed was years of struggling with money, borrowing from others, relatives doing whatever they could to help George financially, while he just spiraled deeper into debt. Reports eventually circulated that revealed whenever George was on tour with the army out of the site of Serena or family members, he was drinking heavily (described as "beastly drunk") and gambling. He was even described in one letter as having become an "object of disgust" in one location. His brother in law, Thomas Jesup, could not send his own daughters to school one season because of all of the money he had given to George. George and Serena were unable to send their own son, St. George, to school at one point. George narrowly escaped court martial but in May 1841, Serena confided in George's brother John about George's behavior to which John responded that he was afraid of George committing a "shocking act."

...By 1842, some sort of separation seems to have taken place, as George was mostly living with his brother John at Locust Grove [at right] ... but Serena was not. She did come and go, however, and [she] and George did spend time together."
Where were the children during all of this?  Her son St. George was 20 in 1842, and his older sister was likely married, but his younger sister Serena Eliza was only 10.  I assume she with Serena (the mother), who was traveling between her Livingston family and her husband.  And what was the effect of all of this on the children?
"George had stopped drinking during this period and even joined a temperance society in Louisville. The repercussions of George's past actions loomed but he did not loose his rank. In October 1844, one of the Livingstons helped secure Serena's property for her so that George would have no control over it. He left for the Mexican War in 1846 and died of cholera in New Orleans in 1849, three days before his brother John."
This seems like a hard tale of a life that got out of control: gambling, drinking, and failure to maintain household after household.  I see repeated "do overs"--times when George tried to start again as the Post Master of new Orleans, by returning to the army, financial help from family members, even joining a temperance society to find an end to his drinking.  But these "do overs" seem to have only been short-term fixes for a long-term problem in his life that may never have been solved.

And what was Serena's take on all this?  Initially, at least, she was dragged along--a young woman racing along through the dark to escape her husband's mistakes.  As a woman, her rights were few.  She could not take over the finances, and divorce would mean that her children would be left with a man she clearly felt she couldn't trust.

Later she tried to resist being pulled down with him.  This began when she tried not to more with George back to New Orleans in 1825.  By the time she was 40, Serena was building walls around herself to protect her from George's continuing downward spiral.  She used family assistant to separate her money from his in 1844.  She found safety in distance by staying with her family in New York--but still she visited him in Kentucky, and they even conceived another child as late as 1832.  Was this wifely duty?  Or was it a woman conflicted and powerless to help a man she loved when he was bent on self-destruction?

Even the last image we have of her is in question.  It was painted in the 1840s, when Serena was around 40 years old.  With its harp and music, even the slightly out-of-date hair style, it is a reference to Serena's earlier portrait in the red dress (see above).  Nevertheless, the hair is blonde, and the face seems ageless--it could be either Serena or her daughter Serena Eliza, now 20.

Without Serena's own words, the answers may never be known.  The scandals of alcoholism and debt and suicide attempts were concealed, and along with them we've lost any hope of reassembling a full picture of the story.  Much of Serena's life will remain a mystery.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

An Historian Remembers Chancellor Livingston

Reposted by permission of Tom Shanahan from the Register Star of Hudson, NY

It’s an anniversary which passed with little public notice – even here in his home county. That’s a shame.
February marked the death, 200 years ago, of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston. A leader in politics, diplomacy and business, he played a critical role in the development of this state and nation. His descendants still live here in the Hudson Valley.

A member of the “Committee of Five” which drafted the Declaration of Independence, he never actually got to sign the document he helped create, because he was recalled to New York to help draft this state’s first Constitution.

He was called “Chancellor” Livingston, not because he was the person who ran SUNY, but because he was Chief Judge of the Court of Chancery – the highest court in New York at the time. That made him the highest ranking judicial officer in the new national Capitol in New York City when the U.S. Constitution took effect, so it was his duty to administer the oath of office to George Washington for the first time.

As Ambassador to France, he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase – doubling the nation’s size for the bargain basement price of three cents an acre.

In France, Livingston met a fellow American, an inventor who was trying to sell a new method of naval propulsion to the French Emperor. Napoleon had spent the entire $15 million dollars earned from the sale of Louisiana on plans to invade England. Getting his entire army across the English Channel was a difficulty which would require at least three days. But when presented with the inventor’s idea of doing it mechanically, Napoleon dismissed it out of hand: “What, sir,” Bonaparte is reported to have said, “Would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.”

Unlike Napoleon, Livingston saw the ingenuity in Robert Fulton’s idea. With his financing, Fulton’s genius, and the benefit of a monopoly franchise for steamboat operations on the Hudson – awarded them by the New York State legislature – they created the North River Steamboat of Clermont, the first practical use of a steam engine to propel a boat commercially. Clermont, of course, was the name of the Livingston family estate.

The steamboat Livingston had the vision to finance, transformed the nation. It made the 150-mile trip upriver from New York to Albany in 32 hours – essential, because their boat had to achieve speeds in excess of four miles an hour to maintain that monopoly.

But Livingston’s vision extended far beyond the banks of the river which flowed past his home. Even as the steamboat chugged past Clermont, Livingston knew that mechanized vessels plying the massive rivers of the territory he had negotiated away from Napoleon, were essential if that distant territory was to be inhabited by more than just a few adventurous souls. Together with Fulton and Nicholas Roosevelt, they built the first steamboat to travel the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

That wasn’t his only important financial venture. He was the largest investor in an enterprise conceived by Aaron Burr, the Manhattan Company. It was supposedly formed to provide drinking water to New York City, but was really a back door way to charter a bank – to compete with Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of New York, at a time when Hamilton controlled the state legislature and could block any competition.
Two financial institutions, competing for business, helped generate the capital to fund the industrial revolution, forced on this country by British blockades during the War of 1812. Without financing to develop expensive new machinery, the industrial revolution might have taken root here years after it actually did.

We will always owe a debt of gratitude to the Founders – brave men like Livingston who risked their lives to pluck this country from British rule.

But how relevant are Livingston’s other contributions today, when steamboats are a pleasant anachronism for gamblers to play on, our country has spread far beyond the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase, and the industrial revolution is now concentrated in Asia?

Consider this – the successor institution to that original bank and water business called the Manhattan Company, still exists. It’s now called J.P. Morgan Chase.

Robert Livingston’s marble statue stands as one of New York’s two contributions to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol (the other being George Clinton). There’s a reason for that. The last 200 years might have turned out very differently, were it not for Chancellor Robert R. Livingston.


Tom Shanahan is Executive Producer of the Webumentary: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, and is a speaker in the New York Council for the Humanities Speakers in the Humanities program, on the same topic.