Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Hard Drinkin' Man


Orange McOmber 8th N.Y. Cavalry



Richard McOmber 8th N.Y. Heavy Artillery



I was recently contacted by a woman from Arlington, Virginia about my 5th Great Grandfather Van Rensselaer McOmber. It isn't uncommon to receive correspondance regarding the McOmber family from Orleans County; Van R. had 6 children with 5 of them being sons and his son Otis had 15 children. The family was huge and the descendants are numerous to say the least. Unfortunately the woman was not a relative but a fellow genealogical research on an allied McOmber line. She has spent a lot of her time in the National Archives (very lucky) researching Civil War pension files of anyone with the name McOmber, trying to find connections to her family.

Of course V.R. was one of these pensioners and she offered up his pension files. I had requested the file about 2 years ago from the National Archives however, they were unable to locate the file. I assumed that a pension was never applied for as he was discharged in 1862 and died two years later. Though I was disappointed, I suppose things happen for a reason. The National Archives now charges approx. $75 for a full pension file from the library. I have already forked over $150 for pension files and another $75 for partial service records, I was happy I didn't have to pay anymore but disappointed that I couldn't get the information. The woman has offered to send me a copy at $.25 a page and $3 shipping. There would have to be around 300 pages for the file to be worth $75. At this rate, I can't complain at all.

Van Rensselaer appears to be a rather interesting character to say the least. He was born September 2, 1807 in Saratoga Co., New York to Richard McOmber and Olive Andrews. He was one of five known children, his siblings being named Richard D., Philip H., Abiel and Mary Ann. V.R. had purchased with his brother Richard, upwards of 500 acres in the town of Gaines/Carlton. They had settled close to their distant cousins Pardon and Enoch McOmber. Records show that the males were masons by trade and by ties to the fraternal organization. Enoch arrived in Orleans County after having worked on the Erie Canal around Lockport.

V.R.'s father Richard was a teacher and a very good one at that. It was noted that many teachers in the Gaines area would turn to Mr. McOmber for advice and knowledge on various subject. He was respected highly amongst many. This was interesting regarding the drinking habits of Mr. McOmber. In the late 1820s, Richard was sent to debtors prison for not repaying debts which have been linked to his terrible drinking habits. He was allowed to retain the family's bedding and the children's clothing but everything else was used to repay his debt. It was after this that the family moved to Orleans County. Richard died in 1838 at the age of about 51. Rather young considering his wife lived for another 20 years after that. This would be most likely contributed to his drinking.

The apple didn't fall too far from the tree in this case. V.R. went on to partake of the same habits his father had. He married Angella Olsen sometime prior to 1835. They had 6 verifiable children but at least two others have been listed as possible offspring. These 6 children included; Otis, Lorenzo, Charles W., Nelson, Elbridge and Maria Adelia. It appears as though in the late 1850s Angella left V.R. due to his drinking habits. She took her oldest son Elbridge to Ohio, where her family lived and remained there until her death.

September 18, 1861 V.R. enlisted with the 8th New York Cavalry at the age of 54. At that time he claimed he was 41 years old. He stood 5'7" tall, skinny with brown hair and blue eyes. He served under Col. Davis and Capt. Bell in Co. F of the regiment. Unfortunately V.R. only saw action at Antietam where afterwards he was removed from duty due to injuries suffered during the battle.

Van Rensselaer did not suffer injury from disease or wounds but suffered from long rides on horseback. When the regiment was surrounded at Harper's Ferry, Va. after the Battle of Antietam, the regiment was able to evade the enemy by galloping for 10 hours, a distance of 46 miles to Greencastle, Pa. This was September 14, 1862. The following day, the regiment attacked a convoy of 71 supply wagons in a small skirmish. It was after this skirmish that V.R. began to complain about pains. He complained frequently of pains throughout his right leg and hips and also complained of pain across his back in the region of his kidneys. He was removed from duty and sent to a hospital in Belle Plains where he was later discharged. While staying in the hospital he was put on cook and nurse duty as well.

It appears as though V.R. would not recover from his illness. Dr. Noble of Orleans County, who examined V.R. after he returned home stated that he was pretty well used up, a hard working and pretty hard drinking man. There was no way he would ever be in better condition again. Two years later, V.R. died possibly a result of Kidney Failure.

V.R.'s five sons all served in the war as well. Otis served with the 76th New York Infantry and was taken prisoner at The Wilderness on May 5, 1864. He was later sent to Andersonville where he spent a year before being parolled and exchanged. Lorenzo serve for several month in 1864 with the 17th N.Y. Light Independent Artillery from Orleans County before he died from disease. He is buried in Virginia. Charles served with the 23rd New York Infantry and was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, he was buried on the battlefield. Nelson's service is unverified and Elbridge served with the Ohio National Guard for several months at the end of the war.

V.R.'s nephews also served. His brother Richard's sons Richard and Orange also served. Orange served with the 8th N.Y. Cav. for the last few months of the war and Richard served with the 8th N.Y. Heavy Artillery. Richard was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cobblestone Architecture; Orleans County's Very Own Folk Art

If I asked if you ever travelled the "Old Lewiston Road" you might tell me that you never have; I wouldn't be surprised. An older gentleman I have been working for asked me the same question, "Did you take the Lewiston Road to get here?" He stumped me for a few minutes and he wouldn't give in to the cryptic part of his question. Of course I travelled the Lewiston Road to get to his house, I travel the Lewiston Road quite often.

Well by now, if you don't know what I am talking, I have your attention at least about the road. I am talking about, of course, the Ridge Road, good old State Route 104. I don't think the term "Lewiston Road" has been used in nearly 100 years, but it represents a distinct part of Western New York, and more specifically, Orleans County History (and for what it's worth, our Nation's history). It isn't uncommon to hear the stories of old Lake Ontario reaching its waters to the ridge where the shore was at one point. It also isn't too uncommon to hear the old stories of Native Americans using this natural ridge as a path to travel throughout Western New York. Those stories are not as important to this blog as the stories of colonial "explorers" venturing along a path that was, despite the current condition, was overgrown and just wide enough for one man to walk through. In spite of this it is not surprising that the "Lewiston Road" was the main highway even after the Erie Canal fully opened in 1825.

I am coming closer to the point of my post, it is important for me to discern the past events leading up to the time period I am discussing. After our wilderness hero Joseph Ellicott made his way across the uncharted lands of the Phelps-Gorham Purchase, Morris Reserve and Holland Land Purchase men journeyed away from their homes in New England to find a vast wilderness of undeveloped land where they could settle and prosper. This of course came as early as 1805 with the permanent arrival of the Brown Family in current day Carlton or the Farwell family in Clarendon, etc. My little area of focus is the town of Gaines. Men began to purchase their land as early as 1810/1, settled their families here and developed a bustling pioneer community.

This is an extreme simplification of the events behind the founding of Gaines and that's ok for this purpose.

If I asked how many people have noticed the cobblestone buildings along the old Lewiston Road, most would say they notice them but few pay but a passing glance. When I say, "Pay attention to all the cobblestone houses along Ridge Road," I mean it. Next time you are travelling from Niagara Falls to Rochester, or Albion to Greece, take note to pick out all of the cobblestone structures. Western New York, between Rochester and Niagara Falls is home to nearly 90% of all cobblestone structures in the United States. Though it isn't exclusively a Western New York piece of history, the lengthy shore of Lake Ontario and early agricultural base provided the perfect situation for this form of architecture to develop.

These beautiful structures are not limited only to the Ridge Road. Travelling north and south of the Ridge will yield an equal number of these rather interesting pieces, yet in my studies I haven't found any use of the stones south of the canal. With the distinct location of these structures, not many historians are jumping at the chance to explore the cultural significance of these structures. I am, if you want to consider me a historian as I tend to consider myself (don't tell anyone, I am 4 months away from being one on paper). With these structures being built between abt. 1830 to abt. 1860 and limited almost solely to Western New York, there must be some connection between those who built the structures. I suppose if there isn't I am just wasting my time.

My theory, as it stands now, establishes a link between the materials used to construct a house in relation to the economic and social status of the family that built the home, or in some cases community members who constructed community buildings. It is as follows:

Log/Frame (Poor-lower class/low status) ->
Cobblestone (Middle Class/moderate status) ->
Brick (Wealthy/high status)

The confirmation of this hypothesis would mean that Cobblestone houses are not folk art or art being made by the peasant of lower classes. However the structures are utilitarian in nature and evidence may be gathered to show that many families gained wealth and status after the construction of their cobblestone home.



Home of Moses Bacon




Home of Hosea Bacon


There is also the case of John Hutchinson who's house was constructed of brick but with a later cobblestone addition attached to the back of the brick home. With the building of a Universalist Church, countless schools, a Quaker meeting house and a Temperance Lodge in addition to the numerous houses, there may be a link to the beliefs of these organizations and the reason for choosing cobblestones. Evidence shows that cobblestones were clearly cheaper than bricks and abundant.

However, in light of the time period in which these buildings were constructed, there is the great possibility that there is a direct correlation between the use of this cheap and affordable building material and the Panic of 1837, the subsequent depression over the following five years and the recession that continued into the early 1850s. This is also noted in the construction of the Hosea Bacon home in which construction was held off until 1851 after the collapse of the Gaines Bank.

Next time you travel down the Ridge, do take careful note of all the Cobblestone buildings. When you take the time to notice, many will begin to appear that you have never seen before.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Puritan Rhetoric and Native Americans in New England: 1620-1700


The past 3 months I have set aside considerable time to research a subject that I have recently found an interest in. This concerns a recent research paper that I have been writing describing the changing Puritan rhetoric concerning Native Americans in mid to late 17th Century New England. The paper chooses a starting point (1620) an ending point (1700) and a middle point (1675), which I have chosen as King Philip's War to show a linear "regression" of rhetoric used by Puritans to describe the Native Americans. In the most vague meaning of my thesis, I have proved that Puritan rhetoric significantly changed as a result of King Philip's War. In a more detailed sense, New England Puritan ministers used the war as an outlet to reform the Puritan religion by using death and destruction as a fear tactic to bring wayward colonists back to the church.


The earliest examples of English views on Native Americans comes from those shared by Spanish and Portuguese explorers. These men who ventured into the vast wilderness of Central and South America shared their stories of Native "savages" with Europe upon their arrival. Other preconceived notions came from the past experiences of men who led colonization attempts in Ireland. Englishmen who had worked toward the prosthelytizing og unorthodox Irishmen found themselves carrying these ideas to the New World and applying them to Native Americans. The overall idea was Indians were uncivilized and savage and Christianity cannot survive in an uncivilized society. Civilizing and converting Native Americans was key to the fulfillment of Puritan goals in America as well as the physical survival of European colonies in America.


In order for Native Americans to become Christian they had to be educated about Christianity. As most Native Americans were semi-nomadic, staying sedentary for a portion of the year while engaging in hunting and gathering at other times of the year, missionaries could not wander into the wilderness to preach to Indian tribes. Instead, colonists built "praying towns" in which Native Americans could come to the colonists to be taught not only about Christianity but also about how to adapt and live in an English-based society. These Natives were educated by missionaries like John Eliot who believed that Native Americans not only should be converted but treated in a fair and acceptable manner. They were given a place to live, learn and practice their new religion and those who came to the praying towns were not forcibly placed there but instead came on their own accord.


These feelings remained constant up until the 1670s, ending in 1675 with the murder of a Christian Indian named John Sassamon by men of Metacom, also known as King Philip. Colonists tried three men for the murder of Sassamon and hanged all three in a hasty trial. The result were attacks on colonial villages which were responded to by attacks against Indian villaged. For a little over a year the attacks went back and forth getting progressively worse. What sparks my interest is the writings of Rev. Increase Mather and Rev. Cotton Mather. This father and son duo shared similar ideas but Cotton took his father's ideas to the next level, claiming the savagery and brutality of the Indians was far worse than what his father and others claimed. Puritan ministers such as the Mathers, wrote numerous articles, books and sermons on the war and Native Americans; these narratives have been taken as fact though historians now claim that most were exaggerated. For factual evidence regarding the true events of the conflict, we can no longer turn to these sources for information. However, whether these documents are true accounts or not, they were presented and accepted as fact at the time and these documents drastically altered the future of Colonial-Native relationships.


The Mathers presented the Indian crisis as a three-fold issue; retalliation against the colonists for falling away from the Puritan faith, a Native American attack against Christianity and a metaphysical battle between God and Satan on Earth. These ideas overlap and seem to contradict eachother on certain levels. God punishes the colonists for not following Christian teachings while the Natives attack the colonists for being Christian; this doesn't seem to make much sense. Ultimately, Puritan ministers were able to pull the fall-away Christians back to their churches by explaining the war as punishment for their lack of piety. This created a common Christian bond between the colonists. Then, by describing the Natives as extremely savage, brutal and uncivilized, ministers created a common English bond between the New England colonists against the Native Americans. The pressures from land and population expansion should not be forgotten and this was a way to justify this expansion at the cost of Native American lives.


Of course to provide a strong and undebatable thesis, the research for such a project would have to exceed the 8 week limitation that was given.