Last time: We began this column months ago venturing back to 1761 and the issuance of the Cambridge Patent.  In 50-year increments we leaped back, back, way back, then forward, to two European cultures, the English and Dutch, who arrived separately in the New World in the early 1600s. They soon converged on the settlement of the Cambridge District as Colonial America was experiencing the Great Awakening, which opened the 18th century to modern thought and the birth of a “Shining City on a Hill.”

Chapter X: 250 Years Ago – 1761, The Cambridge Patent and Prelude to Revolution

     We’ll arrive at our destination shortly. First though, the Mother Country took on a new look in 1707 as the UK was forged from England, Scotland and Wales. An era of unrest then swept Europe and America with fresh social, political and theological voices loudly resonating. The individual began to challenge religious interpretation imposed by external authority as he/she assumed the power as the ultimate arbitrator of truth while seeking a personal relationship with God. This was a factor leading to the Seven Year’s/French and Indian War, pitting Roman Catholic Paris against Protestant London, followed in short order by America’s Declaration and War for Independence. The path to freedom was driven by a new generation of Renaissance men, and women. The elders – Franklin, Washington, Samuel and John Adams – welcomed the wisdom, passion and courage of the energetic youth: Thomas Jefferson (born in 1743 in VA; wordsmith of the framing documents; 3rd President); John Jay (1745, NYC; co-author of The Federalist Papers; first Chief Justice); James Madison (1751, VA; Federalist Papers; 4th Chief Exec); Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755, Caribbean island of Nevis; Federalist Papers); James Monroe (1758, VA; 5th Prez; Doctrine to keep Europe at bay.)

     These agents of liberty sparked fires along the Eastern Seaboard while the Cambridge District was breathed to life.  In 1739, the Wallomsac Patent was awarded to Stephen Van Rensselaer, named for Waloon descendents (exiles from southern French-speaking Belgium.)  This was the first in a series of Royal patents awarded to settlers east of the Hudson and north of the Hoosic. Colonial America approached one and a half million – black slaves included, not Indians – reached by 1760. Growing cities pressed the folks out into the virgin countryside, seeking first-growth forests to fell, fertile ground to plant.  Raw iron was forged and honed by a nascent American blacksmith industry with ideas for increased productivity. Not so fast, sayeth the King, as the Iron Act of 1750 was thrust upon the provinces to limit production of American iron, to protect the Brit counterpart. Strike One! 1750.

     The next big thing, the Calendar Act of 1750, was devised to align the Old Style Gregorian of Great Britain and the colonies to the New Style Calendar of the Continent, occurring in two steps. 1751 began, not on January 1, but on March 25 and extended to December 31 (252 days). Then 1752 commenced on January 1, ran to September 2, advanced to September 14 -deleting 11 days - and extended to December 31 (354 days).  So George Washington actually celebrated his birthday, not on the 22nd, but February 11th.  OK, fine, whatever. Good for officials, merchants, shippers in harbors and cities on both sides of the Atlantic, lives ruled by contracts and schedules. Likewise for the clergy, and moms and dads, who inked new births in church records and family Bibles – though typically not on the day of birth but three days later, at baptism.  So what did the pioneers of Cambridge care if the day were Wednesday June 7th or Friday October 23rd?  They lived off the land and weren’t grounded in linear contrivance of “civilized” man, rather by nature’s cycles, sunrise, sunset, the planting and harvest moons. The calendar was but another government intrusion, so went the suspicion of many a King’s subject just eking out a living along the Hudson and its tributaries.  

     In 1754 however, as war ignited across the northern colonies, Americans, New Yorkers, and Cambridgites were thankful for the English Army’s presence and regimentation. Militias joined the Redcoats (standard of dress uniform and moniker since 1645) in skirmishes against the Canadian French and their Native American allies. The Brits built stockades in NY Province stretching to the north for protection against raiding parties, including Fort Edward (1755) and Fort Ann (1757) just up the road from Cambridge. Then in 1760, King George III assumed the British Throne and ruled for six decades until his death in 1820. At the end “Mad King George” was still bitter he’d lost his Crown Jewels but was also quite loopy. Interbreeding?  Heavy metal poisoning from diet and fashion?  Slow assassination?  Hmmm.

     In 1761, the Cambridge Patent was awarded by NY Province Governor Cadwallader Colden to 61 men, many mere speculators.  But some took a liking to the area and moved in, including the first, Edmond Wells and family, in today’s Ash Grove upland from the banks of the flood-prone Owlkill swamp. Isaac Sawyer was another early arrival also named in the Cambridge Grant, one of four Sawyer brothers (sons? uncles? nephews?) to settle down here. The Wells-Sawyer tract was noted in letters of July 23, 1761 with its west boundary (see the map) along “the old turnpike” (Route 22) and “Big Pond” (Hedges Lake.)  During 1761-63, as more land grants were issued along local watersheds, more Scotch and Irish blood moved in from the Connecticut Colony village of Hebron just south of Hartford. Some settled the Annaquasacook/Schermerhorn Patent of 1761/62, on which the first house on a 500-acre plat may have been built by a David Campbell. His sons, John and George, later divided this into their own 250 acre parcels, while the Campbell Patent itself was laid out nearby. Two other pioneers of the Owlkill in ‘61, though not listed among the grantees of the Cambridge Patent, were brothers James and Robert Cowan. They’d been indicted in Massachusetts for rebelling against the King, something about taking the Royal Deer without a License to Kill. They were forced into Redcoat Boot Camp for six months then tossed out of that province. Their brother Ephraim joined them in ’62, and each staked out a 100-acre parcel acquired from one of the investors. The mark-up from a stack of pounds and pence?  Likely more stacks of beaver pelts. Trapping and hunting, planting and dairying yielded the staples of the day. Churned butter and dipped candles, woven quilts, fur blankets and fashioned buckskin apparel, and rough hewn tools and furniture were all the norm since bartered goods like sugar, mirrors, fine tableware, and linens and lace were uncommon luxuries in Cambridge in 1761.

Please click on illustration for enlargement.

    During the decade, cotton-textile mills began to dot the waterfalls and cataracts of the Northeast, becoming an important early American industry. The area’s first known factories, Huff’s Mills, were built in 1763 on the Batten Kill at today’s Shushan, a grist mill and a lumber mill for the residents of New Perth, later-day Salem. The Treaty of Paris ended the war that year as France ceded Canada to Britain. With the promise of peace in the air now, residents of the Owlkill breathed easier with the only apparent dangers lurking in the deep woods being bear, wolf and catamount.  In 1765, Military Patent acreage was awarded to Brit officers mustering out of service, including Major James Cowden who opened the region’s first tavern in a large log cabin on the Lansingburg-Rutland Post Road south of today’s Village of Cambridge (later Grandma Moses’ Checkered House.) In contrast in 1769, and likely disavowing devil-water, the first religious body was assembled in the Cambridge area, a union church of Calvinists.

 Prelude to Revolution

     In 1763, over 35,000 chains to the south (400 miles), Virginia Militia officer Geo Washington resigned his commission and returned to his Potomac plantation to reap the harvests, survey the fields and forest of northern and western Virginia, brew beer, and wow the ladies with his dancing at estate balls. Martha looked on and smiled, “Well, at least he’s home.”  But our nation’s patriarch didn’t stop thinking and talking, reading and writing about America’s possible separation from the Crown in his soft-spoken and measured yet convincing voice.  About this time the King decreed that no colonist may move beyond the crest of the Appalachians – Strike Two! 1763 – because he’d order no troops out there to keep peace with the natives. But the growing population spurred defiant colonials to stream into the Ohio River Valley led by Daniel Boone out through the Cumberland Gap at the tip of western VA. Over the next few years the Revenue Acts, the Stamp Act (stamps affixed to exports) and the Townshend Act all imposed taxes for London’s treasury to defray the cost of the F&I War, soon repealed but still inciting the cry “No Taxation without Representation”.  Strike Two-and-a-half! 1764-67.  Things only got worse. In 1770, history records the first fatalities in the cause of America’s freedom: five civilians shot dead on a Boston street (incidentally taunting English soldiers.)  Paul Revere’s popular silverwork depicted the scene, fueling resentment toward the British Army, quartered by Royal edict in private residences. Bill of Rights, anyone? Strike Two-and-three-quarters! 1770.

     Locally, Charlotte County was formed in 1772 from Albany County lands north of the Batten Kill, while the first Baptist group in the area was founded in White Creek, southeast of Cambridge. The next year the “Cambridge District” was given formal recognition, today’s towns of Cambridge, Jackson, White Creek, and a slice of Vermont.  At the end of 1773 and into ‘74, 200 miles to the east, things ratcheted up a notch. The Boston Tea Party prompted the King to respond with the Repressive Acts – “Intolerable Acts”, spoketh the Colonials.  He closed Boston harbor and installed his general as Governor of Massachusetts. Civil liberties were suspended including public assemblies, i.e. free speech. There you go again, those ‘ole Bill of Rights. Strike Two, blah, blah – we really mean it this time! 1773-74. The white population of English America approached two and a half million, achieved in the spring of 1775.  Musket fire then rang out, by the rude bridge that arched the flood, beneath their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, where at once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard ‘round the world (apologies to Emerson.)  And … STEE-RIKE THREE!

     “Shot heard ‘round the world?” The Revolution, of course, and those to come. The American, then the French with eating cake, guillotines and all that.  Latin America next told Spain to hit the bricks.  Western republican democracy spread like a can of gas tipped over and lit off.  But today, would Washington, Adams and Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Kennedy and Reagan, have a little clue what the current crowd (from South Chicago) is up to with the original words and works, with the nation’s rebirth out of the 1860s, with the Shining City on a Hill?  You make the call, then vote, your one vote. That is, if you were born or naturalized here. Kenya imagine any other scenario?  


Post Musings

     Throughout 2011 great fanfare in the Village of Cambridge has heralded the 250th Anniversary of the Cambridge Patent with notes posted in The Eagle Newspaper, displays about town, presentations, publications available at area outlets.  All conceived by a loyal corps of history buffs, citizens present (and past), intent on keeping the history of the Cambridge District and the 1761 Patent alive and well. “Honoring Our Past - Saving Our History”, the worthy catch-phrase of the Cambridge Historical Society and Museum, has been given fresh meaning and a new lease on life … 250 years after it all began. Kudos to the officers and staff, and friends of the Museum. Kudos to the entire community of Cambridge. Our ancestors, ancient and modern, would be pleased.

Next time: Chapter XI, a new series and theme, an old and venerable story: early 20th century Cambridge.

Sources: New York State Archives; Old Cambridge 1788-1988 (R. Clay, C. Foster, R. Raymond, T. Shiland, D. Thornton, 1988); Around Cambridge, White Creek and Jackson (K. Gottry, 2010); A History of the Cambridge Area (R. Raymond, T. Raymond 2010); The Cambridge Patent 1761 (K. Gottry, T. Raymond, 2011)

(The author may be contacted at Really. Thumbs up? … down?)