A look around New York in the year 1750
The players in London and Paris are developing their game, maneuvering their pawns, developing their strategy. In February a small party of English traders are taken prisoner in the Ohio country by a larger party of French and Indians, including Ottawa chief Pontiac, and hauled off by the French to Fort Niagara. When the news crosses the London desk of the Earl of Halifax, president of the Board of Trade, it can hardly be a surprise; all year he has been receiving reports from the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina, warning of French designs on western lands north of the Ohio River. In April Nova Scotia governor Edward Cornwallis sends Charles Lawrence and John Rous ahead of him to the Chignecto Isthmus, where they erect Fort Lawrence in September. Meanwhile in May French ensign Pierre Robineau de Portneuf leaves Fort Frontenac (later Kingston, Ontario) to build Fort Rouillé (Toronto). In this way are the seeds of war sown, a war that will consume much of the coming decade, a war we know as the Seven Years, or French and Indian War. This same year, in London, Parliament passes the Iron Act, prohibiting the manufacture of iron by colonials. It is an early measure in a long, restrictive line that will drive the colonies below the Great Lakes into military and political rebellion against the controlling parent country. Two wars in the next fifty years, and New York will be in the midst of both.
But as the pressure builds this year, a European visitor with no connection to either contending power is touring the region. Two years earlier, on September 13th, 1748, the ship Mary Gally arrived with a thud, off the coast of Maryland. Among the 80 people aboard were scientist Peter Kalm and his servant Lars Jungström. Kalm had been sent to the New World by the Swedish Academy of Sciences to study a mulberry tree that could endure Scandinavian winters and thereby foster a silk industry. His primary destination was Philadelphia and he would spend nine months exploring eastern Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, even making a five-day visit to New York City in late October and early November. On June 2, 1749, Kalm left Trenton, New Jersey, and headed north, returning to New York for an extended period. His journals covering the next months give us a detailed portrait of much of inhabited colony for the period. On his voyage from England, Kalm and his shipmates had not sailed near New York's Long Island. He mentions it in passing on this year - the rapidly dwindling Indian population, the poor soil, and the abundant seafood and waterfowl on the southern shore. The people as, "very prolific...commonly tall and strong". The European population had surged as the native population declined, and the economy has grown in proportion. The "lands of Montauk" at the island's eastern end have been providing common access for grazing cattle for nine decades; in the past six years three houses have been built to accommodate the cowboys hired to tend the herds. The land will be owned in common until 1879. In addition to abundant harvests from the sea, the island provides convenient access for those making their fortunes out on the waters. This year Oyster Bay merchant Samuel Townsend sends out the sloop Solomon, John Jones captain, to the Virgin Islands, with a cargo that includes 76 barrels of flour, 26 barrels of pork, 4,250 barrel hoops, and large amounts of butter, ham, beef, and corn, not to mention seven geese, with a total valued at 262 pounds sterling. It's value in 21st-century dollars? Approximately $35,000.
Albany was next on the itinerary and Kalm left Manhattan by boat on June 10th, heading up the Hudson. Although he doesn't mention them, in the next few days the homes of some of the colony's wealthiest families would slide by on the vessel's starboard side. Passing the northern tip of Manhattan the region known as Morrisania appears. 23-year-old Yale graduate Lewis Morris II will one day take his place in a multi-colonial congress formed in Philadelphia during the prelude to the country's second upcoming war, and will sign the document turning the colony of New York into New York State. Just to the north the vast lands of the Philipse family come into view. Adolphus Philipse, eldest son of Frederick Philipse, the original landowner, will die next year, 1750, leaving an estate of L32,000 (pounds sterling) to his nephew Frederick, who will survive him by only a year. In the mid-1760s Frederick's descendants will have to contend with dissatisfied tenants and squatters and turn to the British military to protect their interests. After making their way through the highlands of the Hudson, Kalm's party next encountered Livingston family lands. Both Philip and Robert R. (Chancellor) will sit in the Philadelphia congress along side of Lewis Morris. Robert will help draft the resultant document but will be called back to New York before the signing, defaulting the appellation of The Signer to his cousin.
Kalm seems not to have been familiar with the various old families along the Hudson; he mentioned only the occasional farm along the way. A scientist, he took note of topographical features such as the palisades, various plants such as sassafras and chestnut, , fireflies that "flew over the river in large numbers at niight and often settled upon the rigging", and of the salinity of the water for a good distance up the river, He was, of course, unaware of the seasonal migration of the salt line as it made its way upstream and down. As they passed the halfway point of the journey he mentioned the German settlements at Strasburg (Staatsburg) and Rhinebeck. He speculated on the origin of rivers, supposing some result from the overflow of lakes and reservoirs, but that others such as the Hudson, which slices its way through various mountain ranges, "derive their origin from Creation itself, and that Providence then pointed out their course."
Kalm's vessel arrived in Albany on June 13 and he remained in the upstate outpost just over a week, commenting on various aspects of life in a frontier town. He mentioned the English and the Dutch churches, the trade with the Iroquois, the houses with their brick gable ends toward the street and their other sides of wood, the high cost of just about everything, the salty butter. He had found the people of the lower Hudson to be "civil, obliging, just in prices, and sincere...". The citizens of Albany, for the most part, the exact opposite. Perhaps his best known observation concerned the drinking water, full of swimming "monoculi". He diluted some water by a quarter with rum, finding it had no effect on the unbeautiful swimmers. He obviously was not sorry to leave Albany and its varied life forms.
On June 21 he and his servant headed for Canada to visit the French settlements, making a side trip en route to the Falls of the Cohoes. No mention was made of the Van Rensselaer family or of the Mohawk Valley's William Johnson. Johnson will manage to keep his friends the Iroquois from joining the French during the first war of the upcoming period and die just before the second, honored as Sir William Johnson. Kalm's party continued northward, passing Saratoga and Crown Point, encountered numerous adventures along the way, and eventually met a party of French soldiers who tried unsuccessfully to dissuade them from going on. After a period among the French at Montreal and Quebec, Kalm returned to New York City for last winter.
This year, 1750, he makes a second journey upstate, heading for the far western end of the colony. He travels by horseback in mid-summer, almost certainly along the route of the Hudson, Mohawk and Oswego Rivers. Arriving at Oswego on August 13th, he quickly arranges for a batteaux, and after six days of rowing along Lake Ontario's southern shore arrives at the mouth of a large river. The New York to the south of his route is primarily inhabited by the Iroquois, whose hospitality he praises, while at the same time commenting on the former (mostly) practice of cannibalism. In another fifty years increasing numbers of settlers will be moving into these central and western New York lands of north-flowing rivers and finger-like lakes. But he has not come all this way just to visit with the French garrison there.
Next year, in personal libraries in London townhouses and English country homes, fingers idly turning the pages of the February 1751 number of Gentleman's Magazine, will probably pause at one particular engraving. It shows a gigantic cataract located in a far off place with an outlandish name. Niagara. The original print had been published 18 years before, but this one had some modifications. Now a flock of birds skim the brink of the falls while an Indian ladder descends the rock face. And there are two falls instead of three. The earlier print was based on the description of Father Louis Hennepin, back in 1679; the modified view based on a description by Kalm. He was impressed by the falls, but retained his scientific skepticism, writing, "Since Father Hennepin's time, this fall, in all the accounts that have been given of it, has grown less and less; and those who have measur'd it with mathematical instruments find the perpendicular fall of the water to be exactly 137 feet." He also debunked the claim that the roar of the water could be heard from as far away as the fort. The noise of the lake surf nearly always drowned it out. Finally Niagara has been described by a trained scientist.