The manner in which the township of Salem was first settled will be worth our notice because we find here a typical story of the opening of the American frontier. This fertile land, "discovered" by New England soldiers in the French and Indian War, is roughly fifty miles northeast of Albany, below Lake George, in a region approaching the Adirondack Mountains.
Alexander McNitt came in 1769 and bought a farm which, with additions, remained in the hands of his descendants until 1946. The original pioneers at Salem were two of Alexander's neighbors at Pelham -- James Turner and Joshua Conkey -- who explored the region in 1761 and found it good. In 1764 they obtained a grant of 25,000 acres from the Provincial Governor and Council of New York on submitting a list of about twenty-five heads of families at Pelham who wished new homes. The families began arriving on horseback that year, bringing their belongings on pack-horses.
The manner in which they obtained the grant illustrates the way in which royal Governors helped their Tory friends attain riches and patrician eminence in the young country. It was stipulated that half the lands in the grant be set apart for Oliver DeLancey and Peter Dubois. DeLancey was clever: he did not take his share of the land in a single block but arranged he should have alternate farm lots, all of which originally were of eighty-eight acres. In some cases he owned an undivided half interest in single lots. As settlers increased land values by improving their holdings, DeLancey's lands naturally would rise in value. Talk of the unearned increment!
Had the Revolution failed, the DeLanceys and others in royal favor would have been land barons and rent collectors on a very large scale, assuming as we may that Oliver obtained similar cuts from other provincial land grants. But the Revolution succeeded, and all the lands Oliver DeLancey had obtained by collusive methods or otherwise were
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declared forfeited to the State, including city lots in New York. Daniel McNitt at Salem bought some of the forfeited farmlands from the Commissioner of Forfeitures, and Dr. Charles McKnight picked up some of the city lots.
DeLancey and other Loyalists thus despoiled of easily-won land riches, took flight to England, where a sympathetic government expended L3,000,000 to recoup them. DeLancey was consoled, we learn in Prof. Thomas J. Wertenbaker's book, Father Knickerbocker Rebels, with an award of L24,940.
Turner and Conkey named their new community White Creek, and there in 1765 they received a visit from Dr. Thomas Clark, a Burgher minister from Ballybay in Ulster, who after tiring of battles with Anglicans and two imprisonments for "irregular" preaching, was looking for land on which members of his flock might settle. He was a graduate of the University of Glasgow and a veteran of the 1745 uprising, in which he had fought the Jacobites. Early in 1766 Dr. Clark concluded an arrangement with Oliver DeLancey to take over the alternate lots and to collect quitrents from his parishioners to pay the Tory landlord. Then he re-named the community New Perth. He was a physician as well as minister: a curer of bodies and souls. The men of his congregation (organized at Ballybay in 1751) built of logs a small house for Dr. Clark, a small church, and a schoolhouse.
Meanwhile, Alexander McNitt and his neighbors were moving over from Pelham and establishing themselves on farm-lots, each a half-mile long, alternating with those occupied by the newly arrived Scots from Ulster. For a time they attended Dr. Clark's church, but not liking the strictness of the Seceders and preferring the doctrines of the Church of Scotland, they organized on moderate Presbyterian lines and started building a log church in 1774. When the Burgoyne invasion came they turned their church into a stockade fort and named it Salem, which means peace. Tories burned their church. They built a new blockhouse and named it for Colonel Williams, commander of their regiment; then presently they built another church, which was replaced in 1844 by a remarkably fine edifice now called the Brick Church. Dr. Clark's society took the name United Presbyterian, and in 1794 built a large frame church of beauty and dignity which now is called the Old White Church. So today the little village of Salem, named for the Revolutionary fort, has two Presbyterian organizations as independent of each other as ever they were. The Alexander McNitt family clung to the more moderate First Presbyterian congregation.
Alexander and his son Daniel joined in 1787 in a call to an early
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minister: the Rev. John Watford of Amwell, New Jersey, who had been graduated from Princeton in 1774. The son, who as a member of the session of the First Presbyterian Church was known among neighbors as Deacon Dan'l, was sent on October 10, 1804, to confer with the Rev. Samuel Tomb, who came presently and was ordained.
Captain Alexander's original farm was lot No. 14 and comprised eighty-eight acres. He bought another tract like it and sold forty-four acres of it on January 12, 1787, to his son Andrew. Records are lacking to show his son David and brother James bought farms in the neighborhood.
Alexander's wife Elizabeth died on April 12, 1791, after forty-two years of marriage. A plot of about a quarter-acre, alongside the Salem-West Hebron road, was set off from Captain McNitt's farm very early for a private cemetery, and Elizabeth was one of the first to lie in it. Neighbors named Morey and Shaw, among others, used the little cemetery, which is now neglected to undergrowth and tall grass.
Elizabeth's headstone is of white marble, and on it is incised the Captain's farewell to her:
Sleep peaceful here my love,Alexander may have felt very old at seventy-one when Elizabeth died, but he was to live twenty-five years longer. Perhaps because he was lonely in an empty house he married again; the name of the second wife was Jane, and she was twenty-two years younger than he. It must have been a marriage of convenience.
Death can't us long divide,
A few more rolling suns
Will lay me by your side.
When Alexander was seventy-five he arranged a sale of the home place where he had fought Tories and Indians, to his sons Alexander Jr. and Daniel. By a deed dated December 21, 1796, the Captain conveyed to them lot No.14 with its eighty-eight acres, minus seventeen and a half he had previously sold, for L500 in cash. The sons gave him a life lease of the house, barn, garden and liberty to pass over the farm for the rest of his life. They also undertook as part of the purchase price, in the bond they gave, to deliver to the Captain annually through the rest of his days half the hay and grain harvested, and sufficient firewood for the house; to care for Alexander and Jane in sickness, and to provide decent burial. The sons also agreed to pay to other heirs within two years after the Captain's death the sum of L138:6:8.
The deed, life-lease, and bond are in my collection of documents. On the back of the bond are two endorsements:
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Received February the 12, 1812, on the within bond thirty-eight dollars as witness our hands.
Alexa. McNitt, for Alex. McNitt.
Received on the within bond January the 13th, 1814, seventy-six dollars. Received for Alexr. McNitt.
The Captain outlived his second wife. Another and similar white marble slab was erected in the little cemetery with an inscription telling that Jane died on July 3, 1811. The epitaph this time sounded a different note:Andrew McNitt.
Friends nor physicians could not saveAnyone who cares now to climb over the roadside fence and penetrate the bushes may see the Captain's marble slab standing between those of the two wives - Elizabeth's at his right and Jane's at the left. His epitaph has a trace of family regard for him and conveys an idea of him in his later years. Beneath a conventional weeping willow and the lines: "In memory of Capt. Alexander McNitt who died Nov. 29 1817 in the 97th year of his age," appear these words:
My mortal body from the grave,
Nor can the grave confine me here
When Christ my Saviour shall appear.
His mind was tranquil and serene,Alexander McNitt Jr.must have had an inquiring and inventive mind, for a patent was issued to him on June 15, 1805 for a new method of making potash by "separating, collecting and preparing the sulphate of potashes .... polychristum or tartarum vitriolatum." A copy of the certificate was among the family documents and papers given to me by George Bardin, a great-great-great-great-grandson of Captain Alexander, after he sold the Salem farm on October 15, 1946, to Horace Clark. Alexander Jr. probably kept the original certificate. It was signed by Thomas Jefferson as President and James Madison as Secretary of State.
No terror in his looks was seen;
His Saviour's smiles dispel'd the gloom
And smooth'd the passage to the tomb.
What Alexander Jr. was able to do with his improved method of making potash we do not know. He was preparing to leave Salem even before the patent was granted; on April 11, 1803 he received a deed for 100 acres of land on the Homer-Virgil road in Virgil Township, Onondaga County, New York. The seller was James Wright and the consideration was $800. The county was subsequently divided and
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Virgil Township was included in the new county of Cortland. Alexander bought additional land afterward until his farm included 252 acres. We shall return later to him and his troubles with his church at Virgil.
The son who remained at home and built up the family landholdings was my great-great-grandfather Daniel: an energetic and provident man who evidently bought his inventor brother Alexander's interest and assumed all the obligations to the aging Captain. On June 24,1785, Daniel had bought for L30 from Alexander Webster, Commissioner of Forfeitures, forty-two acres in lot No. 23, "forfeited by the attainder of Oliver DeLancey, Esq." Then on January 3, 1791, he bought from Richard Tuthill seventeen and a half acres in the west part of lot No. 14. This was part of the Captain's original farm, which he must have sold to Tuthill at some pressing time. Daniel was bound to get the land back into the family and so paid L90 for it: more than the going price for land at the time.
More of the forfeited DeLancey land attracted Daniel, and on February 25, 1795, he paid L35 to Henry Quackenboss, Commissioner of Forfeitures, for fifty-seven acres or an undivided half of lot No. 12. Who may have been the other half-owner of the lot does not appear, but it is evident Daniel was able to buy all of lot No. 12, as well as all of No. 23. His son James had come into ownership of the Captain's original farm -- lot No. 14 -- and on May 1, 1813 father and son made an exchange. Daniel sold No. 23 to James for $2.,500 and James sold No. 14 to his father for $2,000.
Daniel drew his will on March 19, 1823 and it was probated December 4, 1829. The heirs were given these bequests: sons Alexander and Benjamin and daughters Sally McLachrey, Betsey Whipple, and Polly Thompson, $300 each. The residue in land went to James, who got the home farm. Three sons not mentioned presumably had already received their inheritances.
I have gone seldom to read gravestones, but those in the small neglected lot near Salem have interested me. On a stone taller than the Captain's is carved this inscription: "In Memory of Daniel McNitt, Died Nov. 12, 1829; In the 79th year of his age." Then this epitaph:
Rest worthy Sire, thy race is runDaniel had been a widower for twenty-one years. The stone next his reads: "In memory of Mrs. Mary, Wife of Mr. Daniel McNitt, who
Thy toil is o'er, thy work is done;
Thy God propitious sits above,
To bless thee with a Saviour's love.
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died Oct. 11, 1808, in the 53 year of her Age." Mary's epitaph would have been better without the two concluding lines:
A woman kind and friendly to the poor,Daniel's son James was the most forthputting, two-fisted, and aggressive McNitt of his time. He stood well over six feet tall, and was broad and powerful of frame. He built in 1823 and 1824 the large house that still stands on the home farm. In addition to tilling his acres he bought hogs all over the countryside and shipped hogsheads of dressed pork and lard to commission merchants in Montreal. He kept all of his statements and receipts in a filing case made of a long strip of buckskin, with pockets for alphabetical arrangement of papers. After consulting documents or filing new papers, he rolled up the case and tied it with a leather thong. The buckskin roll with all its contents, including deeds, court summonses, bills, receipts, and letters, was given me by George Bardin.
And well belov'd by all that knew her.
When this you see remember me
And see where you must shortly be.
That James McNitt was a contentious man is proved by all the court papers he kept with scrupulous care. He was frequently summoned to defend actions to collect minor debts and bills. He always paid; court costs were so low he may have felt it worth while to take his time and let the other fellow sue, and his lawyer charged only $3 or $4 for defending a case. More often he filed suits on his own account when he thought he had waited long enough.
James became a distiller. He set up two stills, piping spring water from the high hill across the Hebron road from the house, down to the small distillery he built at the side of Black Creek a few hundred yards away. One still was used to make whiskey, and one was for gin. It must be that gin proved the more profitable because he sold more of it, and may in time have devoted all his equipment to distilling it. Elihu Phelps was a partner for a short while at the outset.
There was nothing illicit about this distillery business. Official documents in the buckskin roll show that James paid license fees regularly to the revenue collector. It appears he was forgetful only once.
Among the papers in the old buckskin roll is a receipt given James by Daniel Lord, a commission dealer at 20 Old Slip, New York City, which shows how such business was handled in those days. It is worth reading now:
Mr. James McNitt has left with me six Hogsheads, one Tierce, and twenty-one Bbls. of Gin said by him to [be] 33 per Cent above proof, to be sold(end of page 66)
House at Salem, N.Y. built by James McNitt in 1823-24
James' buckskin filing case
James McNitt's account with George Getty for gin, whiskey.
and pork, when L1 equaled $2.50 and two bits (or shillings)
meant 25 cents
by me at not less than Seventy Cents per Gallon at proof, but if that price cannot be obtained in two Months from this date I am authorised to sell the same at the best price I can obtain in the market. The sales to be made for cash or credit as I may think best and to be for his account and risk; commissions on sales 2 ½ per Cent. I have advanced him my note at three months for five hundred Dollars, and cash and Hops three hundred and seventy-one 11/100 Dollars, for which I am to have a lien upon the Gin and its proceeds after paying Storage & Cartage,
New York, Decr 2nd 1818.
Supposed to be when reduced to proof 1,800 Gallons. Stored at No. 20 Old Slip.
James McNitt had interests other than selling gin, pork, and lard. On returning from one of his trips to Canada he brought with him a French pony, likely enough for his children to ride. He drove good carriage horses, and one of the few things remembered about him in the Salem community is that on town meeting days and other public occasions he challenged neighbors to race with him on broad, straight stretches of road. He always enlivened groups of men with these proposals and got his races.D. LORD.
His later years were clouded by almost total blindness. The tallest stone of all was erected for him in the little family cemetery; it proved too tall and fell forward from its base when frosts and storms weakened it. The stone was repaired and set up again, but the top third broke off and fell with its face to the ground. The remaining portion has part of the inscription, saying James died "Jan. 27, 1861, AE. 79 yrs, 5 ds." The rest of the epitaph was carved so lightly in small letters that it cannot be read.
Interestingly enough, a stone about as tall, erected fifteen years earlier for James' wife Lydia (Martin), remains proudly upright to this day. It reads: "LYDIA, Wife of James McNitt, Died May 17, 1846." A sentiment of two lines thinly carved in small italic letters is illegible.
James' son Martin McNitt (1812-1887), and Daniel's daughter Betsey, with her husband, Daniel Whipple, joined relations and neighbors in a migration to the new country around Quincy, Illinois. In the old buckskin roll is a letter from Whipple, written in 1830, telling of progress and an ambition to buy more quarter-sections of land, and suggesting he would appreciate help. Four years later Betsey wrote a friend back home; she felt inspirited by the rapid growth of the congregation at her church, the brightness of her children, and her husband's prosperity, though he worked very hard. But she was troubled by the reluctance
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of her brother James to pay bequests he owed as executor of his father Daniel's estate:
Otis wrote to us after David died that he would do anything for us. We sent him a power of attorney to collect [for] us what was due from Brother James. He never has said one word to us about what he has paid or what he will pay.... When Mr. Brown came back [from Salem] he said he .... persuaded James to pay that 25 Dollars for John .... said James had not the money with him and David lent it to James for Mr. Brown who receipted for this money.... Show this letter to Brother James and tell him to pray to his God who he ought to feel indebted to for all he has, not to wrong himself. If he does not, I am not afraid of his wronging me.The letter was handed James so he might know all his sister Betsey had written, and into the file it went, with every other paper that came his way. Receipted bills from John Moodie for services in 1823 and 1824 contain items like these: "To work and stuff for dog chirn, L1:0:0; to 3 3/4 days at cyder press, L1:10:0; to boarding Maria 15 weeks at 4 sh. per week, L3; to nine days work at house, L3:12:0; to 1 ½ days shingling house, 12s.; to writing Daniel McNitt's will, 6s."
In moments of abstraction James sometimes wrote on the back of an inconsequential paper some idle thought passing through his mind; thus: "For Value Rec'd I promise to pay James McNitt or barer Ten Dollars Thirty Dollars one Day after Date." "When this you see remember me & so forth." His mother's epitaph? And with a thought of his daughter Ann Eliza's need for improvement: "Analisa McNitt of Salem, Command you may your mind from play."
One of the children in the family was James, Jr. who was born September 27, 1821; married Emily A. --------; died September 22, 1874. The children in this family were James, born November 25, 1844; died March 20, 1846; Martha, born June 14, 1847, died eight days later; Martha Rosetta, born April 13, 1849, lived one year and two days; and Sanford W. McNitt, born March 27,1857, died May 3, 1933.
Sanford married, but the name of his wife eludes me. His son Howard H. McNitt, born November 10, 1906, spent his boyhood near West Hebron, and then resolved to get an education. Admirably he hitchhiked to Syracuse, entered the New York State College of Forestry, and worked his way through to the degree of Bachelor of Science in Forestry, won in 1930. He is now head of the Duane Tree Expert Company at Delanson. On July 17, 1937 he married Esther J. Lindsey; on their wedding trip they visited Barnard McNitt's old home at Palmer, a proper objective for newlyweds. Their children: Robert L. McNitt, born March 21, 1939, and James I. McNitt, born January 25, 1941.
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James McNitt's able son Martin removed to Illinois as a young man; no son remained at home to manage the farm. James' daughter Miriam married Daniel Woodard, who took over the home farm after James' death. Emma Woodard, the elder of two daughters, married Captain Joseph H. Hays, who made a good record in the Civil War, and who in turn operated the old Captain McNitt farm for a number of years. The children of this family were Marion Hays, who married George Bardin and had two sons, Louis and George; Roscoe, who became vice president and cashier of the Whitehall National Bank, and a Major in the National Guard; Horton, who died as a young man; and Mary, who married Archibald Alexander, a deputy sheriff of Washington County.
Many years a widow, Mrs. Emma Hays lived on the Salem farm until her death in 1932, cherishing always the traditions of the place. The farm passed to her daughter Marion Bardin, who spent her own years of widowhood with her mother. On Mrs. Bardin's death the farm went to her son George, who because of ill-health was unable to operate it, and who sold it in October 1946 to Horace Clark of an old Ulster-Scottish family. Thus the place where Captain Alexander had fought Indians and Tories from a log barn, passed through the female line for generations, and then to outside ownership after 177 years.
The second daughter of Daniel and Miriam McNitt Woodard is Lou, born August 11, 1866, who married on June 12, 189 2, Silas Edward Everts, born September 17, 1867. Mr. Everts, a lawyer for many years, lives with his wife Lou at Granville, New York. Their daughter Miriam, born July 12, 1897, is a teacher at Granville. Roscoe, born February 20, 1902, came to the end of a promising life in 1943.
The eldest of the Everts family of three children, Palmer W., was born on September 2, 1893. He became a lawyer, and on May 28, 1925, married Meta Mae Dennison of Detroit. Their children are Alice and Barbara. He is now executive secretary of the New York Title Association, whose membership embraces title and abstract companies and lawyers interested in conveyancing. Palmer's record in two World Wars is worthy of his great-great-great-grandfather, old Captain Alexander McNitt.
In the first World War he was a Second Lieutenant with the Engineers of the 90th Division, and fought in the St. Mihiel and Meuse. Argonne campaigns in France. After serving with the Army of Occupation in Germany he spent three months as a student at Cambridge University in England. When discharged he had the rank of First Lieutenant.
When the second war began, he was commissioned a Major and
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began service on Staten Island. Subsequently he was in Washington in the procurement division, employed in the acquisition of real estate tide evidence; then he was transferred to New York for similar work. Early in 1943 he was handling Replacement Unit personnel in New Orleans. In May he was transferred overseas to New Caledonia, and for two years was occupied with Army replacement personnel for the whole South Pacific area. He came out of service a Lieutenant Colonel, and held this rank as a reserve officer until late in 1949, when he retired. His office is in New York and he lives at Merrick, Long Island.
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