41. Alexander, Jr. is Excommunicated

It is an odd thing that a substantial member of a family so long devoted to Presbyterianism should be excommunicated, but it happened in 1816 in the Virgil community in Cortland County, New York.  Perhaps it would be more exact to say that Alexander McNitt, Jr., a mettlesome man, excommunicated himself out of pride of spirit. [SEE NOTE 1]  Should any of his descendants chance to learn the strange story now for the first time, let them be undismayed.

The central figure in the present chapter is the Captain's son Alexander, Jr., who fought throughout the Revolution except when a prisoner of the British.  The war records show that an Alexander McNitt was for a while an enlisted man in the Dutchess County militia.  This possibly was Alexander, Jr., who may have joined in the field between enlistments in Charlotte (now Washington) County.

We remember of him too that he obtained a patent for a new method of making potash, and that he bought 100 acres of land on April 11, 1803 from James Wright: part of lot No. 3 in Virgil Township.  On March 1, 1804, he bought an adjoining tract of fifty acres from Samuel Hunter for $300, and soon afterward he brought his family there from Salem.  Subsequently he bought enough additional land to extend his farm to 252 acres.  Anyone driving now through the beautiful hill country between Homer and Virgil, a few miles southwest of the city of Cortland, may discover where Alexander lived by observing a rural delivery mail box bearing the name of W. D. Cutler, standing before an old house on the east side of the road.

Great areas of undeveloped land in Central New York -- now one of the finest regions in the country -- were allotted in bounties to veterans of the Revolution.  Captain Alexander was entitled to 1,500 acres, and his brothers and sons to 600 acres each.  Many of the former soldiers did not care to go into new country, and sold their rights to speculators for what they would bring.  Evidently this is what all the veterans in the family chose to do, preferring to buy developed farms in communities to their liking a little later, if they found themselves wishing to push westward.  That is just what they did do.

The present county of Cortland was part of the military tract set aside by the State of New York in 1789 to be divided into bounty lands and given veterans.  The military tract ran from Oswego to the southern border of Cortland County, and from Seneca Lake to the eastern boundary of Cortland County.  When Cortland was set apart from Onondaga

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County it comprised four large townships: Homer, Virgil, Solon, and Cincinnatus.

Many other townships in Central New York have similar classic names: Lysander, Hannibal, Cato, Brutus, Camillus, Cicero, Manlius, Aurelius, Marcellus, Pompey, Romulus, Scipio, Sempronius, Tully, Fabius, Ovid, Hector, and Ulysses.  Many have smiled at these names;.  What scholars bestowed them?  They were given by Commissioners of the Land Office: the Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Auditor, and Attorney General, meeting in New York City.  All educated men, beyond a doubt.

All of Cortland County was bare of settlers when in 1790 the State began portioning out bounty lands.  Lot No. 3 in Virgil Township was drawn by Leonard Chambers.  He was succeeded in ownership by James Wright, who sold parts to Alexander McNitt, Jr., and Seth Sherwood.  Settlement began in 1791, and development was thirteen years along when Alexander brought his family in 1804.

The materials for the story of Alexander's trouble with the church were provided by Mrs. Clara A. Elder, executive secretary of the Cortland County Historical Society, from the old record book of the Virgil church for the period from the organization of the society on February 28, 1805, to 1825.  When one thinks of the Presbyterian Church of those days one thinks of Ulster Scots.  It is rather striking to find that virtually none of the names encountered in this case, beginning with that of the minister, the Rev. Oliver Hitchcock, are Scottish names.  As a matter of fact, the society at Virgil was originally Congregational; then for some reason it became Presbyterian in name, though the minister and other leaders evidently remained Congregationalists.

In a list of "Professing Members of the Church" in the record book, under date of 1813, appear the names of Alexander McNitt and his wife Mary.  We find the names of their children in lists of persons baptized into the Church: on March 7, 1813, Alexander Cook, James Benjamin, and Mary Eleanor McNitt.  On February 8, 1814, William Riley McNitt.  On October 22, 1815, Reuben R. McNitt.

To come to the point about Alexander: he was accused of having appeared "merry with drink" or "disguised with liquor" on several public occasions.  With the church record before us, let us recreate in imagination a series of meetings called to try Alexander for "the sin of intemperance," with the Rev. Mr. Hitchcock presiding and praying with solemn fervor.

The record tells a straightforward story of the protracted investigation, of the efforts of the culprit to clear himself, and by inference of a

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family's discomfiture.  The inquisition began in May with a sermon calculated to mortify the spirit, and lasted until the end of August.  Now for the minutes in the record book:

Virgil May 11th in 1816.  A Church meeting was holden after a preparatory Lecture for the purpose of attending to a Complaint exhibited by John E. Roe against Alexander McNitt for the Sin of Intemperance.  Rev. Oliver Hitchcock present and aided as Moderator.  The Church found by inquiry that the offending Brother had not had proper Notice given him.  They consequently adjourned the Meeting until the Eight day of June next at 4 o'clock afternoon.

Virgil June 8th 1816.  The Church meet according to adjournment, meeting opened by prayer by the Rev'd Oliver Hitchcock who presided as moderator.  The complaint was red which was for intemperance in four particulars.  1th.  At Bunnels Store, this he acknowledged.  The 2nd. at the time when he was at the Corner and went to Esquire Boyes and other places.  3rd. at Town Meeting.  4th.  At a vendue [auction] at Mr. John I. Gee's.  The Church could not proceed to act on the Complaint, the Evidence not being present.  The meeting was adjourned untill Saturday June 29th, 1816, at one o'clock afternoon.

Virgil June 29th 1816.  The Church meet according to adjournment, meeting opened by prayer but for want of evidence on both sides was adjourned to July 20th at 3 o'clock afternoon.

July 20.  The church met according to adjournment.  Opened by prayer.  The subject of Complaint against Alexander McNitt was brought forward.  Enos Boughton was sworn at request of said McNitt.  He saith at a vendue at the House of John I. Gee that he was disguised with liquor, also Abram Parleman made oath to the same effect.

John I. Gee sworn saith that at the same time above mentioned at his House that it appeared to him that the said McNit had drinked too much so he appeared to him to be disguised with drink.  This evidence relates to the 4th article of Complaint.

Article 3d at Town meeting at Mr. Chatteton's.  James Chatteton [Chatterton? ] sworn saith that he had drinked so as to feel quite merry more than he ought & that when two men were dancing on the floor he cut one of them out & proceeded to carry on the dance some time.

William Umpstead [Olmstead] sworn saith on above he thought the said McNit had drinked so as to make him merry.

As to the 2d Article when he was at the Corner & went to Esquire Boyes, John I. Gee saith when he came to his house and asked for liquor he replied not best to drink any more at present to which the said McNit replied he did not mean to get drunk though he had already drinked too much.  He said further after eating some food he appeared more steady and regular.

The Church condescended to hear 3 men which the said McNit brought forward which did not militate against the other.  They proceeded.

After due consideration on the matter, viewing the articles of complaint against Alexander McNit & the testimony procured by the complainer, came to the following result: that the complaint was supported in the 1st.

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Article by his own confession.  All the rest he denied.  As to the 2nd. Article, there was only one evidence which appear full & clear -- passed it over.  As to the 3rd & fourth Articles the Church viewed them supported so that they consider the said McNit as guilty of drinking in several instances to excess or disguised in some degree contra to solemn Covenant engagements & the pure precepts of the Gospel and as he left the meeting before the result was made up & did not receive the first admonition the Church agreed this should be done by writing.  They then adjourned until the tenth day of August 5 o'clock.
It appears that when the pious began talking about "pure precepts" Alexander -- after the impatient manner of his tribe -- walked out of the trial without waiting to hear his admonition.  We resume:
August 10 the Church met according to adjournment. voted a second admonition and adjourned to Saturday 31 day of August at 3 o'clock afternoon.

August 31, 1816.  The Church met according to adjournment voted that suitable pains had been taken with brother Alexander McNit to reclaim him and that it was the duty of the Church to withdraw their watch from him.

That is the end of the record of the church trial.  After months of cat-and-mouse punishment by inquisition the case was dropped.  But that did not end the matter.  On a page set apart for listing the damned, under the heading "Excommunicated," appears this entry:  "Alexander McNitt, for the sin of intemperance," the date is Sunday, September 1,  1816 -- one day after the society had voted to forgive Alexander and withdraw its watch.  What had happened overnight?

It is my opinion that Alexander, released from tension, had exploded with wrath and delivered a burning recital of his estimation of John E. Roe, the complaining witness.  There is no record in the book that excommunication was voted by the church membership.  The Rev. Mr. Hitchcock, advised by Brother Roe and others, may have excommunicated Alexander himself, challenged to do it by the angry man who did not care to be thus "reclaimed."

In writing of this case, Mrs. Elder has said: "It was customary back in those days for nearly everyone to have a still and make his own liquor, and drink as much of it as he pleased.  I feel that Alexander was discriminated against -- that perhaps this little church, hearing of other church trials, thought it time to have one of their own and picked on Alexander.  Certainly he could not have been the only one in that church to over-indulge in 'spirituous liquor.'  My sympathies are all with him and his family."

Writing of the sequel Mrs. Elder added: "The facts about Alexander McNitt [his trial and excommunication] now seem to us ridiculous,

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funny, and even cruel.  Back in those days they were cruel and even tragic and this instance, I believe, was the cause of Alexander McNitt's selling all his property in Virgil in 1817 and leaving for parts unknown.  He was either so disgusted with his treatment by the church, or his family was so humiliated that they could not be happy there any longer."

The simple story is that Alexander and Mary his wife sold their farm of 252 acres to their neighbor and friend Obadiah Boies for $1,438. The deed was dated June 18, 1817, less than eleven months after the end of the trial.  Mrs. Elder believes the buyer may have been the "Esquire Boyes" whom Alexander went to see at the "Corner."  Colonel Obadiah Boies was an outstanding man in the community and perhaps the leading citizen.  He was for a time part owner of the Cortland Republican.  One of his sons became a Presbyterian minister, and the other was for several years clerk of the United States Court for the Northern District of New York.  Colonel Boies did not testify against Alexander, although he doubtless was invited to do so.

The church record has one more entry for us.  On April 5, 1820, it was voted "that a letter should be granted to Mary McNitt for her dismission and a recommendation to any other Church of the same faith and order."  But Alexander's wife evidently was not telling anything: she did not ask that the letter be addressed to any specific church.  Where had they gone?  I have been unable to discover any trace of them.

The continuing pious zeal of the church at Virgil is fascinating.  Not content with what it had done, it soon began another process of excommunication.  The victim was Sanford Boughton.  Charges were lodged against him in 1818 "for the sin of absenting himself from Public worship and the Sacrament and a criminal conformity to the customs and manners of the world."  Hearings continued for a year or more, and one of the admonitions was given by none other than our favorite saint, John E. Roe.  On July 7, 1819, the "Church voted a letter of excommunication for Brother Sanford Bouton."  In the church minutes of July 18 it appears that "This excommunication [was] read in public."

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Notes added by William H. McNitt

August 14, 1999

1.The author of the Saga was convinced that the Alexander McNitt of this chapter was a son of Captain Alexander McNitt of Salem, N.Y.  Newer evidence shows that he was really a grandson.  He was born in 1776 and was the oldest son of Daniel McNitt of Salem.  After the events described in this chapter, he moved to Mexico, Oswego County, New York.  In 1838 he and his family migrated to the area around Northville, La Salle County, Illinois.  This entire family adopted the McNett form of the surname.  Return to chapter text.


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