42. John McNitt of Norwich

Secure in memory is the man about whom legends are woven.  Such a man was John, presumed youngest of the sons of Captain Alexander McNitt and last to be born at Pelham, Massachusetts before the trek to Salem.  After his Revolutionary service with his father and brothers he went pioneering on his own in 1794, and established a family at Norwich, New York.

Mrs. Caroline E. Barwick of Lanagan, Missouri, a daughter of Julia McNitt of the Norwich family, relates that an old aunt was fond of telling how John had refused to swear allegiance to George III.  It is a pity the aunt didn't write the story in detail and leave it to be preserved; a great wealth of family stories has been dissipated through lack of recording.  John perhaps had been picked up as a straggler by the British somewhere in the Saratoga country, and an officer had resolved to transform him into a good Loyalist.  Perhaps John had been moseying around the enemy to discover what he could learn, and got caught.

Anyhow, the British officer informed John he would have to take the oath of allegiance if he wished to save himself, and John decided to play dumb.  This is what ensued:

OFFICER:  Repeat these words after me: I, John McNitt --

JOHN:  You, John McNitt --

And he couldn't be made to say it any other way.  He must have been given up as either incorrigible or half-witted, which was the conclusion John wished to be drawn.  Another story is that at some time in his campaigning John left bloody footprints in the snow.  Only that: a tantalizingly brief mention that implies a story of hardship.

John evidently was the first of the Salem group to head westward into the Finger Lakes region, where several were to become established in the three counties of Chenango, Cortland, and Cayuga.  The Norwich telephone book proves how many remain.  He selected a farm of 100 acres on the east bank of the Unadilla River in the Polkville neighborhood, and received his deed in exchange for  100 on August 6, 1800, from John Davenport of Stamford, Connecticut.  The pond lilies in the slow-moving stream may have diverted his attention from the shale deposits in the soil that would make ploughing hard work.  He bought fifty acres more on March 26, 1817 from James Birdsall and his wife Mizpah, for which he paid $100.  His prosperous descendants later crowded the registry books with records of their real estate transactions.

Only a few months after the second purchase, John sold the 150 acres

(end of page 76)

to his son John, Jr. for $1,600.  Less than two years later the son was removing to Allegany County, New York, and John bought the place back on July 5, 1819, for $1,100.  The years wore on and the son was back in Norwich again when John, at the age of eighty-two, sold the original 100-acre farm and an additional twenty-five acres of timber land on October 29, 1841, to John, Jr.

The father sold "in consideration of the sum of five hundred dollars & also for natural love and affection."  On the same day John, Jr. gave his father a life-lease of the property for the sum of $100 then paid.  The son covenanted also to pay $100 to Eleanor Barr, evidently his sister, and $100 to John Barr, her son, on or before October 1, 1842.

Presumably while John, Jr. was living elsewhere, John had sold on April 11, 1822, thirty-one acres to his son Levi for $500, "reserving the plot thirty feet square where Eleanor McNitt is buried and where he and others of the family may be." Levi evidently sold the land back to his father within a few years.

The small private burial plots used by the pioneers have been badly neglected in recent times, and are usually to be reached now only by pushing through undergrowth.  The stone presumably erected to mark the burial place of John's wife Eleanor has disappeared.  A small one indicates that James, son of Joseph and Eleanor Barr, died August 7, 1819 at the age of two years and eleven months.  A modest slab at the head of a grave into which animals have made exploratory diggings bears this inscription:

John McNitt
April 17, 1843
Ae. 85 Y'rs
A Soldier of the Revolution

All the records agree John was born in 1759, but the writer of the epitaph must have believed the date was early in 1758.  The old farm has for many years been owned by strangers.

From obviously hard beginnings there has grown a family of energy and considerable accomplishment.  One of John's great-great-grandsons was Charles Chauncey McNitt, who conducted an insurance brokerage business in Norwich until his death in 1943 at the age of seventy-one.  His widow told me in 1948 of her husband and his family, drawing upon the most nearly complete records available.  She showed with pride a photograph of her late husband, a handsome man.  She told of an ideally happy marriage, complete in everything but the presence of children.

(end of page 77)

She had helped with the insurance business in her husband's lifetime, and had taken on full management after his death.

During her talk she stated very simply a characterization of John McNitt and his sons and grandsons that seems an adequate summing up of these men and many of their kinsmen: "They were good citizens and good farmers, who paid their debts and prospered."

The children and later descendants of John and Eleanor McNitt, as incompletely recorded:

I. James, b. at Salem 1785, m. Ruth Gates, d. November 22, 1862.
II. Alexander.
III.  Levi.
IV. William.
V. John, Jr., previously mentioned, who sold farm after father's death and moved to Rock River, Illinois.
VI. Margaret, b. 1793, m. October 31, 1811 Deodatus Sill, d. November 1875.  The Sills removed to Cattaraugus County, New York in 1820.
VII.  Betsey, m. Matthew Barr.

James McNitt (I. above) and Ruth Gates McNitt had issue:

1. Prudence, b. March 10, 1811.
2. Caroline, b. 1813.
3. William, b. 1815, m. Mary Hall.
4. Daniel, b. 1817.
5. Morgan, b. June 15, 1819.
6. George, b. 1821.
7. John, b. 1823.
8. Charles, b. November 1, 1825.
9. Nelson, b. 1831.
10.  James, b. 1834.
11. Aaron Dwight, b. 1839.
William McNitt (3 above) b. 1815, m. Mary Hall; one of their sons was (3-a) George William, b. 1854, m. Eliza Holcomb (1855-1947), d. 1942.  George William and Eliza McNitt had issue:
3-a-1. LeRoy, b. 1881, m. in 1902 Bessie Purdy (1884-1936); was grain and feed merchant, now retired and living in Norwich.
3-a-2. Harold W., physician, eye, ear, nose and throat specialist, living and practicing in Binghamton, New York.
Morgan McNitt (5 above), b. 1819, m. Frances E. Day (1821-1896), d. 1872. Morgan and Frances McNitt had issue:
5-a.  Chauncey Morgan McNitt, b. 1848, m. Frances Smith on Christmas day 1868, d. 1872; issue:
5-a-1.  Julia, m. George Leslie.  Their daughter Caroline related stories that open this chapter.
5-a-2. Charles Chauncey, b. April 20, 187 2, m. Jessie Knott of Oxford, New York, September 4, 1901, d. May 13, 1943.
(end of page 78)

Others not accounted for above, and living in or near Norwich are Clifford D., Elson M., Leslie, Linn, Walter, and R. B. McNitt.  John W. McNitt lives in Binghamton.

It is quite probable that more persons with this surname are to be found living comfortably in Norwich, New York, than in any other town or city in the United States.

(end of page 79)

Return to the Table of Contents

Send e-mail