University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Journal of a Trip to Niagara, Commenced 8 Mon 22 1817

Volume X · Autumn 1954 · Number 1
Journal of a Trip to Niagara, Commenced 8 Mon 22. 1817.

[A few months before his twentieth birthday, Benjamin Hornor Coates, a medical apprentice at the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, made a journey to Niagara Falls by steamboat and stagecoach, returning by sailboat across Lake Ontario to Sackets Harbor, thence overland to New York and Philadelphia. During the first half of his travels he kept a journal each day, which upon his return was copied into a small parchment-bound volume, along with some of his poetic efforts. Some years ago the volume came into the possession of the University Library, and because it describes so vividly the conditions in central and western New York State during an important period in the development of the area, it has been looked upon as one of the finer manuscript pieces in our Local History Collection. As far as we have been able to ascertain, the journal has never been published. To reproduce it in its entirety would require more space than is available in this Bulletin, and we have tried to choose excerpts which will give the flavor of the whole, and a picture of conditions in the area before canals, railroads, and thruways removed some of the ordeals of travel.

Dr. Coates was born in Philadelphia in 1797, a son of Samuel Coates, a Philadelphia merchant who devoted much of his adult life to the administration of the Pennsylvania Hospital. The son was educated at the Friends' Grammar School, and later became a student of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania from which he was graduated in the spring of 1818. Before his graduation he spent several years as a "medical apprentice" at the Pennsylvania Hospital, receiving from the attending physicians instruction in the "trade or mystery of an apothecary and physician." He practiced medicine for many years in Philadelphia, took an active part in the medical societies of the city, and published many articles on medical topics. His interests were broad and his knowledge almost encyclopedic. He was one of the founders of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and a member of the American Philosophical Society, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and a social club known as the "Tea and Toast Club." He died in his eighty-fourth year, in the fall of 1881.

The diary began as Dr. Coates traveled up the Hudson on board the steamboat Chancellor Livingston. From Albany he proceeded to Ballston and Saratoga by stagecoach, visiting the springs for a few days before he continued on his journey to Schenectady. Here he joined the company with which he remained until they reached Lewiston on the Niagara River. The party consisted of a French political refugee, Baron de Rochement, and his son, two Virginia planters, a West Indies merchant, and a "Major W," a gentleman of wealth and an enthusiastic traveler. Proceeding slowly through the central part of the state, they arrived at Canandaigua on August 29. A part of the journal which begins on this date follows.--Margaret Butterfield.]


THE Country, for some miles before we come to Seneca Outlet, is boggy, with frequent deep swamps, and a remarkable number of fallen trees. This appearance, which we saw repeated in many places, on this as well as the Sackets harbour road, must be owing to some peculiarity of the soil; but it is by no means incompatible with the production of a great Quantity of wood, as it occurs in some of the most heavily timbered Lands I ever saw. They form a very singular feature in the character of the Country, often nearly covering the face of it in all the different stages of decay; and the ground itself being diversified with hillocks and mounds of earth, produced from the remains of their trunks & roots.

Between Cayuga and Seneca and along the outlet of the latter, we observe for the first and only time, the striking and peculiar appearance so common in Pennsylvania, of tall black trunks of trees killed and scorched by fire. The naked spiry look of a wood of firs, which we had not seen since within a few miles of Ballston, has in itself, even when thriving, something extremely gloomy and repulsive; and it is more so to eyes accustomed to the exuberant and rounded growth of our woods of Oak, Chestnut and Beech. But when deprived of their own dark verdure by fire, their air is dismal in the highest degree. The imagination immediately reverts to the Scenes of robbery and murder described in romances, whose natural horrors correspond to those designed to be raised in the mind of the reader. We fancy on every tree we see a Malefactor hung, in Chains, and look for a murdered body on every lonely hill.

The Lakes however present scenery of very different impressions. Their heads, lost at a great distance winding between the hills, are surrounded with un-cleared forests, while their nearer shores are enlivened and diversified with Cultivation. There is a beautiful Town at the foot of every successive Lake; which obtains from their long and narrow form, the same Communication with the Country, that increases the population on rivers.

The beauty of the Towns all along the road is superior to any thing of the kind I ever saw. The utmost pains compatible with cheapness seem to have been taken to accomplish this desirable object. All the houses with scarcely a single exception are painted milk-white, and kept as clean and fresh on the outside as possible. Their form, even that of the out buildings, is always elegant; the houses, offices, &c. forming complete detached buildings in themselves, and being rarely connected together in an irregular outline.

More attention to ornament is indeed paid than we thought judicious, as obvious inconvenience was sometimes the result.

The Churches, of which there is scarcely a village without two, are also of wood, and in the same style. They are made with neat Porticoes, with pillars, that look like white marble. All the houses, in whose construction a little more Expense has been incurred, have Pilasters, and perhaps Arches, on the walls.-All these Country places look exactly alike on the whole route to Lake Erie; but it is a uniformity of excellence, of which we have no right to complain. The effect on the mind is such that our own rows of substantial, well finished, but dingy and unpainted brick houses look quite poor in comparison. It must I have no doubt be better even for the prosecution of a trade, to live in a neat house; as I cannot help thinking, that people more willingly buy a coat or a pair of shoes out of a clean parlour-looking place, than one shabby and neglected.

That the improvements of this country are substantial and will not pass away with the joists and planks at present forming the peoples dwellings, is demonstrated by the fact, that in all the older Towns there are rapidly accumulating fine brick houses, of a value unusually great for such short periods of settlement. Some of the Stores and Hotels are really of an astonishing size, and would be thought remarkably large houses in the middle of a City. Even in minuter particulars their order and Convenience characterise the ingenious spirit of New England. Every thing seems at once remarkably convenient and compact. The bar rooms are all supplied with sinks to wash & throw the water in, instead of suffering it to form puddles before the door, as is so common in Pennsylvania. Many of their wells are furnished with buckets, balanced with large Stones hanging to a wheel and axle, which forms a much neater and more manageable apparatus, than the long lever often used with us.-At Geneva there were preparations for fire, as was shewn by the fire buckets. The Bricks struck us as inferior to those employed on the Sea Coast, but the Newness of the houses gave them an air of comfort and improvement corresponding to every thing else.

It was from Cayuga to Canandaigua that the land first began to shew inferiority in the degree and extent of cultivation. On the Seneca Lake at the lower end, it stands at sixty or seventy dollars an Acre. At the upper end of it, in the forest, only ten dollars. The value of the sides of this particular Lake, as well as of all the adjacent Country, will be very greatly increased, by the canals now in survey to connect it with the river Susquehannah. There [are] only fifteen Miles to be dug; and the people of Philadelphia ought to feel a particular interest in its completion, as it is to bring so much of the produce of this beautiful Country, to their City and to Baltimore.

All Points on the small Lakes, and on Oswego River, are, with the help of short porterages capable of water Communication with the head of Seneca. This work must have a disadvantageous Effect on the progress of the Great New York Western Canal; as undoubtedly much of the utility of the latter will, if it is completed, be derived from the Communication it establishes with this territory thro' which it passes. If Philadelphia is a better market than Montreal, it is equally near, and is open earlier in the Season; and I do not see why produce should not even be brought from the shores of Lake Ontario up Oswego river to the former place. What immense advantages are derivable from opening the Schuylkill and Susquehannah to Navigation! Pennsylvania professes plentiful resources for river communication, connecting even the Delaware with Lake Erie, and thus setting the New York Canal Scheme at defiance. What a deplorable fact, if such Resources are injudiciously employed and such opportunities neglected! A little above Geneva, is a deserted Settlement of the Seneca Indians, the same which was laid waste by General Sullivan in the Revolutionary War, and the loss of which compelled them to sue for peace.

At three in the afternoon we reached Canandaigua, the Capital of the Western part of the State of New York. This mushroom City in the Woods, this Genesee Metropolis, is already rich with the white dwellings of men of property, adorned with even fashionable elegance, and very extensive along the high road. It is situated on a rising ground at the outlet of the Lake of the same name, the only one we saw on our road, whose borders shewed any thing like hills. The Oneida indeed, and the Salt lake, which we saw from above Onondago hill, had mountainous banks; but they do not form a part of the same series, and are possessed of a character entirely different. They lie remote from the others; they neither resemble them in Shape, nor run in a parallel Direction, but seem to mark a distinct Section of Country. This winding Sheet of water, with its banks just sufficiently waved to prevent their being monotonous, is in full view of the Town. The latter, in addition to the natural beauties of its Site, is built with all that studious regard to appearance that is observable in the other places in the road. It is ornamented with several public buildings; of which were pointed out to us two churches, one of them of brick, and a Bank of the same material. The illness of one of our party prevented me from obtaining a deliberate view of the town in the walk our Company took for the purpose; tho' we afterwards rode thro' it in the Stage. The private Residence of a person of the name of Chandler [i.e. Granger] was remarked for its costly elegance. Tho' constructed of wood, it was furnished with porters' lodges, battlements, etc. The hotel also where we slept deserves to be mentioned from its great Size. It was built square, and had, I believe no less than seven windows in one line. Brick houses are in truth rather scarcer here, than in some of the towns further back, which I suppose indicates a more recent origin. It seems in fact to have been the general progress of things, thro' all the Country for the people to begin while young in life and business, by constructing their dwellings of wood; and afterwards, when they have acquired a Capital sufficient to bear large expenditures for distant returns, to replace them by more lasting materials, calculated to be of service not only to themselves, but to posterity. Young however as the place is, it is said to be likely soon to yield in importance to Rochester, another Town, situated on the Genesee River, and a place of great trade. Advantages for the latter Canandaigua possesses few; it being eligible only for its beauty and affording residence principally to rich Landholders, Lawyers and Persons in Office. It is said to be nearly at a Stand. Town lots, however, we were told sell very high, and the adjacent Country is extensively and highly improved. After riding a few Miles we were shewn woodlands which were said to command the price of seventy five dollars an acre, and what sounds very strange of such a place, is worth less when cleared. The remarkable size however of the timber is fully sufficient to account for a very considerable difference in value, if we only imagine a Market.

Wheat is said to produce twenty five bushels an acre in "common good crops." Oats from twenty to eighty, and expected this year, to afford fifty. The style of the farm houses is by no means proportionate in beauty and neatness to that of the Towns. They seem indeed to be tenanted by a different people. Though built more recently than those on the former part of our route, the State of neglect in which they are suffered to remain, together with the want of paint makes them look quite old and decayed.-One particular of their Construction, resulting from the climate, was remarked from the novelty of its appearance; viz, the house on three sides, as well as above and below, and furnished with boards, with which in Winter, it may be formed into a complete room or lobby, generally leading into two or three different apartments. This provision, together with that of double doors, does not appear till we reach the Western part of the State; tho' the north latitude is not greater than that of the Mohawk Country.-At length after passing thro' three or four small villages, at the distance of twenty six miles from the Canandaigua Lake, We arrived at the River Genesee.

There is nothing in the appearance of this famous Stream to correspond with the importance it assumes in the Affairs of Man. A little narrow water Course, not half a dozen times the length of the boat from side to side; between banks high enough to prevent its being seen at a distance, and at the same time so low and so uniformly flat, as to prevent any thing romantic from appearing on its brink;-it appears crossing and draining the adjacent meadows like a large artificial Ditch. The great river, that traverses and gives name to such a vast extent of Country, entirely quits the imagination; and the astonished eye beholds nothing but the insignificant supply of some common mill dam. It was, however, when we passed it nearly at its lowest; and even then its deep green colour, and the immediate disappearance of its bottom on quitting the side, proved that the quantity of water it conveys must be very considerable. Its depth is probably owing to the rich looseness and softness of the soil. The same is, I believe, the case with the Mississippi, and probably with many other rivers in similar circumstances. That richness of soil for which the name of Genesee is so renowned, appears to extend over the greater part of the Country about the remoter small lakes, and the levels of about 50 miles in breadth which include both sides of the river. But the Flats situated in the immediate vicinity of the water, and actually overflowed by it every year, are the top of the climax,-that highest degree of possible fertility which has been so studiously held out to Emigrants regarding all new countries, where detection could not immediately ensue. In the place where we crossed them, they were not more than a Mile or two wide; but they are said to be much more considerable in places higher up.

Immediately beyond the river, a part of this excellent soil is reserved for the Indians, and exhibits the same mournful contrast with the industry of the whites, that was so heart Sickening at Oneida-reservation. We met a young Indian apparently about 25 years old and covered with crosses and other ornaments of some white metal, creeping slowly along on a very good horse, with a group of 6 or 7 women who walked and carried burthens by his side. "You lazy rascal," impatiently exclaimed one of my fellow passengers, "if I were near you I Would pull you off that Horse." One of the women, who had a child in her arms, was young and not devoid of beauty. The manner in which they carry the heavier burthens is by means of a strap passing over the forehead; and this compels them to lean forward very considerably, the package resting on the back;-a posture in which they travel for a considerable distc. It has since struck me, that one of the most feasible methods of civilizing those people Would be by means of the Women. Female influence has long been acknowledged the greatest means of polishing and refining the human race. But this has been where women were treated with respect, and not considered as Slaves and Subjected perhaps to personal punishment from the men. If we apply this to the Indians, we shall conclude, that if by any means a law or Custom could be introduced, even partially preventing them from beating or in any way personally Injuring their wives and daughters, the latter would exert an unperceived but constant pressure, tending gradually to make the men labour and relieve themselves. Industry is the great desideratum. Once induce those who have strength to employ it in labour, and all other things will follow of course. Improvement in the arts would Naturally result from the necessity of their exertion by the hands of the free; & knowledge & refinement would arise, as soon as the acquisition of property had left the mind sufficiently at ease to be inquisitive. I should suppose too, that Indians would more easily be induced to agree to this change, than in the first instance to labour. Its action would be indirect, & would not be seen; and there is nothing in treating the women with respect  so repulsive to the indolent mind as habits of exertion are in themselves. "Men must be taught as if you taught them not." It is like the method of the ingenious Yankee, who, having contracted to make a canal at a certain Spot, turned the waters of a neighbouring Stream on the place, and thus washed away with little trouble in a few hours an obstacle, to displace which by direct attempts would have required a vast expense of time & Labour.

There is a gradual deterioration of the State of useful and elegant improvment of the country, from about Onandaga to Lake Erie. The houses, particularly the farm houses, become more neglected in cleanness and repair. They are also more seldom white. The fields, from about Batavia, a place shortly to be mentioned, shew the recent date of their clearance by the stumps of trees; for, notwithstanding we have heard so much of the extremely short time the Country has been cleared, these short-lived memorials of the reign of Nature have along the former part of the road, except in a very few patches, entirely decayed. The comparatively neglected State of the farm houses and villages to the west of Genesee, must no doubt in part be attributed to their recent origin; but I think there is still another reason. I think we can see less of the hands and heads of New England, and that the genius of the Country more & more resembles that of the southern country. I image that the proportion of settlers from these quarters increases as we advance Westward: both from the extremely high reputation the Genesee country has had with us, and the circumstance of the other parts lying more contiguous to the eastern States.

Caledonia, Allens-creek, with its falls and numerous mills, & Southampton are the next places worthy of remark thro' which we passed. The Same flat Country, in places seeming as rich as possible, in others Poor, accompanied us; but, perhaps from weariness of repeating the Same questions so often for 5 days together, we grew at length remiss, in enquiring the value and produce of Land along the road. However, from its apparently superior average of fertility, and the better water carriage afforded by the river towards Montreal, we may safely conclude it to be at least more valuable than the Preceding tracts. We stopped at a little tavern a few miles beyond Southampton, and ordered some bread and cheese to be prepared immediately, for the purpose of allowing us sufficient time to proceed to a neighbouring Methodist camp-meeting. We soon learned, however, from the delay and stir in the house, that something more was proceeding. A remarkably intelligent looking and at the same time beautiful girl drew the attention of some of our fellow travellers, both by her air of superiour rank and education and her particular assiduity in preparing for the comfort of the strangers. We derived much advantage from the Badness of the roads excusing the Stage from travelling with its usual rapidity, even after the cause was partially removed; so that the driver, being only obliged to reach a given place in the course of the whole day, left considerable choice of hours to the passengers, who here consisted of our party alone-we were informed that this good young lady was the daughter of a Judge Mervine, who owned a large brick house opposite,-a man of the first importance in the neighbourhood; & that, seeing the Strangers arrive at a time when the women of the tavern were mostly absent at the Camp meeting, She had hurried immediately over to assist, and prevent our suffering any inconvenience. We all of Course felt very much interested in our fair provider's romantic kindness and romantic name; and two of our party, on finding from conversation that She was fond of reading, presented her, as the only acknowledgment they could make, with a couple of books they had accidently brought along. A Federalist offered, "Sancho, or the proverbalist;" and a Democrat the poem of "Bluelights or the Hartford Convention." But objects of interest were not to come single. A warm dispute was heard in the piazza, concerning who our french Baron could be; one party maintaining that it was no other than the great Napoleon himself; the other, with the Inn Keeper at its head, that it was Joseph Bonaparte, or some other frenchman of importance. Which-ever had the better of the argument, the people flew round the house with looks of terror and with the utmost rapidity, and prepared us, rather late to be sure, instead of the homely meal we contemplated, an excellent dinner.

The Inn Keeper, it seems, like his German brother of the profession, was unwilling to have an Emperor in his house and let him off for a shilling. After finishing the repast and taking leave with universal regret of the kind Miss Mervine, we sallied into the front yard. Here we found all the loungers in the tavern assembled together, with an old man in the midst of them, who presented himself to speak to the Baron. He commenced by telling him that his neighbours had deputed him, as the oldest individual amongst them, to present their compliments to the great stranger, in the name of the country; and that he would so in four lines of poetry, which he read and presented to the Baron, and of which this is a copy.

"Hail genius of the French, In Western wilds, 
"We but salute thee, and our country smiles.
 "We must lament thy predecessors fate.
"We cannot help, Good God it is too late."

After a short pause, and reperusing the lines, the Baron addressed our son of Apollo; but it seems he took off his hat, and this set the old man into the Gestures of a madman. He stooped down and thrust from him both his hands, and writhing about, exclaimed in a Voice of agony, "oh dont put off your hat, oh dont put off your hat, To me! What am I?" The Baron replaced his hat, and not having exactly understood him, told him, he was not the person they took him to be, but he knew him. The country man made two or 3 more speeches in the same style, all the while frisking about with the utmost extravagance of gesture; and concluded by telling us "I was a great man once. I fought at Bunker's hill, and fired seventeen times against the British. That was all the great things I ever done." This proof of universality of respect and admiration for verse, may perhaps excuse an anecdote, I think from Goldsmith. A poet went into a barbers Shop, and not finding the master at home complimented his wife upon the wit and ingenuity displayed in her husbands advertisements. "La Sir," replied the Surprised lady. "I hope you does not think husband [meddles] with them there things, la why no, he never meddles with that sort of thing. He keeps a poet!!!"

Two or three miles farther, we left our Stage at a tavern, taking the precaution to see the driver, and proceeded to the meeting. About a mile of hilly road, damp from a rain during the preceding night, conveyed us to the wood which was the theatre of this devotional exhibition. A number of people were passing and repassing, both riding and walking. The wood, of a thicker and larger growth, involved in darkness a soil, bearing marks strongly Characteristic [of] that of a great portion of this country. It was composed of nothing but decayed vegetable matter, which indicated that it was confined to the surface by some hard resisting Stratum underneath. This is a description of Soil well known in these parts, as possessing incomparable fertility at first, but being soon and irrecoverably exhausted. It seems to require, to renew its Strength, another fallow of a thousand years, tho' Spoiled in 15 or 20. This is the ground that raises such large trees, and then is unable to afford them foot hold against the winds; and which produces the prodigious number of fallen trunks remarked above. Descending a steep road, reduced by the horses and carts into a vile mixture of rock and mud, in a low damp uncomfortable hollow, we found the meeting. The ceremonies of these assemblies are so common that a description of them were better omitted. But this was held in a forest of unusual Growth and Singular Grandeur. There was something in the extreme darkness and loftiness of the Wood, combined with the night which was Just closing over our heads, that heightened the effects of the lights & the white tents to a striking degree. The candles were fastened to the sides of long naked trunks, extending, as is characteristic of a heavy forest in a state of nature, to a considerable height without diminishing in thickness. The tops of these lofty & crowded pillars were with difficulty Seen to support the diverging branches; the remote Arches seemed scarcely Sensible of the dim illumination, And the whole formed an awfully magnificent temple well fitted to render impressive the propagation of religion. It reminded us of those primitive days, when the founders of Christianity addressed their barbarian Congregations, in forests like these, with no more enthusiastic energy, and perhaps with hardly more effect.

The usual routine of singing, praying and exhortation, with the interludes of parties eating and drinking, and individuals moaning, or absolutely fainted from excessive exertion, lying in the tents, was acted before us here, and produced on our companions various effects according as more or less familiar to them. The few words we heard from the preacher were addressed to strangers, and were very sensible and Judicious. Our French friends made few remarks, but were extremely attentive to every thing. The Senior Said on his departure that he was glad he had been there, tho' he would not take the trouble again. "Il etait folie d'aller voir des fous." The greater part of his disgust, however, was produced by the manner of our departure, which was disagreeable in the highest degree to all who did not feel something romantic in the wildness of the Situation. The road was narrow, muddy, full of holes and up hill; in addition to this, was soon immersed in total darkness, and, as if all this was not enough, crowded for Some distance with horses and carts coming in the opposite direction. Such a road, except because it shewed the way, were better lost than maintained. Accordingly 4 of us, after parting the rest, Soon lost Sight of or rather Contact with the ruts, which were our only guidance. This number unfortunately contained the good Baron & his son. The elder of whom, by his weight and age, was ill qualified to grope his way through bushes and stumble in mud over mossy logs. I was, I confess, wicked enough to wish most heartily that we might come out of the wrong side of the wood, at a considerable distance of our point of departure; but in this I was disappointed, as we soon regained the way from hearing the voices of passengers. The attention of our younger European was particularly attracted by the phosphorescence of the decayed wood, which he had never seen before. I found a large piece, which he carried nearly all the way back, thrusting it at all the foot passengers we met & laughing immoderately.

We found, on reaching the Stage, that we had overstaid our agreement by a full hour; being absent twice as long as we expected, and at length drove off to Batavia, furnished with subjects for Copious conversation, till an hour after Shewn to Our dirty Chambers. We at length fell asleep, uninjured, from our excited state, by the chills of the muddy cathedral, but with our sides fatigued with laughter at the poet and his companions, and our minds with such rapid and varying objects of Attention.