Samuel W Durant.

History of Oneida County, New York : with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers online

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be erected at such place, within a mile of Fort Stimwix, in
the town of Rome, as the supervisor should designate. It
was not to be expected that educated and experienced
lawyers could be found at that early day to, preside over
and conduct the business of the courts of Common Pleas,
fur of such there were as yet scarce any to be found within
the boundaries of the newly-formed county. Fair-minded,
intelligent, and upright laymen were selected for these
stations, and accordingly the first incumbents of the Her-
kimer Common Pleas, which then included Oneida County,
were Henry Staring, judge, and Jedediah Sanger and Amos
Wetmore, justices. Of the first of these men a very graphic,
and, I am inclined to think, a very just sketch, is given by
our former highly-esteemed townsman, William Tracy, Esq.,
of New York, in the two most valuable and entertaining
lectures delivered by him in this city, more than thirty
years ago. Staring was a plain, honest, Dutch farmer,
living at German Flats, of limited education, but with a
large stock of common sense and sound judgment, and,
above all, an incorruptible integrity. His sense of the
inviolability of contracts and the duty of fulfilling them
is well illustrated in the amusing but well-authenticated
incident of his refusing a discharge to an applicant for the
benefit of the insolvent act until he had paid all his debts;
to be relieved from which, it need hardly be said, was the
very object and purpose of the application.

The first record we have of any court held within the
territory of what is now the county of Oneida is in Octoberj
1793, when a court of Common Pleas was hold in a barn
belonging to Judge Sanger, in the town of New Hartford ;
and over this court Judge Staring presided, assisted by
Justices Sanger and Wetmore. An incident occurred at
this session of the court, which is so amusing and illustra-
tive that I venture to reproduce it substantially as it is



related by Tracy in the lectures already alluded to. The day
was cold and chilly, and the barn, of course, had no appli-
ances for creating artificial warmth. In the absence of these,
and with a view to keeping their faculties awake, some Of
the attending lawyers had induced the sheriff (an impulsivfr
and obliging Irishman, named Colbraith) to produce a jug
of ardent spirits, which was quietly circulated around the
bar, and from which each one decanted (taking it like
oysters raw from the shell) the quantity that would suflBce
to keep them up to concert pitch. While this was going
on the judges, who were suffering from tlie cold without
any such adventitious relief, consulted together, and con-
cluded that rather than freeze in their seats they would
adjourn the court until the ensuing day. Just as they
were about to announce this conclusion, and to call on the
sheriff to make the usual proclamation, the latter sprang up
with the jug in his hand, and handing, it up to the Bench
exclaimed, " Oh, no, no, judge, don't adjourn yet;. Take a
little gin ; that will keep you warm. 'Taint time to adjourn
yet." Tradition says the court yielded to the soft persua-
sion and, in the language now common and familiar to our
ears, " smiled," and proceeded with the business of the
court. What sort Of justice prevailed during the remainder .
of that day the historian of the incident does not tell us,
and contemporary tradition is silent on the subject.*

The county of Oneida having been finally separated from
Herkimer, as I have stated, in 1798,- the first Court of
Common Pleas for Oneida County was held in the month
of May of that year, at the school-house near Fort Stan-
wix. I am not aware that the precise site of this primeval
seat of justice is known, or is capable of asceitainmeirt;
Over this court Judge Sanger presided, assisted by David
Ostrom, of Utica, and George Huntington, of Rome, names
well and honorably known in the history of our county.
It would gratify a harmless curiosity if we could learn from
any source whether the opening of this first court of justice
was attended with any of those forms and solemnities that
marked the convening of the courts in New England fi-om
an early day, and which are still, to a large extent, main-
tained there. To my youthful eye, few things were more
solenm or imposing than the spectacle of the high sheriff
of the county with his drawn sword, the emblem of stern
and speedy retribution, marching with measured tread in
advance of the column headed by the judges, followed by
the bar, and then by the jurors and. citizens, all in their
proper places of subordination, flanked on. either side by
the constables with their white wands and with dignified
step as became the occasion, filing into the courtrhouse, and,
without noise or confusion, all finding dieir appropriate
places. The opening service was a prayer for guidance
from the great Fountain-head of justice and of truth ; and
when the crier proclaimed that silence was to be preserved



* Since the delivery of this lecture Judge Jonea, who is the highest
authority in the local history of our coimty, has discovered that the
venue of the above story is wrongly laid. He has shown by docu-
mentary evidence that the first court in Oneida County was held in a,
"church," and not in a "barn." But the main incident is undoubtedly
authentic, and although compelled to give up the barn, I shall hold
tenaciously to the "jug" and its contents. We may still be obliged to
say, in the words of the Italian proverb, " Sintm e te™, e ieii irvvato."



208



HISTORY OF ONEIDA COUNTY, NEW YORK:



" while the charge was being delivered to the grand jury;
on pain of imprisonment," the soleiiinity that fell upon the
audience was profound. The sheriff performed the duty
of maintaining quiet among the spectators as much by his
presence as by the terrors which were supposed to lurlc in
that sword, liow sheathed, but ready to the boyish appre-
hension to leap from its scabbard in punishment of any un-
timely levity, and was personified by such a functionary
whom I knew in Berkshire County, of whom it was said,

he

"Serves process on- debtor, and sentence on sinner,
And promptly and rigidly executes dinner.'*

We have changed all this now. Our judges no longer
wear the ermine,, the emblem of purity, aud the sword of
justice too often rusts in its scabbard unused, or gleams
with fitful or uncertain light. Perhaps this may, by some,
be deemed an improvement upon antiquated and effete cus-
toms, but the suggestion may be pardoned whether some
degree of outward form and ceremony, although it possesses
no intrinsio merit; may not aid our estimate of the dignity
of the things they represent, and teach the thoughtless
and untutored mind to respect, and the criminal to fear,
the power that stands behind these visible signs, and giv«s
them potency to punish.

At this term of the court it was announced by tlie sheriff,
Charles G. Brodhead, Esq. (name dear to Dutchdom),
that the jail at Whitcstown was completed, and all things
were ready for the reception of the expected guests. I
suppose that tlie people felt then that matters had pro-
gressed to a most desirable climax, very much like the sailor
who was cast ashore from the wreck of a ship upon an un-
known coast, but who, when in his wanderings his eye fell
on a gibbet, devoutly thanked God that he was " in a civil-
ized and Christian country."

At tliis term of the Oneida Common Pleas, in May,
1798, first occurs among the public records the name of
Jonas Piatt. He had come to the county of Oneida in
the year 1791, and established himself in the village of
Whitesboro', seven years after Hugh White had penetrated
tire wilderness and planted his log cabin on the banks of
the Mohawk. He was the clerk of the Oneida Common
Picas, but his duties as such could not have been very
onerous at that early day, for I notice that not a single
cause was tried during this session of the court, nor, indeed,
until the month of September following. I find no tra-
ditional recordof any special eminence acquired by Jonas
Piatt as an advocate, but he must Iiave risen rapidly in the
practice of his profession, and acquired a strong hold upon
the public confidence, for in 180!) he was elected to the
State Senate by the Federalists from the old western dis^
trict, as it was called, and which had previously been
strongly Republican ; and in 1810 he was nominated as a
candidate for Governor of the State, and ran in opposition
to Daniel D. Tompkins, whose superior popularity, however,
defeated him. In ISl-t he was appointed a judge of the
Supreme Court of the State, and took his seat by the side
of those eminent men. Smith Thompson, Ambrose Spencer,
and Win. W. Van Ness. He continued in this office until
1821, when, in common with his distinguished colleagues,
he was legislated out of office by the operation of the now



constitution of that year. The record of what he did while
occupying this honorable position is well known to lawyers,
and his opinions, which are always respectable, but never
brilliant nor distinguished for any depth of learning, will
be found scattered through Johnson's Reports, from the
eleventh to the twentieth and closing volume. It was said
of him by Governor Clinton that he reversed the well-
known maxim, for he was '■\fortiter in modo, suaviter in re."
But this was the sarcasm of a personal and political enemy ;
and though there may have been a grain of truth in it, it
was, after all', a gross exaggeration. Judge Piatt was a
finished gentleman, and dispensed for many years a grace-
ful hospitality at his well-known residence in Whitesboro'.
He had a high sense of personal honor, and although natu-
rally of quick and keen sensibilities-, he acquired a perfect
control over his temper, and never allowed himself to be
betrayed into a passionate or even an unoourteous expres-
sion. He carried his courtesy at times almost beyond the
bounds required by the conventionalities of ordinary life,
and a retort or a rebuke from his lips was oonveyied in
terms that had the siiuilitude of, and might have almost
been mistaken for, a compliment.

On his retirement from the bench, Judge Piatt resumed
the practice of his profession, at first in this county, and
then in the' city of New York, and ultimately closed his
life at Plattsburgh, from which place, if I am not mistaken,
he originally came. Something of a cloud passed over h's
fair fame after his removal to New York, occasioned by his
action as an arbitrator in what was known as the matter of tire
Greek frigates. I am not aware that the judgment which
he, in common with his colleagues, rendered was ever seri-
ously impugned, but the compensation they awarded them-
selves was stigmatized as unjust and even extortionate. My
recollection is that it was some $1500 or $2000 apiece, — a
compensation which, in our day, and especially in the city of
New York, where counsel-fees of $10,000 and even $20,000
for the trial and argument of a cause are by no means un-
usual, and the sum of $1500 is unblushingly demanded
for answering a single question, would be deemed, perhaps,
ridiculously small. At that time, however, it looked large,
and even exorbitant, and, combined with sympathy for the
Greeks, led to comments which were quite uncompliment-
ary, and evoked a public sentiment under which oven his
high reputation for integrity sufiered. Let us believe, as I
truly do, that this odium was undeserved, and that any sus-
picion of his want of personal probity was entirely un-
founded ; and regret that the last days of a man of honor,
integrity, and Christian sincerity were to any degree embit-
tered by the shade thus unhappily and undeservedly east
upon thera.

At this term of the Common Pleas, of which I have
spoken (May, 1798), there were admitted to the bar, be-
sides Judge Piatt, and two or three others who never ac-
quired special standing in the courts, Thomas R. Gold,
Joseph Kirkland, Erastus Clark, and Nathan Williams, of
each of whom I shall have a few words to say.

Of Thomas R. Gold I have been able to obtain but few
memorials of a personal nature ; but his public acts and
character are well known, and made him, in his day, a man
of power and of repute. He was among the early settlers,



HISTORY 01? ONEIDA COUNTY, NEW YORK.



209



having emigrated to this county from New England, where
he was born and educated, and established himself at Whites-
town in 1792. His habits of industry were incessant and
untiring, and continued to the very close of his life; and
this he illustrated as well in his public as in his private life,
for there was no more diligent member of Congress, or of
the State Senate, of both which bodies he was a member,
nor one more capable of mastering a subject or defending
a measure on which he had set his heart. His reputation
at the bar was high, not so much for ease of address or
eloquence of speech as for keen logic, sharp analysis, and
learned mastery of cases. He argued more causes, as the
record I think shows, in the old Supreme Court, than any
lawyer in central New York. He died before either his
physical or mental vigor had become impaired, and in the
full flow of the practice of his profession, from which, by
diligent and honorable effort, he had been able to secure
what in that day was deemed a handsome fortune.

Some years before his death General Theodore Sill be-
came his partner, and the name of Gold & Sill was as fre-
quent, and became as renowned in the courts, as any of the
great mercantile firms that flourished in the city. Under
the shadow of Gold's greater reputation, Sill did not stand
out so prominently before the public as he probably would
have done if left to make his unaided and unpiloted way
in his profession. But he was a man of very considerable
attainments as a lawyer, and as a member of the Legisla-
ture at different periods, from the county of Oneida, he
commanded confidence and respect. He was very urbane
in his manners and courtly in his address, affecting perhaps
a little of the style of a gentleman of the old school. He
spoke persuasively to a jury whenever he was called to make
an appeal on a question of fact, leaving to his distinguished
and experienced partner the task of grappling with the
court whenever any tough question of law presented itself.
In the latter part of his life a shadow came over him, and
he retired from public view and the exercise of his profes-
sion ; and a gifted man passed away with little done com-
pared with what he had the capacity to achieve and the
community a right to expect and demand.

Of General Joseph Kirkland, the next upon the list, my
heart would prompt me to say many a kind and pleasant
word, since for the memory of no man that ever lived in
Oneida County do I cherish higher sentiments of venera-
tion and esteem. But propriety seems to dictate that in
speaking of him I should use, as I mainly shall, the words
of others. He came to the county of Oneida, from his
native State of Connecticut, about the year 1794, and
located in the village of New Hartford. It is well known
that the points of most importance at that day were the
two settlements of Whitestown and New Hartford, and be-
tween them there was an active, and for aught I know a
generous, rivalry for business enterprises and social and
political influence. It is a curious fact also, to show how
time and external causes, combining with individual enter-
prise, change the aspect of things and turn the current of
trade and population, that General Kirkland made two re-
moves to and fro from New Hartford to Utica, until he
finally made up his mind that Utica would ultimately be
the larger and the busier place, and so at last rested from
27



his migrations and cast his ultimate lot in this city in the
year 1812. From that time until his death in 1844 he
remained a tenant of the same house he had built, was en-
gaged in almost every local enterpris'e of public improve-
ment or private benevolence, represented the county in
Congress and in the State Legislature, and was the first
mayor, when Utica took its place among the cities of the
State.

In speaking of his personal and professional character, I
adopt the words of Judge Jones, in his valuable work on
the history of Oneida County, when I say, " ho was distin-
guished for much dignity and decision of character, pos-
sessed a fair share of talent and learning as a lawyer, united
with great industry and perseverance in his profession. He
was a man of the strictest integrity and honor, and although
rigid and unyielding in his views and the actions consequent
upon them, he shared largely in the respect and confidence of
the community." When I first began to know him intimately,
about the year 1822, he had in a good measure retired from
the active duties of his profession, which he had devolved
upon his son Charles, a young, ambitious, and rising lawyer,
who subsequently became one of the leading members of the
bar of Oneida not only, but of the State. The last case,
so far as I know, that General Kirkland ever tried, and the
only forensic effort of his before a jury that I ever witnessed,
was in September, 1823, at the Oneida Common Pleas, in
a case that had some features that marked it as peculiar.
It was an action of slander brought by a colored man by
the name of John Mitchell, who had been openly and
noisily accused of theft. John had been " Professor of dust
and ashes'' at Hamilton College during a part of my colle-
giate course, and was especially gifted in putting a shine
upon boots that rivaled his own ebony skin. I was inter-
ested in him personally not only, but anxious to see how i
black man would fare at the hands of a jury where his op-
ponent was a white man. Such a suit was, perhaps, a little
hazardous, for those were not the days of the Fifteenth
Amendment, and the American of African descent had not
become the " man and brother" that we now recognize, since
the immortal declaration of the honored and lamented Lin-
coln. Young counselor Kirkland felt that he needed the
weight of his father to put into the black man's scale, and
the general yielded to the call without hesitation. The
trial came on. No justification of the words was attempted,
but it was evidently thought that the case could be sneered
out of Court, and that it was quite a piece of presumption
for a negro to suppose that he had character or standing
enough in the community to be slandered. This roused
the general, for he had a supreme contempt for anything
mean, and sneaking, and unmanly, and he rose and ad'
dressed the jury with a power and energy that showed that
ai'e had not extinguished the glowing fire of earlier days.
He reminded them that in this country all men were equal
before the law, and adopting the sentiment, though not the
lan'fuan'e, of Curran's splendid burst, he said that no matter
what complexion the God of nature had chosen to impose
upon any of his creatures, they had, notwithstanding, God-
"•iven rights, which could not be denied without peril to all
other lights, and bringing deep discredit upon any body of
men that should dare to withhold or venture to trifle with



210



HISTORY OF ONEIDA COUNTY, NEW YORK.



them. The jury were impressed with the evident sincerity
and earnestness of the advocate, and a respectable verdict
was rendered, teaching at least one citizen of Oneida County
that " the black man had some rights which a white man
was bound to respect."

Of Nathan Williams and Erastus Clark, the remaining
two who were admitted to practice in the Oneida Common
Pleas in 1798, I should have had njuch more to say had ■
not the task fallen into other and more diligent hands in
the full sketches of these well-known men contained in the
interesting lectures of Dr. Bagg, which are, I trust, at no
distant day to be given to the expectant public. I concur
fully in the estimate formed by those whose opinions he
quoted, in respect to the standing, public services, and
private worth of both these excellent men. Of the former
it was truly said that " every part of his life was filled up
with something that made his memory dear to his friends
arid honored by his country." I began the' practice of the
law while he was presiding as the first circuit judge under
the constitution of 1821, and was frequently brought into
close contact with and pleasant relations to him. Although
his manner was a little formal, and his expression may
have seemed at times austere, he never was, within any
experience I ever had, repellant or severe. To all young
men he was especially indulgent, and uncommonly patient
in listening to their crudities, and helping them, if he
could, out of their difficulties ; or, if he decided against
them, accompanying it with such gentle emollients as might
more easily break the fall, which his clear eye and calm
judgment saw must inevitably come. Such conduct in a
judge is eminently soothing and encouraging to a young
advocate, and creates a tie of sympathy between bench and
bar that blends in a happy union, respect, afiection, and
confidence.

Erastus Clark I had intended for one of my stock char-
acters, and had stored away several piquant anecdotes with
which to lighten the somewhat heavy work of my lecture.
But having been anticipated in this quarter, I must content
myself by saying that Mr. Clai'k was a classical scholar of a
high order, a student of history, accurate, extensive and pro-
found, and a sound and clear-headed lawyer, not successful as
an advocate, but most invaluable as a counselor, and a man
of striking force and originality both in thought and action.
We may easily believe all this, for we have fbr many years
had the privilege of seeing and knowing his lineal descend-
ant bearing the same name, — the present recorder of the
city of Utica. And yet I am not quite content that he
should have the whole credit of even so good a thing as
that, for should not half the honor be shared by that
mother who is characterized as "a lady of extreme gen-
tleness and sweetness of disposition" ? She was indeed
all that and more, for she possessed great strength of
mind, was well read in all the standard literature of the
day, and capable of forming, as well as maintaining, an
intelligent opinion on any topic that called into play the
faculties of reasoning or of judgment. She had, too, a
quiet wit of her own, which I will illustrate by an anec-
dote that will well exemplify the character of both parties.
Mr. Clark was an inveterate enemy to everything that had
the appearance of affectation, and a deadly opponent to all



shams in profession or practice. One day a lady came on
a visit to the house who abounded, even to overflowing, in
all the airs and graces that are palmed off upon society as
the art of being agreeable, while essentially insincere and
empty. Mr. Clark endiired the visitation as well as he
could, but exhibited great uneasiness until it was over,
but no sooner was the door closed than he exclaimed to his
wife, " Well, I should say that woman had the poHtes the
natural way." " My dear," said his wife, with her blandest
smile, " wouldn't it be worth your while to try the experi-
ment of inoculation ?"

And here let me say, by way of episode, that no history
of the early days of Oneida County will ever be complete
that fails to make some honorable record of the intelligent,
virtuous, and noble women, a score of whom I have now in
my mind's eye, that were the companions of the men of
those days, and who so largely contributed to give charac-
ter, tone, and impulse to society which it has never lost,
and which — I say it not boastingly but truthfully — has
ever placed this community in the front rank in respect to
all that makes social life a blessing and a power for good in
every direction, — in all that makes home a comfort and a
joy, and diffuses around an intellectual, an esthetic, and a
moral influence of elevated character and priceless worth.

Passing now from the men of '98, and coming down to
about the year 1808, we reach a period which witnessed
the advent of two men every way remarkable, and who,
take them all in all, must be deemed the mo.st eminent
men that ever graced the bar of Oneida, if not of the
State of New York. They had more than a local— they
had a national — reputation, for one of them made a dis-
tinguished mark in Congress, and the other opposed his
unmatched strength to that of Daniel Webster before the
Supreme Court of the United States at Washington. Those
men were Henry R. Storrs and Samuel L. Talcott. They



Online LibrarySamuel W DurantHistory of Oneida County, New York : with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers → online text (page 57 of 192)