The Erie Canal began in Little Britain, no, not in location, but in vision


The Erie Canal began in Little Britain, no, not in location, but in vision.

Little Britain can claim Cadwallader Colden because a large part of his 3000 acres was in the north west corner of the town of New Windsor, and he evidently got over this way. E. Wilder Spaulding in his book HIS EXCELLENCY GEORGE CLINTON, CRITIC OF THE CONSTITUTION, mentions "Cadwallader Colden, the old friend of Charles Clinton." Colden’s wife too knew Little Britain. In her letter to her daughter Katherine Nov. 6, 1759 in NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY PUBLICATIONS, she wrote, "I am much obliged to your sister Colden for the supply of Aples she designs for us. Those we have got from our Neighbors are all roted. We were to send this day to Pattrick McClaughrys for some of his which they call very good and hard." Patrick McClaughry came with the Clinton party and was soon a prominent Little Britain farmer and carpenter.

There are many excellent short biographies of Cadwallader Colden, of which the following are good examples: and unsigned article in THE HISTORICAL MAGAZINE, January 1865; "Memoirs of the Colden Family" by Chales J. Bodine, published in THE WALDEN CITIZEN HERALD in 1938; "A Colonial Governor’s Family: the Coldens of Coldenham" by Brooke Hindle in NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY 1961; "Cadwallader Colden, a Representative Eighteenth Century Official" by Alice M. Keys; and unsigned article in E.B.O’Callaghan’s DOCUMENTARY HISTORY OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK; and "Genealogical notes of the Colden Family in America" by Edwin R. Purple, a privately printed brochure which appears also in O’Callaghan’s DOCUMENTARY HISTORY.

Cadwallader Colden has been scorned and neglected in our local history because he was a Tory. As surveyor general of the Province of New York, member of the Council for many years, lieutenant governor, and often acting governor between governors, he served well. Being a man of high principle, he felt he could not change his loyalty with good conscience. Toward the end of his life when Britain was becoming more and more difficult, he tried to temper her demands. It has been said that if his advice had been taken there might not have been a Revolutionary War. The Coldens were all respected by their neighbors. Even Thomas who was an officer in the British forces had his property restored to him.

The article in the O’Callaghan DOCUMENTARY HISTORY says, "Posterity will not fail to accord justice to the character and memory of a man to whom this country is most deeply indebted for much of its science and for very many of its most important institutions. For the great variety and extent of his learning, his unwearied research, his talents, and the public sphere which he filled, Cadwallader Colden may justly be placed in a high rank among the distinguished men of his time."

Cadwallader Colden was born in Ireland Feb. 7, 1687. The home was in Dunsie, Scotland. His father was Rev. Alexander Colden, a Presbyterian minister. He sent his son to Edinburgh University to study theology but the son was fascinated by his science studies, and after his graduation in 1705 he went to London and studied medicine for three years. He loved London but there were too many physicians there. He came to Philadelphia where his mother’s sister lived, to practice medicine. In 1715 he returned to London for a visit and to marry Alice Christy, daughter of a clergyman of Kelso, Scotland. He brought her to Philadelphia and settled down to the practice of medicine. In 1718 he visited New York. He called on the Colonial Governor Hunter. This changed the course of his life completely.

Governor Hunter persuaded him to move to New York by offering to make him surveyor-general of the Province of New York, which commission he received in 1720. Colden hired Charles Clinton as his deputy surveyor, and he, Colden, went out to the central part of the Province. Keys says of him that he surveyed in the Mohawk Valley, in the Shawangunk and Catskill Mountains, the farms of Orange and Ulster Counties, and the Connecticut border. He did the colony a personal service of direct practical value. He saw to it that no grants were issued without a proper certificate of a previous survey.

In his treatment of the Indians he left an example that has found few if any followers in high places. He became well acquainted with the Indians of New York and wrote his HISTORY OF THE FIVE NATIONS not from a philosophical point of view but to draw attention to the fur trade and the need to exclude the French from it.

In 1718 he applied for a land grant and received 2000 acres in Ulster County in the present townships of New Windsor and Montgomery, and another 2000 acres north of the first grant, this through John Johnston. He began to clear land, plant, and build. In his journal of 1727 he wrote "On the 15th of August we sow’d four and a tenth bushels of rye upon a summer fallow after Indian corn. At the same time sowed some spinage in the garden. On the 13th of September we pull’d our seed hemp. The same day I throw’d small quantities of hop clover seed behind the house." The 3000 acres of woods were giving way to civilization. In 1728 he moved his growing family to Coldengham to escape the high cost of living in the city, to live the life of a country gentleman, and to have more time for study. He wrote, "I have made a small spot of the world which when I first entered upon it was the habitation only of wolves and bears and other wild animals, now no unfit habitation for a civilized family."

Four sites are claimed for his house. It is not the Colden house on the Turnpike, now nearly a complete ruin. That was built by Cadwallader Colden Jr. in 1767. It was not almost across the road from now almost a complete ruin. That was the house where a pile of stones persuaded some careless thinker he had found the site. It was either on the Pimm place or the Hawkins place, both on Maple Avenue. Samuel W. Eager in his HISTORY OF ORANGE COUNTY and Goldsmith Denniston in TRANSACTIONS OF THE NEW YORK STATE AGRICULTURAL SOCIETY v. 22 (1862) claim that the Hawkins house was Dr. Colden’s dwelling. It was undoubtedly a Colden house, being on Colden property. He must have built many houses for his many workers. Jonathan Hawkins bought the house in 1845 from Joseph and Erastus Woodruff, and they had bought from a Colden. He tore down much of the stone work and built a frame house on the original basement. It would be nice to think that much of Coldengham still exists. It is a tradition in the Hawkins family that this is the house.

And it is a tradition in the Pimm family that their house is on the site of Dr. Colden’s own house. From Colden wills and deeds, it must be admitted that the Pimm place wins the argument. In the deed recorded in Kingston book II p. 294 September 7, 1771 "The Honorable Cadwallader Colden Esq. Lieutenant Governor of the Province of New York to his son Cadwallader Colden Junior, for natural love and affection and five shillings (description of land given)...excepting and reserving out of the same the grave yard of four rods square which is in the orchard to the east of the old Mansion House..." The graveyard is east, slightly southeast, from the Pimm house. The Colden map of 1760 shows Condengham in the corner where Tin Brook turns from east to north, and that seems to prove the location.

Cadwallader Colden was a remarkable man. In 1724 he laid out a road from Hudsons River to the Paltz (Wallkill) River. It is described in a deed recorded in Kingston. Mr. Bodine said of him, "Colden was the most notable permanent resident in this section of the Colony and Ulster County with the possible exception of Gov. George Clinton, and few since have attained such note and fame. A Scotch gentleman, Walter Rutherford, visited the Coldens and wrote of them, ‘From the middle of the woods this family corresponds with all the learned societies of the world.’" Cadwallader D. Colden wrote of him, "He was a man of great ability and probity and maintained a literary and philosophical correspondence with Linnaeus, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Gronovius, Dr. Pottersfield, Dr. Whittle of Edinburgh, Mr. Peter Collison of London and other distinguished men of his age." Peter Kalm from Sweden, John Bartram from Pennsylvania and other notables visited Coldengham.

Mr. Purple wrote of him, "He was a member of the King’s Council from 1722 to the close of his life, and after October 1736 whenever present presided as eldest member, the Speaker of that Body. He was surveyor-general from the time of his appointment by Governor Hunter till 1762 when he was succeeded by his eldest son Alexander. On the death of Lieut. Gov. James DeLancey, July 30, 1760, Dr. Colden by virtue of his position in the Council became Acting Governor and assumed administrative control of the Province. In 1761 he was appointed Lieutenant Governor."

He practiced medicine some, and wrote several treatises on medical themes, one of them, "Observations on the Fever in New York, 1741-2."

He studied botany after finding Linnaeus’ system of classifying plants. He classified 300 to 400 American plants and wrote "Plantae Coldenghamiae in Prov. Nov. Eboracenci." Linnaeus was impressed with his work and named the Coldenia for him. Colden trained his daughter Jane in the classification of plants, translating the Linnaeus system from Latin for her. She made a name for herself in botany.

Colden’s manuscripts are published in nine volumes of the PUBLICATIONS OF THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY. His writings include "Report on the Boundaries, Soil, Climate, etc. Of New York, 1738," "Principles of Action in Matter and the Motion of the Planets Explained...1745," "An Introduction to the Study of Philosophy," "A Translation o9f the Letters of Cicero with an introduction by Cadwallader Colden" and many more. He wanted to be remembered as a man of intellect.

He was a practical man too. Transportation was needed on his 3000 acres of woods. Water transportation was in his thinking. In 1724 he suggested that the streams of middle New York could be connected for water transportation across the province. Here is the seed germ of the Erie Canal.

Tin Brook runs through his estate. Before the woods were cut off, all streams were bigger and better. Even recently, Mr. Clarence Hawkins who lived with his uncle on the Jonathan Hawkins place says they used to clear out the brook in the fall, and in the spring it was a full torrent that could carry along a good sized boat. A canal was just what Cadwallader Colden needed. He made the stream bigger by building stonework to hold water in a pond, that would otherwise seep into a swamp, and the pond was a feeder for his canal. That stonework and pond can still be seen in the northwest corner of Little Britain. This canal was good transportation through the woods especially when roads were scarce. The following may or may not have reference to the canal, a letter from Alice Colden, Nov. 11, 1749, Newburgh, "There was a Pot on board of Tinbrook with souced Bass for your sister Colden which was neglected to be put on shore. She desires you’ll send it down if a good opportunity offers..."

In 1760 Dr. Cadwallader Colden moved to government house in New York. In 1743 he had deeded 525 acres of woods to Cadwallader Colden Jr. Now he left the control of the rest of the estate to him. Mrs. Colden died at government house in 1762.

Dr. Colden was responsible for the government of the province at intervals up to 1775. He stood firm in the stamp act incident, and the enraged New Yorkers burned him in effigy. Mr. Purple wrote, "He displayed an unfaltering consistant loyalty and devotion to pinciple, which if it fails to enlist our sympathy, challenges our admiration." His last published letter on the affairs of the province, July 3, 1775, contained the information that Congress had appointed George Washington commander-in-chief of the American army.

He had built a country house at Springhill, L.I. near Flushing. He died here in his eighty ninth year in 1776. The British had occupied New York. He is buried in an unmarked grave on his farm in Springhill instead of in the cemetery he had laid out in Coldengham for himself and his family.

Dr. Colden was a great and good man who missed the fame he desired because the British lost the war. Just imagine what honor would be his if the British had won!

His canal has some small fame. It is mentioned by several writers, but their source of information has not been found. If Colden wrote about the canal, that manuscript seems to be missing. John M. Eager wrote an article, "An Early Canal" in THE HISTORICAL MAGAZINE, March 1864. He says Colden used it some time between 1728 and 1760 to transport peat for fuel. It is mentioned by Alvin F. Harlow in OLD TOWPATHS, THE STORY OF THE AMERICAN CANAL ERA. He says it was used to transport stone. Well, a lot of stone was needed for Cadwallader Junior’s big stone house. U. P. Hedrick in A HISTORY OF AGRICULTURE IN THE STATE OF NEW YORK says "The first canal built in New York State...was constructed by Lieutenant Governor Colden in Orange county in 1750. It was built for the transportation of stone but soon was being generally used for other freight as well..." Noble E. Whitford in HISTORY OF AGRICULTURE IN THE CANAL SYSTEM OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK V.1 SAYS, "Probably the first canal constructed within the territory of the United States was a short waterway in Orange county, New York, built in 1750, for transporting stone, by Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden, who in 1724, as Surveyor-General had made the first report of the natural water communications of New York State." But according to Mr. Neal FitzSimons there was a similar "ditch-type" canal built in 1631 near Cambridge, Mass. So, Colden’s canal was not first, but was plenty early.

DeWitt Clinton, grandson of Charles Clinton, Dr. Cadwallader Colden’s friend of the early days, lived near enough in time and place to the Colden Canal to have it influence his canal thinking. Cadwallader David Colden, grandson of Cadwallader Colden, was in the New York State Legislature in DeWitt Clinton’s time, and did much to secure the construction of the Erie Canal. He was brought up in Coldenham at the home of Cadwallader Colden Jr. He had to know the Colden Canal.

The Erie Canal really did begin in Little Britain. The argument is threefold.

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Created by Elizabeth Finley Frasier


August 23, 2007