David Thomas MEMOIR OF DAVID THOMAS

A peculiar interest attaches itself to the leading minds among the early settlers of the country, who entered as new ground the regions that had for so many centuries remained an unbroken wilderness, and which was first opened by them to the influences of civilization, and which will doubtless teem with enterprise, intelligence, and educated mind for long centuries to come. Within much less time than the compass of a single century, the forests have been broken and swept away, large cities have sprung up, innumerable and richly cultivated fields have spread over a vast domain, and through the agency of canals, railroads and other general improvements, this young country has assumed a commercial and social position on a full level with the long existing communities of Europe. Among the men who took an early and active part in these improvements, and whose influence was largely felt in promoting the general benefit of the people was the subject of this memoir.

David Thomas was born on the banks of the Schuylkill, in Pennsylvania, on the 5th of June, 1776, or one month before the Declaration of Independence, and he was consequently a subject of George III, for that brief period. His early years were passed during the storms and commotions of that struggle for life, and existence, the war of the American Revolution. His father, although a member of the Society of Friends, took so great an interest in the conflict and possessed so much influence, that a commission as colonel of a rifle company was held by him, but he was never called into action in the field. David Thomas secured an English education and was so thorough a student in mathematics that at one time he nearly destroyed his health by the intenseness of his studies. After his marriage he removed in 1801 to the region of country in Lycoming county, then known as the Elklands, and also by the name of Beech Woods, where he purchased several hundred acres. He remained there about four years, during which time he gave special attention to the study of natural history and botany. He corresponded with the elder Prof. Barton of Philadelphia, one of the first botanists of that day, who named a new genus of plants after him, the Thomasia, but this name did not stand, as it had been previously applied to another plant, after a Swiss botanist of that name. The wild and magnificent scenery of that region naturally inspired a poetical imagination, and he wrote a descriptive poem entitled, "The Wilderness"; which, however, was never published, but remains in manuscript, and as a brief specimen I copy the following descriptive account, addressed to a friend:

"Nor linger long,
While Allegany rises from afar,
Blue in the dim horizon. There behold
The land of fountains and perpetual rills,
Whose waters down a hundred rivers roll
To visit distant climes. And now they dash
The sun-deserted coast of Labrador,
Or sweep the deck on Hatterasí stormy cape,
Or meet in southern gulf the mighty tide
That hurries round the Atlantic. There thine eye
Shall range a region vast, which claims its form
In the first period of the reign of Time.
Hills beyond hills in dim succession rise
And stretch along to meet the orient sun.
Midst these, from fancyís airy station, see
Where Burnetís lofty mountain bounds the view
And overlooks the wild."

He also wrote while there a short poem entitled, "The Wounded Duck", which was widely published at the time. It referred to an incident which occurred on the waters of the beautiful Elk Lake, in front of his dwelling.

He has often remarked on the suddenness with which thunderstorms arose and swept over these mountains, and on one occasion when a mile from home at work on the mountain side, he saw indications of a gathering tempest, and knowing the rapid progress of such storms, left immediately on a run for home. His quickness of foot in those young days has been compared to that of a deer, and on his way he had just passed under a large hemlock and was twenty yards from it when it was shivered to fragments by lightning. Some other unusual electric occurrences which he witnessed at different times, were of so interesting a character that it may not be out of place to narrate them briefly.

During his early residence in this county the lightning struck a large bass- wood on his farm and split it into portions about the size of fence rails, and he completed the work by cutting them of the usual length for building the fence. Some of his neighbors regarded him with much suspicion for what seemed to them almost sacrilege in employing an agent from the clouds to prepare his fencing material. On another occasion, during a long horseback journey, he was overtaken by a dark and rainy night. Suddenly two flames or bushes of light sprung up from his horseís ears, an appearance which has sometimes terrified the ignorant, but which he knew at once to be the result of a negatively electric cloud overhead; the fluid escaping from the earth to the cloud above through the horseís ears, in the manner well known to electricians in the form of a brush of light. Again, after his removal to Union Springs, another curious occurrence took place. An electric discharge, as loud as the report of a musket, passed upward through the side of his house, boring a hole in the sill board, and throwing the mud on the window panes and against the cornice above. These marks remained for some years. While residing near Aurora, as he sat one stormy evening in his study, an intensely loud clap of thunder, followed instantaneously the flash of lightning which appeared to envelope the stove and pipe, in the room where he sat, in flame. The next morning the silver point of the contiguous lightning rod was found melted into a round ball; and the joist under the stove was covered with splinters, and many more had fallen on the cellar bottom. The rod had not brought down the whole discharge, and part had passed into the stovepipe and down through the two stories of the building, producing the result already described.

To return to the narrative. After remaining nearly four years at the Elk Lands he found that however excellent the country and beautiful the scenery, he was too far from all markets, and widely removed from the various facilities of civilization; and leaving his farm he removed to Levanna, in this county, and soon after purchased and settled on a farm in that neighborhood where he long resided. This farm was a portion of the four hundred acres of wheat, sown as the first crop after clearing by Judge John Richardson, and his residence was known to his many correspondents as Great Field.

Although he had not received a medical education he had given much attention to medical reading, and possessed much knowledge, judgment and skill. When the formidable disease known as the ìcold plagueî prevailed in 1812, he was called upon by his neighbors, in the absence of a physician, and had a large number of patients under his immediate charge. Every one of these recovered, although the disease was fatal in many cases elsewhere. When, in 1815, he made a journey mostly on horseback to the Wabash river, at Vincennes, Terre-Haute and Fort Harrison the exposure of the journey brought on symptoms of rapidly approaching disease. He gave the following account at the time: ìParoxysms of that distressing sensation which physicians have denominated anxiety (the stomach being the seat of the disease) had daily increased; and my traveling companion, (Jonathan Swan of Aurora,) had marked the change with silent apprehension. On descending into the first flats of the Wabash river it returned with violence, and I entreated my companions to prepare an emetic without delay, but the proposal was rejected, for the air was replete with putrid vapor, the sky overcast and the ground wet with the late rain. In this comfortless extremity, without the means of preparation, I applied dry pearlash to my tongue till the skin was abraded, taking it rather in agony than in hope. The relief was sudden; the fomes of the fever were neutralized, and my recovery seemed like enchantment. Repeated doses of this alkali in a few days completed the cure, and I have since witnessed its efficacy in others. Its action is chiefly chemical.î This substance, the sub-carbonate of potash, has now given way to others in domestic use, and it is no longer to be had in shops.

Again, when he was appointed exploring and chief engineer of the Erie canal between Rochester and Buffalo, with ten or twelve assistants, the country being new and much of it unsettled so that the company had to carry and lodge in tents through the first summer, he directed that none of the men should drink water that had not been first boiled. The few who broke this order, were in every case prostrated with sickness; those who strictly observe it all escaped.

These few facts are mentioned to show the sound judgment and intelligence which he possessed on whatever subject was presented to him.

His journey to the west, already alluded to, led to the publication of a journal of his travels, which was chiefly occupied with notices of the natural history, topography, geology, antiquities, manufactures, agriculture and commerce of the western country. It was printed by David Rumsey of Auburn, and was issued in 1819. The merits of this book may be inferred from the fact that Governor Clinton (who had occasionally corresponded with David Thomas,) subscribed for twelve copies; and he subsequently remarked to one of the canal commissioners, then in the early history of the Erie canal, ìThe man who wrote that book will make an excellent canal engineer.î He was accordingly appointed early the following year, as already remarked, chief of the company of exploring engineers for the line between Rochester and Buffalo, and was occupied through the season of 1820 in laying out the line between these two points. This appointment was not of his own seeking; he had not asked for it nor expected it. It was a very unusual circumstance that one who had had no experience as such, nor in any subordinate position, should be at once placed at the head in so responsible a charge. He had, however, previously had great experience as a land surveyor in various parts of the country, in which his services were widely and continually sought. He had entire charge of this line, as chief engineer, till its completion.

As a proof of the wisdom of Gov. Cliinton in selecting him, and of the skill which he possessed, it may be stated that he had two separate lines of levels run under his immediate inspection by two separate companies of assistants, from Rochester to Lockport, a distance of sixty miles. As this distance was a continuous level, it was of the utmost importance that it should be correctly run in order that the water in the channel might stand at a uniform height throughout, as well to satisfy the canal commissioners and the public as to guard against any possible error. When the two lines of level were completed, a comparison was made at the end of the sixty miles, and they were found to vary a little less than two-thirds of an inch from each other. Such an achievement in engineering skill, it is believed, had never been equalled at that time. He subsequently laid out and had charge as chief engineer of the Cayuga and Seneca canal, and of the Welland canal in Canada during the first year of its construction.

Soon afterwards the Canal Board of Pennsylvania applied to Gov. Clinton to select the best engineer he could name to take charge of the public works of that state. He at once recommended David Thomas, and the Board invited him to that position with the privilege of naming his own salary. But on account of the lingering illness of a member of his family, he said that nothing could induce him to leave home, and he declined further service of the kind.

It was during his position as chief engineer on the western portion of the Erie canal, that the high appointment which he held and the great confidence reposed in him, awakened jealousy in certain persons who imagined that he had obstructed their paths and who consequently met him with bitterness. This treatment led to his intention of resigning. The following extract from a letter of Gov. Clinton (now in my possession), dated February 23d, 1822, will show in what esteem his abilities were held:

"David Thomas called on me to signify his intention of resigning the post of engineer. This I resisted, on the ground of his great usefulness and high reputation, and he promised to take the subject into full consideration, and to write to you. Mr. Wright says the services of Mr. Thomas are all important. Considering the weight which is due to this opinion, I trust you will not hesitate upon Mr. T.'s continuance. It appears that Mr. ____, a sub-engineer, treated Mr. Thomas with great rudeness, recently in Albany; and that his unaffected meekness shrinks from collision with such a rough and rude temper. I have written to Mr. Thomas that he must not resign. The report has excited great alarm among the friends of the canal."

A controversy arose on the place for the western terminus of the canal. A strong influence was brought to bear in favor of ending it at Black-Rock, and making a large and expensive harbor at that point. This course was strongly opposed by David Thomas, who favored Buffalo as the place for the true harbor, and a long and heated controversy followed. De Witt Clinton and one other commissioner firmly maintained the ground assumed by David Thomas, but the majority went for Black-Rock. It was, however, decided to continue the channel, as a branch, to Buffalo. To any one who has seen the present condition of the two places, no comment is required. The business all went to Buffalo. It was during this controversy that Gov. Clinton said in private to Mr. Thomas, " I am willing to risk my reputation on the correctness of all your predictions on this subject." At the conclusion of one of the several documents which he published in this controversy, Mr. T. said, "I now submit the question to the elements, and if Buffalo harbor becomes a failure, I shall then, but not till then, confess my error."

One of his friends wrote, "I have heard Gov. Clinton say that Thomas only lacked impudence to pass for a much greater man than a certain Professor he then named. But with his habitual modesty and polite deference to the opinion of others, no man was more firm and decided when he knew he was right; and to this trait in his character, the great city of Buffalo is somewhat indebted for its present commercial position."

Integrity and faithfulness in those who hold important public trusts was not too common even in those days; these virtues have not increased any in frequency up to the present time. During all the years in which he was employed as engineer by the state he maintained incorruptible and unflinching integrity, and he never permitted its financial interests, so far as they were under his control, to suffer by a single cent. Some of his associates thought him too particular, but he answered with emphasis, "I intend to be as scrupulously accurate in all my money transactions with the state, as with a near neighbor or friend."

His interest in the study of geology and botany continued unabated, and he employed every opportunity to impart a taste for these sciences to the many young men who were in his employ at different times as assistants. Among these some have since become widely known for their eminent scientific acquirements. While thus employed in the field he commenced his rare collection of native and hardy exotic plants. Many of these, as they stood in the garden, had an interesting history connected with their collection. He has sometimes shown his friends a rare specimen which he secured from the woods near the middle of a moonlight night, while the stage in which he was traveling was changing its horses, and which he had previously marked at another time when it was in bloom. His eminent scientific knowledge subsequently led to his election as an honorary member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York, of which De Witt Clinton was president, and as a corresponding member of the Horticulture Society of London, and the Linnoen Society of Paris. At the earnest request of Gov. Clinton a correspondence was opened and continued with his son, George W. Clinton, on scientific subjects, until, after the death of the governor, the young botanist was compelled to seek other studies.

During the last thirty years of his life he devoted a portion of his attention to the culture of an extensive collection of fruits, and to the study of pomology.

The culture of flowers was especially attractive to him. His contributions on these subjects to the periodical press were highly valued, and largely contributed to the rapidly increasing taste throughout the country. He was a constant correspondent of the original Genesee Farmer, published by Luther Tucker at Rochester in 1830, and for many subsequent years. The publication of this paper opened a new era in periodical agricultural literature, as it had a wide circulation among practical farmers, and was especially adapted to their wants. The publisher depended largely on the assistance afforded by Mr. Thomas in this enterprise, which was given gratuitously, with the hope of benefitting its many readers, and of promoting the advancement of scientific knowledge and of improved cultivation.

David Thomas was a member of the Society of Friends. In the early settlement of the county large numbers fixed their residence in the region a few miles east of Aurora. For some years they held their meetings in a house built of logs, where many assembled. Among the transient attenders, which Mr. Thomas mentioned as having seen there was Judge Cooper (the father of Fenimore Cooper, the author), who had been educated in connection with this Society. A large and commodious building soon took the place of the log structure. Among the prominent men at that time connected with this Society were Jethro Wood and Jonathan Swan. In 1828 the widely known separation took place, and the two resulting bodies were known as the Orthodox and Hicksites,-- the former holding what are known as evangelical views, while the latter were mostly Unitarians, although announcing no prescribed belief. David Thomas was among the former, and of the prominent members who were associated with him were Joseph Tallcot, Allen Mosher, Humphrey Howland, Slocum Howland and Richard Tallcot.

Phebe Field (the mother-in-law of Humphrey Howland), well known for her charitable and religious labors, was also a member of the orthodox Society, as well as Sarah S. Merritt, who died last year at the age of 97, and of whom an interesting incident, in her advanced years, is worth mentioning. On account of her declining strength she was in the habit of taking wine regularly as a stimulant, supposing it necessary; at the age of 94 she discontinued its use as a matter of principle, whatever might be the result. Her health and strength immediately improved.

A more particular account of the character and labors of Joseph Tallcott is worthy of notice in this connection. He was descended from Gov. Tallcott of Connecticut, who died in 1741. He became early interested in the cause of education and his self-sacrificing interest in this cause was shown by an occurrence soon after his marriage, which his wife related to the writer of this memoir. He then resided in Duchess Co., N.Y. where he had observed the deficient condition of the common schools. He became associated with others for establishing a boarding school for advanced instruction, and although his means were moderate, he made the liberal subscription of One Hundred Pounds for this purpose. And about the same time on the occasion of a visit to their relatives, he pursued so rigid a system of economy in order to meet this liberality, as to use a harness for his horses with traces made of hemp ropes. He subsequently became deeply interested in the cause of temperance from having witnessed the destructive effects of the general use of alcoholic drinks. He wrote an address on the subject which he took to the Presbyterian Synod, held at Geneva in 1816. It was examined by the committee of overtures, approved, and he was invited to read it before the Synod. Resolutions adopted by that body show the appreciation in which it was held, declaring that from that time they would abandon the use of ardent spirits, except for medical purposes; that they would speak against its common use from the pulpit; that they would seek for and give preference to laborers who would comply with their views, and use all the influence they had to prevail with others to follow their example. These documents being copied into papers were extensively circulated and read, and doubtless contributed to the advancement of this great cause, then in its infancy. Soon after this occurrence, Joseph Tallcot, with the assistance of David Thomas, was engaged in the publication of religious tracts, and he continued their publication for a great number of years, (under the name of the Friendly Visitant), which were subsequently collected and bound in two small volumes. He was much interested in the improvement of our district schools, many of which he visited through the country. He died in 1853.

David Thomas was an uncompromising opponent of American slavery, and frequently wrote brief articles on the subject. He was well aware of the dangerous character and utter incompatibility of this system to our free institutions, and during the last years of his life, a few years before the breaking out of the war of the Rebellion he often asserted that a terrible retribution was coming upon the country, but he did not think he should live to see it.

It is impossible to depict the true character of such a man in his social intercourse, but a few incidents will throw some light on his kind and unpretending manners in his family. During the years in which he frequently contributed to the agricultural press, it was his practice when he had written any important article to read it to his children, and to invite their free criticism which was accordingly given and received as between companions and equals. Many years ago he had adopted political views not fully in accordance with those held by his sons, and although all of them were young, and a part of them not of age, yet out of respect to their opinions he abstained from voting and subsequently adopted their sentiments.

The latter years of the life of David Thomas were spent in the village of Union Springs, to which place he removed a large portion of his extensive collection of rare plants.

His entire withdrawal from business enabled him to devote much of his time to his favorite pursuit, the culture of flowers. There is no doubt that the interest and delight which the occupation afforded him, and the open air exercise which was connected with planting seeds, bulbs and shrubs contributed materially to the preservation of his health and to the lengthening of his days. His was emphatically a serene old age. His last illness continued but a few days. He died on the 5th of November, 1859, aged 83 years. Dr. Kennicott of Illinois, President of the North-American Fruit-Growers Association (an organization which was afterward merged in the American Pomological Society) gave the following testimony in an address after his decease:

"I would fain speak of David Thomas, our first President, and father of Horticulture in the West. His life had been as blameless as a childís, and his usefulness commensurate with his lengthened years, and the powers of a god- like mind, simplicity, beauty, truthfulness and grandeur. His history is written in the hearts of the lovers of science and on the long line of New- Yorkís first great work of internal improvement."

One who knew him intimately wrote of him, "His various reading and large experience in life rendered him an admirable companion for the refined and cultivated, while his kindly disposition, playful and genial nature and simple habits, endeared him to all. His life was unsullied and his death marked by that positive serenity and composure well befitting the character of a Christian gentleman."