Compass & Chain: The Saxton Surveyors Who Drowned

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It all began with an attempt to determine the origin of the name of a tiny Vermont village, which resulted in some startling and puzzling problems. The village, Saxtons River, in the town of Rockingham in Windham County, Vermont, once an active mill town, now is notable primarily for the Vermont Academy, founded in 1876. The village was named for a river that passed through the region, described in a mid-nineteenth century account that appeared in the Gazetteer of Vermont compiled by Zadock Thompson. "Saxton’s River," it stated, "is formed in Grafton by the union of several streams from Windham, and running an easterly course about ten miles through the south part of Rockingham, falls into Connecticut river in the northeast corner of Westminster, about one mile below Bellows Falls. It derives is name from a Mr. Saxton, who unluckily fell into it while crossing it on a log, for the purpose of surveying the line between Rockingham and Westminster." One edition of the Gazeteer reported that Saxton had drowned, and an edition published a few years later indicated that he had not.

It may be assumed, therefore, the river had been named for a colonial American surveyor named Saxton, either to memorialize him because he was drowned in it or because he was believed to have first discovered it. This is where the problems began. That particular surveyor named Saxton has not been identified. However, there indeed had been a surveyor named Frederick Saxton in the region, in fact, not only one, but two, having the same name and engaged in the same profession. And both of them were reported at one time or another to have drowned. But neither of them was the Saxton for whom the river may have been named.

The Saxton to whom the Gazetteer referred was a surveyor named Frederick Saxton who surveyed the line between Rockingham and Winchester. Whether that Saxton fell into the river or actually was drowned remains in question, but it appears certain that many years before, a surveyor of that name had mapped the region prior to the 1750s, when land grants in the area began to be issued by Governor Benning Wentworth (1696-1776).

As early as the year 1724, and before any surveys had been made in this vicinity, the river already was known as "Saxtons River." A scouting party from Fort Dummer under Captain Joseph Kellogg, [see "Joseph Kellogg of Deerfield" in the March-April issue] recorded that in that year the scouts from the Fort "came to Sexton’s River, six miles from ye mouth of it, which empties itself at ye foot of ye great falls, and then came down till they came to ye mouth of it and so returned." For whom had the river been named if not for an explorer or surveyor? No record has been found of one, and the first survey of town lines in this section was not made until 1739, by a committee of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Benning Wentworth, the first Royal Governor of New Hampshire, granted [read: "sold"] to speculators large tracts of land [towns] in what was to become Vermont. Beginning with the town of Bennington in 1749, Wentworth continued to issue grants despite claims on the territory by the Province of New York and a subsequent Royal Order to discontinue his activity. For each sale of land, for which there usually were sixty grantees per town, Wentworth pocketed a 20 fee paid by each of them. He reserved for himself two shares, or 500 acres, of each town. Wentworth was assured of support of the local clergy by having set aside a plot of land for a church in each town. Desperately avid for a title for himself, Wentworth named most of the towns to honor rich and politically powerful men, many of whom were members of the peerage with whom he was seeking to curry favor. Nonetheless, as governor Wentworth ruled well, and residents of the New Hampshire province were fond of the widower who despite his peerage pretensions, at the age of sixty-four married a woman well "beneath his station," in the person of Martha Hilton, his chambermaid.

Like other colonial governors, Wentworth found himself constantly at odds with his Assembly. Although he loyally supported the Stamp Act of 1765, when the Assembly tried to send delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in New York to protest the new taxes, Wentworth exercised his power as governor and abruptly dismissed the Assembly. Now he had the people to deal with, who accused him of nepotism, having appointed relatives to choice government positions and giving them also large tracts of land, all of which was true. Despite everything, he was allowed to resign from office instead of being removed. The Grants, and the hornet’s nest he had stirred up in creating what became Vermont, was now in the hands of his nephew who succeeded him as governor.

Wentworth’s "New Hampshire Grants" initiated a bitter struggle between the people of New York and the settlers who, having purchased land from the speculators, had endured the hardships of making a life in the wilderness. While King George II had placed the eastern boundary of New York 20 miles east of and parallel to the Hudson River, which is approximately its present location, his grandson George III decreed the Connecticut River to be the boundary, invalidating settlers’s claims to the land. Despite the King’s instruction not to disturb settlers already in place, New York courts ruled that the settlers would be required to purchase their land again, this time from holders of New York "Patents" on the properties. It was at this point that Ethan Allen entered the scene advocating freedom from New York and organizing the settlers into the "Green Mountain Boys," but that is another story.

The village of Saxtons River had become well enough known by the mid-eighteenth century for Governor Wentworth to use it as one of his survey points; it was identified as a boundary marker in the 1752 land grant for the town of Westminster. The village of Saxtons River, with a land area of the village of 1.29 square kilometers, subsequently developed around the Middle Falls of the Saxtons River which powered its busy woolen mills. Remaining local landmarks are few, and include only two churches, several well preserved commercial buildings, and some buildings from the Federal to the Colonial revival periods. Its population in the 2000 census had been reduced to 519 residents.

Colonel Saxton
Of the two surveyors named Saxton who pursued their profession in the region, the older was Colonel Frederick Saxton who was born on May 22, 1748 in Sheffield, Massachusetts. He was one of the sons of James Saxton, originally of Westfield who then had settled in Sheffield. A distinguishing characteristic of Frederick Saxton is that he often signed his name "Fredrick Saxton" or "Fredrack Saxton." In about 1770 he was married to Rhode Messenger, daughter of Nehemiah Messenger, and they were parents of eight children, three sons and five daughters.

Before the American Revolution the family of the older Fredrick Saxton was one of some forty families that had settled upon the shore of Lake Champlain and along the Winooski River, in what is now Chittenden County, Vermont. At the beginning of hostilities, and following the defeat and fall of General Montgomery at Quebec and the retreat from Canada of the American forces under General Sullivan in the spring of 1776, all except one of the families abandoned all their possessions and fled south seeking security among friends. The wisdom of this action was made manifest by the fate of the remaining family, who had trusted their fancied security to the seclusion of their position, being so far from the lake and the ordinary path of the enemy. They were captured by a party of Indians and carried into captivity. Although troops for the protection of the inhabitants had been stationed in a block house in Jericho on Onion River under the command of Captain Fassett, they had left their post, exposing the inhabitants to the depredations of the enemy without any means of defense.

Upon the return of peace in 1783, most of the former occupants returned to their farms and brought many new settlers with them. By that time Fredrack Saxton already had removed to Sheffield, from which town he served in several military enlistments as a sergeant. In due course Saxton became a property owner in Sheffield, and was listed in the town’s records of polls and rateable estate for the years 1787 through 1790, then in 1791 his name was crossed out. On February 5, 1785 he had sold his property to Jeremiah Hickok and moved to Rutland County in Vermont. There he became one of the first settlers in Burlington, one of a group of six who arrived in June 1783. Three of the new arrivals built shanties near the spring, while Saxton built a log house in the settlement formed at the head of Pearl Street. It was voted that "Frederick Saxton’s Barn and yard be a `pound’ for said town during the ensuing year, and it was voted that Saxton be key keeper."

Upon settling in Burlington, where he became known as Colonel Saxton, he resided at the head of Pearl Street where in the autumn of 1789 he began construction of his residence that later was named Pearl House, and which was completed at a later date. In the reminiscences of a local resident, Horace Loomis, whose family moved to Burlington in February 1790, and who in 1860 compiled his recollections of early Burlington, he noted, "When we came to Burlington, there were on what is now Water and King streets but four buildings . . . Col. Frederick Saxton had made a beginning of the old Pearl house in 1789 where he lived when we came here, having sold out to my father the big house and 20 acres of land." It was again sold in 1794 to Colonel Stephen Pearl.

During the years 1787, 1788, 1789 and 1790 Saxton served as a selectman of Burlington and he was one of three members of a committee appointed to divide the town into school districts. In the Burlington Grand List for 1787 indicating the relative prosperity of the residents, the valuation for Colonel Saxton’s property was the highest of all in the community, 65 pounds. In the first jury trial held in Chittenden County after its organization, at the February 1788 term of the court, being an action of trespass quare clausum fregit, brought by John Collins against Saxton, the case was decided in favor of Collins.

Escort to the Prince
One of the most memorable events of early Burlington was the arrival from Canada in February 1793 of Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales, who had been in command of a regiment there. The prince traveled through Canada, Vermont and Massachusetts in thirteen carryalls and sleighs, stopping at Chazy or Champlain in New York, thence over the ice to Grand Isle, and from there his entourage made its way to Burlington. The prince brought with him two aids, two bodyguards, a cook and a lady. His body guards slept by his door, and his cook prepared the provisions which they had brought with them. A courtier had been sent on ahead to make the necessary preparations for the arrival of the prince’s entourage and arrange for accommodations in Burlington. At the time there were not more than seven frame houses in the whole village, the surrounding forest remaining almost unbroken. The prince remained for three days and changed his teamsters, dismissing those who had brought him to be returned to Canada. In the recollections of a resident, it was noted that as the prince prepared for his departure from Burlington, "He parted with his lady or mistress at this place–she going to New York and he to Boston. They always conversed in French. He was very kind in his attention to her in parting–she was fixed nicely in the sleigh with an abundance of fur robes; the prince tucked up the robes and placed the large dog at her feet– they parted very affectionately, to meet, as was understood, in the West Indies." Five farmers, Frederick Saxton among them, were selected to conduct the prince and his party to Boston.

Saxton appears to have owned property also in Milton, and in 1787 he was one of seven petitioners to the Vermont General Assembly, on behalf of the landowners of the town of Milton, to request a levying tax for the purpose of road construction:

To the Honorable Gen.l Assembly of the State of Vermont to Convean in Neuburg in Oct. inst, — The Petition of the subscribers Inhabitants & Landowners in Milton Humbly sheweth that the Proprietors have not Levied any Taxes for Roads that the other Towns Contiguous to Lake have Laid Down by Roads are — which Roads will be — if Roads are not made through Milton That there is but Little — on Roads in sd. Town — Your Petitioners Therefore Pray that Your Honers would Pass and set Leveying a tax of Two Pence on Each acre of Land in sd Town ) Except Public Rights) for the Purpose of Cuting Roads & Bridging the same in sd Town. Your Petitioners as in duty Bound will Ever Pray — Oct.r. 5, 1787

Tragedy on the Lake
Before the American Revolution, about ten families, not identified by name, had commenced settlements near Lake Champlain. By 1788 after he left Burlington, Frederick Saxton purchased a large tract of land in Shelburne, Vermont, including considerable frontage on Lake Champlain, at Shelburne just south of Burlington. It was located on a point a short distance north of Comstock’s Point. There he moved in 1790, and it was where he was to die in an accident six years later.

In the Vermont Historical Gazetteer published in 1867, an account of the accident was listed under "Cases of Drowning" It stated that while taking a load of grain to the mill on the opposite shore, on "April 28th, 1796. Col. Frederick Saxton, Jared Post and two of his sons — all citizens of this town — started in a log canoe to cross Lake Champlain from Saxton’s Bay to Willsborough Point directly opposite. When about a mile or so from the Point, the wind, which had been increasing from the time they first set out, had become so strong that the canoe filled with water, and the whole party was drowned. Their bodies were never found."

Saxton was 48 years of age at the time of his death. He left a large family, and his widow died on March 5, 1813. Some of his descendants continued to own much of his property for the following one hundred years or so, and part of the property still retains the family name, "Saxton’s Point," and is the present site of the Inn at Shelburne Farms, a part of the extensive Shelburne Farms property.

Saxton the Younger
Then there was the second Frederick Saxton. Although occasionally mis-identified in local accounts as the surveyor who drowned in Saxtons River and for whom the river was named, in fact he was not and did not. Frederick Saxton the younger was born at Sheffield, Massachusetts on May 22, 1764, the son of Jasper and Mary (Keyser) Saxton and nephew of Frederick Saxton the older. His father Jasper Saxton had served as a sergeant in the American Revolution in various enlistments, and when he died he was buried beside his mother in the Bow Wow Cemetery near Sheffield. His name was frequently spelled "Sexton." Jasper Saxton was the father of eight children, three daughters and five sons.

Frederick Saxton the younger reached his majority on 17 November 1785 and his tax paying record began two years later when he was about 23 years of age. Between 1787 and 1791 his taxes were limited to poll and personal property; apparently he did not own any real estate in Sheffield or elsewhere in southern Berkshire County of Massachusetts. He disappeared from the town’s tax rolls in 1791, when his name was crossed out, never to appear there again.

Frederick Saxton the younger began surveying in Vermont, possibly having been trained by his uncle and namesake, Fredrack Saxton. It was probably at the time that he no longer appeared on Sheffield’s town tax rolls that he became a surveyor in New York State. He was employed to survey the land that had been sold in 1788 by the State of Massachusetts to the two land speculators, Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. The territory sold by Massachusetts consisting of 6 million acres, consisting of all of its land east and west of Genesee in New York, for which Phelps and Gorham paid Massachusetts one million dollars (300,000 pounds) in three annual installments.

The first land office was established by Oliver Phelps to sell the land that had been vacated by Sullivan’s army. Adam Hoops, a major who had served with Sullivan, was acquainted with the financier Robert Morris. Together with Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham they put together the Phelps-Gorham purchase of lands west of the pre-emption line. The area consisted of some two million and six hundred thousand acres, and opened the way for the migration that quickly followed. The land had first been explored by General Israel Chapin then surveyed and mapped by William Walker. The first settlers coming into the region made their way by means of bateaux on the lakes and rivers. It was not until 1796 that a state road was completed from Utica to Geneva by way of Auburn, and the construction of a bridge over Cayuga Lake in 1800 made a great improvement.

Early Canandaigua
A settlement developed upon the site of a Seneca Indian village called Kanandargua, meaning "the chosen spot." It had been an extremely well built Indian community consisting of 23 well constructed log houses with chimneys. After the village was burned and the inhabitants ravaged, the town of Canandaigua was formed upon the site in 1789. The name Canandaigua was derived from the word Gan-a-dar-que in the language of the Seneca Indians.

Frederick Saxton the younger was among the first nine settlers who arrived in that year, coming in boats with General Israel Chapin from Schenectady by way of Fort Stanwix, Wood Creek, Oneida Lake, and up the Canandaigua outlet into Oneida Lake. This was the first example of the ascent made by boats for transportation so high up the river, thereafter the ordinary point of landing was at Manchester seven miles down. The first houses in the new community were log houses, one of which was occupied by General Chapin, who in 1791 became the first County Justice.

Young Saxton, then 26 years of age, ran the lines of the 230,000 acres during the summer of 1790. This acreage embraced the most densely and valuably built part of what later became the city of Rochester. All of the present titles within the city derived from Ebenezer Allan who never himself had any other title except in the deed from Phelps & Gorham to the Springfield and Northampton Company.

In the years 1791-92 Augustus Porter with Saxton and four others surveyed the Genesee Tract which was owned by Phelps and Gorham at Canandaigua, and which they sold to Robert Morris. Because the old pre-emption line that had been run by Colonel Hugh Maxwell in 1789 had been surveyed with very inferior instruments and was known to be erroneous, it had to be run again. In November and December 1792 Benjamin Ellicott ran a new line assisted by James Armstrong, Frederick Saxton and Augustus Porter.

By 1792 the town of Canandaigua had grown to about the same size as Geneva and Buffalo, with a few farm houses and some log cabins. By 1800 Canandaigua had 90 families, including those of Thomas Morris, Nathaniel Gorham and Oliver Phelps. The community was situated on high ground, with one principal street in the vill a g e that extended from Canandaigua Lake in a straight line for over a mile, with 30 lots on each side each containing forty acres. It was also the site of the land office of Phelps and Gorham, the first land office in western New York. In 1800 Canandaigua became the northern point of entry into the Genesee country.

Saxton worked as a surveyor in Canandaigua, being paired together with others, but most frequently with Augustus Porter. After Saxton and Porter had finished the survey of Township No. 10, in the 4th range, now East Bloomfield, they surveyed and allotted Township No. 9 in the 6th Range, now Livonia, Livingston County in the Genessee region. At the time, General Fellows offered to sell the town to Saxton and Porter at twenty cents per acre, which they declined. Saxton and Porter than proceeded to survey Township No. 12, lst Range, now Arcadia in Wayne County. In the previous year Colonel Hugh Maxwell, a surveyor, had contracted with Phelps and Gorham to run into townships that whole part of their purchase to which the Indian title had been extinguished. Not having completed the work, however, he contracted with Saxton and Porter to survey a portion of about forty townships which now constitute part of Steuben County. While thus employed, they made their headquarters at Painted Post on the Conhocton River.

Following the completion of this assignment, Frederick Saxton submitted his invoice for surveying performed to Phelps and Gorham (see image right). On the reverse of the invoice he had made a notation dated from Philadelphia on February 15, 179 3 that the account remained unsettled. Presumably he had returned to Massachusetts via Philadelphia almost immediately thereafter, for the records of the Family History Center of Sheffield Historical Society state that he died on March 4, 1793 at Shelburne, a month after having signed the new agreement. Although no account relating to the circumstances of his death has been found, it suggests that he may have become suddenly ill or died in an accident. He was twenty-nine years of age and had never married.

Remaining still unresolved is the matter of a third Saxton–the one for whom Saxtons River was named, prior to 1724. Could he also have been named Frederick, and was he too a surveyor? Perhaps his footsteps may one day be uncovered.

Silvio Bedini is a Historian Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of more than 300 articles and monographs published in scholarly periodicals, and is presently completing his 23rd book.

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About the Author

Silvio A. Bedini

Silvio Bedini is a Historian Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution where he served on the professional staff for twenty-five years. Retired since 1987, he actively continues to research and publish history-related books and articles. Bedini was born in the Colonial town of Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1917. After local schooling he matriculated at Columbia University, where his studies were interrupted by World War II. Volunteering for the U.S. Army Air Corps, he was subsequently transferred from Chicopee Falls Air Field to G-2 in Washington, D.C. He served three-and-a-half years and was honorably discharged as the War ended. Returning to Connecticut, he engaged in a family business for a few years, wrote for children's magazines and true science comics, and did research for publishers of encyclopedias. In 1958 he accepted an invitation to write a brochure about the history of his hometown for its 250th anniversary, a project that just three months later resulted in a 411-page book titled Ridgefield in Review. In 1961 he accepted the offer of a position in Washington, D.C. as curator at the Smithsonian Institution in the new Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), which was under construction. He recalls the swell of emotion that brought tears to his eyes as he walked toward the red-bricked Smithsonian “Castle” for his first day on the job, a place where he felt “at home” from the start. Over the next several years he was promoted from curator and Division Supervisor to Assistant Director and eventually Deputy Director of the museum. In addition to his position in administration, his subject field was antique scientific instruments. Subsequently he was offered a newly established position of Keeper of the Rare Books of the Smithsonian Institution, and succeeded in acquiring important collections of rare books in science and technology for its libraries. Bedini’s association with land surveyors began quite accidentally about twenty years ago when a new surveying trade journal was about to go to press and the editor needed an article on surveying history. At the last minute he was called upon to write it, a tradition he continued in almost every issue for the next two decades. For the most part, early American surveyors and instrument makers were among “the little men of science,” mostly forgotten and overlooked by scholarly historians, yet whose lives aroused in Bedini considerable interest. To recover the story of a surveyor's career almost always involves considerable research—for maps, surveying records, and vital statistics—in state, county and city archives as well as local histories, church records, and local cemeteries. His intensive research on various aspects of the history of science eventually led to the writing of more than 300 articles and monographs published in scholarly periodicals, and 22 books published in the United States and Europe. For his research and publications in 1962 Bedini received the Abbott Payson Award of the Society of the History of Technology, and in 1997 in Darmstadt, Germany he was awarded the Paul-Bunge-Preis at the General Assembly of the German Bunsen Society for Physical Chemistry "for the book of foremost quality on the history of scientific instruments." Three years later, in 2000, in Munich, Germany he was awarded the Leonardo da Vinci Medal, "the highest recognition from the Society of the History of Technology." His memberships include the American Philosophical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, the Society of American Historians, the Washington Academy of Sciences, the Scientific Instrument Society (London), the Astrolabe Society (Paris), the Surveyors Historical Society, and most recently, the DC Association of Land Surveyors, which extended to him an Honorary Membership in December 2003. Bedini is presently completing his twenty-third book. Contact Silvio Article List Below