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Simmering in Upstate New York

I spent 12 days with Don and Debbie at their house in Syracuse, visiting with them and their lovable dog, Cappy, seeing my friends nearby and getting caught up with my website and e-mail.  Then, on a hot and steamy Thursday morning, I said goodbye, hopped in my truck and continued heading west. 

 

 

It's been like a sauna this past week in upstate New York.  Here's Buster Poindexter singing Hot, Hot, Hot.

   

If nothing else, I hoped to find some cooler weather.  During the time that I was in Syracuse, the high temperature each day hovered between 91 and 102 degrees, and it was as sticky as my mother's cinnamon buns.  In fact, after my experience in soupy Tennessee a month earlier, I started refering to Syracuse as "Chattanooga North." 

 

My first stop after leaving steamy Syracuse was in steamy Lyons, New York, a small town in the rolling hills south of Rochester.  Lyons is one of the oldest towns in upstate New York and, as I had learned a few months earlier, was where my great-great-great-grandfather Solomon Myers (obviously, he was really great) was born in the late 1700s.  If you've been following my website, you know that I retraced the steps of my great-great-grandfather Ransom Myers in July throughout Mississippi and Tennessee.  Ransom fought with the Union Army during the Civil War and lost his arm in 1863, but he re-enlisted with the army and served out the war as a one-armed courier.

 

Above:  The two weeks that I spent in upstate New York were sweltering.  I don't recommend driving through here without air conditioning (like I did).

Solomon Myers was Ransom's father and, as a private in the American Army, he fought against the British during the War of 1812 in the area around Niagara Falls.  Shortly after the war ended, when he was 20, Solomon married a 13-year-old girl (not uncommon back then) named Charlotte.  Solomon and Charlotte farmed in Lyons for 16 years, then in 1830, they moved west to Michigan, which was where I was heading later that day to retrace their steps there.  I'd never been to Lyons, so I wanted to see it and hopefully dig up some information about Solomon -- which I did, thanks to a local historian named Deborah.

 

I didn't find any photos of Solomon so I don't know what he looked like, but I did locate his record of service during the War of 1812.  I also found his signature, which is the only tangible and personal item of his that I've ever been able to find.  That alone was well worth my hour-long stop in Lyons. 

 

I also learned that Solomon had been deeded 160 acres of land from his service during the War of 1812.  That apparently was why he decided to move to Michigan, to redeem it and start a farm there.  The U.S. government often deeded land to veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 in lieu of salary to compensate them for their service to the country, because the government had a lot more land than money back then.  Those land deeds to veterans, along with the Homestead Act of 1862, is how much of this country was settled.

 

As I left Lyons and continued my westerly drive across simmering upstate New York, I thought about how difficult Solomon and Charlotte's journey to Michigan must have been in 1830, especially compared to how easy my trip was.  That's one reason why families didn't move around too much back in those days, I suppose.  That and no Happy Meals.

 

An hour later, as the thermometer topped 100 degrees, I stopped in Palmyra, New York, which had been the home of Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, back in the early 1800s.  I'm not Mormon but I am interested in American history so I wanted to see the site.  I was expecting to find throngs of visitors here, but the empty parking lot made it clear that the Mormons are as unpopular in New York now as when Smith and his polygamist band were kicked out back in 1830.  Ironically, that was the same year that Solomon and Charlotte Myers left this area bound for Michigan, but to my knowledge, there aren't any polygamists in my family.  Nope -- just old guys who marry 13-year-old girls.

 

   

Above left:  My first stop after leaving Syracuse was in Lyons, New York, about an hour away.  This is the original Erie Canal, finished in 1825.  The Erie Canal extended across upstate New York, linking the Great Lakes with the Hudson River and New York City.  It made traveling and shipping between the Midwest and the East Coast much easier.  Not surprisingly, New York City's population exploded after the canal was completed.

Above right:  My great-great-great-grandfather, Solomon Myers, was born in Lyons in the 1790s.  In fact, his family was among the first settlers of upstate New York (think "Last of the Mohicans" and you'll get the idea).  I stopped in the Lyons Courthouse and discovered some old records about Solomon.  Many thanks to Deborah, a local historian.

 

       

Above left:  Later that afternoon, I stopped at a place called Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, New York.  According to the Mormons, this is where Mormon founder Joseph Smith received the Golden Tablets from the Angel Moroni, the son of the Prophet Mormon.  Smith later translated the Golden Tablets into the Book of Mormon.  However, when Smith started practicing polygamy, locals gave him the boot.

Above center:  Mormonism apparently still isn't very popular in upstate New York.  I was expecting to see lots of people at this historic site, but not so. 

Above right:  After a while, some other folks showed up (probably Mormons, I figured, judging from the size of their family).  This is supposedly where Joseph Smith received the Golden Tablets.  Frankly, I was starting to look for the Golden Arches.  For more of my opinions on Mormonism and to find out if they still practice polygamy, see my page on The Mormons.

Niagara Falls?  What Falls?

Sometimes the powers-that-be are set against us.  During my travels, I occasionally run into frustrating situations when it seems that an invisible hand prevents me from seeing or doing something.  Without getting too spiritual, I think someone watches over each of us and sends us subtle messages, and it's up to us to interpret those messages.  Over the years, I've learned to watch for these signals and respect them, instead of butting my head against the wall and trying to do something that, apparently, I'm not supposed to do.

 

And apparently, I'm not supposed to see Niagara Falls.

 

Above:   After leaving Palmyra, I spent over an hour driving around the cities of Niagara Falls, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario, looking for those stupid falls.  I never did see them.  As I drove out of town, I felt like an idiot.

I've been to Niagara Falls twice in the last three years -- but I still haven't seen them.  Back in 1998, I was driving east across Ontario and was planning to see the falls for the first time before continuing on to Don and Debbie's house in Syracuse.  As I got off the freeway and started heading into town, though, my truck started lurching, oddly enough.  I got back on the freeway, wanting to get to Syracuse as soon as possible.  My truck had never done that before in the 200,000 miles I'd driven it, so I was puzzled.  The lurching problem ended as quickly as it had begun and I never had the problem again.  Of course, I didn't see the falls, either.

 

I thought about that incident during this visit to Niagara Falls, but this time I was going in the other direction, heading west.  As I approached the city of Niagara Falls, New York, I was determined to see the falls and had my AAA maps spread out on the front seat beside me to help me navigate.

 

It looked very simple:  just stay on the Parkway until I got close to the falls, find a parking spot, and then walk to the falls.  However, the next 60 minutes were a nightmare.  First, on the American side, I wasn't sure if I was on the right road because there weren't any directional signs for several miles.  Then I came to a traffic light and suddenly saw 30 signs pointing in all different directions.  Then I couldn't find a place to park.  After that, I got caught on a 10-mile roadway with all the exits and turnarounds coned off due to road construction, all the while driving 50 miles an hour away from the falls.

 

Giving up on the American side, I decided to try the Canadian side.  I turned around and found a bridge over to the Canadian side (yay!), but the bridge was only for those people with frequent-crossing cards (boo!)  I finally found another bridge and crossed over into Canada, but then I spent the next 30 minutes driving around the congested city of Niagara Falls, Ontario unable to park anywhere.  After literally an hour, I stopped butting my head and decided that I'm just not meant to see Niagara Falls.  If someone has a picture of it, please send it to me.

 

       

Above left:  Entering the city of Niagara Falls, New York.  Finding the falls looks easy, doesn't it?

Above center:  Coming into Canada.  Where are those darn falls?

Above right:  I finally gave up and continued across Canada.  This is fueling up near London, Ontario.

Solving the Putnam Mystery

I drove across a small part of Canada early that evening on my way to Michigan and stopped in the little town of Putnam, Ontario, which I'd seen on my AAA road map.  I stopped here because I wanted to see if the town had any connection to my Putnam ancestors.  If you've been following my website, you know that Israel Putnam (1718 - 1790), an American general during the Revolutionary War in the 1770s, was one of my distant cousins.  And I'm directly descended from a fellow named Seth Putnam (1756 - 1827), who was at the Boston Tea Party in 1773.  Seth, in fact, was my five times great-grandfather. 

 

Above:  As I headed across Canada to Michigan that evening, I stopped in the small village of Putnam, Ontario, which I'd seen on my map.   Was this town somehow linked to my Putnam ancestors?

According to a story that's been passed down in my family for many generations, back in the 1800s a Putnam relative of ours who was living in Canada had "crossed and recrossed the Michigan border."  But the family story didn't make any sense to me.  Why would someone cross and recross a border?  No one in my family knew, the details being lost to time, so it was a mystery.

 

With the help of the local librarian, I spent an hour in the tiny Putnam library that evening digging through old history books, learning what I could about the town.  I discovered that the town was named after a fellow named William Putnam (1793 - 1838), who was a son of Seth Putnam and thus was my four times great-grandfather.  I also learned that this fellow, William Putnam, had helped start a populist tax revolt against the Canadian government, known as the Canadian Rebellion of 1837.  William died while attacking the Canadian army at Fort Windsor, near Detroit.  William's father, Seth, was at the Boston Tea Party, which was a tax rebellion against the British government in 1773, so I guess rebellions run in my family.  My family, apparently, doesn't like being told what to do, which may be why I've never gotten married.

 

I continued reading from an old history book and learned that, to avoid capture by the Canadian army, William had occasionally crossed into nearby Michigan, seeking safety there, and then recrossed the border back into Canada to continue the rebellion.  Like with the game of "Telephone," the confusing family story had become muddled with time, but now it made sense.  I was elated, being able to clarify this mysterious family story that had been passed down for generations and to know that it was, indeed, true.  I was also proud to learn that my ancestor had died fighting for something he believed in.

 

In retrospect, I was glad that I hadn't visited Niagara Falls after all, because if I had, I wouldn't have reached Putnam until after the library closed.  So maybe it was all part of the plan.

 

   

Above left:  I stopped at the store in Putnam to find out what I could about the town name.  They directed me to the town's small library.

Above right:  With the help of several friendly folks, including the town librarian, shown here, I learned that, yes, I am related to the Putnams of this town.  In fact, the town was named after my four-times great-grandfather, William Putnam, who was one of the leaders of the Canadian Rebellion of 1837. 

Completing the Circle With Ransom

I thanked the librarian and left the library just before closing time, then I got back on the freeway and an hour later I entered the U.S. at Port Huron, Michigan.  At the U.S. Customs checkpoint there, I answered a total of two questions from a bored U.S. Customs officer: 

 

 

Him:

Where are you from?

 

Me:

Portland, Oregon.

 

Him: 

How long did you spend in Canada?

 

Me:

Four hours.

 

I got a motel room that night in Port Huron and the next day, I drove a couple hours north to Mayville, Michigan, the small town where my grandmother had been born in 1892.  When she was a young girl, and shortly after her father died, my grandmother, Minnie May, moved to Seattle, Washington around 1900 with her mother.  Years later, Minnie May met and married my grandfather in Seattle, raised a large family, and died two years before I was born.  I never knew my grandmother but everyone in my family has told me what a wonderful and vivacious person she was.  Her grandfather was Ransom Myers, the one-armed Civil War sergeant whose trail I had followed across Mississippi and Tennessee a few months earlier (see News: June 30, 2001).

 

Above:  My great-great-grandfather, Sergeant Ransom Myers.  Ransom lost his left arm while fighting in Kentucky during the Civil War then afterwards became a farmer and preacher here in the Mayville area.

I've heard a lot of colorful stories over the years about my great-great-grandfather, Ransom Myers.  He was strict, religious, a devoted husband, and had a strong sense of duty.  After losing his left arm during the Civil War, Ransom re-enlisted and became a courier with the 10th Michigan Cavalry, serving in eastern Tennessee.  When the war was over in the spring of 1865, the one-armed Ransom saddled up his horse and rode back to Michigan. 

 

According to a family story, when his wife Hannah saw Ransom riding up the lane towards their farmhouse near Mayville, Michigan after the war, she excitedly ran out to greet him with her children following close behind.  Ransom reached down with his one arm, scooped Hannah up and put her on his horse, then they rode back to their farmhouse together.

 

A few years after the war, Hannah and Ransom had a daughter, Minnie Myers -- my great-grandmother -- who was "high spirited," as they say.  That led to more than a few interesting encounters with her strict father.  For instance, when Minnie Myers was 16, she was attracted to a local boy, Harrison Plane, who was also 16.  Ransom the minister strongly disapproved of his daughter dating this Plane fellow, but despite his threats, Minnie and Harrison met at a dance one night.  Ransom found out about the affair, tracked her down, and told her to walk home.  That was bad enough, but during the walk home, Ransom walked right behind Minnie while cracking a whip to keep her on the path and away from Harrison.  That story always made me laugh.

 

Above:  Ransom Myers' farmhouse near Mayville, Michigan.  His daughter, Minnie, climbed down from her bedroom window one night during a snowstorm in 1889 and eloped with Harrison Plane.  This photo was taken by my dad in 1954.

Minnie had had enough, so a few months later, in the middle of winter in 1889, she and Harrison decided to elope.  Harrison put a ladder up to her window one night and helped her out and down the ladder.  Minnie had to throw her luggage out the window and it got buried in a snow drift, but they dug it out and rode off together.  Ransom found out about it the next morning and was so enraged that he didn't speak to his daughter for several months afterwards or even allow her name to be mentioned in his house.   But finally, the strict but soft-hearted Ransom decided that he missed his daughter too much, so he forgave her and they made amends.

 

Hannah, Ransom's wife, died in 1896 and Ransom a year later.  Their daughter, Minnie (and now with her own daughter, my grandmother Minnie May) continued living in the Mayville area with Harrison until 1900, when Harrison died of tuberculosis.  Too heartbroken to remain in Michigan, the elder Minnie got on a train with her young daughter and headed out to Seattle, to be with her sister there.  The two Minnies, mother and daughter, were going west, and that was the beginning of my family's roots in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Above:  Paying my respects to Ransom Myers (right) and his wife, Hannah Chaplin Myers (left), in the Watertown cemetery near Mayville.  After following Ransom around the country for the past few months, I had now completed the circle.

With these fascinating stories dancing around in my head, I excitedly approached the small town of Mayville.  I knew that Ransom was buried here somewhere, and after following his footsteps for several weeks in the South, I was determined to find his grave and complete the circle.  As it turned out, and with the help of the kindly Mayville librarian, I did just that.  I also learned that Ransom's father, Solomon (the guy who married the 13-year-old girl in New York) was buried in the same cemetery, along with Solomon's child bride, Charlotte, who lived until she was 80.

 

After reading about Ransom and tracing his steps across the South, it was both fulfilling and humbling to visit his grave, along with those of his parents, wife, siblings, and children.  I knew that the next day in Bellingham, Washington, 2,000 miles away, my family was going to have their annual Family Reunion, which I would miss for the first time in more than a decade.  However, I had my own family reunion that afternoon in the Watertown cemetery near Mayville, just as I had done at a cemetery in Massachusetts a few weeks earlier.  Once again, though, I seemed to be the only one talking.

 

       

Above left:  After driving across Canada for a few hours, I crossed back into the U.S. that night and wrote some e-mails in Port Huron, Michigan.  Yes, I do occasionally splurge for a motel -- albeit, a cheap motel.  My laptop is plugged into the phone jack (56K modem) here.

Above center:  Wasn't Sneezy one of the seven dwarfs?  I bet Doc drives a Cadillac. 

Above right:  The next day it was on to Mayville, a small town near the thumb of Michigan.  My grandmother (my dad's mother) was born here over a hundred years ago.  Although I had grown up in Michigan, this was the first time that I'd been to Mayville.

 

   

Above left:  After spending several hours in the Mayville library, I learned that my ancestors, including Solomon Myers and his son, Ransom, were buried nearby.

Above right:  The graves of Ransom's parents, Solomon (right) and Charlotte Myers (center) in the Watertown cemetery near Mayville.  Solomon was from Lyons, New York and had fought in the War of 1812, hence the upright cannon in the background.

 

       

Above left:  After leaving Mayville, I stumbled across the town of Otter Lake, Michigan.  Ironically, this was the same day that my dad and my brothers were hiking to another Otter Lake, that one in Washington's rugged Cascade Mountains 2,000 miles away.  My dad visited Otter Lake often as a teenager in the 1930s and now, at age 77, wanted to go back.

Above center:  Here's what happened when I hiked to Otter Lake, Washington in 1997 with my dad.  It's a rough, four-mile bushwhack to the lake.  The bushes whacked back, though, and I slipped and broke my arm (note the deformed wrist).  I hiked out, wore a cast for six weeks, and vowed never to hike to Otter Lake again.

Above right:  As I later learned, my dad and brothers didn't make it to Otter Lake, either.  But here's a picture of the one in Michigan.  I guess you could say that I finally made it to Otter Lake!

 


 

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