The Townships of Johnsburg and Thurman were named for John Thurman when Warren County was split off from Washington County in 1816. Beyond the boundaries of these two townships, however, few have heard of him or his accomplishments.
The story of John Thurman is an important chapter in the history of the Adirondacks. For too many, Adirondack history is limited to the great camps, guide boats, and environmental protection. Yet there is so much more.
For hundreds of years the Adirondacks were a dark and dangerous place; anyone traveling through the area had best be well-armed. However, after the American Revolution the Adirondacks became, for the first time, a land of great opportunity, ready for exploration and commercial enterprises.
Although the Colonies had won their political independence from Britain, they were not yet economically independent. It was thought that the natural resources here could fuel the economy of this new, emerging nation. Tall virgin forests covered the hills and there were rumors of great deposits of iron, lead and other ores.
It was a region surrounded by water at a time when water transportation of people and especially cargo was tantamount; on the east the Adirondacks are bordered by Lake Champlain and Lake George, on the south by Oneida Lake and the Mohawk River, on the west by Lake Ontario and to the north by the St Lawrence River. The region was also within 250 miles of the great seaports of New York, Boston and Montreal. Still, in 1783 most of the interior was unexplored and unknown. Men of great wealth and vision saw opportunity.
Great investment schemes were quickly hatched and put in place. In the western Adirondacks along the Black River two European style cities were planned, complete with broad avenues, museums, theatres, libraries, formal gardens and 14,000 home sites – at a time when Albany’s total population was less than 3,500. Near Parishville in the northwest corner of the Park, massive sheep farms were established. In the area of today’s Old Forge, NY, John Brown of Providence, Rhode Island planned to clear the land and plant large fields of wheat. He also built a forge to process the iron ore he discovered there, thus giving the town its name. Lake Placid, known today for its 90 meter ski jump and tourist amenities, was settled as a mining town. Zephaniah Platt built sawmills and grist mills where the Saranac River empties into Lake Champlain, a settlement he named Plattsburgh, and north of Utica, Gerrit Boon began experimenting with commercial sugar maple production which, its investors hoped, would make them rich while at the same time diminish the need for slaves in the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. And it was here at “Elm Hill” in Johnsburg that John Thurman established his home and introduced farming and industry to this section of the “northern wilderness” as it was then called.
We do not know for sure the year that John Thurman was born; it was probably 1729 or early 1730. We do know that he was baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church on Garden Street, now called Exchange Place, in New York City on July 8, 1730. He was the 5th child of John Thurman Sr. and Elizabeth Wessels. His father’s parents had immigrated to the Colonies prior to 1703 from their home in Lower Shadwell Cockhill, in the suburbs of London, England. His mother’s family was Dutch and had lived in New Amsterdam for many generations by the time John Jr. was born. John Thurman was educated – in Dutch – in the church school across the street from where he was baptized.
Before little John had turned 5 his mother died. With now 7 young children to care for his father quickly re-married. His father was a commercial baker and times were tough; in 1730 competition from cheap flour from Pennsylvania decreased New York’s flour exports to the West Indies. Farmers on Long Island responded by growing more and more wheat that further reduced prices. As New York’s flour business collapsed so too did its merchant fleet and these ships were his father’s biggest customers. By the mid-1750s, however, the economy in New York City had recovered and, for their day, the family had become relatively affluent.
At age 35 John Thurman established a dry goods store at the intersection of Williams and Wall Street in New York City. His letters record transactions in deerskins, beaver and raccoon pelts coming from the north as well as the sale of dress goods, brandy and cotton stockings he imported from overseas. At the family-owned wharf on the East River, between today’s Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, Thurman was often the first buyer of the fine imported goods that arrived by ship from the Indies and Europe. At the family wharf on the Hudson River, valuable animal pelts and the mail arrived from Albany; on that site today is the World Trade Center Ferry Terminal.
Thurman, by hard work, enterprise – and expert use of the family’s real estate holdings in Manhattan – became a prosperous New York City merchant with business associations in England and Ireland, as well as in the West Indies and France.
He sought to further add to his wealth by the purchase of land; especially here in the Adirondacks. His first investment was as one of the original investors in Totten & Crossfields Purchase; a massive land purchase that acquired over a million one hundred fifty thousand acres of Adirondack wilderness in 1773. In June of 1776, just days before the Colonies declared their independence from England, John Thurman bought an additional tract of land. It became known as the John Thurman Patent. After the American Revolution, the impoverished state of New York decided not to recognize Thurman’s purchase of that land from the agents of King George III and required him to buy that land – again; this time from the state of New York.
Thurman continued to add to his land holdings and by 1800 was one of the largest private landowners in New York State. At one time he owned most all of Warren County north of the village of Lake George and much of northern Washington County. He also had major holdings in Essex County – if you looked down the valley from the Oscar Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake you will see a pond, called John Thurman Pond, named in his honor on lands he used to own. He also owned land in Saratoga County, St. Lawrence, Montgomery, Greene and Sullivan Counties and New York City. His total land holdings exceeded 109,000 acres.
Approaching 60 years of age, a point in many men’s lives when they start to contemplate retirement, Thurman began an ambitious program to not just develop these lands with settlement but also to introduce early industry here.
Thurman selected “Elm Hill” – named for an impressive elm on this property – as the base for this extensive new enterprise. Roger Kennedy, Director of the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, referenced Elm Hill in his 1989 work Orders from France. “It was”, he wrote, “ a frontier citadel so important that for many years the territory west of the Hudson River and north of Athol was known among friends in England, Ireland and America as Elm Hill”.
Thurman had lands cleared and roads built. One mile north of his home at “Elm Hill” he built a complex of mills on Beaver Brook: a sawmill, grist mill, carding mill, woolen mill, a pot ashery for producing potash and even a distillery; I understand the local settlers consumed most of the rye whiskey it produced – they were a hard drinking crew back then! Thurman had so many mills built on Beaver Brook that in time its name was changed to Mill Creek.
Thurman assisted the poor settlers that arrived from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales by selling them land with little or nothing down. He held mortgages on farm equipment and even provided financing for the purchase of cows, sheep and pigs. He also employed many of the men at his mills and women spun wool from their sheep for his woolen mill.
With Thurman’s energy, vision and enterprise I believe the settlers here experienced a much higher standard of living than did settlers in many other parts of the Adirondacks.
But in 1797 Thurman also did something really special; he converted his woolen mill to a cotton calico printing facility, the first in New York State and, as best as my research indicates, the 6th or 7th in the United States.
Thurman was able to consider hundreds of great development sites on the thousands of acres of land he owned. Why did he select this Johnsburg site? And why a Calico Cotton Printing Mill? Clearly cotton will not grow in the Adirondacks and Thurman’s mills on Mill Creek in Johnsburg were at least 100 miles from the Hudson River in Albany, the closest navigable river, at a time when most transportation, especially of commercial cargo, was by boat. Research on “why here at Elm Hill?”
John Thurman’s life accomplishments were not limited to his enterprises at “Elm Hill”. At just 38 years of age he co-founded the first New York City Chamber of Commerce. As a member of the state committee on whaling he helped establish the town of Hudson, NY as a whaling town; ships from Hudson, NY traveled to the Antarctic in search of the valuable whale oil well into the 1830s. He was one of the original backers and a director of the Northern Inland Navigation Company, established to connect the Hudson River to Lake Champlain, later built as the Champlain Canal. He was a trustee of the Salem Academy in Washington County and was elected to the New York State Assembly from “Westfield”, later called Fort Ann in Washington County. With Zephaniah Platt of Plattsburgh and Platt Rogers of Middlebury he built a road that ran from Caldwell, today’s Lake George, to Schroon Lake and then on to Plattsburgh. The first section of that road was called the John Thurman Road. Today we call the road they built from Lake George to Plattsburgh NYS Route 9.
Few expected so much of John Thurman when he was a young man. While in his 20s his attention was focused on dressing with great style and in the finest imported clothes. He went to all the right parties and dances. His love of fast horses was well known throughout the city. To young John Thurman, life was just a series of grand parties and good times. Until one day when he was in his still in his early 30s.
The story goes that as he was driving a fancy carriage down the street, he happened to see a man on the street to whom he owned money. The man stopped and took a long gaze at the horse, the carriage and the driver, but said nothing. But Thurman imagined him thinking: ”Young man, you had better pay off your debts before you drive about in such style”. Thurman drove home at once, sold his horse and carriage, and paid that man the money he owed him. That day changed his life. Thurman related years later that he had been on the road to ruin, but that man’s gaze brought him reflection and changed the course of his life, and to this change he attributed his future success in life.
John Thurman died in 1809. He had been staying at his Trout Lake farm checking on farm operations and how things were going at his sawmill on Huddle Brook. His noonday meal was interrupted with news that a bull he had recently purchased from John Richards was loose. Although now age 79, Thurman got up from his meal and headed out to try to contain the bull. During the attempt to corral the bull, the bull, which was particularly ornery, charged Thurman and gored him. Thurman died the next morning of his wounds. He is buried in the old Dutch Reformed Cemetery on Rt 28 about a mile north of Wevertown.
According to court papers, most of the money owed Thurman at the time of his death was never re-paid to his estate and some researchers have suggested that his final will was actually a forgery.
While he was alive John Thurman had overseen every detail on his development at Elm Hill. Now without his insight and drive – and capital – there was a leadership vacuum; no one stepped forward to fill those shoes. Without Thurman to direct things, life in the settlement he had created slowed. Within a generation many of the businesses were failing.
Adding to the town’s distress, in 1825 the Erie Canal was completed. Many settlers decided to abandon their hardscrabble Adirondack farms and head for better soils and a longer growing season in western New York and in Ohio. By the time of the Civil War “Elm Hill” and Johnsburg had become pretty much a rural backwater to the growing village of Glens Falls to the south.
John Thurman’s Elm Hill” is on private property 1.4 miles south of NYS Rt 8 in Johnsburg on South Johnsburg Road. On September 13th, the Johnsburg Historical Society held a special ceremony to install a historic marker on the property.
Photos: Above, the new historical marker set to be installed on Elm Hill; and below, the ruins of an Elm Hill foundation.
The post first appeared at Adirondack Almanack.