History often makes a muddle of people’s lives. One such example is Charles H. Smith (ca. 1832 – 1911) of Petries Corners in the town of Watson, Lewis County, NY. Charles was well known as an Adirondack guide in the Beaver River/Stillwater area of the Western Adirondacks.
He lived to a ripe old age as an elder statesman of the guiding fraternity. But confusing reports of his age, a story about guiding for royalty, and a common first and last name have obscured his actual accomplishments.
The confusion started with newspaper accounts of the eighth annual meeting of the Brown’s Tract Guides’ Association in 1904, which describe Smith as “in his eightieth year, and who guided King Edward VII on a hunting and fishing trip in the Adirondacks.”
That quote is problematic. Someone who was 80 in 1904 would have had a birth year around 1824, but Charles was much younger – born around 1832 according to the 1850 census on which he was listed as age 18. Later censuses support the 1832 date.
The reference to King Edward VII is also questionable. Edward VII of Great Britain (who reigned 1901 – 1910) was the son of Queen Victoria and was king at the time of the 1904 guides’ meeting. Edward did tour North America in 1860 when he was Prince of Wales and did visit Albany, NY, for a day, but does not appear to have visited the Adirondacks.
The next year, at the 1905 guides’ meeting, a correspondent attempted unsuccessfully to clarify the original story and reported that “he [Charles H. Smith] has the distinction of having had charge of the party led by Governor Seymour, which escorted a maid, the Queen of England, through the big wilderness, and he has guided many notable parties since.” Queen Victoria was certainly not trudging through the Adirondacks.
The reference to the governor and a maid, however, point to a trip that former NY Governor Horatio Seymour led in 1855 for Amelia Matilda Murray, a pro-slavery British botanist and coincidentally a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. The group traveled west from Lake Champlain through Long Lake and the Fulton Chain to Boonville. Charles H. Smith would have been 23 in 1855, and it is likely that this was the trip that Smith guided.
Unfortunately, the original story had legs. Charles Brumley in his Guides of the Adirondacks (1994) repeats the Edward VII story. Brumley was then cited by Historic Saranac Lake Wiki, which further confuses Charles H. Smith of Lewis County with another Charles H. Smith who died before 1899. (Historic Saranac Lake does note that the information may be two different persons, but repeats the Edward VII story.)
So, who was Charles H. Smith of Petries Corners? As shown above, Charles was born around 1832 in Lewis County. He was the oldest son of John D. and Clarinda Smith, who had two other children, Henry (born ca. 1834) and Jane (b. ca. 1836). John D. Smith was a cooper and his son Charles followed in that trade. Charles’s younger siblings attended school during 1850 and it is likely that Charles was also educated locally.
The family lived near the road to Number Four, a major access route to the Western Adirondacks. The location allowed Charles to start guiding when he was reportedly only 14 years old (in ca. 1846). In 1855, as we have seen above, he was probably a guide for Governor Horatio Seymour and Amelia M. Murray. In 1856, 1857, and 1858, Charles worked at the Saranac Lake House (aka Martin’s), built by William F. Martin, on Lower Saranac Lake. Beginning around 1866, he guided for State Assemblyman Lansing Hotaling (d. 1909) of Albany for over 30 years.
At first his work as a guide was part-time – Charles appears on census records as a cooper through 1870. On an 1875 map, he appears as “C. Smith” in New Bremen, NY, near the border with the Town of Watson (see the map above). On the 1875 State Census of New Bremen, Charles was described as a “hunter and trapper.” In later censuses, he was listed in Watson as a guide (1880, 1900) and, interestingly, as a boat-builder (1910).
Hard work enabled Charles to support a large family. Around 1861, Charles married Martha (b. ca. 1840) and they had four known children: Charles E. (b. ca. 1857), William R. (1859-1927), Rosebell (b. ca. 1863), and Mary (b. ca. 1866). By 1870, Charles had married a second wife, Jane (b. ca. 1846) with whom he had four more children: Emmagene (b. ca. 1871), Charles E. II (b. 1873), Lansing L. (b. ca.1877), and George C. (b. 1886).
In the 1880s, Charles H. Smith was one of several guides who worked out of Dunbar’s Hotel in Stillwater. By 1894, Charles’s son William R. Smith was also a guide, and both are listed as Beaver River guides in the state Forest Commission Report.
Charles often spoke out on hunting practices and state game laws, especially hounding (i.e., driving deer with dogs). In 1885, New York State outlawed hounding. The following year Charles H. Smith submitted a letter to the New York Senate supporting the continuation of the law: “Deer have decreased very fast from ’79 until ’85. I think the main cause was driving with dogs, as there were more killed in that way than in all others (Letter of Feb. 27, 1886).”
The 1885 law was repealed, but debate continued. In 1890, Charles was one of three men from Lewis County to attend a hearing of the Fish and Game Commission in Albany. In 1893, Smith wrote “Guides would like to see floating [hunting deer from water] prohibited if hounding is also stopped. We would like to have hounding done away with or limited to ten days.” Hounding was again outlawed in 1897.
When the Brown’s Tract Guides’ Association was formed in Boonville, NY, in 1898, Charles was a natural candidate for membership. The association’s mission was to preserve the forests and game by seeing that game laws were enforced and by regulating the conduct of guides. Charles H. Smith attended the association’s annual meeting in 1904 in Boonville where he made a presentation, “The Adirondacks: Sixty-five Years Ago.” He also attended the 1905 meeting.
In 1906, The New York Sun published a story called “A Much Shot Bear” that featured Charles H. Smith of Petries Corners. Charles told the story about how he hunted and killed an exceptionally large black bear with a double-barrel shotgun — which was claimed to be one of the first double barrels seen in the area (probably 1865-75).
The bear, though wounded, escaped on two occasions. Finally, the next year, Charles encountered the bear a third time and succeeded in killing it.
Charles died at his home in Petries Corners on February 9th, 1911.
Photo: Map of New Bremen courtesy Library of Congress.
David Charbonneau says
Excellent piece of research into the unsourced versions versus what truly was part of our Adirondack history.
So often the story past on through generations takes on a life of it’s own.
After many years of my genealogical journey, sourcing for accuracy became the biggest challenge. Having reliable information about all the Adirondack guides contributes to their legends for future generations to enjoy. Well done.
Roy Crego says
Thanks Dave, It’s fun to research these “tall tales” to see what if anything is true.
Eileen Fanning says
Really enjoyed this. It gives some insights into the quality of life at that time.
Roy Crego says