Chapter II
John's Forebears

From "John Burroughs - Boy And Man" (1920)
By Clara Barrus

I pity the boy who does not remember his grandfather and grandmother. He has missed something that can never quite be made up to him, even by father and mother. The boy is especially rich who remembers two grandfathers and grandmothers. Grandparents had such queer interesting things happen to them, things that they love to tell about and we love to hear, and when they tell what their grandparents did, it is queerer still.

Some persons always skip the parts of a biography that tell about the ancestors, but since boys like to hear about bears, why not a little about forebears?

We are all answers to long sums in addition, and it may be interesting to look back a little ways in the long double column of figures that, when added up, gives the answer, John Burroughs.

One of the early figures in the ancestral column was an English navigator of the sixteenth century, Stephen Burroughs, who made two voyages to discover a northeast passage around the eastern continent (in 1553 and 1558), doubling Cape North on the last voyage, touching at Nova Zembla, and reaching the highest north latitude that had then been reached. He published an account of his discoveries and observations on returning to England. He was the first to discover the declination of the magnetic needle.

The men from whom John Burroughs descended came to America from the West Indies in 1690, settling chiefly in Connecticut and Massachusetts. One of their descendants was a Stephen Burroughs, born in Connecticut in 1729, shipbuilder, surveyor, astronomer, and mathematician. He was the inventor of the system of Federal money adopted by Congress in 1790. His brother, Ephraim Burroughs, born in 1740, was the great-grandfather of John Burroughs. But before coming nearer let us glance at two more remote ancestors: There was still another Stephen Burroughs, whose career, if less praiseworthy than that of the English navigator, is picturesquely interesting. He was an adventurer. Born in New Hampshire in 1765, the son of a Congregational clergyman, he certainly made things hum from very tender years. Running away from home at the age of fourteen and enlisting in the army, he was a Revolutionary soldier for awhile, but deserted; entered Dartmouth College, but on getting into a serious fracas there, ran away, becoming in turn, ship's physician, preacher, and schoolmaster.

While serving as preacher in Pelham, Massachusetts, he was much liked and respected, although he confessed later that he palmed off as his own sermons of his father's. (One wonders how he managed to keep them by him in all his varying fortunes.) While carrying on this life as a preacher, he was discovered to belong to a gang of men engaged in making counterfeit money.

Later in life he became a Roman Catholic, and, living at Three Rivers, Canada, was tutor to wealthy Canadian youths. At his death, in 1840, he had a fine library, and had earned the reputation of being an excellent teacher.

It is said his pupils were enthusiastically attached to him. And why not? With his experiences, he must have had many a racy tale to hold their interest.

To offset this scape-grace Stephen, we find another ancestral figure of most exemplary life and character -- the reverend George Burroughs, a graduate of Harvard College in 1670; a victim of the Salem witchcraft, his offence being that he had a mind of his own. Openly asserting that he did not believe in witchcraft, he incurred the enmity of Parris, a rival clergyman, and of the reverend Cotton Mather, who had preached and written about it. For his independence he was declared to be bewitched himself and sentenced to be hanged.

The day before the execution, Margaret Jacobs, a young woman who had testified against the condemned man, sought an audience with him and, confessing her guilt, begged forgiveness. He not only forgave her, but prayed with her. Many of the people, convinced of his innocence, implored Cotton Mather to spare his life, but that inhuman divine, reminding them that the Devil was often transformed into a very angel of light, declared this apparently saintly man to be the vilest of the vile.

The prosecutors had claimed that the witches, or wizards (for I suppose that is the masculine of witches) could not repeat the Lord's Prayer, but even though the accused did repeat it, composedly and reverently, while standing on the scaffold, his persecutors would not relent. Friends sobbed and moaned and entreated, but Cotton Mather, dashing among them on horseback, mocked the victim, and, uttering maledictions on those who would show mercy, drove the hangman to his work.

At about the close of the Revolutionary War, Ephraim Burroughs, the great-grandfather of John Burroughs, came into New York State from Connecticut. He was a farmer, and lived near Stamford in the Catskills. Now, as the Bible records would say, Ephraim begat Eden, and Eden begat Chauncey, and Chauncey begat John, and so we reach the "answer" from one side of the ancestral column.

Eden Burroughs and Rachael Avery, John's paternal grandparents, moved into Delaware County from Stamford, in 1795, slowly and laboriously, by cutting their way through the woods, and hauling all that they owned in the world on a sled drawn by a yoke of oxen.

They settled down amid the Delaware County hills at the foot of Old Clump, a high wooded mountain with an altitude of 3500 feet, near the village of Roxbury (or Beaver Dam as it was originally called). There they made themselves a rude shelter until they could build a more substantial one. The first shelter consisted of four crotched-poles driven in the ground with horizontal plates laid across, and with two taller crotched-poles to support the ridge-pole. Over this was spread a covering of elm bark. Elm bark was also used for the floor. The pioneer then felled a huge maple for a back-log, and built his fire in front of this shelter, and there his wife cooked their food in a kettle suspended over the fire. Their furniture was home-made. The table was of rough slabs into which holes were bored and legs fitted, and their chairs, bedsteads and other furniture were of the rudest kind.

In the little clearing which they made, John's grandparents soon put up a log house, building it with their own hands, helped by the neighbours. It was the custom when a newcomer came into the county for the neighbours to make a "bee" and vie with one another in their efforts to help him build his house. The roof of this house was of black-ash bark, and the rough-hewn floor of white-ash logs. They also made a huge stone fireplace with mortar of red clay. Grandmother Burroughs said it was the happiest day of her life when the little house was done and they moved in it. There in that little hut in the woods they lived and toiled, clearing the land of the trees and rocks, raising their crops and their children, and finding life sweet, even if they did live close to the bone. Grandmother Burroughs used to help in the fields and at sugarmaking in the sap-bush, and later on, rode long distances to mill through the woods, herself, a baby, and the mealbags carried by the faithful horse.

Great grandmother Avery came to live with these grandparents after a little, a sensitive woman of petulant disposition. One day when something had gone wrong, she went off and hid in the bushes and sulked, and they had a long hunt for her -- "a family trait," her greatgrandson admits-" I'm a little that way, I guess."

In this humble log house the father of John Burroughs was born, and over a hill and down in another valley, in a little, weather-worn, unpainted farm-house, John Burroughs himself was born one early April day in 1837. That house is no longer standing, it having been moved to the orchard (and later torn down) when, in 1850, the present house, which Mr. Burroughs calls the Old Home, was built on the old site. His father bought his farm of three hundred and fifty acres of a neighbour, Widow Bartram, who had bought it of Desbrosses, the man for whom Desbrosses Street in New York is named.

At the time that Eden Burroughs came into Delaware County, there were probably not more than one hundred persons in the whole county. It was largely a wilderness of pine and hemlock. Shortly before this the Indians along the Delaware had had their settlements, trapping for beaver, otters, and martens, but had then gone along the Susquehanna, and still farther west, in search of better hunting-grounds.

Some years after Eden Burroughs came to Delaware County, the stocks and a whipping-post were erected at Dimmick's Corners, ten miles distant. The first person to be punished in the stocks was a carpenter in 1797 who had been caught stealing grist. He was put in the stocks, barefooted, for a day and a night, and the small boys were allowed to tickle his feet, and mock him, after which he was given fifty lashes at the whipping-post, and sent about his business.

Grandfather Burroughs was a spare man, a seriousminded, hard-working farmer, a lover of peace and solitude. Grandmother Burroughs was of Celtic origin; she had a sandy complexion; was warm-hearted, and cheery of disposition.

John has heard them tell how his grandfather every fall used to ride forty miles to get a bag of apples, and seedlings at that, bringing it home on horseback. (Perhaps they were the ancestors of the fruit from which that Apple essay grew.) Once on leaving home at three in the morning to make the long journey, he and his horse were badly frightened by the screaming of a panther as they went through a narrow pass in the mountains.

On The Porch At Woodchuck Lodge

On the porch at Woodchuck Lodge

Although John remembers but little about these grandparents who died when he was very young, he well remembers his maternal grandparents, Edmund Kelly and Lovina Liscom, the Granther and Granny of his boyhood years.

Granther Kelly was a short man with a big head and distinctly Irish features. He was born in 1767. His long blue army coat with brass buttons and his red-top boots were the admiration of John's boyhood. He was a soldier under Washington in the War of 1776. Going into the war in the last two years as a lad of fourteen, he served at first in some humbler capacity, later carrying a musket as a regular soldier. He saw Lafayette. He was with the army at Valley Forge. -What tales he used to tell of that terrible winter the army spent there! "Zuckers! but it was monstrous cold," he used to say. (Granther never swore, but he put a good deal of vim into that word " Zuckers! Zounds! " was another of his favourite words.)

Granther was keen for adventure, and liked the life of the soldier far better than the humdrum one of farmer and provider for a large family. When the War of 1812 broke out, and one of his sons was drafted, he went in his stead. He was gone a year or two, and though not actually in battle, was in some lively skirmishing. John remembers his tale of bivouacking one night in a hollow in the ground made by an overturned tree-he slept soundly through a rain-storm, and on awaking found his cradle half-full of water.

When Granther was given his discharge from the army, he "footed it" from New York, going through the river towns on the east bank of the Hudson. He tried house after house, asking for a night's lodging, and was refused. They were evidently all Tories and so refused hospitality to a soldier in Yankee uniform. Wearied, he finally crawled in an out-building near a house that looked no more promising than the others, and there spent the night. In the morning, on leaving, feeling disgruntled, he gave them a parting shot, shooting through the peak of the house. This brought out the man who, on seeing a soldier with his musket, asked what the shot meant. Granther explained that he had slept in the shed and thought he would give them a salute for his night's lodging; then, seeing the mystified expression of the farmer, who seemed friendly in spite of this strange conduct, he rehearsed, somewhat abashed, his hard luck of the preceding night.

" Too bad, too bad! my friend-if you had only come to the door, you should have had the best in the house."

His soldier grandfather was a great hero in John's eyes, and the lad thought when he grew up he would be a soldier, too.

Brave as Granther was, he was afraid of spooks and hobgoblins, and would tell his grandsons tales about them that made their hair fairly stand on end. He believed his own stories, too, shuddering with the frightened lads as they huddled around him and listened, trembling as they listened.

An expert trout-fisherman, he and Johnny were real pals. Many's the time they went over in the West Settlement or down in the Hemlocks fishing, and when past eighty he would steal along the streams and deftly "snake" out the trout.

His only reading was the Bible, but he spent a good deal of time poring over that. In fact, he went from Book to Stream , and from Stream to Book with great regularity, but was not a bit fond of work. Granny, a big, thrifty woman, who had her hands full with ten children to feed and clothe, often took him to task for his shiftlessness. But however poor a provider be was, in trout season, as a rule, he was ready to supply the fish, though it is doubtful if there was always fat in the house to fry them in. John says Granny was big enough to take Granther across her knee and spank him, though he never saw her do it. He confesses that he gets his "dreamy, shirking ways" from Granther Kelly, as well as his love of the woods and streams and all outdoors.

Moving over to Roxbury from Red Kill in their last years, Granther and Granny lived in a little house on the east end of the home farm. John was there one morning when they had a coloured man who had stayed over night. After breakfast the man prayed -- "oh! how lustily he prayed!" -- and shortly after went quietly away. He was probably a fugitive slave. It was a few years after the Fugitive Slave Law had been enacted.

John remembers that once when walking along the road with Granther in those days, and carrying the old musket, as they stopped on the Giant Stairs to rest, Granther suggested, "Now, Johnny, let me see how well you can shoot"; but the thrifty lad, resisting the temptation on to show off, replied, "I don't want to waste my shot," and Granther, easy-going and improvident as he was, did not press the matter, though be must have wondered who the boy "took after" to be so saving.

He was fond of game, and toward the very last of his life, the boys got him a good fat 'coon, which he ate with relish.

A brother of Granther's, who was something of a hermit, or, as he used to say, "a monstrous queer man," lived by himself in a hut in the woods-the original Slabsides, perhaps. They would hear him talking to himself as they neared the hut; it sounded as if there were half a dozen there. He had a habit when walking along the road of stopping, standing still, and gazing all around. In telling of this Mr. Burroughs says he has the trait himself, but his gaze is surely not as unseeing and aimless as his hermit ancestor's probably was.

John Burroughs, as we have seen, comes from a long line of farmer folk. Although his father had been a school teacher in youth, he knew nothing of higher education. He was first, last and always a farmer, and a good one, too; a sturdy man, with red hair and a ruddy, freckled face; unselfconscious and unsophisticated. His voice was harsh and strident. Emotional but tender-hearted, he would refuse his boys the days off for which they coaxed, with a great show of severity, but usually ended by granting them; his bark was worse than his bite. He made many a threat to take a gad to the boys, but few were the fulfillments of the same. John remembers getting only one flogging. It was when he had let some cows get into a clover-meadow after having been warned to keep them out.

Farmer Burroughs worked hard himself and believed in boys doing their share, too, and a boy's work on a dairy farm was no " cinch, " as we shall see.

Amy Kelly, John's mother, was a plain, unlettered woman, who, though she never read one of her son's books, had an inkling, even while he was a boy, that he was going to do something big some day. Treating him with marked tenderness, she took his part when his odd ways annoyed his father, often inveigling the latter into granting some of John's desires, though he usually declared they were all nonsense while granting them. She had a serious, brooding cast of mind, and a yearning heart.

There were ten children in the Burroughs family. Imagine the way their mother had to work to keep them all clothed and mended and darned and fed, and yet attend to her numerous duties as a farmer's wife on a dairy farm! Still she found time to go a-berrying, roaming over the hill meadows with little John, the best berry-picker of all her children. In fact, her happiest times were when she was in the fields after berries; it was almost the only recreation in her life of constant toil.

  • Old Clump: Re-named the Burroughs Mountain, in 1915, by the citizens of Roxbury (Return)

  • "bee": A gathering of neighbours for work or amusement, e.g., husking bees, moving bees (Return)

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