The Graves of George William Clinton (1807 - 1885) and Family
by P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica
Missouri Botanical Garden, April 17, 2014
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The Graves of George William Clinton (1807 ‑ 1885) and Family

 

P. M. Eckel, P.O. Box 299, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri, 63166‑0299; email: mailto:patricia.eckel@mobot.org

 

 

(Part 2.) The New York Times Obituary of George William Clinton

George William Clinton was the only surviving son of DeWitt Clinton when he, G. W. Clinton, moved to, and lived in Buffalo, New York. George Clinton, first Governor of New York, was his great uncle. By chance, the obituary of G. W. Clinton published in the New York Times on Sept. 8, 1885, the day after his death, recently came to hand and several facts came to light which seemed to clarify issues regarding Clinton’s biography and legacy:

 

[From the Times obituary, 1885:] “Albany, Sept. 7. -- Judge George W. Clinton, Vice-Chancellor of the Board of Regents, was found dead in the Rural Cemetery at 4 o’clock this afternoon. A West Troy undertaker returning from a burial was met by a small boy, who ran toward him shouting, “There’s a man dead down there.” Following the direction pointed out, he discovered in the driveway, between the north and middle ridges, about a quarter of a mile from the roadway, the bent form of an old man, tall and slender, with white hair and attired in a suit of fine black broadcloth. He was doubled over, with his head resting on his knees, and life was extinct.  The clue to his identity was furnished by a diary containing the name George W. Clinton, and telephone inquiry in the city confirmed the belief that it was the body of the venerable Vice-Chancellor.”

The Albany Rural Cemetery was discussed by French in his New York State Gazetteer of 1860. The cemetery “was incorporated April 20, 1841, and the site selected April 20, 1844. The premises were dedicated and consecrated Oct. 7 of the same year” (French 1860). “This cemetery is located upon the hills west of the Troy and Albany Road, 4 miles from the city [Albany]. The grounds are tastefully laid out, and contain many elegant monuments” (French 1860). It is found today in the incorporation of Menands, New York, just outside the northern city limits of Albany, New York. It is known to be one of the “most beautiful, pastoral cemeteries in the United States and many historical American figures are buried there, a fact that would have deeply interested Clinton. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albany_Rural_Cemetery (viewed April 9, 2014).

George William Clinton (1807–1885), was 78 years old when he died. He would have been 18 years old when the Erie Canal was opened (1825), which was also the year he graduated from Hamilton College. He was mayor of Buffalo from 1842–1843. The fact that he was in possession of a diary, when his body was found, in many ways was more telling of his personality than the fact that he was botanizing in the cemetery. Clinton, from an early age, was a dedicated memorialist, almost obsessed with himself as a descendant and inheritor of the legacy of the two men that preceded him in time: George Clinton, but especially of his father, DeWitt. The nature of and location of this diary is not at present known.

G. W. Clinton was elected a Regent of the University in 1856, and Vice-Chancellor since 1880 (Watkins 1887), the year before he left Buffalo for Albany (1881).

 [From the Times obituary, 1885:] “He only returned with his wife from his vacation at Lebanon Springs a few days ago.”

Lebanon Springs, (new Lebanon Springs post office) “in the e. part of the town [of New Lebanon, Columbia County, New York] is celebrated for its thermal springs. It contains 2 churches, 4 hotels, a female seminary, and a gristmill. Pop. 278.” “The spring is 10 feet in diameter and 4 feet deep, and discharges 16 barrels of water per minute. The water is wholly tasteless, and has a temperature of 73° at all seasons.... The medicinal properties of these waters were first brought to the notice of the public by Jas. Hitchcock. There are several similar springs of less volume in the vicinity” (French 1860).

[From the Times obituary, 1885:] “At 2 o’clock this afternoon he started from his boarding house on State-street in good health and spirits, for a botanical excursion in the cemetery. Of late he has manifested great interest in the study of botany, and has pursued his investigations directly with nature, making frequent trips into the surrounding country. He often visited the cemetery for this purpose. Stopping at the lodge there this afternoon a few minutes to rest, he went rambling off through the shaded paths. He was evidently stricken in the midst of his labors, for his open pocket-knife and several herbs and roots were found beside him and in his pockets. There were no marks of a fall and his calm expression indicated that he had died without pain. Two or three years ago he had a slight stroke of paralysis and his sudden death is attributed to apoplexy”

 

According to Neilans (1963), Clinton was found “with a spray of white sweet clover in his hand. The flowers were buried with him.” As for Clinton’s pocket-knife, in 1863, in Clinton’s botanical journal, while he was still botanizing in Buffalo, he wrote “Sept. 24. “Before Breakfast, walked to Squaw Island to find my knife, which I left there yesterday. Did not find it. ... Changing my drying plants, identified Lechea major & L. minor.” As to his “slight stroke of paralysis” two or three years ago, that would have been about the time Clinton had removed to Albany.

 

[From the Times obituary, 1885:] “When his wife, who is also well advanced in years, heard the news, she was prostrated with grief.”

The death of George Clinton’s son, Charles A. Clinton, a practicing civil engineer in Saint Louis, Missouri, at 48 years of age in April of 1885, may have contributed to Clinton’s fatal distress and added to Mrs. Clinton’s prostration.

The obituary of Mrs. Clinton in the New York Times would appear in 1891: “Clinton. At Albany, on Monday June 1, Laura Katherine, widow of Judge George W. Clinton of Buffalo and daughter of the late Hon. John C. Spencer.”  Clinton’s widow may have died in Albany leaving one to wonder whether she was living there perhaps with a member of her family. Note that Mrs. Clinton was also the granddaughter of Chief Justice Ambrose Spencer, who had married two of Clinton’s aunts (i.e., sisters of his father, Gov. DeWitt Clinton).

[From the Times obituary, 1885:] “Her two sons in Buffalo were immediately telegraphed for, and on their arrival the body will probably be taken to Buffalo for interment.”

Of G. W. Clinton’s four sons, DeWitt had died, Charles A. was serving as a civil engineer in St. Louis and had just died before his father, in April.  Spencer, and George, the youngest son, were both prominent lawyers in Buffalo and were to receive their unhappy telegraphs.

It was at this point that I realized that G. W. Clinton was actually buried in Buffalo all along, in a cemetery not far from my house where I resided on Main and Humboldt Parkway.

[From the Times obituary, 1885:] “Judge Clinton was the honored representative of one of the most distinguished families of New-York State. His father was Gov. DeWitt Clinton, his grandfather Gen. James Clinton of Revolutionary fame, and his grand-uncle Vice-President and Gov. George Clinton. George W. Clinton was born in 1807 in New-York City, where [h]is father then resided. He obtained his early education at Pickett’s and other notable schools of the day, but entered the Albany Academy at the age of 9, when his father became Governor. On the completion of the course there he went, at the age of 14, to Hamilton College, from which he was graduated in 1825.”

Clinton would have entered the Academy in 1816, when he was nine years old.  When Clinton was 14, he enrolled in Hamilton College in 1821, graduating in 1825 when he was 18 years old. He attended the Albany Academy for some four or five years, then, between 1816 and 1821.

French (1860) wrote: “The Albany Academy, (for boys,) fronting on Eagle St. [in Albany], opposite the State Hall, is a flourishing institution. It was chartered by the regents, March 4, 1813: the corner-stone of the present building was laid July 29, 1815, and it was opened for students Sept. 1, 1817. Dr. Theodoric Romeyn Beck was its principal for 31 years [1817–1848] ; and under him the school obtained a deservedly high reputation. The building is an imposing structure, of red Nyack freestone, in the Italian style, fronting on a park of 3 acres.” [note: this is not the same as the Albany Institute, see below].

Dr. T. R. Beck was an expert on medical jurisprudence, which is perhaps why G. W. Clinton became interested in medicine. Nearly all the Clintons of note were lawyers of one sort or another, and one interested in medicine alone would be exceptional. Note, however, there were at least two Clinton boys who became distinguished civil engineers: Gov. DeWitt Clinton’s eldest son, DeWitt Clinton, Jr., who died without issue, and who helped design and built the Savannah & Ogeechee Barge Canal, Chatham Co., Georgia, when he was in his early twenties, and one of G. W. Clinton’s sons, Charles A. Clinton, civil engineer, who was “the resident engineer under Chief Engineer K. T. Booth in building the Chicago and Alton extension from Mexico to Kansas City. Charles was also employed as engineer on the West End Narrow-Gauge railway of St. Louis, and was chief engineer of the Springfield and Memphis railroad from Springfield, Mo., to Memphis, Tenn.” (Commercial Advertiser. Buffalo: Thursday Evening, April 2, 1885).

 

Medical jurisprudence could be a compound career that would include the legal profession. Beck would encourage one of G. W. Clinton’s future correspondents and colleague to enroll in the Albany Academy:  Joseph Henry, later curator of the Smithsonian Institution and participant in the programs of the Albany Institute. Henry would become professor of mathematics and natural philosophy in 1826 at the Academy, long after Clinton had moved on to Hamilton College. Beck, as future professor of materia medica at the Fairfield Medical College (1836–1840) and later at the Albany Medical College (1840–1854), would have impressed on his young students at the Academy an interest in botany and medicine as well as law. Note should be made that T. R. Beck was brother to John Brodhead Beck, also distinguished in medical jurisprudence, and both were brother to Lewis C. Beck, an M. D., who published a Botany of the Northern and Middle States in 1833, although his chief scientific contributions were related to geology, being a member of and contributing to the New York Geological Survey. Lewis Beck actually taught at the Albany Academy in 1830, with his brother as principal, but after Clinton had left in around 1821 to enroll at Hamilton College.

Note that it is easy to confuse the Albany Academy with the Albany Institute, founded in 1791 and one of the oldest museums in the United States. [Note that French (1860) wrote that “The Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures was instituted Feb. 26, 1791, and incorp. March 12, 1793”]. “The earliest [of various institutions] were learned societies devoted to the natural sciences, and for a time it was the state legislature's informal advisory body on agriculture. Robert R. Livingston [a signer of the Declaration of Independence] was the first president. Joseph Henry delivered his first paper on electromagnetism to the Institute. Its collections of animal, vegetable and mineral specimens from state surveys eventually became the foundations of the New York State Museum. Later in the century it became more focused on the humanities, and eventually merged with the Albany Historical and Art Society. It has had its present name since 1926.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albany_Institute_of_History_%26_Art

Hamilton College is located in Clinton, New York, a postal village in 1860 (French 1860), in Kirkland township, Oneida County [not Clinton Township in Clinton County]. In 1860, the College had a collegiate and a law department, as well as a “cabinet of natural history” that held around 10,000 specimens (French 1860). French records that Henry Davis was appointed president in 1817, and would have served while G. W. Clinton was a student. “From 1819 to 1832, dissensions between the Trustees and President seriously retarded the prosperity of the institution; and during the same period insubordination among the students was of frequent occurrence” (French 1860). Clinton graduated in 1825, during this unsettled period, and perhaps was one of the insubordinate students! Let us not forget the boyhood of Asa Gray and the “stories that have grown up about Asa’s cow-painting and chicken-stealing escapades” (i.e. “eating the principal’s chickens”) (Dupree 1959).

Note that Asa Gray, later a distinguished Harvard botanist, attended as a boy “A grammar school, under a separate board of trustees, ... connected as a preparatory department” of the Hamilton College, but not the collegiate program of Hamilton College itself. Gray attended this preparatory department, and he “probably began his two years of attendance in the fall of 1823.”  He did not think much of his training there (Dupree 1959). Asa Gray was actually contemplating a college degree from Hamilton the year after Clinton graduated in 1825, but he switched to a medical degree at neighboring Fairfield due to the “fact that Hamilton was in grave difficulties which would soon in effect close its doors,” a fact which “must have weighed heavily on the Grays’ [family] decision” (Dupree 1959). Gray’s later professional college experience as a young man was rather with the Fairfield Academy, the medical college in Herkimer County (Fairfield postal village or Fairfield Township) (French 1860), where he trained in medicine (Dupree 1959) and received his medical degree (Dupree 1959).

[From the Times obituary, 1885:] “For two years he [G. W. Clinton] pursued medical studies, abandoning them in 1828 on the death of his father to begin reading law in the office of Judge Ambrose Spencer.”

This sentence is interesting because it raises the question of where George William Clinton studied medicine. He may have attempted training at Fairfield. G. W. Clinton was 21 years old when his father died.

Ambrose Spencer (1765–1848) was well educated, both at Yale and Harvard. He would have known DeWitt Clinton when he, Spencer, served in the New York State Assembly from 1793 to 1795, and the New York State Senate, 1795–1804. He served under various legal appointments in the State, as Attorney General, associate justice of the New York Supreme Court, and Chief Justice.

Ambrose Spencer was removed from New York State office when politicians opposed to the canal policy of DeWitt Clinton (the Bucktails) gained a majority in the State Government. Spencer was known for his alliance with the politicians known as the Clintonians. Spencer “was elected to the 21st United States Congress, serving from March 4, 1829, to March 3, 1831; during this Congress, he was a member of the Committee on Agriculture.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambrose_Spencer [viewed April 2014]. Spencer probably taught G. W. Clinton law during the hiatus 1825–1829 in his political career, between offices in New York State and the Federal Government. Ambrose Spencer was buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery where Clinton’s body was found. Ambrose Spencer married three times, the later two were both G. W. Clinton’s aunts (sisters of his father DeWitt Clinton:)  Mary Clinton (1773–1808) and then Katherine Clinton (1778–1837).

[From the Times obituary, 1885:] “Being admitted as an attorney in 1831, he [G. W. Clinton] opened an office in Albany. At first he formed a partnership with Matthew Henry Webster, and in 1832 with the Hon. John C. Spencer, in Canandaigua, whose daughter he married.”

Matthew Henry Webster was elected a Curator and Recording Secretary on the organization of the Albany Institute on May 5th 1824, being a combination of both the  Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures (later the Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts), and the Albany Lyceum of Natural History (Vol. 1. Transactions of the Albany Institute Vols. 2. 1830).

John C. Spencer was the son of Ambrose Spencer, serving as United States Secretary of War, and the U. S. Secretary of the Treasury under President John Tyler. He also is buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery. When Spencer was admitted to the bar in 1809, he commenced his law practice in Canandaigua, New York. When G. W. Clinton was admitted to the bar in 1831, Spencer was serving as a member of the New York Assembly (from 1831 to 1833). In 1837, Spencer moved to Albany, New York. When John Spencer died, he, too, was buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery.

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6911960

[From the Times obituary, 1885:] “His progress in his profession was rapid. In 1835 he was appointed Examiner in Chancery, and District Attorney of Ontario County.”

The Examiners in Chancery are “Officers who examine, upon oath, witnesses produced on either side, upon such interrogatories as the parties to any suit exhibit for that purpose. Cowell. The examiner is to administer an oath to the party, and then repeat the interrogatories, one at a time, writing down the answer himself” (Online Encyclopedia of Law). Canandaigua is in Ontario County.

[From the Times obituary, 1885:] “A year later he removed to Buffalo, where the chief portions of his busy life was spent. He not only entered energetically upon his profession, but was conspicuous in every movement for the public good. He was active in politics, encouraged educational and charitable enterprises, and was a frequent contributor to the press. For 40 years he was a leading citizen of Buffalo. In 1838 President Van Buren appointed him Collector of Customs at that port. Six years later he was elected Mayor. From 1847 to 1849 he was United States District Attorney for the Northern District of New York. In 1854 he was elected Judge of the Superior Court of Buffalo, and held the position until 1877, when he was retired on account of his age.  From 1870 Judge Clinton was Chief Judge of the Court. In 1856 he was elected a Regent of the University of the State of New-York, and became Vice-Chancellor in 1881. Hamilton College in 1864 conferred the degree of LL.D. upon Judge Clinton. He was an active member of the Constitutional Convention of 1867.

 

“Judge Clinton early exhibited a decided taste for natural history. He organized the Buffalo Society of Natural History in 1861, and had been its President from its first year. Many papers on fishing, hunting, animals, plants, Indian traditions, and agriculture bear his name. The first university convocation in 1863 was opened by him with an address. The past three years he spent largely in Albany, where the Vice-Chancellor had been engaged in editing the large and valuable collection of the George Clinton manuscripts in the possession of the State. Judge Clinton was a fine old gentleman, with the courtly manners of half a century ago, a kindly disposition and generous heart, and was esteemed by all who knew him.”

 

 

LITERATURE CITED.

 

Day, David F. 1882. The Plants of Buffalo and Its Vicinity. Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, Vol. 4, April, pp. 65–279.

 

Dupree, A. Hunter. 1959. Asa Gray, 1810–1888. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

French, J. H. 1860. Gazetteer of the State of New York: embracing a comprehensive view of the geography, geology, and general history of the state. R. Pearsall Smith, Publisher. Syracuse, New York. [reprint 1986, Heart of the Lakes Publishing, Interlaken, New York 14847].

 

Neilans, Dorene Dee. 1963. The botanical life and times of George W. Clinton or George W. Clinton and his botanical correspondents.  Master’s thesis, State University of New York at Buffalo.

 

Severance, Frank H. 1911, Studies of the Niagara Frontier, Vol. XV, Buffalo Historical Society, p. 205.

 

Watkins, Albert B., Assistant Secretary. 1887. “Vice-Chancellor George W. Clinton.” Report of the Committee on Necrology. One Hundredth Annual Report of the Regents of the University of the State of New York. Albany. 1887.

 

Part 3. The Graves (click here)

Part 4. Some plants noted at the G. W. Clinton and D. F. Day gravesites (click here)