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:firstname.lastname@example.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
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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
[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
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.
[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.
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.”
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.
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.
Frank H. 1911, Studies of the Niagara Frontier, Vol. XV, Buffalo Historical Society, p. 205.
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.
Part 3. The Graves (click here)
Part 4. Some plants noted at the G. W. Clinton
and D. F. Day gravesites (click here)