Reap from Our Wilderness: Charles Herreshoff, 1763-1819

  by Megan Tracy, '00


After Agnes Muller died in the cold Prussian winter of 1766, her three-year-old son was alone in the world. It was said later, though there was no proof, that Agnes’s husband Corporal Eschoff went mad with grief – surely only that could have explained his subsequent abandonment both of his post as bodyguard to Frederick the Great and of his only child. In any case, he disappeared forever, leaving his former townsfolk with only the vague notion that he had "gone to Italy."

The boy’s childhood has been lost to the past. An account written two centuries later by a descendant suggests that he lived with maiden aunts until the age of eight, when the women sent him to live with a professor in Potsdam. This, the account explains, is how the boy finally met Frederick the Great – the monarch consulted with the boy’s professor. Another, more sordid tale mentions the rumors that Frederick himself had fathered the child. Frederick, the story goes, was completely impotent and thus flattered by the suggestion. And so, this version continues, partly out of pride and partly as a joking revenge for the desertion of his bodyguard Corporal Eschoff, the emperor took the boy under his wing and sent him to a school for the children of nobles, equipped with the names of two kings and a surname that meant "lord of the manor": Karl Friederich Herreschoff.

What is certain is that Karl Friederich left his native Prussia for the United States around 1786. This voyage across the Atlantic marked the beginning of a metamorphosis: that of Karl Friederich Herreschoff, uncertain but cultured young immigrant, into Charles Frederick Herreshoff, promising young merchant.

Charles struggled for a decade in his adopted country, first starting his own firm and going bankrupt; eventually, he went to work for a mercantile firm where wealthy and successful John Brown was a senior partner. The young man’s pleasant demeanor and charm, as well as his talent for good conversation and elegant music, are mentioned in more than one account. He had no good family name and no money other than what the firm paid him – but he had personality, and he hoped that would be enough to catch the eye of Brown’s much-beloved younger daughter, Sarah.

By 1798, Charles appears to have already made some kind of declaration to the young woman he affectionately called Sally. He wrote to her frequently as he traveled on business for her father – at first hesitatingly, as in the spring of that year:

Though my thoughts are constantly with you, though the remembrance of the dearest friend I have in the world is almost the only enjoyment of my lonely hours, and lonely they are nearly all, yet I suffer several weeks to pass, without writing to you, Being convinced how little pleasure my letters can afford you in any present state of mind, nothing but the wish to hear of you tempts me to write...

Still, he had already ventured to send her "little pieces of music," which she admitted to enjoying – and he reminded her in the same letter of "the unaltered sentiment of my heart."

That March, Charles’s acquaintance Thomas Lloyd Halsey invited him to visit Providence. Charles immediately read into the communication what he hoped to see there – that Sarah had hinted to Halsey, also her acquaintance, that it might be a good idea to extend the invitation. As the daughter of a wealthy, upper-class family, with a father who valued Charles as an employee but certainly not as a potential son-in-law, she would have known not to act too hastily.

Charles must have jumped at the chance, and romance blossomed over the summer. The young couple walked together dangerously late under starry skies. Once, they rode with their friend J. Howard from the Brown estate at Point Pleasant to nearby Warrenbridge. The three talked and laughed together, and somewhere along the road, the conversation turned to farming or flirtation or perhaps both. The result, though, was that Sarah found herself proclaiming aloud: I would never marry a farmer!

Charles was no farmer. But he still had no fortune to recommend himself, and he was still John Brown’s employee – so, much to his dismay, he continued his travels. Of course, this left Sarah alone in Providence, not without her friends and family and a hundred other diversions, but without Charles. Determined to stay in her mind, he wrote letter after letter.

You must not expect a very interesting journal, my dear Sally, from a man who did not set out to see and observe, but who thinks himself exiled from your company, and wishes only for the end of his journey

He wrote breathlessly about his heart "so full of love," about the sighs that would periodically escape him as "the duty of an absent lover," about the likeness of her he kept with him and looked at ten times each day. "Your friend, your tender friend," he signed the letters. "Yours in all eternity."

Years passed, and though his finances did not change, his bravery – or desperation – must have steadily increased. In 1800, he wrote to John Brown broaching the subject of marriage. Brown replied that he had nothing against the young man personally; it was a matter of his "deficiency of fortune," as Charles himself put it. The answer was an unequivocal no.

It was probably what Charles expected. He wrote a reply that, as he said later, gave Brown no reason to "expect that I would ask for his consent again but that we were determined to act by our own judgment." This wasn’t good enough for Sarah. She and her older sister Abby flew into action, wheedling their father and playing on every filial heartstring to persuade him to change his mind.

Perhaps his daughters wore him down, or he feared the couple’s "acting by their own judgment," or perhaps his heart just softened toward the young man so plainly in love. In any case, John Brown allowed the wedding to take place July 2, 1801, at the Brown’s home on Power Street in Providence. It was not a day too soon for Charles, who spent the spring writing to Sarah:

I wish that the time was already arrived when we were quietly settled... and employed with nothing but to make a little paradise of our home and to make each other as happy as it is reasonable to expect in this world.

Charles and Sarah Herreshoff took up residence on the Brown’s Point Pleasant Farm in Bristol, and set out to make their paradise – and for the first ten years of their marriage, they seemed to succeed. Their five children, Anna, Sarah, John, Agnes and another Charles Frederick, were born between 1802 and 1809.

When Anna, the oldest, was not yet ten, Charles made his first visit to an isolated region in the Adirondacks known as John Brown’s Tract. The 210,000-acre expanse had belonged to the Brown family for years but had never yielded any revenue. After her father’s death in 1803, Sarah inherited one of the Tract’s eight townships; her cousin John Brown Francis was heir to four more. It was John Brown Francis who accompanied Charles on his journey to appraise the property in the fall of 1811. Whether he genuinely wanted to see what he could make of the land, whether he felt pressured to replace the family patriarch and save the declining family fortune (as historical gossip would have it) – all we know for certain is that ten years after their wedding, Charles and Sarah were separated again.

On September 20, Charles wrote, My dear little Sally... it seems to me a great while since I left you, and it pains me to think that I cannot proceed without interruption to meet you and our dear children.

As Sarah celebrated her birthday in Bristol that year, Charles crouched in a large meadow to drink to her health from a pure mountain spring hundreds of miles away. While the family gathered around her, he wondered from afar whether little Charles Frederick, nicknamed "Peppy," would remember him upon his return. But all the while, the elder Charles grew more and more excited about the challenge of John Brown’s Tract.

In April 1812, Charles Herreshoff set off on the first of his extended stays in the Adirondacks. He moved into a large wooden house on the Tract, calling it Thendara. Often, his only company was the Tafts, the couple who kept house for him. He encouraged settlers to move in, with limited success; there were never more than a handful of families. And the nearest town, Boonville, was some 23 miles away. Herreshoff made enough supply runs there to get to know some of the townspeople, and he was generally well-liked. The same charm and intelligence that carried Herreshoff through an elite German school, across the ocean and into the world of Sarah Brown, no doubt made an impression on the inhabitants of Boonville.

William Post, who ran a dairy in the area, did business with Herreshoff and sometimes invited him home to dinner with his family. Perhaps it seemed cruel to send a man over many miles to an empty house, when Post’s own wife and children were waiting at home. Herreshoff often accepted the invitations, and paid special attention to Post’s daughter Mary, saying that she reminded him one of his little girls back home in Bristol. He very likely was referring to Anna, who was acknowledged in the family to be Charles’s special pet.

Anna had a special relationship with her father and maintained a correspondence with Charles that grew over the years. When she was young, she nagged her mother to help her write letters to him: "My dear Papa... we all feel very anxious for your return home, on every account... I know you will wish to hear something of your dear little [Charles] Frederick he is very good at all other times but when he is at his meals then he wants his dear Papa to Doctor him... from your Affectionate little daughter..."

Sarah would often add postscripts asking in increasingly pointed words just when Charles would come home. His replies were always similar.

Sept. 1812: ... as soon as the dam is only standing again I expect we will make rapid progress... toward the end of next month I calculate certainly to be home...

June 1814: It is however impossible to trust my business to any one else, nor could any body else that I know do it with any prospect of success.

July 1814: I am like a shopkeeper behind his counter, always expected to be at hand...

Charles always had an answer, but the answers never involved any reports of success. He tried raising sheep, farming, mining – all to no avail. The sheep died, crops all but refused to grow in the shallow, rocky Adirondack soil, and ore was scarce and hard to locate. The pristine beauty of the Tract – so often described in his letters home – was a mocking contrast to the hardships Charles endured there.

November 1812: It takes a week often, what I calculate to achieve in a day, and I have, especially toward the last, had my hands-full of trouble.

With each new setback, Herreshoff’s mood grew darker – and more determined. Even as early as 1813, Sarah wrote in a letter to John Brown Francis that "of his success, I have only gloomy presages." The land had failed to yield wealth to the Brown family for generations; why should Charles be any different?

Still he tried; since 1812, he had been spending every summer on the Tract, and soon he lived there from early spring until late autumn, coming home only when the cold of winter threatened. In these years, any entry from Agnes Herreshoff’s diary mentioning the word "Pa" also mentions ice and snow and freezing. When each spring began to break, Charles left again for his life in the distant mountains. Sarah remained at home with the children and the farm on Point Pleasant – Sarah, who had said she would never marry a farmer, received letters from Charles with instructions for her to relay to the help on the proper way to plant an orchard.

The separation was especially hard on Anna, who was still very close to her father. As the months dragged on, though Charles still expressed hope to Sarah of building "a solid foundation for a fortune to our children," his letters painted increasingly bleak pictures.

Could I give you an exact account of my past vicissitudes and troubles, you would not blame me for wishing my existence to be forgot by all my friends, till I could give a more agreeable account of myself.

It was in the summer of 1819 that Anna, at seventeen, wrote a letter, now lost, to ask if she could join him on the Tract. Perhaps she just missed him; perhaps she hoped to lift his spirits. His reply a few months later implies a little of both. He told her that the comfort of knowing he had a loving family was great, and that she should not consider leaving her home, her family and friends, for such an isolated and forsaken place. He closed with a wish that they might see each other again. It was the last letter the family ever received from him.

It was early on the morning of December 19, 1819, and Charles Herreshoff had not yet eaten breakfast. Autumn had come and gone, he still had not returned to Bristol, and his letters home had faltered and then stopped; now, the Adirondack Mountains, all the thousands of acres of John Brown’s Tract, were covered with snow. Herreshoff sat in his house in the wilderness, twenty-three miles from the nearest town, hundreds of miles from his wife and children, until, suddenly, the door flew open and Willard Johnson rushed in.

Mr. Herreshoff, the young man sputtered. You should come right away – it’s the mineshaft – water’s burst through and it’s running like a mill race. Herreshoff had sent his employee on an errand to a recently sunk mineshaft, to check up on his latest attempt to find success in the rocky soil. And Johnson had returned with the news of a disastrous flooding in the mineshaft – the expense of pumping the water out would be crippling, it seemed, if it could even be done at all.

When Herreshoff and Johnson arrived at the shaft, the only sound was that of the water continuing to gush; Herreshoff just stared. He continued to gaze at the rising waters for a minute, and then started back toward the house, with Willard Johnson trailing behind.

By the time the two reached the house, Herreshoff was moving with such quick determination that Johnson could barely keep up. Puzzled, he watched as Herreshoff disappeared into the dark interior of the house and reemerged seconds later.

Mr. Herreshoff –

As the young man watched, Charles F. Herreshoff pulled out his pistol, placed it against his head – just below his right ear, aimed toward the sky – and pulled the trigger.

The sound of the shot brought the Tafts running from the house, but when their eyes fell upon the crumpled body of their employer, they froze. They could do nothing but stand in shock with young Willard Johnson; Herreshoff had died instantly.

Tract laborers and settlers started out immediately, escorting the body through the snowdrifts to Boonville. Johnson ran ahead in snowshoes to alert the townspeople that the sleigh carrying Herreshoff’s corpse would soon be arriving. But Boonville was a tiny burg, equipped only to fly into a commotion about such a death, and so the next morning, a party of Tract settlers and townspeople continued thirty miles farther with the body, to Russia, New York, where an inquest could be held.

It was there that several doctors from a local medical college made no secret of the fact that if Herreshoff were buried in Russia, his body would just as quickly be dug up again to be used for educational purposes. No doubt horrified, the people resolved to take the remains themselves.

And so, at the conclusion of the coroner’s report, the Boonville party bore the body of Charles Herreshoff home with them to their town cemetery. The news of the death had not yet completed its odyssey to reach the family. In Sarah’s collected letters, at the end of a stack of Charles’s own letters to her, is a missive from Simion Ford of Herkimer Village, New York, to Dr. William Brown of Providence.

A man from the tract of land in the extreme north part of this country, known by the name of "John Brown’s Tract" called on me this afternoon with the extreme unwelcome information that Mr. Harrisoff (I do not know that I spell the name right never having seen it written) who married one of the daughters of the late Mr. John Brown of Providence put an end to his life by discharging the contents of a pistol through his head on Sunday last at his place....

I communicate this to you as the only person in Providence with whom I have the honor of a particular acquaintance that you may communicate the same to the friends of the deceased – I was unable to have anything particularly as to circumstances the messenger appearing to be a man not very intelligent.

There is no mention of how the letter came into Sarah’s possession. There is only mention in her sister Abigail’s diary on December 28 that, "after tea, Sister discovered from the appearance of Anna that something painful had occurred..."

Over a decade later, in the early 1830s, John Brown Herreshoff went to the Tract, to see if he could divine the fortune that had eluded his father. He also used the opportunity to get to know the Posts, and one day, finally visited William Post at work and begged him to divulge the details of his father’s death. Post saw no choice but to tell him – apparently making him the only one of his five siblings who knew the whole truth at the time.

Still John stayed in the Adirondacks. Sarah began writing pleas for him, too, to come home. In July 1830, he replied:

I hope one day to reap from our wilderness a harvest of independence. Do not be alarmed at the suggestion. It does not follow of course that I must make this my fixed abode.

In October 1831, he wrote again in regards to Sarah’s "solicitations about my coming home:"

I did hope that I should be able to answer your letters in person some time this month but circumstances have rendered that doubtful and I can only say that I may return home some time this fall.

John spent several months of each of the next few years living on John Brown’s tract. Eventually, he did return home to Sarah, and lived out his days, a bachelor, at the Point Pleasant estate. But in 1831, she had no way of knowing this; she only knew that her son was becoming a man possessed with the allure of fortune in the rocky Adirondack hills, and she knew that she wanted him home. Sarah and her son continued to exchange letters whenever he was in the mountains, just as she and Charles had done years before. Finally, as winter closed in on 1834, she sent a letter relating that John’s uncle James Brown had died and insisting that John return home immediately. John’s reply was written on Christmas Day of that year, and was mailed in a tiny village called Lowville; in it, he promised he would come home next month, certainly. Sometime next month.