The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2000

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The Mary and Hannah


Barbara H. Bell

Before 1823, residents around Seneca Lake who wished to ship goods to markets in New York City found it a work-intensive and time-consuming job. Products went by land or lake to Geneva. There, items were loaded on Conestoga wagons to be taken overland to Albany and from there by boat down the Hudson River.

The Seneca Lock Navigation Co. completed locks around the falls of the Seneca River in 1815.1 By 1820, 96 miles of waterway connecting rivers and lakes were open between Seneca and Utica.2 When the eastern end of the Erie Canal, begun in 1817,3 was completed to Albany, a waterway was open from Seneca Lake to New York City. Here is a newspaper account of the arrival of the first boat bringing products from the central part of the state, the Mary and Hannah:

From the New-York Statesman, Nov. 17


Arrived yesterday from the town of Hector, county of Tompkins, the schooner Mary and Hannah, of Factory Falls, Capt. Jackson, commander, and Mr. Osborn, supercargo. This is the first vessel which has reached the Port of New York through the western canal and brings a cargo consisting of 800 bushels of wheat, 3 tons of butter, and 4 barrels of beans, all of excellent quality, consigned to Philip Hart, jun.

The Mary and Hannah is owned by Messrs. Jackson and Osborn, two enterprising farmers, living upon the borders of Seneca Lake. Mr. Jackson informed us this morning, that the lumber of the schooner is from his own forest; and that the vessel was built and rigged by himself, including the greater part of the iron work, blocks, cordage, &c. He is now also the navigator combining in his character the practical agriculturalist, mechanic, shipbuilder and mariner. Such versatility of talent and ingenuity is seldom witnessed.

The town of Hector is situated on the southeastern extremity of Seneca lake, at the distance of four hundred and twenty miles from this city. An average voyage will occupy 12 to 15 days. Produce may be brought at less than one half the expense which it cost before the canal was opened. The arrival of this vessel from a fertile agricultural district, in the interior of the state, is not less a subject of congratulation than of curiosity. Many witnesses called to examine her this morning at Coentie's slip. She will take in a return cargo and sail early in the present week, that she may arrive at her destined harbor before the canal is frozen. It is an interesting fact that the Mary and Hannah bears the names of the wives of the two farmers by whom she was built.

Shipping concerns and merchants recognized this first such shipment as a worthy accomplishment and pressed the owners and their captain, Daniel Jackson, to stay at hand for a celebration of the event.

The party took place on November 24 at the New York Coffee House. Among the hundred or so attending was New York City Mayor Stephen Allen. Numerous toasts were raised to the Hector men and their adventure. Several were recorded in newspapers.4

The crowning event at the fete was the presentation of a lidded silver urn, about 13 inches high. It was covered with embossed art work depicting the growing of wheat from sowing to harvest plus views of the city harbor with a variety of ships at dock. On one side is the legend: "Presented by the undernamed Manufacturers of flour in the City of New York, to John J. Osborne and Samuel S. Seely, of the Town of Hector, Tomkins County, owners of the Boat Mary and Hannah, to commemorate their enterprise in having first navigated the Eastern Canal and Hudson River, from Seneca Lake to this City with a Cargo of Wheat in Bulk, New York, 1823." There are seven signatures added.

The first newspaper account lists Osborn and Jackson as the owners of the boat, but the inscription on the urn states that Osborn and Seely were the owners. Maybe the reporter got the names wrong; certainly the men ordering the inscription on the urn would be careful to correctly list the owners. Maybe Jackson did build the boat and was a partner. According to a now deceased member of the Seeley family, Mildred Parker Reese, who was a published author in Goshen, Daniel Jackson was somehow related to Seeley. (The family name is spelled Seeley in cemetery records; Seely is found as an alternate spelling of Seeley, off and on.)

I first heard the story of the Mary and Hannah in 1956 when Frank Severne, an unofficial but careful historian and former publisher of the Watkins Review wrote about it.5 He referred to old newspaper reports that said the two women were wives of Seeley and Osborne but he didn't identify the papers. Genealogy files of the Schuyler County Historical Society list Mrs. Seeley as Hannah and Jackson's wife as Mary, but I can find nothing, except Severne's story, to substantiate Mrs. Osborne's name.

In one deed, Hannah is mentioned as the wife of Samuel Seeley. In several deeds bearing John Osborne's name, no wife is mentioned. I found no will for Samuel Seeley. There was one for John Osborne but he was already a widower, and his wife's name wasn't mentioned. I cannot find Mrs. Osborne's name in cemetery records. The 1850 & 1855 census records don't give Mrs. Osborne a name, either. Mary was a common name, both Jackson and Osborne could have had wives with the same name.

Samuel Seeley had grist and cloth mills at Factory Falls in Tompkins County, (now Hector Falls in Schuyler County). My guess is that the sails were made in that cloth mill which was started in 1801.6

For reasons unknown, the Mary and Hannah never returned to her starting point. To date, we have never learned what became of the boat. Maybe the vessel was difficult to handle in the canals and was sold for Hudson River traffic where her sails would have been more usable. The name may have been changed and the boat disappeared from notice.

The urn itself was handed down through the Seeley family for several generations but faded from view early in the 20th century until about 1940. Then, an anonymous donor presented it to the Albany Institute of History and Art.

The Seeley family dispersed to other locales and word of the urn's whereabouts eluded historians in Schuyler County until 1965. By that time, this writer had been researching Schuyler County history for nearly 10 years and had become friends with Mr. Heidt an historian in Tompkins County. By sheer happenstance, he spied a picture of the urn in an antiques publication and he made a call to ask, "Isn't this something you folks in Schuyler have been looking for?" It was shown in an advertisement announcing that the Albany Institute's silver collection would soon be on loan for a special display at the Newark Museum in New Jersey. The Newark Museum later sent us the catalog of the exhibit which carried a picture and description of the trophy when it was on display there. Next came a trip to Albany. The exhibit had closed but the urn was brought out of storage to be examined. When asked if the "souvenir" from the 1823 trip could be given to the Schuyler County Historical Society, considering its importance to local history, a firm and prompt answer came—in the negative. The article was an integral part of the Institute's silver collection. In no way could the total become separated. A fine 8" x 10" black and white photograph was donated, but authorities honored the wishes of the donor and refused to reveal his/her identity.

I still tried to track the urn and learned that Katherine (or Catharine), daughter of Samuel Seeley, inherited it and gave it to her daughter, Pauline Conklin Tuthill who left it to her husband. He still owned it in 1905. From there to 1940, I am lost. A Middletown woman wrote (before 1965) to say she would supply us with details of the whereabouts of the trophy between 1905 and 1940. To date, she has failed to do so. Mysteries remain both about the boat, and the trophy.

2000, Barbara H. Bell
Photograph of Mary and Hannah trophy was furnished by courtesy of the Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey. [Photograph will be posted shortly.]

1 Geneva Gazette, August 30, 1815.

2 Geneva Gazette, May 30 1820.

3 The Story of the New York State Canals, Roy G. Finch, Albany, 1925, p. 5.

4 Clippings pertinent to the event are in the files at the Geneva Historical Society along with other mementos of the Mary and Hannah. Some are preserved in the Schuyler County historical records, as well.

5 Frank W. Severne, Watkins Review, Vol. CI, No. 32, Dec. 26, 1956.

6 History of Tioga, Chemung, & Schuyler Counties by Everts & Ensign, 1871.

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