|James A. Garfield’s official White House portrait was painted by Calvin Curtis (1822-93), a noted artist who painted many eminent Americans of this day.|
By JIM KEVLIN : WORCESTER
Before the American Revolution, this was Indian country.
During the Revolution, the mighty Iroquois picked the wrong side, allying with the British in ravaging the Mohawk Valley, including the raid into Cherry Valley.
Indirectly, that led to one of Otsego County’s more direct connections to the American presidency: James A. Garfield’s family ties to Worcester.
The Cherry Valley massacre provoked Washington to send out the Clinton-Sullivan Expedition, commemorated annually in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta down the Susquehanna to Bainbridge. Bainbridge is near the former Oqaga, the Iroquois stronghold the Expedition razed.
The long and short of it, when the Revolution ended, the upper Susquehanna Valley was pacified, and young men from crowded New England – many of them with land grants in appreciation of their service in the Continental Army – flooded here.
One of them, Solomon Garfield, moved in 1790 from Spencer, a hamlet in Worcester, Mass., to Cherry Valley. In 1797, the new Town of Worcester, N.Y., broke away from C-V – Town Historian Marilyn Dufresne is unsure if there was an explicit connection. (In 1808, the towns of Decatur, Maryland and Westford broke away, leaving Worcester as we know it today.)
Solomon built a log cabin on a hilltop just beyond the east end of the village and farmed there. The house that now stands behind the State Historic Marker was built decades after the original cabin burned, although it is on Garfield land.
Although he survived the Revolution, Solomon’s end – a tree fell on him when son, Thomas, was just 7 – was the first of a string of untimely deaths of Garfield men, according to Mrs. Dufresne.
Thomas would die of smallpox in 1801, age 28. His son Abram “singed his lungs” when his crops caught fire, dying in 1833, age 34.
Abrams’ son James became the second president to be assassinated: by Charles Guiteau, a disappointed officer seeker, on July 2, 1881, in the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Passenger Terminal in Washington D.C. He died on Sept. 19, 1881, in Long Branch, N.J., where he’d been sent to recuperate.
The gunshot didn’t kill him, but sepsis, the result of attending physician Dr. Willard Bliss’ ignorance – hence, “ignorance is Bliss” – of Dr. Joseph Lister’s new understanding of the importance of maintaining cleanliness. (Guiteau was hanged nonetheless).
As you can imagine, Worcester had heralded the elevation of its not-quite-native son. There was some talk locally that Garfield was, in fact, en route to visit his ancestors’ hometown when he was shot.
Through Garfield, Worcester has linkages to other history happenings.
Abram Garfield, Solomon’s brother – James’ middle name is Abram – fought in the Battle of Lexington & Concord, and signed an affidavit averring the militias were peaceable and fired upon without provocation by the Redcoats.
Also, the president’s mother, Eliza Ballou, was the daughter of Hosea Ballou, a founder of Universalism in the U.S. (Her uncle was a Colonel Seward of Decatur.)
Mrs. Dufresne said the president’s dad, Thomas, fell in love with Eliza when she was a girl and he a boy and the Ballous lived in Westford a while en route to Ohio. When Thomas grew up he headed west, young man, to Ohio, where he found his first love.
Stories exist of the sturdy Garfields, foremost one regarding Thomas, when a 500-pound grindstone was brought from Albany to a local tavern.
“While help was being obtained to unload it Garfield, who was present, remarked that he could unload it alone and carry it on his back to Tusculum (in the neighborhood of the Garfield cabin).
“The replay was made that upon doing so the stone should be his,” according to a reminiscence of a Rufus Storrs. “Whereupon Thomas selected a stick and fitted it to the eye of the stone, placed it on his back and carried it to Tusculum, with but one rest on the way.”
The Ohio Thomas found must have been similar to what Solomon had found in Otsego County: “still covered with dense forests, and the Garfields were obliged to clear the land for their farming. They built a cabin” – similar, no doubt, to what Solomon built here – 20 feet by 30, and in this cabin James Abram Garfield was born on the 19th of November, 1831,” according to the “History of the Attempted Assassination of James A. Garfield,” by John Stuart Ogilvie. (It was published in 1881, between the time of the shooting and the 20th president’s death.)
The Worcester Garfields were buried in the village’s first burial ground in the community center, but they didn’t rest in peace. In 1903, the cemetery was dug up to make way for a bank, according to a clipping Mrs. Dufresne supplied from the New York World.
“No special effort has been made to find the remains of the grandparents of the late president, the reason given that no one was quite sure in just what place in the quarter-acre graveyard the graves were,” the newspaper reported.
“While the excavations were being made, many bones were discovered, and rotten pieces of wood were found which had been used as grave-markers near the spot where, tradition says, the bodies of the Garfields lay.”
What bones were recovered were placed in a lot behind First Presbyterian Church on Main Street, and later moved again to Maple Grove Cemetery. Mrs. Dufresne is on the cemetery board and knows the property well, but has never found any stone marked with the Garfield name.
The one Garfield in the Worcester phone book, Dr. Robert, is no relation, a receptionist at his office said. Queals are likewise no longer in this parts, but there are numerous Frenches and Ingallses in the county, some of which may be related to the president by married.