Monday, January 18, 2010

Famous Jerks of the Adirondacks

General James AbercrombyToday we were going to list the Ten Most Influential Adirondackers, based on input from you, the Almanack readers. We’ve decided to keep nominations open for one more week (please make your recommendations here). In the meantime, one of you suggested, “How about the Adirondacks’ ten biggest asshats? . . . [T]hat’s one discussion I’d like to read.”

So, scroll through for a list of ten all-star Adirondack jerks and a-hats, in no particular order.

1. General James Abercromby (1706-1781), British commander-in-chief in the French and Indian War. His 1758 attack on the French near Fort Carillon (now Ticonderoga) was a fiasco. His troops outnumbered Montcalm’s 15,000 to 4,000, but Abercromby “led” from the rear, sending six waves of 2,000 men without cannon support to die on a tangle of sharpened trees the French felled as a barricade. Brigadier General George Augustus Viscount Howe — unlike Abercromby loved by the troops — was killed in a skirmish en route to the battle. “The death of one man was the ruin of fifteen thousand,” a historian later wrote.

2. Father Isaac Jogues (1607-1646): The man was an actual saint. But he also could not take a hint. He was the first European to see the Adirondack interior, dragged there in 1642 as a prisoner of the Mohawks. In his memoir Jogues admits to getting on the Indians’ nerves and being repeatedly reminded to stop calling their spirits demons. He is tortured, his fingertips are bitten off. The Jesuit missionary escapes and returns to France. Still, he thinks, They need me. He returns four years later, and the Mohawks club him to death.

3. Robert Moses (1888-1981). In 1961 he said that the Forest Preserve should be opened to any highway construction and that a wilderness designation for state lands would benefit only “imitation Indians and amateur mountaineers.” Plus he was a booster of the dumb Rooftop Highway.

4. Magua: James Fenimore Cooper’s two-faced Huron is fictional but still the scariest villain ever to slip silently through the Adirondack woods. Don’t let Magua take you on a hike.

5. Ned Buntline (1813-1886): poser, dime novelist. He shot Alvah Dunning’s dog as it stood between the Raquette Lake guide’s legs. The Elizabethtown Post wrote, “During ‘Ned Buntline’s’ brief sad and checkered career in the Adirondacks he made some friends and a good many enemies. He was a man of rough exterior and spasmodic changes. A man of education and training, one who had associated with those in the highest walks of life, he also associated with those whose only creed — total depravity — kept them down on the lowest possible level.”

6. Orrando P. Dexter (d. 1903), a study in how not to make friends: buy up 7,000 acres where locals like to hunt, then post the land and treat your new neighbors like peasants. The identity of the New York City millionaire’s assassin has been a Santa Clara secret for more than a century.

7. Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635): Scholars believe — and after first publishing this I’ve read up and come to see why — that the French explorer was a misunderstood peace-seeker. Still, as the first European to see the Adirondacks and then to fire his arquebus on the Iroquois within a day of encountering them, he set in motion a century of hostilities.

8. Fred G. Sullivan (1945-1996): briefly a mentor and always a hero to me, Adirondack Fred was a very kind and funny guy, best remembered for writing, directing and starring in the self-deprecating 1987 movie The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Fitness and Filmmaking. At his memorial service, a lifelong friend of his eulogized (paraphrasing): “Fred liked to say there are two kinds of a**holes in the world: those who know they are and those who don’t. Fred was an a**hole.”

Illustration: General James Abercromby by Allan Ramsay.


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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

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