Saturday, March 16, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches:
The Incredible Story of Charles Brodhead, Surveyor

Giant from Amy's Lookout.  Many new Irene slides.On June 2nd, 1797, twenty-five years after Archibald Campbell surveyed part of the northern line of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase, another surveyor named Charles C. Brodhead, tasked with working to the same line but starting from the east and chaining to the west,  made the following entry in his field journal: “3 Miles, 20 Chains: assg. Ye mountain, Top ye mountain – (snow 24 inches deep) Timber Balsom and Spruce.  3 Miles, 23 chains: desending steep rocks, no Timber.

This relatively pedestrian entry has at least the curiosity of recording so much snow in June but it otherwise causes one to long for the florid prose and colorfully descriptive thoroughness of Verplank Colvin.  Colvin’s accounts of his surveying journeys make for real drama, whereas this journal, typical of the time, offers the barest details beyond the numbers, with only occasional comments on the quality of the land or detours that needed to be taken.

Yet the significance of this entry becomes a whole new thing if one knows where Brodhead started his survey and where he was going.  Careful measurement from that starting point using his field notes puts him at a rather dramatic location.  You see, at the time he made those measurements Charles C. Brodhead was standing in two feet of snow atop Giant Mountain, the first recorded ascent of an Adirondack High Peak.  He wrote not a word testifying to the incredible view, no sentence marveling at the higher mountains that awaited him, no phrase waxing poetic about the vertiginous cirque plunging toward the valley far below him.  No, there was only the mention of trees and rock.  Then it was on with the task at hand.

There is evidence that Brodhead was a hard man, a tough man.  What could he have thought, being the first Euro-American to view the Adirondack interior up high and close, to see that dazzling array of peaks?  Did it move him?  It must have, but in what way and to what extent we will never know.

It is something special to imagine this first ascent of Giant: the bushwhack up the eastern escarpment, the steepness and effort, the denseness of the scrub balsam, the deepening snow, the incredible reveal as he made the summit.  Already it is a feat worthy of the history books.  But as the old saying goes, you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet.  Brodhead was just getting started and his route, right into the heart of the High Peaks, is one for the ages.

Yet after going on to even loftier heights as a principal surveyor for one of the greatest civil engineering projects of all time, Charles C. Brodhead was spurned by his profession, became a recluse and died alone, largely forgotten by history.  The whats and whys of this make for the most remarkable story I have yet come across in writing these Dispatches, one that has within it a terrible and fateful irony.

I should begin by explaining what Charles Brodhead was doing on top of Giant in the first place.

In 1781, with the Revolutionary War headed for a conclusion, the New York State Legislature passed a law to provide for the defense of northern frontier by offering land bounties to any veteran soldier who agreed to an additional three year term of service.  The Legislature had in mind to use unappropriated lands in the vast northern wilderness to carve out these parcels.  After the war ended another law was passed moving the land bounty system forward and in 1786 a “Military Tract” of 660,000 acres was laid out on paper by a Legislative Act, situated in the northeastern Adirondacks.    The Surveyor General was ordered to survey and lay out townships.  I will cover more of the history and fate of this tract in a future Dispatch but suffice it to say that no veterans claimed any of it.  A few years after it was defined a second “Military Tract” was laid out in the Oneida region, a much more fertile area for settlement and farming.  This “New Military Tract” relegated the “Old Military Tract” to the wiles of surveyors and mappers, destined to remain for the greater part wild and uninhabited.

The Old Military Tract was described by the Act as beginning at a point on the northern line of the Totten and Crossfield purchase, a little more than thirty miles west of Lake Champlain, then extending north and west from there.  If you have been reading this series of Dispatches you can see the problem with this definition already: there was no northern line of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase in that area because Archibald Campbell had stopped surveying it many miles away, near Tupper Lake.  As of 1786 no one had yet successfully finished his work.  Nonetheless Surveyor General Simeon De Witt assigned the job as ordered and the survey commenced in 1787.

First up to bat was a surveyor named Cornelius Tappen.  Following the instructions in the Act, Tappen began at a corner of a patent granted to Philip Skeene in the town of Westport.  From that point the Act specified that he was supposed to proceed west thirty miles and fix the southeast corner of the Old Military Tract there, presumably with a good guess as to where the Totten Crossfield northern line might have gone.

This he did not do.  For reasons no one seems to have recorded – indeed for reasons only he himself may have known – Tappen went due west only ten miles instead of thirty, fixing the southeast corner of the tract on the lower slopes of Rocky Peak Ridge.

Still, having set this corner he could then have surveyed the southern line, which if correctly done would have also established the northern line of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase and connected with Campbell’s line at Coney Mountain.  Instead, he ignored the southern line altogether and surveyed the eastern line first, going due north to the Canadian border.

Tappen conducted some of this work, but having run out of provisions partway through he went for supplies and decided not to return, handing the survey over to a George Fleming who continued it (I look forward to spending more time with Fleming’s field notes – he is atypically charming, wordy and descriptive, offering unrelated details such as what he ate for dinner, where they found potable water and so forth).

Between Tappen and Fleming the survey set the eastern line, proceeded west twenty miles (the width the Act had called for) thus fixing the northern line, then south for a while, fixing part of the western line.  But at that point the survey was simply quit, leaving an incomplete western line and no southern line whatsoever.  Now the true boundary between the Totten and Crossfield Purchase and the Old Military Tract was an unresolved mystery from two directions and two completely unrelated corners.

Why did Tappen elect to not survey the southern line?   I can only speculate, however two obvious things come to mind.  First, he had no idea where he was going.  He had no line to work with, only a nebulous target  – Campbell’s line – forty miles distant.  Meeting that line would have required a damned good guess at an initial starting latitude, followed by a survey twenty miles further west than called for and ending with a small miracle to actually intersect it.  Second, consider for a moment that you are standing at the beginning of the DEC trail to Rocky Peak from New Russia, this being near Tappen’s corner.  You are at the true beginning of the High Peaks region, the first real climb up into a vast sea of high, torturous vertical.  Indeed, imagine what a bushwhack of some twenty miles due west from New Russia would traverse.  Would you want to do it with a few hundred pounds of supplies and equipment?  Or would you perhaps opt go north first?  That route would be a lot easier and you would get to determine it all your own without regard to someone else’s remote, truncated line.

Whatever his reasons, Tappen did not establish the south boundary of the Old Military Tract, leaving Mr. De Witt and the State of New York in a cartographic pickle.  In 1797 De Witt decided to address the problem, for the State and a variety of patent holders dearly needed that line.  Clearly he required a tough, proven surveyor, a man of courage, commitment and tenacity, someone who would not avoid the hard line or quit when he supplies ran out.  That man was Charles C. Brodhead.

Much more is known about Charles Brodhead than is known about many of the other important early Adirondack surveyors for reasons that will become clear next week.  He was born on April 20th, 1772, in Ulster County, NY, exactly the same time that Archibald Campbell was preparing for his adventure.  The Brodhead clan was one of high repute and station.  Charles’ great-great-grandfather was Daniel Brodhead, a Captain in the Grenadiers under King Charles II and member of the English expedition that wrested control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664.  Captain Brodhead settled in Ulster county and established an estate and family that flourished.  Subsequent generations of Brodheads held positions of importance in the military, the judicial system and commerce.

At some point in his education young Charles learning surveying.  For reasons I have not uncovered he decided at age twenty to leave his family empire in Ulster County and make his fortune on the Mohawk Valley frontier, settling in the Utica area.  Whatever his reasons they mark him as adventurous and maybe even rebellious.   He began surveying in the Utica area in the early 1790’s, gaining notice for being able to successfully undertake difficult frontier assignments.

Brodhead’s reputation was cemented by one project in particular, a project that many of you may know something about as it is one of the more interesting in Adirondack history.  In 1792 a French company was organized to purchase a vast swath of land along the Black River in order to lay out a “New France” for nobles and aristocrats fleeing the French Revolution.  This settlement, known as Castorland  (“Land of the Beaver”), is a fascinating story.  Any of you who have wondered why there is a Lake Bonaparte on your way out of the Western Adirondacks should read an account of this ultimately failed enterprise.

The Castorland purchase was made from part of the Macomb Tract in 1793.  One of the first tasks called for was to survey a road from Utica to the proposed settlement on the Black River.  In 1794 a young surveyor was hired to do the work but it was a difficult route and proved to be too much for him; one historian refers to him as being “overmatched.”  The French company, “La Compagnie de New York,” summarily fired him and gave the job of lead surveyor to the even younger Brodhead.

History does not record if there were any hard feelings attendant to this change, but in any event the other surveyor was hired back (no doubt capable trained surveyors were not in excess in the region) and worked under Brodhead for quite some time.  Brodhead was evidently not an easy man to work for.  According to journalist and history writer Gerard T. Koeppel, another young man working on a later project under Brodhead reported him to be “crass, petulant and uncongenial” (Koeppel’s book Bond of Union is one of my sources for research on Brodhead).   Regardless of his managerial style Brodhead pleased his employers and his success with Castorland marked him as a go-to surveyor.

It is worth remembering that the job of a frontier surveyor was not only exceedingly demanding both psychologically and physically, but was sometimes exceedingly dangerous as well.  In 1795 Brodhead was working the Castorland survey with a team that included his boss Pierre Pharoux, a young, charismatic French architect who had been appointed a Commissioner of the Castorland project in charge of engineering.  Pharoux (whose detailed journals are published and make for a fascinating account of the early days of Castorland), was a go-getter and risk taker who took it too far one day.  The survey work and transportation in and out of the area required regular crossing of the Black River by raft.   On this particular occasion  the river was swollen by several days of rain.  Pharoux, confident in his many previous crossings, took his party on the raft despite the angry condition of the water.  As they came to the middle they found that their poles could no longer reach bottom due to the increased volume of the river.   Consequently they were helplessly swept downstream and over Long Falls.  The raft, the surveying equipment and most of the men were lost.  Pharoux perished, dealing a severe blow to the fortunes of Castorland.  Brodhead was one of only three survivors.

In 1797, his skill and fortitude having been proven at Castorland, De Witt gave Charles Brodhead the job of finally running the southern line of the Old Military Tract and connecting to Campbell’s line.  Brodhead and party made their way to Tappen’s corner at the beginning of the Rocky Peak Ridge escarpment and on the first of June they began chaining towards the High Peaks.  The details of that incredible survey and the ultimate, ironic fate of Charles Brodhead will be the subject of our Dispatch next week.

Photo: Giant, from the Keene Valley

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

14 Responses

  1. George says:

    Pete – Can you go back to your last week’s column and possibly reply to my two unanswered follow-up questions?


  2. Gerry Rising says:

    One minor note in response to this issue of an outsstanding series: The symbol that looks like a capital Y that appears in those old manuscripts is actually a symbol that was later replaced by our current th. Thus all those Ye’s that appear in your quotations are better represented by The’s. No one ever said “ye olde tavern” as we are often led to believe; they simply said “the old tavern.”

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Thanks for this interesting comment. In all excerpts I am preserving the spelling and symbols as given and making no attempt to interpret them (except “beach” and “beech”).

  3. Ray says:

    In mid-My of 1971 or 1972 we took a four day hike in the high peaks, and there was so much snow the trail markers were largely buried. We have climbed Giant on Memorial Day weekend and found plenty of snow. I am not so surprised that there was 2 feet of snow in June.

  4. Teresa DeSantis says:

    Good Morning Pete!

    What an outstanding read- a page-turner for this Saturday Morning!

    I keep thinking about your “900 mile” commute. It makes me feel like a slug for not driving the 70 odd miles it takes for me to get to the “Blue Line” to go take a hike on these still cold, windy, wintry days!

    Here’s something to put you into a “cartographic pickle”:

    This is the Hamilton County Web-based mapping. If you zoom all the way out, you can easily traverse that 900 miles while you are having your coffee and danish. If you are ambitious, you can scroll around and see rainforest in Belize and Yurts in Mongolia- you can see the whole world in aerial photos, street maps, and topographic maps. Plus you can see the Adirondacks.
    It is the smoothest, fastest web-based map I have found!
    I pull up this map as I am reading your surveying series to see where we are! Enjoy!

    Teresa DeSantis (always in a “cartographic pickle” over here!)

    • Bill Ott says:

      You are Mother T to me:

      I thought, “Can’t be as good as the G-4 maps”, so I pulled them up side by side and the HamCnty maps blew me away. Many thankyous.

      • Teresa DeSantis says:

        To Bill Ott:

        Thanks! Now try this one:

        This is the online mapping for the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. It is a bit pokey to start, but once you get into it, you can turn on seamless USGS topos (and topos with shaded relief!) for the whole United States (including the Adirondacks!) Its great to see the old, familiar USGS topos in digital format, and one can look at all the hikes one has taken, over decades, in a short amount of time. Enjoy!


        • Bill Ott says:

          To Teresa DeSantis:

          Try this topo –,-74.292641

          After the “=” symbol are the coordinates for near Wells, NY. I have just figured that you can substitute your own coordinates for a different starting point. That is a minus sign before the 74.292641.

          The point is to grab your pickle and try the t4 topo High and tell me what you think. The HamCnty earth maps are sharper for sure, but I think you will like these shaded topos.

          Bill Ott
          Lakewood, Ohio

          • Teresa DeSantis says:

            Bill Ott:

            Thanks for the link! Let’s see- my comments on the G-4 map:

            I like the shaded relief! It has the most contrast/relief that I have seen so far! Good point!

            Yes, this is a good combination of state land boundaries, shaded relief, and a variety of topographic map products.
            Great! Thanks!


            • Joseph Elfelt says:

              Thanks for the kind words on Gmap4 (G-4 as you say).

              Note that when you are looking at the “t4 Topo High” maps that you can vary the hill shading.
              Click Menu ==> Hill shading.

              Joseph, the Gmap4 guy

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Ooh this is a nice map facility indeed. I’m using it to double-check the work for next week’s concluding column on Brodhead. Thanks!

      PS – I’m glad “Cartographic pickle” seems to have caught on. Maybe you should get a T-shirt made!


  5. Dave Mason says:


    Thanks for these stories. They’re wonderful reads and take you back to a prior time. I hope you are having fun writing them.

  6. Paul says:

    “What could he have thought, being the first Euro-American to view the Adirondack interior up high and close, to see that dazzling array of peaks? Did it move him? It must have, but in what way and to what extent we will never know.”

    Like for many people in those times mountains were not necessarily something that moved you in a positive light. Wasn’t it Louis and Clarke who said, as they peaked the continental divide. something like “more horrible mountains that we could have ever imagined”. In those days for an agrarian society what moved them was broad expanses on land that were flat and easily tillable.

  7. […] Lost Brook Dispatches: The Incredible Story of Charles Brodhead, Surveyor […]

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