Sunday, June 1, 2014

Raquette Lake’s First Settlers:
Matthew Beach and William Wood

1849-Birch-Pt-sketch“Yonder comes the boat of Woods and Beach, the two solitary dwellers of this region. It is rather a singular coincidence that the only two inhabitants of this wilderness should be named Woods and Beach. I should not wonder if the next comers should be called ‘Hemlock’ and ‘Pine’.” 

Joel Tyler Headley, The Adirondack or Life in the Woods

Indian Point was the focal point of Raquette Lake because Beach and Wood were the center of hospitality for the earliest adventurers in the region: Ebenezer Emmons in 1840, Jon Todd in 1843, Joel Tyler Headley in 1844-1846.  Our knowledge of Beach and Wood comes from the writings of these and later visitors.

Matthew Beach was the elder of the pair, nearing sixty and almost two decades senior to William Wood when they settled on Indian Point. Both men were Vermonters who appear not to have sought out the Adirondacks so much as fled civilization in the early 1830s. Headley noted that: “One of them was once a wealthy manufacturer; but overtaken by successive misfortunes, he at length fled to the wilderness, where he has ever since lived. There is also a rumor, of some love adventure—of blasted affections followed by morbid melancholy—being the cause of this strange self-exile.”

I have yet to find any photographs of Beach and Wood. However, a vivid picture of each is drawn from the writings of their visitors.

C.W. Webber describes Beach in a letter in The Spirit of the Times in 1849:

“The old white haired veteran, yet stalwart and hearty…coarsely dressed, with a true hunter like air…appeared, indeed, no ordinary woodsman…I found Beach quite intelligent, he has picked up much information in one spot or another, and, no doubt, no small amount from Naturalists who…have made his hut their quarters.”

William James Stillman, during an 1855 visit in The Crayon described Beach:

“The noblest example of the backwoodsman I have ever seen, simple and pure in feeling as a child. He was a volunteer at the [War of 1812] Battle of Plattsburg, the bloody character of which contrasted strangely with his quiet and gentle deportment.”

The first reference to William Wood in the region, places him living with two other bachelors in a house at Herreshoff settlement to the west of Old Forge in 1832. Wood was a witness to the 1833 infamous murder of an Indian named Drid by Nat Foster (a story for another time). In 1849, David Read (co-owner with Farrand Benedict of Township 40) described Wood’s unusual physique in a letter to Joel Tyler Headley:

David Read W Wood description

The year of Beach and Wood’s arrival on Indian Point appears to have been between 1835 and 1839. In 1840, Prof. Ebenezer Emmons and J. W. Hill stayed with Beach and Wood in their hut while surveying the Raquette Lake region for the Survey of the Second Geological District of New York State. Hill drew the sketch of their hut (shown above) that was later published in Headley’s book.

In 1843, John Todd wrote in Simple Sketches, “They have built the hunter’s lodge of bark, and adorned it with the antlers of many an old stag, and many a trophy of the art and skill of man over the instincts of the forest.”

Webber said the hut was “of such peculiar and original construction that few would imagine it, at first sight, a human habitation.” He described the hut’s interior:

Webber hut interior

It is hard to imagine the almost solitary year-round life of Beach and Wood on Indian Point. Their existence depended upon the land as revealed by Webber’s description of a “shed, connected with the hut, presented within a goodly array of deer skins, barrels of salted ‘lakers’, and strings of the same kind of fish, smoked; while lying around on different sides, were traps of all sizes, from such as were capable of holding a bear, to mink traps.”

Numerous sources write of their skills as backwoodsmen. Beach and Wood are said to have killed hundreds of deer and moose. Wood was paid bounties in 1842 for killing two wolves and is noted for killing some of the very last beaver and moose in the state before their later re-introduction.

Headley described their long, harsh winters:

“When the snow is five feet deep on the level, and the ice three and four feet thick on the lake, and not the sign of a human footstep any where to be seen, the smoke of their cabin rises in the frosty air like a column in the desert—enhancing instead of relieving the solitude. The pitch pine supplies the place of candles, and the deep red light from their humble window, at night, must present a singular contrast with the rude waste of snow, and the leafless forest around them.”

They did not subsist on hunting, fishing, and trapping alone however. They cleared and plowed by hand a ten-acre farm on Indian Point. They had small fields of potatoes and rye and grew hay for 8 to 10 cows. They cultivated a small orchard of cherries, currants and raspberries. A vibrant vegetable garden produced cabbages, pea vines, tomatoes, beets, and turnips.

Although they both shared Indian Point, they did not always live together. Sometime between 1843 and 1846, a quarrel led Wood to build a separate hut, described in 1851 by James McEntee:

“We found his home a very comfortable one, and though rude, exhibited the unmistakable traces of neatness and industry. The house is built of logs with a bark-covered porch in front, and standing on a gentle elevation about fifty yards from the lake.”

McEntee sketched the hut in his diary:

Wood's Cabin 1851 Jervis McInteeIn 1856, Beach deeded his 25 acres to Amos Hough on condition that the latter take care of Beach until his death. By 1860, Beach was living in the home of the famous Adirondack guide “Honest John” Plumley in the Village of Long Lake. Plumley was Hough’s son-in-law, having married Hough’s eldest daughter Zoleda. He took on the family obligation and cared for Beach until his death in 1862.

John Plumley not only played a part in Beach’s life. He also purchased William Wood’s 25 acres on Indian Point when Wood left Raquette for Elizabethtown in 1859. William Wood died in 1868.


Related Stories

Tom is the great great grandson of the very first “summer folk” on Blue Mountain Lake. The Thacher family built the first private summer home on Thacher Island in 1867.

Tom has spent every summer of his life on Indian Point of Raquette Lake on lands purchased by his family in 1876. In researching the origins of his family’s century old, one-room cabin, Tom is discovering over 200 years of Adirondack History seen through the lens of one plot of land.

Extended versions of this article and other stories and photos can be found at Fifty Acres of Beach and Wood which chronicles tales of iconic characters of Adirondack history whose footprints have graced the shores of Indian Point.

Tom is currently fundraising to publish a book of his research. The proceeds from the book will support the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts. You can make a contribution to the book fund here:

One Response

  1. Charlie here says:

    The story on Foster and Drid by me is on the almanack site. FYI.

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