Sunday, October 12, 2014

Joel Headley:
Among The First To Popularize The Adirondacks

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 2.45.55 PMAnd how solemn it is to move all day through a majestic colonnade of trees and feel that you are in a boundless cathedral whose organ notes swell and die away with the passing wind like some grand requiem. Still more exciting is it to lie at midnight by your camp fire and watch the moon sailing up amid the trees or listen to the cry of the loon, wild and lonely, on the wild and lonely lake, or the hoot of the owl in the deep recesses of the forest. – Joel Tyler Headley

Many have probably heard of “Adirondack Murray”, the Reverend William H. H. Murray who wrote Adventures in the Wilderness in 1869.  His book is credited with driving throngs of tourists to escape the cities for the Adirondacks in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. However, it was Joel Tyler Headley two decades earlier who wrote the seminal book The Adirondack or Life in the Woods in 1849 that brought the first wave of wealthy sports to explore the region.

Mitchell sabattis 2 ADK musBetween 1844 and 1846, Headley spent his summer months exploring the region guided by the famous Abenaki Indian guide Mitchell Sabattis, seen at right. His travels included visiting the home of Raquette Lake’s first settlers, Matthew Beach and William Wood, on Indian Point.

Joel Tyler Headley was an older first cousin of Farrand Benedict. Undoubtedly, his tales of traveling through the region had an impact on Benedict’s plans to invest in and develop the Raquette Lake region. Benedict purchased all of Township 40 in 1848.

Headley was born in 1814 in Walton, NY, and followed his Presbyterian minister father into the church, graduating from Union College in 1839 and Auburn Seminary in 1841. Afterward, he declined a pulpit in New York City due to struggles with mental illness and instead he took charge of a small Congregational Church in Stockbridge, MA. After two and a half years in the pulpit, he suffered a mental collapse and traveled to Europe to convalesce. He began to write about his trips in Europe, and after returning to America published the stories as letters in prominent newspapers. Becoming a well-known author, he was elected New York Secretary of State in 1855. His travels to the North Country were in part a response to his ongoing mental sufferings. He noted that “without frequent communion with nature every man degenerates.”

According to historian Philip G. Terrie, The Adirondack or Life in the Woods “illustrates a significant stage in the development of American attitudes toward wilderness. Headley’s admiration of wild scenery, his sense that in the wilderness he was closer to God, his hearty enthusiasm for day to day life in the woods with all its challenges, and his conviction that intimacy with the wilderness made him a better man – these are all key elements in the modern appreciation of wilderness.”

Terrie notes that numerous, expanded editions of the book were published over a period of three decades. The author Paul Jamieson considers the book “among the first six titles a collector should choose for the nucleus of an Adirondack library.”

I firmly believe that Headley influenced my own ancestor George Hornell Thacher Sr. to travel to the Adirondacks in 1862, where Mitchell Sabattis also served as Thacher’s guide.  Both men were at Union College in 1839; both attended Presbyterian seminaries, Auburn and Princeton respectively; both served for a short time as ministers; and both left the ministry and entered New York State politics in Albany.

Despite the significant impact which Headley’s Life in the Woods had on the Adirondacks, it was only one of more than 20 history books and numerous articles he wrote.

“As an historian or a romancer, Mr. Headley certainly has no equal, and he has seldom or never had a superior,” Headley’s publisher John S. Taylor bragged. “Mr. Headley is one of the most promising of the youthful writers of this country.”

“[The critics] are still debating the question whether Mr. Headley shall rank with the first writers, or above them.” Taylor wrote, “while with the people that question long since is decided.”

The critics were many – Edgar Allen Poe called him “the autocrat of all quacks” – but Headley was a successful writer, selling over 200,000 books during his lifetime.   .

Still, Headley’s obituary in 1897 belies his diminished reputation at the end of his life:

“In the death of Joel Tyler Headley, the country loses one of its most popular, if not one of its most distinguished historians. He was a popular historian rather than an accurate one. He was a prolific writer. The style was somewhat sophomorical (sic), but it pleased his readers.”

While I do strive to be accurate, I would be pleased with a similar epitaph.


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:

3 Responses

  1. John Warren says:

    One of the reasons Headley is largely forgotten as a historian (if he could ever have been called that, he wrote polemics, more than history) is that he was a rabid Nativist, anti-Abolitionist, and anti-immigrant.

    It’s unfortunate that he has such an important role in Adirondack history, he deserves to be forgotten.

  2. John P. Grant says:

    One line I did find very insightful was “He was a popular historian rather than an accurate one.” We are a trendy lot.

  3. John Jongen says:

    On this day, Columbus Day, we are again reminded of the virtue of truth (accuracy) in recording our history. To this day historic revisionism is rampant in our culture and is the bane in our misguided wars in the ME and of our misguided immigrant policy, to name just some…

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