A few regional authors have been designated at one time or another as “the Poet of the Adirondacks,” able to rhyme rich prose while describing events that speak to us on a personal level. In recalling things we may have experienced, the writer also speaks for us, but with an eloquence that escapes the average pen. Among the earliest to wear the mantle of Adirondack poet was Cornelius Carter.
Although he was among the earliest, Carter’s talent only became widely known late in the game, as a sketch of his life reveals. Cornelius was born in 1816 in Martinsburg (Lewis County). When he was about eight, the family moved to Philadelphia in Jefferson County. At about age twenty, he earned a teaching certificate and taught locally for the next six years, three at Philadelphia and three at Antwerp, both in Jefferson County.
In early 1843, Carter moved west to Racine, Wisconsin, where he continued teaching for about seven years before returning to upstate New York. Settling in Edwards in St. Lawrence County, he taught for about a dozen more years and became involved in local government. In 1853, Cornelius (Con to his friends) served as Clerk of Elections, while J. Henry Rushton was Inspector of Elections.
Rushton, whose name would become legendary in the world of boat building, was twenty-five years junior to Carter and had been one of his pupils in the Edwards school. A strong bond developed between them early on, particularly through a love of nature and wilderness. As a boy, Rushton had accompanied Carter on many of his forest jaunts. It was a close friendship that would last a lifetime.
It was also in the 1850s that Con married a local girl and began raising a family. In the early 1860s, he became good friends with two Canton businessmen, Joseph Ellsworth and Milton Packard, who joined him on fishing trips in the Oswegatchie country near Cranberry Lake. Along with Rushton, their names remain forever linked to hunting and fishing stories in the early history of The Plains in that area.
In 1864, Carter’s first wife died (they had four children), but he soon remarried. Among the three children by his second wife were Milton (born in 1865, named after Milton Packard), and Ellsworth (born in 1869, named after Joseph Ellsworth), confirming that they were indeed fast friends.
By 1870, Cornelius had begun practicing law, and for the next thirty years listed his profession as lawyer. He was very active in public life, serving nearly three decades as a justice of the peace, ten as justice of sessions (county court), and a decade as town supervisor. He also took to the woods as often as possible, increasing his time there as his hearing began to fail, but still tending to legal work as needed, and maintaining a small farm at Edwards.
In 1882, with the aid of his close friend Milton Packard, Carter acquired a dream job: caretaker of more than 8000 acres of land owned by Daniel Connell of New York City. The tract was declared a private park, closed to all hunting and fishing. Cornelius, 64, was now being paid to do what he loved most: living in the Oswegatchie wilderness.
Already a very intelligent and thoughtful man, Carter learned much during the months spent each year living on The Plains, hunting, fishing, and observing nature’s ways. And what he learned, he shared with friends, visitors, clients (he provided guide services), and the public. Newspaper snippets covering the killing of a 200-pound buck and the catching of a four-and-three-quarters-pound brook trout added to his legend as a great outdoorsman.
As a man of substance, he also wrote a number of poems. Some sources cite 1847 as the year Cornelius began writing poetry, but interviews conducted in the late 1800s indicated he really wasn’t sure when it all began. At any rate, the new job of caretaker allowed him more time in the wilds and ample opportunity to reflect. Carter’s poems subsequently revealed a great appreciation for the wonders and beauties of nature. His works eventually appeared in local newspapers, including this from the early 1880s.
Old Bear Mountain
From old Bear Mountain’s dusky brow
I view the landscape round:
I see the mighty wilderness;
I see the deep profound.
My wond’ring eyes I northward turn
And view the distant shore,
Where once I used to moor my bark.
Some three decades or more.
But still I do not see the same
That once I saw before—
The evergreens that girt the strand—
The bright and pebbly shore—
For man hath razed with cruel hand
The beauteous trees of yore,
That once were seen in living green
Along the winding shore.
And now I turn me to the west,
And view the mountain chain,
Extending from the waters bright
Unto the desert plain.
Old Indian Mountain (chief of all)
In this far western range,
Brings back the memory of the past
To me, so wond’rous strange!
Me thinks I see the dusky forms
Of warriors brave and true,
Who once have trod this wilderness,
But now have passed from view.
Yet here they sleep in graves unknown,
No slab, no stone, to trace
(Of all the Adirondacks brave)
Their final resting place.
And as I stand upon this mount
And view the broad domain,
I would that I could linger here
As long as life remain.
And when I’m dead and in my grave.
And all of me is o’er,
This vision still will be the same,
Just as it was before.
Read the conclusion of this story here.