Wednesday, June 27, 2018

At Eagle’s Nest: Ned Buntline In The Adirondacks

ned buntline

Stocky red-bearded Ned Buntline, the unruly dime novelist, and Buffalo Bill’s promoter was born Edward Zane Carroll Judson in 1823. He left home at thirteen and took to the high seas, and at fifteen he had already worked as a cabin boy on a freighter bound for the Caribbean, become a midshipman, and published his first story. He chose the pen name Buntline as a reminder of his sailing days (a buntline was a rope at the bottom of a square sail).

When his maritime career ended, he spent the next two years, by his own embellished accounts, killing buffaloes and grizzlies and roaming the western plains for the Northwest Fur Company. In 1844 while writing for a New York “flash” newspaper, the Knickerbocker, he started his own magazine, Ned Buntline’s Own. It was mixture of adventure stories and scandalous gossip in the flash press style.

ned buntline stoddardMany accounts claim Buntline was the highest paid writer in the country, despite his admission that “I have found that to make a living I must write trash for the masses.” City dwellers could not get enough of his tales of romance and adventure in the woods and plains. Over his lifetime, he turned out more than 400 adventure books and earned the title “King of the Dime Novel.”

Buntline seamlessly interwove fact with fiction – not just in his writing, but also in his life  – he wrote four different obituaries for himself.  Throughout his life he was a man in search of a cause and an identity – had a seemingly inexhaustible capacity to re-invent himself: sailor, novelist, journalist, political party organizer, Civil War soldier, alcoholic and temperance advocate.

Buntline once spent a year at Blackwell’s Island Prison in New York, and was said to have been hung and shot on the same day, only to survive. This fiercely independent man was rarely without a woman, yet was said to be a notoriously unfaithful lover and husband. He had six or seven wives, sometimes more than one at a time, and countless mistresses.

Most men, after being beat up, shot, hung, fined and jailed would at least slow down to catch their breath, but not Ned. A few months after his escape, Ned had helped instigate the Astor Place Opera House riots in May 1849, and once again spent time in prison. He was released in 1850 but two years later he was indicted for his role in a violent anti-German election riot in St. Louis. Rather than face jail again, he jumped bail and made his way back to the city of New York  where he soon found a new cause to promote – the anti-foreigner movement. In typical Buntline style, he and his third wife tirelessly toured the eastern states on behalf of what later became the Know-Nothing party of nativists.

buntlines eagles nestAt the age of 33, both Ned and his publisher decided he needed to get away, not only from the city and its temptations but also from the law, alcohol, and women. They wanted their star author close enough to the city to send his dispatches and dime novel manuscripts and have them arrive promptly, but also remote enough to keep him out of trouble. Ned suggested that he would be willing to begin searching for what he called “his literary and mountain home.” So Buntline, “folded his tent like an Arab, and as silently stole away, into the wilds of the Adirondack region.”

Ned spent the autumn of 1856 hunting and fishing in the Piseco Lake area and as winter came, he and his companions headed into the remote areas of the Central Adirondacks, building a hunter’s shanty near the head of Indian River to “test a Winter there or as much of it as I could stand”

“For the first six weeks after winter set in I had a glorious time. Hermit life suited me,” he wrote. That ended one windy night when a spark from his homemade stove ignited the straw roof and  set the shack afire. “I never tried complete hermit life since,” he said.

A year later he returned to the Adirondacks, to a small lake just south of Blue Mountain Lake. Here Ned and his party spotted what appeared to be a vacant log cabin on a clearing on the shoreline of the lake and decided to make it their winter headquarters.

What they did not realize was that, prior to their arrival, Chauncey Hathorn and his hunting party had the same idea. They had been hunting during the fall and most of the men decided to return home for the winter, but Hathorn and two other men, one of whom had guided Ned Buntline in the Piseco region, decided to winter at the same location, then known as Hog’s Nose. After a morning of hunting the three men rowed back to the cabin, opened the door, and found Ned Buntline and his hunting party comfortably ensconced inside.

Buntline introduced himself and invited them in. Hawthorne was thrilled to meet the famed writer and remarked that not only had he read all of Buntline’s books, but he also was a subscriber to Ned Buntline’s Own. “From that time on” Hawthorne stated, “he was a firm and genial friend.”

Soon after their meeting, Ned decided that this was the spot he was searching for, and purchased the property, a log cabin and barn, from the lumbering company which owned it. His publisher was delighted to have Ned at work and out of trouble and was prepared to do whatever it took to keep him there.

eagle nest by BierstadtOn the lake, opposite the cabin, a pair of eagles nested each year, inspiring him to name his new home Eagle’s Nest and the lake Eagle Lake. The lake below he called Utowanna, said to be an native name meaning big waves. At the time it was called Round Lake or Lyman lake, but the names Ned used stuck and are on maps as early as 1860.

After staying another week, Ned and his party returned home, leaving Hathorn to look after the property. He spent the next few months planning and preparing for his stay at his new writing headquarters. When he returned in the spring he began renovations.

Ned decided that his first need was for a housekeeper / companion and on Hathorn’s recommendation, he hired Marie Gardiner (also known as Eva Gardiner), a “bright, comely girl.” Quite predictably, Ned fell in love and she became the third of his estimated six wives. Much to his delight, Marie became pregnant and an elated Ned ordered a cradle and linens for his soon-to-be-born child. Eagle’s Nest was shaping up to be his mountain home, but the delivery didn’t go well and both infant and mother died. Ned, devastated by their deaths, ordered the old cabin, now a reminder of dream destroyed, taken down.

Shortly thereafter, Buntline hired Ruben Varney, a local carpenter, to build a new, slightly larger home on the site. Historian Harold K. Hochschild tells us that in his time “part of the corner logs of this second cabin may be seen at their original location, together with the remains of Ned’s dug-out, a rough canoe formed of a hollow log.”

On September 2, 1860, a group of anglers, guided by Mitchell Sabattis, found themselves in need of a meal and overnight accommodations, and on the recommendation of Sabattis, stopped to ask Ned. To their surprise, Ned rather abruptly told them that he never took in strangers, but the other house close-by would. “So we went up there,” Sabattis remembered, “and with difficulty extracted from the unwilling backwoodsman the information that he couldn’t give us anything!” Sabattis must have worked on Ned, for he eventually convinced him to take his party in for the night.

buntlines eagle nestSabbattis recalled that the new cabin was “the best log house we had seen, well furnished, with a small collection of books, and the walls of the sitting room decorated with panther’s skins, guns, knives, etc. On the wall of his barn was stretched the skin of a moose, a few of which yet remain in the depths of the wilderness. A well-kept garden was near the house, green corn, lettuce and other vegetables from which garnished the dinner table.” Nothing like it existed near the lake.

Over the next five years Buntline transformed the site into a gentleman’s farm. He seeded the meadowland with dozens of flower varieties and created a large garden with a multitude of vegetables. In an adjacent field near a stocked trout pond, seven varieties of corn were growing.

With him, he brought his hunting dogs, two horses and several “domesticated gulls.” Ned was churning out his publications as never before, so his publisher did all within their power to make life easier for their star money maker. They arranged to bring his own post office and have the mail delivered by an express carrier from Fort Edward – all paid for by his publishers who were more than willing to keep their star writer happy and productive.

In 1860, The New York Times wrote, “He has fifty varieties of seeds from Grant Thorburn’s growing in his garden, seven varieties of corn, and thirty-three kinds of flowers. He has built a commodious ice-house, which he fills from the lake with crystal cakes, and keeps his trout and venison from spoiling. He makes maple syrup from the trees. has Cowen’s Treatise, Barbour’s Criminal Law, a case of medicines, a bottle of leeches and a pair of forceps; practices law, medicine and dentistry on the hunters, records the thermometer, takes the New-York dailies and Sunday papers, keeps the stars and stripes flying above his home, and is contented and hospitable.”

Ned brought a certain class of visitors to the Adirondacks – professional people who worked in the big cities. Because of his celebrity, and money, other settlers had access to the New York dailies and Sunday edition, mail delivery, buckboard transportation. All courtesy of Ned Buntline.

In addition, Ned brought his wide variety of practical skills and made them available to his friends and acquaintances. For instance, over the years, he had become quite familiar with the law no doubt due to his frequent adversarial encounters with courts and judges, and was adept at drawing up deeds, contracts, and what he didn’t know, he could find out through his many outside contacts.

His years of independent living at sea and in the west had made him rather familiar with self-medication as well as dentistry and his cabin was well stocked with medicines and dental tools, all of which he made available to the guides, hunters and residents of the lake area. In short, Buntline introduced the intriguing possibility that the benefits of urban life could be brought to the heart of the Adirondacks. And, that a wilderness could absorb these benefits without conflict. Time would tell.

The years spent at Eagle’s Nest were some of his most productive. A friend of the famous writer, described Buntline’s method of writing:

“His favorite posture while writing was on his stomach, with a rug or animal skin under him, leaning his head in one hand, and with the other, clutching a stub of lead pencil, he would dash off his fast running thoughts all day long and often far into the night. When out of any better stationary he would use light-brown wrapping paper from the grocers, his lines taking a sharp slant to the right as he wrote. He seldom revised his copy or read it over.”

He wrote his stories for the New York Weekly Mercury, hunted, fished, and, unfortunately, drank. Ned refrained from alcohol for long periods of time, but the habit always got the best of him. Even while lecturing on the temperance circuit about the evils of alcohol, he was frequently drunk. He was said to have kept his favorite drink, rum, out of Eagle’s Nest so he wouldn’t be tempted. He frequented a local tavern and visited Glens Falls.  Outdoorsman A. Nelon Cheney wrote from Glens Falls that Ned “visits to this place for supplies, making his purchases from his horse’s back, riding into various stores, and dismounting only when he had ridden up the hotel steps.”

Buntline gives us a good description of winter conditions in his mountain home: “It was the winter of 1858. I was up in my hunter’s cabin on Eagle Lake… Cold was no name for the weather. The ice froze to over two feet thickness in November. By the first of January it was near four feet through. Thirty to forty degrees below zero was average.”

Most of the winter season was spent, not fighting off predators of the woods such as panthers and wolves, but fighting mother nature who used every tool in her arsenal to insure that man would not thrive in this wilderness. A neighboring settler wrote, “it’s a rough life; we have six months of winter, and for three months at a time I have never seen my house by daylight. We go a-logging in the morning and don’t get back till dark. You can hardly raise anything here, the frost comes in so early. Last year I lost my grain and potatoes in one night.”

But the spring and summer months brought as many visitors as Ned could handle. As word of his arrival spread, his lair became a frequent stop over for many settlers, guides and hunters. He was the first, and for a long while, the only celebrity living in the Central Adirondacks. Ned cherished the attention and companionship, his celebrity provided and  found that, “the backwoodsmen were honest and manly as they were brave and true.”  Chauncy Hathorn found that admiration mutual, writing “the natives of the country looked upon him as a wonderful man. His scars and wounds attested the desperate encounters he had engaged in, and wonderful stories were told of his courage and prowess which were in truth remarkable.”

One exception to Ned’s congeniality towards visitors was the hunter and trapper Alvah Dunning whom Ned had hired as a guide in Piseco. His run-ins with Dunning during 1859-1860 were legendary and were retold so many times that it is now impossible to separate the truth from invention. For certain, the two men did not see eye to eye.

Photos of Ned Buntline and Ned Buntline’s Eagle Nest on Eagle Lake.

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Formerly the president of a mortgage bank, Larry Miller changed careers to become an historian for the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. His interest in the Adirondacks began in the mid-70s while staying at Raquette Lake. Larry is working on a narrative nonfiction history which tells the story of Raquette Lake/Long Lake through the lives of a handfull of its earliest settlers.


4 Responses

  1. Pablo says:

    Is this part one? It ends abruptly.

    • Lawrence M Miller says:

      Yes, this is only part of the story. The entire story covers the early history of the area and is itself a condensation of a proposed book.
      Footnotes have been removed by the editor in order to save space. Feel free to drop me an email if you have any questions.

  2. Harv Sibley says:

    Quite the tale….Next chapter?
    Larry, been to tbe WW2 museum in NOLa, fantastic place


  3. Mark Sawin says:

    Where did these images of Ned Buntline come from? I’d love to know.

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