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The Bigelows of Malden

at Dedication of 1727 Kiersted House, Saugerties Historical Society Museum,October 10, 1999

Thank you, all, very much. I am honored and delighted to be here. I am especially amazed at the number of folks here - rain and mud notwithstanding. It shows how important its history is to the Saugerties community.

Since I am here as a descendant of the Bigelow family of Malden, or Bristol as it was originally called, I am going to indulge in an activity which some in my family have called "Bigelowmania¨ Others may call it ancestor worship. Nevertheless, the story of the Malden Bigelows and their origins may have lessons valid today for us all. It is a story which exemplifies much of the history of the early European settlers of our East Coast. Let it be said, however, that this building, the Du Bois-Kiersted House, predates the first arrival of a member of my family by many years.

The original Bigelow to come to the new world was John Biglo of Watertown, Massachusetts. The first mention of him is of his marriage to Mary Warin (Warren) August 30, 1642 ¡V the first marriage recorded in that town. It was obviously a good marriage ¡V they had thirteen children together. By trade he was a blacksmith ¡V very important in those early days.

He prospered ¡V was made a Surveyor of Highways, a Constable, and three times a Selectman. He was listed as a soldier in 1675 ¡V in whatever war or skirmish we don¡¦t know. After his wife Mary died, he re-married, and he died in 1703 at the ripe age of 84.

He spelt the name "Biglo" in his will (which he signed with an "X").
His estate amounted to a very comfortable 627 pounds plus, and he had a good funeral, for the funeral expenses included twenty gallons of wine!

Eleven of the thirteen children survived, married, prospered and spread out. Many of his descendants lived to be very old and had a lot of children - as was usual in those days.

The sixth child, Joshua, born in 1655, was a soldier in King Phillip¡¦s War and was wounded. As a result he was granted land in ¡§Narragansett #2¡¨, but he stayed in Watertown most of his life. At 87 he moved to his grant, in what is now Westminster, and died there in his 90th year. He too had many children ¡V twelve to be exact, all of whom seem to have survived to adulthood.

The next in the Malden Bigelow line was Lieutenant John ¡V who moved to Hartford and then to Colchester, Connecticut ¡V married four times, had a big house but only five children! He died in 1770, supposedly in his 94th year.

One of his sons, David, born in 1706 ¡V died in Colchester, which became Marlborough, Connecticut, in his 93rd year He and his two wives produced twelve children
The second child, another David, was born in 1732. He lived on in Marlborough until he died in 1820 at only 88. But he and his wife had eight more Bigelows, the seventh being Asa - we are there at last! - the first of the Malden Bigelows, a cautious Yankee trader.
My best source is Bartlett¡¦s History of Ulster County published in 1884 from which I will paraphrase or quote. Born during the Revolution on January 18, 1779, he grew up in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

Asa was apprenticed at 14, and had very little schooling. When he became of age, he opened a store on his own account in the town of Colebrook. In 1802, he married his childhood playmate Lucy Isham... ¡§he in his twenty-third and his wife in her twenty-second year. He was reasonably successful in his business, and in the course of four or five years accumulated a few hundred dollars, but, fancying there was a wide sphere of action for young men in the ¡§far West¡¨, he mounted his horse one day, and with all the money of which he was possessed stuffed into his saddlebags, started for the State of New York ¡V the ¡§far West¡¨ of that period, - accompanied on another horse by his brother-in-law, who had married Lucy¡¦s sister, Sally Isham. The pilgrims crossed the Hudson River at Catskill, and traveled southward along its west branch as far as Flatbush. Here (Asa) was inclined to purchase a tract of land on the river and settle, but upon a more careful study of the situation concluded to return to the Dutch settlement at Saugerties, some eight miles farther north. He there purchased the house and store on the corner of Main Street now known as Russell¡¦s Block...and commenced a general shipping and commission business. He bought ... the produce of the surrounding country, which he shipped to the New York market and sold, making his settlements largely in merchandise. He was quite prosperous, and seems very soon to have been recognized as one of the leading men of the county.

¡§In 1811... Saugerties, theretofore a part of the town of Kingston, was itself incorporated into a town. Mr. Bigelow was elected the second supervisor of the new town, and was re-elected every year till he took up his residence elsewhere. Upon his application, a post-office was established at Saugerties, and he was its first postmaster. He continued to hold this office also till he moved to Bristol, now called Malden, about two miles north of Saugerties. The navigation of Saugerties Creek in those days was subject to serious interruptions from freshets and shoals, which proved such an inconvenience to his business that after five years experience Mr. Bigelow determined to go two miles farther north, where he could have his dock privileges and warehouse directly on the river, with plenty of water...
¡§ The only house in Bristol, when Mr. Bigelow arrived there, was an old fish-house, which stood upon the site now occupied by the Malden House.

¡§He had purchased in 1808, a tract of about two hundred acres, for which he paid six thousand dollars....Upon the upper end of this property he built a frame store, on the south side of the road leading to what (was) known as the Isham wharf. He erected for his own use the first dwelling-house in the place„mSoon after settling there he commenced building the brick store into which he moved in 1814. Four years later he took his brothers-in-law, Charles and Giles Isham, into partnership with him, under the firm-name of Bigelow and Isham... Not long after this partnership was formed Mr. Bigelow withdrew from it, and built (a) stone store on a property adjoining on the north, which he purchased in 1813. Its water-privileges constituted its chief value. Here he re-established himself, first alone, and afterwards associated with him his son-in-law, Stephen Kellogg, and his two oldest sons, Edward and David. He here prosecuted a prosperous business till he retired with a handsome competence about 1846.

¡§Though diligent in business, Mr. Bigelow did not forget or neglect his duties to the public. He erected the first two hotels in Bristol; he procured the establishment of a post-office in the place, which led to a change of its name to Malden... He, with his two brothers-in-law, bore almost the entire expense of constructing the first church and parsonage in Malden. He procured the charter for the turnpike which unites Malden with the mountain settlements in its rear, and furnished most, if not all the money for building it. He also built the first academy in Malden, and the first sloop that was ever constructed in the town of Saugerties. She was called the "Phoenix", and plied between Bristol and New York.

¡§Mr. Bigelow¡¦s habits of business bore the impress of strong individuality, and go far to explain his uninterrupted success as a merchant, and his influence in whatever community he was a citizen. He never bought what he could not pay for at the time; he never gave a note in his life, nor endorsed but one, and that he had to pay. It was for one and hundred and fifty dollars, in behalf of a relative, and before he left Connecticut. This note is still in the family. He often spoke of this as one of the indiscretions of his youth, but at the same time he regarded the money it cost him as the best investment he ever made, for it cured him for life of any disposition to use or lend his financial credit. It is needless to say that there was no house on the Hudson in better financial standing.
¡§During the war of 1812 the scarcity of currency compelled him to issue his own paper in the form of currency, redeemable on presentation, for the convenience of his customers...(an old timer remembered) when the Bigelow ¡¥shinplasters were the only currency in the place¡¦, adding 'And we were all glad enough to get them.¡¦

¡§Though he had enjoyed the most limited opportunities for education, Mr. Bigelow was so liberally endowed in every way by nature that he was sure to occupy a prominent place in whatever sphere of life he might be placed. He was about six feet two inches high, and of prodigious strength in early manhood. He died (in) 1850, in the seventy-second year of his age, leaving six children.¡¨
In his ¡§Retrospectives of an Active Life,¡¨ published in 1909, John, Asa and Lucy¡¦s fourth child and youngest son, describes life in the Bigelow Homestead and the community of Malden:
¡§My father...had a country store by the riverside and several sloops, all of which were built on his premises and which plied between Malden (as it came to be called instead of Bristol) and New York. He had besides a farm of almost one hundred and fifty acres.

¡§In his store he kept supplies of every nature required by the people living within travelling distances ¡V dry-goods, groceries, hardware, tools, some medicines, stationery, molasses, vinegar, potatoes, in fact everything for which there was a market in our neighborhood. He bought in turn whatever the people had to sell, most of which he shipped to New York for a market. Much of their produce his captains sold for his customers, simply charging them the freight. In those days the chief articles he shipped were bark, lumber, leather, wood, butter, hay and sometimes grain. In return he brought supplies for the store, and hides which were sent up to be tanned into leather in the Catskills Mountains...where there was an abundance of hemlock forest, the bark of which, in those days, was then used exclusively for tanning hides. These hides had to be transported by land eight or ten miles to the tanneries, and when tanned the leather had to be carried the same distance back to the wharf, and constituted one of the most profitable articles of freight for our sloops. Soon after the time of which I am speaking, and as the supply of hemlock bark was nearly exhausted, a chemical process was discovered by which hides could be tanned far more economically and expeditiously than by the use of bark. Of course the tanneries were then soon abandoned, and bark had no longer any market value. Almost simultaneously it was discovered that the Catskill Mountains and their foot-hills were a pretty continuous and solid mass of stone deposited in layers which adapted them for paving-stone. The purchase and transportation of this stone at length supplanted pretty much all other kinds of business at Malden.
¡§While my father conducted the business of his farm, store, and sloops, he and his family lived almost exclusively upon the produce of his farm and garden. He kept cows, horses, poultry, pigs, oxen and sheep, and he raised all the fruit and vegetables and grain which were consumed in the stables or in the house, beside raising quite a surplus for sale.
¡§There were no butchers in those days to bring us meat, nor shops from which to buy it. It could only be had from a farmer here and there who chanced to raise a little more stock than he required for his own use, or was brought from New York.

¡§Our kitchen was the largest room in the house. (A house, by the way, still standing - the Bigelow Homestead). The fireplace was so large that it would take a log of a length and weight requiring at least two men to lift. There was no stove coal used or even known to exist in the whole United States, so far as I know, at that time. Wood and corn-cobs were the only fuel which I had then ever seen used. Corn-cobs were used chiefly by use for smoking the hams cut from our hogs; and for that service a little house was built apart from the main building sufficiently large to hang and smoke fifteen or twenty hams at a time, the smoke of burning cobs being thought to give the hams a special flavor.
¡§Most of the bedclothing of the family was made in the house. My father usually kept a flock of from thirty to fifty sheep. Their wool was spun into yarn by the females of the household, and then sent out to be woven into blankets and cloths. From the wool thus woven all our flannel underclothing was made...

¡§The cellar was, as it were, the very stomach of the house. In each corner was a large bin that was pretty usually filled with potatoes taken from the garden; and these usually supplied the family until the new potatoes came in, in the following July, but it also furnished seed for planting three or four acres in the spring besides much most welcome nourishment for the pigs....

¡§In another corner of the cellar was usually collected what to me seemed a mountain of apples of various sorts, which occasionally we were told to look over, to pick out any that were decaying. There were also stored there four or five barrels of cider which had been made in September and October, and two or three barrels of vinegar, and as many barrels of pickled cucumbers, and of course two or three barrels of pork. In the garret,... the floor for about one foot square was strewn with hickory nuts about four inches deep, and beside them another square of the same dimensions filled to the same thickness with butternuts, all collected from the farm. On winter evenings when a visitor came in, whether for social or business purposes, and often at other times, one of us boys or more were sent down into the cellar to bring up a basket of apples, a capacious pitcher of cider, and then to the garret for some nuts.¡¨

John talks about the village school ¡V ¡§I never had such profitable instruction from any teachers as I received in this village school. Our teacher ¡V his name was Woodburn ¡Vwas an enthusiast in his profession; and no one, I think, ever sought more zealously to acquire knowledge for himself than this man sought to put knowledge into the heads of his pupils...¡¨

¡§Happily for us, the district schools in those days received no aid from the State. The district raised the money among themselves in some way, and selected their teacher and paid him according to the number of pupils that they sent to the school. The position of teacher had not yet become the footstool of politicians; and teachers were not selected with a view of giving a living to a worthless dependent, but exclusively with a view to securing the best instruction that the people could afford....¡¨
The principal gayety of the neighborhood was an occasional funeral;. John and his brother David did get to go to a circus in Saugerties once ¡V but that was rare. Christmas was not seen by Presbyterians in those days as a proper holiday ¡V but there were always family gatherings ¡V and stockings hung up on Christmas Eve. But,

¡§Thanksgiving was a feast-day. We always heard a sermon in church in the morning, and then at dinner had all the family and as many of the collateral relations in the neighborhood as could come, with the parson and his family. Our dinner was uniformly of the standard New England Thanksgiving dinner type, of which a turkey, mince, apple and pumpkin pies were as sure to be there as was the parson and his family. Quilting-matches and corn huskings for the young and tea fights for the elders were the nearest to anything like systematic gayety that were considered good form in Malden. A proposition to dance, or even to learn to dance, would have ruined the reputation of the individual who propounded it.¡¨

Well, Asa¡¦s children all married, and, except for brother David and younger sister Adeline, had children. John got to college at Union in Schenectady, and went to New York where he read law, married, became a writer and editor, made what he thought was a ¡§competence¡¨, spent it as Lincoln¡¦s Consul and Ambassador to France during and after the Civil War, and died at 94, widely known as ¡§The First Citizen of New York.¡¨

The Bigelow sons who stayed at Malden suffered severe financial reverses and ultimately were forced into bankruptcy. John bought back at auction the Homestead and other properties, thus bailing out his older brothers. He gave the Homestead to his son Poultney, the author and student of colonialism who was known to some at this gathering. Poultney is worth another book ¡V and one is being gradually written about him. He died in his 99th year, leaving three daughters and a niece, my mother, to whom he left his books, papers and the Homestead. I have it now.

The papers of both John and Poultney now reside at The Public Library in New York City, which John Bigelow had presided over as Chairman of its Board of Trustees from its inception until its dedication just before his death.
Well, what are we to learn from all of this?

Obviously, the Bigelows had long-lived genes. I hope it continues! Obviously, they all, like their neighbors and relations, had large families. They were frugal, hard-working, God-fearing conservative folk who knew the value of a dollar.

All of them worked hard ¡V and continued to work at their chosen endeavors right through to their old age ¡V indeed John was in his seventieth year when he began, as Samuel Tilden¡¦s executor, to put together the Public Library .

And they were good stewards of this land of ours, this Hudson Valley. They used its produce, enjoyed its bounty, and did not despoil it. They knew the value of community and neighborhood. They were not rapacious, and without ever having heard if the phrase, were exemplars of the modern concepts of ¡§smart growth¡¨. They were truly ¡§conservative¡¨.
This is the story of one family, but your Society will study, collect and preserve the history of Saugerties, of Malden, of the Dutch, English and other early settlers, and of the Native Americans who preceded them.

We need to cherish our history, our ancestors¡¦ values and our Valley. Change will always come, welcome or not ¡V but let us with a sense of history be wise in choosing our future. I wish the Saugerties Historical Society a long and successful future as the guardian of our past.