Catskill Cemetery Papers
Transcribed by Arlene Goodwin
Tuesday Ev’g., February 27, 1866.
The notice, in last week’s Recorder, of the death of JACK CROSWELL, admonished me that I have been sadly remiss of the claims to respectful notice of a certain and somewhat numerous class of the old denizens of Catskill—"our brethren of African descent." As, just about this time their progeny occupy a conspicuous position in the affairs of the nation, I may be suspected of indifference to griefs, wrongs and oppression under which, it has lately been discovered, they so long, unwillingly, suffered and grew fat, unless I revoke my determination to close these sketches, and solicit you to again open you columns and let the colored individual in.
I remember JACK CROSWELL (a fig for your "VAN VALKENBURG") when he was a young man, and I have known him (as who has not?) from that time until "he hadn’t any wool on the top of his head, in the place where the wool ought to grow." He was one of the trio of domestic servants of which good old "Uncle Doctor CROSWEL used to boast the ownership: "a white horse, a white cow and a white nigger." And a faithful servant he was. He fed, and watered, and curried down the aforesaid horse; he milked the aforesaid cow; he brushed the boots of the household; he rolled pills; he manufactured fire-ball blacking; and, in Summer, he pumped for hours on a stretch, at the old-fashioned soda fountain, producing a succession of hideous sounds, which it required a nice ear for music to distinguish for the wee-jaw of a jackass.
After the death of Doctor CROSWELL, he attached himself to Doctor BRACE, and although, long before, freed from bondage, by Constitutional Amendment, he served him, too, faithfully and well. Independent of his service in that direction, he was famous for spearing eels, through the ice on BRANDOW’S Bay, and inveigling skilliputs along the muddy margin of Ram’s Horn Creek. He would, sometimes, take a pull at the land-line of a herring net, or do a hand’s turn at the slaughter house of WILSON’S; but his great forte was killing and dressing hogs, and, in that vocation, he was peerless.
JACK had a large stock of stories which he used to recite to me whenever I met him, and which (if the exchequer happened to be in a flourishing condition) generally brought him sixpence apiece. I would like to repeat some of his yarns, and to dwell more at length on his many commendable qualities, but time will not, now, permit. He has followed his kind and indulgent masters in that path on which there are no returning footsteps. The lithe eel now wriggles, in conscious security, in its congenial ooze, and the mud-turtle basks in complacent confidence on the sunny side of the water-soaked log. Never shall the wheezy squeak of the soda pump, not the agonizing squeal of the stuck pig, wake poor JACK to labor again.
"Old Dutch" is dead—"He has gone to the place where the good darkies go," and—Peace to his ashes!
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Before the causeway or "Long Dock" was built from the shore to the island, called Bompie’s Hook (which is full as long ago as I can remember) the Western terminus of the Catskill and Oak-hill Ferry was at the point of land just at the mouth of the Creek, and near where an ice-house now stands. [It was from this point to the island that THURLOW WEED tells us he swam, to see the first steamboat pass up the Hudson—with his clothes in his hat. The latter part of the feat will not seem so impracticable, when we consider the capacity of accustomed style of that gentlemen’s head-gear.]
The ferry boat was an open scow, with wide "falls" at each end, with a mast stepped at one side, which was balanced on the other by a huge wing called a lee-board, though it was usually on the windward side of the vessel. When the wind blew, the boat was propelled by means of a large main-sail, and, in calm weather, by a "white ash breeze," videlicit, a pair of long oars or sweeps.
But the chief feature of the Ferry was a negro called BEN. HALLENBECK—I believe—for I am not prepared to swear that his name was not BROM, my memory being a little mixed on that point. He was the skipper of the craft, and when, hitching up his trousers and tightening the rope around his loins, he hoisted sail and assumed the helm (a large broad-bladed oar,) no Admiral ever trod the quarter-deck with more dignity and pomposity that black BEN, the ferryman. He was supreme in this nautical position—the autocrat of the ferry—in short, he was boss of the scow. The slightest appearance of insubordination on the part of crew or even owners, was promptly met by BEN’S "he-he-here, now—you see, now," and rebellion was incontinently crushed, in its incipiency.
I have not wondered at the horror with which the Yankees contemplated the crossing of the North River, when I have seen the old ferry boat, in a high wind and heavy sea, deeply loaded with cattle—a hundred, perhaps, crammed together, and confined by spars rigged athwart-ship, so compactly that they looked like a conglomeration of interlocked horns and intertwisted tails, as important to escape as the quadruped we read of,
"Whose tail was tied to a hickory stump,
Where he reared, and he pitched, but the couldn’t made a jump."
I remember that the fare was sixpence, but I once got a "dead-head" passage as a gratuity for addressing the old darkey as Captain. The trips of the ferry boat were not made regularly, but were dependent upon the freight which offered itself. Sometimes, old BEN would tarry in the ferry-house, for hours, spinning yarns and grumbling, until a team was descried coming in sight around the bend of the road near JOHN HALLENBECK’S tavern when he would seize his tin horn and blow an earthquake blast, succeed by a shout of "o-o-o-over," in tones which chased the echoes of the horn to the remotest confines of the Village, and across the broad River, and startled the lethargic loon from his roost in the deep recesses of JOHN DUBOIS’S swamp.
BEN continued to navigate between Green and Columbia counties, from the proprietorship of JOHN HALLENBECK and HANK VAN GORDEN, down to the days of NATHANIEL JACOBS, though I think he died before the administration of TOM NEWBURY, (or Black Hawk,) or that of my respected friend Capt. BARHYDT.
The substitution of the horse boat for the old scow was a sore grief to BEN, which, however, he patiently endured so long as he had a sweep to steer by, but when he heard of the application of steam to ferriage purposes, he just laid down and rolled over. If, as some believe, men pursue their accustomed earthly avocations, in the spirit land, it is not impossible that BEN has taken service with old CHARON on the Stygian ferry where both steam and horse power are supposed to be unknown.
______While at "the Point" it may not be amiss to allude to a catastrophe which occurred there, long after "Black BEN the ferryman" made his last trip,--from the shores of Time. It seems by yesterday, and yet, as I count back the years, I find that about twenty-five twelve months have run off the reel since the sad occurrence alluded to.—(As a literary friend of mine once pathetically remarked, "How tempus does fugit!")
There was a spruce and rather consequential darky, living at the Embought, named SONCE TEN BROEK. He was considerably "on his shape," and when he visited the Village, on Sundays and holidays, was usually "dressed within an inch of his life." With his boots polished until they shone like his face—with lemon-colored gloves—a glossy hat, (apparently blocked over a shilling loaf of bread) sitting jauntily on the side of his head—a shirt-frill like a handsaw, and a high collar rasping his ears, he was the admiration of the fair, and the envy of the masculines of his race. But, in process of time, SONCE fell into intemperate habits, and so it came that he met his fate. One Sunday afternoon, he was at "the Point," when a set of wild and reckless young fellows, spoiling for sport, concluded it would be fine amusement to pitch SONCE off the dock, compensation him for each immersion by a glass of rum. Both parties enjoyed the fun for a time, but, at last, they tossed him into the River once to often. The last time he failed to come up again, and it soon became apparent that SONCE was drowned! Though it seemed a puzzle how the water got into him when he was chock full already.
His body was soon recovered, but as there existed a superstitious notion that it must not be removed from the water "until the coroner had set upon it." They tied one end of a string to it, and the other end to a dock post, and left the poor darkey, like a salt mackerel at soak, while they sent to Coxsackie for Dr. SPOOR.
I believe the perpetrator of this reckless and cruel (though I think not malicious) deed, left town immediately, and the matter died out of the minds of all, save those, perhaps, personally involved in the transaction—and who, I doubt not, endured a life-long remorse for the fatal result of their Sabbath’s sport.
I believe the practice of throwing negroes overboard, after that, fell into disuse.
In a hut or shanty, on the brow of Jefferson Hill, lived Old TONE—whether he had an additional appellation I am not sure. Although his name was often invoked to quiet refractory children, yet he was a harmless and excessively lazy nigger. I believe he did, occasionally, do a few hours work in the lumber-yard of ANDREWS & WOODRUFF, but his favorite occupations were riding vicious horses. (decked in gaudy regimentals) and drinking rum—and he was an adept at both. He professed a strong aversion to gunpowder, and so, the boys used to annoy and apparently frighten him by touching off a charge of powder under his seat, just as he was putting a gill of Santa CRUZ in his mouth—whereat Old TONE would leap about six feet high, ejaculate "shonkaboo!" and make for the door. I noticed, however, that notwithstanding his consternation, he always managed to empty the gill-cup.
And there was another blackamoor, named, I think HARRY ABEEL, but best known by soubriquet of "Sackett’s Harbor." He was a noisy nigger, and used to "make Rome howl" with his vociferous laudations of "fresh shad for belly timber." I have little space for a protracted notice of Old Sackett’s; but I never shall forget the rebuke which he once gave the proprietor of a well in West Catskill, who refused him a pitcher of water, and drove him from the premises. Planting himself in the middle of the highway, and elevating his form as high as his restricted altitude of five-feet-four would permit, he exclaimed: "Captain," (he called everybody Captain) "der well will be dar—and" (intimating by emphatic gesture, if not by verbal expression) "mabbee, you’ll want some."
* * * * *
But, as old stocking-knitters say, it is about time to narrow down and toe off.
A long line of dusky shade, reaching away back to the palmy days of Pass and Pinkster, are, even now, trooping across my memory. Among them I discover the old familiar forms and faces of BILL THOMSON, the life-long sexton of St. Luke’s; HARY VAN VECHTEN; JACK SALISBURY; CATO JACKSON; LONDON BROWN; PHILIP FOOTE; BEN. BROCKWAY, the boss of the cattle-bed; WALL POST, the spook-ridden; JACKY BRONK, who, for the last quarter century of his life, couldn’t tell exactly whether he was seventy-eight or eighty-seven years of age; Old "JETE"; "DICK in the Well," and many more of that class, to each of whom there is some history attached.
CONCLUSION OF THE SERIES.
The preceding Sketch concludes the series, written by the late Mr. Pinckney, and rather abruptly terminated by his sudden death, which occurred at his residence in Albany, on the 6th day of December, 1867.
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