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Erie County (PA) Genealogy
Faces & Biographies of those who left Erie County

Horace Greeley

Written and Contributed by Beth Simmons

Harbor Creek Township coordinator Beth Simmons has extracted and transcribed several articles from John Miller, 1909, History of Erie County, Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, Chapter 35, “Notable People; Horace Greeley, Ida M. Tarbell, Senator Burrows and Others Who Went Away and Some Who Came,” p. 400-403. The article below is about Horace Greeley.

Quoting from Miller: "There are people, not a few, who, born here, remained all their lives, going in and out among their fellow citizens, never became great-never had even the shadow of a hint of greatness fall across their way. On the other hand there were those born here, and who lived here, and remaining here became really great. And then again there are those who were of the people of Erie in their youth-the plain people and even the humble people, - who went away from Erie and achieved renown, and somehow there are people in Erie are pleased to know that the Honorable So-and-so was born here; or the celebrated What-his-name once made his home in Erie county, and delight to talk about it. It is a species of local pride in which it is quite pardonable to indulge, and perhaps beyond being excusable, is worthy of commendation. It is a fact that more than one person has gone out from Erie almost directly into the path that leads to renown, and that of those who were humblest in life’s beginnings, while dwelling with the boundaries of Erie county there have been instances where almost the highest summit of human attainment had been achieved."

Horace Greeley

                One summer day in 1830 there strolled into the little village of Erie a young man – a mere boy- of more than usually singular appearance. He was a remarkably plain-looking unsophisticated lad, with a slouching careless gait, leaning away forward as he walked as though his head and heels were too heavy for his body. He wore on the back of his head a wood hat of the old stamp with so small a brim that it looked more like a two-quart measure inverted than a hat. His trousers were exceedingly short and voluminous; his shoes were of the kind called high-lows and much worn down; he wore no stockings, his homespun clothes were cut with an utter disregard of elegance or fit, and he had a singular whining voice that provoked merriment among new acquaintances. It came that the other boys gave him the sobriquet of “The Ghost,” on account of the singular fairness of his complexion and his long white hair. He naturally attracted attention in the village, but it became at once apparent that he had an errand, for he did not loiter about the street corners. As directly as he could proceed, aided by a few questions, he directed his steps toward the village printing office, and seeking out Mr. Sterrett, the editor of the Gazette, applied for a position as a printer. He was successful. Mr. Sterrett hired him, agreeing to board him and pay him fifteen dollars a month. In this way Horace Greeley became a citizen of Erie. He had that day walked in from Wayne township.

                A word or two about his earlier life and what led up to his finding his way into Erie will be apropos. He was born at Amherst, N. H., February 3, 1811, “of poor but honest parents.” There was a large family of them, the father was not a very pushing man, and the soil was lamentably stubborn. So the farm yielded a very indifferent support. In some sort of fashion they contrived to make ends meet though they were very poor ends at that, and if it had not been for the uncommon vigor of Horace Greeley’s mother, who could easily do two men’s work on the farm, hunger might have been more frequently the portion of the rising family. Mrs. Greeley was a notable woman in other ways than one. She was possessed of an uncommonly strong mind, and Horace was endowed through his mother with the peculiarity of an intellect active beyond the common. At the age of three he could read; at seven he was a scholar and the greediest of readers. When ten years of age he had made up his mind to be a printer and at thirteen tried to find an opportunity to get into an office. He was, however, refused the privilege until he was fifteen and then was apprenticed in the office of the Northern Spectator at Poultney, Vt., the conditions being that for the first six months he was to have only his board and afterwards in addition to his board $40 annually for his clothing.

                Meanwhile the struggle in New Hampshire hills became too grievous to be borne, and Zaccheus Greeley, anticipating by many years his son’s famous advice, went west. He bought a farm and settled in Wayne township, Erie county. It was just as difficult a matter for newspaper publishers as for farmers to get along in that inhospitable New England country. Before the expiration of Horace Greeley’s apprenticeship, the Northern Spectator suspended. Thrown upon the world with nothing, for all he had earned had been sent to his parents to help them along in their strait, Horace turned his steps toward the west, and walked all the way to his father’s home. Arrived in Wayne township he engaged in work upon his father’s farm, toward winter seeking and obtaining transient employment now and then at Jamestown, Lodi, and in Cattaraugus county, determining at length to try his fortune in Erie.  There was no way of reaching the village on the lake shore but by tramping it. That he did, and indeed it was a trifling matter for one who had footed the journey all the way from Vermont; and here he was successful.

                Greeley remained in Erie for the better part of a year but there remain here few traditions of the man who was afterwards to fill so prominent a role in the events that made up one of the most important epochs in American history. He was known as an industrious man and as one who had opinions and could hold his own in case he should be led into debate. But it was rare that he was a participant in the curbstone contentions then so popular. He was frequently present, however, an interested looker-on and student of men and events, taking his first lesson in political matters, and that he was impressed b what he observed while working here as a printer seems to have been proven by his remark long afterwards that there was more politics to the square foot in Erie than in any other place in the country.

                Greeley left Erie in 1831. His going, as his coming, made no ripple of excitement, for he was but an obscure journeyman printer. He went away, as he came, a traveler afoot, plodding his weary way to the metropolis, perhaps as unpromising a subject for fame to those who may have noted his departure as any one could well be; he went away, however, been circumstanced than ever he had been before, for when he reached New York, he had ten dollars in his pocket. That was the total amount of his capital when he began his career in the great metropolis, and beginning at the lowest round of the ladder, his upward progress was necessarily slow. But in time it came about that he began to be remembered by acquaintances here who had for a time forgotten him. He became known as a New York editor. He rose at length swiftly; to the very highest point to which a printer’s ambition might aim; he filled the loftiest niche in journalism; his paper wielded an influence that controlled the destinies of the nation-it even affected the action of foreign powers. It was said, believed, and no doubt was true that in its time the New York Tribune was the most influential journal in the world; that even the London Times was not its superior in the power it wielded. And the New York Tribune in the height of fits power was Horace Greeley. The man whose year of work in Erie had made possible his journey to New York – whose residence in Erie may have given him the inspiration to enter upon his great career – was the man who in fact made Abraham Lincoln president; he was the man who held up the hands of the war president when the awful burden he was compelled to bear made them weary to the point of falling down; he was the man who wielded a pen that wrote words of fire and helped to carve out union victory as surely as the generals and admirals who directed the movements of armies and fleets. Then people of Erie had no difficulty whatever in remembering that Horace Greeley at one time lived in this city and was employed as a journeyman printer on the old Gazette.

                Grand was Horace Greeley’s career; pathetic was the end. His candidacy for president was really to seek vindication before the people of America. Their overwhelming adverse verdict crushed him. He died of a broken heart. And when he died, again it was remembered he had been “of Erie.” When everyone was writing in praise of the might man laid low, the editor of the Dispatch felt called upon to cast his stone upon the cairn that was being raised to the memory of one of the greatest men the nation ever produced, and wrote from a heard and mind filled with admiration, sentiments proper to the occasion, and he sent his editorial to the printer.

                Now the printers knew Horace Greeley. Now and again there had drifted into Erie a tramp who in his time had “held cases” on the Tribune and who swore he could read Greeley’s handwriting. (Perhaps he is the fellow who could not read Mr. Willard’s manuscript-but of that, more hereafter). The printers knew Greeley. They knew that though he was a New York editor he affected agriculture, and an amateur farm establishment and Chappaqua, and printed all sorts of farm lore in the Tribune. The printers knew Horace Greeley.

                Now Mr. Willard in his editorial upon Greeley had said, among other things; “His trenchant pen made princes and potentates writhe.” Perhaps it was the tramp printer above alluded to who got that “take” of copy; it may not have been. But this is what came down from the composing room: “His truculent pen made quinces and potatoes wither.”

This page was last updated on  Friday, November 21, 2008 .

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