Fish House native involved in the Solomon Northup case
Thaddeus St. John, who was instrumental in bringing Solomon Northup’s kidnappers to trial, was a native of Fish House, a Fulton County hamlet in the town of Northampton.
Northup, a free African-American from New York, was lured into slavery in 1841 and wrote about his ordeal after his release from captivity in the book, “Twelve Years a Slave.” Northup’s story was the basis of the movie that won this year’s best picture Oscar.
Daily Gazette columnist Stephen Williams recently wrote about the trial of Northup’s abductors, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, based on research done by David Fiske for the book “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave,” co-authored by Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman. Charges against Merrill and Russell were dropped in 1857.
According to an account of trial testimony in the New York Tribune in 1854, St. John said Merrill was originally from Northampton and Russell from nearby Edinburg. St. John said when he encountered Merrill and Russell returning to New York on a boat in Havre de Grace, Maryland, in 1841 they appeared prosperous, arguably because of money received from selling Northup. Russell had an ivory cane and gold watch and told St. John he had more “money than you often see a Sacandaga boy have.”
Historian Jacquelyn Murphy said an historic marker designates the St. John homestead in Fish House. As an attorney, St. John practiced law at the Montgomery County court in Fonda. Thaddeus St. John’s father, Alexander, was the surveyor of the town of St. Johnsville.
Fish House got its name because Colonial leader Sir William Johnson built a path in 1762 from his estate in Johnstown to that location because it was a good fishing spot on the Sacandaga River. The Godfrey Shew House in Fish House, built in 1784, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1894 Fish House was the scene of a murder. A feud between hotel owners Walter Brown and ‘Hi’ Osborne resulted in the murder of Osborne by Brown. The Osborne Hotel burned in 1895.
There was a covered bridge over the Sacandaga River in Fish House built in 1818 that was destroyed by the 1930 creation of the flood control reservoir today known as Great Sacandaga Lake. The reservoir was built to provide a storage area for water to lessen the effects of flooding along the Black and Hudson Rivers.
Fish House residents wanted the 1930 bridge over the reservoir built in their area but officials chose to build the bridge in Batchellerville instead. C. Robb DeGraff of Amsterdam supervised construction of the 1930 Batchellerville Bridge.
DeGraff told the Recorder, “Fish House was an old stamping ground of mine. I had relatives who used to operate a country store in that vicinity.” DeGraff said the people in Fish House were never really satisfied with the reservoir construction. Half of Fish House was flooded and 18 homes were moved to higher ground.
One of engineer DeGraff’s last acts of public service was to put forward an alternative to the highway plan proposed for Amsterdam after construction of the Thruway. In 1957 DeGraff sketched a proposed arterial highway that would have put a new bridge over the Mohawk River east of Amsterdam near Widow Susan Road. Route 30 traffic would use that road to bypass the city.
The highway plan that ultimately prevailed ignored DeGraff’s idea and sent Route 30 traffic through the center of Amsterdam. DeGraff died in 1958.
DeGraff’s 1930 Batchellerville Bridge was replaced by a new, higher span that opened Nov. 15, 2012.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or email@example.com.