|Access:||Open to research|
|Acquisition:||Information available upon request|
|Processed by:||Fred Bassett, Assistant Librarian Manuscripts and Special Collections|
Elkanah Watson (January 22, 1758-December 5, 1842), world traveler, merchant, land speculator, canal promoter, and agriculturist, lived a long, enterprising, and adventurous life. He was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he was also raised and educated. In 1774 he was apprenticed to the thriving mercantile firm of John Brown in Providence, Rhode Island, and it was four years later that he was entrusted with the important commission of carrying funds to his employer's southern agents. With more than $50,000 sewed into the linings of his garments, he made his adventurous journey from Providence to Charleston (some twelve hundred miles), in seventy-seven days. Having safely delivered the funds he, with two companions, set out on a tour of exploration of Georgia and Florida. Dissuaded from entering Florida, they at last turned northward, and Watson reached Providence late in April 1778, having visited ten of the original thirteen states. Throughout this journey Watson kept a careful journal, a practice which he followed the rest of his life, in which he bitterly complains of the wretched conditions of the roads and the wasteful and archaic methods of agriculture, but notes with satisfaction the awakening interest in building canals.
Watson was released from his indentures in 1779, but lacking capital to establish his own business, he remained in the employ of the Browns. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to France with money and dispatches for Benjamin Franklin, then one of the American agents in Paris. After a month of Franklin's hospitality, he prepared to return to America with valuable papers. Arriving in Nantes, he sent his dispatches with the captain of the Mercury, then opened a mercantile house with Francis Cossoul. The latter was left in charge of affairs the first year while Watson was engaged in learning French at Ancenis and Rennes. However, records show he spent more time touring the country than studying the language. Their business prospered so greatly during the first three years that it made possible an expansion in 1782, with the opening of a branch in London, England. Unfortunately, an economic depression occurred the following year, forcing them into bankruptcy. Liquidation of their affairs required almost a year, after which Watson spent several months touring the Netherlands and England before returning to America in late 1784. Upon his return to America, he embarked on a second tour of the country that included a two-day visit with George Washington at Mount Vernon.
In late 1785, Watson settled in Edenton, North Carolina, where he engaged in another commercial enterprise with Frank Cossoul, who had immigrated to America. Business flourished for a few years, but then he fell victim to a recession in 1787-1788. After closing out his affairs in 1789, he moved to Albany, New York, where he began to speculate in land, eventually attaining title to numerous lots in the undeveloped areas of western and northern New York State, as well as Virginia and Michigan. He was also involved in the organization of the Bank of Albany, which gained him recognition as one of the leading citizens of the community. Herewith, he was able to persuade Jeremiah Van Rensselaer, Stephen Bayard, and Philip Van Cordtlandt, to join him on an expedition in western New York, in 1791, to purchase land and explore possibilities for a canal connecting the Hudson River with Lake Erie. From this point on, Watson claimed he was the originator of the idea that would become a reality as the Erie Canal, under the auspices of DeWitt Clinton. Therein lies the root of the bitter dispute that arose years later between Watson and Clinton in regards to who was the first one to conceive the canal idea. Watson's promotion of canals, along with stage lines, turnpikes and free schools, were considered to be too radical, especially by his colleagues on the board of directors of the Bank of Albany, who dismissed him in 1795. A few years later, with the assistance of Elisha Jenkins and dubious lobbying, the State Legislature granted him a charter in 1803 to establish the State Bank of Albany.
The State Bank of Albany proved to be so highly profitable in its investments that by 1807 it provided Elkanah Watson with the means to retire actively from business. He moved to a large farm he purchased near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he experimented with methods and procedures to improve cultivation and livestock breeding in America. For example, he introduced new breeds of livestock to this country, such as Merino sheep. To promote his many discoveries and prize breeds, he staged, in conjunction with his neighbors in 1810, the celebrated "cattle show" that evolved into an American institution known as the county fair. In 1811 Watson organized the Berkshire Agricultural Society for the explicit purpose of sponsoring an annual agricultural fair in Pittsfield that had actually come to pass. By 1816 he decided to retire from farming in order to return to Albany, where he could actively lobby for legislation establishing county agricultural societies in New York State.
The remaining years of his life continued to be filled with a variety of activities and much adventure. In 1818 he began a two-year journey to Detroit, Michigan, where his daughter and son-in-law were residing. It was evident that he delved in land speculation here too. Soon after returning to New York in 1822, he became involved in his son's endeavors to develop the area around Port Kent, New York. They speculated in land and promoted controversial projects such as the Northern Canal and the Boston & Ogdensburg R.R. Finally, Elkanah Watson endeavored to write his autobiography, which was left unfinished at the time of his death. It was finished later by his son Winslow in 1856 as Men and the Times of the Revolution; or Memoirs of Elkanah Watson. It remains one of the most interesting and intelligent of contemporaneous accounts of the early years of the American Republic.
The Elkanah Watson Papers, SC12579 and SC13294, which comprise 12 boxes (4 cubic feet) and 58 boxes (20 cubic feet) respectively, were generated between 1773 and 1884. Accessioned separately, these two groups are described herein as though they were one group at the series level of description, since this best respects the provenance of Elkanah Watson's papers that had been arbitrarily separated. In addition, another group, SC11439, was interfiled with appropriate series in SC13294 for the same reason. The collection includes papers of Charles M. Watson and Winslow C. Watson, sons of Elkanah. The contents of the two groups have been organized into the following series:
Letters generated by Elkanah Watson's lifetime activities, experiences, and interests arranged chronologically according to three sub-series: family, personal, and business. Family correspondence, 1775-1858, consists of letters to and from Elkanah Watson, his immediate family, and close relatives concerning household affairs, travel, business and real estate. Having kept his family informed of his affairs, the letters compliment the information written in his journals. It was also evident that after 1820 the proceeds from real estate and other business ventures were managed by his sons. Personal correspondence, 1775-1842, to and from friends and business associates related to Elkanah Watson's projects of special interest such as agriculture, canals, and politics. These letters document his personal perspective on various issues or topics, and his reaction to the views and opinions of others. Business correspondence, 1778-1842, was generated by Elkanah Watson's ventures in mercantile affairs and land speculation. The letters written between 1779 and 1785 were concerned with the operations of the mercantile house he owned in partnership with Francis Cossoul. Documented were their initial success and demise after the financial crisis of 1783. After 1791, the bulk of his business letters were related to real estate: buying, selling, claiming, counter-claiming, clearing, and surveying. His holdings included large tracts situated in western and northern New York State, as well as Virginia and Michigan. Most of the letters were to and from agents regarding the specific terms of his deals. Finally there are a number of letters relating to banking affairs, as he was involved in the organization of the Bank of Albany in1789 and the State Bank of Albany in 1803.
These items were compiled by Elkanah as personal memoirs of his travel experiences and other lifetime endeavors. His observations of the people, places and things he encountered were described thoroughly to such an extent that they present a vivid depiction of life and society in America and Europe from 1775 to 1840. For example, he commented on road conditions, quality of accommodations, agricultural methods, and life in the towns. Furthermore, his impressions of people, especially individuals, reveals much about their character, personality and lifestyle. He wrote about such notables as George Washington, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Lastly, his journeys were outlined on distance charts and by maps showing the route he traveled. In addition to reminiscences of his travels, revisions of the original journals after 1821 contain autobiographical accounts of other lifetime pursuits and interests, such as mercantile affairs with Francis Cossoul, controversy with DeWitt Clinton regarding canal policies, and the organization of the Berkshire Agricultural Society. The latter revisions were done in preparation for writing his autobiography. That volume was published by his son, Winslow, in 1856, as Men and Times of the Revolution, or Memoirs of Elkanah Watson. The published work, which is not all inclusive, examined with the original pocket notebooks and subsequent manuscript revisions, reveals much about the trends of thoughts and changes of interpretation. Another characteristic of his journals was the inclusion of correspondence, usually transcribed within the text. In some cases he attached the original letters or prepared a separate volume, such as the one containing letters to and from notable individuals, such as George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Finally, he compiled a scrapbook, titled "The Commonplace Book," that contains materials related to agriculture. Please consult the inventory for further details regarding individual items.
Documentation of Elkanah Watson's speculative ventures in buying, selling, and claiming land. It appears that he acquired considerable amounts of land through bank and tax foreclosures, which sometimes had to be settled in court as there were others vying for the same lots or tracts. The contents include the deeds to the premises; contracts specifying the terms of mortgage payments by grantees; surveys of tracts, lots, and parcels owned by Watson; plat books which record the history of title, and accounts of a given lot or parcel. His holdings include numerous lots in Military Tract, Belvidere Patent, and Clinton County in New York State, Virginia, and Michigan.
Documentation of Elkanah Watson's personal, household, and business finances, mostly in the form of account ledger books and invoices. The journals provided a chronological record of income receipts and disbursements, whereas the ledgers kept track of individual accounts. There appear to be gaps, as these items do not always correspond. The invoices acknowledge the receipt of payment from Elkanah Watson and/or other members in his household for purchases of a variety of goods and services. There are also orders and promissory notes documenting the problems he and Francis Cossoul had with creditors.
Notebooks, articles, speeches, and other papers regarding Elkanah Watson's endeavors to improve agricultural practices and procedures in the United States, generated mostly between 1807 and 1815, when he operated a farm of his own near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Documented are his experiments in raising new breeds of livestock in this country, such as Merino sheep. In order to garner more interest among other farmers and publicity for his innovations, he staged the celebrated cattle show in 1810, which led to the formation of the Berkshire Agricultural Society, and the making of an American institution known as the county fair.
Series 6: Writings and Commentaries, 1800-1842
GB13294, Boxes 53 and 54
Manuscript drafts and notes of essays and commentaries submitted by Elkanah Watson to editors, newspapers, and periodicals for possible publication on various topics such as agriculture, canals, education, population, and temperance. Here his views and opinions on a particular subject were presented in a somewhat different perspective.
Contents: 1) Annotated galleys of Elkanah Watson's published works, 2) printed addresses delivered by Elkanah Watson at annual meetings of the Berkshire Agricultural Society, 1814-1820, 3) printed almanacs annotated by Elkanah Watson, 1808-1840, 4) newspaper clippings on a variety of topics, 5) broadsides advertising livestock fairs or land auctions, 6) printed illustrations.
Papers relating to the personal and business career of Charles M. Watson (1799-?), which was devoted mostly to operating a general store in Port Kent, New York, and also as manager of his father's real estate. The papers are comprised of correspondence, invoices and account books, much of which were filled with the papers of Elkanah Watson.
Papers relating to the personal and literary careers of Winslow C. Watson (1803-?), who wrote books and articles on the history of northern New York State. Contents: 1) correspondence, 1811-1884, mostly with the publisher, editor and subscribers of his books; 2) draft and notes of his History of Essex County; 3) draft of his autobiography with portion of typed transcription by Hugh M. Flick; 4) scrapbooks and loose news clippings on a variety of topics.
|Box||Collection||Contents (SC12579 - Boxes 1 through 12)|
Journal "no. II," "Charleston to Savannah, 1778"
Journal "no. III," "Charleston to Providence, 1778"
Journal "no. 4," "1779-1780, "Travels in France"
Journal "no. IV," "Travels in Europe, 1781-1782"
Journal and Letter Copy Book, 1779-1780
Journal "A," 1758-October 1781
Journal "B," Memoirs, October 1781-1820
Journal "D," "Mixed Medley"
Journal "E," "Mixed Medley"
Journal "F," "Mixed Medley"
Journal "C," "Commonplace Book"
Journal, "Travels in Western New York, 1790-1791," (1834 rev.)
Letter Copy Book: "Letters to and from distinguished men, 1780-1820."
Agricultural Notebook, n.d.
|Winslow C. Watson Papers, 1811-1884|
Bills and Receipts, 1820-1868
Land Titles and Related Papers
Chesterfield (Town of), Essex Co., N.Y.
Trembleau Tract, Clinton Co., N.Y.
Writings and Commentaries
|10||SC12579||Drafts and notes compiled in writing. The Military and Civil History of Essex County.|
|11||SC12579||Manuscript draft of the autobiography of Winslow C. Watson (3 vols.). Augmented with parts of typed transcription done by Hugh Flick.
Journal of travels in Ohio. 1833.
|12||SC12579||Scrapbooks (2 vols.).|
|Box||Collection||Contents (SC13294 - Boxes 1 through 58)|
|Family Correspondence, 1773-1858|
1773-1806Includes a folder of 22 letters from Elkanah Watson to William Goodwin, a Yale College student, resident at New Haven and Plymouth, Mass., 1774-1781 (Formerly 17153)
Letter Copy Books
|21||SC13294||Travel Journals and Notes, 1777-1829
Travel journal revision notes, 1821: Providence to Charleston, 1777
Journal: Providence to Charleston, 1777 (original pocket version
Journal: South Carolina, 1778
Journal: Charleston to Providence, 1778
Journal: Lake Champlain, 1805
Journal: Seneca Lake, 1791 (Vol. 1). Travels in western New York
Journal: Seneca Lake, 1791 (Vol. 2)
Assorted Travel Notes, ca. 1820
|22||SC13294||Journal: Fort Stanwix and western New York (includes surveys and descriptions of lots in Military Tract in central New York/Finger Lakes area).
Journal: "Tour of Holland," 1784, 2 vols. (original pocket version)
Journal: "Tour of United States Upon Return from Europe," 1785 (original pocket version)
Remnants of original pocket journals of European travels and adventures, 1779-1784
Legal Documents and Related Papers
Land Titles, 1790-1838 (Deeds and Leases)
Contracts, 1780s-1843, Elkanah Watson - Grantor
Claims and Litigation Files
Surveys, Maps, and Field Notes
Land Accounts and Plat Books, 1802-1825
Land Account Statements
|Charles M. Watson Correspondence, 1815-1860|
Letters from Elkanah Watson, 1815-1842
Letters from Aaron Ward, 1820-1859
Letters from Family, 1804-1860
Personal and Business, 1815-1829
Personal and Business, 1830-1842
Personal and Business, 1843-1860
|Invoices (Bills and Receipts), 1784-1858|
Assorted Financial Papers
|Financial Record Books|
v.1 Journal, 1790-1808
v.3 Daybook "G," May 1849-October 1851
v.5 Daybook, February 1841-March 1848
v.6a Boston-Providence Invoice Book, 1774
v.12 Ledger, 1827-1839
v.14 Ledger, 1833-1834
v.17 Ledger "B," 1841-1844
v.21 Ledger "F," 1845-1849, and Journal, 1848-1849
v.23 Ledger "H," 1846-1856
Papers relating to programs and activities of Berkshire Agricultural Society, 1810-1820, and notebooks on methods and procedures.
Speeches delivered at annual meetings of Berkshire Agricultural Society, 1811-1820, and drafts of various printed pamphlets.
|53||SC13294||Writings and Commentaries on Canals|
|54||SC13294||Writings and Commentaries on a variety of topics, such as agriculture, canals, education, temperance, and politics|
|55||SC13294||Almanacs, 1809-1840 (annotated)|
|56||SC13294||Printed Material and Broadsides|
|57||SC13294||Newspaper Extras and Clippings|
|58||SC13294||Manuscript fragments and book remnants.|