June 28, 1879
Old Zack. Barnes.
Death of the Most Notable Man in the Early History of Boating on the Erie - The Murderer of Van Schaik and His Eventful Life.
Zachariah Barnes died in Forestport, Oneida county, a few days ago, aged about 67 years. Zack. Barnes was one of the earliest and most noted boatmen on the Erie Canal, when life on the erie was one of adventure and hard knocks.
Our townsman, Chester Penfield, contributes the following history of Barnes, which involves also some interesting reminiscences of early boating on the Erie:
The death of Zachariah Barnes, when it came to the notice of the writer, revived old recollections, the earliest of which was in the year 1832 in the town of Westmoreland, Oneida county, in a place called Spencer Settlement, three miles southeast from Rome - a place where a large number of boatmen lived.
In this place lived Zachariah Barnes and boarded with his brother, James, a farmer. Zack, as he was called, followed the canal summers and boarded with his brother winters. He was a powerful man physically, standing 6 feet 4 inches tall, with broad chest, small waist, long arms and a wonderful ability to use his feet for self defense, leaving very little for his hands to do in a fight.
It was noted that he would stand very close to a man when in an altercation and with the utmost ease kick him in the face. As fighting was a common practice in the early history of the Erie Canal, he became noted among boatmen as the champion. Zack had accumulated a little competence by saving and industry, and bought a small farm. He was temperate in his habits and had formed the acquaintance of a respectable young lady and was expecting after the close of the canal in the fall of 1834 to be married; but an evil spirit brooded over his destiny in a fight with a man named Daniel Van Schaik of New London, Oneida county. He killed Van Schaik and went to Rome and surrendered himself to the sheriff.
He was tried for murder and defended by Joshua Spencer and Henry A. Foster; was convicted of manslaughter in he third degree and was fined $1,000, which his brother paid for him, taking the farm. This event changed the whole history of this man.
The young lady refused to marry him, and remained single, but died a few years later with a broken heart. Barnes took to drink and tried to drown the recollection of the Rome swamp tragedy. Following the canal for several years, with an increasing appetite for drink, he became at last incapable of following the occupation of inland navigator, had to leave the canal, and at last yielded to the king of terrors.
Such is a brief outline of a character who was widely known among the old boatmen and old citizens of Oneida county. The numerous incidents of his erratic career are well known to old boatmen that it would be useless to recount them; but one showing his prominent trait of kindness to the poor, may be mentioned.
He was a strong wrestler, and on one occasion he desired to assist a poor widow to buy a cow. So he accepted a challenge to wrestle the champion in that section for $25, the stakes, if won, to be given to the poor woman to buy a cow. He won the match, dislocating his opponent's ankle. The stakeholder bought the poor woman a cow and barrel of flour with the money.
Zack never married, having sworn a vow after the Van Schaik murder and the result it had on his engagement with the young woman, that he would never marry, and which he kept. He was for many years the notable figure among Erie Canal boatmen, who in spite of his failings, will be sorry to hear that he is dead.