Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Name from the Past

A late summer encounter in 1830 revives memories for James Stuart

© 2006 David Minor/Eagles Byte

When James Stuart decided he and his wife might enjoy taking refuge from the summer’s heat at the Long Island home of a Mr. Anderson, he had a New York friend inquire if the family would mind taking in boarders for a month or so. The couple “ . . . were good enough to agree to receive us, provided we could conform to the hours of their meals, which were six A. M. for breakfast, twelve for dinner, and seven for tea and supper. We never hesitated about this, knowing how much one's comfort depends in sultry weather on airy rooms and airy situation.”

The move was made and our travelers were soon enjoying the breezes at Hell Gate as they relaxed in the large, breezy rooms shaded by overhanging trees, and strolled about among the six-foot tall hydrangeas in the cool, dewy early morning hours. “There is nowhere, even upon the Thames, in the same space of ground, a greater number of country houses or villas. Mr Anderson's house is in the highest situation, above and close to the whirlpool, and the views from it are at all times fine, and, while the shipping are dancing through Hellgate, frequently very amusing.” Life was good.

As they did last year while staying in New Rochelle, the Stuarts spent most sabbaths attending neighborhood services of various denominations. He tells us, “There is a perfectly good understanding among the different classes of religious persons in this country. No superiority is claimed, or allowed by one over another.” If this truly was the case we’ve come a long way in the past 176 years. Wrong direction but, oh, well!

Other times were spent visiting neighboring farms for tea parties, complete with many tempting examples of the pastry arts, in keeping with the Dutch backgrounds of most households - waffles, crullers, doughnuts, sweet cakes, gingerbread - not to mention sliced ham and a wide variety of local fruit preserves. The sideboards were well supplied with decanters of various potables, the food accompanied by pipes and cigars. Draughts and backgammon were favorite amusements. Life was good, and not too often sticky, thanks to counter-intuitive cool breaths from Hell Gate.

One day near the end of August Stuart took a short trip to Flushing for another camp meeting much like last year’s, with the exception that this was attended primarily by blacks. He shared the steamboat Linnæus with close to 450 other attendees - all careful to distribute themselves evenly on the upper deck so as to keep the craft balanced - and spent most of the day at the services, along with 3,000 to 4,000 worshipers, himself leaving after the afternoon observances.

It was around now that he was approached by a fellow Scot, recently arrived in North America. Stuart must have turned a bit pale when he first heard the man’s name - John Boswell. If you remember Stuart’s own reason for leaving Scotland in the first place, you’ll understand. For it was back in 1822, eight years earlier, when Stuart had placed a 0.68-in ball from a Tatham and Egg pistol into the collarbone of Sir Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck. Sir Alexander, son of the late biographer James Boswll, had died the following afternoon. Why was John Boswell hunting up Stuart now? Next time.

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