A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF
NATHANIEL BARTLETT SYLVESTER
BY LYNN CALVIN
For such a prolific author, Nathaniel B. Sylvester seems to have written very little of an autobiographical nature. He was author of histories of New York State's Saratoga, Rensselaer and Ulster Counties along with many other works of history and folklore. He gave a few details of his life in his Historical Sketches of Northern New York, but otherwise was apparently very shy about relating his life history. In his History of Rensselaer County, for example, he wrote a lengthy biography of his law partner Gilbert Robertson Jr., but mentioned his own name only once: as a member of the bar of Rensselaer County in 1879. In another publication1 he wrote, "N.B. Sylvester, of Troy, N. Y., author of this history of the Connecticut Valley, is a grandson of Nathaniel."
Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, published in 1888, states:
"SYLVESTER, Nathaniel Bartlett, author, born in Denmark, Lewis County NY on 22 February 1825. Both his grandfathers were soldiers of the Revolution."
His parents were Absalom Sylvester and Isabella Root.2 Absalom is recorded in a book about Chesterfield, Massachusetts, 3 as a son of Nathaniel and Sarah (Bartlett) Sylvester.
Sylvester's Historical Sketches of Northern New York and the Adirondack Wilderness, published in 1877, contains these passages:
"To the memory of My Only Brothers, an elder and a younger, who in their early manhood, both died in the same year, this volume is affectionately dedicated."
"Twenty years ago this morning, that is to say, on the 23rd day of September, 18-- [sic], I left the old homestead farm and went to the village of Lowville, to enter upon the untried field of another vocation. . . . laid away the pitchfork and plough to take them up no more." (It is unknown in what year he wrote these paragraphs: the 1855 NY State Census of Lowville lists Sylvester at age 30, stating that he had been there for seven years, so he must have left the farm about 1847 or 1848.)
The 1850 Federal Census of Lewis County lists Sylvester by his initials N.B., age 27 and born in New York State, as a "law student." He lived then in a rooming house in the village of Lowville.
Appleton's Cyclopedia continues:
"He received his early education at the Denmark academy, studied law at Lowville, NY, and was admitted to the bar at Oswego NY on 5 April 1852."
On January 18 1853, at Argyle, Washington County NY, N.B. Sylvester of Lowville married Sarah Jane Taylor of Argyle. She was born in 1823 in Washington County NY, a daughter of Duncan and Sarah (Mairs) Taylor.4
The Federal Census of 1860 lists in Lowville, as family #423: Nathaniel B. Sylvester, age 35, attorney at law, with his wife Sarah J., age 30, and their son Samuel J. at age eleven months.
In a section of Hough's History of Lewis County, New York,5 regarding the Town of Lowville, 6 early incidents of Sylvester ‘s professional and civic life are related:
"Mr. Bostwick resigned the agency of the Low estate in 1854, and was succeeded by Russell Parish, who lived but a few months after. It then was given to Nathaniel B. Sylvester, then of Lowville, but now a lawyer in Troy."
"Lowville Village: This was the first village incorporated in the county , and until recent years, the only one. . . . The first trustees were Joseph A. Wetland, N.B. Sylvester..."
Hough continues in a chapter about newspapers in Lewis County:
"The Lewis County Banner was begun at Lowville, September 8, 1856, as the organ of the Democratic Party, and advocate of Buchanan for the Presidency. It was conducted the first year by N.B. Sylvester . . ."
Sylvester wrote that "In the spring of 18-- [sic] I left the quiet of the village for the hurry and bustle of the city."7 His wife had relatives living in Lansingburgh. The attraction of being closer to her family, and the likelihood of enhanced professional opportunities for Nathaniel must have combined to induce them to leave Lowville. He had obviously been a prominent citizen of that village: The stimulus must have been very strong to make him uproot his practice and household to move across the state to an area where the legal field was already quite crowded.
In Troy City Directories, the earliest listing for Sylvester is in 1864 as an attorney in a practice known as "Robertson & Sylvester" at 58 Congress Street. (His law partner was Gilbert Robertson Jr.8 That 1864 directory stated that Sylvester then boarded at "Mansion House." Sylvester is included on one list of attorneys in Troy with his date of admission to the Rensselaer County Bar as 1864. 9 The law firm was listed the same way until 1868, when it moved to 37 Congress.
The 1865 New York State Census listed Sylvester’s growing family in Lansingburgh. His son Samuel had been joined by a daughter Emma in 1862, both children having been born in Lewis County. In the Troy directories Sylvester’s home address was listed as John Street in Lansingburgh in 1865; at 185 Congress, Lansingburgh, in 1866 and 1867; 190 State, Lansingburgh, in 1868; and "at Saratoga" in 1869, when his primary entry added that he was a U.S. Commissioner. The 1867 Troy directory had listed him as a commissioner only in a section titled "United States Officers".
Some sources, including an obituary published in the Saratoga Sentinel, report that shortly after the death of Judge John A. Corey, Sylvester was named a United States Commissioner for Saratoga County. Actually, Corey was appointed U.S. Commissioner in 1856 and served as such until his death in 1873,10 but by 1867 Sylvester was already listed as a U.S. commissioner.
In Saratoga Springs, Sylvester was a member and vestryman of the Bethesda Episcopal Church of Saratoga Springs, and was among the founders of the Home of the Good Shepherd which incorporated in 1869. He served as a trustee of the Home until his death. He was also the first superintendent of the Mission Sunday School begun by the church.11
On April 1 1872, Sarah J.T. Sylvester, "wife of N.B. Sylvester of the Village of Saratoga Springs," gave to Alexander Cherry a mortgage deed on 16 acres in Saratoga Springs to secure a loan of $5,500.12 The mortgage was assigned to several other members of the Cherry family during 1879, and in the same year the Sylvesters were named as defendants in a foreclosure of that mortgage. Judgment in that suit was rendered against the Sylvesters by default: they apparently did not contest the foreclosure and didn’t even appear at court to offer a defense, a seemingly strange circumstance for an attorney.
N.B. Sylvester was among the incorporators of the Historical Society of Saratoga,13 and in the city directories for the years 1884 through 1894, is listed as that society's Corresponding Secretary. He also remained involved in literary matters beyond his own writings: the Shakespeare Society met at his home November 20, 1880. 14
In the 1880 Saratoga Springs directory, Sylvester's listing is "U. S. Commissioner, 12 Ainsworth Pl.; home 63 Franklin." The census of that year shows that his household still included his two children plus one servant, Moses King, who also had been with the family in 1875.
The bulk of Sylvester's body of works was published in a decade stretching from 1876 to 1886. A planned historical work on the Upper Hudson and Champlain Valleys area of New York was at least partially completed. A salesman's sample of this work is known to exist, but no completed and published version can be found, and it is not listed in the Union Catalogs. Many works of this type were offered by subscription before the actual printing was done. A salesman would obtain orders from not only booksellers but for direct purchases from the general public. It may be that the advance sales of this work did not indicate demand sufficient to warrant a printing.
In 1888 and 1889 the Sylvesters made their home at 105 State Street, and in 1890 they were boarding at 541 Broadway. In the 1892 Saratoga Springs Directory, Mrs. S.J. Sylvester advertised her business as proprietor of a boarding house at 550 Broadway:
"THE WILLOUGHBY" Situated on North Broadway. Large and elegant rooms, Handsomely furnished. Excellent table. Charges moderate for superior accommodations.
The 1893 listing has Nathaniel B. Sylvester’s home at 637 Broadway, where Mrs. S.J. Sylvester is listed again as proprietor of a boarding house: only the establishment’s name and address are changed in the advertisement:
"THE MAPLES" Mrs. S. Sylvester, proprietor. Situated on North Broadway. Large and elegant rooms, Handsomely furnished. Excellent table. Charges moderate for superior accommodations.
Mr. Sylvester’s last contribution to a publication was in 1893, when a new Saratoga County history was published. This book was primarily a vehicle for printing biographies of the county's "prominent men and leading citizens" these biographical sketches were prepared by other writers.15
The Saratoga Springs directory for 1894 lists Mrs. Sylvester as a housekeeper at 525 Broadway, where Nathaniel and his son Samuel M. are listed as boarders. As late as 1875, the census listings had shown two servants employed in Sylvester’s household. One might conclude that by the 1890s his law practice and his literary pursuits were not providing a substantial enough income to support an independent household. The losses incurred as a result of the mortgage foreclosure in 1879 probably also contributed to the family's decline in fortune.
The 1895 city directory states that Nathaniel B. Sylvester died in 1894, and that Mrs. Nathaniel B. Sylvester, widow, had removed to Jacksonville, Florida. Samuel M. Sylvester had, according to that year ‘s directory, moved to Argyle in Washington County, NY.
As reported in N.B. Sylvester’s obituary in the Saratoga Sentinel, he died at one a.m. on July 13, 1894, at the home of his sister-in-law Susan E. Taylor at Argyle. He was survived by his widow, by his son Samuel Sylvester and by a daughter, Mrs. Frank W. Lawrence of Saratoga Springs. The Troy Budget ran an obituary which stated that Sylvester died of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment. The Budget further told that he had been in poor health and had gone to Argyle in May in hopes that his health would improve.
Sylvester was buried in the Prospect Hill Cemetery at Argyle. Mrs. Sylvester, who died November 29 1909 in Argyle, was also buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery. Their son Samuel Sylvester died in Argyle in 1941, unmarried.
Their daughter Emma C. Sylvester had married in 1884 Franklin W. Lawrence, a prosperous businessman of Saratoga Springs. She died January 20, 1936. Mr. Lawrence died March 29, 1939, leaving an estate which included an interest in the mineral water and bank supply business of C.W. Lawrence and Quevic Spring Company.16 There are descendants of the Lawrences now living in Saratoga County.
An acquaintance of Sylvester’s wrote to the editor of the Troy Press a letter in "tribute" to his deceased friend. The letter, published July 16 1894, confides that "[Sylvester’s] heart was never in his profession. His mind was capable of grasping all its principles and of wielding all its bolts; but was so fine and delicately attuned that it instinctively shrank from the clash and contention, the wear and tear. . . . Mr. Sylvester was a dreamer."
In August of 1894, Sarah J. Sylvester petitioned in Saratoga County for administration of the estate of Nathaniel B. Sylvester. She stated in her petition that "the probable value of the personal estate does not exceed $75." This would seem to prove prophetic the statement made by Mr. Sylvester in the preface to his 1878 History of Saratoga County:
"To the writer it has been mostly a labor of pleasure rather than of profit."
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF KNOWN WORKS BY NATHANIEL BARTLETT SYLVESTER
The Attractions of Saratoga: Mt. McGregor, Troy, Troy Times Printing House, 1882. 21 p.
The Birth of the Vestal Flowers, an Indian Legend of Mount McGregor, souvenir, Troy, 1886. 14 l. Includes 12 specimen plates of flowers.
The Historic Muse of Mount McGregor, one of the Adirondacks, near Saratoga. Troy NY, N.B. Sylvester, 1885. 27 p. front. plates, illus. (Other editions published in 1886 and 1887, 26 p., occasionally cited as "on" rather than "of" Mount McGregor)
Historical Narratives of the Upper Hudson, Lake George, and Lake Champlain, Philadelphia, Everts, 1888. 2 volumes. (Probably not published. Seen only in a salesman’s sample, although listed as a work by Sylvester in Appleton‘s Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1888.)
Historical Sketches of Northern New York and the Adirondack Wilderness: including traditions of the Indians, early explorers, pioneer settlers, hermit hunters, &c. Troy, N.Y., W. H. Young, 1877. (reprinted Harrison, N.Y., Harbor Hill Books, 1973.) 316 p. illus. 23 cm. (Extracts appeared in magazine North Country Life, Spring 1947, Fall ’52-Spring ’53, and Spring ’54)
History of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts, with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers ... Philadelphia, L. H. Everts, 1879. 2 v. fronts., illus. (incl. facsims.) plates, ports., maps. 31 x 22 cm.
History of Rensselaer County, New York. Philadelphia, Everts & Peck, 1880. 564 p. illus., plates (1 double) ports., maps. 31 cm.
History of Saratoga County, New York. with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers. Philadelphia, Everts & Ensign, 1878. 514 p. front., illus., plates (part double) ports, maps, plans. 31 cm.
History of Saratoga County, New York; with historical notes of its various towns. Together with biographical sketches of its prominent men and leading citizens prepared by Samuel T. Wiley and W. Scott Garner. Richmond IN, Gresham Publishing Company., 1893. 635p.
History of Ulster County, New York. Philadelphia, Everts & Peck, 1880. 311, 339 p. illus., plates (1 double) ports., map. 31 cm.
Indian Legends of Saratoga and of the Upper Hudson Valley. Troy, N.Y., N.B. Sylvester & co., 1884. 47 p. front., illus. 25 cm.
"The Mountains, forests and waters of the Adirondack wilderness" American Angler, Jan 5 1884. 5:2-4 Geographical description of the area that should be made a park.
Saratoga and Kay-ad-ros-se-ra: an historical address delivered at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., July 4 1876. Troy, NY, W. H. Young, 1876. 52 p. 24 cm.
1 History of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts
2 A 1985 letter from the Historian of Lansingburgh to the City Historian in Saratoga Springs gives Sylvester ‘s parents names and refers to his death certificate as stating that they were born in Massachusetts.
3 History and Genealogy of the Families of Chesterfield, Massachusetts, compiled by the Bicentennial Genealogy Committee and published by the town in 1962.
4 Sandy Hill [NY] Herald; see Marriage Notices from Washington County NY Newspapers 1799-1800, by M. S. and E. F. Jackson; also The MacNaughtons of Argyle, James MacNaughton Jr., Glens Falls 1994; and History of Washington County, N. Y.: The Gibson Papers, #3, p. 227, Washington County Historical Society, 1956
5 History of Lewis County, New York Franklin B. Hough. D. Mason & Co.: Syracuse, 1883 Chapter XXVIII
6 Lowville was named after Nicholas Low, landowner in Ballston Spa, Saratoga County and in Lowville; he was the builder and proprietor of the San Souci Hotel in Ballston Spa
7 Historical Sketches of Northern New York
8 See Sylvester‘s History of Rensselaer County for a biography of Robertson.
9 Troy‘s One Hundred Years 1789-1889
10 Our County and Its People, G. B. Anderson, 1890
11 "History of the Home of the Good Shepherd" by Mrs. William Pierson, 1949 for Saratoga Historical Society
12 Mortgage Book 84, page 236; Saratoga County Clerk ‘s Office
13 Chronicles of Saratoga, Mrs. W. A. Britten
14 see Durkee ‘s Scrapbook #5, page 5; at office of Saratoga County Historian
15 History of Saratoga County, New York; with historical notes of its various towns. Together with biographical sketches of its prominent men and leading citizens prepared by Samuel T. Wiley and W. Scott Garner. Richmond IN, Gresham Publishing Company., 1893. 635p.
16 The MacNaughtons of Argyle, and Saratoga County Probate Records
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