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by Bryan Thompson, DeKalb Historian

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Almost every deed of record for the town of De Kalb makes reference to the Potter Goff survey or the Goff and Spencer Survey of 1814. The survey is rather unique for St Lawrence County in its early date and great detail in enumerating the entire town by sequentially numbered 100 acre lots.

So why was such a survey undertaken in the middle of the War of 1812? It all dates back ten years earlier to Judge William Cooper’s scheme to purchase the Town of De Kalb. The purchase price of the Township in 1803 was $62,720. Judge Cooper was a wealthy real estate speculator, but he did not have that kind of capital available. He was able to raise $27,123.33 towards the purchase from his own funds giving him a 43% share in the town. The remainder he raised at an investors’ meeting at the coffeehouse on Wall St. in New York City.

Each investor received an acre of land in the town for each dollar they invested. However no exact location of land other than within the town of De Kalb was specified. So Susan Daubenny (Danberry) invested $12,000 and received a deed for 12,000 acres of land in the town. She immediately signed power of attorney to Judge William Cooper to act on her behalf in dealings with the De Kalb purchase. All the other investors did the same with the exception of Nathaniel Smith.

Judge Cooper’s first goal was to get settlers onto his frontier purchase. To lure people to the wilderness he offered almost unbelievable terms. The land was sold for $2.50 to $3 per acres. New settlers did not have to make any down payment. They simply had to agree to pay the principal off in ten years and pay interest payments to the Proprietors of 7% annually. This encouraged many people to settle in De Kalb, but it also encouraged many settlers to take on more debt than they could manage to pay.

In peaceful times it would have been hard for many of the settlers to make good on their purchase agreements. During the ten-year term of the contracts, the embargo act of 1808 was imposed severely crippling the heart of local trade with Upper and Lower Canada. This was followed by the declaration of war in June 1812, and the loss of US control of the county seat with the battle of Ogdensburgh in February 1813. Many settlers of De Kalb fled.

Judge Cooper died in December 1809 and control of the concern in De Kalb was ceded to his sons as executors; Richard Fenimore Cooper and Isaac Cooper. They tried to continue to manage the town as their father had before them. With the war, economic conditions did not improve. Richard Fenimore Cooper died March 5, 1813 just after the disastrous loss at Ogdensburgh much unsettling the New York City investors. Many such as Fredrick De Peyster had never received any payments for their investment in De Kalb.

On April 30, 1813 Fredrick De Peyster wrote to Isaac Cooper demanding payment of a bond or interest owed to De Peyster by Richard Cooper. Isaac was left to try and hold together the Cooper family’s estate with all its sundry debts and obligations. It was soon apparent that there were not sufficient funds to meet all obligations and keep the family members in the style that they were accustomed to.

By the beginning of June 1813 the New York City investors met and decided to push to have the town divided among them. They designated William Ogden to contact the Cooper family through Isaac Cooper about proceeding with a survey. The New York City group wished to hire Amos Leigh of Washington County to do the surveying.

On July 26, 1813 Isaac Cooper responded to the investors with some ideas for proceeding with the division of the town. He suggested leaving those who currently occupied farms on whatever size parcels they now held. All unoccupied lands would be surveyed into 100 acres farm lots. “Then ascertain the portion due each partner out of the whole. And draw until their portion is out. Then the one who first draws his amount stops. The others continue, until they in the same way, each draw their share.”

There were many complications for the group to work out; What to do with lands that the owners had abandoned due to the war. How to settle the issue of the mistake with the gospel and school lots. Who had invested in the De Kalb Village and Mills lots and who had not. Talks ground on through 1813.

In March 1814 Fredrick De Peyster again wrote to Isaac Cooper demanding the interest on the bond he had with the late Richard Cooper. He ended with the comment, “I sincerely wish that we could have a meeting and some final arrangement could take place respecting De Kalb.” The plan for how to divide the township among the investors was still not settled and the War wore on.

In summer of 1814 the proprietors finally agreed to have a survey executed for the division of the town. They hired the New York attorney Henry M. Fine to supervise the survey. The group agreed to hire Potter Goff with the assistance of Silas Spencer to complete the survey of the town.

Potter Goff was part of the original 1803 settlement party of the town. He acted as Judge Cooper’s agent for a few years. He was also often paid to survey farm lots for Judge Cooper and lay out new roads in the town. As such he was well informed about the terrain of the town and an obvious choice to head the survey. He had recently contracted out his farm and moved into De Kalb Village where he and his wife bought a house on Jay St. and managed the Cooper Hotel.

Silas Spencer was the younger brother of Dr. John Spencer of Gouverneur. He was recently schooled in the art of surveying. It took the two men four months to survey the 64,000 acres of the town. Young Silas Spencer surveyed all the town lying west of the Oswegatchie River and Potter Goff surveyed all the land lying east of the Oswegatchie River.

The surveyors did not only run lots lines and map the town, they also measured the dimensions and materials of all existing buildings, noting the date of construction. They also took notes on the types of trees that forested the lots and how much water was available.

An example: Lots 361 to and including 371 “Handsome land, no waste land worth noticing. Well watered by a large creek, called Elm or Harrison Creek. The creek offers in passing thru the lots 5 or 6 mill sites with handsome falls from 4 to 15 feet. On Lots 366, 368 are the largest falls. Timber beach, maple, birch.”

Using the surveyor’s notes and studying the bonds and mortgages of the town Henry M. Fine then divided the lands of the town into six classes or categories: First, choice lots with handsome improvements and good cultivation and possessed by able settlers.

Second, similar lots with smaller improvements occupied by settlers not as capable.

Third, improved lots with more or less clearing taken up by settlers who have since left them and which are now unoccupied. Fourth, choice wild land as to soil and natural situation. Fifth, good wild land possessing more or less advantages.Sixth, wild land of less value either mountainous, rocky or to low for immediate settlement.

Fine then proceeded to make a book of descriptions of the town and its people to be used by the investors to determine whether to keep their current tenants or evict them and find better prospects.

An example of the first class: Thomas Tanner Jr. Lot 377 216 acres.

Cleared: 32 acres chalky plough land. 100 acres pretty rough but bought for the mill seat that it offers from the creek passing through as per map.

  • On Premises: Frame house, common. One story 18 by 32 five years old.
  • Good frame barn 42 by 30 four years old.
  • Stock: 2 horses (one a stud)
  • 3 cows
  • 1 two year old heifer
  • 1 yearling
  • 3 calves
  • 25 sheep
  • 10 hogs

A good natured man, called honest, though too fond of being at the hotel, drinking and talking away time. May be called indolent from his paying little attention to farming. Not with standing, all are pleased with him.

With a description such as this, from New York City, the absentee landlords were to decide the fate of the settlers.

The actual map and survey were completed by Goff and Spencer, October 31, 1814. Henry M. Fine completed his written report, “A Classification of the Town of De Kalb” on November 6, 1814. It took Fine six days to travel from De Kalb to Utica where he left a copy of his work at a bank for Isaac Cooper to retrieve. Hand written copies were prepared for each of the investors. One of these reports was later donated by the Townsley family to the St Lawrence County Historical Society (two generations of the Townsley family served as land agents for the investors).

The investors met in New York City with Isaac Cooper’s brother James Fenimore Cooper but according to a letter dated March 13, 1815. James could not answer the investors questions about De Kalb. They request Isaac Cooper’s presence in the city before a division of De Kalb could proceed.

Shortly there after the investors met in New York City where each drew numbers equal to their investment, one lot number for each $100 invested. ($100 in 1814 would be worth $1500 today.) Then in June 1815 each investor signed deeds clearing the titles for each of the other investors. The proprietors of De Kalb finally had clear title to specific parcels in the town of De Kalb.

Two hundred years later, a lasting result of this division of De Kalb is the continued reference to Goff and Spencer’s survey map and lot numbering system in real estate transactions.

 

Sources:

Cooper, William N. D., Judge William Cooper Papers Letters dated: March 27, 1813, April 30, 1813, June 7, 1813, July 26, 1813, February 24, 1814, March 8, 1814, September 24, 1814,November 6, 1814, November 12, 1814, March 13, 1815, April 18, 1815, June 21, 1815, July 5, 1815, October 31, 1817. Hartwick College: Oneonta, NY.

Fine, Henry ,Potter Goff, Silas Spencer(1814) A Classification of the Town of De Kalb St Lawrence County Historical Association Archives.

 

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