Rivers seem to run through my blood. I was born in Western New York, and my first home was on Grand Island, in the middle of the Niagara River. I have no memory of living there, because we moved to Omaha, Nebraska before I turned three, and then to Cincinnati, Ohio when I was four, but we would often return to Buffalo to visit family, and eventually moved back to Western New York when I was ten. Even as a child I was impressed by how the narrow, muddy Ohio River just couldn’t compare to the blue depths of the mighty Niagara.
My Dad grew up on the Island, surrounded by the River. His family moved there from Buffalo when he was about eight. As a teenager, he and his brother Peter played the dangerous game of going down to the water’s edge in winter and jumping from ice floe to ice floe to see how far out they could get, away from the shore. As a young man, he would borrow Peter’s boat to court my mother, who lived on the other side of the river in North Tonawanda. And at the age of forty-three, he survived a plane crash into the Niagara, when the water was only thirty-eight degrees and he had to save the pilot’s life and start swimming to shore while hypothermia was setting in. But that’s another story for another day.
The Niagara River has been a part of my family history since the late 1700s, when my Loyalist ancestors, Robert and Catherine (née Sternberg) Spencer were granted land overlooking the Niagara River in what is now Niagara Falls, Ontario, in gratitude for Robert’s service in Butler’s Rangers during the American Revolutionary War. Before the war, another river featured prominently in their lives — the Mohawk River in what is now Central New York State. How do I know this? I’m blessed to know a surprising amount about the lives of these ancestors, thanks to the memoirs written by their grandson, Adam Spencer, which were published after his death as a series of newspaper articles in the Norwich Gazette in 1889. At present, I have a transcript of these articles published in 1977 in the newsletter of the Canadian Friends Historical Association (Adam Spencer was a member of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers.)1 A transcript isn’t as good as the actual newspaper articles on microfilm, of course, so that’s on my to-do list for needed documents, but this is what I’ve got right now.
Most of these memoirs concern the life of Adam Spencer himself, not surprisingly, and my direct line goes through his aunt, Sarah Spencer, who married John Hodgkinson, rather than through him. So the parts that are most interesting to me are the parts about his grandparents, Robert and Catherine Spencer. I’ll let Adam tell their story in his own words:
I have my doubts about the historical accuracy of certain parts of Adam’s story, particularly regarding Robert Spencer’s birth in Ireland, but that, too, is another story for another day. Today what impresses me is all the lush detail presented in this passage — so many glimpses into the lives of these ancestors who lived so long ago. I like the image (historically accurate?) of Catherine as a girl of about 10, maybe, rowing across the Mohawk to travel to different parts of her parents’ farm in an era when many girls her age might be stitching samplers. I can picture her and her young husband Robert as newlyweds, hosting the log-rolling bee to clear the land of timber as they set up their new farm near her parents along the Mohawk. I honor her courage in packing up her six children and traveling to Montreal to wait out the war, hoping and praying for her husband’s safety. I imagine her affectionate smile as she bundled the child up in warm clothing before climbing into the rowboat on that fateful day as they attempted to cross the river to Fort Niagara. I like to think that maybe she was watching over her 5x-great-grandsons, my Dad and his brother, keeping them safe when they were jumping from floe to floe in the river in the 1950s. And maybe she was watching over Dad again on the day his plane crashed, when he was rescued from the frigid waters of the Niagara before he lost consciousness.
It’s just one river, but it has so many stories to tell.
1Spencer, Adam. “OId Time Experiences In the Bush and On the Farm”. Canadian Friends Historical Association 19 (March 1977): p. 1.
2Ibid, p. 7-8.
Cover photo: Sailboat on the Niagara River in front of Old Fort Niagara, courtesy of MaxPixel.FreeGreatPicture.com, is in the public domain.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017