By THOMAS SHANNON
Dispersal of Yankee and Hudson Valley settlers into the wilds of interior New York State in the early 1800s generally produced a earthly, hard-working society but also yielded several eccentrics. One in particular, "Old Joe" DeWitt, came to play the key role in the prodigious, but brief, tourist era on Hiawatha Island, the largest island in the 148-mile New York State stretch of the Susquehanna River.
Old Joe was born Joseph Shaw DeWitt in 1814 in Broome County, New York. His father, Thomas, was a native of Ulster County, baptized at the Dutch Reformed Church in Wawarsing. He was among the great migration of settlers into the frontier of New York after the Revolutionary War. He settled on a farm in the town of Chenango, several miles upstream on the river of the same name from a nascent village that would grow into the City of Binghamton.
This DeWitt family, like most of that name, was a branch extending out from Tjerck Claessen DeWitt (c.1620-1700) and his wife Barbara Andriessen, Dutch settlers of Wiltwyck, later to become Kingston, New York. Like most of the men in the old Dutch trading posts, Tjerck was rock-ribbed and sometimes quarrelsome. More than once he found himself on the wrong side of Dutch, and later, English authority. While living in Fort Orange (Albany, New York) in the 1650s, he was charged with fraternizing with Lutherans and also fighting. Once established at Wiltwyck, he was caught in the opening hostilities of what became known as the Second Esopus War. One of Tjerck and Barbara's children was carried off as a prisoner of the Esopus Indians for a time before being recovered. Later in the 1660s, Tjerck refused to acknowledge the newfangled English government and was beaten and imprisoned for it.
Of the 12 children that Tjerck and Barbara DeWitt had, many of them also had large families leading to a family tree that sprawls all over New York and the entire country. Among their many great-great-grandchildren were DeWitt Clinton, Governor of New York known for spearheading the Erie Canal; Simeon DeWitt, Surveyor General of New York for most of its first half-century; and Thomas DeWitt, early settler of Broome County and father of Old Joe.
Old Joe worked odd jobs and served as a firefighter as a young man until the age of 27 when he became the business manager and bit actor for Gilbert and Trowbridge's theatrical company. The show travelled all over New York and New England. Old Joe was responsible for promoting the theatre act, printing handbills, taking out newspaper advertisements, and finding theatre space. Old Joe did this only did this for one year, 1841, for he liked one of the tour stops so much that he decided to move there permanently.
That town was Owego, Tioga County, New York—about 25 miles down the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers from his father's farm. In his new home, Old Joe operated a saloon and restaurant called "The Shades" for many years. Being a saloon keeper in a small town along with his good humor endeared Old Joe to the whole community. He was also a firefighter, eventually rising to the rank of chief of the Owego Fire Department. By the 1860s, he was the oldest active firefighter in the entire state, begetting his moniker: “Old Joe.” In those later years he was also the proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel and Confectionary in the village.
A group of businessmen including Old Joe came together in 1873 to build a steamboat to take tourists out to what was then called “Big Island.” Big Island was then, and still is, at 112 acres easily the largest Susquehanna river island in New York State. It is also the only one that can boast of anything that can reasonably be called an upland. The approximately 20-acre plateau on the eastern half of the island rises some 60 to 70 feet above regular river level. Early efforts by the businessmen included constructing a dance floor under a pavilion, gravel walkways, a restaurant on the steamboat, and one on the island that Old Joe named “Hiawatha's Wigwam and Restaurant.”
Old Joe summoned his experience as a pitchman to advertise his new restaurant. He produced many farcical hand bills and posters. Parts of three of them are transcribed here as they appear in photographs in Hiawatha Island: Jewel of the Susquehanna by Town of Owego historian Emma M. Sedore:
—“Ho! For Big Island. Wednesday June 10, 1876... Round Trip 25 Cents. Ocean Views Thrown In. No Extra Charge for Surf Bathing.”
—“Now For the Opening Clam Bake At Hiawatha Grove on Big Island. Old Joe DeWitt, the oldest man in this or any other country; the man who came down on the beautiful waters of the bright Susquehanna, 482 years ago in a birch bark canoe, and danced with Hiawatha on the banks of the Susquehanna by The Camp Fires of the Indians, will open his new and splendid Hiawatha Wigwam and Restaurant on Tuesday June 16, 1874 on Big Island in connection with the Opening Clambake of the Owego Steamboat Company, when will be served up to the Countless Millions in attendance, all the good things of the season. Indian Braves with their adorned Squaws and Papooses will be on hand and make Hiawatha Grove resound with their Indian Games and War Dances, all under the supervision of “Old Joe” DeWitt. Don't Fail to Come.”
—“Ho! for a pleasant sail up the bright blue Susquehanna. A chance with rod and line to tempt from the sparkling waters the greedy golden perch, the tortuous eel, the beauteous sucker and the greedy pike; for an afternoon ramble under the mighty forest oaks, and a chance to bask in the mellow golden sunshine that peers daintily through their spreading branches; for a dance in the evening in that sylvan retreat where brawny braves led dark haired and gazelle eyed Indian maidens to the dance ‘in the brave days of old.’”
Absurd as it is, Old Joe's association of Big Island with the maybe real, maybe legendary 16th-Century Indian leader Hiawatha persists to this day. In most if not all retellings of the Iroquois Confederation's creation myth, the setting was the shore of Onandaga Lake in modern Syracuse. Local newspapers in Owego and Binghamton for decades ran articles claiming Hiawatha founded the confederacy on Big Island. As late as the 1920s, Dr. Earl A. Bates, professor at Cornell University and some native Americans were holding reenactments of the founding on Big Island. Within a few years of the opening of Hiawatha's Wigwam, Big Island became known colloquially as Hiawatha Island, the name it retains still, all due to Old Joe's fantastical marketing.
Business boomed immediately for Old Joe and the steamboat company. Crowds of several hundred day trippers were commonplace on the island. Old Joe was in the habit of bemusing his guests by dressing as an Indian, complete with war paint. An advertisement for the 1875 season proclaimed:
“The old chief will again sell wampum, gingerbread, fire water, ciscoes and everything else necessary to the happiness of the average red man at reasonable rates. The big Indian can be seen as heretofore, free of charge."
The offseason of 1875-6 saw the construction of the Hiawatha House hotel on the northeast corner of the island with an opening date scheduled for April 1876. Old Joe would not be around to see it completed. Only a wag on the order of Old Joe would die of a heart attack en route to another man's funeral. For a man who willingly wore the adjective “old” most of his adult life, even convincing the 1870 census taker to record his name as “Old Joe DeWitt,” death came in his 62nd year on April 16, 1876. One newspaper recorded that “his father died and nearly all the members of his family are affected with the (heart) disease.” His obituary gave indication of how beloved he was in the Owego community:
“Mr. DeWitt was possessed of a kindly nature and his very eccentricities that made him known everywhere drew about him hosts of friends and had he been of a less generous and benevolent disposition he might have been rich; but, he could never have gained so many firm and true friends. Always ready to extend a helping hand to an unfortunate brother in sickness or in need when he could ill afford it, he will long be pleasantly and gratefully remembered. Large hearted, generous, “Old Joe!” Guileless he lived and he died, we are sure, without an enemy.”
Tourism on Hiawatha Island only lasted through 1888, when the Kilmer family, flush with cash from sales of the kidney cure "Swamp Root," ceased to operate the Hiawatha House a few years after purchasing the island. They held on to it as a private family retreat for years afterward. The people of Owego were instantly nostalgic for the heyday of Hiawatha Island and the man who made it so popular. In 1915, nearly 40 years after Old Joe died, the Owego Fire Department replaced its cast iron bell that dated to the 1860s. Villagers purchased the bell and set it out on Courthouse Square, where it still is today, dedicated as a monument to Old Joe DeWitt.
Thanks to the noble efforts of local citizens, Hiawatha Island narrowly avoided becoming a gravel pit in the late 1980s and is today a nature preserve belonging to Waterman Conservation Education Center. For the first half of the 20th century, almost the entire island but for a solitary row of oaks around the perimeter was under cultivation. The old Hiawatha House hotel was pulled down and reused to build a farmhouse, only the trace ruins of which exist today.
Foundation ruins of the Hiawatha House may well be there too but they were buried under leaves the day I visited, a late November day that touched 70 degrees Fahrenheit concluding with a lake effect snowstorm that lasted 48 hours, depositing two feet of snow on the region. The hotel's location is betrayed by a specimen-quality eastern red cedar, the lone survivor of a row of ornamentals planted in front of the hotel in the 1870s. Looking north from here when the leaves are down, one can barely catch a glimpse of the house where John D. Rockefeller Sr., his mother and siblings lived for a few years when he was a boy (Read an earlier story on that here: http://bit.ly/2i3JCvG). The ruins of various farm buildings, tractors, a car, and the hotel's artesian well are scattered near the hotel site. Waterman Center has cut trails, built a replica longhouse, and a observation tower excellent for bird watching. Unfortunately, no ocean views can be had here anymore on account of those perimeter oaks, many of which are specimen-height now too. And, I suppose, basic geography may be limiting the ocean views as well.
Old Joe sticks stubbornly to the memory of this place and it is difficult not to feel the same affinity for him that his contemporaries did. It is impossible to visit Hiawatha Island, one of the truly special places in all of New York State and which owes its name to his fanciful imagination, without thinking of Old Joe DeWitt.
—Tjerck and Barbara DeWitt's stone house, expanded somewhat after their deaths, still stands on Hurley Avenue in Kingston.
—Tjerck, Barbara and several of their children and grandchildren are thought to be buried in Old Dutch Cemetery in the Stockade District of Kingston. Many of the headstones in the DeWitt plot are illegible now due to weathering.
—Three of Tjerck DeWitt's siblings are known to have migrated to Wiltwyck. His brother Jan never married. His sister Ida married Jan Albertse Van Steenwyck and had several children. She was pregnant on June 7, 1663, day one of the Second Esopus War, when Esopus Indians burst upon the Stockade slaying her, her husband, one of their daughters, and their unborn child. The third sibling of Tjerck DeWitt to settle in Wiltwyck was a sister, Emmerentje, who married Martinus Hermanzen Hoffman. They may have built the stone house on the corner of North Front and Green Streets in the Stockade District that their son Nicholas came into ownership of in 1707 and is now the Hoffman House Restaurant and Tavern. As conveyed by Alf Evers in Kingston: City on the Hudson, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a fifth great grandson of theirs, a man noted for his love of Dutch building methods, occasionally enjoyed taking guests around Kingston to see the Hoffman House and others like it.
—Hiawatha Island is easily accessed by canoe or kayak from the Town of Owego boat launch on Marshland road. The best place to land on the island is the fairly level approach on the northeast corner. Waterman Center also sets up a floating dock on the southeast corner in summertime as well. They periodically give tours using a pontoon boat to ferry patrons across. Their website is: www.watermancenter.org
Thomas Shannon lives in Endwell, N.Y., with his wife Mary and two daughters. Due to semi-occasional cousin love in 17th and 18th century Ulster County, he is distantly related to Old Joe DeWitt in at least three separate ways—third cousins seven times removed on two different lines and fourth cousins seven times removed on a third line. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org