Meet the Neighbors: John Delafield

July 25th, 2014
By Alice Askins,  Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

When the Swans moved to Rose Hill in 1850 their neighbor to the east was John Delafield.  Most of our information about John’s life comes from the Centennial Historical Sketch of Fayette by Diedrich Willers, published in 1900.  John was born in 1786 on Long Island.  After graduating from Columbia College in 1805, he found work in a dry goods store. In 1808, his firm made him super-cargo on a brig going to the West Indies and other ports. A super-cargo managed trade for his firm.  Basically, he sold merchandise at the ports the ship sailed to and bought goods to bring back home.  A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts.  Used by merchants and the navy, brigs were fast and maneuverable.

John’s voyage was not uneventful.  His brig’s captain died of yellow fever in Cuba, and the mate died two days after they left Havana.  At this point, John took charge of the ship.  Several days later, the crew mutinied and tried to kill him.  One of the crew helped him subdue the mutineers and the two men managed to get the ship to Corunna, Portugal.  At this time, Europe was in the middle of the Napoleonic wars, and France and England were wrangling over Spain and Portugal.

The USS Niagarais a wooden-hulled brig that was the relief flagship for Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.  The Niagara is one of the last remaining ships from that war.  It is usually docked at Erie, Pennsylvania, as a museum exhibit. It also often travels the Great Lakes during the summer. 


I have not found whether John’s ship was originally supposed to go to Europe from the West Indies, or why he sailed north after leaving Portugal in 1809.   He must have done so as Mr. Willers tells us the ship met a violent storm off the coast of France, and limped into Bristol, England, with a lot of damage.  There was tension at the time between England and the US that would eventually result in the War of 1812.  Mr. Willers says,

Mr. Delafield was here thrown into prison for some alleged violation of the revenue laws and although soon released he was detained within bounds of thirty miles around Bristol, a stranger and without money. He employed his time, however, in working for a cabinet maker, and in a drug store, remaining thus under British surveillance until the close of the war with the United States.

Eventually John was allowed to go into business for himself, and he married a Bristol woman.  When his wife died in 1820 he returned to New York City.  In New York John became a teller in the Phoenix Bank and ten years later he became the bank’s president.  John was an early promoter of the Hudson River Railroad, a director of the University of New York, and an organizer of the Philharmonic Musical Society. He retired from banking in 1841, and two years later he bought a farm of 352 acres near Rose Hill.  He called it “Oaklands,” and dove into the improvement of farming.  He became president of the Seneca County Agricultural Society in 1846, and remained president until he died except for 1851.  That year he was president of the State Agricultural Society, and ran the State Fair in Rochester.  Oaklands won county and state awards.

John was crucial to the farming revolution that John Johnston brought to North America.  When Mr. Johnston was installing drain tile on his farm Viewfields, his neighbors were skeptical.  They assumed that an underground system could never work.  Many thought the system would clog up and the tiles would all smash from draft horses or oxen walking over them.  Ten years after Mr. Johnston put his first tile lines down, he uncovered one of them, planning to increase the capacity of that drain.  While he had it open, he asked John to come see it.  It looked just the same as it had when it was buried in 1838.  John decided that under-draining could work after all, and he imported a Scraggs Tile Machine from England.  Benjamin Whartenby of Waterloo was the potter who had been hand-making drain tiles for John Johnston.  John gave Mr. Whartenby the machine, in return for one quarter of the tiles produced with it.  This machine inspired the spread of under-draining in North America – once one machine was here, someone else imported a second one, a third man copied the first, and so on.

In 1850, John published a history and survey of Seneca County.  It was the most extensive and accurate account that had yet been published.  The work he was most devoted to, though, was the establishment of an Agricultural College for New York State.  He was involved with that at the time of his sudden death in 1853, at the age of 67.  John was survived by his second wife, whom he married in 1825, and by three sons and two daughters.  John’s sons became successful businessmen in New York City and elsewhere.

pencil sketch of a man in a suit

The agricultural college was to have been centered at Oaklands, but after considerable time and debate it was located at Cornell.  The Agricultural Experiment Station, part of Cornell, is still with us in Geneva to remind us of John Delafield.

Meet another Swan neighbor, Herman Ten Eyck Foster.

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