An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew

An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew

Annejet van Der Zijl & Michele Hutchison


The Blue Room I Winter 1954–1955

Picture this: an old woman and the sea.

The woman was old and not even a shadow of the beauty she had once been. The sea was cold and wild and looked nothing like the blue idyll of the summer. And the house she was staying in had been built as a holiday home; it was an entirely unsuitable place to spend the winter, let alone to convalesce—or to die.

Old age and illness are destroyers of individuality. Just as babies look alike, so do people at the end of their lives. Those who stay in their birthplace may escape this fate somewhat if they still have people around them who know what they used to look like when they were in their prime. But this woman hadn’t stayed where she was born. On the contrary, she had allowed herself to be chased away, across the world—by fate, by her restlessness, or by a combination of the two. And now she had washed up in a ramshackle, drafty sea palace on the other side of the world, and there was nobody left who could pay testament to her youth or her beauty, her previous lives and loves, her lost ones, or the dramatic Technicolor movie of her life.

Day and night the waves crashed onto the rocks beneath the house. And up there in the Blue Room, illness raged, as impetuous and stubborn as the waves. Her life slowly shrank until it was only a matter of months, weeks, days; the next minute, the next breath. As long as she kept breathing, she was still alive. As long as she lay awake at night and heard the sea, she was still there.

In fact, her true self existed only in the pile of yellowing photographs next to her bed, and in memories that danced among the rushing and ebbing waves of sea and pain and flared in the flames of the log fire that had been kept burning day and night these past months. For if you no longer have a future, what else is there left but dreams of the past?


Uncle George’s Cabin

Green—that was the color of the landscape of Allene’s youth. From the delicate green in the springtime, when young leaves spread themselves across the trees like net curtains, to the dark, heavy green of late summer foliage. From the bright green of the beeches to the grayish blue green of the firs and, in between, the very different shades of chestnuts, maples, birches, and cherry and walnut trees—the totality like a natural arboretum draped across the hills around Lake Chautauqua. Until the fall, when those trees burst into a fiesta of reds, oranges, and yellows before shriveling up in the freezing temperatures that blew down from Canada and the dark winter storms that blasted across the large watery expanses of Lake Erie.

Then only the tops of the trees stuck out above a thick, thick layer of snow. The lake ossified into a silent black mirror, and the hills receded into a black-and-white landscape, with just the fierce red of a streaking fox to remind people that color still existed. They kept the fires burning day and night in the houses, which were themselves huddled under thick blankets of snow, enabling the inhabitants to survive the harsh winters of North America.

With those fires begins the story of Allene Tew and her family in Jamestown, New York. And, almost at the same time, the story of the place itself begins, for the Tews were among the first young adventurers who dared build their futures on the then still-impenetrable and dangerous wilderness around the lake.

Even before the Tews, though, the origins of Jamestown could be found in four covered wagons and one family. In 1806, the Prendergasts set off from Rensselaer County, in New York State’s Hudson Valley. The travelers—twenty-nine men, women, and children—headed from this region just east of New York City in search of new opportunities and, most important, fertile and still-unclaimed land. In fact, the Prendergasts were planning to travel to the large expanses of Tennessee, where land was being granted to anyone dogged enough to survive there.

While still in New York, the travelers stopped beside a beautifully situated elongated lake in Chautauqua County. There they were approached by an agent from Holland Land Company, a Dutch banking conglomerate that had acquired more than three million acres a few years previously and was now trying to palm chunks of it off onto pioneers.

The agent told them to look around: “This is the paradise of the New World.”

And indeed, the Creator had done his very best in this part of the world. The hills around the lake were green and fertile, without the marshes or bald mountain massifs that often formed impediments in other regions. The summers were warm and wet, perfect for agriculture. Eighteen-mile-long Lake Chautauqua was brimming with fish, mainly pike and perch. And the uncultivated wilderness around it was swarming with animals that were used for fur and food: beavers, bears, otters, foxes, wolves, and deer, even panthers and other wild cats. The area was also rich in birdlife, particularly in the fall, when the view of the lake was almost blotted out by the numerous flapping flocks of ducks, cranes, herons, and swans.

And so the family from Rensselaer County changed their plans. Wagons were anchored, paperwork signed. In total, the Prendergasts bought 3,337 acres on the north side of Lake Chautauqua, upon which they would build their new life.

It was their youngest son, James Prendergast, who, a few years later, when looking for a group of runaway horses, discovered a flat piece of land near the rapids of the Chadakoin River, approximately three miles south of the lake. At eighteen he hadn’t yet come of age, but he had the entrepreneurial spirit of the rest of his family, and he asked his older brother to buy a thousand acres for him at two dollars each. In the summer of 1811, James, with the help of a servant, built a water-powered sawmill with an accompanying cabin, which he moved into with his young wife, Nancy. The loggers working for them built their own even more primitive cabins nearby.

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