An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew(2)

And so—it was that simple in the America of those years—Jamestown was born.

It wasn’t easy at the start. Life in the wilderness was hard and dangerous, not only because of the bears and other wild animals but also because of the descendants of the Iroquois and Seneca tribes. The area had been their home until French colonists drove them off in the eighteenth century, but the hostility between the settlers and the area’s Indian tribes continued.

The winters were long and lonely and brought with them new dangers—twice, the entire encampment, including the mill, burned to the ground. But the pioneers were young and determined, and they rebuilt their tiny village on the Chadakoin River from scratch each time. Two of James’s brothers organized a makeshift and irregularly stocked grocer’s shop; a veteran of the War of Independence built a pottery-cum-tavern; a carpenter from Vermont improvised a carpentry workshop; and shortly after that, the Tew brothers arrived. They cleared a plot of land and built a blacksmith’s forge on it.

George and William Tew were also from Rensselaer County. They’d heard news of the promising little settlement deep in the woods through letters the Prendergasts had sent back to their hometown. George was twenty-one and a blacksmith’s apprentice by profession. His brother William, who was four years younger, had been trained as a cobbler but had also learned useful skills like spinning, sewing, and furniture making.

While the Tew brothers built cabins, loggers tamed the forest, yard by yard, tree by tree. Every day, the sounds of chopping and sawing rang out, occasionally interrupted by shouting, creaking, or the last sigh of yet another forest giant being brought down. After the trees had been stripped of their branches and bark, they were floated down the river to the mill and sawed into beams and planks. Next the wood was transported by canoes or keelboats to the big cities by the river to the south, along with other merchandise including furs, salted fish, and maple syrup.

For the return journey, the boats were laden with everything the forest dwellers needed and couldn’t produce themselves, such as nails, tools, ham, sugar, salt, and dried fruit. Tobacco and plenty of bottles of Monongahela rye, the famous strong whiskey made in Pittsburgh, were also aboard. As were potential new inhabitants, spurred on by the stories of the Jamestowners.

By now, James Prendergast had divided his land into plots of 50 by 120 feet, which he sold to newcomers for fifty dollars apiece. A primitive bridge was built across the Chadakoin River, and the dirt road at a right angle to the river was given the obvious name of Main Street. Equally prosaically, the wagon tracks to the left and right of Main Street were called First Street, Second Street, and so on.

In the early days, James was judge, postmaster, and unofficial mayor, but when the population of his cabin village surpassed four hundred in 1827, the inhabitants organized the first elections for a village council. Blacksmith George Tew, one of the few residents who had mastered the art of reading and writing, was elected village clerk. His first job was to set down on paper the rights and duties of his fellow villagers. Brother William was appointed second man in the fire brigade, the first collective activity the brand-new council took upon itself.

In the years that followed, the settlement grew like wildfire. The Industrial Revolution spread to the new continent and had a positive effect on regions like this, where trees ensured unlimited supplies of fuel and the many rivers and streams formed a natural transport network. The arrival of the steamboat made canoes and keelboats superfluous and ensured regular connections with the outside world, something that increased the appeal of this forest village to those in search of new opportunities.

In the cleared areas against the hillsides, farmers now settled—primarily Scandinavians, predisposed to handling the isolation, the primitive living conditions, and the long winters in this still-desolate land. They introduced stock breeding, orchards, beehives, tobacco plants, and the art of woodworking. After a while, real furniture factories rose up on the flat ground down by the river, which for some reason became known as Brooklyn Square and developed into Jamestown’s commercial heart.

In the meantime, George Tew enjoyed his position as village clerk so much that he gave up his labors in the hot, sooty blacksmith’s shop and became an apprentice to the only lawyer for miles around. After a few years as the lawyer’s partner, he was elected county clerk, one of the most important administrative roles in the region, in 1834. This meant that he and his wife and children could move to the town of Mayville, at the northern tip of Lake Chautauqua, where government officials lived.

The blacksmith’s shop on the corner of Main and Third Streets was left in the calloused hands of his brother William, who’d also started a family by this time. He was hardly lonely, however, as he had his wife and children, and his father and five sisters had all moved from Rensselaer County to Jamestown. Business was booming—so much that William could move to a brick house that also served as a store and workshop on the corner of Main and Second Streets, close to Brooklyn Square. He took on one of his brothers-in-law as a partner, hired a servant for the heavy work, and renamed the blacksmith’s shop the upscale-sounding W. H. Tew’s Copper, Tin and Sheet Iron Factory and Stove Store. A German maid was hired to help his wife with the family’s six children.

Later, the man who would become Allene’s grandfather would be praised in an almanac as being of “high character.” According to his biographer, William Tew was a loyal family man, an ardent Republican, and a dedicated member of the Presbyterian Church. Aside from this, he was also the founder of Jamestown’s first temperance society. A less well-known role of William’s was the one he played in the Underground Railroad, a civilian network that smuggled slaves who had escaped from plantations in the South up to Canada.

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