October 30

On this day in 1804 a young printer named James D. Bemis purchased half ownership of the Western Repository in Canandaigua, New York, the pioneer newspaper of Western New York. Just twenty-one years of age at the time, Bemis had already demonstrated the necessary acumen to become a driving force in the western expansion of the young American republic.

Although Bemis had but two years of formal schooling in his life, he had gained the liberal education of most printers of his time. As a result, when he became a journeyman printer, his abilities were recognized by the Albany booksellers, Backus & Whiting, who offered him a partnership in a bookshop which they proposed to establish in York (Toronto), Canada. Putting together a stock of books appropriate for the frontier trade, Bemis set out for his destination late in 1803. He arrived in the western town of Canandaigua on January 14th and thereupon sat down and wrote a letter to his sister, describing the frontier travel of his period:

“After being detained in Utica, upward of seven weeks, my patience was so far exhausted, that I determined, notwithstanding the badness of the roads, to make one more attempt to gain the place of my destination; and accordingly hired two wagons to take me to Canandaigua. They had proceeded about fifty rods, when one of them got mired to the hub!—’Good start’ you will say. Well! we got out in about an hour, and traveled eight miles the first day.

“Next morning, after taking a warm breakfast, I again ‘weighed anchor,’ and trudged in solitude along the muddy waste, (for it is indeed solitary to have no company but swearing teamsters) ’till we reached Oneida village, an Indian Settlement, where, about dark, both wagons got again mired to the hub! Zounds and alack!—what a pickle we were in! How did I invoke the aid of old Hercules to give one tug at the wheel! However, after lifting, grumbling, hollowing, and tugging three hours and a half, with the assistance of an Indian, we once more got on land. It was ten o’clock, and no tavern within our power to reach. Cold, fatigued, and hungry, we were glad to get under shelter, and accordingly stopped at the first Indian hut we found, where there was no bed, and no victuals except a slice of rusty pork. After a night spent in yawning, dozing and gaping, we again got underway, . . . and we went on to Onondaga, where we arrived about ten at night. Here the house was full; and I obtained the privilege of sleeping with two strangers, by paying for their lodgings, and giving them a glass of bitters—an odd bargain to be sure! At Onondaga, the waggoners got discouraged, and despaired of the practicability of traveling! They accordingly stored the goods, and made the best of their way home again. Here I was obliged to remain two weeks; when a fine snow was falling, I hired a man with a three-horse sleigh, to carry me to Canada, and arrived at this place on Saturday evening, the 14th of January, after a ‘short and pleasant passage’ of sixty-two days from Albany!”

Leave a Reply