Judge Thomas Averill Carter of Owego, NY never really existed. Robert W. White’s novel set in the 1850s, “Susquehanna Scandal”, described a respected lawyer and jurist with a messy personal life (all fictional) who falls in love with a visiting Mohawk woman named Sakuma Gage (also fictional, but…) and is moved to memorialize her when she dies in a railroad accident just after a visit to Owego (…some factual basis here). The loss is devastating to Judge Carter, and may have been the motivation for “the pride of Owego” to leave his small town for the wilderness – and legal battleground – of Michigan. But in the end he returns to Owego to remember the lost Sakuma, and to die.
The character of Judge Carter was based on a real-life judge from Owego, Charles Pumpelly Avery (1817-1872). R.W. White has now written “Yours Truly, C.P. Avery” so that we can share both the facts and the gaps in the historical record that can grow out as fertile fields of fiction. White quotes Mark Twin’s remark that “truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities; truth isn’t.”
White has searched through the family history of C.P. Avery, all the way back to 14th century England. Ancestors arrived in America starting around 1630 and the family was established in New York State by the early 1800s. The Averys of Owego built a fine home around 1807 and it still stands today on Front Street.
Charles was a lawyer and, at age 29, the first elected judge in Tioga County and a historian of the county. He was handsome, popular and an eligible bachelor – just the kind of man stories might circulate about. His life changed when three Mohawks from the Tyendinaga Territory in Ontario visited Owego in February, 1852. The two sisters and a brother were singers and storytellers on a tour to raise money for religious instruction in their community. They were only in Owego for a couple of days, but during that time Judge Avery was obviously impressed and attracted by Sa-Sa-Na Loft, the elder of the two sisters. Shortly after departing Owego Sa-Sa-Na was killed in a rail accident in the town of Deposit. Avery saw to it that her body would be returned to Owego, where she was buried (initially, a temporary interment) and where an imposing obelisk would be raised in her memory at Evergreen Cemetery, overlooking the Susquehanna.
Many unanswered questions were raised by Charles Avery’s actions:
… Why did he persuade her family to leave her remains in Owego rather than return them to her home in Tyendinaga?
Why did he arrange for construction of a memorial to her in Evergreen Cemetery?
Why did village officials agree to place her memorial in the most prominent spot in the cemetery?…
–from “Yours Truly, C.P. Avery”
White does not attempt to answer all these questions, but he does demonstrate Avery’s sympathy for Native Americans, his attention to the early history of the Owego area and the lingering mysteries that inspired his novel. There is also speculation about why, in 1856, Judge Avery suddenly decided to move to what is today Flint, Michigan. During those later years he was involved in one of the longest and most complicated legal proceedings in that state’s history, and it may have tarnished his reputation and ruined his health.
At the time of his death in Owego C.P. Avery was remembered for his fairness, eloquence and generosity, but he faded from memory. His gravesite is unknown and, as White points out, there is no portrait of him in the Tioga County Courthouse nor is anything named in his honor.
Robert W. White is a retired Presbyterian minister who served as a United Reformed Church minister in England for many years. He is also a trained meteorologist. Mr. White joins Bill Jaker to tell about discovering the true facts about C.P. Avery and presenting Avery’s and Owego’s experience in works of fiction and non-fiction.