Charles Yaple's "Jacob's Land" Explores the Settling of New York's Frontier

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Recently, author and SUNY Cortland professor Dr. Charles Yaple spoke with WSKG’s Shane Johnson about his new nonfiction book, Jacob’s Land: Revolutionary War Soldiers, Schemers, Scoundrels and the Settling of New York’s Frontier (2017). The book chronicles life on New York’s frontier before, during, and after the American Revolution. It does this by weaving together the stories of three individuals; Native American leader Joseph Brant, George Washington’s Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt, and Dr. Yaple’s own ancestor Jacob Yaple.

Dr. Yaple is Professor Emeritus of Recreation, Parks and Leisure Studies at SUNY Cortland, and Director of the Coalition for Education in the Outdoors. His first book, Foxey Brown: A story of an Adirondack Outlaw, Hermit and Guide as He Might Have Told It, was published in 2011.

Listen to the interview:

(The partial transcript below has been edited for clarity.)


Interview Highlights

Why Tell This Story?

A lantern handed down through the generations of the Yaple family.

A lantern handed down through the Yaple family.

I wanted to tell the story, using my family as a proxy, of what it was like to live in America before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. And how much those people prized the land, and what that says to us today about the value of the land…

All my youth-hood, I heard about [my] family coming through the wilderness, and being the first settlers of what became Ithaca, New York, and about Jacob and the Revolutionary War. This story had been told in bits and pieces, and reported in various histories erroneously over the years. I wanted to get to original research, archives, diaries, and letters from the period, and see if I could put a good scholarly approach to what happened.

The Different Perspectives in the Book

I wanted the story to not be one sided… What was it like for Native Americans? For the British? And for the fledgling State of New York? The main characters, besides Jacob, are Joseph Brant, the more or less leader of the Iroquois Confederacy during the war, and Simeon DeWitt, the surveyor general for the young State of New York.

After the war, all of those frontier lands that had belonged to the Iroquois, were up for grabs. The Iroquois of course wanted to hold on. The pioneers were interested in it, and so was the young State of New York. They [all] wanted those lands… I tried to weave the three characters together, and be even handed about what happened. Atrocities happened on both sides. That’s the way I kind of approached the book.

Fear on the Frontier

One of the things that really struck me as I got into researching the book was the severe hardship that the patriots, and the Iroquois themselves went through. It reminds me of today, of some of the terrorist attacks. They didn’t know when they might be subject to a raid and a plot by their neighbors… People lived in real fear.

There was no police department to call. If you were attacked in the middle of the night, it was up to you and your little village to take care of yourself. I hope I gave readers that sense of the struggles, the hardship, and the fear.

Effects of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign & Revolution

Basically the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, I think exposed some 5,000 soldiers and members of that campaign to the vast richness of those Cayuga, Seneca, and Onondaga lands. After the war, you had the Iroquois trying to hold onto their lands. Governor George Clinton was determined to, more or less, corral the Iroquois on reservations, and make sure they could never mount the resources to create more significant warfare.

The state had its interest there, both to control those lands, and to develop them so that the state could grow. Then you mix in the pioneers who are after these lands. You’ve got speculators …[and] surveyors going in, and sometimes they have their own interests.  You had those three dynamics all wrestling, and trying to get control of those lands.

You can learn more about The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign in this interactive timeline:

First Settlers to Ithaca

The Yaples, Dumonds, and Heinpaughs settled at the base of East Hill where Cornell University is [today]. Three creeks kind of merge there, Six Mile Creek, Cascadilla Creek, and False Stream. The Yapels, Dumonds, and Heinpaughs were interested in water power. They were sawmill people, gristmill people. The Woodworths and McDowells, the other two families, seemed to be interested in farming and cultivating the land.

That property at the head of Cayuga Lake was very valuable. Scoundrels did do things, there was a lot of scheming going on. All three of the original families, the Woodworths, the McDowells, the Yaples/Dumonds/Heinpaughs being one family, lost their lands.

Simeon DeWitt ended up owning a vast amount of acreage, 1,400 or more acres at the head of Cayuga Lake, which became Ithaca. Simeon had his dreams about creating a model city there.

The Joy of Research

I guess I’m kind of like a prospector. I get a real high out of digging into archives, and diaries, and original letters. Every once in awhile you find a kernel of new information. It’s like finding a gold nugget.

One of the most valuable sources for me were the DeWitt family papers at Syracuse University. Original diaries and letters of Moses DeWitt, who was Co-Head Surveyor of those lands. That enabled me to piece together a lot of what was actually happening to the pioneers, the first settlers at the head of Cayuga lake, because he visited them, they knew him personally.

Message for the Readers

I want people to understand, who live in our part of the state, the heritage that they’ve got, the price that was paid, and the good fortune that we’ve had that enables the lifestyles that we enjoy today. That’s maybe one of my ending messages.

Biggest Lesson Learned

For me, one of the biggest takeaways is the importance of finding a passion in your life, throwing yourself into it full force, and become the very best you can at it. It informs, and enriches your life, and gives your life meaning.

A powder horn and cartridge box that has been handed down through the Yaple family.

A powder horn and cartridge box handed down through generations of the Yaple family.

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