Saturday, July 5, 2003
From war spies to local leaders
Earlier this year, a movie about a teenage spy called "Agent Cody Banks" was released. There's a growing "Spy Kids" series of movies available that are popular with youngsters.
But in real life, more than 225 years ago, a couple of teens who later settled in the town of Guilford had similar roles. They worked under Gen. George Washington, and spied on the British armies during the Revolutionary War.
Just before the American Revolution, teenage brothers Joshua and John Mersereau lived with their father, Joshua Sr., on Staten Island. They had a tavern, stagecoach line and several ferry boats. At that time, stagecoaches ran with two horses. But the Mersereaus partnered with John Barnhill, who came over from England with a new technology for stagecoaches. He was able to drive four horses, giving a much faster ride. They ran the line called "The Flying Machine" until the war began. In a patriotic show of support, the Mersereau brothers gave their horses to Washington.
Washington knew the Mersereaus, as he was a frequent visitor to Joshua Sr.'s home. In early July 1776, New York fell to the British. A large amount of the Mersereau property was destroyed. Washington, as he retreated to New Jersey, asked Mersereau if his son John would remain behind and act as a spy. John eluded capture and rejoined the American army. Brother Joshua replaced John as a spy, using a skiff and moving back and forth across the Delaware River. When Washington crossed the Delaware in retreat, the teens made it possible to thwart the British effort to capture Washington. John and Joshua found troop carriers that had been purposely sunk by the British to keep them out of sight, raised them and burned them. So when British General Howe arrived at the Delaware, he found the destroyed boats. Washington returned 25 days later and made the famous "Crossing of the Delaware." So thanks to two teenagers, the turning point of the American Revolution had begun.
Not only did the Mersereau brothers scuttle General Howe's pursuit, they went on to other battles from 1776 to 1782. For their service, like all others who fought, the Mersereaus were granted land. They were given several lots in areas we know today as East Guilford, Rockdale, Mount Upton and Latham Corners. You might say the Mersereaus made another major river crossing - over the Unadilla as first settlers of Fayette (Guilford) in 1788-89. Joshua and John had learned from their father and uncle how to be enterprising businessmen. Together, they sold more than 60 pieces of land to new settlers between 1792 and 1834.
Joshua Jr. built the first mill in the town at the mouth of the Guilford Creek. By 1802, he was elected as one of the first New York state assemblymen. He married Dinah Garriston before arriving in Guilford, and they had 13 children. When the mill was in operation, Joshua built a home and farmed near the mill on the Unadilla River.
John married Sally Brookins in Guilford, and they had four children. They also built a house and farmed nearby. While it was still Tioga County, John was appointed the first surrogate judge in Bainbridge. When Chenango County was formed from pieces of Tioga and Herkimer counties, John was appointed again as surrogate.
Later, Joshua and John started a lumbering business with their large family in Guilford Center. They also bought and ran a profitable stagecoach stop known as the Angel Inn.
But just as many others did at the time, both brothers moved west, essentially following their children. Joshua moved to Lindley, near Painted Post in 1840. Eventually Joshua passed away in 1856, at age 98. John settled not far away, in nearby Covington, Pa. He died in 1841 at age 84. Joshua and John had very productive lives. Without them, things might have been a lot different in the results of the Revolution.
On Monday: A dedication is held for a new Boys' Club on River Street.
City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column will focus on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns will address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or e-mail him at email@example.com.