Jason Clarke Antiques
Eighteenth Century Walking Cane engraved to Stedmans Island Niagara Falls 1768
For sale, a historic early George III period gentleman’s walking cane.
Comprised of a simple Malacca shaft with a graduated ivory knop engraved with the following:
“STEDMANS ISLAND, NIAGARA FALLS, JUNE 27TH 1768”
This seemingly unassuming mid-eighteenth century gentleman’s cane is transformed by the wording when consideration is given to the time in which it was created.
The now famous, Niagara Falls was at the time, a strategically important site between North America and Canada and had been settled by European settlers since the late Seventeenth Century. The first fortifications were built by the French (1678) and cordial relations developed with the indigenous Iroquois tribes later allowing a more permanent stone structure to be built which was expanded to its present size by 1755.
The Niagara fortifications, the fort and its smaller counterpart “Fort Petite Niagara” (located some distance up-river past The Falls to protect the land portage route) were obvious targets for the British Forces during The French and Indian War which was fought between 1754 and 1763. In 1759, the Battle of Fort Niagara took place with a combined British and Iroquois force besieging a significantly smaller French force. The British commanding officer Brigadier General John Prideaux was killed during the action and his second in command leading the Iroquois forces, Sir William Johnson oversaw the French capitulation after nineteen days.
It was shortly after this occasion that John Stedman (1738 – 1808) and his brother Phillip travelled to America, arriving at Niagara Falls in 1761 whereupon John was appointed as Master of the Portage by Sir William Johnson to oversee the transportation route for goods and supplies arriving and leaving the area.
The Stedman brothers took up residence close to the site of the former French outpost “Fort Petite Niagara” close to The Falls itself, a replacement building known as Fort Schlosser after its first commander had been built by the British shortly after the siege. From here, Stedman oversaw the reconstruction and improvements to the portage. All of these seemingly innocuous activities took place amongst rising disatsfaction within some of the Native American tribes against their treatment under British rule and the Pontiac Wars raged for three years between 1763 & 1766. Wider dissatisfaction and more localised objection to Stedman’s widening of the portage to replace Native American workforces with wagons may have been the cause for the ensuing events but on September the 14th 1763, Stedman found himself directly involved in this conflict, an event that ensured his name would be forever aligned to the history of the area.
On that day, Stedman was leading a wagon train accompanied by an armed detachment of soldiers from Fort Schlosser to Fort Niagara whereupon reaching the area called Devil’s Hole it was ambushed by a band of Seneca Warriors and according to most accounts, the entire wagon train was either killed or driven over the precipice to their death except for a chance survivor who did not die as a result of the fall and John Stedman, who was able to avoid the Native American onslaught and flee the scene back in the direction of Fort Schlosser. A second detachment of the 80th Foot was also routed after they rushed to support and later reinforcements from Fort Schlosser withdrew after having found the remains of the soldiers ritually scalped and then thrown into the ravine below.
Most contemporary accounts of this action portray John Stedman as the gallant and plucky adventurer who managed to evade the wrath of the Seneca and Stedman himself seemed to have tried to use this to his advantage in later years, suggesting that The Seneca had ceded land to him in adoration for his mystic abilities to evade them. Modern historians are a little less forgiving when it comes to his bravery but nevertheless, the events did no harm to Stedman’s reputation at the time.
His postion as Portage Master was maintained and he later added a profitable saw mill and shipfitting business to his repertoire and he effectively gained control of the area around Fort Schlosser and the surrounding Islands. The Seneca Tribe were forced by Sir William Johnson to cede a four mile wide strip of land from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie and also all of the islands upriver from The Falls after the event which would have allowed Stedman this freedom.
Stedman eventually returned to Britain in 1796 leaving his friend, Jesse Ware there to oversee the land and businesses. He retained profits from the business until the State of New York took possession of the land including Goat Island. Stedman settled in his hometown of Bosbury and purchased a house and estate named The Razees (now Bosbury House). In 1798, he became High Sherriff of Herefordshire and remained there for the rest of his life. He and his family continued to contest the ownership of the land at Niagara Falls but the lack of any paperwork meant that the endeavour eventually ended with outright failure. His claim that paperwork kept safe by Johnson at Fort Niagara was destroyed seemed to gain little support especially since Johnson died in 1774.
Stedman eventually died in October 1808 and is buried at Bosbury Church.
The cane was engraved just five years after the events of The Devil’s Hole Massacre and gives credence to Stedman’s influence over the area around Fort Schlosser. Whoever had the cane engraved naturally considered “Stedman’s Island” as a correct and appropriate name for the island at the time. Its current name, Goat Island was also coined by Stedman himself in the late 1770’s after his failed attempt to keep goats there. All but one subsequently died after a difficult winter.
The carrying of a cane during this period was considered a sign of wealth and status and examples of this kind were certainly in existence in North America at this time. The owner would therefore have to have been one of the Stedmans themselves or a visitor of equal wealth and status.
The date is not immediately recognisable as being significant so it could have been simply engraved to commemorate a visit to Stedman’s Island but the skill of the engraving does seem to point towards a date that would have been important enough for the work to be commissioned, perhaps the date when the Stedmans considered themselves to have acquired the land.
A visit to Goat Island would certainly not have been an easy undertaking, the island did not have a bridge until the middle of the Nineteenth Century and would according to records, only have been reachable by means of a sand bar starting much further upstream.
Sadly, the importance of the date may never be discovered but in itself, the cane represents an artefact from an important era in American history prior to Independence and a time when British, French and Native American interests were in constant contention.
The cane remains in very good overall condition but lacks its original ferulle at the base.