1833: “Flavius” to John Freeborn

This fascinating 1833 letter contains a description of Niagara Falls that was written by a traveller from New York City who signed his name “Flavius,” though I believe this to be a pseudonym. He referred to his traveling companion — also a man — as “Perfect” and addressed the letter to his friend, “Fungus.” We know that “Fungus” was John Freeborn because the author had to address the stampless letter properly to mail it.

The letter was addressed to John Freeborn (1803-1847) in care of Smith & Freeborn, Painters, on Cherry Street between Pike & Rutger’s Streets. In the 1835/6 New York City Directory can be found the firm of Smith & Freeborn, Painters, at 227 Cherry Street. By 1839, the firm of Smith & Freeborn was no longer in existence; apparently dissolved and only John Freeborn remained in business at that address.

I haven’t been able to learn anything more about John Freeborn except that he died in December 1847 at the age of 44, and that he was survived by two brothers, William A. Freeborn and James F. Freeborn. John is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

The year of the letter was written but we know that it had to have been written on either Saturday, August 17th in 1833 or 1839. The content of the letter rules out 1839.

Addressed to Mr. John Freeborn, care of Smith & Freeborn, Painters, Cherry between Pike & Rutgers, New York

Avon Springs
Saturday August 17, [1833]

Friend Fungus,

After leaving you on Saturday evening last at Utica, we retired to rest and the next morning took stage westward, having for companions a French lady, a German, a Blackleg [a swindler/gambler], a newly married couple, and a Gentleman from New Orleans — “Poverty makes strange bed fellows.” Nothing worth narrating happened on our journey and we reached Auburn that night where we lodged and the next morning proceeded onward passing through Geneva and Canandaigua — two of the prettiest towns in the whole western country — and arrived at Rochester at night where the “Staff of life” is manufactured in the greatest abundance. One mill alone when in full operation grinds from 2000 to 2500 bushels of wheat per day.

Here we lodged (at a Temperance House!!!) and after looking around in the morning, took the [Erie] Canal boat for Tonawanda where we arrived at four o’clock the next morning. Here we again took the stage which was in waiting and a ride of nine miles placed us (on Wednesday afternoon) at the mighty Cataract. Here we breakfasted and then proceeded to view the Falls — and to say that my anticipations were realized would be saying nothing. The reality infinitely surpassed in grandeur and sublimity anything I had ever conceived. We first view the American Falls and were highly pleased with them. But by far the grandest sight (in my opinion) is from the British side. While here in his Britannic Majesty’s possessions, I did not fail to drink “the health of King William [IV], God damn him.”


They take your small change in the neighborhood of the Falls with all the grace you can imagine. We viewed the Falls from all directions and finally procured [waxed] dresses and a guide to proceed under the great sheet of falling water and descended for that purpose. I followed next the guide and Perfect followed me. In passing the great body of spray, the respiration becomes so difficult that it is necessary to hold your head down to shun the torrent of water which is dashed against you. At this place, you are elevated about thirty feet from the bed of the river below while the torrent is pouring forth its water above an hundred feet above you with the noise of thunder. Add to this that it is so dark that it is impossible to see for more than six feet ahead of you while the ledge of rocks along which you are passing is in some places but a few inches in width and you can form some idea of the place.

I pushed onward, my eyes intently fixed on the guide until we reached the Termination Rock ¹ when on looking around, Perfect was not there. His heart had failed him after getting about half way and he “put about.” I would not pass under the Falls again [and] I would not advise anybody to do it. The rock over which the torrent pours just where you pass under is cracked for a great length about thirty or forty feet from the brink and it is impossible to sat at what moment some five, six, or seven hundred tons weight of rock may be precipitated into the gulf below. A Gentleman told us that although he had lived twenty-six years at the Falls, he had never had the presumption to pass under them, yet some ladies have had the hardihood to encounter the risk.

Brock’s Monument at Queenstown

After dinner we took the stage and proceeded to Lewiston (near the mouth of the Niagara) for the purpose of embarking on board of Steam Boat for Ogdensburg on the River St. Lawrence and then proceed on to Montreal and Quebec, but after seeing the boat and accommodations, we changed our minds and crossed over to Queenstown in Canada where we viewed Brock’s monument — a splendid concern. It is 126 feet in height  and the base is 270 feet above the level of the river. From the top, which is reached by a spiral staircase, we had a view of the country for fifty miles in extent, embracing a portion of Lake Ontario. Brock commanded the British army and was opposed by the militia under General [Stephen] Van Rensselear. Our troops had gained the heights and would have conquered but for a reinforcement which the British received upon which our boys retreated across the river. This battle took place in October 1812.

Here we took the stage and proceeded to Buffalo, keeping on the British side of the river, passing through Chippewa, Bridgewater, Waterloo, and Black Rock. At the two first mentioned places the British got such an infernal drubbing that will make them long remember that Yank heroism is more than an equal for all their boasted valor.

Buffalo is a great place and reminds a Yorker of home more than any other place in this country. We took a bathing in the surf of Lake Erie. Here too the sons of bitches (Mistress of the Ocean!) were compelled to yield to superior bravery. Here we saw a great many Indians (Tuscaroras) from a settlement a few miles below on Lake Erie and my opinion of them is somewhat lessened for they are (what we saw) a poor, miserable, degraded, indolent set of beings caused no doubt by their intercourse with the whites.

The stage waits. We are off for Rochester. The springs here [at Avon Springs] contain a deal of sulphur and smell or rather stink like bilge water. I’ll have none of them. Perfect imagines they will benefit him and has been filling his bladder. Best respects to all. Shall be home on the evening of the 25th or morning of the 26th.

Sincerely yours, — Flavius Jo.

The public house at Buffalo where we put up is one of the finest in the United States and surpasses everything in this section of the country. The accommodations at the Falls on the American side are but indifferent and on the British side damned bad.

Private postscript — Forty two dollars will hardly pay expenses. N. B. Written with a pigeon quill!

¹ An 1831 visitor to the falls named Thomas Fowler wrote of his excursion to Termination Rock: “Safe and convenient stair-ways have been erected on each side of the river, leading to the margin of the stream below the falls. At Table Rock on the Canada side there is a near cottage, and the staircase leads from the interior. A register is kept here for entering the names of visitors; and, during summer, there are frequently thirty or forty in one day. The waxen dresses are kept here for those who choose to go under the falls….The pathway from the foot of the stair and underneath the sheet of falling water is some yards above the margin of the stream below, and the rock projects irregularly over it above. The precipice is composed of shelving rock, but the strata beneath is a softer composition than the surface, which accounts for its wasting faster away below than above. On arriving at the sheet of water, the keeper informed us that it was necessary to take each other by the hand. Our guide, of course, led the way, my companion next, and I happened to be in the rear. The entrance is only about the breadth of a common door, and it is filled with a dense cloud of vapour. We walked on several rods, and the passage became narrower, till it was only the breadth of one’s foot on the irregular face of the rock. There are several rods of this description, in the course of which there was an irregular stair to descend eight or ten steps. All along this narrow pass the broken water rushed down, till the weight of it made us stoop. Here the spray from the rock below darted up into our faces with such violence, that it was impossible for one to open his eyes but with a glimpse once in a few yards, and respiration is rather difficult, threatening to choke all who attempt to breathe. About one-fourth of the whole distance, towards the inmost recess of this cavern of rock and flood, the way was more agreeable, till we arrived at an open space, where a rock impeded the progress. The keeper now informed us that we were below the great green sheet of falling water, and at Termination Rock, beyond which no one is known to have passed…Whether or not the scene behind the falling sheet is sufficient to repay the visitor for the lassitude and trouble of approaching it is a point which must be decided by the different tastes of visitors.” [The Journal of a Tour through British America to the Falls of Niagara… by Thomas Fowler, 1832]


Griff View All →

My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.

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