Austerlitz, New York is a tiny little blink of an upstate town. It consists of a post office, a handful of buildings, a church and a cemetery. I don’t think it even has a traffic light. It is God’s Country indeed, blanketed by sprawling fields worked by men and women who still make farming their lives. Stepping into this part of Columbia County, you feel the centuries melt away. The land calls to your heart; in coming to Austerlitz, I felt I had truly come home.
Early in the history of New York, Dutch settlers established colonies in the area now known as Albany. Among these early settlers were the Piertze, later Americanized to Peterson. Several generations would pass as the Dutch settlers lost their native tongue, and the records left behind moved from Dutch to English. It is here that I was able to pick up the trail of my ancestors: the Petersons of Columbia County, New York.
Jacob (James) Peterson married Elizabeth Hoffman, and their ten known children were born in the 1750s and 1760s. One son Benjamin P., was equally as prolific as his parents, marrying Elizabeth Gaul in 1785, and producing at least nine children. Benjamin’s line remained in the Columbia County region, in the towns of Austerlitz, Ghent, and Chatham, and their descendants can still be found in the area today. I was fortunate to meet one of the descendants of Benjamin P. Peterson in 1997. Donald F. Kern was the son of Mary J. Peterson, daughter of Benjamin Peterson, son of James Van Buren Peterson, son of Benjamin P. Peterson. Donald’s wife is the former historian for Austerlitz County, and I met her during the course of my research. The Kerns kindly invited me to visit them if ever in the area, and when I made my trip to Austerlitz, I took them up on their offer. Donald and Marion were a pleasure to meet, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to know them. The afternoon flew by quickly as Marion and I reviewed our Peterson genealogy. I was amazed to learn Donald had been born and raised in the home in which he still lived. Such it is in Columbia County, where loyalty to the land is the very essence of survival for farming people. But, it is Benjamin’s brother William from whom I descend, so as I sadly bid farewell to the Kerns after my visit, we shall move from Benjamin to William and his descendants.
William and his wife Mary Valentine were not as blessed with children as others were in the family. Their marriage only produced four sons. Yet, William, a farmer, as most were in this country, was sure to have been more satisfied with four strong sons to help work the land, than 15 of even the most beautiful daughters. William and his family were members of the Dutch Reformed Church in Ghent. I can envision Mary spending many long hours at church praying for the safety of her husband, who according to family lore, served in both the Mexican and Revolutionary wars. Mary’s prayers most surely affected William’s health as he lived to be 96 years old, well beyond the average in the harsh climes of upstate New York, under the open sky working in the fields.
William’s son Jacob apparently inherited either his father’s genetics, or his mother’s prayers, living almost as long as his father, passing at 90 years of age. During those plentiful years, Jacob, as his father before him, was a farmer, and with the help of his wife Rebecca produced a goodly sized brood of five children. In approximately 1818, Jacob, Rebecca, and their sons Julian and Jacob, and daughter Sally experienced either a spiritual or political reformation, moving to the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, having formerly been members of both the Claverack Reformed Church and the First Reformed Church of Ghent. It would be another eleven years before the birth of their fifth and final child -- my great-great-great-grandfather: Edward Pugsley Peterson -- would be recorded in the church records of their new found faith.
Edward attended Ghent public schools until at the age of 16 he traveled to the town of Troy to apprentice as a stationary engineer. Perhaps Edward was tired of the ways of farm life and as a young man yearned to fulfill the new dreams being offered at the birth of the Industrial Revolution. During his visits home, Edward met and later married Caroline Palmer 16, of Austerlitz, on October 28, 1847. After completing his education he moved to Boston for several years with his wife, earning his living in the express business he had trained for. Yet, despite the grand dreams he may have entertained as a youth, by 1855, Edward had returned to Columbia County, and settled into rural life as a farmer. Caroline had returned earlier, perhaps due to the birth of her son George in 1849, and lived with her parents until Edward was able to finalize business in Boston, and establish a new life for the couple closer to “home.” Edward purchased a sizable piece of land in Austerlitz, and a beautiful country Victorian farmhouse; the house still stands today (when last I saw it, operating as a Bed and Breakfast) a small herd of sheep and goats greeting visitors as they pull in the drive. Caroline’s father Aaron moved in with the young couple, his wife hospitalized for a progressive illness that eventually took her life in 1868. As his father before him did, Edward had a change of heart in regards to religion, only in this case the evidence seems clear as to why. Caroline Palmer and her family were of the Presbyterian faith, and so after their marriage, Edward took the faith of his wife and her family. But faith alone was not enough to keep Edward “down on the farm.” Ever dissatisfied with life as a farmer, around 1870 Edward tried his hand at keeping a saloon, with the help of his son George, who was now 21 years of age. It was here that George would meet his future bride, Miss Sarah Allen Forrest, daughter of traveling liquor salesman Horatio D. Forrest of Ohio.
When this venture did not prove successful, Edward returned to the farm, and eventually settled into a position as the Austerlitz postmaster around 1884. The post office, just a few short miles north on Route 22 from the Peterson homestead, may well have been established there specifically for Edward’s convenience. Obviously a man of some influence in the small town, I am told Edward had already had the red school house which had occupied the plot across the road from his home, moved south on Route 22, as the noise of the attending children at recess had disturbed him. Yet Caroline was influential as well. She had a lengthy article written about her life in Columbia County’s Biographical Review, and was described as an “intelligent, progressive woman … whose broad and liberal views [were] wielding a gentle but effectual influence on [Columbia County’s] moral and intellectual development.” It is sad commentary to note that it was not until nine years prior to her passing that Caroline had the pleasure of casting her vote in a public election for the very first time. Caroline voted as a registered Republican, yet it would seem Edward was less moveable in politics than he was in religion; Edward remained loyal to the Democratic party. One can only imagine the heated political debates the family must have experienced.
Edward and Caroline’s son George, who had been born in the home in Austerlitz, continued to live in his parent’s home, adding to the family on June 21, 1873 by bringing home his wife, the aforementioned Sarah Forrest. The couple were married in Troy.
George’s express business, an interest acquired from his father, took George and his son Aaron on frequent business trips, and it during the course of these trips that Aaron would meet Ruth Hazel Schaffel of Jersey City, New Jersey. Miss Schaffel would become Mrs. Peterson October 11, 1895. It was this union that would produce my paternal grandfather, George Washington Peterson, one of nine children, in 1913.