What Hath God Wrought

In researching the history of Sharon Springs and neighboring communities, one comes upon fascinating individuals. Some of them made upstate New York their home and were central to political and sociological events. Others were visitors to the region and drew on its pastoral beauty and quietude to pursue their callings.

One such visitor was Samuel Finley Breese Morse. Since he was born in April 27, 1791 and died on April 2, 1872 – we’ve decided to write about him this month. He is generally known as the inventor of the first practical telegraph system and the creator of the Morse code. But he was also a successful painter and art professor, a Renaissance man of his time.

Samuel F. B. Morse was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the eldest child of the Calvinist pastor and renowned geographer Jedidiah Morse and Elizabeth Ann Breese. He came to be known to family and friends as Finley. After attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Finley entered Yale College at age 14 and studied religious philosophy, mathematics, and the science of horses. He also attended some classes on electricity. To support himself he painted miniatures of his friends. On graduation in 1810, Finley decided, over his parents’ objections, to pursue a career as a painter. The next year, he began studies at the Royal Academy of Art in London.

In 1815, Finley returned to the United States and spent the next 10 years working as a painter, traveling widely and specializing in portraits. (Ten of Morse’s portraits are in possession of the Fenimore Art Museum of the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, some 23 miles to the southwest of Sharon Springs – a great place to experience New York history!) Finley was also interested in technology and worked with his brother Sidney Edward Morse on various pumps, taking out three patents as early as 1817.

In 1829, Finley returned to Europe to paint and study the old masters, visiting Italy, Switzerland, and France. While in Paris, he developed a close friendship with the writer James Fenimore Cooper – the son of Judge William Cooper, the founder of Cooperstown (two more fascinating individuals who are part of the upstate historical tapestry). On his ocean voyage home in 1832, Finley reportedly had discussions about electromagnetism with a fellow passenger, leading to his sketching ideas for an electromagnetic recording telegraph.

Back in the United States, Finley continued working on his wide-ranging interests. He took a post as professor of Painting and Sculpture at the University of the City of New York, and he continued work in electromagnetism, exploring the concept of using pulses of electrical current to convey information by wire over long distances. By late 1835, he had worked out the principals of a relay system. He also developed a dot-and-dash electronic alphabet for the messages.

Finley’s cousin, Judge James Otis Morse, owned a house in Cherry Valley on Montgomery Street (still known as the Morse House). In 1837, Finley stayed there and, with his associate Amos L. Swan, the manufacturer of the Cherry Valley Melodeon, conducted experiments on a working telegraph system.

On May 24, 1844, Finley demonstrated his telegraph system by sending a message from the Supreme Court Room in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to the railway depot at Baltimore, Maryland. “What hath God wrought” was the first message ever transmitted.  Quite prescient given the text messages and social networks that are the direct descendants of that series of dots and dashes.

That same year, Finley returned to Cherry Valley and he and his partner Amos Swan established the first telegraph office in the area – part of the Albany-Syracuse telegraph run – in two small wooden buildings on Alden Street (near the current stoplight). During his time in Cherry Valley, Finley painted for relaxation. Meanwhile, by the 1840s, Sharon Springs had become known as a resort center where people came for mineral baths, with large hotels being built for growing number of visitors, many of them the social elite. We can assume Finley took advantage of this nearby luxury. (Other Cherry Valley social elites, Samuel and Icynthia Meeks Campbell – ancestors of blogger Chris Campbell – stayed at the Pavilion Hotel in Sharon Springs on August 21, 1841.)

By 1849, there were over 12,000 miles of telegraph lines across the United States, operated by 20 different companies. In 1856, the Western Union Telegraph Company was founded. By 1858, the two coasts of the United States were linked by telegraph. Telegraph communication also gained a foothold in Europe, and, on August 16th,1858, the first transatlantic message was sent.

In 1847, Finley bought Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie, New York, and  lived there and in New York City with his second wife, Sarah Elizabeth Griswold. His first wife Lucretia Pickering Walker had died in 1825. He had four children by each wife. In 1871, the year before his death, a bronze statue of Morse was unveiled at Central Park in New York.

Although other inventors laid the groundwork for telegraphy and helped devise similar systems as Morse did as well as codes for transmission, he was the first to devise a practical system and his patents were upheld in court. The Morse code also became a standard message system and is still used in many applications, including Ham Radio (W2CDC, a.k.a. Chris Campbell, makes use of it regularly). The telegraph ranks historically with the railroad, telephone, and Internet in helping connect the global community. And the greater Sharon Springs region played a part.


The History Boys are

Chris Campbell has made his permanent home in Cherry Valley, NY. The Campbell family dates back to 1739 in this town, situated about eight miles from Sharon Springs. Some family members were captured by Tories and Iroquois allies in the Cherry Valley Massacre of 1778 during the American Revolution and taken to Canada, released two years later in Albany as part of a prisoner exchange. Chris is a rare book and map collector and has had a lifelong interest in history, especially relating to upstate New York and colonial land patents. He was the founder and first chairman of the Cherry Valley Planning Board and has worked as a surveyor and realtor as well as a researcher for the Otsego County map department. His hobbies include Ham radio.

Carl Waldman, also living in Cherry Valley, is a former archivist for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He is he author of a number of reference books published by Facts On File, including Atlas of the North American Indian and Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, both originally published in the 1980s and both in their third editions. He is the co-author of Encyclopedia of Exploration (2005) and Encyclopedia of European Peoples (2006). Carl has also done screenwriting about Native Americans, including an episode of Miami Vice entitled “Indian Wars” and the Legend of Two-Path, a drama about the Native American side of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, shown at Festival Park on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His hobbies include music and he works with young people in the Performance and Production Workshops at the Cherry Valley Old School.

by History Boys

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Lodema Jenkins

Does Nancy reference his Gallery of the Louvre? That painting has an interesting history all its own. I last saw it at the Terra Museum in Chicago and have a poster of it in my studio. I hope it coming back to Cooperstown where it belongs!

Nancy Pfau

Fascinating as always — Morse is quite a character and I am anxious for Hyde Hall to reopen this year to see the copy of the masterpiece he painted at The Louvre!