Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper

Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper

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by Paul E. Johnson

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The true history of a legendary American folk hero

In the 1820s, a fellow named Sam Patch grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, working there (when he wasn't drinking) as a mill hand for one of America's new textile companies. Sam made a name for himself one day by jumping seventy feet into the tumultuous waters below Pawtucket Falls. When in 1827 he


The true history of a legendary American folk hero

In the 1820s, a fellow named Sam Patch grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, working there (when he wasn't drinking) as a mill hand for one of America's new textile companies. Sam made a name for himself one day by jumping seventy feet into the tumultuous waters below Pawtucket Falls. When in 1827 he repeated the stunt in Paterson, New Jersey, another mill town, an even larger audience gathered to cheer on the daredevil they would call the "Jersey Jumper." Inevitably, he went to Niagara Falls, where in 1829 he jumped not once but twice in front of thousands who had paid for a good view.

The distinguished social historian Paul E. Johnson gives this deceptively simple story all its deserved richness, revealing in its characters and social settings a virtual microcosm of Jacksonian America. He also relates the real jumper to the mythic Sam Patch who turned up as a daring moral hero in the works of Hawthorne and Melville, in London plays and pantomimes, and in the spotlight with Davy Crockett-a Sam Patch who became the namesake of Andrew Jackson's favorite horse.

In his shrewd and powerful analysis, Johnson casts new light on aspects of American society that we may have overlooked or underestimated. This is innovative American history at its best.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Nudged forward by Paul Johnson's consummate storytelling, the reader plunges headlong into the raging torrents of antebellum America, where manly artisans thrash about with scheming capitalists, incorrigible wastrels with prim reformers. Having taken the leap, the reader will find, as did Sam Patch, that you cannot go back. This is a wonderful, clever book.” —Mark C. Carnes, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of History, Barnard College, Columbia University

“With this little masterpiece, Paul Johnson proves yet again that he is one of the greatest artists currently writing history anywhere. Scholar, stylist, and intellectual daredevil, Johnson brings to life a forlorn and intrepid American hero--and an entire era in our past--while operating at the highest levels of subtlety, wit, and seriousness. Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper contains the kind of genius one expects from fine literature as well as from fine history. It is stunning.” —Sean Wilentz, Princeton University

“On Friday, November 13, 1829, a cheering crowd watched a drunken factory hand named Sam Patch step bravely off the top of Genesee Falls at Rochester, New York--and vanish into legend. In this compact masterpiece of historical detective work, Paul E. Johnson manages both to bring this unlikely early American hero back to vivid life, and to say a good many fresh and provocative things about Jacksonian America, the industrial revolution and the cult of celebrity.” —Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin D. Roosevelt

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.45(w) x 8.18(h) x 0.70(d)

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Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper

By Paul E. Johnson

Hill and Wang

Copyright © 2003 Paul E. Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8090-8388-6



Sam Patch first saw Pawtucket in 1807, when he was seven years old. It was an old village, founded in 1672 at the falls of the Blackstone River, four miles north of Providence, Rhode Island. The Englishman Samuel Slater had built America's first water-frame cotton-spinning mill there in 1790. In 1807 three mills stood beside the falls, and they were beginning to edge out the family-owned anchor forges, snuff mills, nail factories, and artisan shops of the old town. Pawtucket was becoming America's first textile manufacturing town, and the Patches were one of the first mill families.

Postrevolutionary America was an overwhelmingly rural republic, and proponents of domestic manufactures insisted that factories would threaten neither agriculture nor the independence of farmers. The clear streams and abundant water power of the New England and mid-Atlantic states would encourage manufacturers to scatter their mills through the countryside, and these would provide employment for children and women from poor farm households. Alexander Hamilton explained some of the advantages of this system: "The husbandman himself experiences a new source of profit and support from the increased industry of his wife and daughters; invited and stimulated by the demands of the neighboring manufactories." Marginal farmers would continue to farm, securing their independence through new and more profitable forms of dependence for their wives and children. Thus Americans, said the promoters, could enjoy domestic manufactured goods without threats to agriculture, and without the European messiness of industrial cities or an industrial working class. There would, they promised, be no Manchesters in America.

At first, Samuel Slater's Pawtucket kept that promise. His earliest mill workers were children of his partners and associates, then the children of Pawtucket artisans and farmers. Within a few years, however, he was searching beyond the neighborhood for mill hands and outworkers. Slater needed women and children, and he advertised for widows with large families. What he found was whole families headed by propertyless, destitute men. The Patches were one of these.

As the new families struggled into Pawtucket, Slater and the other mill owners began referring to the workers as "poor children," "that description of people," "those who are dependant on daily labor for support." A Baptist minister who worked with the new people disclosed that the moral "condition of the factory help was deplorable" and dubbed them "children of misfortune." Mill labor was stigmatized, and artisans and farmers (indeed any father who could manage without the wages of his children) took their daughters and sons out of the mills. A widening flood of destitute migrants took their places, and the mill families became a separate and despised group of people. The Baptist preacher recalled that these families were not only poor but prone to thievery, violence, and drunkenness: "The cotton mill business has brought in a large influx of people," he said, "who came in the Second Class cars. Such was the prejudice against the business that few others could be had, and the highways and hedges had to be searched even for them. A body of loafers was on hand before, who were, by turns, inmates of the tippling shops and the poor house, and not infrequently found in the gutter.... Bangall, Hardscrabble, Bungtown, Pilfershire, &c. were ... appropriate epithets for the place." In 1830 a travel guidebook (one that tried to be optimistic about most places) warned that in Pawtucket "the influx of strangers, many of them poor and ignorant foreigners, and most of them removed from the wholesome restraints of a better society, has produced unfavourable effects on habits and morals; which is the worst feature in the manufacturing system." America had its first little Manchester.

It must have been a bewildered Sam Patch who, at the age of seven, stood with his father, mother, and four brothers and sisters and looked at Pawtucket for the first time. The Patches had spent the previous few years in the fishing village of Marblehead, in Massachusetts, but they had lost their house there, and the father had taken to drink and no longer worked. Before Marblehead, Sam's family had lived on farms surrounded by his mother's kin, but Sam did not remember those places. He would grow up in Pawtucket, shaped by his work and workmates in the mills. He would also be formed by the disorder of this new mill town, and he played his own part in making that disorder. Sam Patch was a product of family history as well — of the long train of disinheritance, uncertainty, and moral disintegration that had destroyed his father and delivered his family to Pawtucket. Sam could not remember much of that history, and his mother would try to hide it. But it shaped Sam Patch in ways he would never outrun.

Sam Patch was the son of Mayo Greenleaf Patch, a marginal farmer and cottage shoemaker from northeastern Massachusetts, who went by the name of Greenleaf. The life of Greenleaf Patch was shadowed by two burdensome and uncomfortable facts. The first was the immense value that his New England neighbors placed on economic independence and the ownership of land. In postrevolutionary Massachusetts, freehold tenure conferred not only economic security but personal and moral independence, the ability to support and govern a family, political rights, and the respect of one's neighbors and oneself. New Englanders trusted the man who owned land. They feared and despised the man who did not. The second fact was that in the late eighteenth century increasing numbers of men owned no land. Greenleaf Patch was one of them.

Like nearly everyone else in revolutionary Massachusetts, Greenleaf Patch was descended from yeoman stock. His family had come to Salem from England in 1636, and they worked a farm in nearby Wenham for more than a century. The Patches were church members and farm owners, and their men served regularly in the militia and in township offices. Greenleaf's father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all served terms as selectmen of Wenham. His great-grandfather was that town's representative to the Massachusetts General Court. His older brother was a militiaman who fought on the first day of the American Revolution.

Though the Patches were an old and familiar family in Wenham, in the eighteenth century they were in trouble. Like thousands of New Englanders, they owned small farms and had many children, and by mid-century it was becoming clear that young Patch men would not inherit enough to enjoy the material standards established by their fathers. The farm on which Mayo Greenleaf Patch was born exemplified those troubles. His father, Timothy Patch, Jr., had inherited a house, an eighteen-acre farm, and eleven acres of outlying meadow and woodland at his own father's death in 1751. Next door, Timothy's brother Samuel worked the remaining nine acres of what had been their father's farmstead. The father had known that neither of his sons could make farms of these small plots, and he demanded that they share resources. His will granted Timothy access to a shop and cider mill that lay on Samuel's land, and it drew the boundary between them through the only barn on the property. It was the end of the line: further subdivision would make both farms unworkable.

Timothy Patch's situation was precarious, and he made it worse by overextending himself, both as a landholder and as a father. Timothy was forty-three years old when he inherited his farm in 1751, and he was busy buying pieces of woodland, upland, and meadow all over Wenham. Evidently he speculated in marginal land and/or shifted from farming to livestock raising, which he did on credit and on a fairly large scale. By the early 1760s Timothy Patch held title to 114 acres, nearly all of it in small plots of poor land. These were speculative investments that he may have made to provide for an impossibly large number of heirs: he was already the father of ten children when he inherited his farm in 1751, and in succeeding years he was widowed and remarried and had two more daughters and a son. In all, he fathered ten children who survived to adulthood. The youngest was a son born in 1766. Timothy named him Mayo Greenleaf.

Greenleaf Patch's life began badly: his father went bankrupt in the year of his birth. Timothy had transferred the house and farm to his two oldest sons several years earlier, possibly to keep them out of the hands of creditors. Then, in 1766, the creditors began making trouble. In September Timothy relinquished twenty acres of his outlying land to satisfy a debt. By March 1767 he had lost five court cases and had sold all his remaining land to pay debts and court costs, and he was preparing to leave Wenham. It was the end of his family's history in that town. Timothy's first two sons stayed on, but both left Wenham before their deaths, and none of the other children established households in the neighborhood. After a century as substantial farmers and local leaders, the Patch family disappeared from the records of Wenham.

The father's wanderings after that cannot be traced with certainty. Timothy may have stayed in the neighboring towns of Andover and Danvers. A neighbor sued a Timothy Patch in Andover (a few miles northwest of Wenham) in 1770; citizens of Danvers launched seven lawsuits against a Timothy Patch between 1779 and 1783. Some of these cases involved considerable sums of money, but the last of them accused the seventy-four-year-old Timothy of stealing firewood. That is all that we can know about the Patch family during the childhood of Mayo Greenleaf Patch.

About the childhood itself we know nothing. Young Greenleaf may have shared his father's moves, but it is just as likely that he stayed with relatives in Wenham, for he eventually named his own children after members of the household of his brother Isaac in that town. We know also that young Greenleaf Patch learned how to make shoes, and as his first independent appearance in the civic records came at the age of twenty-one, we might guess that he served a formal, live-in apprenticeship. But all these points rest on speculation. Only this is certain: Greenleaf Patch was the tenth and youngest child of a family that broke and scattered in the year of his birth, and he entered adulthood alone and without visible resources.

In 1787 Mayo Greenleaf Patch appeared in the Second (North) Parish of Reading, Massachusetts — fifteen miles north of Boston and about the same distance west of Wenham. He was twenty-one years old and unmarried, and he owned almost nothing. He had no relatives in Reading. Indeed, no one named Patch had ever appeared in the town's records. In a world where property was inherited and where kinfolk were essential social and economic assets, young Greenleaf Patch had inherited nothing and lived alone.

Greenleaf soon took steps that improved his prospects. In July 1788 he married Abigail McIntire in North Reading. He was twenty-two years old; she was seventeen and pregnant. This early marriage is most easily explained as an unfortunate accident, but from the standpoint of Greenleaf Patch it was not unfortunate at all, for it put him into a family that possessed resources his own family had lost. For the next twelve years, Patch's livelihood and ambitions centered on the McIntires and their land.

The McIntires were descendants of Scots soldiers who had supported the accession of Charles II after the Puritans executed Charles I in 1649. They fought an English army led by Oliver Cromwell at Dunbar in 1650 and suffered a disastrous defeat. Three thousand Scots died on the field, nine thousand ran off, and ten thousand were taken prisoner. Cromwell released the wounded and force-marched the others south and imprisoned them in the cathedral at Durham. Only three thousand survived the march, and about half of those died in the cathedral. After a long and hellish imprisonment, the half-starved survivors were transported to English colonies in the Caribbean and the North American mainland.

The ancestors of Greenleaf's pregnant young bride had found themselves exiled to the northern reaches of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in what is now Maine. Some walked south, and Philip McIntire helped to pioneer North Reading in the 1650s. Over the years, the Mclntires intermarried with their old Puritan enemies and joined their Congregational church, and by the 1780s McIntire households (now as much English as Scots) were scattered through the North Parish. Archelaus McIntire, Abigail's father, headed the most prosperous of those households. Archelaus had been an eldest son, and he inherited the family farm intact. He kept that farm and added to it, and by 1790 he owned ninety-seven acres in North Reading and patches of meadowland in two neighboring townships, a flock of seventeen sheep, cattle and oxen and other animals, and enough personal property to indicate comfort and material decency, if not wealth. Of 122 taxpayers in the North Parish in 1792, the estate of Archelaus McIntire ranked 23rd.

In 1788, when Archelaus McIntire learned that his youngest daughter was pregnant and would marry Mayo Greenleaf Patch, he may have been angry. But he had seen such things before. One in three Massachusetts women of his daughter's generation was pregnant on her wedding day, and the McIntires had contributed amply to that figure: Archelaus himself had been born three months after his parents' wedding in 1729; an older daughter had conceived a child at the age of fourteen; his only son would marry a pregnant lover in 1795.

Faced with this early pregnancy, Archelaus McIntire determined to make the best of a bad situation. In the winter of 1789-90 he loaned Greenleaf Patch the cost of a shoemaker's shop and a small house and granted him use of the land on which they stood. At a stroke, Mayo Greenleaf Patch was endowed with family connections and economic independence.

Northeastern Massachusetts had been exporting shoes since before the Revolution, for it possessed the prerequisites of cottage shoemaking in abundance: it was poor and overcrowded, many of its farmers had taken to raising cattle (and thus leather) on their worn-out land, and there was access to markets through Boston and the port towns of Essex County. After the Revolution, thousands of farm families turned to the making of shoes, for footwear was protected under the first national tariffs, the maritime economy on which the shoe trade depended was expanding, and they were still poor.

The rural shoemakers' shops were not entrepreneurial ventures. Neither, if we listen to the complaints of merchants and skilled artisans about "slop work" coming out of the countryside, were they likely sources of craft traditions or occupational pride. They were simply the means by which farmers on small plots of worn-out land maintained their independence.

The journal of James Weston, a shoemaker in Reading during these years, suggests something of the rural shoemaker's way of life. Weston was first and last a farmer. He spent his time worrying about the weather, working his farm, repairing his house and outbuildings, and sharing farm labor with his neighbors and kinfolk. He went hunting with his brothers-in-law, took frequent fishing trips on the coast at Lynn, and made an endless round of social calls in the neighborhood. The little shop at the back of Weston's house supplemented his earnings, and he spent extended periods of time there only during the winter months. With his bags of finished shoes he went regularly to Boston, often in the company of other Reading shoemakers. The larger merchants did not yet dominate the trade in country shoes, and Weston and his neighbors went from buyer to buyer bargaining as a group, and came home with enough money to buy leather, pay debts and taxes, and survive as independent proprietors for another year. Weston enjoyed relations of neighborly cooperation with other men and he was the head of a self-supporting household and an equal participant in neighborhood affairs. In eighteenth-century Massachusetts, these attributes constituted the social definition of adult manhood. Mayo Greenleaf Patch received that status as a wedding present.


Excerpted from Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper by Paul E. Johnson. Copyright © 2003 Paul E. Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Paul E. Johnson, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, is the author of A Shopkeeper's Millennium (H&W, 1978) and co-author, with Sean Wilentz, of The Kingdom of Matthias. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and Onancock, Virginia.

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