A walking encyclopedia
Source: Warrensburg, NY, Lake George News, Summer Times, May/June 1988
Hamilton County loses a link to the past in Sarah Sturges Murray
by Louella Dunann
A link of Hamilton County history was lost Jan 10, when Sarah Sturges Murray died in Garden Grove Calif at the age of 93.
Sarah believed to have been the oldest living member of the well-known Sturges family of Speculator was a walking encyclopedia of Hamilton County lore With her keen memory and persoanl acquaintances with early settlers, she was sometimes able to correct history books and recently helped compile genealogical material about several Hamilton County families.
Sarah's great-grandfather was Aaron Burr Sturges, pioneer and patriarch of a family of rugged mountain men. He and his wife Charity Squires had 15 children, many of whom served as wilderness guides and one who built a popular resort hotel.
End of an Era
Born near the end of the Adirondack Golden age, young Sarah played dolls in the old cellar hole of her great-grandfather's original log cabin.
As a teenager she worked in Sturges House, Old "Unle Dave's" resort hotel that once stood imposingly just above Newtons Corners in Speculator when the rich and the famous still used it for their summer playground.
Always close to her uncle Dave Sturges, who lived one-half mile from her home, Sarah refuted the story that her great-uncle Aaron Sturges "sold" his young son Dave to the Indians for two years.
"When I was a child, my Uncle Dave told me all his old stories, and if he had lived with Indians, he would have told me," she said. "He disappeared for a few years because he was sent to Fairfield, Conn. for schooling."
Another story Sarah disclaimed was the one about "Old Sturge" as Aaron was called, chopping off the legs of his deceased wife, Charity Squires, so she would fit in the coffin he had prepared for her.
"Of course it's not true," Sarah insisted, and threatened to have Charity's body exhumed to prove it. And indeed it has been noted that this story smacks suspiciously of an old Robert W. Service tale.
Rugged and Strong
According to Sarah however, stories of the Sturges men's physical prowess were not fabrications.
Stalwart and stout of heart, Old Sturge was famous for his 65 mile walks from Lewey Lake to Amsterdam and the gusto he exhibited on his return trip the following day. Each way he carried on his shoulders a basket heavily laden with lake trout or the supplies for which he traded them.
Nevertheless, he always refused offers of rides with horse drawn carriages by thanking the driver but informing him that he had no time to tarry with horses. He beat 'em too, every time.
Another Sturges gian whose physical feats sounded like tall tales was Aaron's grandson John.
John was known to have gone into a wood with George Perkins hunting deer and come out wearing one around his shoulders atop his pack.
There was no point in waiting for a team to come and haul it out when John, looking for all the world like an abominable snowman, was able to carry it the nine miles to Perkins' home.
Planned to Return
Sarah remembered the day Old Sturge left Lake Pleasant to go to Fairfield, Conn., because he paid a visit to her family presenting them with a family Bible.
But contrary to mountain mythology he only went along for the ride with a young couple who planned to return.
Although he was claimed by his final illness while visiting Fairfield, he never intended to turn his back forever on the idyliic mountain hamlet he helped forge out of the wilds of the Adirondacks.
Sarah's aunt, Kitt Sturges, was married to Dave Call, who ran the Hamilton County Jail.
When Sarah visited the jail, it was not unusual for her practical aunt to lock the toddler in a cell to keep her out of mischief. The cells were usually empty anyway, except for a few harmless townfolk who were merely jailed for game violations. They ate meals and played cards with the jailer's family and were often allowed to go fishing.
There are two old stories about Speculator's "littlest inmate" one true but unpublished the other published but untrue, according to Sarah.
One old fable was Sarah peeping out a jailhouse windo to witness a murder while safely locked in a cell. This is hte one she can't confirm, though she may have been to small to remember.
But the true story, which Sarah loved to tell, was a little known incident that happened one day when her Aunt Kitt locked her own son, A. Douglas Call, and young Sarah in separate cells to prevent mayhem.
"When I was a child my Uncle Dave told me all his old stories, and if he had lived with Indians, he would have told me." - Sarah Sturges Murray
This particular day a couple from New York City visited the jailhouse only to find two small children locked up in "solitary" and all the real prisoners gone fishing.
In dismay the couple asked, "But what if the prisoners don't come back?"
"Well," drawled the jailer, "if they don't come back by 10 p.m., we lock 'em out."
This famous comeback, credited in some books to Frank "Pants" Lawrence, apparently was used by more than one jailer. At any rate this particular couple thought it was hilarious and must have laughed all the way back to the big city where they retold the story.
A few weeks later, Kitt and Dave Call opened their mail to find a clipping from a New York City newspaper telling all the world about Hamilton County's unorthodox jailing practices.
Another story Sarah told was how John Thompson, another ancestor and one of Speculator's founding fathers, came to America at the age of 17.
John was the son of wealthy landowners in Westmoreland County, Great Britain, but his parents died and his aunt began running the manor house.
One day following a quarrel with his aunt, John ran away. He hitched a ride with a team until he came to a coal mine, hwere he managed to get a job.
He had only worked there about a week when his cap blew off just as he was about to go down a shaft with a small group of men. He decided to chase his cap and catch up with the men later but he didn't make it. The men went down without him and all of them were killed in a mining accident.
Not being of slow wit, John swore he'd never enter the mine again, and quit on the spot. Later he found his way to the boat yards asking for work so he could go to America to find his fortune. He was allowed to work his way across on a cattle boat, shoveling manure and cleaning decks.
Despite his perilous adventures, John finally arrived in America, safe but penniless. It wasn't long, however, before he found his way to picturesque Lake Pleasant, where he again became a big landowner.
When he moved to Wells, he supplied the land at Newtons Corners for young Dave Sturges to build his popular resort hotel, Sturges House, which burned to the ground in the mid-1940s.
So thanks to the whim of fate that blew his cap off, young JOhn was spared to come to America and become the forefather of many Hamilton County residents.
A Women's Libber
Far in advance of the times, John sent his daughter, Sarah Thompson, to Troy Female Academy in Troy - a first, since women of that era generally weren't given advanced educations.
Sarah married A "Burr" Sturges and taught school until she was 65, continuing to tutor the young of the area in algebra and geometry well into her old age.
The pioneer spirit of Adirondack women such as Sarah Thompson Sturges came from a long line of forebears who were adventurous frontiersmen.
Many of Sarah's ancestors, the Dunhams and Sturgeses had fought in the Revolutionary and Civil wars, some losing their lives. Other ancestors fought Indians and most of the members of the Jacob Dunham family were shot and scalped by Indians in [ ].
Related to Burr Barnum
Most historians seem to know the Sturges family was related to Aaron Burr, who narroly missed becoming president. Some also know that [ ] Pierpont Morgan married a Sturges girl.
But no one seems to know that Old Sturges was closely related to circus tycoon P. I. Barnum. Both from Fairfield, conn., they corresponded for many years and they claimedto be first cousins.
Sarah Sturges Murray was born Aug 23, 1894, the daughter of Daisy Patterson and James Sturges, a wilderness guide who was in charge of several highway improvements.
Old-timers can still visualize the late James as through a snow flurry strolling along with his dog and a tame deer. The phony version of how he acquired the deer was to catch a unique deer "unique" up on him. He caught his tame deer "tame" way.
Sarah's brother was the late Kenneth Sturgess, who married Ethyl Wilber and was supervisor of the Town of Lake Pleasant for nearly two decades. Their son, Kenneth, still lives in the historic old house on Main Street build by "Burr" Struges right after the Civil War.
Sarah Joins the Army
Sarah was graduated from the Albany School of Nursing in 1915 and became an army nurse during World War I, serving as a lieutenant at the prison camp of Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia.
Working 12 hours on nad 12 hours off, Sarah survived the deadly Spanish flu epidemic in Georgia only to be transferred to the Marine Hospital in San Francisco, Calif., when the epidemic hit there. Everyone wore masks.
In California she met and married a thrice wounded soldier recently returned from the Argonne battle in France and they reared eight children through the Great Depression.
Though long removed by time and miles from her native home in Lake Pleasant, all the old Adirondack tales lived on in Sarah's memory and remain a living legacy since she has passed them on to her 52 descendants; eight children; 23 grandchildren; 18 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.
A Military Burial
As jets from March Airforce Base flew by one of which seemed to soar straight up into the heavens, Sarah was given a military buiral in Riverside National Cemetery in California, Jan. 15.
her husband of 66 years, Russell J. Murray, 98, died a few weeks later. They had one son, Frank Murray, and seven daughters, Mae Poenie, Isabelle May, Marcia Clearwater, Marvis Clark, Jean McGuire, Louella Dunann and Joan Reeves.
Sarah's death was as enigmatic as her life because, while healthy of mind and body, she simply dropped off to sleep one afternoon and never awakened. The doctors called it heart failure, but whether she is gone or has just returned to the "Great Wilderness" the early Indians name for the Adirondacks, is grist for mountain myths.
(Louella Dunann is a free-lance writer and lives in California.)