Dr. Samuel William Howe, father of Abolitionist newspaperman, Eber D. Howe, served the American cause in both the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. His war experiences were remarkable, as noted in the History of the Western Reserve, Autobiography and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer, and in Howe family lore. This brief biography will attempt to place Dr. Howe in historical context, and separate the man from the romanticized history.
Samuel William Howe was born September 17, 1760, in Longmeadow, Connecticut. (It is possible he was born in Mansfield, Connecticut.) His family was residing in Connecticut at the time of his birth. Dr. Samuel W. Howe’s father was also named Samuel Howe, middle name unknown. His mother was Eunice Conant. Eunice Conant Howe was descended from Roger and Sarah Conant, who came to Massachusetts in 1623 on the ship Ann. The Conant’s built the first house in Salem. (Elizabeth Howe, one of the women accused of witchcraft in Salem, sister-in-law of John Howe, may be a relative of Dr. Howe’s.) The name “Eunice” continued to be used by the family as a tribute throughout the next two centuries; one of Dr. Howe’s daughters was named Eunice. Myrta Eunice Howe, 1868-1903, is another such example.
Dr. Samuel William Howe’s father, Samuel Howe, died just two days after his son’s birth, on September 19, 1760. This first Samuel Howe died in Montreal, purportedly killed by Indians during the French and Indian War (the Seven Year’s War). Samuel Howe, father, was the son of Ebenezer Howe; Ebenezer was the son of an earlier Samuel Howe, who was the son of John Howe. (The repetition of the names John and Samuel in the 17th and 18th century Howe family makes the genealogy confusing.) John Howe of Massachusetts was the progenitor of this branch of the Howe family in America. There is no record of John Howe’s birth in Massachusetts, or information on when he arrived. Presumably he was born in England. The first mention of John Howe is that he was wed in 1639 in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and became a Selectman in 1642. John Howe’s son, the brother of Samuel, also named John, perished during King Phillip’s War in 1680. The Howes must have been quite used to war, as so many of them died during the violence of the 17th and 18th centuries. Dr. Samuel William Howe’s own father, Samuel, died in conflict, and Dr. Howe, in turn, fought in two wars. Dr. Howe’s son, Eber, who served with his father in the War of 1812, became a pacifist. Samuel W. Howe’s grandson, Orville Duane Howe, chose to pay a fee rather than serve in the Civil War.
Dr. Samuel Howe was raised by his mother and step-father. In 1779, at the age of 19, Samuel studied medicine at Dartmouth College. After his first year at Dartmouth, Samuel began to practice surgery. In the years before anesthesia, speed and strength were the two qualifications of a good surgeon.
The field of medicine was not well-respected at this time. Doctors didn’t practice basic hygiene: hand-washing, anesthesia, and antibiotics were unknown. Diagnosis of disease was based on “humors” or “tensions,” and the remedy was bloodletting, often using leeches. Medicine changed little for a thousand years, until the discovery of germs in the 1880’s. The care of a physician often made patients worse off. Although some doctors noted this, scientific studies of blood-letting weren’t conducted until the 1850’s. Pharmacology, though, may have been slightly more effective in America than in Europe; in the late 18th century, Dr. Samuel Thomson developed medicine using herbs, which he derived from observation of Native Americans’ use of plants. Many people visited midwives rather than doctors.
The conflict between England and the Colonies diverted Samuel from his studies. Hostilities started in 1775. When visiting Boston in 1780, a year after he began studying medicine, Samuel Howe decided to join a privateering vessel as its ship’s surgeon. The name of the ship is unknown; records of that kind were not kept by the colonies.
Since defeating the Spanish armada in 1588, England ruled the seas with its superior navy. By 1783 Britain had almost 500 ships. By contrast, the colonies had fewer than 50. England had a virtual strangle hold on the colonies, and kept supplies, including gunpowder, from the rebellious Americans. The colonies decided to give Letters of Marque to privately owned ships: Letters of Marque entitled ships to fight on behalf of the United States. These ships, known as privateers, harassed and fought the English navy. The distinction between privateers and piracy is blurry. It is estimated that over 400 vessels became privateers. It was lucrative for the ships, and helpful to the colonies. Privateers were well- compensated. Letters of Marque helped the Americans so much that the concept was legalized in Article 1 of the U. S. Constitution.
The crew of the ship Samuel joined understood they would be patrolling the American coast, but the captain decided differently. According to the History of the Western Reserve, the shipmates were surprised to discover their captain was “incompetent and intoxicated” (p. 966). The ship, which was barely sea-worthy, set out for the English Channel. Close to the end of their voyage, they met a British man-of-war. The privateers spent most of their time bailing out water, and surrendered after a single shot was fired. So much for American heroics. The History editorializes that this was “one of the dark spots in the usually bright record of American privateering” (p. 966). The crew, including Samuel Howe, was imprisoned in Dublin. This may have been fortunate for them: privateers captured off the coast of America were incarcerated in English prison ships, where many starved to death. Privateers captured British soldiers; precise numbers are hard to come by. It’s doubtful English sailors fared better at the hands of privateer captors.
In Dublin, Dr. Howe was assigned to care for sick prisoners. Howe, along with two other physicians, bribed a prison official named Craft, and escaped. Somehow the three crossed the Channel, finding themselves 300 miles from Le Havre, France. They walked to the port at Le Havre, and Howe gained passage back to Boston as a sailor. Like many incidents in Howe’s life, this privateering episode is so implausible it is probably true. In 1932, Prof. Thomas Howe, a descendant of Samuel’s, wrote to an English relative, W. Shorto, of the British navy, trying to verify the account in The History of the Western Reserve and discover the name of the privateering vessel. Mr. Shorto advised Prof. Howe to find “tangible evidence” of this account, something that was difficult to do. Furthermore, Shorto noted, the “surviving records… have been heavily weeded out and few of their registers, papers, etc., have been preserved.” The editor of The History adds, intriguingly, that the prison official the three men bribed, Mr. Craft, visited Dr. Howe in America many years later. It’s one of the strange, small details of the account that make it ring true.
Dr. Howe’s life became tranquil for a short time, once back at home. He finished his medical studies in 1785, and married Mabel Dudley of Middletown, Connecticut. The Dudley family was of English descent, and had immigrated to Connecticut in 1683. The couple, along with their growing family, ended up in Queenstown, (Queenston, Ontario) about 8 miles from Niagara Falls, after living in other small towns in New York. The location of Queenstown would prove unfortunate for the Howe family. Samuel and Mabel Howe had three sons and three daughters who survived into adulthood: William, Eunice, Laura, Harriet, Eber, and Asahel.
Dr. Howe prospered as a physician. The History gives an inventory of the Howe’s wealth: “200 head of cattle and horses, 500 acres of fine land, a beautiful English mansion, and an iron box holding gold coins and good securities to the value of $60,000” (p. 966). The author adds that this last item was “a large fortune of itself in those days” (p. 966). Prosperous times did not last for the Howes, as once again war broke out between America and England.
The second Anglo-American war began in 1812. Conflict had broken out between England and France, and the United States chose to remain neutral. This European war impacted North American trade, as Britain routinely harassed American ships, impressing sailors they believed to be English citizens. In 1807, President Jefferson and the Congress passed the Embargo Act which banned American ships from foreign trade. This policy was economically devastating to the Northern states. By 1811, congressional “War Hawks,” (the first time the term was used), agitated for war with Britain. Even in the early days, Americans from different geographical regions had conflicting perspectives on fighting. The northern states opposed war, but the southern and western states demanded it. In spite of significant northern disagreement, Madison declared war on June 18, 1812. Because of the delay in communications, the Americans were unaware that the British policy of impressments officially ended two days before this declaration. The final battle of the war, the Battle of New Orleans, was fought several weeks after the Treaty of Ghent officially ended the war— again; the news was late in arriving.
The States decided to drive the English from North America once and for all, and invaded Canada. It was a disaster for the United States, and devastating for the Howe family, as the Niagara Falls area was ground zero of the War of 1812. In August of that year, the Battle of Queenston Heights was fought, with the Americans suffering crippling defeat. One morning, with breakfast just served, British soldiers came to the Howe home and inquired as to Dr. Howe’s loyalty. If he did not declare himself for the crown, his land and property would be confiscated, and he would be banished. Howe was given an hour to decide, but declared himself for the Americans. His family had foreseen this eventuality, and had packed all their valuables in a boat waiting on the Niagara River. They left the boat unguarded, and Iroquois Indians sympathetic to the British drilled a hole in the scow.
The Iroquois lived on both sides of the Canadian border, and were officially neutral in the conflict. Iroquois leaders did not want to see members of the Iroquois nation fighting amongst themselves on behalf of the Europeans. Despite this, Iroquois on both sides of the Niagara River engaged in the conflict. In general, the British (and the French) lived up to their treaties with native peoples. The Americans frequently disregarded such agreements, always eager to get more land. Because of this, more Indians fought for the British than for the States. While the Americans were initially successful in the Battle of Queenston Heights, (Queenstown) Iroquois fighting for the British, following their great leader, John Norton, decided the battle for the English.
The Howe’s boat sank, presumably with all the family’s transportable assets aboard. The Howes themselves were rescued from drowning by a British soldier engaged to Samuel’s daughter, Harriet. The Howe family made it safely to the ferry, except for Samuel, who decided to return to the house for his strongbox, which apparently was not aboard the scow. He intended to throw the box with his gold and securities into the river. Dr. Howe got back to his home, only to find it engulfed in flames. He retrieved a mattress from the burning structure, and threw it over his horse (History helpfully gives us the name of the mount, Kate). History doesn’t say what happened to the strongbox. Samuel rode through a shower of bullets, one of which put out his horse’s eye, and pierced his son William’s hat.
The Howes relocated to Lewiston, New York, directly across the Niagara River from Queenstown. Dr. Howe established a new home, with what money we do not know. Lewiston became the new front line in the war, as the Howes soon found out. There were skirmishes all along the Niagara River, eventually all the way to Buffalo. In December of 1813 the English took Lewistown. The town was burned, and a dozen or so of its citizens massacred. If not for the help of the Tuscarora Indians, who were on good terms with the Americans, more people would have perished. The Howe family escaped on ox-sled to Batavia, New York, farther away from the border with Canada, between Buffalo and Rochester.
In Batavia, Samuel Howe and two of his sons, Eber and Asahel, joined the Swift and Dobbins regiment of the New York Volunteers. In 1814, after the burning of Washington, the state of New York decided to organize its militia. Soldiers furnished their own uniforms and often their own arms. Dr. Howe enlisted as a surgeon, and Eber worked as his father’s assistant. The three Howe men participated in Gen. Winfield Scott’s campaigns, including the Battles of Lundy’s Lane and Fort Erie.
Gen. Scott, then a Colonel, became the longest serving active duty general in American history. He was known as “Old Fuss and Feathers,” due to his picayune disposition and penchant for fancy uniforms. Scott served through the Mexican American War in 1848, and is notorious for his role in the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Scott was a British prisoner of war in the Battle of Queenston. Neither the Battle of Lundy’s Lane nor Fort Erie went better for the Americans than Queenston had. The War of 1812 ended officially in 1814, though, due to a communication lag, the final battle was fought in 1815. The war itself resolved nothing for either side.
Samuel’s son, Eber Howe, became a pacifist after witnessing the senselessness of battle. Eber’s first sight of war, when he was a boy, was the mass burial of naked, mutilated British soldiers (see his Autobiography, pages 6-7).
In 1817, the Howe family settled farther west along Lake Erie, in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Howe practiced medicine for three years there, before the family moved to Painesville. In Painesville, Dr. Howe lived with his son Eber until his death in nearby Concord in 1838. Samuel passed away at the age of 78; his wife Mabel lived until 1852. The Howe family became increasingly interested in progressive causes, and supported Greek independence from Turkey, women’s suffrage, and Abolition. The Howe family home near Painesville, which is no longer standing, became a station in the Underground Railroad. The house was located in Howe’s Hollow, which was called “Nigger’s (sic) Hollow,” due to the traffic of escaping slaves.
The author of the account of Dr. Samuel Howe’s life in The History of the Western Reserve is not identified. The three volume work was published in 1910, edited by Harriet Upton. H. G. Cutler is identified as an editor as well, though his name is in smaller print than Upton’s. In still smaller print, the actual writers are listed anonymously as “a staff of Leading Citizens.” It is likely that, in the case of Samuel Howe, his son, Eber, furnished some biographical material. Eber Howe was a newspaperman and author who admired Benjamin Franklin. The Autobiography and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer, along with the Sketches of the War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier, tend towards self-promotion. This isn’t to say that Eber’s accounts are untrue, or that he is dissembling.
There are discrepancies between Eber’s account of his father’s life, and the biography furnished by the History of the Western Reserve. Eber writes that his father was imprisoned in Cork, not in Dublin. He makes no mention of a prison bribe to a Mr. Craft. According to Eber’s Autobiography, his father, Samuel, was imprisoned for two and a half years, the duration of the Revolution. He was then released. Eber writes that Samuel didn’t make his way to France until discharged from prison. Eber writes that he joined Scott’s brigade as a cook, not as a soldier or assistant to his father. Eber makes no mention of fighting alongside his brother Asahel Howe. In addition, the Autobiography gives no account of a harrowing escape from Queenston. Rather, Eber describes his family’s desperate exodus from Lewiston. The town’s residents fled en masse from the approaching British and Indians while “breakfast was on the table.” That is the exact phrase used by History to describe the time of the Howe family’s flight from Queenston. Instead of leaving on an oxcart, according to Eber, the Howe family left Lewiston on a horse and sled.
The History of the Western Reserve clearly used other sources than Eber’s autobiography for the story of Samuel Howe. Published in 1910, other Howe descendants may have supplied historical materials which are either lost or no longer available. In the Autobiography, Eber doesn’t mention that his family moves with him from New York to Ohio. Eber describes this journey as if he were striking out on his own. The purpose of the Autobiography wasn’t to establish a pedigree, but to paint Eber as a self-made man. Still, the language in both Autobiography and Recollections and History of the Western Reserve is remarkably similar, in places word for word.
The main subject of the Howe article in History of the Western Reserve is not Dr. Samuel Howe, but his grandson, Orville Duane Howe of Nebraska. Presumably it helps the reader to understand Orville’s life if there is description of his antecedents. Of the 3 ½ pages devoted to Orville Duane Howe, over one full page details his grandfather, Samuel’s life, and a page tells his father Eber’s life. Orville himself barely gets a half a page.
Orville Duane Howe’s son, Edmund, and grandson, Prof. Thomas Howe, researched Howe family genealogy in the early 1930’s. They attempted to verify family stories that had been handed down. They were remarkably successful in this endeavor, considering the limited resources available at the time.
There are discrepancies between written accounts of Samuel Howe’s life and family lore. For one thing, it isn’t clear what happened to the strongbox of gold and securities Samuel returned to his burning house to retrieve. He intended to throw it in the river. According to Orville David Howe, in an interview in the 1970’s, the box sank to the bottom of the river when the Iroquois bored a hole in the bottom of the boat. If that was so, why did Samuel go back to the house to retrieve it? Wouldn’t he be more interested in helping his family escape? If the money was lost, how did the Howe family have the capital to re-establish themselves in Lewiston, and later in Batavia? Howe family descendants are in possession of a heavy, iron medical mortar with the date “1785” inscribed on it. 1785 was the year Samuel completed his medical studies at Dartmouth. If the Howe’s valuables sank in a boat crossing the Niagara, it seems unlikely an iron mortar, of little actual value, would have been salvaged in the disaster.
Also, what happened to the British soldier, engaged to Harriet Howe, who saved the family from drowning? In later family correspondence, Harriet is referred to by her maiden name. Edmund Howe writes of a visit from “Aunt Howe.” Another of Samuel’s three daughters married a Canadian named Mr. Phillips, who had his own harrowing adventure with Iroquois during the War of 1812. Eber recounts the incident in his Autobiography, and mentions he knows the tale because Mr. Phillips was married to one of his sisters. Eber doesn’t give the sister’s name.
Eber’s Autobiography was written at the age of 80, and he has an uncanny recall of the events of his adolescence. He also devotes considerable ink to the minutia of pioneer life, and his early experiences as a newspaperman and anti- Mormon crusader. Eber expresses regret over the publication of ads for fugitive slaves— he published two in his early career. He mentions his father, Samuel, at the beginning of the book, but that is not the focus of his work. Oddly, Eber hardly mentions his mother, though her picture has been passed down to descendants. There are family tales of his experiences harboring fugitive slaves, but they are not discussed in his writings. Eber’s Autobiography is almost the story of a man trying to escape his father’s shadow. There is an Oedipal quality about the work, although it is clear he loved and admired his father, Samuel.
Orville Duane Howe’s biography in the History of the Western Reserve is overshadowed by the story of his father, Eber, and even more so by his grandfather Samuel’s life. The family has long discussed and written of Orville’s tragic first marriage, and his defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Orville lost his cherished brother in 1849. Maybe he considered these sorrows too private for a written account. Orville Duane Howe had the Herculean task of peering out from the shadow of his father and his grandfather. Orville didn’t write an autobiography to tell his own tale. Orville grew up in Ohio, but left in 1860. His mention in the History of the Western Reserve is curious, as he spent over half his life in Nebraska.
The biography of Dr. Samuel Howe is dramatic. He served in the Revolutionary War, when he was captured and imprisoned. During the War of 1812, Samuel had to flee his home twice, and in the first flight, forfeited house, and, and property. He was a surgeon when physicians weren’t well-respected. Howe managed to accumulate wealth, and when he passed away, left his wife and heirs very comfortable. He lived in a turbulent era of American history. Both his father and great-uncle were killed in conflict with the country’s original inhabitants. Another relative was hung as a witch in the Salem witch trials. Little wonder then, that his son Eber Howe was disgusted with both war and religion.
Samuel Howe comes to us through the lens of his son, Eber, in Autobiography and Recollections, and from the vantage point of his grandson, Orville, in the History of the Western Reserve. In the latter work, Samuel overshadows his grandson Orville. Eber seems anxious to insure that Samuel doesn’t dominate his story, and attempts to control history by writing his autobiography, The Autobiography and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer.
The History of the Western Reserve was published in 1910. In 1910, President Roosevelt was embarking on the enormous project of American empire. It was his predecessor, McKinley that began that course with the Spanish American War in 1898. By looking backwards, the History is anxious to present an heroic American past. Samuel Howe fits the bill perfectly.
The actual historical Samuel Howe is difficult to find. His son Eber and his grandson, Orville, are proud of Samuel, yet anxious to establish their own bona fides. From one perspective, Samuel had bad luck. The ship in which he served as a surgeon sank, and he spent time in a British prison. He lost his home and possessions twice in the War of 1812. But he wasn’t killed in either war when so many others, both British and American, were. Samuel Howe survived and prospered in violent times. His father, Samuel, was killed in battle two days after his son’s birth. His ancestors were killed in King Phillip’s war, a conflict between the British and native peoples. A relative was hung as a witch. Samuel Howe was a surgeon before there was anesthesia or antibiotics.
Early American history was troubled and troubling. Land was being appropriated from American Indians, and naturally, there were reprisals. Religious fanaticism was rife in the Massachusetts colony, and people were executed for “witchcraft.” One of Elizabeth Howe’s principal accusers was her brother-in-law, John Howe. Samuel Howe lived in complicated times, times as complicated as the present. A minor historical figure, he left no diary or letters. We don’t know his inner life. In violent times, Samuel Howe lived, thrived, and left a legacy to his descendants.
Note: Samuel Howe was an ancestor of mine, a great-great-great-great grandfather.
“Drake’s or Howe’s Hollow,” http://ohsweb.ohiohistory.org/ohiopix/image.cfm?&start=1&ID=2851, retrieved 4/12/2010.
Eber Howe, Autobiography and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer; together with Sketches of the war of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier. Painesville, Ohio, 1885. Reprint.
“18th Century Medicine,” 18th Century History, http://www.history1700s.com/articles/article1016.shtml, retrieved 4/21/2010.
Harriet Taylor Upton and others, The History of the Western Reserve. Chicago, Lewis Publishing, 1910. Pages 965-968.
“Iroquois Battle: Fellow Iroquois on the Niagara Frontier During the War of 1812,” HistoryNet, http://www.historynet.com/iroqois-battle-fellow-iroquois-on-the-niagara, retrieved 4/22/2010.
Letter from W.A.T. Shorto to Thomas Howe, 4/20/1932, unpublished.
Orville David Howe, oral interview 1976, cassette recording.
“Privateers and Mariners in the Revolutionary War,” http://www.usmm.org/revolution.html, retrieved 4/21/2010.
“The War at Sea,” The American Revolution Home Page, http://americanrevwar.homestead.com/files/sea.htm, retrieved 4/21/2010.
“War of 1812,” http://gatewayno.com/history/War1812/html, retrieved 4/21/2010.
“Winfield Scott,” About North Georgia, http://ngeorgia.com/ang/Winfield_Scott, retrieved 4/26/2010.