Editor’s note: This piece from Natalie J. Woodall starts the second series about Masons in Oswego. This series will focus on Masons who contributed to Oswego in some way.
Edwin Winslow Clarke was 5 years old when he arrived in the tiny village of Oswego. Born on Sept. 10, 1801, in Pompey, New York, he was the son of Dr. Deodatus Clarke, one of the area’s first physicians, and Nancy Dunham.
Clarke grew to manhood in Oswego and was largely self-taught. He became well-versed in literature and early American history. He was particularly interested in local history and was noted for his wide knowledge of pioneer Oswego families. He apparently was a poet of more than mediocre ability. As a young man he taught school but he had aspirations of being a lawyer and was finally able to enter upon his studies.
On May 18, 1828, Clarke obtained his law degree and in that same year was appointed the first clerk of the village of Oswego, a post he held until April 20, 1833. He was reappointed in July 1833 and continued in office until Nov. 13, 1838.
He had several duties as clerk such as recording minutes of village board meetings. One of his most significant contributions to the area’s history was the ledger he kept noting burials in an early cemetery on the west side of the Oswego River from 1796-1837. The ledger was found in a vault in City Hall in 1939 and transcribed by members of Fort Oswego Chapter DAR. Also located was information on removals to Riverside, St. Paul’s, St. Peter’s, and Rural. A similar ledger was found for burials on the east side of the village.
According to an obituary Clarke gave up his law practice around 1846 and became associated with the Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company. He was forced to withdraw from that position and business in general in 1856 when he suffered a debilitating stroke from which he never completely recovered.
From an early age Clarke was an ardent supporter of the anti-slavery movement. On Oct. 8, 1835, he became one of the founders of the Oswego County Anti-Slavery Society. He later served as the society’s president. He and 22 other abolitionists signed an open letter on Oct. 26, 1838, urging voters not to support candidates who failed to voice open opposition to the institution of slavery.
Edwin Clarke had the courage of his convictions. For several years he was associated with The Liberty Press, an abolitionist newspaper located in Utica. He was its editor in 1844-1845. One of Clarke’s articles, “The Act of 1793,” appeared on the front page of the newspaper on Jan. 31, 1843. In the article, he discussed the current status of slavery and the impossibility of enslaved persons to obtain liberty without fleeing from their owners.
The Liberty Party was for years scorned and reviled for its nomination of candidates who had no chance of winning any election. That situation changed in 1852 when the Liberty Party nominated Gerrit Smith, another noted abolitionist, for Congress. Against all odds, Smith won the election and secured for Clarke’s much maligned political party a well-deserved measure of respect.
There was more to Clarke’s participation in the movement. Determining that mere words were insufficient to effect the freedom of millions of persons residing in the United States, he participated in the loosely connected organization generally called the Underground Railroad. He and his wife, Charlotte, grew accustomed to being awakened late at night when a fugitive seeking a safe place to hide hesitantly knocked on the door. The Clarkes owned a large farm on the outskirts of the village and hid terrified runaways there until they could put them on a ship headed for Canada.
While accurate figures are unavailable, it has been estimated that the Clarkes assisted more than 120 slaves to elude their would-be captors and flee to Canada.
In 1851, Clarke was to play an important role in the famous Jerry Rescue. Jerry McHenry’s former master had him arrested in Syracuse on Oct. 1, 1851, under the provisions of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. A group of abolitionists in the city for a convention forcibly removed him from his cell in the Syracuse police station and secreted him to Oswego. Appearing outside Clarke’s house in the early hours of the next morning, he explained his situation, whereupon Clarke took him to his farm and hid him for several days until he could book passage for him on a Canada-bound ship.
Clarke was not without his enemies and detractors. Wrote a friend upon Clarke’s death that the man did not shrink from his neighbors’ hostility but rather “scorned it, antagonized it, assailed it with the utmost vigor.”
In addition to his anti-slavery activities, Clarke had other civic interests. He was appointed a village police justice in 1839 and notary public in 1864. He was one of the charter members of the Oswego County Agricultural Society in 1840 and served as the group’s first secretary. In March 1865 he was one of the incorporators of the Oswego Historical Association.
In July 1853, The Utica Daily Democrat announced that Gerrit Smith was donating $25,000 to Oswego for the purpose of erecting a public library which would be open to all, regardless of race, sex, or religious persuasion. From that time until 1880 when he retired, Clarke was one of the library’s trustees, overseeing the building’s construction and the acquisition of books.
Clarke also took an interest in the village’s religious affairs. In 1833 he was one of the 12 charter members of the original Congregational Church, commonly called The Tabernacle, which stood on the site later used by the Vulcan Iron Works on West Bridge and Second Street, today the site of the Oswego Movie Theatre.
Clarke was a charter member of Oswego Lodge No. 127 Free and Accepted Masons. He was the 12th signer to the by-laws on Dec. 21, 1847. Because he claimed to be a Master Mason when he signed the petition requesting establishment of a lodge in Oswego, he was probably a member of the earlier Oswego Lodge 326 which disappeared during the Anti-Masonic period. Clarke served as lodge secretary under dispensation in 1847. When the charter was granted in February 1848, he was elected secretary. He served as worshipful master for 1850, 1851, and 1852. On May 28, 1852, he presided over the first Masonic funeral held in Oswego upon the death of Br. Orlo Steele. According to Harry C. Mizen, “At the request of (Steele’s) friends and in accordance with his well known wishes, the Master (Edwin W. Clarke) summoned the Lodge and the brethren proceeded to the funeral and buried him with Masonic honors.”
After serving as worshipful master, Clarke was again elected to the office of secretary, a position he held for several more years.
Edwin W. Clarke married Charlotte Ambler, born on Aug. 16, 1809 in Augusta, New York, on Jan. 16, 1833. Charlotte shared his anti-slavery sentiments and was a willing partner in his abolitionist activities. Clarke’s epitaph on his grave marker pays tribute her, saying he had “in all he did the effectual sympathy and cooperation of his devoted wife.”
The Clarkes were the parents of six children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Frederick Oberlin Clarke was born on Dec. 21, 1834. He was involved in several milling operations in the greater Oswego County area. Like his father, he had a great love for his native city. According to his obituary, his interests “were directed toward historical, social, educational and religious pursuits as well as toward every movement that would aid the city of Oswego.” Among his favorites was the Oswego City Library. He succeeded his father as a trustee and for the five years prior to his death he was the group’s president. He was also a member of the board of trustees for the Oswego Normal School. He died on Jan. 10, 1917, and was buried in the family plot in Riverside Cemetery.
Marshall Bidwell Clarke was born on Nov. 8, 1836. He was a clerk in Oswego’s Second National Bank and a member of the Oswego Board of Trade. He died on Jan. 20, 1872 in Boston, Massachusetts, probably from tuberculosis. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery.
Edwin Ambler Clarke, born on June 8, 1839, was a flour merchant and bank official. He and his wife, Leoline Besancon, were visiting their son in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when he died unexpectedly on May 6, 1913. According to an obituary he was buried on his son’s ranch.
Florence Clara Clarke, born on May 13, 1843, married Henry Austin Clapp, a Civil War veteran and well-known lawyer. The couple lived in Boston, MA where she died on March 28, 1924. They are buried in Old North Cemetery, Dorchester, MA.
Eugene Clarence Clarke, born on Feb. 8, 1848, died on Feb. 2, 1878. William Allen Clarke was born on Dec. 28, 1852, and died on Nov.19, 1860. They are buried in the family plot in Riverside.
Charlotte Ambler Clarke died on Feb. 11, 1867, after which time Edwin lived with Frederick and his family. He died on Aug. 24, 1886. An obituary appearing in the Oswego Times-Express on Sept. 6, 1886, remembered him as “inflexible in principle, strong in nature, refined in intellect, gentle in heart.” Clarke is buried next to Charlotte in Riverside Cemetery.