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vital records sources
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John came into adulthood in the backwater settlement of Richfield, New York. He may have inherited his parents' house, although he bought land of his own in the town. The family were connected to St. Luke's Episcopal Church, located in the center of the hamlet. John bought a pew in the new church building on 2 May 1829 and appears on a membership list from 1836. A report on the Annual Convention of the (Episcopal) Diocese of New York for 1835 gives John as one of two lay representatives of St. Luke's parish. James Fennimore Cooper and New York Governor, Senator and United States Secretary of State-to-be Hamilton Fish were also delegates. They met at Trinity Church, Utica, on 2 October.1 St. Luke's no longer stands, only a grassy lot remaining, but John's first wife and several of his children are buried in the cemetery that was laid out behind it.

John may have been active in the military before 1818, but on 25 May of that year he was appointed an ensign in the 135th infantry of the Otsego County militia.3 He was promoted to captain on 29 April 1820.4 He continued in this commission to at least 1823, when a paper reported a 4th of July celebration in Richfield.5 "Capt. Cunningham" was marshall and he led a procession, escorted by a troop of various militia companies, to St. Luke's (there must have been an earlier church structure than the one above) for a special service and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. They continued to a nearby tavern for dinner, where toasts were made after the meal:

John married Louisa White, who, with her family, had come from Vermont. Some of her siblings settled in Utica. John had no known connections in Utica, but it's most likely that Louisa was there, perhaps living with one of her maiden sisters. How they met is a mystery. She died in 1840, following four of their children. Their first daughter named Susan died in a cholera epidemic in Utica while living with her mother's sisters. The others all died in 1838 and 1839 in Richfield, but nothing has been found to suggest why.
     John bought a farm and sawmill in New Hartford, New York, several days before Louisa's death. The deed mentions a house, sawmill, barn, outbuildings and an orchard. A house dating to about that time still stands there and was likely the Cunningham's residence. In the next year John married his sister-in-law Susan White of Utica. Just before they married Susan placed her property in trusteeship. She was in no need of a husband economically, but John was in need of someone to look after his younger children. They had at least one formal property transaction between them as husband and wife and Susan isn't mentioned in his will. This all suggests that the decision to marry was based at least on practicality. They weren't in New Hartford long. Deeds show that John and Susan were "of Whitestown," NY, by May of 1842. They apparently moved to a farm near the border of Utica, which Susan's trustee had bought in August of that year. They lived in a small brick house on Whitesboro Street, with the property extending north to the Erie Canal and containing about 8 acres. John bought the property from Susan in 1851 for about $3,100.00. They had begun to divide the property into lots by 1845 and continued thereafter, gradually surrounding their farm with new houses. City Directories describe the location of the house, enabling it to be placed on maps from 1850 (Taylor) and 1899 (Sanborn). The latter says it was 1 1/2 stories - a modest home - and shows a small greenhouse nearby. The house was gone by 1925, but the view across the street to the psychiatric hospital and its grounds remains very much the same after about 160 years.

a portion of the 1850 Taylor map of Utica showing the Cunningham property, the Erie Canal and the psychiatric hospital.
The Cunninghams owned land to the Canal, but a distinct and smaller lot is indicated with their home on it.

a portion of the 1899 Sanborn fire insurance map showing the same spot. The rectangular home lot had not changed,
but the property was by then completely surrounded by newer houses on the subdivision lots.

     The Agricultural Schedule for the 1850 US census includes John Cunningham, but in New Hartford.2 The border of New Hartford was very nearby, so the census enumerator must have been confused. The Population Schedule for John in Whitestown gives a real estate value the same as that in the Agricultural Schedule, so the census enumerator must have been confused. The value of his farm implements and machinery was $150. He had a horse and a milk cow worth $150, and the value of his "market gardens" was $1,000. When the bounds of Utica were extended and included the Cunningham property in the early 1850s, John appeared in the city's directories as a "nurseryman." Given the value of his "market gardens," this was his source of income. One of the witnesses to his will was Rev. Chauncy E. Goodrich, an Episcopal minister.
     Goodrich was a minister for various churches in Otsego and Oneida Counties before becoming the chaplain for the psychiatric hospital. Goodrich might also be described as playing a major part in saving potato cultivation in the Northern Hemisphere, and John Cunningham was involved in the periphery. When the potato blight began about 1846, he started investigating the causes. In the early 1850s he imported tubers from South America and started cultivation experiments, resulting in many new varieties. Most weren't viable, but several became the leading potatoes in American gardens through the 19th century, including "Calico," "Gleason," and "Early Goodrich." His crop of "Rough Purple Chilis," the original imported from Panama in 1851, yielded a new variety he named "Garnet Chili" in 1853. This would be Goodrich's most influential discovery. A Vermont farmer discovered the "Early Rose" variety in his Garnet Chile crop in the 1870s. The russet potato commonly produced in the 20th and 21st centuries is a child of "Early Rose." Garnet Chili is now available as an heirloom variety.
     Although not a scientist, Goodrich was careful and extensive in his experiments. A committee of men living in the Utica area observed Goodrich's gardens and techniques and tested his cultivars for themselves. John Cunningham was one of them. They submitted a report of their findings to the New York State Agricultural Society in 1851.6
     Newspaper advertisements after John's death imply that he operated the "West Utica Nursery.7 His son-in-law Daniel Balis and son David B. Cunningham took over the business as John's executors by 1860 and advertised apple and pear trees for sale. Susan Cunningham was still living in the house there, and the nursery was overseen by Leonard Speelpenning. Letters between David and Horatia Cunningham show that Speelpenning worked for the family at least as early as 1855. After Susan died the property was put up for sale, with a house described as brick and two stories. The 1855 NYS census says the house was worth $3000, but only $800 in the 1865 census (when John's son John T Cunningham was living there with his family).

title to the map accompanying a record of compensation to John when the Erie Canal was widended

John died of dysentery, which he had probably contracted in April of 1854.9 He wrote his will on 25 April and died about 2 weeks later:

I, John Cunningham, of the City of Utica in the County of Oneida and State of New York, mindful of the uncertainty of this mortal life, and being of sound and disposing mind and memory do make, publish and declare my last capital will and Testament in manner and form following viz:

First I will and direct that all my just debts and funeral charges be paid out of my personal property by my executors hereinafter named.

Second I give, bequeath and devise on to my four daughters, namely Louisa C. Balis (wife of Daniel C. Balis of Oriskany, Oneida County), Julia Ann Cunningham, Marion Cunningham and Susan Helen Mar Cunningham all and singular my property and estate real, personal or mixed, whatever, wherever or in whose hands soever the same may be now belonging to me, or that I shall own or be entitled to or interested in at the time of my decease (that shall remain after the payment of my just debts and funeral expenses) to be divided equally between my said four daughters, share and share alike, without any preference of one over or above the other.

Third and I hereby fully authorize and empower my executors hereinafter named to sell and dispose of and to grant and convey all or any of my real estate at such time or times upon such terms and in such way and manner as to them shall see most judicious and expedient for the purpose of dividing the avails and proceeds thereof equally between my said four daughters as above provided.

Fourth I hereby nominate, constitute and appoint my son David Beal Cunningham now of the City of New York, and my son-in-law Daniel C. Balis, now of Oriskany, Oneida County, Executors of this my last Will and Testament: but nothing herein contained is to be taken or have the effect to release or discharge the said David Beal Cunningham or the said Daniel C. Balis from any indebtedness or obligation which they or either of them are or may be under to me at the time of my decease.

Fifth And I hereby annul and revoke all former wills by me made.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 25th day of April A. D. 1854

John Cunningham

Witnesses to the will were J. G. Coye and Chauncey E. Goodrich, both of Utica.


At the Surrogates Court held at the Surrogates Office in Utica, in the County of Oneida, on the 27th day of June A. D. 1854... Chauncey E. Goodrich being duly sworn and examined in open court, testified that he was well acquainted with John Cunningham, deceased, and had been for the last 11 years immediately preceding his death.

children of John Cunningham and Louisa White:

i. John W(illiam?). b. March 1813, d. 2 November 1838, m. Almira (he was probably the William who witnessed one of his father's deeds in 1834)
ii. Louisa b. 30 December? 1814, m. Daniel Cogswell Balis
iii. Julia Ann b. 1816-1817, d. 5 March 1906
iv. David Beal b. 4 July 1819
v. Susan Helen, b. 11 August 1821, d. 15 August 1832
vi. Jonathan T(homas?), b. abt 1823, m. Emily E. Brown
vii. Olive Cornelia b. 1825-1826, d. 18 July 1848, m. Thomas H. Edson
viii. Sarah b. October 1827, d. 4 January 1839
ix. Marion b. 1829-1830, d. 20 July 1908, m. Edward Field Hobart
x. Helen Susan Mar b. January 1833, d. 3 June 1838
xi. Susan Helen Mar b. January 1833, d. 3 April 1922 m. Joseph Farmer Rood

vital records sources: His birth is recorded in the published Cummington, MA, vital records. He is connected certainly to John Cunningham of Richfield/Utica in a Forest Hill Cemetery record that says he was born in February of 1786 in "Cumington," MA. His marriages dates and places are not known. The Utica Daily Gazette, issue of 6 May 1854 (also reported that day in The Utica Morning Herald), has a death notice for John and his gravestone gives the date. Forest Hill Cemetery records also give his death date as well as the cause.

1. Journal of the Proceedings of the Fiftieth Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of New York etc., (New York:1835), p. 9.
2. 1850 US census, Agricultural Schedule, Oneida Co., New Hartford, p. 223.
3. Otsego Journal and Watch-Tower (both in Cooperstown, NY), both 1 June 1818, p. 3.
4. Otsego Journal, 1 May 1820, p. 3.
5. Watch-Tower, 21 July 1823, p. 2.
6. Transactions of the N. Y. State Agricultural Society, etc. (Albany:1852), pp. 370-371.
7. The Utica Daily Observer, Feb-Mar 1867, also May 1867-Mar 1868.
9. Records at Forest Hill Cemetery give dysentery as the cause of death.

all text and photographs © 1998-2019 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted