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John was born in the Berkshire hills town of Cummington, Massachusetts. When he was about 13 the family moved to another rural spot in Richfield, New York. He started his own family on a farm there. They 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. Author James Fennimore Cooper and New York Governor, Senator and United States Secretary of State-to-be Hamilton Fish were also delegates.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.

In May 1818 he was appointed an ensign in the 135th infantry of the Otsego County militia.3 He was promoted to captain two years later.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 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, and that's were they must have met. She died in 1840, following four of their children. One of them died in a cholera epidemic in Utica while living with her mother's sisters.
     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. In the next year he married his sister-in-law Susan White, one of the sister in 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, so this may have been a practical partnership. They weren't in New Hartford long. Deeds show that John and Susan were "of Whitestown," New York, by May of 1842. This property had a small brick house and eight acres of cultivated land down to the Erie Canal. Susan bought it, then sold it to John. I can't find any obvious reason they did this.

A part of an 1850 map of Utica showing the Cunningham property, the Erie Canal and the psychiatric hospital.
The Cunninghams owned 8 acres of land that eventually was divided up into building lots. The site of their house is now a convenience store.

     The Agricultural Schedule for the 1850 census says 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 John's will was Rev. Chauncy E. Goodrich, an Episcopal minister. He was also the chaplain for the psychiatric hospital across the street. Goodrich had a hand in saving potato cultivation in the United States, at least, and John Cunningham was involved in the periphery. When the potato blight began about 1846, Goodrich 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 for eating and commercial cultivation, 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 identified 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 John also reported on a new variety of apple found locally, which he had planted at the nursery. I couldn't find any good information about the fate or influence of that apple, although it was grown in other places in the county.
     Newspaper advertisements after John's death show that his business was the "West Utica Nursery.7 His son-in-law Daniel Balis and son David Cunningham took over the business as John's executors by 1860 and advertised apple and pear trees for sale. After Susan died, the property was put up for sale with a two-story brick house.

John was diagnosed with dysentery 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), 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

Chauncey E. Goodrich being duly sworn
[as a witness to the will] 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.

The Cunningham's family memorial in Forest Hill Cemetery, Utica.

children of John Cunningham and Louisa White:

i. John W(illiam?) b. March 1813, d. 2 November 1838
ii. Louisa b. 30 December? 1814
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
vii. Olive Cornelia b. 1825-1826, d. 18 July 1848
viii. Sarah b. October 1827, d. 4 January 1839
ix. Marion b. 1829-1830, d. 20 July 1908
x. Helen Susan Mar b. January 1833, d. 3 June 1838
xi. Susan Helen Mar b. January 1833, d. 3 April 1922

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.
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