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DeWitt Family Papers

An inventory of its papers at Syracuse University

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Biographical History

Genealogical diagrams: DeWitt family tree and Clinton family tree.

In 1729 Charles Clinton and his family landed in America after a hazardous Atlantic crossing from Ireland. They settled in the Ulster region of New York State (now Orange County), where Charles worked in the occupations he had followed in Ireland, farming and surveying. He was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the local militia, and later, was appointed Justice of the Peace. Charles' family grew with his prosperity,and he was thus able to provide his sons with a good education.

Charles Clinton's two older sons, Alexander and Charles, became physicians. The youngest, George Clinton, began a career in government with an appointment to a clerkship from a relative, Admiral George Clinton, Royal Governor of New York. During the Revolution and after, Charles' son George became Governor of New York. Later he was elected to two successive terms as Vice President of the United States, serving first with President Thomas Jefferson and then with President James Madison. As a public official he was a strong advocate of states' rights and actively opposed the adoption of the United States Constitution. He died in 1812.

In 1785 the federal government appointed James Clinton to a commission to settle the boundary between Pennsylvania and New York. One of the surveyors assigned to this job was Simeon DeWitt, who hired his younger cousin Moses DeWitt to assist in this survey. Moses, like Simeon, was trained as a surveyor by his uncle James Clinton. A few years later Simeon became Surveyor General of New York and thus guided the surveying of the military bounty lands which were given, in various sized tracts, to Revolutionary War veterans. Again he chose his cousin Moses DeWitt to assist him, this time as surveyor in charge of the entire operation in the field. There were unique advantages to Moses' position. He was first to know where the best lands were and was not averse to claiming them for himself. Often veterans never appeared to claim their lands, and Moses, as surveyor of the area, was rightfully able to claim these lands.

After the survey was completed, Moses built a home in present-day Onondaga County and became more active in civic affairs. In 1791 he was appointed Surrogate Judge of Herkimer County, and two years later was commissioned as a major in the militia. Shortly before his death in 1794, he was appointed Judge of the Courts and Supervisor of the town of Pompey. Moses died a bachelor and his great land holdings were divided among his sisters and brothers, who had married into such influential families as Cuddeback, DePuy, Hardenburgh, and Burnet. The town of DeWitt, New York, was incorporated in his name in 1835.

The fourth son of Charles Clinton was James. Following a thoroughly classical education, James chose a military career. He participated in the French and Indian Wars (he accompanied Bradstreet on his attack on Fort Frontenac) and was commissioned a brigadier general in the Continental Army in October, 1775. James served throughout the Revolution and received the British colors at Yorktown. Before embarking on a military career, James had married Mary DeWitt, who was a member of another prominent Ulster County family. This marriage intertwined the histories of two of the most influential families in the development of New York. Their first child was DeWitt Clinton.

In 1786 DeWitt Clinton graduated at the head of his class from Columbia. A few years later he began a political career as private secretary to his uncle George Clinton. DeWitt's career progressed through a short term in the State Assembly, a state senatorship, and eventually to the mayoralty of New York City. He was mayor on and off for twelve years, while also serving as state senator and lieutenant governor, at times concurrently. While temporarily out of office, he began his campaign for the construction of the Erie Canal.

During James Clinton's Revolutionary War services he was asked by George Washington to recommend a geographer for the Continental Army. James recommended Simeon DeWitt, a nephew whom he had trained himself. In 1778 Simeon, the son of Clinton's brother-in-law Andries DeWitt, was appointed assistant to Colonel Robert Erskine; and by 1780 was Geographer in Chief assigned to Washington's headquarters.

Simeon's influence in the state continued up to his death in 1834. He was one of the most influential citizens of Albany: a respected educator, Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents, and a prominent member of the American Philosophical Society. He is also credited with founding the settlment of Ithaca, New York, where he died. Simeon was also one of the hardiest supporters of his cousin DeWitt Clinton's Erie Canal project, and often gave advice for improvements in construction and on its route.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The DeWitt Family Papers consists of correspondence and private records of the DeWitt family and related branches of the Clinton, Cuddeback, Hardenbergh, Rossa (Rose), Burnet, and DePuy families. These materials are organized into five major groups: Correspondence, Financial and Legal Records, Memorabilia, Surveying Records, and Writings. Bulk dates for the collection are 1768 to 1850 with a concentration between 1785 and 1794, which was the period of greatest activity for Moses DeWitt, the main contributor to the collection.

Correspondence (Boxes 1-4), 1770-1850, is arranged chronologically by year, and when quantity requires, by the month. In addition to regular correspondence, this group contains rough drafts and contemporary file copies of letters written by Moses DeWitt. Though the majority of letters are in English, some are written in Dutch. A large part of these materials is intra-family correspondence and includes exchanges between such well-known family members as Moses DeWitt, George Clinton, James Clinton, and DeWitt Clinton. Represented among the non-family members prominent in central New York history are Peter Schuyler, Stephen Van Rensselaer, Joseph Annin, Comfort Tyler, Asa Danforth, Samuel Kirkland, John Linklaen, and Peter Smith. Most of the correspondence deals with routine family affairs, financial matters, surveying expeditions, and local gossip. Many letters, however, relate to subjects of more general interest, including various tribes of the Iroquois League, the strained relations between Great Britain and the United States in 1794, state and national politics, the building of the Erie Canal, and the American Revolution. Entire letters are not usually devoted to any one of these subjects; rather, they contain terse, often colorful, comments, which give the reader a good picture of life during this period. Letters from DeWitt Clinton to several individuals on a variety of topics form one of the most interesting bodies of material within this group.

Though not a figure of great historical importance, Thomas White wrote a large number of letters to Moses DeWitt, his former pupil and very close friend. These letters provide a glimpse of life in late eighteenth century America from the perspective of an English schoolmaster. They contain fatherly advice, speculation about events of personal interest, details of business matters, philosophical and religious precepts, and references to the activities of mutual acquaintances.

In addition to the index of important correspondents located at the end of this inventory, partial transcriptions and synopses of many of the letters are available in box IA.

Financial and Legal Records (Boxes 4-6) date from 1768 to 1825. This group is divided into two main sections, financial and legal, and is sub-divided by type of document. The majority of the materials is associated with the commercial activities of Moses DeWitt and, after 1794, with his namesake, Moses DeWitt Burnet.

Financial Records includes documents relating to Moses DeWitt's business ventures as proprietor of a store with John Dumont, as a land owner, and as surveyor for the state of New York. A variety of materials, including account books, bills, purchase lists, records of employee earnings, receipts, and expense statements pertain to these businesses. Among the items of particular interest are those connected with the settlement of Moses DeWitt's estate and especially an inventory of his possessions compiled by Comfort Tyler.

Legal records consist of affidavits, commissions, deputations, indentures, powers of attorney, land patents, and agreements between the party named and various individuals. A number of these items are government documents and as such bear the seal of New York and the appropriate official's signature. Perhaps the most interesting piece in the legal records section is a rough draft of a petition submitted by Moses DeWitt to the New York legislature in which he offers to buy a large portion of the Onondaga Indian Reservation.

Memorabilia (Box 6), 1784-1820, contains a variety of materials associated with the lives of Moses DeWitt, Moses DeWitt Burnet, DeWitt Clinton, and George Clinton. Among the items present are several campaign posters, a chart of election returns in Orange County, and a series of original drawings by Moses DeWitt.

Surveying Records (Boxes 6-8), 1786-1794, consist of materials related specifically to the work done by various surveying expeditions with which Moses DeWitt was associated. These materials are arranged alphabetically by the name of the location surveyed and then by type of document. Wherever possible, the name of the surveyor who created a particular document or portion of material is listed. The areas surveyed by DeWitt and his associates include parts of Chemung, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Oswego counties, twenty-five townships in the Military Tract, and the New York-Pennsylvania boundary. Journals and field books are the two main types of material present. Field books provide information about the more technical aspects of surveying such as location of landmarks, boundaries, measurements, lot locations, and geographical features. The journals usually contain dated entries which record the progress and daily activities of the surveying party, observations about the countryside, and the quality of the weather. These entries, concise as they are, furnish information on the early settlement of central New York.

Writings (Box 8) date from 1785 to 1815. This section consists of unpublished writings in the form of private journals, essays, verse, and a commonplace book. The journals record the experiences of Moses DeWitt on several short trips and the activities of Moses DeWitt Burnet during part of 1815. These journals are of a small size and contain mostly brief entries.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Burnet, Moses Dewitt, 1792-1876.
Clinton, DeWitt, 1769-1828.
Clinton, George, 1739-1812.
DeWitt family.
DeWitt, Jacob Rutsen.
DeWitt, Moses, 1766-1794.


Erie Canal (N.Y.) -- History.
Surveyors -- New York (State)


Herkimer County (N.Y.) -- History.
New York State -- Boundaries
New York State -- History.
New York State -- Politics and Government, 1775-1860.
Onondaga County (N.Y.) -- History.
Ulster County (N.Y.) -- History.

Genres and Forms

Field notes.
Financial records.
Legal documents.
Writings (documents)


Armed forces officers.
Public officers.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

DeWitt Family Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information


Table of Contents


Financial and legal records


Surveying records