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Endwell author publishes biography of Harpur namesake

By : By Ingrid Husisian

Anne Herbert’s fascination with history didn’t begin until she learned that little was written about the life of one of New York state’s most influential historians. In 1960, she was involved with the design of a small museum in Harpursville and found that there was almost no material available about the town’s founder and Harpur College’s namesake, Robert Harpur.

During the 1970s, the still-unfinished Harpur exhibit set her on a quest for information. As sources came forward and documents were unearthed, she realized she had a story that needed to be told. However, Robert Harpur’s New York wasn’t a work she created overnight. It became a process of years of study and scholarship.

A graduate of Syracuse University, Herbert resides in Endwell where she operates her own interior design business. In the 1960’s, she wrote the weekly column Exploring the Past, which appeared in the Windsor Standard and Afton Enterprise newspapers.

Robert Harpur’s New York follows one of America’s early pioneers from his boyhood in Ireland to his arrival in America and from his career as a mathematics professor and librarian at King’s College in New York City in the 1760s, through his activities during the Revolutionary War. It describes his responsibilities in the early New York government and as secretary of the state’s first Board of Regents, to his enterprises as a land developer and country squire.

Herbert paints a vivid picture of life in the late 1700s, illustrating housing, architecture, education, commerce, government, politics, family, travel by covered wagon and agriculture. It is against this rich backdrop that she tells the story of Harpur’s life. The book is not only a historical timeline; it is a thorough account of New York’s beginnings.

The book’s cover is a photo of a “View of the Highlands from West Point” by John Ferguson Weir in 1862. Herbert selected the image because the scene was typical during Harpur’s many travels up and down the Hudson River, what Herbert jokingly referred to as an “early-American super highway.”

Weir was part of the Hudson River School, a group of painters who created Romantic images of the American landscape along the Hudson River Valley.

The book depicts Harpur’s support of America’s struggle for independence from England and his service to New York’s ea
Endwell author Anne Herbert has published the first novel written about Harpur College namesake Robert Harpur. Her book, Robert Harpur’s New York, is available at the University bookstore.
rliest government. In 1778, Harpur became deputy secretary of state and secretary of the land board in the infant New York state government. He recorded the proceedings of the meetings he attended, which ultimately earned him his unofficial reputation as New York’s first historian.

“Robert Harpur wrote and wrote,” Herbert said. “Today, much of New York’s governmental structure is based on these records.”

Harpur’s personal diaries and notes were among the many sources Herbert used in writing her book. The special collections and archives of the New York state Library in Albany had an entire sheaf of Harpur’s original land documents. “They were written in such detail that I was able to get so much information from them,” Herbert said.

One of the challenges Herbert faced was that the original information was so outdated that it was often impossible to corroborate. The documents that recorded Harpur’s ill-fated 1765 attempt to settle Scots-Irish farmers on Lake George included a list of all 87 of the farmers. The list included the surnames Harpur and Creighton, which belong to his father and mother. The information indicates that two of the families could have been his relatives, but it was not possible to prove.

No known portrait of Harpur exists. When the British torched his house during the burning of Kingston in 1777, a portrait of his wife was saved but a possible companion painting of him was lost. For years, local historians were convinced that a portrait of Harpur’s son-in-law was actually an image of him.

Herbert believes that the historical figure she has brought to life was truly worthy of having Harpur College named after him. He was indeed worthy because of his support of King’s College and later Columbia College, which has evolved to Columbia University, as well as his part in the development of New York state. However, Harpur was not a popular teacher at King’s College. The book includes a copy of a scandalous cartoon drawn by a student intent on mocking him.

Herbert anticipates that the book will connect readers to this pivotal but mostly unknown upstate New Yorker who lived through the Revolutionary War era. “Hopefully this original research is going to provide reference material on Robert Harpur for the future,” she said.

Robert Harpur’s New York is available in the Binghamton University Bookstore.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08