News Articles Library Event Photos Contact Search

Saturday, 23 February 2013 05:30

The Mysterious Parley S. Downer


Parley S. Downer (1823–1893), Brig Cora, 1889. Inscribed in banner: “Clipper / Brig Cora of Watertown NY.” Also inscribed “By an old Sailor / 79 years of age / 51 years at Sea / Feb 22nd 1889.” Unsigned. Paper, crayon, ink and watercolor, 16½ x 22 inches. Image courtesy, Cowan’s Auctions.

The whimsical crayon drawings of the artist whose signature has been interpreted as “P. S. Downes” has elicited interest from folk art collectors and scholars since the 1970s.1 The images portrayed frequently relate stories—supposedly autobiographical—about an aged sailor who saw service in the merchant marines (slaving, smuggling, being ship wrecked), who had been a member of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery Company K during the Civil War, and was later a member of the S. L. Judd Grand Army Post No. 377 in Windsor, New York. Record searches to date have turned up no evidence of such a man. Speculation that the artist had a connection to the village of Downsville in Delaware County, New York, because many of his drawings have been found in this area, seem logical, but have also turned up little information. It was the recent Internet publication of the list of Civil War Soldiers in Madison County that allowed a Private Parley S. Downer of Company K of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery to step forward and be recognized. Reevaluation of the signature that appears on many of the works by the artist show that what has reasonably been viewed as “P. S. Downes” is, in fact, “P. S. Downer,” and the Scottie appearing in many of his works is, as theorized, his middle name.

Parley S. Downer (1823–1893), Grand Army of the Republic, 1893. Inscribed along the bottom: “Presented Commander John Benedict of the old 148 Inft. N.Y. Vol. By P.S. Downer of Co. K. 4th N.Y. Hvy. Art. 2nd army Corp June 18th. 1893.” An inscription below the image of the Uncle Sam reads: “By P.S. Downer — an / old sailor & Soldier — / 77 years of age & 48 at sea.” Paper, crayon, ink and watercolor, 14 x 22 inches. Image courtesy, Cowan’s Auction. Collection of Author.

Parley Scott Downer was born 1823, in Chittenango, New York, to Abner Partridge Downer and Rachel Harrington.2 His father, born in 1793, was the youngest of ten children of John and Lydia (Dunham) Downer of Pownal, Vermont. Abner, as a young boy moved to Peterboro, New York, to live with his older brother John and eventually became a blacksmith apprentice. After finishing his apprenticeship he opened his own blacksmith shop and grocery store adjacent to the newly completed Erie Canal. Presumably, along this site, young Parley grew up and may have acquired an urge to see the world from the many nautical travelers he most likely encountered. Abner prospered in his grocery business3 but the family store was damaged during the enlargement of the Erie Canal during the early 1850s, and on March 7, 1854, Downer was awarded a judgment against the State of New York in the amount of $2,198.14 for damages.4

Parley S. Downer (1823–1893), Clipper Ship Jennie A. Towsley, 1893. Inscribed in banner “Clipper Ship Jennie A. Towsley of / Hardy, N.Y.” Also inscribed: “By an aged / Sailor and Soldier / 77 Years of age & 45 Years at / whaling, Smuggling, Slaving, Man of war / 14 Years and in all ports of the world / in merchant Service. 3 years 9 months / in 4th N.Y. Hvy. Art. Company K. / belongs to LJ Post. No 377 Windsor, N.Y. / Respectfully P.S. Downer. May 24 / 1893.” Paper, crayon, ink and watercolor, 12 x 20 inches. Collection of Author.

Parley S. Downer (1823–1893), Schooner Addie Townsend, 1892. Inscribed in banner “Schooner Addis Townsend of / Italy Hill, N.Y.” Also inscribed “By an aged / Sailor And Ret Soldier. / 76 Years of age. and / 45 years on the Atlantic, Pacific Indian Oceans. / Respectfully, P. S. Downer. July 26th 1892.” Paper, crayon, ink and watercolor, 14 x 22 inches. Image courtesy, James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine. Collection of Author.
Around this time, Abner entered the contracting business becoming involved in the building of the Croton, New York, aqueduct, the Champlain Canal (connecting Lake Champlain to the Hudson River), and the dry dock and boatbuilding works of Walrath, French & Downer in Chittenango. Records show that in 1870 the successor company Walrath and Downer, Boat Builders, employed twenty men and produced three canal boats. Their stationary lists the firm as boat builders, sash, blind, and door manufacturers, lumber dealers, and proprietors of the dry dock, with offices in Chittenango, New York, and Tonawanda, New York.5 So successful was Abner that in 1857 he was able to establish what was to become one of the most prominent banks in Madison County—Chittenango Bank.

During this time, the Downer name surfaces among the most notable citizens and politicians in the village of Chittenango, as village assessor, board member, and town president. Like their father, two of Parley’s brothers, George Edward Downer and Albert Henry Downer, also took on many civic roles. Parley, however, does not appear in any of the village civic records. It’s not clear what caused this son to exchange the life of a prominent family for one of adventure as a sailor and soldier.6 None of the other Downer men enlisted in the New York volunteer regiments, and Parley did not join a local regiment; he chose instead the 4th Heavy Artillery Company K in Rochester, New York. At the time of his enlistment on April 15, 1863, his age is given as 33 years. Shouldn’t Scott, as the family called him, the oldest son, have been deeply involved in the business at this time?

Few written records of Parley Scott Downer’s life exist in Chittenango except for a scant mention in the personal diary of Hattie Downer, his half-sister. An entry dated April 29, 1865, just after the 4th New York Volunteers Heavy Artillery participated in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, reads: “Scott was here to dinner. He is here on a furlough. Went to Utica at night. He looks miserable, very poor and thin.” He was discharged August 16, 1865, and the 4th New York Volunteers were mustered out on September 26, 1865. Veterans’ records indicate that Downer received a pension for his Civil War service, however, no records show how he occupied himself after the war.

More than twenty years later on July 4, 1889, Downer made an impression when, at a public event in Kingston, New York, he recited a tale that encompassed subject matter relayed in his drawings. An account of the event appeared the following day in the New York Times. Titled “An Octogenarian’s Story. Was a Sailor, Solder, and Slaver—Wrecked Eleven Times,” the article describes Downer as “a hale, cheery, well-dressed old man” who was born in Portland, Maine, in 1809, and arrived in town from Cleveland, Ohio.

Parley S. Downer (1823–1893), Brigantine Sampson of New York City, N.Y., 1889. Inscribed in banner “Bragentine / Sampson of New York City / N.Y.” Also inscribed “Presented to Miss Mary Mead. / from P. S. Downer. of Portland Maine / God Bless You. Scotty.” Also inscribed “BY AN / OLD. SAILOR / 79 Years of age. / 54 years at sea / [???] 10th 1889.” Paper, crayon, ink and watercolor, 13 x 21 inches. Image courtesy, James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine. Collection of Author.
In his story, Downer recounts his ocean-bound travels, which included the Arctic on a whaling expedition (1833), the Philippine Islands, and smuggling ventures to Spain, China, and Japan, as well as merchant marine service. When in the navy Downer claims to have been on the frigate Savannah, participating, while on board, in the Mexican War and final surrender of Vera Cruz. Returning to the merchant marines, he described “employment on a ship at the enormous salary of $100 per month,” only to discover when at sea that the reason for the generous pay was because “we had boarded a slave ship. There were 1,700 slaves on board, and all were taken to Cuba, where I was finally released.” In 1861, he describes his entry into the Union Army, joining the Fifth Maine Heavy Artillery. After recovering from an injury, Downer states he returned to New York and “re-enlisted in the Fourth New-York Heavy Artillery and remained at the front until the close of the war.” Downer apparently returned to the sea after the war, stating he had only recently survived a shipwreck earlier in the year [1889] in Portland, Oregon, claiming it was his seventh. Informing those in the crowd that he was eighty years of age and had walked to their town from Cleveland, he claimed he was on his way to Washington, by way of Maine to visit family. Once at his destination he claimed to hope to write a book of his life’s adventures, years earlier being offered the opportunity when in Delaware County, New York.

Though the article noted “The old man showed documents which substantiated a large portion of the foregoing story,” what is actual fact, embellishment, or an outright tall tale remains yet to be verified. Based on family history, his birth in Chittenango, New York, is more likely than Portland, Maine, as recounted at the event. His mention of having “returned” to New York for military service (though initially stating his serving for Maine), was perhaps a Freudian slip as to the true place of his allegiance. No clues are given for his reasons for rejecting his roots. What is not in doubt, apparently being reinforced by the papers he presented, is that he traveled far, enjoying and encountering people on his journey and regaling them with his past exploits.

P. S. Downer’s earliest known works appear in late 1880 as relatively simple drawings; often charmingly rendered sailing vessels surrounded with symbols. As he drew more of these vignettes they became more complex, with embellishments and symbols that give us more insight into the artist, as well as a more comprehensive, though not necessarily credible, biography of the artist. In the absence of hard evidence, we can only speculate that the images may have been mementos given to a household as thanks for a pleasant visit, or to a close friend or military associate, or to a stranger in exchange for room and board.

One family that he seems to encounter over a period of several years is the Benedict family of Potter Center, New York. At least three drawings were done for members of that family—Rose L. Benedict, John H. Benedict, and a combined drawing for Charles H. Benedict and brother John Carson Benedict. It is unclear how Rose L. Benedict is related to John Benedict and his sons, but these drawings were done in 1889 and 1890, when presumably Downer visited. Recently, the third work related to the Benedict family came to auction. This work contains much GAR symbolism and is dedicated by Downer to his comrade and Grand Army of The Republic member, John H. Benedict.

Parley S. Downer (1823–1893), Excursion Steamer Charles Henry Trall, 1893. Inscribed in banner “Steam propelor [sic] / Charles H. Trall of Hume N.Y.” Also inscribed “By an old SALT. / 77 years of age. / 45 years at SEA./ Respectfully / P. S. Downer. Now wrecked on land among comrads.” Paper, crayon, ink and watercolor, 13 x 22 inches. Image courtesy, James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine. Collection of Author.

The Grand Army of the Republic was founded by Union officers who were also freemasons and reputedly borrowed heavily from those traditions. Parley’s father first joined the Free and Accepted Masons in 1815 and was the first master of a newly revitalized Sullivan Lodge in 1849 after anti-masonic sentiment caused the first Sullivan Lodge to falter during the 1830s. Parley’s brothers, George E. and Albert H., were also masters of the same lodge in later years. There is no mention of Parley taking an active masonic role, but perhaps his activities in the S. L. Judd Post 377 of the GAR paralleled or fulfilled this familial obligation. This visit to the Benedict family may have been the occasion of a final goodbye to an old Civil War comrade or a more recent GAR fraternal brother. The drawing is dated June 18, 1893. A few months later, on August 19, 1893, Parley Scott Downer died.

Parley S. Downer (1823–1893), Ship Belle Morse. Inscribed: “By an Old Sailor and Vet Sailor 81 years of age 57 years on the Blue Ocean, P.S. Downer Feb 19th 1891.” Paper, crayon, ink and watercolor, 16½ x 23½ inches framed. Photography by Ellen McDermott. Image courtesy, Jeffrey Tillou Antiques.

The many symbols that appear in these drawings and the strong family and personal connection that Downer had with the GAR and the Freemasons is probably not a coincidence because of the strong intertwined and borrowed traditions of the Freemasons by the GAR. The pointing hand is a constant in P. S. Downer’s works, seemingly directing us to subjects and symbols that can help us piece together the personality and experiences of its subject. In Steamer America the hand is pointed to the logo “Commanded by Scotty.” The pointing index finger used by freemasons is said to represent water. The anchor is the symbol for a third-degree mason, but it may also represent grounded hope during the voyage of life. The inverted dove is also a known symbol in freemasonry. Were these symbols borrowed by the GAR and was Downer alluding to the many unsung patriotic Americans whose stories were lost and will never be known by others? We may never discover Downer’s intended meanings behind some of these symbols, and even if there is no overtly hidden meaning, they still represent relationships and histories yet to be discovered.

Robert Weldert has been collecting marine art and nautical antiques over the past thirty years.

1. Toby Landy, “Voyage of a Lifetime,” The Clarion: America’s Folk Art Magazine (Fall 1981), 38–41; Robert Bishop, Folk Painters of America (E.P. Dutton, New York, 1979); Peter Tillou, Nineteenth Century Folk Art Painting: Our Spirited National Heritage (William Benton Museum of Art University of Connecticut, Storrs, Ct. 1979); George H. Meyer, Folk Artists Biographical Index (Gale Research Company, Detroit Mi); Clipper Ship Charles S. Cotton of North Norwich, collection of Smithsonian American Museum of Art, Herbert Wade Hemphill, Jr. gift 1986.

2. Parley first appears as Perley Scott Downer in Church Baptismal records, the Downer family history written by David R. Downer and a publication of the Freemasons written in 1908 (his father was a prominent member of the Sullivan Lodge No. 148). Parley appears in military, pension and burial records. It is likely that a clerical error accounted for the change. Scott or Scottie appears to be the name he preferred. Two other Perely Downers appear frequently and some records may be confused and intertwined. Perley Ruggles Downer born in Chittenden, Vermont, in 1830. Perley A. Downer was born in 1823 and worked for a Vermont railroad. (One attribution to Perely S. Downer says he died in a railroad accident in 1890 while military pension records clearly demonstrate otherwise.) Perley Ruggles Downer was a member of the West Virgina Volunteers during the Civil War.

3. In a letter dated 1879, William B. Downer, a nephew of Abner, recalled A. P. Downer and Sons as having an extensive business in the late 1830s, with merchants and farmers bringing grain, produce, wool, butter, and cheese for trade. The store was also a blacksmith shop.

4. Chittenango Canal Boat Landing Museum archives. 7010 Lakeport Road Chittenango, N.Y. 13037

5. The Chittenango Canal Boat Landing Museum is currently on the site of the old family dry docks.

6. All of the members of the Downer family are buried in the Oakwood Cemetery on Lake Street, Chittenango. Parley, however, is buried in the Upper Mauch Chunk Cemetery in Carbon County Pennsylvania, under a headstone provided by the government for U.S. Veterans.