Shakespeare & Company A Body of Water June-July 2024

Oak Hill & Vicinity: Who was Joshua Borthwick?

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By Mary Lou Nahas

For Capital Region Independent Media

The Borthwick family was very active in church events. Contributed photo

When I want to know anything about the early history of Oak Hill and Vicinity, I begin by going to Beers’ “History of Greene County,” published in 1884. 

The Durham section of that volume was written by J.G. Borthwick. I may also go to sketches written by him for the Catskill Examiner 1879-1884 available today online at www.tracingyourrootsgcny.com; Borthwick Papers Home Page.

When I think about local history, I always want to know not just names, dates, military ranks and census records — although those are important — or even information shown on a family tree, but I’d like to read what individuals might be feeling, saying, doing daily, organizing their lives around. 

If I am writing about more contemporary history, I would look at Michael Hayes’ “Oak Hill, Voices from an American Hamlet” to hear the words of people who lived in 2007. Michael was able to record interviews with local residents and transcribe them into his book.  

Borthwick did not have that technology but he had the knack of telling stories and making them real. In the sketches, he sometimes apologized for saying negative things about a local individual, commenting that he wants to be objective.  

Sometimes I can find local diaries that record what was important to their authors, such as the Jeremiah Cunningham diaries or the Carrie Spalding Ingalls diary that is being transcribed by Greenville historian Don Teator. 

Both Joshua G. Borthwick’s sketches and Durham history in Beers provide a breath of information and are readily available. He quotes diary entries that I don’t have ready access to and shares his memories of people living in the community. Yet it occurs to me that I know little about J.G. Borthwick himself.

There were quite a few Borthwicks in the area during his time and it is sometimes difficult to keep them apart. There is much information available about his relatives the Calvin Borthwicks of Cornwallville. There is an extensive Borthwick Collection at the Bronck Museum, a generous gift of Calvin S. Borthwick of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, as a memorial to his father, William Sidney Borthwick (1870-1951).

The collection contains diaries recorded by Calvin and later his son William. Raymond Beecher wrote: “Few sources of local history are more informative than such volumes with their concise, unsophisticated entries. Their importance is compounded when year after year entries follow in consecutive fashion.”

Cornwallville was a hamlet dominated in many ways by its Presbyterian Church in Borthwick’s day. Contributed photo

The first farm to which the Calvin Borthwicks came in 1866 was adjacent to the village of Cornwallville on Moore Road. Relatives and close friends were scattered about the surrounding countryside, close ties being maintained. They were “part and parcel” of this rural community, whether it involved cooperative labor, social events, religious activities or providing assistance to the less fortunate.

Their roots were deep in New York, the Borthwick forebearers having come from Scotland into the Rensselaerville area about 1775. Three Borthwick brothers had married three Bushnell sisters. Following pioneer patterns, some descendants removed to lands in central and western New York, while others remained in surrounding towns such as Conesville, Cooksburg and eventually Cornwallville. 

For a short while this Borthwick family operated the gristmill at Cooksburg on the Catskill Creek, Beecher wrote.

Joshua Borthwick was born in Broome Center, in Schoharie County, on Nov. 21, 1832. Contributed photo

For further information on Borthwicks, one can look at the William S. Borthwick Memorial Collection 1820-1950 catalogues in the New York State Historic Documents through the New York State Library. It includes diaries, account books, letters, autograph albums, business records, genealogical materials and other miscellaneous items of several generations of the Borthwick family.

Papers of William Borthwick (1809-96) include account books of farming, grist mill and cobbler work at Cooksburg, partially kept with Elijah Bushnell, 1837-1857. Papers of Calvin Borthwick (1836-1904) include diaries, 1851-91, with accounts of his Civil War experience and one diary containing earlier entries by J. Elijah Bushnell (1816-1850) on religion, 1834-1850; account books, 1871-1894; Civil War letters, correspondence with his parents William and Maria while they were in Portland, or., 1890-1891, and his letters from Oregon describing local activities and his brother Alexander E. Borthwick’s real estate business, 1891-92. Papers of his wife Mary Frances Smith Borthwick include her diaries on events and people in Cornwallville, 1904.

Papers of William S. Borthwick (1870-1951), teacher and local official, include diaries, 1888-1950; family correspondence, 1906-48; record books from his insurance business in Cornwallville, 1923-43; notebooks, curriculum materials, and financial records pertaining to his work as a teacher, 1889-1905; and correspondence, accounts, legal papers, and other records from his work with the Methodist Church, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Sheep Breeders Association, and official positions with the Town of Durham, 1891-1946.

Other items include account book of Alexander Borthwick, lawyer in Gilboa, 1828-1834; diaries of Hannah Bushnell, 1849-58; letters to the Bushnell family from their Connecticut relatives, 1795-1835; diary of Alexander Borthwick, 1883; diary of work and earnings of Frank G. Smith, 1895-1901; minutes of the Cornwallville Social Band, 1886-87; and typescript of a hearing with related correspondence concerning water supply for Catskill village, 1933. Family of William Borthwick (1809-1896) and Margaret Maria Bushnell (1810-1898) and their descendants and relatives residing in Cooksburg and Cornwallville.

J.G. Borthwick is buried in the Brown Union Cemetery, as is his father. Contributed photo

All that and yet what do we know about the author from Beers’ “History” and the writer of the  newspaper sketches?

Joshua George Borthwick was the oldest son of John Borthwick and Lucy Southard Bushnell. John Borthwick was born on Sept. 11, 1806, in Broome, Schoharie County. His father George Borthwick was 37 and his mother, Nancy Brice McNish, was 34. John had at least three sons with Lucy Bushnell.  He lived in Rensselaerville in 1855 and died in Durham in May 1887, at the age of 80.

Joshua G. Borthwick was born Nov. 21, 1832, at Broome Center, Schoharie County. He died Feb. 8, 1922 (aged 89) and was buried in the Brown Union Cemetery in the town of Durham.

He has been described as a farmer, teacher, writer, and for more than 70 years, a member of the Presbyterian Church, where he served as elder, Sunday School Superintendent and taught singing lessons.

He was a justice of the peace. He was married twice; first to Nancy Hull Borthwick (1833-1892) and later to Harriet Antoinette Hall (1850-1915). He had two children: Lucy Emma Borthwick and Francis Borthwick. He wrote 40 Durham sketches for the Catskill Examiner and an article on the town of Durham for Beer’s “Greene County History” pub. 1884.    

That is quite a bit, but I still want to know more about him. Where exactly did he live, how was he educated, where did he teach, who attended the singing lessons? How was he related to the other Borthwicks in Oak Hill and Vicinity?

Thanks to Jonathan Palmer, the Greene County historian, who indulges my questions and always helps me in my searches, I know that the New York Public Library in their Archives Division has additional information about his life and a diary: “The Life and Diary of Joshua George Borthwick,” which “commences with my birth (21 Nov., 1832) and continues until September 30, 1855.”   

Would any readers like to join me in my search for information about Joshua G. Borthwick or do you already know information I don’t?  If you do, please let me know.

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