Bicentennial Biographies – No. 91 – 95

A collection of bicentennial biographies from Chautauqua County, N.Y. featuring William Seward (Westfield), Olive Risley Seward (Fredonia), Calista Jones (Jamestown), Horatio Brooks (Dunkirk) and Marion Dickerman (Westfield). Originally broadcast on local radio stations May 16 – May 20, 2011.

No. 91 – William Seward


William Seward - Circa 1850

William Henry Seward, Sr.was born May 16, 1801 in Florida, New York. He studied law at Union College and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1821. That same year he met Frances Adeline Miller, the daughter of Judge Elijah Miller of Auburn, New York.

Seward soon entered into law partnership with Judge Miller and married Frances on October 20, 1824. In 1830 he was elected to the state senate as an Anti-Masonic candidate. He ran for governor of New York 1834 as a candidate for the Whig party but lost.

In 1836 Seward came to Westfield to serve as agent for the Holland Land Company. He was successful in easing tensions between the company and local landowners in Chautauqua County. On July 16, 1837, he delivered to the students and faculty of the newly formed Westfield Academy a Discourse on Education, in which he advocated for universal education.

Seward remained in Westfield until 1838, when he returned to Auburn to run once again for Governor, which he won and took office in 1839. He was reelected to a second two-year term in 1840.

As a state senator and governor, Seward promoted progressive political policies including prison reform and increased spending on education. He was also a staunch abolitionist.  In the 1850s, the Seward family opened their Auburn home as a safehouse to fugitive slaves.

Seward resumed law practice following his second term as governor. He then ran was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Whig in 1849 and emerged as a leader of the anti-slavery faction in Washington. Seward believed that slavery was morally wrong, and said so many times, outraging Southerners. He was an opponent of the Fugitive Slave Act, and he defended runaway slaves in court. In February 1855, he was re-elected to the U.S. Senate and joined the Republican Party following its creation later the same year.

Seward was expected to receive the republican presidential nomination in 1860, but he was perceived as too radical by some members of his own party and the nomination instead went to Abraham Lincoln, who Seward almost immediately threw his support behind.  After winning the election, Lincoln rewarded Seward by appointing him his secretary of state.

It was as Secretary of State that an attempt was made on Seward’s life. On April 14, 1865 – the same night Lincoln was shot – Lewis Powell made an attempt on Seward’s life but was thwarted by Seward’s son, Frederick. The event took a toll on Seward’s wife and Frances died in June 1865 from the stress of almost losing her husband.

Seward emerged as a major force in the administration of the new president, Andrew Johnson. His most famous achievement as Secretary of State was his successful acquisition of Alaska from Russia in March 1867 for the cost of 2 cents an acre. At the time it was viewed a miskate and dubbed “Seward’s Folly” and Seward’s Icebox.” Seward viewed it at his greatest achievement as Secretary of State.


On October 10, 1872, Seward died in his office in his home in Auburn, New York.

Ref: Wikipedia – William H. Seward

No. 92 – Olive Risley Seward


Olive F. Risley

Olive F. Risleywas born in Fredonia on July 15, 1844. She was the daughter of the former Harriet C. Crosby and Anson A. Risley, a prominent civil servant who later worked for the Secretary of the Treasury and resided in Washington, D.C.

Olive became a close companion of William Henry Seward’s in the last years of his life, beginning about 1868, following by a few years the deaths of Seward’s wife Frances and daughter, and shortly after the death of her own mother in 1866. In order to curtail gossip and family worries about their relationship, she was formally adopted by Seward in 1870.

Both Olive and her sister, Harriet Risley, traveled extensively with Seward through Asia, the Middle East and Europe in 1870 and 71, an experience recorded in the book “William H. Seward’s Travels Around the World.” It was a best seller after being published in 1873 and “Olive was credited as editor. She and Seward’s three surviving sons were named joint heirs of the Seward estate.

Olive died in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 27, 1908, but was returned to Chautauqua County to be buried with her parents in Fredonia. In 1971, sculptor John Cavanaugh chose to create a statue honoring her. It stands in front of a private residence in Washington, D.C., the subject’s head gazing toward the nearby Seward Square, named for her adoptive father.

Ref: Wikipedia – Olive Risley Seward

No. 93 – Calista Jones

Calista Jones was born May 25, 1823 in Ellicott, the daughter of Ellick and Louisa Walkup Jones. In 1841 at the age 18, Jones became a teacher in Jamestown’s private schools.

It is said that Jones took her teaching career seriously and tried to keep up with the latest advancements in education.  When a male teacher was fired by the Jamestown school district for failing to properly manage the school, the board approached Jones and asked if she would replace him. Jones said she’d accept the offer, but only if she was paid the same salary as the man who was let go. At first the board refused her, but Jones won them over and she became the first woman in Jamestown’s history to receive the pay of $1.00 a day for school work.

Through her teaching career, Jones tried to improve the quality of education in Jamestown. She helped establish Jamestown Union School and also convinced board of education to include manual training in the school’s curriculum, such as sewing, homemaking, and industrial arts. Jones is also remembered as the first woman to vote in Jamestown.

After teaching 50 years, Jones was appointed Jamestown High School librarian in 1894. She served the school until her death in 1900.

Ref: Prendergast Library – Early Jamestown Women

No. 94 – Horatio Brooks


Photo Source:

Horatio Brookswas born in Portsmouth, N. H. on October 30th, 1828. At a young age, Brooks showed an interest for the new “locomotive” and would often bring home pieces of the machine to examine. At the age of 16 he moved to South Boston, Mass. to work with his cousins as apprentice to the trade of machinist. But his preference so in favor of railway and locomotive service, that in 1846 at the age of 18 he entered the shops of the Boston and Maine Railroad.

He progressed rapidly at learning both business of railroads and the construction of the locomotive. By May of 1849 he was promoted to the position of engineer. In October, 1850, he left Boston in charge of engine No. 90, built by Hinckley & Drury for the New York & Erie Railroad. He arrived in Dunkirk via Erie Canal on Nov. 28, 1850.

Brooks remained a locomotive engineer until November, 1856, when he was called to the position of master mechanic of the Dunkirk shops. In October, 1862, he was appointed superintendent of the western division of the newly organized Erie Railway, still retaining the position of master mechanic of the Western & Northwestern divisions. In March, 1865, he resigned from both positions to serve as superintendent of motive power and machinery of the entire road, a position he held for over four years.

In October, 1869, Jay Gould – then president of the Erie Railway – ordered the Dunkirk shops to be permanently closed and the machinery removed to other locations. To prevent this from taking place, Brooks conceived the idea of leasing the property from the Erie Railway for the purpose of establishing the business of locomotive manufacturing. The company accepted the proposition and on November 13, 1869, the Brooks’ Locomotive Works were organized, the capacity being one locomotive per month. New tools were added and facilities improved until 1872, when twenty-two locomotives were turned out during the year.

Despite economic setbacks throughout the 1870s, the operation remained open for business and turned out one hundred locomotives in 1880 alone. In 1883 the Brooks locomotives were named the Best in Show at the National Railway Appliance Exhibition in Chicago.

In addition to his significant contribution to the local economy of Dunkirk, Brooks also contributed in a civic capacity, serving as mayor for three terms. He died April 20, 1887, but his plant continued to operate for nearly 40 more years. In 1901 the operation merged with American Locomotive Company, but it continued to produce locomotive until 1934. From 1934 until its final closure in1962, the plant produced spare parts for ALCO locomotives.

Ref: 1881 Atlas of Chautauqua County; Wikipedia – Brooks Locomotive Works

No. 95 – Marion Dickerman


Marion Dickerman during her service with the Red Cross

Marion Dickermanwas born April 11, 1890 in Westfield. After high school she studied for two years at Wellesley College before transferring to Syracuse University. There she graduated with a bachelor of arts in 1911 and a graduate degree in education in 1912.

Dickerman taught first at Canisteo, New York. In 1913 she moved to Fulton, New York, where she taught American history at Fulton High School. It was here she met up with former Syracuse classmate Nancy Cook, who was teaching arts and handicrafts at the same school. The two become lifelong partners, spending almost their entire adult lives together.

In 1921, Dickerman became the dean at the Trenton State College in Trenton, New Jersey. But just one year later she joined the faculty at the Todhunter school. Through her relationship with Cook, Dickerman was introduced to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1922 and the two struck up a friendship.

Dickerman, Cook and Roosevelt found a common dedication to politics, education, and progressive reform. In 1927 they purchased the Todhunter School in 1927. The three women also shared the Val-Kill property in Hyde Park, NY and helped to establish and finance Val-Kill Industies, a small factory that would make furniture, pewter and homespun cloth using traditional craft methods. It was used to provide jobs and supplement income for local farming families in the area.

In 1936 Val-Kill Industries was disbanded. Dickerman and Cook continued to live in Stone Cottage until after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945. They sold all interest in the Val-Kill property to Eleanor in 1947 when they moved to Connecticut, where Dickerman became the educational programming director for the Marine Museum.

Dickerman died May 16, 1983 in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Ref: Wikipedia – Marion Dickerman

Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit or contact your local historical society.

View Complete List of Bicentennial Biographies and Audio

– J. Sample

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2 Responses to Bicentennial Biographies – No. 91 – 95

  1. Pingback: Bicentennial Biographies No. 111 – 115 | McClurg Museum Dialogue

  2. Pingback: Bicentennial Biographies No. 136 to 140 | Chautauqua County Historical Society

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