Ned Buntline, or the Blighter of Blue Mountain Lake

by | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 1991, Elizabeth Folwell profiled the “celebrated scalawag” and prolific writer Ned Buntline. 

“The life history of Col. Edward Zane Carroll Judson (‘Ned Buntline’) is more thrill­ing than romance, as his career, from boyhood to middle age, was a succession of adventures by land and sea; as a sportsman and angler in the then primitive wilder­ness in the Adirondacks, as a midshipman in the Navy, a soldier in the Seminole war, the Mexican war, the four years of warfare between the North and the South and finally in the Indian Wars of the wild west!’ (From Life and Adventures of Ned Buntline by Fred E. Pond (“Will Wildwood”), New York, 1919)

” … a black-hearted toad … a rank coward, an assassin, a seducer and a murderer … with a face like a bladder of lard, almost goggle-eyed, humpbacked and red-headed;’ (From Private Life, Public Career and Real Character of That Odious Rascal Ned Buntline!! As developed by his conduct to his Past Wife, Present Wife and his Various Paramours! Completely lifting up the Veil and Unmasking to a Horror-Stricken Community his Debaucheries, Adulteries, Revelries, Cruelties, Threats and Murders!!! by Thomas V. Patterson, New York, 1849)

The Adirondacks’ first writer-­in-residence, Edward Z. C. Judson, a.k.a. Ned Buntline, Edward Minturn, Charley Clewline, Reckless Ralph, Sherwood Stanley, Julia Edwards and Ethelbert the Wanderer, was a legend in his own mind. Published accounts of his real and imagined exploits fueled the tabloids of the mid-1800s: With a handful of fellow adventurers he plot­ted to annex Canada and was foiled in Quebec City; he fought in a dozen duels and led murderous mobs. He railed against obscene literature as he carried on numerous torrid love affairs, and spoke out for temperance with booze on his breath. He met a jack-of-all-trades from Iowa, William Cody, and catapulted him into fame as Buf­falo Bill, thus creating the mythical Wild West that Americans swallowed hook, line and sinker.

Buntline cranked out no less than 150 serial romance novels during his half-century career, all about fallen angels, prodigal sons, devious for­eigners, demure maidens and virtuous, red-blooded American men; his The Mysteries and Miseries of New York was a runaway best-seller in 1847. He made a fortune from unabashed trash and rivers of saccharine.

Buntline left his mark on the howl­ing Adirondack wilds in the years pre­ceding the Civil War and paved the way for a generation of outdoor writ­ers. He’s the person who insisted that Clinch, or Tallow, Lake be called the more lyrical Blue Mountain Lake, and the first year-round road out of that territory was hewn in order to get Buntline’s manuscripts to his publisher.

Buntline’s tales of his experiences with rod and gun were among the first to describe the Adirondack woods and waters to a national audience; these hyperbolic he-man essays found their ways into respectable anthologies that included works by Nessmuk and fishing experts Charles F. Orvis and Seth Green.

His lurid accounts of shooting a pack of slavering wolves, hauling a twenty-four-pound salmon out of Blue Mountain Lake, clobbering a three­hundred-pound buck with an oar while rowing in Eagle Lake and watch-ing his English bulldog tree an entire family of panthers thrilled an eager public that wanted to revel vicarious­ly in this new frontier. The subject of “The Big Buck of Blue Mountain;’ a story published in the late 1850s, was a near-mythical creature “so cunning as to baffle every hunter who tried to bring him down; so strong as to bear away more than one chance ball, which had touched, but failed to reach a vital part of him, and so fierce that none of our dogs could drive him to water, so foxy, too, in his nature that he fed in my fields at night . . . ” City folks ate it up with a spoon.

It was a dark and stormy night when Buntline was born, one March 20. The year was either 1819, 1821 or 1823; accounts, including his own, vary. His father, an attorney in Stamford, New York, hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps, but Buntline preferred hunting and fishing to studying. He left home at an early age to join the navy. Buntline wrote, “I had sailed around the world when I was eleven, was promoted to midshipman when I was thirteen:’ His years before the mast, roughly 1838 to 1842, provided him with great literary inspiration as well as with his nom de plume (a buntline is a rope used to haul up a square sail).

“Eating the Captain’s Pig:’ his first published work, appeared in Knicker­bocker magazine, in 1838. By the time he was twenty-one, (or twenty-three or twenty-five), Buntline had enough backing and material to launch his own magazine, called, modestly enough, Ned Buntline’s Own. At times, an issue would contain a half-dozen serials written under assorted pen names, all by one and the same.

Although Buntline’s writing career was launched to dazzling success, his marital fortunes weren’t quite so sweet (he was widowed, married and di­vorced, and remarried in short order), and his political career was just as tempestuous (he was the leader of the xenophobic United Sons of America). Buntline’s magazine, published out of Paducah, Kentucky, was a mouthpiece for his secret military order as much as it was a vehicle for his fiction. The group, with Buntline as its leader, gained the national spotlight with the infamous Astor Place Riots, in 1852, in which twenty-three people were killed and twenty-six wounded. Buntline was convicted of leading the riot, fined $250 and sentenced to a year in jail.

Buntline was on the rebound in 1856 when he first saw the Adiron­dacks. Some say what drove him out of the city was the crashing failure of radical politics, while others suggest it was affairs of a more domestic demeanor, that he was avoiding his ex­-wives. The North Creek Journal offered yet another explanation: “In ’60, when he was known here, he was intermit­tently a hard drinker. He went, or was sent [by his publishers, Cauldwell, Southworth and Whitney] to his fa­vorite haunt known as ‘Eagle’s Nest’ on Eagle Lake, just west of Blue Mountain Lake, to get away from his cups and enjoy the wild life of the woods:’ And he did indeed enjoy the wildlife, and a wild life.

Buntline visited Piseco on his first Adirondack trip and took over an abandoned hunter’s cabin on the In­dian River for the winter. In his essay “Burned Out” the writer described his new pure, repentant, back-to-nature existence: ”Almost every night I had a concert. A gang of wolves played the principal part. A panther solo made the variations. I was happy. No temp­tation to deviate from the rules of health and morality appeared. I was at church every day.” Paradise was short-lived, though, as the title of the piece indicates: a chimney fire de­stroyed the little cabin and, along with it, Buntline’s desire to play the hermit.

After the fire, Buntline went north and found a cabin and log barn on the shore of an uninhabited lake. (The land had belonged to Gerritt Smith, the abolitionist, since 1836, and the buildings may have been built in the 1840s for free blacks.) Buntline fell in love with the place, known locally as Hog’s Nose, and named it Eagle’s Nest; he dubbed the lake Eagle Lake.

Chauncey Hathorn, an educated and able woodsman, was Buntline’s closest neighbor, philosophical advisor, matchmaker and guide. Hathorn in­troduced the middle-aged divorcee to Eva Gardiner, an eighteen-year-old barmaid from Troy (or perhaps North Creek), suggesting she’d hire on as a good housekeeper. Buntline, instead of offering her an honest wage, married Gardiner promptly before her first paycheck was due. She died in child­birth within a year of arriving at Eagle’s Nest and was scarcely settled underground before Buntline returned to New York for a few months—osten­sibly to meet with his publishers, but more likely to find a new wife.

In November 1860 he married Kate Myers, a refined city girl who expected her new home to be a gleaming man­sion befitting a world-renowned author, rather than a moss-chinked log cabin miles from the nearest neighbor. In The Great Rascal, a biography of Ned Buntline, Jay Monaghan wrote, “Years later, Ned himself liked to tell how he got his bride to Eagle’s Nest and then stole her shoes so she could not run away.” This marriage, too, was destined to be brief. Despite Buntline’s building two new homes, including an almost civilized farmhouse, Myers de­parted—shoes, baby and all—within eighteen months.

At Eagle’s Nest, Buntline enter­tained congressmen, New York report­ers, writer Alfred Billings Street and painter Frederic Church. These noted men, he wrote, “made annual calls when they went to the forest for fresh brain inspiration.”

The wilderness provided Buntline with “an ease and freedom I had not know for years.” All the while, he was writing serials for the New York Mer­cury, which were featured prominently on the front page of nearly every issue. Although a half-dozen works date from his Adirondack years, there is no whiff of balsam evident in those stories of the high seas and Indian captives. Buntline told friends that when he started a book, he never made correc­tions or used an eraser. A modern reader paging through, say, Elfrida, the Red Rover’s Daughter might have guessed that. Buntline wrote, “I once wrote a book of 610 pages in sixty-two hours, but during that time I scarcely ate or slept. As to my method—I never lay out a plot in advance …. First I invent a title, and when I hit on a good one I consider that story about half finished.”

Buntline did compose several Adi­rondack poems, such as “My Maple” and “I am a Freeman;’ which was dedicated to the Izaak Walton Club. Ned sent off the verse,

I am a freeman! ‘Tis my boast and pride
The blue sky is o’er me-the dark soil beneath
My bath is the lake-my couch is the heath
My rod and my rifle my larder provide­
I am a freeman! ‘Tis my boast and pride.

which he suggested the club’s presi­dent could use in the group’s newslet­ter, “or to light a cigar with.” Buntline’s most popular verse was “My Wild­wood Home;’ which was printed and reprinted, recited in contests, anthol­ogized, and set to music. A few poig­nant lines describe Buntline’s haven: “Where the world’s foul scum can never come;/Where friends are so few that all are true—”

Chauncey Hathorn remained a true friend of Buntline’s and remarked, “The natives of the country looked upon him as a wonderful man.” But local husbands and fathers may not have agreed. Harold Hochschild, author of Township 34, a history of Blue Mountain Lake, commented that, “ac­cording to repute, Ned’s less formal liaisons were spaced never more than a few months apart. Like his serials, be­fore one ended, another had begun.”

The Raquette Lake guide Alvah Dunning didn’t see Buntline as a wonderful man, either. In the era be­fore hunting laws, Dunning took his deer when, where and how he chose, which didn’t sit well with Buntline. The writer shot one of Dunning’s trespassing hounds, launching a feud that was the talk of the North Coun­try. Years later, when he was a some­what more subdued gentleman, Bunt­line wrote, “As to Alvah Dunning­—God help the poor fellow—I would not hurt a grey hair on his head, if there are any hairs left. He used to annoy me, as he had annoyed others, and I quietly let him know that there was a law of self-defense, that ruled even in the wilderness.”

Buntline’s musings about acceptable behavior notwithstanding, he did choose to lead a lawless and rowdy existence at times. Stories persist that when Buntline periodically visited the nearest post office, in Lake Pleasant, about thirty miles from his home, he celebrated his arrival by going on a hellacious bender. Then he’d need a few days to recover and a few days to provision and a day to get home, so nearly a week was used up in order to send off a manuscript. It’s no small wonder then that his publisher hired Prentice Brown, a farmer who lived at Sprague’s Clearing, near Indian Lake, to pick up and deliver the mail. Bunt­line anxiously awaited Brown’s visits. An entry in his Eagle’s Nest diary from 1862 reads, ” … six o’clock and no Brown—he’ll not come to day! And tomorrow most likely he’ll go to Cedar River to attend his Sunday school & the Cedar River brats that haven’t got any souls to save.”

Buntline’s public exploits were also duly chronicled by the North Coun­try press. The North Creek Journal noted, “The bars of Glens Falls were within reach and he used to ride his little French pony down there decked out fantastically with bright ribbons braided into his long and heavy mane. His caper of riding his pony into a saloon one day and stopping in front of the bar is remembered by many of our older citizens.”

During his last season at Eagle’s Nest, in 1862, Buntline spent his time half-­heartedly farming, cutting and selling enough hay to pay off the property, and growing hops, turnips, potatoes, cucumbers and watermelons, according to his diary. But the farmhouse was too empty for Buntline, and the call to war—the Civil War—was too insistent. A few months after Kate Myers had left with their baby, Buntline joined New York’s First Regiment of Mounted Rifles. (Though Buntline attached the title “Colonel” to his name when the Civil War was over, Union army rec­ords show that E. Z. C. Judson was honorably discharged as a private.) In
Township 34, Harold Hochschild wrote, “If Ned failed of distinction on the battlegrounds of the Civil War, he achieved it during the same period in the field of matrimony by living with two wives at the same time.”

In 1867 Buntline sold his Adiron­dack holdings. He was restless, tired of the woodsman’s role and in search of new material. He went west, fascinated by the wide open spaces and their poetic potential. Purely by chance, Buntline met William F. Cody, a car­penter, real-estate agent, occasional In­dian scout and cowboy, in Nebraska. At the time, neither man had the slightest inkling about what they would eventually do for each other.

Cody cut a dashing figure, and it took Buntline only a few months to build a legend out of the sketchy details of the life of “Buffalo Bill.” Stories about the frontiersman became wildly popular in serial and novel form, and it proved to be only a short leap from page fame to stage fame.

In December 1872, Buntline invited Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack (plainsman John Omohundro) to join him in Chicago as stars of a show called Scouts of the Prairie. The two men arrived in Chicago on the next available train, only to discover that the impresario (Buntline) had failed to hire the requisite Indians and bad guys, and that the playwright (also Buntline) had not yet written the script for the show, which was to premiere in three days. But, displaying grace under pressure, and with the assistance of every hotel employee who could write, Buntline created the original western drama in just four hours.

It was a whole new art form, com­plete with buckaroos, painted warriors, dancing Indian princesses, rope tricks, blazing six-shooters and a token temperance lecture by “Cale Durg” (Buntline again). Audiences in Cincin­nati, St. Louis, Rochester, Albany, Boston and beyond loved it, but in New York City the reviews were luke­warm at best. The New York Herald wrote: “The representation was attend­ed by torrents of what seemed thor­oughly spontaneous applause; … Hon. William F. Cody, otherwise ‘Buf­falo Bill,’ occasionally called by the refined people of the eastern cities, ‘Bison William,’ is a good-looking fel­low, tall and straight as an arrow, but ridiculous as an actor. Texas Jack is not quite so good-looking, not so tall, not so straight, and not so ridiculous.”

Buntline cranked out more tumble­weed thrillers, under an annual con­tract for twenty thousand dollars with the publishers Street and Smith; Buf­falo Bill and Texas Jack got royalties plus income from the shows. In 1873, though, the mustachioed cowpokes broke with their creator to choose another official biographer. But this mattered little to Buntline, who had other heroes to mold in Wild Bill Hickock and Wyatt Earp.

In the mid-1870s, Buntline married for at least the sixth time and hung up his rifle, chaps and spurs for good, returning to Stamford to live at a country estate he named Eagle’s Nest. By 1880, Buntline was able to retire on his royalties. But in his later years, he mined his Adirondack memories for several short pieces that he sold to Turf, Field and Farm. These were hunt­ing and fishing yarns with Buntline as the larger-than-life hero; some of the stories closed with remarks on how progress had perverted the Adiron­dacks he once enjoyed.

“It makes me sick to go there now:’ he wrote. ”A lover of Nature and Nature’s gifts shudders at the advance of—dudes and their fancy accessories. Hunters and anglers go beyond civili­zation if they know themselves.” His last sporting essay was published in April 1886, and he died on July 16 of that year, reportedly of heart disease. Buntline’s passing was noted in all the newspapers; his funeral was the big­gest occasion Stamford had ever seen.

After his death, Buntline’s novels mostly gathered dust, his adventures were forgotten, his political beliefs were discredited. By the turn of the century, there were just a handful of his cronies who kept his memory alive. Leon Mead, a friend and fellow writer, re­membered, “Ned accomplished more literary work than Walter Scott and Dickens put together.” Maybe. In reruns of paper and gallons of ink, it’s tough to argue with that assessment, but don’t try to check out Mortimer Monk, the Hunchback Millionaire, or Merciless Ben, the Hair Lifter from the Great Books section of your local library.

On Verplanck Colvin’s map of Blue Mountain Lake there is a rocky squig­gle with the legend, “Buntline’s Island;’ and part of the Northville-Lake Placid Trail follows what old timers still call the Buntline Road. A decaying cor­ner of Buntline’s log cabin was recently moved from Eagle Lake, to be dis­played on the grounds of the Adiron­dack Museum.

Ned Buntline’s young bride Eva Gar­diner, their baby and Buntline’s chum Chauncey Hathorn all lie under the pines on the Protestant side of the Blue Mountain Cemetery. But other than these few scattered remnants, an occa­sional tall tale and the mournful howl of coyotes heard across a frozen lake, there’s little left in the central Adi­rondacks that recalls that celebrated scalawag.


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