Windham Life and Times – October 7, 2016

Frederick Bessell


Louis Maurer (German-born Amercan artist, 1832-1932) published by N. Currier,  Camping Out Some of the Right Sort.

Louis Maurer (German-born American artist, 1832-1932) published by N. Currier,  Camping Out Some of the Right Sort. 1852. Bessell’s Camp in Windham was founded thirty years earlier.

I have always been intrigued by the account of  Bissell’s Camp which was located in Windham. It was described as weird and a little wild, and out of place in Windham’s history. I never really could understand how F.L. Bissell ended up in Windham and where he went to after he left. Actually, Frederick Bessell’s story is quite fascinating and is tied to the incredible wealth created by the maritime trade of Salem, Massachusetts, in the early 19th century.  Salem was America’s richest city at the time and the city’s merchant fleets had made many families there as rich as the Buffets or Gates of our time. While I have tracked down more information about Frederick Bessell, we will probably never know what induced him and Major Dudley to set up camp in the woods of Windham. So let’s begin with the retelling of Morrison’s description of Bissell’s Camp.

“At the age of eighteen or nineteen, F.L. Bissell came to Windham, in the month of May, 1823. He was a Malay or East Indian, a native of the isle of Sumatra, and came to this country in early life. He had a good English education, and was heir to a large estate, which was in the hands of a trustee or guardian, whose name was White of Salem, Mass. When he came to Windham he was accompanied by a man by the name of Major Dudley, a teacher of military tactics. They selected a spot and built a camp of pine boughs, with a stone fireplace. This camp was founded on a rock, which was but a little higher than the ground around it. It was soon supplied with all kinds of the best liquors, and with such food as was suitable for camp life.

“The next movement was the purchase of guns, pistols, swords, dirks, etc., also fishing gear and several dogs, all of which were of the most costly kind. Thus equipped, he with his friends, Major Dudley, and two or three others, were ready for fishing at Mitchell’s Pond, and for hunting wild game through the woods on each side of the brook that runs easterly from Mitchell’s Pond. They went into it with a keen relish, and from that time forward the yelping of hounds and the crack of the gun made music for the whole neighborhood. The novelty of the place and the odor of rum induced a great many people to visit Bissell’s camp.”

“Bissell evidently did not intend stopping long when he went there, but the attractions of the place drew so much company that he though it best to stay, and change in some measure what appeared to be a savage course of life, and take steps toward civilization. Therefore, the brush camp was torn down, and a log house built in its place. The house contained two rooms and a hall across the west end of the building; the inside of the house was finished in the most elaborate manner, the walls frescoed with pictures of East-Indian scenes, but the outside left in the worst condition possible. A stable was next built, then horses and carriages were bought, quite a number of each; in fact, he used money as though it were not worth having. In proof of this an incident will be related. He with another took a ride through the adjoining town of Salem; passing a farm-house, he saw a flock of geese, and having his shot-gun with him, he raised it and fired into their midst; killing and wounding several. He then ordered his driver to stop, and having found the owner of the geese, stated to him, what he had done, and asked what he must pay for the shot. The sum, (Not a small one,) was quickly named, and quickly paid by the sportsman, who then went on his way rejoicing.”

“Bissell was very fortunate in locating his camp, for the woodland which extended westward from his camp, on both sides of the brook to Mitchell’s Pond, was formerly the greatest place for game that could be found. It was the home to owls, hawks, crows, and pigeons, also of foxes, raccoons, woodchucks, mink and squirrels.”

Thus passed the first year of his camp life. He afterwards made additions to his house and stables, erected a large summer house, prepared an artificial pond, and stocked it with gold and silver fish. And so he went on for three or four years, till the money that he thought was lying back for his benefit was exhausted, or withheld from his use by his guardian or trustee. In the mean time he had contracted many debts, and his creditors were not slow in attaching his goods when the proper time came. They by due process of law took possession of all his personal estate. His financial embarrassment was the cause of his immediate departure from the place. He left these parts, and his subsequent history is unknown to the writer.”

“F.L. Bissell was a good penmen, and he embellished his writing very much by using (apparently) gold-dust instead of black sand, as a blotting material.”

“After Bissell’s departure, the premises was used, several years, as a kind of hotel, which was principally patronized by the thousands that were attracted by it romantic situation, and who were generally too thirsty to go away without seeing the inside of one particular room, where intoxicants were dealt out.”

“The first keeper of this hotel was a man by the name of Robinson, the next was Daniel Hunt, and the third was one Ferguson, neither of whom remained more than two or three years.

All the glory and attractions of ‘Bissell’s Camp’ passed rapidly away, after the hasty retreat of its founder. The buildings passed into the hands of one who was a manufacture of choice lace, which was then a remunerative business…The factory was torn down; the log camp was demolished about 1865. The lattice-made well-house still exists; the artificial pond is still there; and there are other ruinous evidences to remind the visitor of the places where buildings stood. But ‘the pomp and circumstances’ of its early state are gone forever.”

“Having closed the account of our common schools, mention will be made of a military school which but few of the present residents of Windham ever heard of. Among the companions of that wild, strange, eccentric man, F.L. Bissell, founder of ‘Bissell’s Camp,’ was Major Dudley, reported to have been an officer in the 1812-15 war. He came to town in May 1823, and was here several years. He was well versed in military tactics. He established a military school for the soldiers of the town, which was well patronized by those that loved the military profession.”

Next week: The connection between Salem Massachusetts and Sumatra.


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