The Reconstruction of a Life
From the Philadelphia Inquirer, January 26, 1992
Clear Pond explores an intriguing notion. Reading about the history of the place where he grew up, Roger Mitchell stumbles on a name. "A man. An ordinary man, about whom nothing was known. He was neither related to me nor alive in my lifetime....I found him in someone else's diary." The man was Israel Johnson, Jr., the place was the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, and Mitchell's long search for this stranger's history proves an odd yet appealing quest.
"History, as it were, knocked on Israel Johnson's door" on Aug. 14, 1836, notes Mitchell, when William C. Redfield stopped at Johnson's place on Clear Pond. Redfield records in his diary that a man named Johnson "has been here four years with his family" and "has built 2 saw mills himself of peculiar construction." Who, Mitchell mused, was this Johnson? Where did he come from, where had he gone, and what was the story behind his "peculiar" sawmill? Eventually, Mitchell spent years excavating the life of this ordinary but interesting man.
The details are frustratingly scant. As a
result, it is the search itself—and the sources of the information that
Mitchell uncovers—that catch the reader's imagination. Wills, deeds, law
suits, military service and pension records, family histories and gravestones
all reveal glimpses of Israel Johnson, Jr. and his relations. Census
records turn out to be especially valuable. "After six years and
several thousand miles," the author says, Israel Johnson remains
"little more than a ghost." That may be. For me, however,
the specter of this hardworking, ingenious and ultimately luckless man has
become hauntingly real.— John R. Alden