The first edition of this history was written in 1958 by local historian Marguerite Gurley Chapman. It was updated in 2001 by the staff of the Potsdam Museum in collaboration with Iva Ramsdell. In 2017, local historian Jim Carl published a monograph on “The Departure of a Generous Founding Family.” In 2018, the Potsdam Museum put on an exhibit about the “Clarkson Family of Potsdam.” Research for the exhibit uncovered new information and heirlooms. In 2020, Clarkson University staff member Catherine Sajna was inspired to create a new edition incorporating the new material. This new edition focuses more on telling a story than preserving details. As a result, readers interested in details such as the dimensions of buildings and roads may still wish to refer to the 2001 Chapman edition.
Chapman did not cite her sources, but this version does. Given the new information collected for the 2018 exhibit and other resources, Chapman has become one of many sources, but the reader will see that she is still the chief among them. Many of the sources are based on oral history or stories handed down rather than on primary documents; therefore, this edition remains a sketch rather than a history.
As Chapman noted in her original forward, readers may have trouble keeping the different Clarksons straight since the same names were given in each generation and many Clarksons married cousins. The reader is encouraged to refer to the genealogical trees provided.
The Clarkson family has left its mark on Potsdam, most obviously today with the eponymous Clarkson University. The Clarksons came to Potsdam to follow up on their purchase of the town, sight unseen, in 1802. The first Clarkson arrived in 1818 to serve as land agent. He was followed by family that settled in the area for two generations. However, by 1909, all but one of the Clarksons had left. The Clarkson sojourn in Potsdam was a remarkable part of a much larger family story based in Manhattan. In fact, the Potsdam Clarksons often spent winters in Manhattan and retained residences and businesses there. As a result, the story of the Clarkson family of Potsdam also includes the story of the Clarkson family in Manhattan.
The first Clarkson settled in Manhattan in 1691. Matthew Clarkson emigrated from England probably because his well-connected family saw emigration as an excellent way to escape political uncertainty. Matthew’s descendants grew the Clarkson footprint. In midtown Manhattan, a street is named after the Clarksons, as is another in Brooklyn. The Manhattan Clarksons are fascinating, but the focus of this booklet is the Clarksons in Potsdam. Therefore, the bulk of information about the Clarksons in Manhattan has been relegated to the appendices.
The Clarkson interest in Potsdam was the result of chance and a web of connections. Charting the web of connections is complicated because the same names were favored in each generation and cousins married cousins. Some space is given in this booklet to clarifying these connections.
The Potsdam Clarksons are of vital interest to the town of Potsdam because the Clarksons owned the town. Clarkson agents laid out the roads and the building lots. The Clarksons themselves, for the majority of their time in Potsdam, were like the gentry of England: major landowners concerned with keeping their lands productive, being benevolent to the poor and supporting the church.
The mark they left on the landscape of Potsdam is easily seen today in church and university buildings. Church buildings include Trinity Episcopal Church and Bayfield Cemetery in Potsdam, Zion Church in Colton and St. Philips Church in Norwood. Clarkson University has buildings named Robert Livingston Clarkson Hall and the Cora and Bayard Clarkson Science Center. The University still uses two of the original family homes: Woodstock Lodge and Holcroft House.