Balthasar's Story

Balthasar DeHaert was passionate about Salt Springs. In the 1790s, Balthasar traveled much throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. He had some legal training and made his living within the legal system. For example, in 1800, Balthasar was a surrogate judge in Tioga County, NY. At that time in history, courts were in session only periodically, usually for one or two weeks every three or four months. So, those involved directly with the courts, such as the judges and court clerks, had to do other things also to earn a living. When court was not in session, Balthasar was on the move, conducting legal business, such as paying taxes for absentee owners, in the various county courts in New York and Pennsylvania. It was during these travels that Balthasar heard rumors of the salt spring, and, for the next 35 years, it was the center of his travels.

Balthasar was born on January 29, 1751, probably in Manhattan. He was descended from one of the earliest Dutch families to settle in Manhattan in the 1600s. He had at least two brothers, James and Mauritz. He never married. He presumably got his legal training in New Jersey.

I don't know, of course, but I imagine him as being a short, wiry man. He had to have been tougher than shoe leather. He walked or rode horseback through the wilderness, seeming never to stay in one place very long.

To give you an idea of what it was like in Susquehanna County in the late 1700s, here is part of a letter written by Samuel Preston in July 1789. Preston was laying the first road to enter Susquehanna County. It entered from Wayne County on the east and ran to the "Cascades" on the Susquehanna River, a couple miles north of Lanesboro, where the river is particularly narrow. Preston knew Balthasar; it is from Preston's letters to Henry Drinker, Preston's employer, that we were able to verify that Indians did indeed know about our salt spring.

"I stayed marking the way on the barrens until nearly dark, then started in great hurry to reach the end of the road if possible before dark; ran down the hill from the barrens and found a small stream of water, where, as I was thirsty, I turned around several times to find a suitable place to drink. I found when I reached the hill again that it was the same place where I had went down. I then took my compass out of my pocket, but it was too dark to see the needle. About two miles to the camp, a cloudy night and likely for rain; the punks and mosquitoes were very bad. I had neither blanket or fire works, or I would have encamped for all night. I therefor concluded to try to find the camp if possible, and if not there was not much choice in a place to stay all night. I went again down hill to the run, and had great difficulty in crossing a swamp, through a thicket of briars and fallen timber, so I wandered in the dark, without knowing which way I was going. When I reached the other side there was a high mountain, and so steep I found it very difficult to climb on my hands and feet, painfully fearing the rattlesnakes so much that I scarcely felt the punks and mosquitoes which surrounded me in swarms. When I reached the top of the mountains I could perceive the faint glimmering of the twilight in the west, the stars being obscured with the clouds. It was the only compass I had to set a course by to steer towards camp, which I did in the best manner I could."

The Salt Spring Found

Again, it was another of Preston's letters, written on November 20, 1795, that verifies that Balthasar DeHaert learned the location of the salt spring from the Indians. Preston noted that:

"D. Hart and Co. report they have lately found the salt spring. . . . They have had 3 Indians out with them several days and brought in salt water. . . . D. Hart has now gone to purchase the land where it is in. To whom it belongs is to us unknown.

It didn't take Balthasar long to find out. Somehow, in Philadelphia, he located the owner of the one salt spring he was interested in up here in the middle of nowhere. The owner was Tench Coxe. Coxe owned hundreds of thousands of acres in Northeastern Pennsylvania. In fact, it was from Tench Coxe's widow, 10 years later, that Dr. Robert Rose bought his 100,000 acres surrounding Silver Lake.

Early Efforts

But, in 1795, Coxe was not willing to sell to Balthasar. Instead, Balthasar came back to the spring with a two-year employment contract, not a deed. Balthasar and his two brothers, James and Mauritz, had been hired to drill for salt water and, if found, to manufacture salt from the salt water by boiling it. This contract is dated December 2nd, 1795, exactly 12 days after Preston wrote that D. Hart had discovered the spring.

The contract is detailed and lengthy. Coxe must have been an extremely precise man. Here are just a few examples of the provisions of the contract: The amount of salt they were allowed to produce was no more than could be boiled "in six and only six Kettles or Vessels of Iron or Copper capable of containing not more than one hundred Gallons each. . . ." In addition, they were allowed to build "one house [of no greater value than $50] for the Laboratory . . . for the making of Salt and keeping the implements and tools; one barn for their Cattle and Horses of no greater value than $50; and one dwelling house for themselves and their people and servants of no greater value than $80." They were also allowed to "clear and occupy for Garden and farming purposes . . . any quantity of Arable land not more than twenty Acres [and] the said twenty acres to be together and in a body not more than twice as long as it shall be broad."

One might think Coxe would be as precise about how much money was spent because he was paying for it. Not so. "The whole of the expences of the building & manufacturing implements & utensils aforesaid, . . . the costs and charges of labor Skill subsistence Clothing Teams Farming Utensils opening such road as [may be] necessary and of every other matter and thing incidental or consequent upon the business, [including] the Taxes . . . shall be defrayed and paid solely and entirely by the said Balthasar" and brothers.

The brothers' reward? Half the profit when the salt was sold. Although I haven't worked out the actual dollar amounts involved, this would have been a small fortune. Salt was extremely scarce at this time and was not even manufactured on a commercial scale until 5 years later.

Additionally, ran the contract, if the DeHaert brothers were still mining at the end of the two years, Coxe then "will take and receive from [the Brothers] such of the six Kettles or Vessels and other implements . . . which he shall deem necessary for the manufactory of" salt, as well as the dwellings, and pay the brothers fair market value, not what was invested.

I don't know if the brothers lasted there for 2 years at this time or not. I do know that Balthasar continued periodically to drill for salt water. He built a log cabin and a salt manufactory. His brother James, as well as earning a living as a teacher and a surveyor, worked the salt spring with Balthasar. James died in 1810, and Mauritz returned to New Jersey, so Balthasar continued on his own.

In 1812, Balthasar began working for the new Susquehanna County government. Although the legal entity of Susquehanna County was created in 1810, the government was not operational until 1812. In this year, Balthasar became the county's first Deputy Prothonotary. His job was basically to be the county "scribe." He both copied and recorded the county's legal documents into the official books.

Besides working in Montrose, what else was Balthasar up to? He was still after the salt. In August 1813 he petitioned the court to allow a road to be created. It was, and today it is called Silver Creek Road. A draft of the road boundaries indicates that mining has been taking place at Salt Springs at least off and on. The building on the draft is probably the Salt Manufactory Coxe gave permission to have built in 1795. Balthasar is currently boarding in Montrose at Isaac Post's tavern and traveling out to the spring daily. He must have had enough of walking through the wilderness and thought it time to get a road built to the spring.

Two years later, on June 15, 1815, Reverend Davis Dimock, a local circuit-riding Baptist preacher, recorded in his diary: "Visited the Salt Springs with company from abroad—I wondered at the mind of Judge de Hart, that he should work 18 years to obtain salt at that place with so little encouragement. He had bored 84 feet in the rock."

When I obtained copies of letters written by Balthasar to Tench Coxe and later to Nicholas Biddle, I was struck by a sense of familiarity with the handwriting. Then, the next time I used the early court record books, I realized the reason. His handwriting is distinctive, and I'd been reading it for years. Back in the mid-1980s, when I began researching in these early court books and first encountered that handwriting, I had had no idea that I would come to know the owner of that handwriting!

1813 petition with draft of map
From an 1813 petition labeled "Draft of a Road from James Watson to the Wilkesbarre and Bridgewater turnpike at Silver Creek Bridge." The line indicates the road.

The Pace Picks Up

The key years are 1822 to 1823. Balthasar is now contracting with Nicholas Biddle, current owner of the "Salt Springs tract." Biddle was a banker. In fact, during the time Balthasar worked for Biddle, Biddle was President of the Bank of the United States, located in Philadelphia. Biddle was also an arch enemy of Andrew Jackson, who later became President of the United States. Briefly, in the eyes of the people, Biddle stood for the rich aristocracy, and Andrew Jackson was for the common man. Their feud is legendary and the basis for numerous books.

In the spring of 1822, Nicholas Biddle had obtained the wilderness tract containing the salt spring from Samuel Hodgdon, of Philadelphia. His son, Samuel Hodgdon Jr, had been taking care of the property and mining the salt himself, when the property was, so to speak, sold out from under him. His father had had the mistaken idea that the taxes had been left unpaid and that the county would soon reposess the land. Instead of losing the property altogether, he quickly sold it to Biddle. Samuel Jr and his associates were furious over Samuel Sr's action, and they raised Caine. Like Coxe before, and Biddle now, Samuel Jr and partners also wanted to make their fortune off the salt that could be made at Salt Springs. They took their battle both to the courts and to the streets. While the partners fought in court, their "henchmen" fought in Montrose and at Salt Springs.

Vandalism, Jail Time, and Theft in 1822

First, they tampered with the mail. When Biddle got the land, the taxes were overdue. He had to get them paid quickly or the county would repossess the property. Biddle was in Philadelphia and he corresponded back and forth with Balthasar, who was in Montrose, on how to get this done. Mail went by stagecoach or by private citizens back then and was unreliable. Because of discrepancies and lost letters, Balthasar soon realized someone was stealing their letters to each other. For several months Biddle had to send his letters to John Robinson, in Springville, the nearest man whom Balthasar trusted. (Although Isaac Post was the Montrose Postmaster, Balthasar did not think Post was involved in the letter stealing.)

Second, the henchmen vandalized the mining site and jailed the worker. The worker was Jacob Vandegrift, a farmer from Philadelphia who spoke little English. Biddle had sent him to the salt spring site to take possession of the new enterprise and to take care of things while Balthasar started up the drilling again.

When Balthasar was in Montrose, Samuel Hodgdon Jr, one of the partners who wanted to retain possession of it, got the county sheriff to arrest Vandegrift on the grounds of trespassing and put him in jail. Actually, they said if he would pay them $10 they wouldn't jail him. He didn't pay and seems to have enjoyed his celebrity status and stint in jail. "Cheerful and comfortable" are the words Balthasar used.

Balthasar got Vandegrift released from jail. On the day Vandegrift was to return to the salt spring, Balthasar heard that Samuel Jr, his lawyer, and some of his friends were going on a hunting trip. Balthasar thought something was up, so he traveled back to the spring with Vandegrift. Although they found the building doors nailed shut and much of the mining equipment stolen, they were not accosted by the hunting party.

All of this took place in the summer of 1822. The matter of ownership was resolved by Nicholas Biddle paying several thousand dollars to Samuel Hodgdon and his cohorts. Biddle's hope was still high that he would make a fortune at the spring. Balthasar did his best to make Biddle's hope and his own dream come true. He hired a work crew to do the actual drilling. The drilling equipment was crude. The men bored through hard rock with what was called a "spring-loaded pole." This was essentially an augur, which was an iron drill bit, tied to a wooden pole by a rope. By hand, the workers would hit the rock with the iron bit, over and over, down and down. To my amazement, anyway, these men sunk a three inch shaft over 300 feet down into our Pennsylvania rock.

In The End

Even a man like Balthasar DeHaert eventually wears out. On July 6, 1824, Balthasar writes to Biddle: "I cannot get the water to rise through the tube at the Salt Spring to produce more than a peck of Salt on boiling one hundred gallons of it. . . . My exertions have nearly worn me out, and . . . it is necessary that I spend my last days with my brother in Shrewsbury. . . ."

But it is not until four months later that he actually leaves. It is in October, and I imagine he just couldn't face another winter in the wilderness. On October 28, 1824, Balthasar concludes this long phase of his life. He writes: "My age and health renders it necessary that I should go and spend my last days with my friends in New Jersey, having been under the necessity of exposing myself to the inclemency of storms and bad weather. I am subject to the rheumatism and being nearly seventy four years of age, can expect to live but little longer."

Balthasar lived 5 more years. He died in 1830 at age 79 years. He is buried in the Christ Church cemetery in Shrewsbury, Monmouth County, NJ. For those of you who might want to see his tombstone, you can find it on the website.


In a short item in the Montrose newspaper, the writer mentions Balthasar DeHaert and his work at Salt Springs. Although Balthasar had encouraged Biddle to continue the drilling after Balthasar retired, he must not have. The writer says: "A clearing of a few acres, an old log house, and the tottering frame used in boring for salt water, is all that remains to tell you he has been here." (Independent Volunteer)

© Debra Adleman 2011