Robert Davis Silliman
Robert Davis Silliman

Information on this page is from History of Rensselaer Co., New York by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, published in 1880.

ROBERT DAVIS SILLIMAN. It is a pleasant task to write the biography of a man of worth, whose days were long in the land, whose life was amiable and useful, who rose to eminence in his profession or business by force of his own talent and industry, and left behind him a name embalmed in many a grateful heart, and unsullied by a disreputable action; and we feel all the pleasure which such an undertaking is calculated to excite in contemplating the leading traits in the character of this gentleman, a brief outline of whose long and active life propose to narrate.

Robert Davis Silliman was born in the town of Ballston, N. Y., on the 26th day of December, 1790. His father, Daniel Silliman, came from Connecticut, in which State those bearing the name seem to have been settled for nearly two centuries. The name is of Italian origin, and Claude Sillimandi, the first root of the family, was a native of Lucca, in Italy.

The subject of this sketch was early thrown upon his own resources, and met the struggle of life manfully and with a determination that could end only in success. He obtained at Waterford, N. Y., where his early life was passed, the best education which the schools in that village in those days afforded, and then, still a lad, became cabin boy on his father's sloop, which plied between New York and Waterford, then the only means of transit for passengers and merchandise to and from the metropolis. At the close of navigation, during each year, young Silliman would apply himself to his books with the same zeal and energy that he displayed on shipboard, and in this manner acquired a good, substantial education in the English branches. But his spirit was too ambitious and his manhood too strong to remain long in any subordinate position, and at the age of twenty-one we find him master of his own vessel, and carrying on a lucrative business between the city of New York and Troy. In this manner he became so familiar with every spot on either shore of the Hudson, between the two cities, that afterwards, when connected with the great steam-boat enterprises, and when the humble sloop which had been the nucleus of his fortune had vanished at the approach of steam, as he sat in the saloon of the steamboat he could name each place the vessel passed without deigning a glance. Amid the cares and stern realities of his life on the Hudson, there flitted across the scene an incident of a romantic character, that afterwards resulted in his union with one who lightened all his toils for sixteen years, and left an enduring impress of her gentle influence upon himself and family.

On a fine July morning, in the year 1820, as Capt. Silliman was standing at the gang-plank, receiving his passengers for the voyage up the river, there tripped on board a fair and sprightly girl of nineteen, who at once attracted the eye of the bachelor captain, as she afterwards drew the marked attention and became the general favorite of all her companions on shipboard; not only those of the opposite sex, but, what is more remarkable, those of her own. She had just completed her education at a female institute in the city of New York, and was returning home. She resided with her parents in the town of Verona, Oneida Co., N. Y., and was known in that part of the State as the "Belle of Verona." It must be remembered that in those days the traveler did not come from New York to Albany or Troy on one of Vanderbilt's fast trains. Two weeks, instead of a few hours, were then required for the most expeditious passage. Mirth and gayety ruled the hour on shipboard, and before many suns had risen and set those who had met as strangers had become close friends. With "Youth on the prow and Pleasure at the helm," the two persons in whom we are chiefly interested appear to have regarded the slow progress of the vessel with satisfaction; and when the lady reached her destination, and bade good-by to the master and the passengers, the captain felt as if he had lost his anchor. But he had not been idle during the two weeks, and had obtained permission to correspond with the fair one, a privilege whereof he availed himself to such good purpose that he received the lady's hand in marriage the following year. Her name was Lorenda Covell, and she was the daughter of the late Ephraim Covell, and sister of Lorenzo R. Covell, now residing upon the old homestead in Verona. Her rare beauty and elegant acquirements procured at once for her a cordial reception in the first society in the new city of Troy, where the young couple established themselves. Capt. Silliman had been diligent and successful in his business upon the water, and be now resolved in pursue his mercantile pursuits upon the land as well. He therefor entered into a copartnership with the late Deacon Gurdon Grant, who had recently married his sister. The business was that of general merchandise, lumber, and forwarding, The firm continued long, became very prosperous, and established such a reputation for honesty, integrity, and business capacity that the name of Silliman & Grant was almost as familiar throughout the State as a household word; and so high was the standing, and so great the confidence of the business public in the firm, that unlimited credit was always at its command.

A good story is told of Deacon Grant while he and his partner, against most formidable competition, particularly in the freighting line, were laying the foundation of their splendid success. There is, of course, no truth in the story, which was the invention of a wag; but it well illustrates the diligence and industry of the firm. The deacon habitually rose before dawn to begin the work of the day, and to solicit freight from every person he met. One morning, rising earlier than usual, and before the light began to render objects distinct, the deacon saw a man, as he supposed, standing near the wharf apparently waiting for something. Our enterprising merchant at once scented a customer and increased his pace. "Sir!" called he, approaching his man, "have you any freight for us to-day?" He soon found to his intense disgust that he had been addressing a lamp-post. Both he and his partner, after they became old, gray-headed men, used to laugh heartily whenever this joke was mentioned.

Mr. Silliman's attention was early directed to the subject of banking, and in 1831 he aided in procuring a charter for the "Troy City Bank," to the vice-presidency of which he was elected, and served in that capacity until the year 1839, when the "Commercial Bank of Troy" was organized, and he became its first president. For years he was a prominent actor in nearly all the great enterprises which were intended to develop the resources and add to the prosperity of the city. He was one of the original organizers of "The Troy and New York Steamboat Company," and one of its largest stockholders. He was also interested in the different railway communications, and many of the manufactories of Troy and vicinity.

In 1838, Mr. Silliman, having, by his indomitable energy and industry, and by his talent and practical sagacity, accumulated an ample fortune, retired from active business, though still retaining some of his official positions, such as the presidency of the Commercial Bank, etc.

But the change was too great. He grew uneasy; he missed the excitement of the mart; he found he was not born for inactivity; the spirit of enterprise would not down, and the old-time energy goaded him back to the counting-room. The time was not propitious, as his keen aud watchful observation must have whispered him; but he had wrung fortune from a sterner grasp than then appeared to hold the business interests of the country, and he would tempt the fickle goddess once again. The business connection which he now formed (it was in the spring of 1841) proved disastrous. The severe pressure of 1842-43 immediately followed, and the measure of relief, the famous bankrupt act, then adopted by Congress, so crippled the house with which he was connected that it was forced to suspeud payment Then the pride of the high-spirited merchant was touched, and the traits of character that had marked his long and honorable career again became conspicuous. Without a moment's hesitation he applied nearly all his private fortune to the payment of the company's debts, and stood once more before the world a poor man. He was at this time fifty-three years of age, and had a family of six children dependent upon him for bread. Such a sudden fall from affluence to penury, under these circumstances, would have discouraged and prostrated a less resolute man who had passed life's meridian; but it seemed only to rouse in this strong man a latent strength that adversity alone could develop. With perhaps too keen a sense of his misfortunes, and fearful that his position in the Commercial Bank, in his altered circumstances, might impair the credit of that flourishing institution, he at once tendered his resignation as president. But to the honor of the board of directors, they refused to accept it, and insisted on his continuing as the official head. This must have been balm to his wounded spirit. It was not many years before he had accumulated even a larger fortune than the one he had lost, and which he retained till his death, and left to his children.

In 1836 he had the misfortune to lose his wife, the beautiful and accomplished lady before mentioned. She had borne him eight children, two of whom had preceded her to the grave. She was a woman of rare excellence, and her virtues are still cherished by the few friends who survive her. Her children were all too young to appreciate her worth. In 1838 Mr. Silliman married Mary Payn, the daughter of Isaac R. Payn, of Northumberland, N. Y. This estimable lady so well supplied the place of mother to this large family of small children that they rise up to-day and call her blessed. She died in 1851.

Mr. Silliman, as before mentioned, had enjoyed but limited facilities in early life for acquiring education, and this perhaps is one reason why he always took such a deep interest in our systems of education. He was for many years a trustee of the Troy Female Seminary, where his daughters were educated. His eldest son, Samuel D., now deceased, was a member of Union College, an excellent scholar, but by reason of inflammation of the eyes, super-induced by hard study, was compelled to leave before graduating. His youngest son, Charles A., now a prominent business man in the city of New York, graduated at Columbia College with distinguished honors and is now one of the trustees of that renowned institution,--- a coveted distinction worthily bestowed. His eldest daughter, Lorenda, is married to Mr. H. J. Parmenter, lawyer and poet, a sketch of whose life will be found in this volume. The daughter now living, Cornelia Frances, resides with her sister, Mrs. Parmenter.

Mr. Silliman's home was always that of a quiet, unostentatious Christian gentleman, befitting the man and his family. He was kind and generous to all who approached him for aid. He held many private trusts involving large amounts of money, and the good old man was never so well pleased as when his careful investments proved abundantly remunerative to the interested parties. He was a member of the Second Presbyterian Church of Troy, and earnest in his advocacy and belief in those eternal principles of religion cemented by the blood of our Saviour. He always held his mother in great reverence. Even when he had outlived the days allotted to man, he had not forgotten her instruction, and would often say, "My mother first instilled into me the principles of that holy religion which I profess, and taught my infant lips to say, 'Our Father, which art in Heaven.'" The son throughout his long career was well worthy of such a mother, and there can be no doubt that his earnest prayer to be at last "reunited to her in heaven" has been realized. Mr. Silliman died in the city whose birth he had seen, and which had been his residence for so long a period, in 1866. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

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