Named “Red Jacket” after a Seneca Indian chief, a Buffalo distillery founded in 1848 survived the Civil War, at least two national financial panics, and federal rules that shut down other New York distilleries, to flourish for six decades under the guidance of two remarkable whiskey men, Thomas Clark and his successor, James M. Merritt.
Born in England in 1921, Clark first settled in Perry, New York, then moved to Geneva where he likely learned the distillers’ trade. He arrived in Buffalo about 1848 at the age of 27 and almost immediately opened his own small distillery in a frame shanty on Seneca Plank Road. It is unclear why Clark named it after an Indian leader who had fought on the side of the British in the American Revolution and was named Red Jacket from his wearing British red coats. The Seneca chief, whose real name was Sagoyewatha (He Keeps Them Awake), was adamant against the white man, his ways and especially his Christian religion. Red Jacket had died only sixteen years earlier, detested by many New Yorkers.
Starting small, Clark seems to have met almost instant success. He not only was making his own whiskey, he also was a rectifiying spirits, that is, blending whiskeys to achieve desirable taste, smoothness and color. By 1858 Clark was mashing 175,720 bushels of grain annually and producing 709,000 gallons of whiskey, a figure that increased to 790,542 gallons the following year.
His production was assisted by the availability of grain in Buffalo, a major port on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. In 1868 seeing an opportunity for further expansion and heading a stock company, Clark erected a grain elevator on the banks of the lake. Towering 135 feet high, the elevator was called “one of the largest grain receivers in the country.”
Meanwhile Clark had married; his wife was Naomi Macey, a woman eight years younger than he and, like him, born in England. The 1870 census found the couple living in Buffalo with a daughter and three servants, including a butler, a housekeeper and a gardener. Indicative of the success Clark had enjoyed were census data on his net worth, $150,000 in business holdings and $60,000 in personal property, the total worth more than $5 million today.
By 1880 Clark was mashing some 600 bushels a day in the Red Jacket facility. His plant, located on an acre and a half plot on Buffalo’s Seneca Street included a malt house, large warehouse and adjunct buildings. According to one account, the distillery boasted: “…The aid of every modern improvement…to produce a production as perfect as possible.” Whiskey rectifying was carried out at a separate location at the corner of Washington and Perry Streets in a sizable four story building, shown below. It featured capacious storage space and large cellars for aging the liquor,
Clark’s strong production numbers both saved him and advanced his profitability. When he began, New York boasted multiple distilleries, many of them small. With the Civil War the federal government began taxing whiskey heavily, levying 90 cents per gallon. The feds also demanded that companies manufacture to at least 80 percent of their capacity, whether it meant a profit or a loss. Many distilleries were forced to shut down, reportedly leaving only three in the entire state of New York. One of the survivors was Clark’s Red Jacket.
Although financial “panics” in 1857 and 1873 menaced the distilling industry, Clark weathered both. The Englishman’s success caused him to be recognized as a leader in Buffalo’s business circles and drew this commentary from a biographer: “The position which he has invariably occupied in the transaction of a diversified business, has been justly rewarded in the brilliant success achieved, and the high esteem in which he is regarded.”
As he aged, Clark’s health faltered and he died in September 1882 at the age of 61. As his wife and daughter looked on at his graveside, the entrepreneur was buried in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. His wife, Naomi, would join him there twenty years later. Their graves are marked by a large monument.
With no sons to take over the business, Naomi sold the distillery to James M. Merritt, a native New Yorker who had come to the liquor trade initially as a federal government “guager,” that is, someone who inspected distilleries to determine the amount of alcohol they were producing and thereby set the tax. The 1870 census found Merritt, age 42; his wife, Helen (nee Derrick), 34, and two children, Cora and Frederick, living in Buffalo.
My guess is that Merritt was known to Clark because his was one of the distilleries regularly visited by the federal official. The 1880 census suggests that Merritt subsequently was hired by Clark as his plant superintendent. Merritt’s early advertising showed considerable deference to the deceased owner emphasizing that he was “Distiller, Rectifier and Manufacturer of all the Celebrated Thomas Clark Brands.” Merritt also maintained Red Jacket as the name of the distillery. With the passage of time the reputation of the Native American chief had risen considerably among New Yorkers, some of whom recalled Sagoyewatha had received a medal from President Washington, evident in the picture above.
Merritt successfully piloted the Red Jacket Distillery for the next eleven years, gradually putting his own brand on the company. Although he continued to operate out of Clark’s four-story “rectifying” building, he substituted his own name. In time Merritt no longer was citing the founder in his ads. He also added his own flagship brand, “Canoe Club Rye.” As his son Frederick reached maturity, the father brought him into the firm, first as a clerk and then as a traveling salesman, taught him the business, and circa 1900 made him the sole vice president.
Prosperity in making and selling whiskey meant that the Merritt family, which boasted family ties back to the Revolutionary War, could move into a house in a more fashionable Buffalo neighborhood. Shown here as it looks today, according to the 1900 census, it provided a home for James; wife Helen; son Frederick; daughter Cora; her husband, Harry Reynolds; granddaughter Bessie; and two female servants, one Irish and one Scots.
Born in 1827, James Merritt no longer was a young man when he assumed control of the Red Jacket Distillery. As he entered his mid-70s, Merritt’s health failed and he died in 1903 at the age of 76. Like Clark, he was buried in Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, his grave located in Section 9, Lot 193. Red Jacket Distillery continued to operate for the next several years but was shut down in 1906.
By this time Red Jacket had become Buffalo's favorite Indian. Streets, awards, memorials, and contests were named after him. Feeling guilty about the past, community leaders decided to exhume the chief’s body from an out-of-the-way Indian burial grounds and move it to Forest Lawn Cemetery. Red Jacket’s remains were placed under a huge statue of himself. This occurred in direct opposition to Sagoyewatha’s specific wishes that no white man dig his grave and that no white man bury him. Moreover, the chief now lies not far from the graves of Thomas Clark and James Merritt, the two palefaces who appropriated his name for sixty years of successfully making and selling whiskey.
Note: This post draws on multiple sources, principal among them the “History of the City of Buffalo and Erie County: Volume II,” edited by H. Perry Smith and published by D. Mason & Co., Syracuse N.Y. in 1884.