The opulent mat surrounding this daguerreotype would draw attention from the portrait of a lesser subject, but not the ruggedly handsome, square-jawed, blue-eyed Nathaniel Amory Tucker, then aged 39. Blessed with money and looks, one of his obituaries described him as “an officer and a gentleman of much talent and geniality of wit.” Frère Quevillion, a Catholic priest who knew him well, called Tucker “a rich [man] in every sense.”
Tucker was the son of Catherine Hay Geyer (1778-1869), who married merchant Nathaniel Tucker (1775-1857) on 8 July, 1802, in Boston. The Geyers were well-moneyed. Before the Revolution, Catherine’s father—Nathaniel’s grandfather—Friedrich Geyer (1743-1841), had inherited an estate worth £1,000. The family name was originally Von Geyer and the family was “a late immigrant hither, and the tradition was [that] he was of a good German family,” reports English origins of New England families, Second series, Vol. I.
Frederick Geyer married Nathaniel’s grandmother Susanna Ingraham (1750-1796) on 30 April, 1767. In 1778, just before the birth of his daughter Catherine, Geyer—an ardent British royalist—was exiled and his property sequestered.
In the years that followed, the Geyers were based in London. The family had grown to include one son and five daughters, the latter of whom were undoubtedly raised to be prominent ladies of good society. The eldest, Mary Anne (1774-1814), married Andrew (1763-1841), the son of Jonathan Belcher, first Chief Justice of Nova Scotia, on 7 September, 1792. When Catherine’s younger sister Nancy Geyer married Rufus G. Amory on 13 February, 1794, a guest at the wedding was Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, the son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, father of the future Queen Victoria, who was in Boston on his way to Halifax.
Amongst her father’s property seized in 1767 was their Summer Street mansion—a possession not reconveyed until 1791 when Geyer’s U.S. citizenship was restored. “The [Summer Street] house, in the days of Mr. Geyer, was famed for its social gaieties and elegant entertainments. Tradition tells us of the brilliant gatherings of wit and fashion around its sumptuous Board,” notes the article “A Home in the Olden Time,” excerpted from the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. “Mrs. Geyer was noted for the courtesy and grace with which she presided and put everyone at their ease. There could have been few pleasanter banqueting rooms in Boston.”
It is likely that Catherine Geyer, born and raised in London, considered herself British and spoke with a like accent. With the wealth, connections, and good looks she assuredly possessed in youth, she was a fine catch for Nathaniel Tucker. He came from a line of Nathaniels, including his grandfather (1744-1796), a Massachusetts Revolutionary War private who served under the command of Colonel Thomas Hutchinson.
Whilst living in Massachusetts, Nathaniel and Catherine had four daughters: Anna Amory (1803-1875), who married merchant Henry Atkinson Green; Catherine Geyer (1805-aft. 1870), who married James Iredell Cutler; Marion Belcher (1807-1851), who wed Rudolph Geyer; and Charlotte Mayette (1812-1850), who married George W. Summer. A son, Nathaniel Amory, was born 30 May, 1809, but died in 1813. A new boy given the same name was born 14 August, 1814, in an apparently successful attempt to replace the first beloved child and only son. This Nathaniel Amory, called “Nat-Nat” by his family perhaps in reference to his position as the second Nathaniel, would grow as the heir to money that was old, new, and accumulated by his own merit.
After the birth of their children, the Tucker family removed to Bellows Falls, Vermont, a town that made much money from industries such as paper milling, woolen textile production, and factories that produced furniture, marble, sashes and blinds, iron castings, carriages, cabinet ware, rifles, harness, shoe pegs, and organs. Connecticut River Valley in Southern Vermont and New Hampshire: Historical Sketches by Lyman S. Hayes explains how the family got its wealth, as well as provides a story about young Nat-Nat himself. It is worth including in near entirety:
“One of the most prominent citizens of Bellows Falls a century ago was a man named Nathaniel Tucker. In 1826, he came into possession of the old first toll bridge across the Connecticut River here, and in 1840, he planned and financed the erection of the present structure that has now served the public 88 years. Mr. Tucker was born in Boston in 1775 and became a resident in Bellows Falls in 1815.
“The first bridge became unsafe, and, in 1840, Mr. Tucker consulted a noted local bridge builder, Sanford Granger, in regard to it. Together they planned and built the present structure…. [Tolls were] gathered for passing these two bridges from 1785, when the first bridge was built, until the towns of Rockingham and Westminster made the present bridge free on November 1, 1904, a period of nearly 120 years….
“During most of the years of his ownership of the bridges, Mr. Tucker attended to the collection of the tolls himself…. Mr. Tucker was a small wiry man, extremely nervous, and was often the victim of pranks by the boys who teased him. He had a son, Nathaniel, Jr., who was somewhat peculiar and erratic. He was a hunter of some note. At one time, he went hunting on horseback, and in riding through the woods, his gun was accidentally discharged and killed the horse. His father, when he returned home and was told of the accident, was greatly excited, and shaking his cane in the young man’s face exclaimed, “Nat-Nat Tucker, the next time you go hunting on horseback, you go afoot!” much to the amusement of several bystanders.
“In 1839, there was a great freshet and the frame bridge at South Charlestown, known as the Cheshire Bridge, was washed away, coming down the river whole…. The old toll bridge was much lower than the present one, and Mr. Tucker feared for its safety if the oncoming bridge came over the falls whole. Neighbors who saw Mr. Tucker that day often told of his great excitement as the bridge neared the falls, and he frantically motioned with his cane, shouting to the bridge to go on the Vermont side where there was more room. As the bridge neared the dam, it suddenly fell apart and passed under Mr. Tucker’s bridge without harming it.
“Mr. Tucker was an ardent churchman, much troubled at hearing profanity used. The fact that he was very brusque and sometimes thoughtless in his reproofs, caused the boys to annoy him greatly. He was a most ardent friend of Rev. Carlton Chase, rector of Immanuel (Episcopal) Church, who later became bishop of New Hampshire. Mr. Chase was with Mr. Tucker during the freshet referred to above when the water was so high it was in danger of lifting the toll bridge off its abutments. Assisting in tying it with ropes, Rector Chase fell into the rushing rapids, nearly losing his life. A rope was quickly thrown to him, which he grasped, and by which he was drawn, much exhausted, to safety.
“Once each year, Mr. Tucker advertised in the local newspaper that all those from New Hampshire points who wished to attend the Christmas services at Immanuel Church could pass the bridge free of toll. The Christmas services were at that time much more extensive than at present, including illumination of buildings, open hospitality; and, with fine music, they drew crowds from thirty miles around.
“When staging times excited much competition, at one time the ordinary fare from Boston to Bellows Falls was $3.00, but for a short time, even that was reduced to 25 cents. Drivers sometimes ran the bridge to get here first. One day, Driver Brooks ran the bridge and was followed by Mr. Tucker to the local Stage House. He exclaimed with much heat, ‘You run my bridge. The fine is $2.’ Upon which Mr. Brooks drew out his wallet and offered to pay; but Mr. Tucker turned away much calmed, saying, ‘Well, don’t ever do it again.’….
“At the New Hampshire end of the old toll bridge, during the first half of the last century, stood a large building known in its last years as the Tucker Mansion, erected previous to 1799. It was built for a hotel and known early as The Walpole Bridge Hotel. In 1817, it was known as the Mansion House Hotel. Soon after the latter date, it became a dwelling house and was long occupied by Nathaniel Tucker … and the tollhouse also was located on the New Hampshire side of the river, just in front of it. These buildings, with numerous outhouses, were, in their day, the most entitled to the name of ‘Mansion’ of any in this whole region, because of their grand proportions, elegant surroundings of gardens, statuary, and decorative trees and foliage. They were a prominent feature of the landscape when the Great Falls were noted far and wide for their scenic beauty. Persons coming from the south to this vicinity were struck by their beauty and majestic location. They were removed when the railroad was built in 1849…. Mr. Tucker then purchased the brick dwelling on Church Street, now known as the Hetty Green House, and there, spent his last years, still taking tolls at his bridge.”
Early in life, living near the port city of Boston, Nat-Nat’s imagination was captured by ships and the sea. According to the History of St. Joseph Parish, Burlington, VT 1830-1897, edited by Robert G. Keenan, “He went to sea at the age of 15 and in twelve years progressed from seaman, through mate, captain, and shipmaster, but kept the title of captain.” By 1842, as he approached the end of his 20s, Captain Tucker left the sea behind, possibly for the woman he loved—Maria D. Deming. The couple wed that year and Tucker settled with his wife in Burlington.
Born 10 March, 1817, Maria was the daughter of Eleazur Hubbell Deming (1785-1807) and Fanny Fay Follett (1788-1878). According to Genealogy of the Descendants of John Deming of Wethersfield, Connecticut by Judson Keith Deming, “Eleazur … moved early in life to Chittenden County, Vermont, where he became a prominent merchant in Burlington. He was a man of great energy and sterling honor, and it was said of him that he was the best businessman in Northern Vermont. His son Charles Follett Deming, was a graduate of the University of Vermont, and of Cambridge (Mass.) Law School, who died at the onset of what promised to be a brilliant career as a lawyer.”
Julius, the only other son, died in infancy. There were also five daughters, only three of whom survived to adulthood. The eldest was Caroline—born 19 November, 1811, who married Carlos Baxter and died 25 May, 1843; Juliet—born 20 October, 1814, and lived only a few months; Maria; Anne—born 21 July, 1819, who married in 1838 the Reverend William Henry Hoyt and died 16 January, 1875; Frances, who was born in 1822 and died in 1823; and Mary Elizabeth, who was born in July 1827 and died the following June. All of the children were raised in Burlington at 308 Pearl Street. This was a fine mansion built by their father in 1816 that Maria would eventually inherit.
Tucker was in business with his brother-in-law, James Cutler, operating a paper mill at Hubbell’s Falls, and was also a partner in the merchant company of Bradley, Canfield, and Co. In 1847, Tucker helped found Burlington Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. Next, The businessman is also referenced in History of Chittenden County, Vermont by W. S. Rann: “[S]team tow-boats had become necessary for the purpose of ensuring the regular passage through [Lake Champlain] of boats going to New York…. On the 2d of November, 1847, a charter was granted by the Legislature of Vermont to John Bradley, Thomas H. Canfield, O. A. Burton, H. L. Nichols, N. A. Tucker, A. M. Clark, Horace Gray, J. C. Hammond, Charles F. Hammond, and Allen Penfield, for a steam towboat company.”
The month before towboat enterprise charter was issued, Nathaniel and Maria Tucker officially converted to Catholicism; they had previously been ardent Episcopalians. The History of St. Joseph Parish records, Maria’s “brother-in-law, Rev. William H. Hoyt, was Rector of the Episcopalian Church in St. Albans. When the Hoyts converted to Catholicism in 1846, they started [a movement] and about fifty persons are reported to have followed them into the church; among them were Mr. and Mrs. Tucker.” The couple was baptized 8 October, 1847, in Chambly, Quebec, Canada.
Professor Jeremiah K. Durick of St. Michael’s College wrote in the church publication Our Sunday Visitor of 2 August, 1953, that—surprisingly—the Tuckers did not suffer social backlash from their conversion. This fact was put down largely to Nathaniel Tucker’s affability and hospitality at their Pearl Street mansion. In 1853, the Tuckers would hold a reception there for the installation of Bishop Louis DeGoesbriand (1816-1899). The mansion, now known as the Deming-Isham House, still stands in Burlington and is listed on the Library of Congress Register of Historic Buildings.
Nathaniel’s Father, the nervous and irascible Nathaniel, Sr., died on 2 Aug 1857, in Bellows Falls. By that date, it had become clear that Nat-Nat and Maria would have no son to extend the line of Nathaniels. Whether there were miscarriages is unknown, but no children were born of the marriage. It may have been a great sorrow to them, but the couple may have accepted it as God’s will and as a mandate to dedicate themselves entirely to their faith and community.
Tucker was 47 when the Civil War began. A man of his age could not be expected to fight, but he could serve in other ways. First, he was an inspector of ordnance at Reading, Pennsylvania, then on 13 June, 1864, he enlisted as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Volunteers Paymaster’s Department and was promoted to full major on the same day. In this capacity, he became a military paymaster who served with the soldiers in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Carolinas.
On March 12, 1866, Tucker was appointed as brevet lieutenant colonel. The 1866 Executive Journal notes his nomination by President Andrew Johnson thusly: “Additional Paymaster Nathaniel A. Tucker, United States Volunteers, for faithful services in the Pay Department, to date from February 7, 1866.” After the war, Tucker was given a position in Washington, D.C., with the Bureau of Preferred Claims of the War Department. He mustered out 1 February, 1869, and returned at last to Burlington.
On the day of the 1870 Census, the reunited Tuckers—now 50-somethings—lived alone in Bellows Falls in the old mansion on Pearl Street. On the official document, Nathaniel listed his profession as “merchant” and stated he possessed real estate worth $25,000 (more than $450,000 today); his wife listed her own personal income as $20,000.
The 28 February, 1873 edition of the Burlington Free Press reported that in January 1871, Tucker suffered a stroke that resulted in some paralysis from which he quickly recovered. Sadly, only a few months later, another stroke crippled him. “From that time onward, he was an invalid, confined most of the time to the house, his powers failing by successive strokes…. For two weeks before his death he lay motionless and speechless, yet perfectly conscious, indicating by his eyes and the feeble motions of his lips, his recognition of his friends and the attention shown him. He bore his struggles with unexampled patience, accepted the offices and consolations of religion, and passed away at last without a struggle” on 25 February. Maria, the article noted, had scarcely left his side for eight months.
Nathaniel Amory Tucker was described by the newspaper as “a man of wide acquaintance with men and things, of quick and generous sympathies, and an interested and intelligent observer of public affairs. He was fond of society and gifted with uncommon powers of anecdote and conversation, which with his genial temper and kindly humor, made him a delightful companion. His integrity and frankness won him the respect of all who knew him, and few citizens of Burlington were ever more missed than he when his patriotic duty and subsequent disease withdrew him from daily intercourse with the community.”
Nathaniel was buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Burlington. He was outlived by his mother, Catherine Geyer Tucker, who died in 1875. Maria lived on in Pearl Street with her niece, Jane A. Hugh, and several servants, in the home her family had filled—a house that she and Nathaniel once hoped to fill with their own brood. She lived on until the summer of 1904, when the Burlington Free Press announced her death in the 21 July edition. After 30 years, she returned to Nathaniel’s side. Ω