The Samuel Willey family tragedy that resulted in the deaths of the Willey family and the naming of Mount Willey began after Willey moved his family into the area known as Crawford Notch. It was a major pass through the White Mountains of New Hampshire in Grafton County with the high point of the Notch at the southern end of the town of Carroll and approximately 1,900 feet above sea level.
Originally called White Mountain Notch, Crawford Notch became known to European settlers when it was founded by Timothy Nash in 1771. However, during the nineteenth century the Notch was renamed to Crawford Notch in honor of the Crawford family as they were well-known trail-builders and hostelers in the area.
Samuel Willey and his family moved into the Old Notch House in the autumn months of 1825. Neighbors described him as a “worthy man.” They also stated that his wife was “amiable and comely.” Neighbors reported that both Willey and his wife came from respectable families and that their five children were well behaved and greatly prized by their parents.
Old Notch House had been built in 1793. However, soon after Samuel Willey’s arrival, he hired two workers to enlarge the house because he wanted to turn it into a tavern for tourists. The tavern he created was described as “very attractive.” As to the the natural beauty of the area there were numerous mentions of the stunning blue bells that grew in profusion and Vermont’s National Standard also reported:
“A beautiful meadow in front [of the house] stretched to the foot of Mt. Webster, [the future] Mt. Willey rose 2,000 feet behind the house, while nearby flowed the Saco river.”
Late in June of 1826 a landslide occurred. Rocks and earth tumbled down to the foot of the mountain and Samuel Willey and his wife were terrified. Fortunately, the slide stopped short of the newly renovated tavern, and everyone was safe. Still the Willeys were scared and so they initially decided to move from the Notch but then upon more reflection decided another landslide was unlikely. However, just in case a landslide ever threatened them again, Willey built a strong hut below the tavern that they could flee to if safety was needed.
A month or so after the June landslide, an editor of the Boston Courier visited the area. He also stayed at Willey’s tavern on 17 of July and noted:
“Spent about two hours at Mr. Willey’s where we dined in company with two or three friends and received shelter from a heavy thunder shower. We have seldom seen a more interesting family. There were several children … All appeared remarkably intelligent, well-behaved, contented and happy. The mother was their instructor, as mothers should always be. To our inquiry whether she was not terrified when the slip came down, she replied, Yes – and had caught two of her children in her arms to escape down the valley; but she soon perceived by the direction it took, that it would not touch their house. She added that she did not feel that there was any more danger of their being buried alive by these slides than there was of the strangers who passed through the Notch suffering the same fate; and expressed a perfect reliance of the protection of Providence, and an acquiescence in whenever they might be ordained to bear. Virtuous and interesting woman.”
Later that same summer a long, hot drought ensued. In the midst of such heat, the weather suddenly changed. An extraordinary cloudburst brought on a deluge of rain on Monday, 28 August. In fact, in two days the Saco River rose 24 feet. It was so high it “swept the whole intervale between the Notch and Conway [and] in the narrowest part of the road within the Notch the water had torn out huge rocks and left holes 20 feet deep.”
Communication was cut off with Samuel Willey and his family because of the massive rains. Neighbors were concerned and unsure if the Willeys were safe. Amid their concern, Notch guide Ethan A. Crawford reached the tavern by swimming his horse across the deepest portions of water. He discovered the tavern deserted and reported:
“A [landslide/avalanche] which had started down the mountain side was averted from the house by a huge rock which caused the rushing mass to open right and left around the house and join in front of it, covering the meadow in some places, 39 feet with debris.”
Every indication showed that the family had fled in the middle of the night because their clothes were on floor near where they slept. As Samuel Willey and his family were nowhere to be found Crawford surmised that they had been rudely awakened and sought safety. Initially, he hoped that they had escaped to his father’s public house six miles below. That hope was soon extinguished. The landslide destroyed everything “and in fact, the house, and few feet of land in front of it, was the only spot where they could have been safe. Death was every where around them.” Willey’s outbuildings were also demolished along with the stables. All of his horses were killed too. Fortunately, however, some miracle happened, and the oxen were discovered alive and safe. The Charleston Daily Courier reported:
“It is supposed that a water spout gathered and burst against the mountains, which produced so great a freshet instantaneously as to carry every thing before it. Rocks of several tons were swept away.”
The next day a few hundred people assembled to search for the Willey family. Searchers were soon directed to a specific spot because of two scent hounds and a swarm of flies. Details of the discovery were provided in the Burlington, Vermont Sentinel and Democrat with the paper reporting that some of the bodies were found “about 50 rods [about 825 feet] from the house, in the meadow, amid driftwood, naked, bruised, and disfigured. The body of Mr. Samuel Willey was found about 30 feet from those of Mrs. Willey and Mr. Allen [whose hand] … was clenched round a small tree.”
It was believed about 11 o’clock, about the time the heavy rains ceased, the Willey family retired for the evening. Shortly thereafter they were awakened by the landslide crashing into the barn. Startled awake everyone rushed outdoors hoping to make it to the hut Willey had built. In the extreme darkness it was presumed they ran directly into the landslide and were then swept into the flood below where their bodies were discovered. In addition, more details about the tragedy also emerged:
“The Whole Willey family, with two hired men, making nine in number, perished by an avalanche, which slid from the west side of the Gap of the White Mountains, on the night of the 28th … Samuel Willey, Jr. and his wife Polly [Lovejoy], both aged about 30 years; Eliza Ann, 13 years; Jeremiah, 12 years; Martha, 10 years; Elbridge Gerry, 8 years; Sally, 5 years; David Allen, hired man 40 years; David Nicholson, hired man 20 years.”
All the bodies were recovered except for three of the children, which were never found. Those that were found were buried in two graves not far from the house. After the tragedy Samuel Willey’s father auctioned off the contents of the house. In addition, one interesting letter about the calamity was sent to a man in Lancaster:
“Mr. Willey’s dog, after leaving the house, with the unfortunate family, returned to it, and preserved his life. He was much bruised, but assisted in finding the bodies of the family which were discovered.”
When people learned of the Willey family tragedy they were horrified. The event also inspired a short story by American novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote The Ambitious Guest that was first published in The New-England Magazine in June 1835. It involved a young traveler who had achieved nothing in life but who hoped to achieve his destiny before dying. During his travels he stopped to spend the night with a family living in a “notch.” Like the Willey family tragedy, a slide happened, everyone bolted outside, and all were swept away and never found. In this case however although everyone mourned the family’s loss locals were unaware that the ambitious guest was also killed in the tragedy.
Another comparison of the Willey family tragedy can be made with the Baroness Adele de Broc. She fell to her death at the waterfall of Grésy-sur-Aix. in 1813. When news of the Baroness’ death was related in Aix-les-Bains, everyone wanted to see the spot and so shortly thereafter, her dear and grief-stricken friend Hortense, daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife Josephine, immortalized the spot by erecting a monument honoring the baroness. Just like the baroness’ death drew thousands of spectators to Grésy-sur-Aix, the Willey tragedy captured national attention in the United States. Morbid curiosity seekers went in droves to the desolate spot that which prior to 1826 had been largely overlooked. In fact, The Boston Globe reported in 1999:
“Before 1826, Americans largely ignored the White Mountains as formless masses of rock that block travel and contained nothing of value or interest. The slide convinced the public that the White Mountains preserved Nature in its original, potent state. Hundreds, and then thousands of people began traveling to the White Mountains every summer for vacations amid such a romantic landscape. Ironically, that is just what the Willeys had wanted to achieve when they first moved to the mountains to run an inn for the tourists.”
-  National Standard, “Tremendous Avalanche,” September 12, 1826, p. 3.
-  The Charleston Daily Courier, “White Mountains,” September 8, 1826, p. 2.
- Hartford Courant, “ “>White Mountain Letter,” August 20, 1901, p. 9.
-  National Standard, p. 3.
-  Sentinel and Democrat, “Melancholy Event,” September 15, 1826, p. 2.
-  The Charleston Daily Courier, p. 2.
-  Sentinel and Democrat, p. 2.
-  Ibid.
-  Fall River Monitor, September 16, 1826, p. 3.
-  The Boston Globe, “The Birth of Tourism in the White Mountains,” July 26, 1999, p. 33.