Northrop Genealogy ~~~Birdsey Grant Northrop founder of Arbor Day

Birdsey Grant Northrop was an educator and the State Superintendent of schhols for Connecticut. However he is most well-known as the founder of Arbor Day.


By Ellen Brainerd Peck.


HERE are men whose success in life is achieved by some one deed or by a brilliant series of

deeds; and there are men whose success is attained by the constant pursuit of an object to the accomplishment of which the thought, the enthusiasm and the work of a lifetime are devoted. The growth of this latter class, in the public mind, is so gradual that the value of their efforts is taken for granted, and without much demonstration of appreciation their work passes into the panorama of deeds which make up civilization. Birdsey Grant Northrop, the originator of Arbor Day, and the founder of the organized movement for Village Improvement Societies, belonged to the class of constant workers, and what he accomplished is but little known to the masses of our people. He was fully appreciated only by those educators and philanthropists with whom he came into intimate working contact. It has been said that genius is an ability for hard work. Dr. Northrop possessed this ability. In his work he made no endeavor to impress his own personality upon the attention of the public: the thought of self was lost in his zeal for the movements in which he was engaged.

Birdsey Northrop was born in Kent, Connecticut, in the year 1817. Like many another New England boy he lived on a farm, where he helped his father in the homely round of duties. He attended the village school and enjoyed the simple pleasures of old-time country life, while lie drank in, with the Invigorating Puritan atmosphere, the stimulus which animated him through life for good works, and endowed him with a stout heart against discouragement, and a

strong sense of duty toward his country and mankind. When he was fourteen years old he conceived the idea of going to Yale College, where his grandfather, Amos Northrop, was graduated in 1762; and so the following quaint and formal boyish letter was written by young Northrop to Jeremiah Day, then president of Yale:

"Respected Sir:—Situated in the midst of rural scenes. I have but few means to secure knowledge concerning our best high schools. Therefore I now write you, sensible of the great opportunities you enjoy of knowledge on this subject, and ask that you would write me what school or schools are the best and most celebrated, particularly the New Haven school and the Fairfield school. Hcrkimcr county. New York. I wish to attend a good school in a preparatory course for college (Yale). In doing the above you will oblige your humble servant,

"birdsev Northrop."

Many years afterwards, President Day returned this letter to Dr. Northrop, having for some reason preserved it. The result of the letter was that President Day advised the boy to attend school at Ellington, and there prepare for college. His father was strongly opposed to letting the boy go away to school or college, as he feared that he might be led astray; but the mother sympathized with her son in his aspirations, and through her influence, and that of the village clergyman, the lad's hopes were realized, and when he was seventeen years old he was allowed to go to the school at Ellington.Ellington school for boys.

After he finished his course at this school, Northrop went through Yale College, and then he completed the course at the Yale Theological Seminary, where in his senior year he received the prize for the best theological essay. Ill health somewhat interfered with his college course, and he was obliged to give up study for a

year; but this interval he employed in teaching a small school at Elizabethtown, New Jersey. The following extracts from a letter written by him from Elizabethtown to his father show to what rural simplicity the young teacher was used in Kent:

"The people generally being in or near a city, live in more fashionable style than in Kent. In almost every house two fires are kept, and the family never sit in the kitchen. Every farmer owns a good carriage mounted on steel springs. I don't remember that I have seen a single house, great or small, in this vicinity, excepting only brick buildings, that was not painted. They are mostly painted white, some few red, and surrounded by a neat, plain picket fence, usually painted white."

"A railroad also passes through Newark, where I went the other day. The cars run sometimes at the wonderful velocity of thirty miles by the hour,—and they are frightful things for horses, I assure you. Do you think. Henry [his brother], you would like to be riding on 'Sharon' when one of these automatons should come roaring and thundering by you like a whirlwind? The noise they make can be heard to the distance of three or four miles."

This letter intimates in a rudimentary way the interest in the beauty of the home which influenced Dr. Northrop's career, and anticipates the sentiment to which later in life he gave utterance:—"that it had long been his desire to help in bettering the homes and home life of the American people, for the chief privilege and duty of life is the creation of tasteful, happy Christian homes; when such is one's ideal and his home becomes his pride, life has higher significance, value and sacredness."

Dr. Northrop was graduated from the theological school in 1845 ; and in 1846 he was married to Miss Harriet Chichester. He began, in 1847, his work as pastor of the Congregational church at Saxonville, Massachusetts ; and here he remained for ten years, years that were filled not only with ministerial labors, but with educational work—for Dr. Northrop interested himself in the welfare of the town and succeeded in having a high school established there. By his

efforts in behalf of educational affairs, while in Saxonville, he attracted to himself the attention of Hon. George S. Boutwell, and in 1856, at Mr. Boutwell's suggestion, he was sent to Maine to lecture. In 1857 Dr. Northrop resigned the pastorate of the Saxonville church, and was appointed agent of the Massachusetts State Board of Education; and he continued in this position for ten years. He filled this post most ably and, cooperating with the efficient educational board of that period, he was one of the chief factors that operated to place the Massachusetts schools on their high grade of excellence. The following particularly happy notice of his work appeared in the Springfield Republican when Dr. Northrop withdrew from the service of the Massachusetts Board of Education to undertake the secretaryship of the Connecticut board: "Mr. B. G. Northrop, who has just left the agency of our board of education, for the secretaryship of that of the state of Connecticut, has been doing a work in that agency, very little observed, but of surpassing interest and ultimate usefulness in the Commonwealth. Thoroughly imbued with the spirit which has animated that board, he has been for many years one of the chief, if not the most efficient instrumentality, in infusing life-blood into our common school education."

This ten years of work in Massachusetts Dr. Northrop followed up by sixteen years of educational labors in Connecticut, and he was one of the principal forces in the movement which resulted in the inauguration of the free school system and compulsory education in Connecticut.

Even in these busy years he found time to devote to the subjects of tree planting and village improvement. As early as 1870 he offered to lecture on these subjects free of charge in any town in Connecticut, although at that time the idea was pronounced "chimerical, sentimental and unrelated to schools."

In the year 1872 Japan invited Dr. Northrop to come there and formulate a system of education ; but he did not accept this flattering proposition, as he felt that his services were needed in his own land. Although he did not go to Japan, he labored in her behalf and received under his guardianship some Japanese girls brought by the "great embassy" to this country to be educated. There were three who completed a college course here and who returned to Japan to work for the advancement of Japanese women. His interest in these young women drew Dr. Northrop into close relationship with the Japanese government. One of these women students, on her return to her country, was married to the minister of war, Count Oyama, and in her high official position has been able to do much toward the elevation of her sex in Japan. In many ways Dr. Northrop manifested an interest in Japan, and he received many letters of acknowledgment for his courtesies. Tanaka, the minister of public education in Tokio, wrote, "to express my warmest thanks for your kind attention and careful information to my inquiries during my sojourn in your country in the last year, as a commissioner of public education from his Majesty, the Emperor of Japan." Dr. Northrop's greatest work for Japan was the effort which he put forth to induce the government of the United States to return to the Japanese government the Shimonoseki indemnity fund; and by the success of this endeavor he won for himself a lasting place in the regard of the Japanese nation. The United States had received this indemnity, but the government had never spent the money, as it was thought that the indemnity was more than commensurate for the offence given to our nation by the Japanese. Dr. Northrop devoted his energies to having these accumulated moneys sent back to Japan. Already, our government had passed a bill to release the Japanese from paying the

remaining indemnity; but by far the greater portion had at the time already 'been received by the United States. With all the energy and zeal of which he was capable, Dr. Northrop originated and circulated a petition that the United States government should return this indemnity fund in full. The petition was signed by the faculties of nearly all the colleges in this country, and by many prominent men; it was one of the longest petitions ever presented to Congress, being forty feet long. Tke petition was presented by Senator Hawley of Connecticut, and the passage of the bill was effected. The Japanese government's recognition of Dr. Northrop's instrumentality in this affair is expressed in the following letter written from the Japanese Legation, London, April 5, 1883:

"My dear Mr. Northrop:—. . . I am sure that Japan will long remember your many noble acts of assistance in the cause of her modern progress. The final passage of the Shimonoseki indemnity bill, which has been effected mainly through your powerful and untiring effort, is one of the most generous conducts a nation ever displayed toward another. By this great example, all my countrymen, inclusive even of those in the remotest corner of Japan, will be enabled to appreciate the widely and strongly established sentiments of the people of the United States for justice and equality. . . . "Very sincerely yours,


Among the few who realized the importance of this Japanese friendliness toward our country, and who sympathized with Dr. Northrop when he first began to interest himself in Japan, was James A. Garfield, then in Congress. Among the signers of the indemnity fund petition was Henry Ward Beecher, who on being asked to sign wrote the following characteristic reply: "It is almost a joke to ask me to sign. Yes, you can sign twice for me if it will do any good."

In 1895, when Dr. Northrop was nearly eighty years old, he made a visit to Japan and to the Hawaiian Islands. He was treated with all honor while in both countries. Especially was he welcomed in Japan. The Sun, published at Tpkio, said in a lengthy notice of his visit:

"Two thoughts strike us on the recent visit of this octogenarian educator from America. One is the wonderful energy, if not boldness, of a man of his age planning a trip around the world. . . . Dr. Northrop has delivered thirty-eight lectures in the short space of two months, and was as fresh and ready after the lecture as before, to talk on another hour or so. ... His one motive seems to have been that which actuated him twenty-five years ago to take up the Shimonoseki indemnity cause: namely, to benefit Japan. ... In Kyoto where he visited the schools and other institutions in company with the Vice-Minister of Education, he addressed a meeting of three thousand people."

Among the Educational

lectures which Dr. Northrop gave during this trip were Arbor Day lectures ; and he succeeded in having Arbor Day established in Ja-''', pan; the date which was chosen for observing it was N ovember third, the Emperor's birthday, when every child is supposed to plant a tree in honor of his Majesty. The Tokio Club entertained Dr. Northrop at a banquet, where many noblemen were present, and a welcoming speech was made by Professor Kanda, the representative of the former Japanese students in America. The year before Dr. Xorthrop's visit to Japan he received this letter from Inoceye Kowashi, the Minister of State for.Education:


"Allow me to express to you my cordial thanks for your continued and earnest efforts in promoting the interests of this country. I have no doubt that it is the result of your recommendation for many years past that the Arbor Day is now universally observed in the schools in your country. There is no celebration of the kind in Japan, but it may probably be observed in our schools in future."

The Japanese Emperor recognized Dr. Northrop's services for Japan, and gracefully remembered him. The government sent to Dr. Northrop a magnificent set of china, made and designed especially for him, each piece bearing his initials.

Mr. Northrop realized most clearly the possibilities of Japan, and it was significant that so near the end of his life he should have visited the land that had so long enlisted his sympathies.

Dr. Northrop also lectured in Hawaii in the interests of Arbor Day, which is now observed there: and he also exerted himself in behalf of educational interests in China. In 1872 China had sent thirty boys to this country to be educated, and they were placed under Dr. Northrop's supervision ; but before their educational courses were finished they were recalled to China on account of some suspicious idea on the part of the Chinese government. During Dr. Northrop's visit to Japan, in 1895, he discovered that Yung Choy. one of the Chinese boys whom he had charge of in the seventies, was a prisoner of war, held captive by the Japanese until an exchange of prisoners should be made. A return to China meant torture and death for Captain Choy, as he had been misrepresented there by enemies. Dr. Northrop pleaded with Japanese officials for the release of Captain Choy, that he might depart whither he would; and he was allowed to escape secretly in the night. When last heard from, he was living in Hong Kong, under British protection and, as may well be imagined, his gratitude to his benefactor was unbounded.

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It was in 1876 that Dr. Northrop began his real organized work toward establishing Arbor Day, when he started the movement of centennial tree planting, a movement in which he was ably seconded by the press, and which spread widely through the country, everywhere me'etine: with enthusiasm. The object and motto of this centennial tree planting was: "Honor the heroes of 1776 by some good deeds, whose fruits may survive 1976." Dr. Northrop offered prizes to any teachers or pupils in Connecticut, who would plant five trees of specified height and kind,—as this movement took place during his term of office on the School Board of Connecticut.

In 1877 Dr. Northrop visted Europe, and while he was there he made a study of forestry in Europe; he also studied the subject of the drainage of waste lands, and the school systems of Europe, to see wherein the schools abroad were in advance of or behind those of the United States. In Switzerland alone he visited the schools in one hundred cantons. As a result of this visit he wrote "Education Abroad," "Forestry in Europe,'' and "Lessons from European Schools."

When Dr. Northrop went abroad Dr. William T. Harris, now our commissioner of education, wrote of him in a letter of introduction: "Dr. Northrop has interested himself very

much of late years in the subject of forestry, and has created by his lectures a widespread activity in the several states of this country, in the planting of trees and the care for their preservation." Timothy D wight, late president of Yale College, wrote: "Mr. Northrop has been for many years prominent in educational work in our country, and also in the work of beautifying our towns and villages."

In the year 1883 Dr. Northrop gave up active educational work and devoted his time altogether to the interests of Arbor Day and Village Improvement ; and he has been truly called "the great apostle of Arbor Day." It was in 1883 that the American Forestry Association made him chairman of a committee to push the movement for Arbor Day, and this position he held as long as he lived.

Throughout his educational work he had urged the beautifying of villages and tree planting, and, as he himself said, his interest grew with years and results. His devotion to this work was not a "fad"; it was a mission which was inspired by benevolence and philanthropy.

The method which Dr. Northrop pursued in extending this movement of improving the towns and planting trees was that of lecturing in the various states, writing for papers on these subjects, and issuing pamphlets; and to this work he constantly devoted himself. When he arrived at a place to lecture in the evening, before evening came he had ridden all about the town and noted with keen observation what the town lacked ; and in his lecture he would point out to his audience these faults in their town, and tell them how things could be avoided and remedied. He frequently aroused so great an interest in his subject among the audience that then and there a subscription would be started for bettering the condition of the town.

J. Sterling Morton, some years ago, when governor of Nebraska, established tree planting in that state in order to redeem the waste tracts of land there; from this germ the thought of establishing Arbor Day for educational and memorial purposes sprang into life in Dr. Northrop's mind, and side by side with it grew the thought of village improvement societies.

'He emphasized the fact that the home is the nucleus of the real life of the nation, and in his lectures and writings he pleaded the necessity of making the home attractive and beautifying the outdoor surroundings by trees. Many men can point to their mothers as their first inspiration in their lives, and it was so with Dr. Northrop; he said that when he was a small boy his mother one day showed him how to plant a tree, and this act held a significance for him ever after.

Several lecturing tours were made by him through the South, when he exerted himself to the utmost to aid in bettering the condition of the negroes, whose miserable ill lighted, ill ventilated hovels he deplored. It was largely through his efforts that Daniel Hand gave his great gift of a million and a quarter dollars for the education of the southern freedmen. Many men who wished to endow some beneficent institution for their native places or elsewhere came to Dr. Northrop for advice. Such was the case with Mr. Charles Pratt of Brooklyn, who frequently consulted with Dr. Northrop about the plans for the Pratt Institute. The Hotchkiss School at Lakeville, Connecticut, was given by Mrs. Hotchkiss through Dr. Northrop's endeavors. Mr. Barney consulted with him in regard to giving Springfield, Massachusetts, its park. In many such ways Dr. Northrop exerted his influence.

Through his efforts Arbor Day is now recognized in nearly every state in the Union. It is even observed in Australia, and European countries have followed the example of Japan

and Hawaii in its observance. Canada recognizes it.

In 1853 there existed in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a society for beautifying that town. Mr. Hillhouse of New Haven, about one hundred years ago, started a ''Public Green Association." But no one before Dr. Northrop had taken up the founding' of such societies and organized it into a distinct movement. As he said, the movement plainly met a public want; "for the pleasure grounds of our fathers were small, and their sentiments were formed upon models of utility rather than beauty." The objects of .these societies were .many; they were to do away with everything that in any way marred the beauty of the town, its healthfulness or moral tone.

Dr. Northrop was the great advocate of removing fences from the front of houses, urging the people of the towns to trust the boys, and the boys have proved trustworthy. In 1888 Dr. Northrop visited California, a state which had already adopted Village Improvement Societies and had advanced in beauty far ahead of some of her less active eastern sisters; and Pasadena, whose "only paths were sheep paths" before the founding of her Village Improvement Society, grew into a veritable Eden. There are hundreds of towns all over the United States that can point to the "father of Village Improvement Societies" as a benefactor. Many towns in the East, already lovely by nature, have been greatly benefited, and their beauty enhanced, by following the suggestions offered by Dr. Northrop, —such towns as Litchfield, New Milford and Norfolk, in Connecticut, and Barre, Great Barrington, Lenox and others in Massachusetts. A New York paper not many years ago said: "The suburbs of New York, which nature made beautiful, but which man is doing his best by corruption and jobbery to make mean and unlovely, offer abundant opportunities to put Mr. Northrop's instruction

into practice." Dr. Northrop did do much for New York state; even lovely Geneseo in western New York, seemingly too attractive to need improvement, welcomed Dr. Northrop, and benefited by the organizing there of an Improvement Society. As this great organizer and worker understood so perfectly the principles of forestry, he was eminently fitted for his mission. His love of nature was intense; he felt a real affection for growing things, and he most truly appreciated the effect which beautiful and noble trees have on mankind. He recognized the moral influence that the study and care of a growing thing like a tree have on the nature of a child, and the philanthropic trend it would give a youthful character to observe a day in which trees should be planted, that they might add to the comfort and happiness of a coming generation.

Shortly before Dr. Northrop's death Dr. John Greene of Lowell, Massachusetts, wrote to him: "I want to express my hope that you will give the world an autobiography. The

facts which you stated to me, on our journey to Andover in 1896, have often come to .me, and I have wished the world could have the benefit of the struggles and the victory of your life as you could tell them."

Dr. Northrop retained full vigor of mind until he died. In the winter of 1897 he took an extended trip through the Southern States, lecturing sometimes twice a day. On this trip he visited and lectured at many negro schools, where his talks were listened to eagerly. A great deal of Dr. Northrop's work was done without asking or expecting remuneration, and all of his work in the negro schools was done in this way. This southern work in 1897 was almost his last work. He died at Clinton, Connecticut, April 28, 1898.

This is a slight glimpse of the life work of a good man, one who was blessed in living to see the successful accomplishment of many of his useful and noble endeavors. The best of all things can be said of him: the world is better because he has lived.


The New England magazine, Volume 22



Come celebrate the 114th anniversary of the first Arbor Day in both Falls Church City and the Commonwealth of Virginia. This free event will be held Saturday, April 22, 2006. Arbor Day began in Falls Church in 1892 after a powerful storm destroyed many local trees. Dr. Birdsey G. Northrop of Connecticut (the "Johnny Appleseed" of Arbor Day) proposed to the Falls Church Village Improvement Society that it inaugurate an Arbor Day in April to include school children in replanting the public schoolyard (now Frady Park) that was destroyed by the storm. To this day, trees are planted on the grounds of all City public schools on the third Friday of April, and a public celebration is held at Frady Park the following Saturday afternoon.


(Birdsey grant Later Birdsey G. Northrup, secretary of the Connecticut Board of Education, suggested that states should plant trees at a certain time each year or supervise their planting. DR. BIRDSEY G. NORTHRUP. The Founder of Arbor Day in Japan.

We take this appreciative tribute to Dr. Northrop and his work from a recent issue of The Outlook, where it appears under the editorial heading, "A Useful Life." " In the excitement of the day, the life and service of Dr. Birdsey G. Northrop must not be forgotten. He has left his mark on the landscape of America in a way which ought to secure him long and loving remembrance. Born in Kent, Connecticut, in 1817, graduating from Yale College in 1841, and from Yale Theological Seminary in 1845, he was for ten years pastor of the Congregational church at Saxonville, Massachusetts. A deep and growing interest in public education finally carried him into that field. In 1857 he became the ageut of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Ten years later he was appointed Secretary of the Connecticut Board of Education—a position which he filled for sixteen years. Loving New England rural scenery, he saw the disregard of taste and of beauty which obtained in so many New England towns; he saw also how easily such towns might be made beautiful by the making of good roads, the planting of trees, the growing of shrubs and flowers, cleanliness and neatness in public places, the erection of drinking fountains—a general regard for the town as a bit of the landscape. Attention to these matters and thought about them made Dr. Northrop a reformer, and the Village Improvement Society became the instrument of the reform which he had at heart. It was fitting that the pioneer society should be organized at Stock-
bridge, Massachusetts, a town famous for the beauty of its scenery, the number of distinguished men and women born
within its limits, and in these later days, for the finish and culture of its landscape. The idea of village improvement spread
rapidly. Dr. Northrop, with tireless enthusiasm, expounded his idea in lectures, talks, and articles, visiting more than forty States and Territories, and aiding in the organization of a great number of Improvement Societies. He studied theschools of forestry and methods of plantation in Europe. He was the originator of 'Arbor Day,' which is now duly observed by nearly every State in the Union. Such a life is public in a far truer sense than the lives of most so-called public men."

from Pennsylvania School Journal
By Pennsylvania Dept. of Public Instruction, Pennsylvania State Education Association, Pennsylvania Dept. of Common Schools


The Order of the Founders and Patriots of America Register 1911 By Order of the Founders and Patriots of Am, Order Of The Founder Staff


DAR Register 1902

Clinton, Conn.
Gen. No. 243. Conn. No. 21. Lecturer and State Superintendent of Schools. Born July 18, 1817. Son of Thomas
Grant Northrup and Aurelia Curtis; grandson of Amos Northrup ( 3d) and Anna Grant; great-grandson of Amos Northrup (2d) and Ann Baldwin; great'-grandson of Amos Northrup (1st) and Mary Green; great'-grandson of Samuel Northrup and Sarah - ; great'-grandson of JOSEPH NORTHRUP and Mary Norton.








This home on Pequot Avenue, Southport, Connecticut is a recently restored example of the Northrop Brothers fine carpentry and building in the Southport-Greeens Farms area.


Image Courtesy of David Parker Associates