Testing the Waters

Updated: Jun 8

In this second edition of the blog series "Cherrypicking," Cameron Coyle highlights one of the few surviving anecdotes from Zachary Taylor's childhood and uses some imagination to fill in the blanks. Warning: do not try this at home.


How good of a swimmer are you?


As for myself, I think I’m a decent swimmer. My form and breathing patterns are usually interrupted after a few minutes in the water, but I think I could swim a mile in normal conditions - maybe a little slow and undisciplined, but I’d get the job done.


I texted Eve, a family friend who is a remarkable up-and-coming swimmer. How tough is it for her to swim one mile? “Not very bad,” she responded. “Pretty easy.” If I know anyone more prepared to accomplish that physical feat, it would be Eve.


Pain.

But I threw in a twist. “How would you feel about swimming a mile in near freezing water in a river in the middle of March?”


A different response. “Swimming in freezing water in March would be bad.” She doesn’t recommend.


All this talk about aquatics isn’t for nothing, of course. Very few accounts of Zachary Taylor’s youth survive. His published biographies largely skip over his formative years, and there is little for anyone interested in his formative years to grip onto and run with. But perhaps the most fascinating anecdote I’ve stumbled across has to do with swimming.


The earliest mention of this exploit that I’ve found is in what some historians would call a campaign biography, originally published in 1847. On page 16 in “The Life of Major General Zachary Taylor,” Henry Montgomery recounted:


“When but seventeen years old [Taylor] swam across the Ohio river, from the Kentucky to the Indiana shore, in the month of March, when the river was filled with floating ice, which is a feat far surpassing in danger and difficulty the far-famed exploit of swimming the Hellespont.”


From a map of Jefferson County, Kentucky in 1858. A) Springfield, Taylor's boyhood home. B) Locust Grove, the homestead of the friendly and prestigious Croghan family, which is a historic museum in its own right. C) The mighty Ohio River where a 17-year-old Zachary Taylor plunged. (Library of Congress)

Only a couple other publications picked up on this voyage - his few biographers haven’t even touched it.


I, for one, find it fascinating. My mind wanders and begins down many rabbit holes. It’s as if I’m transported back to March 1802, watching it happen real time. The stocky wavy-haired farmhand, adventurous as ever, waking up to another day with a layer of frost covering the ground. Tough talking with his eager school friends. Traversing the woods and plantations of the outer Louisville area, past the Croghans’ house “Locust Grove” and finding the menacing river, with the other shore so far from where he stood. And the piercing moment of impact.


Springfield, Taylor's boyhood homestead on the outskirts of the Louisville metropolitan area.

What did his friends say after he stepped back onto shore? How did his mother react when he returned home dripping wet with hair strands frozen together? Did his father look upon him warming near the fire with disapproval while secretly admiring his courage?


The outstanding question I have about this story is: why? An older Taylor never left behind any written accounts about his arctic plunge near the mighty Falls of the Ohio, but one writer opined that Zack was merely “showing some other boys that he was not afraid of cold water” (Stoddard 4).


"Zachary grew into a boy of more than common muscular strength and endurance.... the fact that he could be and was indifferent to so severe an exposure was of great importance to his future usefulness" (Stoddard 3).

Seems a little unconvincing to me that Zack simply risked his life for no tangible reason. Perhaps he and his running buddies made a wager on it, and the shivering teenager returned to “Springfield” reaping rewards. Or perhaps he was trying to prove something to himself, another step on the path to self-confidence that so defined Taylor throughout his career.


I find this story so relatable because Zachary Taylor was my age when he embarked on his glacial crossing, and I can imagine being in his shoes - err, moccasins. Sure, the two of us are different in many ways, what with growing up 220 years and 600 miles apart. But despite Eve’s warning, I could still see myself in that water due to some indominable competitive urge, kicking and splashing through the bone-chilling water, fighting against the ice and the current.


I conquered the original Zachary Taylor Challenge this past July. Now it appears another one is calling my name. Stay tuned….


(No thank you. The last thing I need is to dodge river barges and get hypothermia at the beginning of lacrosse season. Maybe the Polar Plunge would be better.)


- Cam


Citations:

Montgomery, H. The Life of Major General Zachary Taylor. Derby & Hewson, Publishers (1847). Reprinted by Applewood Books (2009). Found on Google Books.

Stoddard, W. O. Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. Frederick A. Stokes & Brother (1888). Found on Google Books.

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