Historian's Office 




JOSHUA LEE: Soldier, Surgeon, Politician


Joshua Lee was commissioned in 1811 by the Governor of New York to be the surgeon of Col. Avery Smith's militia regiment, which fought as the 3rd New York Regiment of Infantry and Light Artillery during the War of 1812. His portrait was painted some years later and presents a handsome man in the Byronic hairstyle of the 1820s, prematurely gray, dark-eyed and powerful.

He was born in Columbia County in 1783, the son of Thomas and Waty Sherman Lee. His parents were Quakers who moved to the then-frontier of Yates County in 1790, drawn there by an interest in the teachings of the Public Universal Friend. Thomas Lee built a log house near a stream on the east side of lot 2 in what is now the town of Milo and the following year removed to another location on the same lot; Thomas died in 1814 at the age of 75 and his wife in 1833, aged 90.

Joshua was the fifth child of this couple, and the oldest son. He returned to his native county as a young man to study medicine and was licensed there at the age of 21. He was known as an exceptionally skilled surgeon. He married Sophia Phillips of Geneva in 1809.

After the War of 1812 he returned to Milo and entered politics. In 1817 he was elected to the state legislature (defeating his brother Thomas Lee Jr.) And during his term fought for and finally succeeded in passing the act abolishing slavery in the state (which passed by a majority of only two votes). He was reelected without opposition, and in 1834 went to Washington as the Congressman representing Yates and Steuben Counties. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1839.

Joshua Lee died 29 December 1842, his wife in 1853 at the age of 62. Their children were Mary Jane, who married Dr. Lewis A. Birdsall; Charles, who married Mary M. Hall; Janett, who married Samuel R. Fish; and George, who married Laura Prentiss, became a member of Phil Sheridan's staff during the Civil War and died of yellow fever at New Orleans in 1867. The elder Lees and their children are buried in Lakeview cemetery in Penn Yan. So are his parents and most of his brothers and sisters.

Joshua Lee was, as the historian Stafford C. Cleveland wrote in 1872, "a generous, genial, warm-hearted man, and a public-spirited and useful citizen." He owned throughout his life the land his father had settled in 1790, and built an elegant and impressive house there that survived into modern times. He helped as a boy to drive the road through wilderness that connected his father's home to Penn Yan, though there was, as Cleveland points out, no Penn Yan there yet, only a place to go to mill. He was a skilled surgeon, soldier and politician, but his work to wipe out the stain of slavery on his state was undoubtedly his greatest achievement.