Sam Patch was the first true daredevil to perform in the United States. He met his match on a fateful jump from High Falls in Rochester, New York.
by Chris Clemens
Nearly two full centuries before Nik Wallenda was wowing crowds by tightrope walking international borders via Niagara Falls, America’s very first daredevil was getting his start. He would later bring his stunt show to Upstate NY just prior to his career taking a bit of a ‘plummet’ right in Rochester.
A Daredevil Is Born
Sam Patch was born in 1799 and raised in Rhode Island.
As a young boy he worked as a child laborer in a cotton mill, with plenty of running water nearby. Legends say that Patch got his start as a daredevil here at the dam, making jumps on his work break. While he jumped in to the waters below, his fellow child workers cheered him on.
When he later moved to New Jersey he would push himself to even greater heights. At the age of 28, he set a personal record on September 30, 1827 at a 70 foot high waterfall, much to the amusement of a gathered crowd.
After a successful 100 foot jump in Hoboken on August 11, 1828, the local news dubbed him “Patch the New Jersey Jumper”. It was then that Patch realized he not only had an audience, but also a career.
Sam Patch Jumps In The Niagara River
Wallenda’s goal in 2013 was to make it over Niagara Falls without getting wet but Patch had nearly the exact opposite in mind.
In October of 1829, the now dubbed “Yankee Leaper” made a series of jumps from a 125 foot ladder in to the Niagara River near Goat Island (just above the falls.)
In front of a crowd of 10,000 that week, Sam Patch’s career skyrocketed as the news hit all corners of the country of his daring feats and leaps. He even coined a slogan that would go on to be popular with Americans that went, “Some things can be done as well as others.”
Sam Patch Jumps In Rochester
After conquering the Niagara River, Patch went to Rochester to challenge the 99 foot High Falls on the Genesee River.
His first jump on November 6, 1829 began with ‘tossing’ his pet bear over the falls before he followed suit. Despite incorporating live animals, this daring performance didn’t really bring the audience he was hoping for. He upped the ante and constructed a 25 foot ladder above High Falls. From the highest rung this jump would match the height from a few weeks earlier at the Niagara River.
He scheduled the performance for this next feat to take place on November 13, 1829–a Friday.
With a reported 8,000 in attendance that Friday the 13th, eye witness reports differ on how the jump went.
Some say he slipped, some say he fell, others still claimed that he jumped.
Nonetheless, all reports converge on two undeniable facts. When the famous Sam “The Yankee Leaper” Patch hit the water at the base of High Falls that day, there was a loud thunderclap. The other undisputed report is that Sam Patch never emerged.
While some local folklore claimed he was hiding in a cave at the base of the falls, that rumor was soon laid to rest.
The following spring the frozen body of Sam Patch washed ashore downriver near Charlotte. He was interred in what is now the historic Charlotte Cemetery on River Street, though his legacy lived on and continues to be celebrated today.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens