He was the Evel Knievel of his day, the man whose daring exploits drew massive crowds and fired imaginations across the country.

Sam Patch lived a life of no particular distinction until his hobby of jumping from great heights into waterfalls (not an uncommon pastime in mill towns where activities for restless young men were scarce) began to attract large crowds. No one was keener to take up a difficult challenge than Sam. His death-defying leaps from bridges, buildings and ships’ masts became legendary. At a time when the best-known national figures were statesmen or soldiers, Sam was perhaps America’s first celebrity who fit the mold of the common man.

He toured New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Broadsides announced his appearances, and newspapers reported his feats. Ten thousand spectators saw him become the first man to jump Niagara Falls and live to tell about it.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said about his November 26, 1829, leap into Genesee Falls at Rochester, N.Y. He had promised to jump from a height of 99 feet. A crowd of 8,000 waited while Sam indulged in a little pre-jump celebration at a nearby tavern. Some speculated that alcohol was the reason his descent into the waters did not seem normal: It had the appearance of a man who stumbled from the platform rather than jumped. His frozen body was discovered downstream the following spring. Above his grave a sign was posted: “Sam Patch—Such is Fame.”


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here