Hardly had the first settlements been established in the Black River Country before there was talk of a new county or counties. Every owner of a considerable tract of land realized full well the advantages which would accrue to him if a county seat could be located in his domain. Probably the subject was discussed as early as 1802 when Gouverneur Morris, the statesman and landowner; James Le Ray de Chaumont and Jacob Brown conferred at Brownville, but jealousies between the various proprietors prevented any tangible action being taken. Silas Stow at Lowville, Col. Walter Martin at Martins, Henry Coffeen at Watertown and Jacob Brown at Brownville all intrigued to locate the seat of the new county in their immediate locality and for a time it looked as though there would be as many counties as there were landed proprietors.
Constable heard of the intrigues while on one of his tours. “It seems that Stow and Martin have both made themselves obnoxious,” he writes, “and they will differ about the division of the county on their side of it. Each will be supported by opposite interests and they will be defeated by the management of the proprietors of Redfield or that of Jacob Brown of Brownville.”
But when Martin and Stow, Coffeen and Brown and the rest were busy with their schemes, the settlers of the Ten Towns along the St. Lawrence had acted. In 1801 the town of Lisbon, consisting of all the Ten Towns, was erected by the legislature of the state and at the request of the inhabitants, added to Clinton county. But it was anywhere from 120 to 140 miles from the new town of Lisbon to Plattsburgh, the county seat of Clinton county, and the following year, largely through the energy of Nathan Ford of Ogdensburg, a petition was circulated requesting the legislature to set up a new county along the St. Lawrence river to be known as St. Lawrence county. Considerably over a hundred names were signed to the petition and among them were the most influential residents of the Ten Towns. One of them was John Tibbets who had come from Troy a year or two before to settle on his tract of nearly 10,000 acres lying along the St. Lawrence, which he had purchased from Alexander Macomb for a little over $4,000. His son, John J. Tibbets, Jr., who also signed the petition, was one of the first assistant judges of St. Lawrence county. Alexander J. Turner of Lisbon was another signer of the petition who later became an important figure in the new country. He was the first supervisor of the town of Lisbon and one of the first judges of the court of common pleas when the county was erected.
Another whose name appears prominently on the petition is Joseph Edsall, land agent for the town of Madrid and a well known surveyor of that day. He was the first supervisor of his town and a judge of the first court of common pleas of the new county. Another signer was Stillman Foote, first permanent settler of Canton, who, at the time the county was erected was but nineteen years of age. Despite this fact he was immediately made an assistant justice and continued to be an important figure in the county until the day of his death. Thomas J. Davies, whose name appears on the petition, became the first sheriff. Jacob Reddington, whose name also appears, owes his little claim to fame to the fact that when the first Fourth of July celebration was held in the territory now included in St. Lawrence county in 1798 it was Reddington who read the Declaration of Independence.
Nathan Ford’s name of course heads the list. He was at the time thirty-nine years of age, strong, energetic and resourceful, a natural leader. He never failed to dominate the situation in St. Lawrence county during the days of his vigor. The county was erected on March 3, 1802, and Nathan Ford was at once elected first judge, a position which he held many years, handing out profane but impartial justice to the litigants who came before him.
But jealousies still prevented the organization of a county further south. There were too many strong men and too many prospective county seats. The proprietors wanted but one county formed because that meant but one set of county buildings and lower taxes. It was about this time that Nathan Ford was writing Ogden that nothing interfered with the settlement of a new country like high taxes. Finally, through action by the various towns, a meeting \yas called for Nov. 20, 1804 at the tavern of Freedom Wright in Denmark. To this meeting came delegates from the several towns erected in the Black river and Sandy Creek country and the hopes of Champion were high because a majority of the delegates were committed to the organization of but one county.
Finally the appointed day came and into Denmark rode the delegates. No such notable group had ever before gathered together in the North Country. From Brownville had come Jacob Brown with John W. Collins and Benjamin Cole and from far-away Ellisburg appeared the sturdy proprietor, Lyman Ellis, with his lieutenants, Capt. Matthew Boomer and John Thomas. Champion had a strong delegation including young Egbert Ten Eyck, the lawyer; Dr. John Durkee, who as one of the few physicians in the new country had a wide influence, and Olney Pearse, the merchant. Up from Lowville rode Silas Stow, Jonathan Rogers and Charles Davenport, while from Turin, further south, came Jonathan Collins, Major John Ives and Ilijah Wadsworth. Every town was represented because it was a meeting of the greatest importance. Henry Coffeen was there and so were Tilley Richardson, Solomon Robbins and Joshua Beals. From the rich, little town of Rutland came Cliff French, Abel Sherman and William Coffeen. Col. Walter Martin does not appear to have been present but his brother-in-law, Chillus Doty, was there and his friends, Asa Brayton and Clark McCarthy. So were Moss Kent, skilled in the ways of debate, Lewis Graves and Charles Wright.
Who were these men who gathered in the little, backwoods tavern at Denmark that fall day in 1804? Jacob Brown, Silas Stow, Jonathan Collins, Moss Kent, Egbert Ten Eyck, Henry Coffeen, Lyman Ellis, Cliff French and Simeon Hunt are today the best remembered. Jacob Brown was then but twenty-nine years of age. He was a native of Pennsylvania, his mother being a Quaker. For a time he taught school and surveyed land, taking the while an interest in politics that fortunately attracted the attention of that delightful cynic and statesman, Gouverneur Morris. Possibly as a result of the friendship thus formed, Brown made his purchase of land in the north and soon established the village of Brownville. Good looking, of firm but pleasant features, he early displayed indications of that ability to lead which brought him fame during the War of 1812. The majority of the delegates had gone to Denmark committed to the formation of one county, but not Brown. He knew the only hope for Brownville was in case two counties were organized.
Silas Stow of Lowville was two years’ Brown senior. A native of Connecticut, he studied law there but through a connection with Nicholas Low, the merchant, was given the commission of land agent to manage the latter’s possessions along the Black river. His capacities were such that the council of appointment early named him a judge of Oneida county. Later he was to serve in congress and to vote against the declaration of war in 1812, following which he was to serve his county as sheriff and then for many years as first judge.
Jonathan Collins of Turin was older, being forty-nine, but perhaps he was as influential as any man at the meeting. He was a farmer of some means, had served in the Revolution and, after the county of Lewis was erected, was appointed first judge. In 1820 he was a presidential elector. A portrait of Collins shows him to have been a firm-jawed, clear-eyed man with bristling, dark hair, the kind of man one would pick to lead a charge or control a caucus.
Moss Kent we have already considered. He had been in the state senate and was to go again. He was a man of education and polish, one who was to spend many years of his life in the public service including two terms in congress, and had the prestige which comes to one whose brother was the chancellor of the state. Egbert Ten Eyck, the only college man in the group, had graduated from Williams in 1800. He was still in his early twenties and he, too, was later destined to represent his section in various legislative and judicial positions, including a term in congress. Henry Coffeen of Water-town was in his early thirties, a pioneer by instinct, a follower of Jefferson and one who owned at that time nearly all that section of Watertown from the present Public Square to Black river.
Lyman Ellis, the proprietor of Ellisburg, was then the supervisor of that town. He was a native of Troy and 44 years of age at the time of the Denmark meeting. On his gravestone in the old Ellisburg cemetery are engraved the words, “Modesty, honesty and charity adorned his walk in life ” Cliff French was the supervisor of the town of Rutland and Dr. Abel Sherman, another of the Rutland delegates, became the first sheriff of Jefferson county. Simeon Hunt of the town of Harrison, now Rodman, kept a well known tavern where religious meetings were often held. He was later a lieutenant in the War of 1812. Asa Brayton was supervisor of the town of Martinsburgh. Chillus Doty, the brother-in-law of Col. Martin and one of the Martinsburg delegates, was an innkeeper, became the first sheriff of Lewis county, served in the assembly three terms and was surrogate of Lewis county for eight years.
Jonathan Collins acted as chairman of the meeting and Egbert Ten Eyck, secretary. There were thirty-six delegates present and apparently there was considerable spirited debate. All votes were close and in two instances the members divided eighteen to eighteen. Finally the proposition that there be two counties erected, the division line to be determined by a disinterested committee named by the governor and the council of appointment was carried by a vote of twenty to sixteen. A committee of five was named to draw up a petition to be presented to the legislature asking that a bill creating the two counties be passed, this committee consisting of Jonathan Collins, Jacob Brown, Henry Coffeen, Cliff French and Joseph Beals. On March 28th, 1805, the legislature passed the act creating the two new counties of Jefferson and Lewis, Jefferson after President Jefferson and Lewis after Governor Morgan Lewis.
Then came the fight for the county seats. Finally Martinsburgh and Watertown were selected to the dismay of Silas Stow and Jacob Brown. But Henry Coffeen, who had been largely responsible for the selection of Watertown, caused the county buildings to be erected far on the outskirts of the village near the river in an effort to conciliate Brown. Today those buildings, if they still stood, would be in the heart of the city.
Franklin county, which as late as 1810 had only 2,719 residents, did not petition the legislature until 1808 to be erected into a county separate from Clinton. The petitioners had asked that the new county be called Norfolk but when the bill finally emerged from the legislature what was the surprise of the applicants to know that the name of their new county was to be Franklin. The towns then were Chateaugay, which had been erected in 1799; Harrison, later Malone, erected in 1805; Constable, which had been erected in 1807, and Dickinson, erected in 1808. Gates Hoit was the supervisor from Chateau-gay, Albon Mann from Constable, Samuel Pease from Dickinson (elected 1809) and Nathaniel Blanchard from Harrison, later Malone. The first sessions of the little board of supervisors were held in the old academy building, but the year after the county had been erected, the movement for the construction of a court house started. By 1812 the county building was finished, a hip-roofed structure standing on a hill, containing living quarters for the sheriff as well as cells for prisoners. Its entire cost was $5,757.25, excluding $3 spent for cuspidors and $2 paid to one of the judges for expressing an opinion as to the sufficiency of the “gaol.” The three supervisors received a total of $38.84 for their services that first year while John H. Russell, clerk of the board, got $14.
Oswego was the last of all the Northern New York counties to be organized. The legislative act, creating the county, was passed in March, 1816, and the boundaries were the same as now. There were nine towns in the new county, Scriba, New Haven, Volney, Mexico, Richland, Redfield, Williamstown and Constantia, all taken from Oneida county, and Hannibal, taken from Onondaga county. A controversy developed between Oswego and Pulaski as to which would be the county seat and it was finally decided that there should be court houses in both places. Barnet Mooney, who had been a member of assembly from Onondaga county and who was an important resident of the town of Hannibal, became the “first judge;” Henry Williams, Smith Dunlap, Peter D. Hugunin, David Easton and Edmund Hawkes, judges; Daniel Hawks, Jr., assistant justice; and Elias Brewster, surrogate; James Adams, county clerk, and John S. Davis, sheriff. The population of the new county was between six and seven thousand. The first court of common pleas was held in the school house in Oswego village. The second court was held in the school house in Pulaski. In 1818 work on the two court houses was begun and a year or so later they were completed.
The Parish Purchase
The year after Jefferson and Lewis counties came into existence, David Parish, one of the wealthiest men of his day came to this country from Europe and settled in Philadelphia. He was then head of the banking 1 and commission house of David Parish & Company of Antwerp, a company closely related to that of Parish & Company of Hamburgh. Almost at once he became acquainted with Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, the Ogdens and James D. LeRay. These men were all interested in “wild lands” in Northern New York and here was a potential customer who could hardly be ignored. Soon after Joseph Rosseel, a native of Ghent, arrived in this country and almost at once found employment with Mr. Parish. Rosseel was then but twenty-five years of age but of remarkably shrewd judgment, nevertheless. He went all through Northern New York in 1807 in the interests of his employer, inspecting the lands and writing entertaining reports back to Parish. While in the heart of the woods of St. Lawrence county he was seized with a severe toothache. There wasn’t a dentist of course in all Northern New York at that time and outside of Dr. Richard Townsend, who, with a few pioneers, was established on the site of Gouverneur, Rosseel didn’t know of a physician nearer than The Garrison (Ogdensburg), on the one hand, and Sackets Harbor, on the other. Fortunately he found Dr. Townsend without great difficulty. Townsend agreed to extract the tooth but made such a bungling job of it that he broke it and Rosseel, unable to stand the agony, fainted. The doctor, however, proceeded “to kill the marrow” with oil of vitroil and Rosseel survived, but the incident made a vivid impression on his mind as well may be believed.
Parish bought large tracts of land in both Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties. For one tract of 72,000 he paid $1.50 an acre, which represented quite an advance over the amount paid by Macomb twenty years before. But Parish became primarily interested in Ogdensburg. Early in 1809 he bought the whole village for $8,000, but it should be remembered that but thirty-eight lots were sold there at that time and there were probably not more than thirty buildings in the settlement, including the old stone garrison buildings. Even in 1811 there were but fifty houses in the village.
No more fortunate thing could have happened to Ogdensburg than the change in ownership. Ford had done what he could but the capital at his command was limited. But Parish with plenty of money was accustomed to do things on an elaborate scale. He made Rosseel his land agent and delegated him at once to build a mansion, a large store and warehouse and two schooners. It was a large order. Northern New York had no skilled artisans or mechanics. It was 150 miles from Ogdensburg to Utica over the worst possible kind of roads. It was 120 miles to Montreal and excepting in the winter the going was hard. But Rosseel was equal to the task. New York, Philadelphia, Albany, Utica and Montreal were scoured for mechanics. Rosseel, himself, made the trip down the frozen St. Lawrence to Montreal by sleigh in three days. Good, red cedar for planking the new schooners was found in the Thousand Island region and rafted down the St. Lawrence to Ogdensburg. The sails and riggings had to be purchased in New York for $3,600 and were brought to Ogdensburg at great expense.
The Experiment, the first of the schooners, was launched July 4, 1809. It was a gala day for Ogdensburg. A great dinner was held at which Rosseel writes ninety-six were present and although Parish was not there he was toasted frequently and with fervor. The new vessels at once engaged in the carrying trade on the lake. Freight then was one dollar per barrel on flour from any Lake Ontario port to Montreal. The two Ogdensburg schooners were only fifty tons each but this was the average tonnage of vessels plying on Lake Ontario at that time. There w T ere but sixteen vessels owned at American lake ports at that time, Oswego having eleven, Genesee River one, and Niagara two, besides the two at Ogdensburg. The Canadian ports, Kingston and York, had a total of ten schooners, ranging all the way from twenty-eight tons to ninety.
Ogdensburg now began to experience a boom. In 1809 there were five stores there and by the following July eight new houses were building, including the three-story brick Parish mansion, probably the finest residence in Northern New York at that time, and by 1811 there were fifty houses in the village. The big stone warehouse, built by Rosseel for Parish, was the pride of the North Country and there Parish put such a supply of merchandise as had never been known in Northern New York before. As a matter of fact, Ogdensburg, within the space of a couple of years, had become one of the most important ports in the Northern and Western part of the state. Buffalo was at this time a village of but thirty or forty houses and Oswego a huddle of some twenty houses, six of them log.
Nor was Parish the only landowner to attempt to improve his possessions in Northern New York. The Ogdens transferred their attention to Hamilton (Waddington) and built up a thriving village there. Some years earlier Dr. Richard Townsend, as agent for Gouverneur Morris, had established himself near the site of the present Gouverneur. Then it was Cambray and not until about 1810 was the name, Gouverneur, applied. In 1809 Morris decided to visit his St. Lawrence county possessions in person. So a “mansion” was built for him, a stone house, one side built into a hillside and the north end utterly devoid of windows, at a place then called Morris’ Mills but now known as Natural Dam. The one-legged statesman seems to have stayed at Morris’ Mills most of that summer and fall, limping about his estate, supervising the building of saw and grist mills and laying out a village. But the tide of settlement came rather to Gouverneur and Morris’ ambitious project failed to materialize.
It is difficult for the present day reader to appreciate the remoteness of the Northern New York of that day. There was a much closer contact with Montreal and the Canadian settlements along the northern bank of the St. Lawrence than there was with Utica and Albany. It is not surprising to find Americans in St. Lawrence county therefore referring to those living along the seaboard as being “in the states.” In 1809 government mails were four weeks in going from Philadelphia to Ogdensburg and one letter from Scotland to John Ross at Ogdensburg was nine months on the way.
The Visit of Dewitt Clinton
About this time two noted figures visited Northern New York and left in their journals about as vivid a picture of this frontier land which may be found anywhere. Strangely enough the county historians seem to have completely overlooked the tours of DeWitt Clinton and Bishop Asbury. DeWitt Clinton was at this time a member of the board of canal commissioners. He was already an important figure in state politics. Within two years he was to be a candidate for the presidency as a Federalist, although at the time of this tour through the present Oswego county DeWitt Clinton claimed to be a Republican, that is, a Democrat, viewed from present day standards. He had already been a member of the United States senate and mayor of New York. Later he was to serve for several terms as governor of New York, the faction of the Democratic party supporting him being generally known as Clintonians. He was the son of Gen. James Clinton of Revolutionary war fame, the nephew of George Clinton, governor of New York state and vice president of the United States, and a graduate of Columbia College. At the time of his Northern New York tour he was forty-one years of age.
The members of the canal commission were Gouverneur Morris, whom, as we have seen, was the owner of large tracts of land in Northern New York; Stephen Van Rensselaer, the patroon; DeWitt Clinton; Simeon De Witt, the surveyor general; William North; Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter. The commissioners followed the Mohawk river westward from Schenectady in 1810, stopped at Utica, then a flourishing village of some 300 houses and 1,650 inhabitants, with four churches, a bank, post office and two newspapers. They then moved on to Rome, twenty-one miles by water from Utica and 106 from Schenectady, where they put up at Isaac Lee’s tavern, a large, three-story frame building, called simply The Hotel. Here, too, they saw the ruins of Fort Stanwix, defended so valiantly in the Revolutionary war. From here the water route was by canal to Wood creek, past the ruins of old Fort Bull, destroyed by de Lery in his raid from Oswegatchie in the French war, to Gilbert’s tavern, which DeWitt Clinton found a “decent, comfortable house.” Near the junction of Wood creek and Oneida Lake, they came to Mrs. Jackson’s tavern. As they proceeded the accommodations grew worse. They were now entering the limits of the present Oswego county. From this point on the journal will be quoted:
“As we approached Rotterdam, we saw a seine drawn at the mouth of a small cold brook, and six salmon caught at a haul. A kingfisher, as large as a hawk, was also flying about for prey. We amused ourselves on our voyage over the lake (Oneida Lake), by trolling with a hook and bait of red cloth and white feathers, and caught several Oswego bass, yellow perch, and pikes.
“We dined at Rotterdam, a decayed settlement of George Sinba’s (Mr. Clinton meant George Scriba’s), eleven miles from the outlet, containing eight or ten houses, and exhibiting marks of a premature growth. There are mills on a small creek, and, while at dinner, our men speared several fish in it—among others, one eighteen inches long, spotted, the head like a cat-fish, and downwards resembling an eel, but like a dog-fish in shape. Some called it an eel-pout, and others a curse. It appears to be a nondescript.
“Sinba’s (Scriba’s) agent, Mr. Dundass, was absent at Salina. We were well received by his housekeeper, and dined on chowder, prepared by Gen. North. The thermometer here was at 75 degrees. We were told that fleas infest all new settlements for the first two years, particularly in pine or sandy countries, and that we must not expect to escape them. Our commodore (Thomas Eddy) appeared old and decayed, although there were two older men among the commissioners. Supporting himself upon a stick, he attracted the commiseration of an old man, seventy years of age, in the log-house this morning, who rose from his seat and said, ‘Old daddy, shall I hand you a chair.’ We were happy to see our chief revive under the potent influence of port and chowder.
“After dinner we continued our voyage with an adverse wind. As the evening shades prevailed, we were saluted with the melancholy notes of the loon. We passed three boats under sail going up the lake.
“This night we slept at Steven’s (Oliver Stevens, who had long maintained a tavern at Fort Brewerton), at the outlet of the lake, nine miles by land and eleven by water from Rotterdam. Here commences Onondaga or Oneida river, the only outlet of the lake, about as large as the mouth of Wood creek. The bars at the outlet are rocky, wide, difficult to remove, and so shallow that a horse can easily pass over them. There are two eel weirs here, in which many are caught. Stevens has lived in this place, which is in the town of Constantia, eighteen years, has rented it for seventeen years, at $75 a year. He has no neighbors within four miles on this side of the river. On the other side is the town of Cicero, in which there are several settlements. This is a clean house, in which we were as well accommodated as the situation of the country would admit.
“Several Onondaga Indians were here. Numerous boats, traversing the river at night for salmon, and illuminated with fine flambeaux, made a brilliant appearance. A curious fungus or excrescence of the pine, with thirty rings, denoting thirty years’ growth, was shown here. It is used for bitters and is very scarce. Black raspberries grow wild in great abundance. They composed, with fresh salmon, the principal part of our supper.
“Stevens is twelve miles from Salina by land, and thirty-two by water. The salt used in the country is brought the latter way, and is purchased at the springs for 2s. or Is. 6d. per bushel.
“Land in Cicero, or Cato, is worth from three to five dollars per acre. Stevens told us that they had no other preacher than Mr. Shepherd, who lived over the river in Cicero; that he formerly resided in Goshen, and got three military lots as captain or major of artificers, although not legally entitled to them—that Judge Thompson, a member of the senate, and of Orange county, received one lot as a fee for his services in getting the law passed.
“Stevens’ house is one-quarter of a mile from the mouth of the lake. Deer come close up to it. We saw an adder and another snake sunning themselves on the ramparts of Fort Brewster (Brewerton) in the rear of house. This was erected in the French war, was a regular work, ditch, and bastions, all covering about an acre. This must have been an important pass to defend, and would now be an excellent site for a town. It belongs to Chancellor Lansing, who asks fifteen dollars an acre. . . .
“July 15th. Sunday. The surveyor (Mr. DeWitt) being employed in taking the level of the outlet, we did not get out until eleven o’clock. Our object was to reach Three River Point this day. The distance by land is seven, and by water, eighteen and three-quarter miles. The whole length of the outlet is, then, nineteen miles. In width it varies from forty to one hundred yards. The banks are low, and covered on both sides with nut, oak, and maple, and beech trees, denoting the richest land.
“Four miles from Stevens, Pomeroy creek enters the river, on the south side. For a considerable distance below there is shallow water with a stone bottom, rapid current and rift, more difficult than the one at the outlet, making a fall of three-and-a-half feet.
“On our way down, I saw several large flocks of ducks and two large eagles. Col. Porter shot one of them on the wing—he was alive, and measured eight feet from the extremity of one wing to another. He was a bald eagle; his talons were formidable; head and tail white. At Three-River Point he beat off several dogs in a pitched battle.
“After having dined aboard, near one Vickery’s, whose house was well filled with Lyons’ speeches, we proceeded and passed the grave of a drowned Frenchman, who once shot a panther when in the attitude of leaping at him, nine feet and eleven inches long. The head is now in Walton’s store, at Schenectady.
“Before sundown we reached Three-River Point. This place derives its name from the confluence of the Oneida and Seneca rivers, and the river formed by this junction, is then denominated the Oswego river. It lies in Cicero, on the south side of the Oneida river, is part of a Gospel lot, and an excellent position for a town. All the salt-boats from the springs, and the boats from Cayuga and Seneca Lakes, rendezvous at this place; and we found the house, which is kept by one Magie, crowded with noisy drunken people, and the landlord, wife and son were in the same situation. The house being small and dirty, we took refuge in a room in which were two beds and a weaver’s loom, a beaufet and dressers for tea utensils, and furniture, and there we had a very uncomfortable collation.
“Col. Porter erected his tent and made his fire on the hill, where he was comfortably accommodated with the young gentlemen. I reconnoitered up stairs; but in passing to the bed, I saw several dirty, villainous-looking fellows in their bunks, and all placed in the same garret. I retreated from the disgusting scene, and left Gen. North, Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Geddes, in the undisputed possession of the attic beds. The Commodore and I took possession of the beds below; but previous to this we had been assured by an apparently decent girl, that they were free from vermin, and that the beds above were well stored with them. Satisfied with the assurance, we prepared ourselves for a comfortable sleep after a fatiguing day. But no sooner were we lodged than our noses were assailed by a thousand villainous smells, meeting our olfactory nerves in all directions, the most potent exhalation arising from boiled pork, which was left close to our heads. Our ears were invaded by a commingled noise of drunken people in an adjacent room, of crickets in the hearth, of rats in the walls, of dogs under the beds, by the whizzing of mosquitoes (sic) about our heads, and the flying of bats about the room. The women in the house were continually pushing open the door, and pacing the room for plates, and knives, and spoons; and the dogs would avail themselves of such opportunities to come in under our beds. Under such circumstances sleep was impracticable; and, after the family-had retired to rest, we heard our companions above rolling about restless in their beds. This we set down to the credit of the bugs, and we hugged ourselves on our superior comforts. We were, however, soon driven out by the annoyance of vermin. On lighting a candle and examining the beds, we found that we had been assailed by an army of bed-bugs, aided by a body of light infantry in the shape of fleas, and a regiment of mosquito (sic) cavalry. I retreated from the disgusting scene and immediately dressed myself, and took refuge in a segar (sic)….
“July 16th. We left this disagreeable place as soon as the light would permit, and gave it the name of Bug Bay which it will probably long retain.
“Three-Mile Rapid commences about two miles from the Point. Here we saw salt-boats below the rapid, which unloaded half their cargoes in order to get over it—also rafts from Cayuga Lake, which had been detained four weeks, by the lowness of the water. The rafts intended to form a junction at Oswego, and to proceed over Lake Ontario, and thence down the St. Lawrence to Quebec. It is supposed they will bring $20,000 at that place. The attempt is extremely hazardous. Below the rapids, there was an encampment of Onondaga Indians; some of their canoes were composed of elm bark.
“Two or three miles farther we passed a rapid, called the Horse-Shoe Rapid. The Oswego river is about twenty-four miles long. The fall from Three-River Point to Oswego, is about 112 feet. . . . The river scenery is delightful. The large and luxuriant trees on its banks form an agreeable shade, and indicate great fertility.
“After proceeding seven miles, we breakfasted at a fine, cool brook on the north side, and at the foot of Horse-Shoe Rapid. Our breakfast consisted of common bread, Oswego bread and biscuit, coffee and tea, without milk, butter, perch, salmon, and Oswego bass; fried pork, ham, boiled pork and bologna sausages, old and new cheese, wood-duck, teal and dipper. Some of these, luxuries as they may appear on paper, were procured by our guns and fishing tackle, on our descent. We saw plenty of wild ducks, some wild pigeons and partridges, some of which we shot. We were also successful in trolling for fish. The crane, the fish-hawk, the king-fisher, and the bald-eagle, we saw, but no bitterns on the descending river. At this place we tasted the wild cucumber, the root of which is white and pleasant, with a spicy, pleasant taste. Why it is called the cucumber, is not easy to imagine, as there is no point of resemblance.
“In a smart shower we arrived at the celebrated Falls of Oswego, twelve miles from Three-River Point, and twelve miles from Oswego. There is carrying place of a mile here, the upper and lower landings being that distance apart. At both landings there were about 15,000 barrels of salt, containing five bushels each, and each barrel weighing fifty-six pounds. It is supposed that the same quantity has already been carried down, making altogether 30,000 barrels. The carriage at this place is one shilling for each barrel. Loaded boats cannot with safety descend the Falls, but light boats may, notwithstanding the descent is twelve feet, and the roaring of the troubled waves among great rocks terrific. Pilots conduct the boats over for one dollar each; and being perfectly acquainted with the falls, no accidents are known to happen, although the slightest misstep would dash the vessels to atoms. . . .
“We left our squadron above the Upper Falls, and hired a boat to conduct us to Oswego, from the lower landing. The wind was adverse, and the weather showery, but the descent was so favorable that we progressed with great rapidity. The river downwards is full of rapids, which I shall notice, and the banks precipitous and rocky. We dined at L. Van Volkenburgh’s tavern, two miles on our way, and on the north side. This situation is very pleasant; two islands opposite the house. . . .
“We arrived at Oswego at seven p. m., and put up at a tolerable tavern, kept by E. Parsons, called colonel. He was second in command in Shay’s insurrection, and formerly kept an inn in Manlius-Square. He was once selected as foreman of the Grand Jury of Onondaga county. He appears to be a civil man of moderate intellect; determined, however, to be in opposition to the government, he is now an ardent Federalist. He gives two hundred dollars rent for an indifferent house. Another innkeeper gives three hundred for a house not much superior; and this little place contains already three taverns.”
Mr. Clinton then goes on with a description of the laying out of Oswego and the original plans for the village as prepared by Mr. De Witt, the surveyor-general. “The houses are not built on this plan,” he writes, “and are huddled together in a confused manner. There are at present fourteen houses, six log-houses, six warehouses, and five stores, and five wharves, covered with barrels of salt, at which were four square-rigged vessels. A post office, custom-house, three physicians; no church, or lawyer.
“The salt trade seems to be the chief business of this place. There was a brig on the stocks. There belong here eleven vessels, from eighty-two to fifteen tons, the whole tonnage amounting to 413. To Genesee River, one of twenty-two tons; to Niagara, two—one of fifty, and one of eighty-five, making 135 tons; to Oswegatchie, two, of fifty tons each; to Kingston, in Upper Canada, eight, from ninety to twenty-eight tons; and to York, two, of forty tons each, all engaged in the Lake trade.
“In 1807, 17,078 barrels of salt were shipped from this place. In 1808, upwards of 19,000, and 3,000 were not carried away for want of vessels. In 1809, 28,840 barrels were sent directly to Canada, and this year it will exceed 30,000. Salt now sells at Kingston at $4.50 per barrel, and at Pittsburgh at from $8.50 to $9.
“A barrel of salt in Oswego costs $2.50 in cash; and at Salina $2, probably $1.50. By a law of the State salt cannot be sold by the State lessees for more than 62 cents per bushel.
“The conveyance of a barrel of salt from Salina to the Upper Falls of Oswego is, in time of good water, two shillings—in low water, three shillings. The same price is asked from the Lower Falls to Oswego.
“The distance from Oswego to Niagara is 160 miles. It takes a fortnight to go up and return. The vessels carry from 170 to 440 casks, and the conveyance of a cask costs fifty cents. The lake can be navigated six and a half months in the year. The wages of a common sailor are $20 a month. . . .
“The collector says that the value of property exported from Oswego in 1808, amounted to nearly $536,000. In the time of the embargo, the value of property carried out of a district was known. None of this went directly to Canada. In 1807, it was $167,000 more. Upper Canada is supplied with teas and East India goods through this place. The press of business is in spring and fall. In winter this is a place of no business, and all the stores are shut up. Now two of their merchants intend to carry on trade in the winter. There is no fur trade. The value of the carrying trade from Oswego Falls here, last year, amounted to $40,000. . . .
“At Parson’s house there was a girl making straw hats. She could make one worth six dollars in nine days. In various places people make their own hats of coarse straw.”
Mr. Clinton and the other commissioners left Oswego on July 18th, walking five miles on the south side of the river to Pease’s Tavern. They spent that night in Van Valkenburgh’s Tavern again. The next day they were back at the Upper Falls. Here they found that during their absence there had been a ball and “one of the boatmen broke it up by cutting off a dog’s tail, and letting the animal loose among the young women, whose clothes it besmeared with blood.” That same afternoon they were back at Three-River Point, where, according to Mr. Clinton, they found all the family sober, but most of them sick with the dysentery, although the house was comparatively clean and decent.
Bishop Asbury’s Visit
It will be seen a journey to Northern New York in that day was nothing to be undertaken lightly and called for strength and youth. Yet the same year that De Witt Clinton and his fellow commissioners visited Oswego the venerable Bishop Asbury of the Methodist Church essayed a visit to Northern New York and Canada. The old bishop with two companions came into Northern New York by way of Vermont and Plattsburgh, at the later place preaching in a barroom. The route from there was the familiar one through the Chateaugay woods, across the Chateaugay and Salmon rivers to St. Regis. Here the bishop’s horse went through a pole bridge and the saddle bags fell into the river. The party went across the St. Lawrence in novel fashion, three canoes being lashed together and the fore-feet of the horses being placed in one canoe and the hind-feet in another. It was a singular load, three passengers, three canoes, three horses and four Indian guides.
The old bishop preached at many points on the Northern bank of the St. Lawrence until the party reached Kingston. From there it was decided to proceed to Sackets Harbor by boat. The trip was to be made “in an open sail-boat, dignified by the name of packet.” Overtaken by a storm they were forced to take refuge at Grenadier Island where the captain cursed so hard that a female passenger was forced to reprove him, whereupon the captain “made no reply, but he swore no more that night.” The bishop was made as comfortable as possible on the boat and a tent of sail cloth rigged over him to protect him as much as possible from the storm. The following morning the packet set sail for Sackets Harbor, arriving there safely and the bishop, despite his exhaustion and the fact that he was suffering from rheumatism, insisted upon setting out at once in a thunder storm for the annual conference at Paris.
But despite the roughness of the country and the difficulty of travel, here and there one found a measure of luxury even in the wilderness. Three residents of the Gouverneur of this period owned slaves, Dr. Richard Townsend, Dr. John Spencer and Benjamin Leavitt, Judge Nathan Ford of Ogdensburg owned one, as did Major John Borland of DeKalb and Louis Hasbrouck, first county clerk of St. Lawrence county. The Harrison family at Malone had at least one slave and Judge William Bailey of Chateaugay also owned one. There were thirty slaves in Jefferson county and a number in both Oswego and Lewis counties.
Such trade as Northern New York had was almost entirely with Canada. Montreal was the port which the American lake vessels visited and much of the goods displayed in Northern New York stores were bought in that city. While Northern New Yorkers as well as anyone else were ready to condemn the impressment of American seamen by the British yet sympathy in a section where the contact with Canada was so close was rather with England than with France in the Napoleonic wars and the policy of President Jefferson was quite generally condemned, particularly among the landowners and their agents, who saw that the fear of a possible war with England was hurting the sale of their lands.
Under such circumstances the embargo act, prohibiting commerce with Great Britain or her possessions, was almost a last straw. The law was tremendously unpopular in Northern New York where everyone violated it who had the opportunity. The embargo resulted in enormously increasing the price of potash which rose to $300 and $320 a ton in Montreal and made the inducements for smuggling even greater. Troops were stationed at Sackets Harbor, Cape Vincent, on the Oswegatchie road and at Ogdensburg in an attempt to stop violations of the law, but still it went on. Temporary roads were built through the wilderness, leading to the St. Lawrence, over which potash was smuggled to Canada, one of these roads from a point near Brownville to French creek being known widely as the “Embargo road.” Hart Massey, collector of customs for the Sackets Harbor district, seized fifty-four barrels of pot and pearl ashes and twenty barrels of pork at Cape Vincent, only to have the entire property openly rescued by a force of armed men from Kingston. Writing to Washington soon after this event Mr. Massey complains that “they appear determined to evade the laws at the risk of their lives. More particularly at Oswegatchie, I am informed, they have entered into a combination not to entertain, nor even suffer any other force to be stationed in that vicinity, and their threats are handed out that if I, or any other officer, should come there again, they will take a rawhide to them, which they have prepared for that purpose. . . . It is with difficulty that I get
any assistance for the conveyance of property to the public store. If I have not armed men with me, the inhabitants will assemble in the night and take the property from me. There are some who wish to support the laws, but they are so unpopular that they shrink from their duty. My life and the lives of my deputies are daily threatened; what will be the fate of us, God only knows.”
Bloodshed was narrowly averted at Oswego. Some sixty armed men, many of them from Jefferson county, entered the harbor in the summer of 1808 with the intention of seizing a quantity of flour held there and if they were resisted to burn the village. Dragoons, hastily summoned from Onondaga, prevented the mob from carrying out its intention and the men fled to the woods leaving their boats in the custody of the collector.
That same fall a detachment of soldiers marched from Oswego into the town of Ellisburg, Jefferson county, to the home of one Captain Fairfield, seized a quantity of potash stored there and departing taking with them also a small cannon belonging to the captain. Captain Fairfield made complaint to a justice and a warrant was issued and given to a constable to serve. He summoned a posse of armed men and attempted to serve the warrant but his men were disarmed by the soldiers and all arrested and taken to Oswego.
The most intense excitement reigned all over Northern New York. Some 200 armed men assembled at Ellisburg under the direction of a constable and for a time it looked as though the whole force would march on Oswego. But a conference of magistrates was called and the judges, unwilling to take the responsibility for the bloodshed which might follow, advised the men to disperse. The incident excited state-wide interest. The magistrates of Jefferson county were accused of being Federalists who were willing to resist the laws of the United States with force. They replied with a spirited statement published in many of the papers of that day, defending their actions and deploring the “rapid strides towards despotism and martial law, the establishment of which must occasion a total deprivation of the rights for which our fathers and many of us have fought and bled.”
The troops stationed in Ogdensburg were so unpopular that a civic celebration was ordered when they left town and Joseph Rosseel, agent for David Parish, referred to them as “a banditti of rapscallions.” All of this served to make the administration of Thomas Jefferson and that of James Madison, which followed, unpopular in the north. War clouds were looming along the frontier once more. In the scattered settlements throughout the North Country the people waited, embittered against their own government for its policy towards England, unarmed, unprepared and helpless.
Landon, Harry F. The north country; a history, embracing Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Oswego, Lewis and Franklin counties, New York, vol 1 of 3. Historical Publishing Company Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932.