By 1800 the tide of immigration towards Northern New York had definitely set in. The lure of cheap lands in a new country brought settlers by the hundreds from the New England states and the still new settlements in the vicinity of Utica. Marvelous tales were told there of the fertility of the lands in the Black River Country, of corn planted in the ground without plowing growing to over eleven feet in height and of wheat yielding from twenty-five to thirty-five bushels to the acre. A traveling missionary commenting on the universal contention of the pioneers in their new homes along the Black river said that he had not “seen an unhappy person for 90 miles on that river.”
These tales and others brought sturdy, young men and their families from Vermont and Plattsburgh over the woodland trail into Chateaugay and finally to the infant settlements springing up along the St. Lawrence, the Grass and the St. Regis rivers. They brought others, their household goods laden on crude wood sleds, drawn by oxen, up through the trackless woods of the Black River Country, past the lonely grave of Baron von Steuben, through Boone’s two settlements and Turin Four Corners, and, then, guided by blazed trees, into the little, log settlements of Lowville, Champion, Water-town and Brownville. Still others came in Durham boats, following the water route from the Mohawk into Wood creek, Oneida Lake and the Oswego river, to settle on the broad domains of George Scriba.
It should be recalled that the Revolution had been over scarcely twenty years and Jay’s Treaty had been signed but four. There were only five million people in the whole United States and but two cities, New York and Philadelphia, with a population over 50,000. But two others, Boston and Baltimore, were over twenty thousand. Three states had been added to the original thirteen—Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee. Thomas Jefferson had just taken office in the unfinished capitol at the Federal City, soon to be known as Washington. The new county of Oneida had been formed and included all the northwestern part of the state with the exception of the land west of the Oswego river which was now a part of the new county, Onondaga.
Originally all of the Northern New York of the present day, with the exception of Franklin county and about half of St. Lawrence county, was included in the town of Whitestown, erected in 1788 as a township of Montgomery county. In 1792 Whitestown was divided into three towns, one of which kept the name, Whitestown, the other two being Mexico and Peru. Mexico at that time included all the present counties of Onondaga and Cortland, as well as western Oswego county. It was reorganized in 1796, probably because the creation of Onondaga county in 1794 had taken away most of its population. Under the act of 1796, the town of Mexico included a tremendous tract of territory, a veritable empire in itself, bounded by Oneida Lake, the Oneida and Oswego rivers, Lake Ontario and Black river from its mouth to the present Lyons Falls, and then by a line drawn between the present towns of Leyden and West Turin in Lewis county to Fish creek and down that stream to Oneida Lake again. It included all of the present Oswego county east of the Oswego river, about half of the present Jefferson county, a good portion of the present Lewis county and a fragment of the present county of Oneida.
Under the same act which created Mexico for the second time, the township of Leyden was erected from Steuben, embracing all territory east and north of Black river in the present Jefferson county and a large part of Lewis county. At the time Mexico and Leyden were erected, all of the present Franklin county and a part of St. Lawrence county, not included in the Ten Towns, was embraced in Clinton county which had been erected from Washington county in 1788. The town of Chateaugay was erected in 1799 and eventually included all of the present Franklin county with a portion of Essex, a territory of upwards of 1,700 square miles. The following year, 1800, the great town of Mexico was divided and the following new towns were created: Redfield, Watertown, Turin, Lowville and Champion. All of the present Oswego county west of the Oswego river was a part of the town of Lysander in Onondaga county. Thus it will be seen that with the exception of the territory lying west of the Oswego, which was in Onondaga county, and the present county of Franklin, which was in Clinton county, all of Northern New York in 1800 was a part of the great county of Oneida.
Mexico and Leyden were the most populous towns, each of them having more than 600 inhabitants. Chateaugay had 443 residents, Turin 440, Lowville 300, Champion 143 and Watertown 119. Probably there were not more than 100 people living within the present bounds of Oswego county west of the Oswego river and certainly there was not more than that number in the Ten Towns along the St. Lawrence, so it is safe to say that the entire population of what we now know as Northern New York was not greater than 2,600 at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Most of these settlers, excepting those who had come into Chateaugay and the Ten Towns over the Champlin road, had entered the North Country from Rome, where as late as 1805 James Constable notes in his journal that he and his friends preferred to sleep in a hay-loft rather than chance the tavern beds. From Rome there were several routes leading into various sections of the North. Take the case of the pioneer who had made the long, 120-mile trip from Albany to Rome by way of the Mohawk river, and desired to take up lands within the limits of the present Oswego county. At Rome there would be plenty of people to tell him of George Scriba’s settlement at Rotterdam, on the shores of Oneida Lake, and for Rome he would set his course, probably stopping along the route at Mrs. Jackson’s tavern situated on Wood creek near the lake.
At Rotterdam, now Constantia, he would find quite a flourishing frontier settlement. True most of the few houses were of logs but there was Mr. Scriba’s fine, large store, containing a $10,000 stock of goods and drawing trade from a radius of forty miles around. Here the new settler could buy brandy at four shillings a quart and flour at six pence a pound. If he desired to tarry for a time he could secure board at the tavern for “fourteen shillings per week without liquor,” to quote the words of one who visited Rotterdam about this time. Of if he desired work, it is likely that Mr. Scriba or his agent, John Meyer, could give him employment at the prevailing rate of four shillings a day and board.
New settlers were no strange sight to the few residents of Rotterdam. They were constantly passing through the village on their way to the wilder lands to the northward. If they wished to buy land anywhere from Oneida Lake to Lake Ontario they could buy it here of Mr. Meyer at three dollars an acre. Only eighteen months before it had sold for a dollar an acre. There was plenty to interest one here too in the little village on the edge of the woods, with blanketed Oneida Indians bartering away their furs at Mr. Scriba’s store and the five-story grist mill, the highest in all the North Country, which Mr. Scriba had just erected. They might even see the landowner, himself, because now he was living at Rotterdam although much of his time was taken up traveling over his forest domain. Here was the last chance for mail from home, because here at Rotterdam was the only post office in the entire North Country. Of course John Meyer, the land agent, was postmaster, as he was supervisor of the town of Mexico and a justice of the peace of Oneida county. A landed proprietor invariably always saw to it that his agent got all the offices, town and otherwise.
A little further west on the lake was the substantial dwelling of another Hollander, John Bernhard, who has given his name to the village of Bernhard’s Bay, but by this time the pioneers would be setting their course in a hired boat for Fort Brewerton where was Oliver Stevens’ tavern. Stevens was another well known resident of this new country and had been named by the judges of Oneida county first clerk of the great town of Mexico. A number of years were to pass before the present town of Hastings was to be erected, to be named after Hastings Curtiss of Central Square, whose brick tavern was to become the political headquarters of this section of Oswego county.
From Stevens’ tavern to Three Mile Point was but seven miles by land but nineteen by water. Here was Magie’s tavern where DeWitt Clinton stopped ten years later and found infested with bedbugs. From then on to Oswego Falls there was an almost unbroken stretch of woods. Not until the following year, 1801, was Abram Paddock, the bear hunter, to make the first settlement on the site of the present village of Phoenix. But at Oswego Falls the pioneer would find plenty of activity at both the Upper and Lower Landing. Here a stop must needs be made and the boat either dragged along the portage path between the Upper and Lower Landings, or else the cargo transferred to another boat. But if the incoming settler was willing to take the risk and would pay a dollar for the thrill, there were pilots at Oswego Falls who would guide lightly-loaded craft through the rapids. At any rate there woud be a stop at Major Lawrence Van Valkenburgh’s tavern, a sort of half way place between Salt Point and Oswego, with its frame center, where dances were held, and its two log wings. For many years the major and his son conducted this tavern, and the original license issued to the Van Valkenburghs by John Meyer, justice of the peace of Rotterdam, in 1797, is still in existence.
From Oswego Falls, the pioneer would not find a single settlement until he came to Oswego with the crumbling walls of old Fort Ontario on the plateau overlooking the lake. There were only half a dozen rude houses there at this period, some of them on the west side of the river in Onondaga county and some of them on the east side in Oneida county. The pioneer would probably stop at Archibald Fairfield’s tavern and there he would find Daniel Burt, who had just arrived by canoe from Kingston, Ontario, and was destined to become a very important citizen of that little village.
From Oswego the pioneer could go, if he choose, to Vera Cruz, Mr. Scriba’s lake port at the mouth of Salmon creek, but the usual route to this village was from Rotterdam by the road which had just been cut through the woods. Many of the pioneers of that day, however, were going directly to Captain Nathan Sage’s settlement at Red-field, far up the Salmon river, and the shortest way to this settlement was by a forest road, little more than a trail, which had been cut through from Rome. Nathan Sage was an ideal man to take charge of a new settlement. Within two years he had organized the first church society in the present Oswego county with Rev. Amos Johnson in charge, the little congregation worshiping in the school house. That was the same year Captain Sage was made a judge of the court of common pleas of Oneida county and the same year, too, he was elected supervisor of the town of Redfield, a position which he held until 1810. Later he was to go to Oswego and become collector of the port and postmaster there, thereby receiving his reward for keeping the town of Redfield in the Democratic column year after year, where all the rest of the North was being carried by the Federalists.
If one wished to enter the Black River Country from Rome the common route was to follow the old road to Deacon Clark’s tavern in the town of Western, six miles from Rome, thence to Jones Tavern, 15 miles from Rome, through the huddle of log houses which was Boone’s upper settlement and thence to Shaler’s, the present Constablesville. Constable, who made the trip on horseback in 1803, found the road vastly better when he got within the bounds of Shaler’s possessions and made the twenty-six miles between Rome and Shaler’s in eight hours which, as he remarks in his journal, was “pretty good speed.” At Shaler’s the traveler found, as did Constable, a house “grand for that part of the country,” a mill, a dam, several good buildings and “plenty of good liquor from Mr. Shaler’s stock.” From Shaler’s the road ran northward across the level stretches of Turin, past the little tavern of Capt. Ezra Clapp, upgrade to the infant settlement established by Col. Walter Martin and thence into Lowville where by 1800 Silas Stow had established an enterprising little village.
Noadiah Hubbard, the pioneer settler of Champion and if not the first certainly the second permanent settler of what is now Jefferson county, has left a graphic account of his immigration into the North Country by this same route in 1798 with neither compass nor guide. On the old French road it was not difficult to get to Turin Four Corners which then boasted of but a single log hut. The trip northward through the wilderness was made with Mr. Hubbard leading the company, an ox bell in hand, next a man driving the cattle and finally a third bringing up the rear and marking trees with an ax, so if they found they could not advance further they could at least retrace their steps. They crossed Deer river not far from the present village of Copenhagen and soon identified some blazed trees which led to Long Falls, the present village of Carthage, only four miles from their destination.
Yet so fast did Lewis county settle that four years later Constable, proceeding from Shaler’s to Martin’s over practically the same route found the road infinitely superior to that between Rome and Shaler’s. He found the land along the road well settled and the buildings nearly all framed, including the barns. Seldom did he come across a log house. Capt. Clapp, the Turin inn-keeper, told Constable that when he settled there a couple of years before he did not have a neighbor northward of him as far as Lowville but then there were forty families within a distance of a few miles.
Washington Irving’s Tour
Usually in the early days, however, incoming settlers did not follow the wood trail, especially if they had baggage. Instead they followed the French road to High Falls, now Lyons Falls, there got a boat and floated down the Black river to Long Falls, now Carthage, where the river being no longer navigable, they again took to the woods. Washington Irving has left a vivid description of a trip over this route which he took in 1803 to Judge Nathan Ford’s settlement at Ogdensburg. With him were Josiah Ogden Hoffman, attorney general of the state and the owner of wide tracts of land in the north, and members of Mr. Hoffman’s family.
Irving, a young man who liked his comfort and was unaccustomed to the privations and hardships of pioneer travel, saw nothing romantic in the trip along roads which “were bad and lay either through thick woods, or by fields disfigured with burnt stumps and the fallen bodies of trees.” Frequently the roads became so bad that the travelers had to get out of their wagon and walk. It was with relief that they embarked in a scow on Black river at High Falls but their relief was short lived as almost immediately the rain began to fall in torrents. They proceeded some twenty-five miles down the river that day, however, and found beds on the floor of a log house that night. The next evening they arrived at Jean Baptiste Boussont’s tavern at Long Falls which Irving promptly dubbed the “Temple of Dirt.” Before leaving he wrote over the fireplace the following memorial:
“Here Sovereign Dirt erects her sable throne,
The house, the host, the hostess, all her own.”
Some time later Judge William Cooper, father of James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist, while stopping at the same tavern chanced to see the couplet and from his larger experience of frontier travel wrote under it this doggerel inculcation:
“Learn hence, young man, and teach it to your sons,
The wisest way’s to take it as it comes.”
The travelers, including the disgusted Irving, set forth from the “Temple of Dirt” the following day for the Oswegatchie country in two wagons, a third, drawn by oxen, carrying their luggage. They found the road filled with stumps and the roots of trees and traveled at a snail’s pace, putting up that night in a small hut of one room which their hostess by the simple expedient of stretching a blanket across it converted into two. One wagon stuck hopelessly in the mud the next day and the other mired a few hours later. All took to their feet and Irving complained that several times he was up to his waist in mud and water. They spent the night in a downpour of rain in a hunter’s shack, one-half of which fell down as they were getting into it. The other half leaked like a sieve and the wind blew a perfect hurricane. The ladies became terrified and the whole party finally dragged themselves through the rain to a hut, eighteen by sixteen feet, where they found other stranded travelers and the whole company of fifteen spent the night there. The roof here leaked too and the unfortunate Irving was compelled to spend much of the night holding an umbrella over the ladies as they slept. All through the night he heard the sound of falling trees and two or three times the long, dreary call of a wolf which did not add to his composure.
The following day the weary travelers resumed their journey, the ladies mounted on the ox cart, the men walking through deep mud holes and over stumps and stones until they finally came to the cabin of Mrs. Vrooman near the site of the present Oxbow. There they borrowed some bread and a teakettle and went on through the mud until they came to a hunter’s shack where they spent the night after “stretching sheets over the side to keep out the cold air.” A couple of days later they met a party of men with horses sent on by Judge Ford to meet them and who had rafts ready to take them across the Oswegatchie.
“At last to our great joy,” writes Irving, “we came in sight of Oswegatchie. The prospect which opened upon us was delightful. After riding through thick woods for several days . . . the sight of a beautiful and extensive tract of country is inconceivably enlivening. Close beside the bank on which we rode the Oswegatchie wound along about 20 feet below us. After running for some distance it entered the St. Lawrence, forming a long point of land on which stood a few houses called the Garrison. . . . They were now tumbling in ruins excepting two or three which were kept in tolerable order by Judge Ford who resided in one of them and used the others as stores and out-houses.”
The Oswegatchie Road
Judge Nathan Ford of Ogdensburg, the most clear-sighted of all the land agents in the north, saw from the first that there must be a road connecting the Mohawk country with the St. Lawrence if immigration was to be stimulated. All men were not contented to follow Indian trails through dense forests. The makeshift road from the Champlain country through Chateaugay accommodated a few from the northern part of Vermont but some sort of road from the High Falls to Ogdensburg was greatly needed. Ford interested the land owners to the extent that in 1801 he had contracted for a road to be built from the St. Lawrence to Long Falls (Carthage), connecting with the so called Black river road from High Falls to Brownville, for $16 a mile. So fast did the work progress that that fall Ford was able to write to the proprietor, Col. Samuel Ogden, that “if I live and have my health next summer, I will have a road which shall be drove with loaded wagons for I have no idea of putting up with such a thing as they have made through Chateaugay.” And a year later he was able to proudly announce that “a waggon (sic) from the Mohawk river came through Ogdensburg with me.” At the same time Ford was cautious enough to say, “I do not mean to tell you it is at this minute a good waggon road,” a statement which Washington Irving was willing to fervently affirm a few months later.
However unsatisfactory the Oswegatchie road, as it was called, ox carts were able to travel it after a fashion and it was immeasurably superior as a highway to the Oswegatchie country than a trail of blazed trees through the woods. Noadiah Hubbard was able to go from Ogdensburg to Champion in three days with his yoke of oxen on this road soon after its construction. This sufficed until 1804 when through the influence of Nathan Ford and his friends the state legislature appropriated $12,000, to be raised through a lottery, for a road six rods wide “from or near the head of Long Falls on Black river, in the county of Oneida, to the mills of Nathan Ford at Oswegatchie.”
But if good roads were needed to encourage extensive immigration, the almost complete absence of roads of any kind had not served to deter the hardy and the adventurous, goaded on by stories of land to be bought for a song, from blindly trekking through the forests. Daniel W. Church, one of the St. Lawrence county pioneers, arrived on the site of Canton, according to his diary, with seventeen blisters on his hand, occasioned by rowing and pulling the batteaux along. Nicholas Salisbury, the pioneer of Adams, arrived at the site of his future home, his household goods drawn by oxen on a sled, after a journey through the forests of twenty-six days. The settlers coming into Rodman had to cross over a deep gulf on a pole bridge and one pioneer wife, writing of the experience many years after, said that once having passed safely over this bridge she said goodbye to everything as she was sure she would never go back over that place. But the women were usually as venturesome as the men and seventeen-year- old Lucy Fox, carrying her babe of a few weeks in her arms, and accompanied only by her sister, rode all the way from Rome to Adams through the woods guided only by marked trees.
The present county of Lewis, because it was the nearest to the settlements at Rome, Utica and Boone’s, was at first the most populous of all the Northern New York sections. Shaler’s in the town of Leyden had early become an important settlement with rutted forest roads radiating from it to a half-dozen nearby hamlets. At Turin was Jonathan Collins, the first supervisor and a man of consequence, Major John Ives, Elder Stephen Parsons and others, many of whom had their titles clear at the turn of the century. Not far from High Falls lived Richard Coxe, the brother-in-law of James D. LeRay de Chaumont, who was soon to build his high, curb-roofed house on a hill west of Collinsville. By 1803 lands in particularly choice locations in this vicinity were selling for the unprecedented price of $17 an acre. And at Martinsburg, or Martin’s, as it was first called, in the higher country to the north, lands at the very beginning of settlement brought $5 an acre and they were well worth it because Col. Walter Martin proved himself a proprietor of the first order. He and his aged father, Capt. Adam Martin, an officer in the Revolutionary war, at first lived side by side in log cabins like the lowliest of settlers, but by 1804 James Constable rode into the hamlet and found Martin erecting a great stone house modeled carefully after the baronial mansion of Sir William Johnson at Johnstown, and so well did he build it that it stands to this day, an example of architectural grace and majesty.
Martin speedily interested settlers of a high type in his lands. Levi Adams was one of the first to come. He was later to go to the state senate and become one of the powerful council of appointment. To Martin’s also came Chillus Doty, brother-in-law of the colonel, to build an inn and later to become Lewis county’s first sheriff and eventually member of assembly, surrogate and county judge. Squire Martin early built a grist mill and a saw mill, a school in 1804 and a paper mill in 1807, the same year in which he started the first newspaper in all Northern New York. But more important than all in 1806 he built the first church edifice north of the Mohawk and soon after was paying a clergyman $250 a year so that he might be “free from wordly cares and avocations.”
At Lowville, a few miles from Martin’s, Seth Stow, the agent of Nicholas Low, had created quite a little hamlet about the spot where Daniel Kelley, his brother-in-law, had built a log house against a great boulder in 1798, but the village was not equal in influence to Denmark in the Deer River country where Abel French, a power in state politics, was the land agent and had attracted to the section many sturdy Federalists from New England.
After one proceeded up the old Black river road to the Long Falls and crossed the river at Jean Boussout’s ferry he was but four miles from Noadiah Hubbard’s settlement at Champion, but “four good miles” as a traveler of that day fervently remarked. At Champion one might find, as did the Rev. William Taylor, the missionary, “old acquaintances and old-fashioned cookery and things comfortable and convenient.” Even James Constable, the landowner, who owned no property there, was willing to admit it was “a pretty good town, tolerably well settled.”
Here Captain Noadiah Hubbard, who owned the only clock in the Black River Country, was already supervisor of the town, representing it on the board of supervisors of Oneida county. It seemed that surely if a new county were formed Champion must be the county seat and attracted by this prospect quite a group of notable men took up their residences in the little hamlet nestling among the Champion hills. To Champion, fresh from Williams College, came Egbert Ten Eyck, destined before many years to become a power in North Country politics and to represent his section in congress. And to Champion, too, came Moss Kent, brother of the chancellor, laboriously bringing up through the woods his fine library of calf-covered books. Among them were Shakespeare, Milton and Addison’s Spectator, Humes’ “History of England” and old-style novels like those of Sir Charles Granison’s. Kent had already served in the senate from the western district and had campaigned for John Jay with the best of them. Engaged to a sister of J. Fenimore Cooper, when she was killed by a fall from a horse, he turned his steps northward, became later land agent for James D. LeRay and filled one public office after another to the satisfaction of his neighbors.
Adjoining was the town of Watertown, then much larger in area than the present town, where the Coffeens reigned supreme. In the hills, now known as Rutland, David Coffeen had early established himself and by 1800 had built a grist mill which drew patronage from the settlers for miles around. A distillery was erected and for a time whisky was considered legal tender in this part of the town. David Coffeen was a man of consequence, so much so that he was elected to the assembly from Oneida county in 1802 and 1803 when the present Jefferson county was still a part of that county. Levi Butterfield, veteran of the Revolution, early established a tavern there, which the frank Constable refers to as “a poor tavern in an old log house.”
In the hamlet of Watertown Henry Coffeen, probably the most able of the brothers who came into the Black River Country about 1800, had settled and was already dreaming of a new county with his little village as the county seat. Then but a group of log huts with the little log inn of Dr. Isaiah Massey standing in their midst, there seemed little justification for his hope. But down by the great falls of turbulent Black river which the Castorland explorers had viewed with such wonder a few years before, Jonathan Cowan was acquiring water power rights which today would be worth millions, and was taking the first steps to utilize the power that was within the next century to make Watertown the metropolis of the entire North Country.
Further down, towards the mouth of Black river, Jacob Brown, youthful surveyor and one day to be the commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States, had established himself at a settlement already known as Brownville, where he had opened up a brisk trade with Kingston, Canada. It was as prosperous a settlement as there was in the North and there Constable, early in the century, found a hotel “too large for the present state of the place and not finished, as well as good houses and other buildings.”
Further south settlers were establishing themselves on both branches of Sandy Creek. At Adams, sometimes called Louis and sometimes No. 7, a group from Massachusetts early settled. They were rigid Congregationalists whose Sabbath started with sunset Saturday. Not for nothing did the old bard speak of “Adams with its deacon’s face” and even the narrow Rev. William Taylor admitted that here was a “decent, respectable, industrious people.” Here lived Nicholas Salisbury, Peter Doxtater, who had been kept a prisoner by the Indians for three years during the Revolution, and Samuel Fox. Here also lived Eliphalet Edmunds, later to be named a presidential elector at a time when to be a presidential elector meant something.
At Ellisburg, still further south, Lyman Ellis, a man of extraordinary energy, had settled as early as 1797 and was certainly the first man within the limits of the present Jefferson county to raise a crop. James Constable, who has left an interesting account of his travels in the town in the early days of its existence says that eighty bushels of grain had been produced on an acre but that fifty was the general run. He found no liquor in the town and they only drink water “with which they seem to be content.” The Rev. Mr. Taylor found the inhabitants “very rough in general,” and incensed at an encounter with a Rhode Island Baptist, wrote a scathing indictment of the inhabitants, in which he charged them with “ignorance, self-will, self-sufficiency, ill manners, pride, boasting, fanaticism and witchcraft.” This can be dismissed, of course, as the intemperate statement of a narrow man. As a matter of fact the settlement was strikingly progressive and as early as 1798 Ellis had been able to write Constable that “we have a good dam across the creek, which has been expensive, a good saw mill, well finished and running, and have considerable towards a grist mill.”
These were the principal settlements in the territory which was later to become Jefferson county. Sackets Harbor had begun to settle but did not have that “pretty appearance” which Constable noted a few years later when the village had become the principal port of the North Country. Settlers were building cabins on the site of the present Chaumont and using ciscoes which they caught in plenty in the lake in place of money. The rest of the county was unbroken wilderness. There were a few log cabins along the Oswegatchie road in the present town of Antwerp. Three miles north of the present Antwerp village was Capt. William Lee’s tavern where all travelers to and from Ford’s settlement at Ogdensburg stopped. We have Constable’s testimony that here the fare was hard and the lodging poor, a description which after all would apply to any of the backwoods inns of that day.
If one followed the old Oswegatchie roads northward he would find nothing but wilderness with now and then a mean, log hut, until he reached Nathan Ford’s settlement at Ogdensburg. The first settlements in the present St. Lawrence county were all along the St. Lawrence. Later settlements were to spring up in the back country, on the Racquette, the Grass and the St. Regis, but the lots along the St. Lawrence were the most valuable.
The little village at Oswegatchie, called by the people “The Garrison” and by Ford Ogdensburg after the proprietor, was laid out with the expectation that it would become the principal town of the new county as indeed it did. Streets were surveyed and named and a tavern built. Major David Ford, a jealous Federalist who had helped suppress the Whisky Insurrection, soon joined his brother and a year or so later we find him building the first house in the present Morristown and becoming one of the pioneers in the new country. Louis Hasbrouck, fresh from Princeton, early came northward through the wilderness with his family and his female slave, a large part of the trip being made on foot, the party subsisting on dried beef, crackers and lemonade. Through the influence of Judge Ford he became the first clerk of the new county of St. Lawrence. But the settlement was still a frontier village with all the term implies. Drunken Oswegatchie Indians broke into the old stone garrison, seized Dick, Judge Ford’s slave, and were about to put him to the fire when the wiry judge appeared in flapping nightshirt and put the invaders to rout with his sword.
Not far from Oswegatchie was Madrid, one of the original Ten Towns, where there were a few “openings” in the forest where isolated cabins stood. But the little village of Hamilton, named from the first secretary of the treasury, was early a place of importance. Long since this village has been known as Waddington but it was Hamilton when the Ogdens came there to build their great house with walls three feet thick, and then, like the landed gentry they were, their stout, little church, St. Pauls, probably the first church building outside the missions at Oswegatchie and St. Regis, north of Champion.
Lisbon, also one of the original Ten Towns, early drew settlers. A mill was built on the river bank, seventy by fifty, three stories high, which from its color early gave the little hamlet the name of Red Mills. Alexander J. Turner, the land agent, became the first supervisor of the town, and he and John Tibbets, the proprietor, who became the first town clerk, were citizens of consequence in the new country as the letters of Ford attest.
In the meantime settlers had pushed through on the old Chateau-gay road, penetrated the wilderness and were building homes along the St. Regis river. Most important of them was Judge Roswell Hopkins, who had served as secretary of state in Vermont and had abandoned his home there to become a pioneer in this new country. Also he had served in the Revolution and had been a presidential elector so naturally he at once became a person of note in the new county which he later served as a judge in the court of common pleas and a member of assembly. His name is perpetuated in the name of the town which he founded, Hopkinton.
Stillman Foote pushed even further through the wilderness to the Grass river, where he found a lone settler who sold him such title as he had and his crop of wheat for a horse, saddle and bridle with which to leave the country. The common route then was to follow the Lake Champlain road from Vermont and then up the St. Lawrence to Lisbon, or Red Mills, there entering the forest again. Foote built a shanty on the site of the present fair grounds in Canton and when Daniel Church, whom Foote had engaged as a millwright, arrived, he found Foote and twelve others all living in the same shanty. A series of misfortunes followed the pioneers. Mr. Foote’s father succumbed to smallpox a day after the son had fallen and broken his rib. A young man set out for Johnstown, Canada, for a doctor, but the swollen streams forced him to return. Nearly everyone was sick and Mr. Church, writing of those first dreary days, says: “Sleep none at all. Have free scope for my thoughts, not having anything to interrupt me, but the snoring of the rest of the company, soaking in water.” It was 15 miles from Canton to Lisbon through the unbroken forests following a forest trail which ran through swamps and mireholes but gradually the place settled.
It was later before Benjamin Raymond arrived on the Racquette to plant his settlement. He came by the long water route from the Mohawk to Wood creek, the Oswego river, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence, until he finally landed at Mr. Ogden’s snug little settlement at Hamilton, now Waddington, from which point he struck through the woods. It was Benjamin Raymond who founded Potsdam. Old Judge Cooper of Cooperstown came on to his Northern New York lands in 1802, bringing north a company of thirty-four. Over the Oswegatchie road they came with their spans of oxen, opening a makeshift road from Bristol’s Tavern in the present town of DePeyster to DeKalb, where they located just above Cooper’s Falls. Here a little later Judge Cooper erected a fine, large tavern on the top of a hill. The settlement of DeKalb opened up the interior country and the first pioneers of Gouverneur passed through there to their new homes from Washington county.
Many of the settlers coming into what is now St. Lawrence county came from Vermont whose newspapers had been filled with glowing accounts of the new country to the westward. They came by the Chateaugay road and found Chateaugay a thriving, fairly well populated town as early as 1800. Here, too, they found old friends because most of the residents of Chateaugay had formerly lived in Vermont. Judge William Bailey, whose house on Depot street still stands, was a slave owner and prominent resident and politician of the town. So was Gates Hoit, later to become a member of assembly and the right hand man of Governor Tompkins. Fort Covington was then French Mills, described by Constable when he visited it as “an old saw mill not at work.” Malone was called Harison. It was long before the Chateaugay road went any further westward than Harison and a number of the pioneers who had intended to go further west settled in Harison involuntarily when they found the forest trails leading into the St. Regis and the Grass country impassible. In 1802 it took six days to make the trip from Plattsburgh to Malone and from there on the going was much harder.
Some idea of how thinly settled the North Country was in that day may be gained from the Oneida county assessment roll of 1803. The following are the Northern New York towns with the name of the supervisors, the number of taxpayers and the total property valuation:
Oneida county assessment roll of 1803
|Town||Supervisor||No. of Taxpayers||Property Value|
Perhaps even more indicative are the election returns for 1801 and 1804 in the northern towns of Oneida county. In 1801 the candidates were George Clinton, Republican (the name then applied to the party of Thomas Jefferson and not to be confused with the modern Republican party), and Stephen Van Rensselaer, Federalist. In 1804 the candidates were Morgan Lewis and Aaron Burr, who that year was voted for quite generally by the Federalists:
|Town||1801 Clinton||1801 Van Rensselaer||1804 Lewis||1804 Burr|
How the Pioneers Lived
What of the people who during the first decade of the 19th century had flocked into the North Country to settle along the Black, the Oswegatchie, the St. Lawrence, the St. Regis and the Grass rivers? Who were they and what kind of a life did they lead? Almost without exception they were from New England—from Connecticut and Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but mostly from Vermont. They were the sons and daughters of the men who had fought at Bennington under Stark and at Saratoga under Schuyler and Arnold. Hardy and almost without exception poor, they were accustomed to hard work and few luxuries. With the exception of the Congregational clergy, there were few men of education and learning among those early settlers of the north. Of all the leaders of the towns who met at Denmark to start the movement which ended in the creation of the two counties of Jefferson and Lewis but one, Egbert Ten Eyck, was a college graduate. Most of them were young and in vigorous health. An old mother and father might be brought on later, but it was the sons and daughters who came on first to make the first clearing and build the first house.
To the North Country they brought the traditions of old New England, the uncompromising Congregationalism of their Puritan ancestors, a distrust of the Jacobin Republicanism of Thomas Jefferson, their great calf-covered Bibles, a few pewter dishes and some homespun clothing. Sometimes, too, they brought to their new homes the half-forgotten superstitions of another age, of witches and evil eyes, of charms and curses. Stubbornly they clung to the old customs. One of the first official acts of the board of the town of Lorraine in Jefferson county was to erect a pair of stocks “at the crotch of the road near John Alger’s Inn.” The church meeting ruled the early village of Malone as effectively as it ever did a New England town while the Federalists were still electing congressmen and members of the state legislature in the north when most people thought the Federalists had passed out of existence.
The first pioneers came by foot through the forests, single file, their packs strapped to their backs, laboriously following a trail of blazed trees. Later the trail was such that oxen could be driven drawing crude wood sleds but even as late as 1802 when Louis Hasbrouck, fresh from Princeton, came up through the Black River Country on his way to Ogdensburg to become the first clerk of St. Lawrence county, he and his were forced to travel a considerable distance on foot. While James Constable and other hardy travelers were able to travel the length and breadth of the North Country on horseback at a very early date it was not until the state road connecting Brownville, Ogdensburg and the High Falls was built that wagons could be used with any degree of safety and certainty. From the narratives of the old pioneers, from yellowed journals and from diaries religiously kept we learn something about conditions under which the first North Country settlers lived. If there was beauty in the age-old forests with their towering trees and mirror-like lakes, it was lost on the practical settlers who saw in the trees enemies to be lowered and in the flaming fire-weed a pest to be conquered. An early settler of Champion whose tastes took a poetic turn might sing of Pleasant Lake as
“Sweet lake of the valley; sequestered, serene,
And still as the night of the grave.”
But to most of the settlers life was a stern, real battle against nature and chances for an easy old age depended upon getting as many trees as possible cleared from the farm.
Riding up through the Sandy Creek country early in the century James Constable writes that “after traveling some miles I had at last the gratification of seeing a settler here. Three men were cutting and burning large piles of enormous trees. Ellis (Lyman Ellis, proprietor of Ellisburg), being acquainted with them, we went and staid in their hut, which was about twelve feet square, built of logs, no chimney and but very little furniture. There were two beds, in one of which a man and his wife slept and in the other the other two men. … We dined on salt pork, with good bread, butter and chocolate, much to my satisfaction.”
The first dwelling might be of bark after the Indian fashion, but soon it was succeeded by a log cabin which seldom had more than one room. The floor would be made of loose puncheons, a thick plank made by splitting straight-grained basswood logs and hewing them a little. At first there was no hearth or fireplace but simply a place for them. A backing of rough stones against the logs at one end provided a place where the fire could be built and the smoke found its way out through a hole in the roof. The roof was covered with rough boards, the joints battened with wide, heavy slabs. Usually an iron crane was fashioned over the place where the fire was built and on this the kettle was hung. Later a door was constructed and hung upon wooden hinges with a wooden latch. Then a window was cut out and a glass sash inserted and finally the stone fireplace built. About this time a new floor would be laid of white ash planks, sawed at one of the new sawmills, and the mistress of the house would have a job of years before her to scrub this floor smooth with a splint broom and the suds left from the weekly wash. The logs of which the cabin were built were rough, hewn only on the inside and the cracks plugged with cedar wedges and moss over which clay mortar was plastered. The blazing fireplace would hold an eighth of a cord of wood without crowding and it was customary to burn fifty or more cords of wood a year. Such was the home that William Read, an early settler of the town of Bombay, Franklin county, recalled and it may be considered as typical of the North Country as a whole.
Some excellent cooking was done in those great, stone fireplaces over blazing fires of wood. There were roasted pigs and goslings and turkeys done to perfection before the fire in great tin ovens. In bake kettles, heated by coals from the fireplace underneath and by others piled on the lid, pork and beans and many other small things were baked. Salt pork was a standard article of course and in the very early days bread was made mostly from corn meal. Maple sugar was used, and there were pumpkins and potatoes with plenty of milk and cream. The wild leeks which the cows ate tainted the milk and butter and so the taste would not be noticed it was customary to place a fresh leek at each plate which each person was supposed to eat first of all. Pearlash was used in place of soda and when this could not be obtained the ashes of corn cobs sufficed.
Land was cheap, ranging anywhere from $2 to $15 an acre according to the “improvements.” Thus a 100-acre farm might sell for anywhere from $200 to $1,500. But the settlers had little money and found it extremely difficult to meet even the small payments expected of them, and after the counties were erected there were taxes. In St. Lawrence county money was so scarce in the early days that Nathan Ford proposed the settlers be permitted to meet their taxes in wheat, the proprietors to dispose of the wheat. Early Northern New York clergymen had a portion of their salaries paid in wheat. There was no market for surplus corn and, even if there was, no means of getting it to market. But corn distilled into whisky had a money value, usually about 20 cents a gallon. It was before the time of the temperance movements and whisky was quite generally used as a beverage all through the newly opened countries where wines were seldom seen. Governor DeWitt Clinton in his private journal tells of seeing a young girl in Three Rivers drink three glasses of whisky, one after another. A surplus of corn being available it was natural that distilleries should be erected all through Northern New York. A Congregational clergyman conducted one at Burrville and Nathan Ford in his letters tells of the difficulties of bringing a copper still through the wilderness to Ogdensburg from Albany. In certain towns, such as Rutland, whisky became legal tender, and many of the subscriptions to the Congregationalist church at Champion, the first to be erected in Jefferson county, were made in whisky.
The early settlers, however, soon found another means of obtaining money through the very thing they considered their greatest curse. The great forests that fringed the small clearings must be lowered if the farm was to increase in value. Consequently we find the first settlers, as James Constable found them, burning huge piles of newly cut trees. The ashes, it soon developed, had a money value. Thirty cords of wood were required for a ton of ashes which in turn yielded but a sixth of a ton of potash. Elm and ash trees gave the greatest yield of ashes and an early settler in Bangor, Franklin county, whose farm was heavily wooded with elm, said he found a five dollar bill at the root of every tree. The first settlers did the full manufacturing, hauling the potash to market at one of the stores in the settlements where it could be changed to merchandise. Later asheries grew up, buying the wood ashes from the different farmers. Such ashes sold for about twelve cents a bushel. Many a farm in early Northern New York was paid for in whole or part through the sale of potash, which as late as 1812 was the principal industry all through the section.
Log inns sprang up along the roads and at the fords. They were inns only in name being in a number of cases only one-room cabins where the guests were forced to sleep on the floor. Mary Ann Duane, writing of early days in Franklin county, recalled the first taverns as “wholesome, rustic little things made of logs, with a kitchen and parlor and bar-room; a bed-room for the mistress of the house off the kitchen; a best bed-room off the parlor, not intended to be used; a garret-room upstairs, slightly partitioned—one end for the woman, one for the men.” But Dr. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, who traveled through Central New York in the early part of the 19th century has different testimony. “I call them inns,” he writes, “because this name is given them by the laws of the state and because each of them hangs out a sign challenging the title. But the law has nicknamed them and the signs are liars.”
Alger’s tavern in Lorraine was one of the best known of the early inns of the North Country. Constable tells of stopping there in 1805. He found “the landlord had gone to the mill and the landlady lay sick with a fever. She requested to see one of us and I went to her bedside, where she expressed her regret at not being able to attend upon us, as she had always been attentive to travelers; that the best the house could afford should be prepared; that there was no wheat meal in the house but her husband had gone for some, and the neighbors, attending her, would see to our accommodation if we would stay.
. . . I remained and after the husband returned they got me a supper of tea, pork and bread of Indian meal, and I went to bed in the same room as the landlady, who was indeed very sick and attended all night, but I slept without waking.”
The Circuit Riders
The early settlers of Northern New York were largely Congregationalists, with the Puritanism of their fathers deeply instilled. When the first Congregationalist missionaries came riding up through the forest trails to the North Country settlements they found here a people ready to receive them and as prepared to submit to the stern discipline of the church as the church was to exercise it. The influence of the first settled pastors such as Rev. Nathaniel Dutton of Champion, the Rev. Ishbel Parmelee of Malone, the Rev. David Spear of Rodman and the Rev. James Murdock of Martinsburg, was tremendous. The Sabbath was kept from sundown on Saturday until sundown on Sunday. The iron rule of the Rev. Ishbel Parmelee of Malone was typical. Of him the late Vice President Wheeler wrote, “He belonged to the days of Cromwell. Born under the dark shadow of Calvinism, his life and teachings were pervaded by its peculiar tenets.” No amusements were tolerated but prayer meetings and singing schools. An inn keeper was forced to stand up in church meeting, ask forgiveness and submit himself to discipline for permitting a ball to be held in his tavern. Members were complained against for breaking the Sabbath, for failure to observe family prayer and for non-attendance at the stated meetings of the church, for untruthfulness, for fighting and for intemperance. A man who partially concluded a bargain for renting a house on the Sabbath was severely disciplined. A couple in Moira, Franklin county, was excommunicated because they had walked to a neighbor’s house on a Sunday afternoon to view the remains of a panther. The edict of the church was feared and respected. One was warned once and then excommunicated. And seldom did the accused fail to accept the church’s findings, express contrition and entreat forgiveness. The church even collected debts after hearing the evidence. Law suits among members were forbidden.
The great landowners were usually Episcopalians but even their great influence was unable to overcome the traditional Congregationalist tendencies of their tenants save in two or three instances. When Col. Ogden wanted to send an Episcopalian clergyman to infant Ogdensburg Nathan Ford sounded out the settlers but “finding them determined to get one of the Presbyterian order and their mind being fully bent upon that object” he concluded that it was not proper for him to oppose them and the Rev. John Younglove, a graduate of Union College, was called.
Congregationalist missionaries, among them Rev. Amos Pettingill, Rev. Royal Phelps, Rev. John W. Church and Rev. William Taylor, were “preaching lectures” throughout the North Country prior to 1805, usually among a congenital people but there was a fly in their ointment. Writing of Turin in 1802 the Rev. William Taylor complained that “there are in this town many Methodists and Baptists who are dividing ye people.” A little later in his journal we find him referring to Ellisburg as “a mixture of all the physical and moral evils that can well be conceived of.” The Rev. William Taylor was a stern and narrow man. The fact that the Methodists had a strong group in Turin and the Baptists were well organized in Ellisburg condemned both of these towns in his eyes. He was shocked to find the women Methodists prayed in the family instead of the men and “with such strength of lungs as to be distinctly heard by their neighbors.”
As a matter of fact Methodist circuit riders were finding their converts along the trails from settlement to settlement in the North Country almost as soon as the Congregationalists, making converts and forming “classes.” These early circuit riders were usually illiterate, hard-fisted, leather-lunged men, very much in earnest and devoted to their calling. The Baptists, too, got an early start, and within a few years after settlement had started there were settled ministers in several Northern New York communities, notably among them Rev. Peleg Card of Denmark and Rev. Stephen Parsons at Turin. By 1808 there were nine Baptist churches in the Black River Country and a few along the St. Lawrence.
But if the Methodists and Baptists and even the Universalists, most hated of all, were making inroads, the Congregationalists were by far in the majority and certainly the most powerful. Their ministers were usually college graduates. The Rev. Nathaniel Dutton of Champion had a degree from Dartmouth while the Rev. James Murdock of Martinsburg had graduated from Yale the year before the Revolution started. They provided a cultural influence. In the absence of secondary schools they gathered about them students whom they instructed in Latin and literature. They were the bulwark of the conservative and propertied classes and were suspected and probably with some cause of promoting the cause of Federalism in the north. Within the first decade after settlement had started there were Congregationalist societies at Harison (Malone), Water-town, Burrs Mills, Turin, Champion, Hamilton (Waddington), Red-field and in many other of the little settlements in the north. The Black River Association of Congregational Churches was formed in Lowville Sept. 1, 1807, by delegates from churches at Leyden, West Leyden, Turin, Lowville, Denmark and from six towns in Jefferson county. The Rev. James Murdock was moderator and at this time the clergy proclaimed the first Thanksgiving day to be held in the North.
But for a long time the people were too poor to build churches. For years the little church at Martinsburg, built by the proprietor, Col. Martin, in 1807, was the only building for distinctly religious purposes in the whole North Country and for years Col. Martin retained the deed of this in typical baronial fashion. Religious services were held in houses, school-houses and mills. The Rev. William Taylor, before referred to, preached in a mill in Adams in 1802 and complained that “it was a dreadful place to preach in.” Gradually settled ministers took the place of the missionaries. The Rev. David Spear came from Vermont to Rodman soon after the Congregational society there was organized and remained the pastor for fifty years. The Rev. Nathaniel Dutton came into Champion early in the century and remained there until his death forty-six years later. The Rev. John Winchester took up his residence in Madrid at a yearly salary of $91 cash and $274 in wheat, and so it went. These clergymen, poorly paid and supported largely by “donations,” rode mile after mile over almost impassible roads to preach their “lectures” in all sections of the new country. They seldom received over $3 in collections and never over $1 for marrying. In sickness and health they rode the wilderness roads. “I bless God my life has been spared through such difficult riding,” wrote the Rev. Nathaniel Dutton in his journal preserved by the Jefferson County Historical Society, and it was no idle prayer. Stern, severe and uncompromising were these early North Country ministers, but they were admirable men, never shirking a necessary hardship and never avoiding a duty.
In the rough notes which compose the journal of the Rev. Mr. Dutton we get a graphic picture of the North Country of his day and the trials which faced a man of the cloth in that primitive time. In May, 1806, we find him preaching in a large barn in Champion. The following day he rode seven miles to Rutland and found “a very corrupt people . . . mostly Universalists and Baptists.” Nevertheless he preached to a small congregation, mostly women, distributed books, and the following day was in Simeon Hunt’s tavern ten miles away preaching a “lecture” to thirty-nine people, all women but four. The following day he was in Adams, preaching to sixty people and distributing Watt’s “Divine Songs.” From there he went to Ellis-burg where he conversed with several of the inhabitants and “found them loose in principle, ignorant of God and duty.” The following day he rode over an intolerable road into Redfield, where he arrived much fatigued, as we can well believe. On his knees he thanked God his life had been spared in this long ride through the forests.
But if the Congregationalists had their trials they were excelled by the gray-clad Methodist circuit riders, then considered exponents of a strange and heretic doctrine. In the settlements along the Northern banks of the St. Lawrence formed by the Mohawk valley Tories after the Revolution Methodism early became powerful. As early as 1792 the Rev. William Losee had ridden up through the woods of the Black River Country and crossed the St. Lawrence on the ice to minister to the Methodists in these settlements. At Augusta, just across the St. Lawrence from St. Lawrence county were living Paul and Barbara Heck, among the founders of Methodism in New York City prior to the Revolution, and John Lawrence who had married the widow of Philip, a revered name in the church of John Wesley. Long before the first settlements had been established on the American side of the river, Methodist preachers were riding from clearing to clearing on the Canadian side and building up an influential following. As settlements appeared on the south side of the river, these itinerant preachers crossed over on occasion and the first Congregational missionaries found evidences of their ministry all through the Oswegatchie and the St. Regis country.
One of the earliest Methodist preachers to have a definite circuit in Northern New York was the Rev. Chandley Lambert, known throughout the length and breadth of the newly opened northern country as “Father” Lambert. He was a tall, well-proportioned man who could thunder at the devil, the Congregationalists, the Baptists and the Universalists all in one breath. “I laid down hot and heavy on them,” he writes gleefully in his journal, referring to an encounter with some Universalists in Potsdam, “and the preacher was very uneasy indeed.” The Rev. Mr. Lambert was a stern man who took the Methodist Disciple literally. When Bishop Asburg assigned him to St. Lawrence county early in the nineteenth century he found forty-three professed Methodists on the circuit but proceeded to expel eight or ten of them who seemed to him to be lacking in grace. Shortly after arriving in the county he rode to Madrid to form a society . “Here,” he writes, “the devil is let loose to work powerfully through agents. The Congregationalists and Baptists wish to rid the land of Methodists.” It was here that “one of the devil’s own children got a bruised face from another man who had just enough religion to fight for the Methodists.” A few days later he was in Rich’s Settlement in DeKalb (Richland), which he designated as one of Satan’s seats, and within a week was hard at it, berating the Universalists in Potsdam.
Yet for all their denominational differences and bickering the trials of these early North Country preachers were very similar. Here is “Father” Lambert’s description of his ride from the St. Lawrence circuit to the Black River Country in 1808: “Set out for the Black River Country to attend camp meeting and to visit my friends. This day I was enabled to exercise perfect patience while riding through the heat and flies. A tedious journey, having a wilderness of twelve miles to go through, with a blind track and no inhabitants. Night coming on, I was not certain of being in the right path. I had ridden my horse almost fifty miles with nothing to eat, except to brouse which he got as he passed along. Finally I could not see the road and it seemed necessary that we must spend the night in the wilderness. I kneeled down and asked God to protect me from harm and direct me in the right way. It was difficult to find the way, so mounting the horse I gave him the reins. After we had traveled for some time I thought I would let my horse eat brouse and try to rest for the night. The darkest time is just before the day. We came out into a plain road, and soon came to inhabitants who gave us rest the remainder of the night.”
Until 1816 there was not a church building in the entire North Country excepting the little meeting house at Martin’s in Lewis county which had then been standing for nearly ten years. But that year work was started on three churches in various sections of the North Country. At Champion Noadiah Hubbard, the pioneer and leading settler, made arrangements to construct a Congregational meeting house on the hill. The Rev. Nathaniel Dutton had been settled there for some years then and had gathered about him a strong congregation from not only Champion but Rutland as well. At Shaler’s in West Leyden about this time work was started on a sturdy little Episcopal church which two years later was to be completed and to be known as St. Paul’s. At the same time in Hamilton, now Waddington, in St. Lawrence county, the Ogdens were busy with preparations for building another St. Paul’s in their village and by 1818 it was completed, its walls three feet thick, the first church edifice in St. Lawrence county.
The two Episcopal churches reflected of course the influence of the great landowners. The Ogdens at Hamilton, the Harisons at Morley, the Clarksons at Potsdam and the Constables at Shaler’s, later Constableville, had established great country homes in their Northern possessions. Here like their English ancestors they could ride their broad acres, lord it over their tenants and hunt to their heart’s content. Barons of the land as they were, it was not sufficient to have majestic country seats; they must have Episcopal churches as well, and one by one they were built, each with its glebe and the building of each made possible through the generosity of old Trinity Church in New York. Soon there were Episcopal churches in Lowville and Sackets Harbor, Potsdam and Morley but of all these the churches at Constableville and Waddington were the first.
The “raising” of the old Champion church was an event that attracted men, women and children for miles around. For three days the contractor dined all the men who were assisting in raising the building and no fewer than 200 availed themselves of the opportunity. The steeple was high and constructed of immense timbers. . It was necessary to bring ship tackle from Sackets Harbor to raise these timbers but finally the tall steeple was in place without a mishap. The meeting house was built on the old Connecticut model, with pews large and square, with seats on three sides, a door on the fourth leading into the aisle. A portion of the occupants of each pew sat with their back to the preacher. There was a center and two side aisles with wide galleries all around the three sides. The pulpit was high and reached by a long flight of stairs. Over the speaker’s head, suspended by an amazing hand on the end of a long, iron rod, was a sounding board. No provision was made for warming the house and standing on a hill as it did with the wind howling about it, it must have been anything but a comfortable place on a January day. But it was common practice for each matron to come furnished with her foot stove, a tin receptacle containing live coals covered with ashes. Gen. Henry Champion, after whom the town was named, sent a bell which weighed about 800 pounds. Upon its arrival it was at once suspended upon an extemporized yoke and so loudly was it rung that its peals were audible through the woods to Wilna. For many years it was rung every morning and evening at nine o’clock, the only church bell within a radius of over fifty miles.
Ordinarily pioneers of the early North Country followed strictly the narrow teachings of their church and carefully refrained from worldly amusements. But there were some settlements to which the church had not extended its sway. James Constable writes of arriving at one house in Franklin county at six o’clock in the morning just as a dance was breaking up. Van Valkenburgh’s tavern on the Oswego river was the scene of many an early dance and when no other music was available Peter Sharp’s female slave was borrowed to supply the deficiency with her melodious voice. A dance was a real event and always attracted settlers for miles away. There is a curious incident connected with the early history of the town of Volney, Oswego county. The young men of Mexico wanted to hold a “log cabin dance” in the home of Calvin Tiffany. There were plenty of men available but few girls. Three young men, Sherman Hosmer, Nathaniel P. Easton and a boy by the name of Hatch put their heads together and decided to go to Oswego Falls and get some girls. Armed with an ax and a pocket compass, they set out through the woods, coming in the course of time to the little hamlet of Volney Center. Here they found three girls and they were promptly invited to walk fifteen miles to the dance. In the morning the three couples set out through the woods. When they came to a brook or a marsh, the girls took off their shoes and stockings. They stopped at the home of David Easton in Mexico over night and the next day went on to Tiffany’s and danced all that night. The following forenoon they were back at Easton’s and the next day started back to their homes. The young men who accompanied them spent the night at Volney Center, returning to their homes in Mexico the following day. The whole trip was made on foot and consumed six days in all.
This, then, was the North Country of the time of the Louisiana Purchase, a thin line of settlements along the rivers and a few isolated cabins along the almost impassable roads. Away from the rivers was an almost unbroken wilderness in which panthers and wolves and bears roved. Scarcely a settlement in all that great expanse of country was as yet more than a hamlet. Log cabins still predominated in the villages but ugly, new houses were beginning to appear of green, unpainted lumber.
There was little beauty in such a settlement with its charred stumps and unlovely dwellings. But the forests rang daily with the sound of the great broad-axes of the pioneers hewing out homes for themselves in the wilderness. They were ideal residents of a new country, men accustomed to make their living by the sweat of their brows. If the majority of them were unlettered and unlearned, yet they were resourceful and accustomed to hardships. Generally the people, though poor, were contented with their lots. They saw their lands constantly increasing in value as settlers flocked in and roads were opened. By 1805 lands which ten years before had been worth only a few cents an acre were selling at $3.50 an acre in Henderson, $5 an acre in Hounsfield, from $6 to $10 an acre in Champion and as high as $17 an acre in certain favored sections of Turin. A yoke of oxen might sell for $70, a cow for $15, all necessary farming tools for $20, and an ox cart for $30. Farm hands received from $8 to $11 a month and mechanics from $12 to $16 a month. Constable found some farms producing as high as 80 bushels of corn to the acre but said that 50 bushels was the usual run.
From Turin to Chaumont and from New Rotterdam to Chateaugay was a congenital people of good New England stock, thrifty, industrious and happy. “One thing is peculiar in this wilderness,” writes an early missionary to Northern New York. “Every countenance indicates pleasure and satisfaction. The equality of circumstances cuts off a great proportion of the evils which render men unhappy in improved societies, and the influence of hope is very apparent.”
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.