With the war over and the Federal government daily becoming more stable, the state decided to make an effort to dispose of the great tracts of unsurveyed and, to a large extent, unexplored lands in Northern New York. There was a reason behind this. The thin line of settlements along the Mohawk still bore the scars of the terrible Indian raids of the Revolution. There was no certainty of continued peace with England. Feeling still remained intense. The horror of border warfare was too recent and the knowledge that but a few years before English gold had been paid for American scalps at Carleton Island did not help. Furthermore the Union Jack still waved over the military posts at Oswego, Carleton Island and Oswegatchie. Theoretically the river and the lake was the boundary but the British still hung on stubbornly upon one pretense or the other to their old posts. Along the Northern bank of the St. Lawrence Sir John Johnson and his Tories were building new homes for themselves in the wilderness and waiting their chance for revenge. There, too, lived two sons and a sister of Benedict Arnold. It required but a small spark to set the whole border aflame once more.
It was probably with this in mind that the state of New York decided to establish the first line of defense along the trails leading from Canada in the form of sturdy settlers who might be depended upon to fight at the drop of a hat when their homes were threatened. Consequently in 1787 the Board of Land Commissioners of the state directed the Surveyor General to lay out ten townships in two ranges of five each, extending from the head of Long Sault Island to the present Oak Point. Each township was to contain 100 square miles and to be as nearly square as possible. By the same act under which the ten townships were sold, the legislature provided for laying out a military tract in the present Franklin and Clinton counties, to satisfy the claims of Revolutionary soldiers. But no part of this tract was ever patented to military claimants and it was sold like other land by the Commissioners.
In 1789 the legislature set aside a great tract of land westward of the Oswego river to be distributed to the soldiers of the Revolution and the Surveyor General was directed to divide it into towns, town No. 1 to be the one immediately west of Oswego Falls. Thus all the present Oswego county west of the Oswego river was included in the military tract, although but two of the towns into which the tract was divided were in any part within the limits of the present Oswego county, these being Hannibal and Lysander. The military town of Lysander embraced the greater part of the present town of Granby in Oswego county, the remainder of the town being in the present Onondaga county. The military town of Hannibal comprised the present towns of Hannibal, Oswego and a small part of Granby in Oswego county, and the present town of Sterling in Cayuga county.
The Ten Towns, so called, in the present St. Lawrence county were named Louisville, Stockholm, Potsdam, Madrid, Lisbon, Canton, DeKalb, Oswegatchie, Hague and Cambray and in 1787 the land included in them was practically all sold to Alexander Macomb, a resident of New York, who had made a fortune in the fur trade with John Jacob Astor. It was in his big house on Broadway, a little below Trinity Church, that President Washington resided when New York was the capital of the United States. Soon after the great treaty had been made between the State of New York and the Iroquois at Fort Stanwix in 1788 by which the Indians ceded a large portion of their lands in Northern New York to the state, this same Alexander Macomb, probably associated with two other New York men, William Constable and Daniel McCormick, purchased a large tract of nearly 4,000,000 acres comprising the major part of Northern New York at a price of eight pence an acre. The purchase was divided into six great tracts, Tract No. 1 being in general the present Franklin county, Tracts II and III being in St. Lawrence county, and Tract IV portions of Herkimer, Lewis and Jefferson counties. The division line between Tracts V and VI was never run. These tracts included portions of the present Oswego, Jefferson, Lewis and Herkimer counties.
The sale of such a great tract of land at such a low price caused a storm of criticism from enemies of the administration. The Land Commissioners were accused of dishonesty and also of complicity in a deep-laid plot to bring about the annexation of the territory to Canada. Even Governor Clinton was charged with conniving in a treasonable scheme. The fact that adjoining tracts had been sold a short time before for between two and three shillings an acre lent color to the charge. There was a legislative investigation which resulted in complete vindication of everyone accused, but it was apparent to all that the lands had been sold too cheaply and that someone had exercised a good deal of influence at Albany.
The lands were of course purchased for speculation at a time when gambling in “wild lands” had become a pastime of the wealthy and great portions of the tract soon passed to other hands. By far the larger portion, comprising Great Tracts IV, V and VI were soon taken over by William Constable for 50,000 pounds after Macomb had failed and had been lodged in prison for his debts. It is no intention of this writer to trace the intricate chain of land titles from the original owners and the constant subdivision of these tracts as the years went on. The student interested in these transfers is referred to the excellent histories of St. Lawrence and Franklin, Lewis and Jefferson counties by the late Dr. Franklin B. Hough, written some seventy-five years ago, and also to Mr. Crisfield Johnson’s History of Oswego County.
Soon after the Macomb Purchase, in August, 1791, John and Nicholas J. Roosevelt, merchants of New York, purchased of the state some 500,000 acres of land south and west of the Macomb Purchase. This great tract included all the present Oswego county west of the Oswego river, excepting that included in the Macomb Purchase, and also comprised some of the present Oneida county. George Frederick William Augusta Scriba, a wealthy New York merchant of Dutch birth, was interested in this purchase and on Dec. 12, 1794, a patent to the entire tract was issued to him. Benjamin Wright, the well known surveyor, subdivided the tract for him into twenty-four townships and great lots. He sold off considerable portions, one great tract largely in the present town of Richland to Alexander Hamilton, but for many years retained large tracts himself. Long before the turn of the century he had embarked on the most ambitious scheme for settlement of his “wild lands” of any of the landed proprietors of the North.
The Great Landed Proprietors
It is of interest to know something of the men who eventually gained ownership over great areas of land in the Northern part of the state. In such a list is marshaled much of the wealth of the infant republic. It is like reading a list of vestrymen of Trinity Church or a list of subscribers to Columbia College. Here were the elite of New York and Philadelphia, the friends of Washington and Jay and Hamilton. Many of them had homes on Wall street or on lower Broadway. They were the men who founded and supported the Federalist party and the Chamber of Commerce and who, for all their adherence to the Revolutionary cause in the late war, believed in the “rule of the rich, the well born and the able.”
Chief among them was that patron saint of Federalism, Alexander Hamilton, who had just resigned as secretary of the treasury after a notable administration. It was natural that Sriba should have sold some of his lands to Hamilton, who was not above a little speculation in “wild lands,” although it is not recorded that he took much interest in his possessions in the present town of Richland. His name, however, is still perpetuated in Oswego county in Hamilton Gore. Nicholas J. Roosevelt, who at various times owned large tracts of land in the present Oswego county, was a wealthy merchant, manufacturer and inventor. His father, Isaac, had been a member of the New York Provincial Congress and for many years was president of the Bank of New York. Later Nicholas became associated with Robert Fulton, generally credited with being the inventor of the steam boat, and, in fact, was an influential man in New York City until his death in 1854. His brother, James John Roosevelt, probably the John Roosevelt who owned lands in the North, was a law partner of John Jay.
John Jay owned a large tract in the present town of Hastings, Oswego county. It was owned by his estate for many years. No man was more highly respected by the Federalists of the “high-minded type than John Jay. Born in 1745, he had graduated from Kings College, now Columbia, in 1766. He was a member of the Continental Congress. He drafted the first state constitution. He was the first chief justice of the state. He was minister to Spain under the Revolution, one of the commissioners to negotiate peace after the Revolution, secretary for foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation, instrumental in getting New York to accept the Federal constitution and appointed by Washington first chief justice of the United States. It was Jay who negotiated the treaty with Great Britain by which the British relinquished hold on the northern posts. At the time he made large purchases of northern lands Jay was governor of New York. After his death, his possessions passed to the hands of his son, Peter Augustus Jay, but the tract in Oswego county was always known as the Governor Jay tract.
George Scriba, who at one time owned nearly the whole of the Oswego county was a New York merchant possessed of a fortune estimated at a million and a half dollars. He had a house on Wall street and a store on Nassau street. He sank practically his entire fortune into his lands and in the attempt to build up his two proposed cities of New Rotterdam and Vera Cruz. About 1810 he moved to New Rotterdam, the present Constantia, and built himself a house there overlooking Oneida Lake. There he lived until his death in the 1830s and a Scriba still lives in the old mansion to this day.
Of all that company of great land barons, none was of greater note than William Constable, head of a family whose name is perpetuated in Constableville in Lewis county and Constable in Franklin county. More than any other, the Constables were responsible for the settlement and development of Northern New York. The contract under which they sold off their great holdings was written by Alexander Hamilton and remains a model of its kind to this day. James Constable rode hundreds of miles of forest trail in Northern New York on horseback, from clearing to clearing and from settlement to settlement, and the diary which he has left behind is perhaps the best source material we have of the Black River Country in the days of its first settlement.
In the present St. Lawrence county, the McVickars, a noted New York family of that day, bought largely, especially in Louisville. So did John Jay, who also, as we have seen, had lands in Oswego county. William Laight, a vestryman of Trinity church, and Capt. John Lamb, one of the Committee of One Hundred. Nicholas Low bought lands not only in Stockholm, St. Lawrence county, but also great tracts in the present Jefferson and Lewis counties. He has left his name at Lowville. Others who bought land in the present limits of St. Lawrence county were John Delafield, who helped endow Columbia College, Hezekiah B. Pierrepont, relative by marriage of the Constables, and the Gouverneurs, a prominent New York family of that day. The Pierreponts have left their name at Pierrepont Manor in Jefferson county and in the town of Pierpont, St. Lawrence county.
At Potsdam the Clarkson family bought many broad acres and today Clarkson College there testifies to their generosity. So did Major Nicholas Fish, president of the New York Society of the Cincinnati. Here, too, Herman LeRoy, a Federal appointee under Washington and the father-in-law of Daniel Webster, bought large holdings. The Ogdens, the Waddingtons and the Van Rensselaers also invested in St. Lawrence county lands. They have left their names at Ogdensburg, Waddington and Rennsselaer Falls. Judge William Cooper of Cooperstown, father of James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist, bought a large tract, as did General Henry Knox, secretary of war under Washington and founder of the Order of Cincinnati, Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution, Gouverneur Morris, diplomat and statesman, whose name is perpetuated at Morristown and Gouverneur, and John Ogden Hoffman, attorney general of the state and grand sachem of Tammany Hall.
In Franklin county, Richard Harison, one time law partner of Alexander Hamilton and classmate in Kings College of John Jay, owned great landed estates. The Harisons also owned large holdings in St. Lawrence county with manor houses at Malone, Canton and Morley. In Franklin county, too, Michael Hogan, the wealthy merchant, bought an entire township and named it Bombay after the residence of his wife, a princess of India. Daniel McCormick, friend of George Washington and president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, bought large possessions here, as did Judge William Kelley, the Federalist office-holder, and the McVickars, whose descendants still live in Malone.
In Jefferson county, beside Nichaolas Low, William Henderson, Richard Harison and John O. Hoffman had great holdings, and later Gen. Henry Champion, the Ellises and Jacob Brown. In Lewis county, the Constables and the Pierreponts retained for years vast tracts, but Walter Martin, who has left his name at Martinsburgh, and Nathaniel Shaler, soon acquired substantial territories, as did Hopper Brantingham of Philadelphia, whose name is preserved in Brantingham Lake, former Governor Brown of Providence and James Watson, the merchant.
In general there were three routes leading from the settled portions of the state into the great wilderness country of Northern New York. The best known was of course the Mohawk river, Wood creek, Oneida Lake and Oswego river route which had been well traveled for a century at least. A second was eastward from Plattsburgh and the Lake Champlain country into the present Franklin county, while the third was across the divide from the Mohawk Valley to the Black river, following that river towards its mouth into the heart of the present Lewis and Jefferson counties. As the old Oswego trail was the best known route of all, it is not surprising that within the limits of the present Oswego counties were made the first permanent settlements in all Northern New York. As early as 1789 one Oliver Stevens was located at old Fort Brewerton, even then falling into decay, and was maintaining a tavern of sorts for the convenience of the boatmen on the Oswego river. Two years later another pioneer appeared in the neighborhood, a Frenchman, named Desvatines, concerning whom a great many fanciful tales have been written.
Desvatines was apparently a man of good birth. He has been variously represented as an aristocrat who fled from the Reign of Terror in Paris and as a Frenchman of noble birth, who woed and won a nun and was forced to flee from his native land. Probably neither of these stories is correct. Desvatines, himself, claimed to have been a seigneur from near Lisle, France, who, having lost much of his money, came to this country to recuperate his fortunes, bringing with him his young bride. He seems to have wasted much of the little money he had left before he decided to forsake civilization and find a home in the wilderness. About 1791 he appeared at Oneida Lake with his wife and two children and took up his residence on an island in the lake ever since known as Frenchman’s Island. He had a happy faculty of making friends with the Indians and spent most of his time in hunting, living a carefree existence and occasionally parting with some of the family silver or part of the library which he had brought into the wilderness with him when he required money. A distinguished citizen of Holland, Francis Adrian Vanderkempt, visited the Desvatines family in 1792, describing their habitation in the following words:
“Our path gradually increasing in breadth did lead us to the circumference of a cleared circle surrounded with limetrees; at both sides of the path was planted Indian corn already grown from four to five feet, while a few plants towards the middle of this path were six feet long, and this in the middle of June. A small cottage of a few feet square stood nearly in the center of this spot. It had a bark covering and, to the left of it, a similar one, three-fourths uncovered, and appropriated for a kitchen. Here was the residence of Mr. and Madame des Wattines (Vanderkempt’s rendering of the name), with their three children. They lived there without servants, without neighbors, without a cow; they lived, as it were, separated from the world. Des Wattines sallied forth and gave us a cordial welcome in his demesnes. The well-educated man was easily recognized through his sloven dress. Ragged as he appeared, without a coat or hat, his manners were those of a gentleman; his address that of one who had seen the higher circles of civilized life. A female, from whose remaining beauties might be conjectured how many had been tarnished by adversity, was sitting in the entrance of this cot. She was dressed in white, in a short gown and petticoat, garnished with the same stuff; her chestnut brown hair flung back in ringlets over her shoulders, her eyes fixed on her darling Camille, a native of this isle, at her breast, while two children, standing on each side of her, played in her lap. . . . Des Wattines introduced us to his spouse.
She received us with that easy politeness which well-educated people seldom lose entirely, and urged, with so much grace, to sit down, that we could not refuse it without incivility. . . .
“Des Wattines has laid out behind the cottage a pretty garden, divided by a walk in the middle. The two foremost beds, and rabats, against the house were covered with a variety of flowers; sweet williams, lady slippers, with a few decaying hyacinths. At the right hand were bush beans, large kidney beans at poles, cabbage, turnips, peas, salade, with that strong-scented herbage which you purchase so dear at your arrival in New York, although its culinary use in cakes and soup was then yet unknown there; at the left watermelons, cantelopes, cucumbers, persil, string peas, with a few of the winter provisions, all in great forwardness, with few or no weeds among them; behind the garden a small nursery of apple trees, which was closed with a patch of luxuriant potatoes, and these again were joined both sides by wheat describing a semicircle around it.”
When Dewitt Clinton, later to be governor of the state but then a member of the canal commission, passed through this section in 1810 he heard the story of Desvatines from the Stevens family, who still resided there. According to them Desvatines were very proud and reserved, always went bareheaded and bartered off some valuable books for two cows. Desatines’ countrymen in Albany raised a subscription which permitted the family to return to their native land. According to Mrs. Stevens, the family was apparently happy together but in her opinion the French woman had no extraordinary pretensions to beauty.
One Major Lawrence Van Valkenburgh had acquired an interest in lot 75 in the military tract and came to take up his land in 1792 with two laborers and a slave boy. The following year he returned with his family and a couple of other men to make a settlement near Oswego Falls. That same year Daniel Master, a blacksmith, became the first settler in the present town of Volney.
Although George Scriba’s patent was not issued to him until 1794, the year before that he began the first settlement on his land, selecting as a site the mouth of the present Scriba creek. He named it New Rotterdam, after the city of that name in his native Holland. Immediately he set to work building houses and mills. When agents of the Castorland company, of which more will be said later, passed through New Rotterdam that same fall, they found the settlement consisted of three log houses. By 1795 when the Due de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt visited the settlement, there were only a dozen log houses there, but Mr. Scriba was building a fine, frame house for a store and had started construction of a road through the woods to Vera Cruz, his other settlement, on the site of the present village of Texas. But Rotterdam, as it soon became known, was not destined to be the thriving city which Scriba had dreamed. When DeWitt Clinton visited it in 1810 he found that it contained but “eight or ten houses and exhibited signs of premature growth.” Today not even the name is retained because Rotterdam is the modern Constantia.
The Castorland Company
William Constable immediately took steps to dispose of some of his great land holdings in Northern New York. In August, 1792, he was in Paris. The French capital was in the throes of the Revolution, the king had been imprisoned and the Red Terror stalked through the streets. No man’s life was safe. Many of the aristocrats and the nobles had fled to foreign climes. Those who remained awaited their opportunity. Under these circumstances it was not difficult for Constable to interest a group of French gentlemen in a scheme for a great French colony to be set up in the trackless wilderness of the Black River Country.
Negotiations were started between Constable and Citizen Peter Chassanis at the latter’s house in the street of the Jussiene. Louis XVI was being tried, the streets ran with blood and Chassanis is reported to have locked the door of his home while negotiations were in progress with the statement that if the deal was not consummated then, there was no assurance that they would be able to meet again. Finally Constable sold to Citizen Chassanis and his associates, organized under the name of La Compagnie de New York a vast tract of over 600,000 acres lying in the present Jefferson and Lewis counties.
Not a single member of the company had any exact information of the country in which they had made this great purchase. The lands had not been surveyed and even the course of Black river was not known. But a colorful circular was issued setting forth the fancied advantages of the new land. Castorland, it was to be called, from the beaver which the French understood overrun their woodland empire. The promoters of the new company had visions of thousands of acres of vinelands and of the production of maple sugar becoming an industry of such extent as to supersede the production of cane sugar.
In the heart of the great woods, they proposed to build a little Paris, the home of happy mechanics and of French aristocrats, snatched from the blade of the guillotine, while on the lake shore a second city was to be erected which in time would become a great port from which the products of Castorland would be shipped to the world via Montreal. An elaborate organization was perfected, commissioners named, a lengthy constitution drawn up and adopted, a seal devised and a silver coin minted to compensate commissioners for attending meetings. With only the most imperfect maps available, a system of proposed roads was chartered and complete plans for the two cities drawn. No more visionary scheme was ever attempted. It was doomed to failure from the start.
First, it was decided, a trip of exploration must be made. So on July 7, 1793, the two commissioners for America, Simon Dejardines and Peter Pharoux, left the old wharves at Havre and in exactly two months arrived in the thriving port of New York, now a city nearing the 50,000 mark. Pharoux was an eminent architect of Paris and Dejardines an enterprising if somewhat visionary adventurer. At Albany the two commissioners met Marx Isambert Brunei, a countryman of theirs, just 24 years of age and a political exile. No more happy meeting could have taken place. Brunei was an engineer and surveyor, a natural leader and a born pathfinder. He readily threw in his lot with his two compatriots.
How valuable he was to them is apparent from the journal of the exploration which was painstakingly kept, later printed in Paris and many years ago translated by the late Dr. Hough, the historian, who planned to publish it but never did. The three hired four Americans supposed to have some familiarity with the lands to the northward and started for Black river bay by the old Indian route of Wood creek and the Oswego river. They found Oswego still in possession of British troops who looked with suspicion on the expedition and would permit the little party to proceed only when they left Brunei behind as a hostage. Even then the British refused to allow Brunei in the fort but forced him to camp by the river bank, justification enough in his mind to break the agreement and he escaped from the British and joined his companions.
It was a good thing for them that he did. Neither Pharoux nor Dejardines were the type of men to lead an expedition into unknown lands. Brunei took charge. The party coasted along the lake shore in a small sailing craft. At the mouth of Little Sandy they found an Indian and his wife in a bark canoe, the first humans they had seen since leaving Oswego. Then they ran into heavy weather as they approached Stony Point, called on the old maps Traverse Point. Even the pilot lost his nerve and “took so heavy a draught of rum that he knew not what he did and steered direct for the breakers/’
But Brunei was equal to the emergency. Sweeping the pilot to the bottom of the craft he took the helm, while his two companions each took a corner of the sail. Brunei steered for the open lake and one of the frightened Americans took out his knife to cut the halliards of the sail. It is recorded that Brunei, without letting go of the helm, reached over and dealt the panic-stricken boatsman such a blow on the head with a hatchet that he forthwith lost all interest in his fate. Finally the trio sighted the stream “called by the English Stony Creek and on the French maps, La Rivere de 1’Assumption,” and Brunei steered his speeding craft midway between Traverse Point and Galloo (sic) Island. A few minutes later they were safe in Henderson Bay.
The next day they set out in search of the mouth of Black river. It was a tedious job but finally they were successful and camped near the mouth of the river. Their fire attracted an Indian, his wife and two children who visited them but departed after receiving presents. The next day they started up the river, noting carefully the appearance of the country. They thought that Baron Steuben’s settlement near Utica could not be more than 30 miles distant and Pharoux with one of the boatmen, a man named Britton, took three days’ provisions, a gun, a hatchet, a flint and steel and blankets, and set out to see if they could reach the home of the old Revolutionary general. They succeeded in ascending the river only a little above the present city of Watertown.
Thus Pharoux describes in his journal the site of the city, the first description of which we have any record: “At noon we saw a great cascade in the distance, broken rock forming an island, through which the water flows. The smaller channel on the right, a rocky cliff on the left, and narrowing of the river above where it turns to the northeast. Low ground on the right and high on the left. Two ravines with banks, then another ravine, obscured with masses of trees. At 12:50 the great cascade, of which the torrent is on the left side, with a branch on the right, and a large, rocky island covered with pines. Land low on the right but steep at the bottom of the falls and high on the left. The cascade forms a cloud of mist At one we gained the head of the falls where the swift water announces the upper falls. At 1:15 the river turns and the land is steep on our side, course east, turning southeast, the land forming a very high hill and the vegetation fine. At 1:15 the stream is parted by an island with two falls at the head.” The next day Pharoux found the river still about as wide as “the Seine at Point Royal.” Indians had been there before them. They found three large trees cut by an ax with indications of a fire lately made.
The next year surveying of the great tract was started. It was then for the first time that the real course of Black river was discovered to the dismay of the French, who had thought that the river flowed due west from High Falls (now Lyons Falls) to the lake. This meant that their tract was not half as large as had been anticipated. They complained to Constable who cheerfully agreed to do everything that was fair but regretted that he could not alter the course of the river or compel the British at Oswego not to interfere with the surveyors. Pharoux was drowned in 1795 not far from the present city of Watertown with seven of his companions, white surveyors and Indians. Capt. Charles Brodhead, a Revolutionary veteran, was in charge of the party. They were being ferried across Black river on a raft of logs but discovered to their horror when in midstream that they had mistaken the place and were rapidly being drawn towards the great falls which Pharoux had noted in his journal two years before. Discovering that Pharoux could not swim Brodhead stayed on the raft with him instead of swimming for shore. The two passed over the falls. Pharoux was drowned but Brodhead was pulled senseless from the river by an Indian. Sometime later the body of the young Frenchman was found on an island at the mouth of Black river, since called Independence Island. James D. LeRay de Chaumont, the landowner, caused a tablet to be erected on the island bearing this inscription: “To the memory of Peter Pharoux this island is consecrated.”
In the meantime the first French families had arrived, pitifully unprepared to cope with the wilderness. First, there was the long tedious trip in a sailing vessel from Havre to New York. Then there was another on the barque to Albany and finally the difficult journey up the Mohawk and the trek through the wilderness with a brief stop at Baron Steuben’s cabin before the start of the wearisome journey. They carried with them grass seed to sow the spacious lawns they dreamed would some day lead from their homes to the river. They gathered young plum trees in the woods for their orchards. On the flats along Black river, near the present Lyons Falls, they built their log homes. At Long Falls, now Carthage, they built a saw mill in 1795. Carpenters and artisans were hired to do the work and occasionally an Indian assisted. They fashioned fantastic names on the rivers and streams in their forest domain, Deer creek, Siren creek, Swan creek, Pelican creek, French river, Linnet creek, Independence creek, Beaver river and Murmur creek.
Many of the settlers were men of wealth, breeding and education, accustomed to Parisian society, who dreamed of vast estates carved from the hemlock forests of the Black River Country where they might hunt and fish to their heart’s content. Such a man was J. T. Devouassoux, a retired officer of the old regime, who bought himself a lot on the river shore and proceeded to have a log hut erected on a beautiful spot which he hoped some day to convert into a beautiful expanse of lawn. One morning as the old officer in his dressing gown sat before his house admiring the view that stretched out before him James D. LeRay came along. M. LeRay noticed at once that the river in the spring would overflow the piece of ground upon which M. Devouassoux had erected his cabin. He called this to the attention of the old officer who was much surprised. Further inquiry brought out that the old soldier had never explored his lands but finding this beauty spot near the river and being passionately fond of fishing he had established himself on the bank of the river without further investigation.
Along the river, too, on a tract of some 1,200 acres, settled Louis Francois de Saint Michel, reputed to have been an officer of Louis XVI. Managing his log cabin was his daughter, a beautiful girl tenderly reared in the schools of Paris, who nevertheless gracefully adapted herself to the rigors of pioneer life. Not far away the Balmat family settled and the oldest boy, James, later became secretary to Joseph Bonaparte, brother of the emperor.
With no information at all on the topography of the land, engineers in Paris laid out a road. The map was sent to Castorland where the workers followed their instructions religiously and built a road which went up hill and down dale. Finally it came to a precipice but orders were orders so the workmen simply passed over to the other side and resumed their construction. This was known as the Old French road, the first to be built in the Black River Country, and was the highway followed by the first permanent settlers into the present Lewis and Jefferson counties.
The grand attempt at colonization was of course a failure. The proud cities of Castor and Basle were never built. Great sums of money were spent but all in vain. The log cabins which were to have given way to majestic mansions crumbled away in decay. Many of the colonists left in disgust. Others remained and their blood is still found in well known Northern New York families. But if the Castorland colonists were unsuccessful at least they had charted and mapped a substantial section of the Black River Country and the surveys which they made and even the fantastic road which they built were of infinite value to the first English-speaking pioneers when they penetrated the wilderness a few years later to build the first permanent settlements. Caleb Lyon of Lyonsdale in his poem, “Castorland, pictures the dream of the French refugees:
“On an hundred thousand acres never trod by foot of men,
He had mapped out farms and vinyards, roads o’er precipice and glen,
And like scenes of an enchanter, rose a city wondrous fair,
With its colleges, its churches, and its castles in the air.”
And then came the bitter disappointment of the awakening:
“After toils and many troubles, self-exile for many years,
Long delays and sad misfortunes, man’s regrets and woman’s tears,
Unfulfilled the brilliant outset, broken as a chain of sand,
Were the golden expectations by Grand Rapides’ promised land.”
The First Settlements
The era of settlement was now at hand. The movement westward from the New England states had set in with a vengeance. In three days in the month of February, 1795, a resident of Albany counted 1,200 sleighs on their way westward. On Feb. 28th, that same year, 300 sleighs passed through Albany, headed westward, between sunrise and sunset. The landowners of the North Country were not slow to take advantage of this restless movement from the old villages of New England. They realized that there was but one way to enhance the value of their lands and make their investment a profitable one and that was to interest actual settlers in their holdings. Surveyors were sent far and wide through the expanse of the North Country. In the present St. Lawrence county Medad Mitchell and a man named Tupper worked as early as 1791, running the lines of Great Tracts Numbers I, II and III of the Macomb Purchase. They finished their work within the limits of the present Franklin county and setting their course by the compass started through the woods, hoping to reach Rome. Instead they emerged at the High Falls on Black river—now Lyons Falls—and were forced to cross the river and proceed to the present Oswego county before they could locate themselves. Tupper Lake bears the name of one of these early surveyors.
Benjamin Wright did much of the surveying for William Constable. From 1795 to 1798 he had worked throughout the northern forests laying out townships for the various proprietors. So when in 1799 he left Rome with a party of some twenty or more assistants to survey lands for Mr. Constable in the present St. Lawrence county, he was probably as familiar with Northern New York as any man then living. The party took the Oswego trail to the lake and went from there down the St. Lawrence to St. Regis. Wright established his headquarters at the mouth of the Racquette river. Camps were located at various sites. One camp was located near the present Norfolk, another in the neighborhood of Hannawa Falls, a third on the site of Pyrites and a fourth at Cooper’s Falls on the Oswegatchie.
At the mouth of the Oswegatchie, the Oswegatchie Indians drove the surveyors away for a time but the trouble was adjusted. Tory squatters, settled at this same point and claiming titles from the Indians, were also ugly but the surveyors were resourceful men, accustomed to life in the woods and in many cases veterans of the Revolution, and they persisted in spite of all difficulties. The worst situation, however, prevailed at Oswego which the red-coated British still held, arrogantly collecting customs and refusing American boats permission to pass into the lake. The British commander at Oswego would not permit the American surveyors to operate near the post which resulted in a great deal of inconvenience. But gradually the entire area was mapped. Town lines were run, towns known only by numbers, filled with giant trees and populated only by bears, wolves and panthers. For the first time accurate charts were available. It was evident that the Black river provided a great highway into the heart of the new country and that over the divide the Oswegatchie led to the St. Lawrence and Canada.
At first men did not venture far into the interior. A few clearings appeared along the Oswego trail, principally at Oneida Lake, but in 1796 Neil McMullen, a merchant of Kingston, N. Y., boldly appeared at Oswego, which had just been abandoned by the British, and set up a frame house which he transported in Durham boats, ready-cut, as we would say today, down the Oswego river. This house he erected on the west side of the river in the middle of the present Seneca street, and soon opened up a brisk trade with the Indians. That same season, Captain Edward O’Connor, a Revolutionary veteran, appeared and erected a log house, but he elected to spend the winter at Salt Point, now Syracuse. The following year the state legislature, foreseeing a great future for Oswego, laid out a city with wide streets, giving many of them names which they retain to this day, but they were streets then marked only with blazed trees. Soon Peter Sharpe had appeared and built a little log tavern on the east side of the river, and he and William Vaughan became owners of a little schooner. Before 1800 the embryo city of Oswego was assuming some little commercial importance.
As we have seen, there were early settlers in the present town of Volney and soon Major Lawrence Van Valkenburgh was operating a well known tavern which became a common stopping place for boatmen and others traveling between Salt Point and Oswego. John Van Buren and Ebenezer Wright were early comers, while Daniel Masters had located at the so called Upper Landing as early as 1793. The name, Oswego Falls, was given to the collection of clearings between the Upper and Lower Landings. It was not until 1826 that the name, Fulton, was applied to the village which gradually grew up between the two landings on the old portage path.
George Scriba’s “city” of Vera Cruz was the first place settled in the present town of Mexico, Oswego county. It was located on Mexico Point and the entire region from the mouth of Salmon creek to the present hamlet of Texas was laid out into city lots with even a plot for a city park. Scriba had great dreams for Vera Cruz, even though it had but a half dozen log houses. A tavern, mills and a shipyard were built and the little settlement showed every sign of fulfilling the expectation of its owner until a number of the men of the village lost their lives in the lake while trying to get to Kingston, Canada, for food, and from that time on the fortunes of the little place steadily declined. Today, like the grand cities planned by the Castorland colonists, it exists only in memory.
On the upper Salmon river one of the most promising settlements in the entire north had been established in 1795 by Captain Nathan Sage of Connecticut, who had commanded the warship Middletown with sixteen guns and 100 men in the Revolutionary war. From the first the settlement was named Redfield after the proprietor, Dr. Frederick Redfield, whom Sage represented as land agent. A number of strong men followed Sage into the new settlement, coming by way of a crude, forest road that led from Rome through the present town of Florence, Oneida county. Among them were Deacon Amos Kent and Eli Strong. The Oneida county assessment rolls for 1798 show thirty-two residents assessed in Redfield, while there were only twenty-six in all the rest of the present Oswego county, east of the Oswego river.
Before 1800, little log settlements had sprung up in a dozen, stumpy clearings within the limits of the present Oswego county – in the present City of Oswego, Oswego town, Granby, Volney, Scriba, Shroeppel, Mexico, New Haven, Hastings, Constantia and Redfield. Aside from Scriba’s great road from Rotterdam (Constantia) to Vera Cruz (Mexico Point) and the wood trail that led from Rome to Redfield, there wasn’t a road in the entire region, but the British abandonment of Oswego had opened up the water highways and boatmen on the Oswego river were soon doing a lively business. As an indication of the stimulus given to settlement by the British abandoning Fort Ontario at Oswego, in 1796 the population of the entire town of Mexico, which then included all of Oswego county east of the Oswego river and much territory in the present Oneida county, was only 246. The following year it had increased to 622.
Settlements Along the St. Lawrence
Far to the north a thin line of settlements had sprang up along the St. Lawrence within striking distance of Plattsburgh, on the one hand, and the Tory settlements along the northern bank of the river, on the other. Near the present village of Chateaugay in Franklin county, Benjamin Roberts had established himself the last year of President Washington’s administration, leading his family on a long trek through the woods from Plattsburgh, driving his cattle before him and carrying a teakettle full of rum in his hand. Within a year quite a settlement of Vermont men had been formed and crops of potatoes and turnips raised.
Near the present village of Massena in St. Lawrence county, settlers were located as early as 1792, leasing their lands from the St. Regis Indians. They came from the neighborhood of Montreal and built a sawmill on Grass river a mile below the present village. In the town of Madrid in the present St. Lawrence county river lots were being sold at $2.50 an acre and rear lots at $2 an acre long before the dawn of the 19th century. The signing of Jay’s treaty in 1796 under which the British were compelled to evacuate their posts within the limits of the United States removed the last impediment to settlement along the border. That year Nathan Ford, as agent for Col. Samuel Ogden, the owner, left New York to undertake the settlement of Oswegatchie. With his slave, Dick, and several boatmen and workmen whom he hired, he bought a boat, loaded on a quantity of merchandise and proceeded along the Mohawk, following the old Indian trail to the Oswego river and the lake. He was forced to pay his boatmen, whom he called an abandoned set of rascals, excessive wages, his boat sank and spoiled his casks of tea and dry-goods, but finally he reached Oswegatchie and established himself in the sergeant’s quarters in the old fort.
Ford proved himself to be exactly the type of an agent needed in a new country. The first thing he did was to summon the St. Regis chiefs to his quarters for a conference. “I treated them with the utmost civility and sent them all away drunk,” he wrote Ogden. Claims of Canadians to lands in Oswegatchie failed to worry Ford. “Those fellows only want to be treated with promptness to bring them to terms,” he informs Ogden in the same letter. Two years later when one Watson persisted in his claim Ford had him arrested and sent him to Rome for trial. Watson went to jail for a year and was only released after he had signed a quit claim deed. So Ford with characteristic energy removed flaws from the title, drew about him a nucleus of a settlement, brought up the sheriff of Herkimer county to chase squatters from his forest empire and by 1797 was able to write Ogden with optimism: “I am well convinced in my own mind that the country will settle and by our own countrymen, one of whom is worth six of his majesty’s beef eaters.” By 1798 he had sold eight or ten farms, had a grist mill in operation and settlers were beginning to find their way to the “Garrison” from Lake Champlain through the Chateaugay woods. By 1800 when Gouverneur Morris with his French chef and traveling “in the style of an Eastern prince,” to use Ford’s characterization, arrived at the village, he found Oswegatchie a respectable settlement viewed from a pioneer standpoint.
As little settlements sprang up close to the banks of the St. Lawrence in the North, others appeared along the Black river further South. From Boone’s Settlement, not far from Baron Steuben’s log cabin, hardy settlers pushed forward to establish the hamlet which soon became known as Talcottsville where Lemuel Storr’s frame house, the first within the present limits of Lewis county, stood. By 1799 there were 57 senatorial votes within the limits of the town of Leyden, which comprised this section, at a time when one must be a property owner to be able to vote. A rude road from Fort Stanwix led to Shaler’s settlement on the site of the present Constableville and there in a little clearing in the woods lived Jonathan Collins, veteran of Washington’s army, and a few hardy companions. A young Connecticut lawyer, Silas Stow, representing the owner, Nicholas Low, had just founded the settlement that was soon to be known as Lowville. From High Falls, now Lyons Falls, where a few of the French of Castorland days still lived, the river was the natural highway to Long Falls, now Carthage. There Jean Baptiste Boussant, a slovenly Frenchman who had come over with the Castor-land colonists, maintained a log tavern of sorts and kept the ferry across the river. Not far away in the fertile lands of Champion Noadiah Hubbard and a few others had built a cluster of cabins which soon were to attract men like Moss Kent, brother of the chancellor, and Egbert Ten Eyck, the lawyer. Towards the mouth of the Black river was located Jacob Brown, surveyor, school teacher and former military secretary to Alexander Hamilton, whose log cabin was soon to be replaced by the sturdy, stone mansion which stands to this day. Further south on the rich loam of the Sandy Creek country, the Ellises had settled, raising the first crops within the limits of the present Jefferson county. And just as the new century dawned, Henry Coffeen appeared from the Mohawk and built his cabin in the geometric center of the present City of Watertown.
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.