Oswego and Swegatchie—magic names these in the days when England and France battled for empire on the North American continent. Oswego, thorn in the side of France, the peep hole through which the British spied upon the French fur-traders on their way to and from the western posts. Swegatchie, described aptly by Arthur Pound, as one end of the French pinchers intended to pull the Iroquois away from the British. The other end, Mr. Pound adds, was wherever the half-breed trader, Joncair, happened to be at the moment. There was a time in our colonial history when the very mention of Abbe Picquet’s Indian colony at Swegatchie, the present Ogdensburg, was enough to send a shiver up the smug backs of the British Lords of Trade. It symbolized the French effort to tear away from Britain one of her dearest possessions, the Six Nations of the Iroquois. And even the rake of Versailles was willing to interrupt his revels when his ministers hastened to him to report the latest news from that menace to all French aspirations, Oswego.
In the early part of the last century when the crumbling stone walls of the old “garrison” at Ogdensburg were being torn down, the wreckers came upon a stone bearing the roughly chiseled Latin words: “In nomine Dei omnipotentis huic habitationi initia dedit Frans. Picquet 1749,” which being translated reads: “Francis Picquet laid the foundation of this habitation, in the name of the Almighty God, in 1749.” Today that stone is carefully preserved at Ogdensburg as a lasting memorial to Abbe Picquet, the Sulpitian, sometimes called the Apostle to the Iroquois, the founder of La Presentation, a valiant warrior for France and an earnest missionary of his church.
Abbe Picquet had been for some time in a mission at the Lake of the Two Mountains on the Ottawa river where he had gathered together a large number of Hurons, Outaouais and even Iroquois, and had thoroughly familiarized himself with Indian habits and customs. Undoubtedly Father Picquet was a man fervently fired with the missionary spirit, but by instinct he was a pioneer and a soldier. His biographer, Jerome de Lalande, assures us that during the intercolonial war he did not sleep four nights in a bed and that he saved La Presentation twice. “He was constantly on the watch,” writes Lalande. “He could be seen sleeping in the forests and on the snow; he walked entire days in winter, often in the water; he was the first to cross rivers in the midst of floating ice in order to set a good example to his warriors/’ Parkman does not go so far. “An enthusiastic schemer, with great executive talents, ardent, energetic, vain, self-confident and boastful,” is the way he sums up his character.
For twenty years now the English had been maintaining a strong post at Oswego. It was a wise move that Governor Burnet had made in 1727 to build that fort. With the construction of the blockhouse at the mouth of the Oswego river came trade. Within twelve years after the erection of the fort Col. William Johnson was able to report that there were 150 traders at Oswego. Gradually the Oswego trade became the most important on the Johnson books. Boat after boat, loaded with rich furs, came up the Oswego river, headed for Johnson’s warehouses. On the beach at Oswego traders waved bottles of rum to attract the attention of bronze paddlers who had escaped the enticement of bottles of brandy similarly waved by French traders at Fort Frontenac. Oswego became a growing threat to France’s lucrative fur trade with the west. The French waited thirty years to capture it and never ceased to fret about it all during that period.
Father Picquet well realized the menace of Oswego. He conceived the idea of building a mission near enough to the Iroquois country to be accessible to them and which could readily be turned into a fort and used as a base in case of an attack upon Oswego. His project receiving the support of Count de la Galissonniere, the French governor general, Picquet, lost no time in proceeding up the St. Lawrence on a tour of exploration. The spot at the junction of the St. Lawrence and the Oswegatchie river where Father Poncet, the Jesuit, had emerged from the Iroquois country nearly a hundred years before, at once attracted his attention and here he decided to plant his mission. It was on November 21st, 1748, that Father Picquet first sighted this spot, and the day being the one of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, he forthwith named it La Presentation and so the French always called it but to the English it was simply Swegatchie.
A more strategic situation would have been hard to find. The French fur traders had been paddling up the Oswegatchie for many years. They knew it to be on one of the main Iroquois routes to Canada. From La Presentation the trail went all the way to Col. William Johnson’s house at Johnstown. It was near enough to Oswego to provide an excellent base, could be made a stopping off place between Montreal and Fort Frontenac and might, if a strong post were established there, in time win away from the English much of the Iroquois fur trade. It is clear that Father Picquet was far-sighted enough to see this. In his letter to the governor general, speaking of the location, he says: “Such a center is easily reached by all Indians who desire to be converted to Christianity being able to come here from Lake Ontario and the Iroquois river (Black river), from the Frontenac river and the Country of the Mississagues, through the St. Lawrence river, from the Mohawk Valley, Corlar (Schenectady), Onondaga, the capital of the Five Nations, and through the River La Presentation (the Oswegatchie).”
Within a year a crude little fort with four stone bastions, shaped like towers, at the corners, with moat, entrenchment and palisade, had been constructed, crops had been planted, Indian long houses erected and a small garrison brought on from Montreal. La Presentation became a place to be reckoned with. Down at Johnstown, Col. William Johnson began to get reports from his traders of the mission and became worried. Father Picquet was “debauching” the Indians, he complained in a letter to the Board of Trade, which was another way of saying that he was winning them over to France. The English admitted that he had made a hundred converts from Onondaga, the Iroquois capital, alone, and alleged that Picquet taught the Indians that the King of France was the eldest son of the wife of Jesus Christ. This, however, was probably the Indian misinterpretation of the doctrine that the church was the spouse of Christ. But the English had reason for concern. In 1749 Father Picquet had six heads of Indian families at La Presentation. The following year he had eighty-seven and in 1751 he had over 1,500.
The colonial dreams of France and England had now reached a stage where a great conflict was inevitable. From the Gulf of the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi a thin line of French forts and trading posts barred British advance westward and northward. Along a frontier as yet vague and indistinct, trouble was brewing. In the Ohio country there were conflicting claims and armed clashes, and in Northern New York, scheming and double dealing with two strong men playing the game of empire. Down at Johnstown was Col. William Johnson, ruling like a medieval baron a great forest domain. With an Irish gift of ready speech, adept at flattery, none too scrupulous as to personal morals but honest in his dealings with the Indians Johnson had developed a tremendous influence with the Iroquois. That influence he was not slow to turn to the advantage of his royal master. It was Col. Johnson, so the Indians said, who inspired the Mohawks to attack and partially destroy the fort at La Presentation in 1748. The fact that England and France were at peace meant nothing to Johnson, who knew that the frontier had a law of its own and no one better than he understood what a menace the little fort at the mouth of the Oswegatchie was to the interests of King George.
At La Presentation was Father Picquet, then a man of forty, more of a political agent than a priest and more of a soldier than either. It was his duty to convert the Indians, it is true, but if he could persuade them also to destroy Oswego, well, so much the better. As a matter of fact Father Picquet had definite instructions with respect to Oswego but was cautioned to work entirely through the Indians and outwardly to act towards the English “with the greatest politeness.” This was common, international practice in the eighteenth century and neither Picquet nor Johnson saw anything strange in it.
In all the territory now included in Northern New York the white and gold flag of France waved only over La Presentation, unless the little Tarbell Indian settlement, soon to be known as St. Regis, might be called a French post. Here the Tarbells had recently come with their friends from the Mohawk settlement at Caughnawaga. The Tarbells were white but had lived so long among the Mohawks to be Indian in everything but color. Soon the little settlement of St. Regis was to grow and a chapel was to be erected, in which, according to legend, the bell stolen in the Deerfield massacre many years before, was to hang. But St. Regis at this time was still nothing but a cluster of bark huts m the depth of the forest. La Presentation was much more pretentious with its fort, chapel, saw mill, garrison, storehouse and fields of waving corn. Father Picquet sought to teach his converts to raise hogs and chickens. In this he was only moderately successful, the Indians preferring to leave such tasks to the squaws. He made more progress in teaching the naked Onondagas and Oneidas to sing hymns, this being the sort of ceremony they loved, but it was in leading his “praying Indians” to war that he had his greatest success.
From La Presentation stretching southward was a great forest empire, populated only by wolves and panthers. The shore line had been rudely charted and a few, hardy fur traders knew of the forest trails from the St. Lawrence to the Iroquois country, but in the main the interior was as little known as it had been in the days of the Jesuits. The French had known the Oswegatchie for a century but still thought it had its origin in Black Lake. The Black river, the largest stream in the whole territory, was practically unknown and seldom appeared on the maps. But the French did know that thirty leagues from La Presentation by the water route was that thorn in the side of France, Oswego. For over a quarter of a century now bearded French fur traders on their way to the western posts never failed to scowl when they passed the huge blockhouse with the Union Jack waving gaily to the breeze. They knew that Oswego was a constant threat to the French trade with the west. They knew it was the peep hole through which their enemies could watch the French batteaux and canoes moving westward to La Belle Riviere, Presque Isle and Fort Duquesne. Oswego represented the might of England in the forest. It was a formidable stronghold. The British had boasted that it could never be taken unless battered to pieces by artillery and who could bring artillery through the rapids of the St. Lawrence? In the shadow of the fort clustered the houses of the traders where for two beaver skins the Indians could purchase as good a silver bracelet as they could at the French post of Niagara for ten. The Indians preferred French brandy to English rum, but business was business and an increasing number of them found their way to Oswego.
Within the next few years Oswego was to figure mightily in the affairs of two great nations. Says Arthur Pound, that most recent and most entertaining biographer of Sir William Johnson: “On that silver strand by Ontario’s blue waters Montcalm performed one of those dazzling feats of arms and one of those clement acts of victory which have exalted his name, and the momentary defenders experienced on the same occasion a sinking spell as complete as any ever recorded of American arms. There Sir Jeffrey Amherst, not yet the Lord Jeff of college song, passed with army and armaments on the three-headed expedition which ended French rule in Canada by taking Montreal. And there at last Sir William Johnson had his most triumphant moment when he received the submission of the great Chief Pontiac after their duel of wits, words and war had gone against the rebel aborigine.”
Directly across the lake from Oswego rose the ramparts of old Fort Frontenac, on the site of the present Kingston. A way station to the west, a rendezvous of bearded fur traders and Indians, the post was of the utmost importance to the French in maintaining their control over Lake Ontario, but little improvement had been made in it since the days of Frontenac and La Salle. Such was the situation in Northern New York and its vicinity as the clouds of war loomed darker. Outwardly peace still reigned and Abbe Picquet, the “Apostle of the Iroquois,” and Col. William Johnson of the Mohawks matched wits and bided their time. Then a youthful Virginian surveyor, George Washington, struck the spark that started the war.
Up the St. Lawrence, sweating Canadian boatmen guiding the heavy batteaux, came the French soldiery bound for the Ohio country. At La Presentation, the warlike abbe had his Indians ready and when the first French expedition moved westward, with it went the Indians of La Presentation, painted and greased and ready for battle. With them went a white, silk banner, richly embroidered with fleur de lis, crosses and symbols of the various Iroquoian clans. The year after Abbe Picquet had started his mission at La Presentation, Bishop de Pontbriand with his suite ascended the rapids and paid a visit to the little post. The bishop brought with him a banner, made by the nuns of the congregation, for the La Presentation Indians. It was intended for church ceremonials and the Indians were very proud of it. So when they went to war they took it with them. It waved before Fort Necessity when Washington surrendered, appeared in the smoke of battle at Fort William Henry, Fort Edward, Schenectady and Oswego and had its last baptism of fire on the Plains of Abraham.
The first wartime expedition in the Northern New York area was that of Lieut, de Lery against Fort Bull on the Mohawk. In March, 1756, when the forests were still blanketed with snow the French commander with his little force of French, Canadians and Indians, numbering in all less than 400 men, set out from La Presentation. It was a long trek to the English settlements to the southward and the white men were bundled to the ears in their bearskin coats. Leading the Indians was no other than the warlike abbe, Picquet. All marched on snowshoes in a long, single file that crawled like a black snake through the wild forest lands of the Black river country. For days and days the little army marched southward, half-famished, chilled by the cold and forced to dig holes in the snow to sleep. On March 25, over two weeks after the expedition had left La Presentation, Abbe Picquet gathered about him his painted Indians, the bearded Canadians and the shivering French grenadiers and sang a high mass. The end of the journey was near at hand. That same day the French scouts brought in six Oneida prisoners. In the cold, gray of the dawn two days later the French ambushed a long line of wagons, carrying provisions to the fort. The famished attackers threw themselves upon the supplies and satisfied their hunger for the first time in many days. Nine flat boats were captured at the same time. White and red soldiers knelt in the snow while Abbe Picquet imparted a general absolution. Then came the attack. The fort was taken by storm and Father Picquet’s Christian Indians massacred everyone in the fort with the exception of three persons who succeeded in hiding. One of the Englishmen had fired the powder magazine when he saw all was lost and the French and their allies had hardly time to flee before the entire structure was hurled into the air by a terrific blast. De Lery, knowing that the English from Fort Williams, a few miles away, would soon be on the scene, started the long march back through the wilderness. The little army crossed the divide between the Mohawk and the Black rivers and descended Black river to its mouth. There, fortunately for them, they found French troops from Fort Frontenac waiting in Black River Bay and in their batteaux they returned to Fort La Presentation in triumph, bearing scores of green scalps and a few prisoners.
The Capture of Oswego
Until about fifty years ago the remains of an old palisade were visible on Six Town Point, now an island but then a long, narrow point of land bordering Henderson Bay in what is now Jefferson county. Here the French maintained for many months an observation post, spying on the English at Oswego, and the little, log fort was appropriately named Fort L’Observation. The commander of this post was Captain Coulon de Villiers who had captured Fort Necessity and had received the surrender of George Washington. He was the brother of that Coulon de Jumonville whose killing by Washington and his men had really started the war. De Villiers later commanded at Niagara. He was one of the most resourceful of the French commanders and it was he who was sent to build the little stronghold among the brambles and the underbrush of Six Town Point. It was not a small detachment he commanded, viewed in the light of those days, and consisted of possibly a thousand all told, French, Canadians and Indians. From the start they proceeded to make themselves disagreeable to the English at Oswego. They ambushed Captain Bradstreet’s boatmen proceeding down the Oswego river with supplies for the fort. At first the attack was successful but the English finally gained the upper hand and pursued the French and Indians into the forests. This attack seems to have given the English the first information they had that there was a French post containing a considerable force only a few miles from Oswego.
Fortune had seemed to smile on the French thus far in the war. Gen. Braddock had suffered his crushing defeat and the Union Jack no longer waved west of the Alleghenies. Fort Bull had been destroyed with thousands of dollars worth of munitions of war. And now the white and gold flag of France waved only a few leagues from the great English stronghold of Oswego. The Marquis de Montcalm, small in stature but big in military genius, now commanded the French forces in Canada and the dream of Abbe Picquet seemed about to be realized for Montcalm was determined to attack Oswego. French forces constantly passed up the St. Lawrence on their way to Fort Frontenac where the concentration was to take place. Finally Montcalm, himself, came and tarried for a day at La Presentation, the guest of Abbe Picquet. His aide de camp, Bougainville, had left a vivid description of the little post, bustling with wartime preparations and with war parties of Indians constantly coming and going. Five hundred Iroquois camp fires burned at La Presentation then and the thrifty Bougainville sagely remarks that every one cost the French king one hundred crowns. He was amazed to see the naked Indians going through military drills like Frenchmen, their drill masters being none other than Father Picquet and his assistant, Abbe de Terlaye.
The English had greatly strengthened Oswego after the outbreak of hostilities, appreciating the importance of the post as a means of retaining the friendship of the Six Nations. In 1756 there were three forts located at the mouth of the river. On the east bank, in the middle of a high plateau, was Fort Ontario, constructed of pickets some eight or nine feet high. A ditch, eighteen feet wide and eight deep, surrounded the fort. On the opposite bank of the river was old Fort Oswego, a blockhouse with walls three feet thick. This was surrounded by a stone wall. Fort George, called by the men “Fort Rascal,” was situated beyond Fort Oswego on a hill and was a rather poorly constructed enclosure of pickets. The post was garrisoned by perhaps 1,600 men, but the garrison was half mutinous and there were many sick men.
Montcalm was now at Fort Frontenac with some 3,000 men. Sieur de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, governor of Three Rivers, had crossed to de Villier’s little fort at Six Town Point, with some 700 men and had taken command. With him went the engineer, Des Combles, who surveyed the ground and made a map of the territory from the Bay of Niaoure (Black River Bay) to Oswego. Finally on August 4th Montcalm was ready to start. Canadian scouts and Indians from La Presentation were sent to watch the road between Albany and Oswego and to cut all communications with the fort. Montcalm then crossed to Wolfe Island with two battalions of troops. All day be hid on the island but when night fell the batteaux pushed off for the mainland. All night the men rowed silently through the darkness, the Indians in their bark canoes leading the way. Just as the sun arose above the great trees of the forests, the French commander with his two battalions set foot on Six Town Point. A little later came the second division with the cannon captured from Brad-dock in his disastrous defeat and now to be used against the English in what was destined to be one of the most important engagements of the war. Finally came the hospital corps and the rear guard.
Six Town Point and all the adjoining territory were now overrun with French troops, Canadians and Indians. No such force had ever before landed on the shores of Northern New York. Here were French grenadiers of the battalions of La Sarre and Guienne in their white uniforms, men of the Bearn battalion of the famous Irish Brigade in their characteristic, red uniforms, faced with the green of their native land, hundreds of Indians from Oswegatchie hideous in war paint and bear grease but bearing new French muskets and iron hatchets, and Canadian militiamen and woodsmen, as familiar with this forest warfare as the Indians, themselves. And lined up on the shores were scores of heavy, brass field pieces, each bearing the broad arrow of King George. Years before an English officer had said that Oswego was impregnable against anything but artillery and no enemy would ever be able to bring artillery through the woods to make an attack. He had reckoned without Montcalm who brought into the North Country a completely equipped army. Oswego was to have its test of fire.
De Rigaud’s Indians and Canadian scouts set out in advance, skirting the sandy shore until they reached Sandy Creek Bay. There they waited for the main body which arrived about midnight and encamped for the night. The next morning the march was resumed and on August 11th at daybreak the French army encamped scarcely a mile from Fort Ontario. A week had been consumed by Montcalm in getting his forces across Lake Ontario, yet so skillful was the advance made that the English knew nothing of the approach of the French until the day before the siege of the fort started. The French soon had their artillery playing on the star-shaped breastwork at the mouth of the Oswego river. Realizing that Fort Ontario would soon be battered to pieces by the heavy guns, Colonel Mercer, commandant at Oswego, signaled the troops there to abandon the fort and join his forces at Fort Oswego. The fate of the post was now sealed. The French toiled all night and mounted a strong battery in abandoned Fort Ontario and soon 12-pound shot were tearing away the rotten masonry of Fort Oswego. De Rigaud and his Indians and woodsmen forded the river and took position in the woods above the fort. Col. Mercer was cut in two by a cannon ball. The garrison was disheartened. A council of war was held but it was the cries and entreaties of the terrified women, of whom there were a hundred in the garrison, which decided. The white flag appeared at the top of the flagpole on the old, stone trading post. Cries of “Vive le Roi” sounded from the French trenches when it was seen that the English were prepared to surrender. The French had reason to be delighted. One of the strongest English positions in America had been captured. Over 100 cannon, many ships, vast quantities of supplies and ammunition were taken and some 1,600 prisoners of war. The Indians, who had found rum, proceeded to slaughter some thirty of the prisoners. Montcalm was forced to give them rich presents in order to prevent a general massacre. The three forts were burned to the ground and in the midst of the still smoking embers the French caused a great cross to be erected to commemorate the victory. Volley after volley of musketry were fired by the French regulars, the great guns roared and the drums rolled. As Montcalm and his staff stood at attention a tall priest picked his way through the charred remains to the cross. It was the Abbe Picquet, “Apostle of the Iroquois.” It was his moment of greatest triumph.
The French cause was now at its peak. Lake Ontario was entirely under the control of Montcalm. Oswego reverted to the wild beasts. From Quebec to La Presentation and from Niagara to Fort Duquesne there were rejoicings. Montcalm had scored a tremendous victory. The Iroquois flocked to Oswegatchie bearing pelts. Abbe Picquet even brought a number of chiefs to Montreal where they gazed in astonishment at Montcalm, who was anything but a stalwart man. “You are small, father,” said the spokesman of the Indians, “but we see in your eye the altitude of the pine and the flight of the eagle.” For some time comparative peace reigned in the region which is now Northern New York. The English talked of raiding La Presentation but nothing came of it. They were too busy in the Lake Champlain region where the theater of war had now shifted. Late in 1757 Capt. Bellestre with a detachment of regulars, Canadians and Indians arrived at La Presentation and from thence proceeded to Black River Bay, ascended Black river, crossed the divide and then descended the Mohawk, finally attacking German Flats, killing many of the inhabitants and taking many prisoners. The following winter Indians from La Presentation invaded the Schenectady region and attacked Fort Kouri. War parties were continuously leaving Oswegatchie on snowshoes for the Mohawk and almost always returned with scalps.
Then the tide began to turn. Picquet’s Indian scouts, prowling about the Bay of Niaoure (Black River Bay) were astonished to find the bay filled with barges loaded to the gunwales with red-coated British regulars and blue-coated colonials. It was Bradstreet’s army on its way to attack Fort Frontenac, principal French depot on Lake Ontario. The Indians sped across the lake to carry the news to the old Norman nobleman, de Noyan, who commanded Frontenac, but with his few gunners and fewer guns he was able to make only a superficial defense. The old fort crumbled under the fire of Bradstreet’s heavy guns. Without the loss of a single man the English captured the fort and French domination of Lake Ontario was at an end. Louisburg fell soon after. French Canada was cut in two. Governor de Vaudreuil rushed reinforcements to Niagara. When Abbe Picquet returned to La Presentation from Montreal he found it a concentration camp of the first magnitude. Duplessis-Fabert’s army was there enroute to Niagara. The place was alive with Indians, militiamen, marines and regulars. A short time after the French abandoned Fort Duquesne. “Peace is a necessity or Canada is lost,” wrote Montcalm. It was the beginning of the end.
The Fall of La Presentation
At La Presentation plans were made for a last stand. Northern New York was covered with snow that fell in October. The winter was a particularly rigorous one. Supplies were short but the want was not so keenly felt in La Presentation where game was plentiful. The Indians brought news of the English plans. Johnson was to strike in the spring, they said. The British were waiting for the ice to break up and were as “many as there are flies in the heat of the summer.” It was apparent that La Presentation was not strong enough to stand a siege. The French decided to abandon the post. The little island, today called Adams Island but then the Little Ile-aux-Galops, was strongly fortified. The Chevalier La Corne came up the St. Lawrence with 1,200 men and aided in digging the entrenchments. Indians from La Presentation and St. Regis hung about the flanks of the British army concentrated near the Oswego river. The British, under Prideaux, moved to Oswego and encamped on the ruins of the old fort and La Corne and his force followed the old Onondaga war trail to Oswego to attack them. With him were Abbe Picquet and his Indians. But the attack failed and the French and Indians retreated to La Presentation. Niagara fell, Quebec was besieged and the fortunes of the French seemed very low indeed. Picquet moved his Indians and his mission to Picquet Island and La Presentation was abandoned to the bears and the foxes. Preparations were made to defend the rapids. Fortifications were placed on all the small islands. Canadian and Indian sharpshooters were to defend every portage. All the trails were blocked. Picquet worked tirelessly. Even the vacillating and weak governor, de Vaudreuil, was constrained to write la Corne, who commanded the defense of the rapids, “Allow me, Sir, to assure M. L’Abbe Picquet of my profound respect and I renew my confidence in the care which he takes to increase the zeal and strengthen the attachment of the Indians to the French.”
On September 19th, 1759, an Indian courtier, spent from hard traveling, reached La Presentation with the news that Quebec had fallen and Montcalm had been killed. The following day in the improvised chapel, Abbe Picquet sang a solemn funeral mass for Montcalm and the others who had died on the Plains of Abraham. It must have been an impressive scene, the stalwart priest in worn vestments, the serious-faced officers, the militiamen and the Indians, soldiers of a lost cause, gathered there in the little bark chapel in the wilderness to pay their last tribute to their dead leader.
Captain Pouchot now commanded the little French force that guarded the rapids islands. There were but a couple hundred of them with few guns and they were poorly supplied with provisions. This was the force called upon to make this last stand for France against the grand army of 11,000 men commanded by Sir Jeffrey Amherst. Leizurely the English force moved down the St. Lawrence and on August 22 stood before Fort Levis, the principal French fortification at the rapids. A terrific bombardment was started which continued for three days. The French fort was literally smashed to fragments by the fire from the powerful British batteries. At the end of this time with but two guns effective and not a bullet left, the French capitulated. So the French lost La Presentation. Three weeks later Montreal fell.
The Fall of Pontiac
After the Seven Years War Northern New York reverted to its old solitude. With the English controlling Canada, the North Country was no longer a frontier and lost the importance it had when it was disputed ground. Now the Union Jack waved over the stone fort at Oswegatchie where so long the Abbe Picquet had reigned supreme. The La Presentation Indians scattered. Some of them established a village near the present Lisbon, St. Lawrence county, which existed for thirty or forty years. Others returned to Canada and many joined the colony at St. Regis. The Iroquois visited the beaver-hunting grounds in the Indian river section and fished in Lake Ontario. White traders established themselves at Oswegatchie and on Buck Island, the present Carleton Island.
Immediately after the surrender of Montreal, the 55th Infantry was sent to garrison Oswego. The commander was a Scotchman, Major Alexander Duncan, who was commonly called “Duncan of Lundie.” An interesting picture of garrison life in Oswego at that time is preserved in the “Memoirs of an American Lady,” by Mrs. Grant. This Mrs. Grant, as a child, was stationed with her father, Captain Duncan McVicar, at Fort Ontario in the days immediately following the “Old French War,” as the Seven Years War was commonly called. Mrs. Grant recalled the Fort Ontario of that period as a large structure built of “earth and logs” and its commander as a strict disciplinarian who resided in a curious house of skins which he placed on wheels so that it could be moved to any part of the parade ground. During this same period old Fort Brewerton was also garrisoned by a company of the 55th under Captain Mungo Campbell. It was in the Oswego of this period that James Fenimore Cooper laid the scenes of his famous novel, “The Pathfinder.” Some years later Cooper was stationed at Oswego as a young midshipman on the Oneida, an American brig, and became thoroughly steeped in Oswego history and tradition.
Pontiac’s war occasioned excitement in Oswego as it did in all the frontier posts. In 1764 General Bradstreet, hero of the bitter engagement on the Oswego river during the French war, passed through Oswego at the head of a large force, bound for the Illinois country. At Oswego he was joined by Sir William Johnson at the head of a large body of Indians. Later when Pontiac was subdued there occurred in Oswego one of the most dramatic events in the dramatic history of that frontier post. It was the great council between Sir William Johnson and Pontiac at which the peace between the western Indians and the British was formally ratified. The council was held in July, 1866. Pontiac with a few members of his tribe arrived at Oswego on July 18th, having paddled all the way from distant Lake Michigan. Sir William Johnson with the chiefs of the Six Nations arrived two days later. As there was no place at Oswego big enough to house the council, a great awning of evergreens was erected. Here Sir William, wrapped in a scarlet blanket, richly trimmed with gold lace, and surrounded by the Iroquois chiefs in their most colorful regalia and British officers in their brilliant uniforms, met in solemn council with the great western chief, who, with his headdress of eagle feathers, was an imposing figure, himself. The council went on for several days with much oratory, feasting and drinking. The peace pipe was smoked, the peace agreed to, and silver medals distributed to all the participants. On the last day of July Pontiac and his chieftains took their departure, Sir William Johnson waving adieu as the Ottawa canoes disappeared in the distance.
Then after years of smoldering rebellion came the Revolution. There was a moment of restless uncertainty along the Mohawk and the die was cast. Sir William Johnson had died in 1774, just as the first mutterings of the Revolution were making themselves heard. Col. Guy Johnson, his nephew, called a great council of the Iroquois nations at Oswego and they declared for the British cause. Sir John Johnson, son of the great Sir William, stayed on at Johnson Hall, but the Patriots became convinced that he was organizing the loyalists for action and a detachment of Continentals was sent to the Hall to place Sir John under arrest. Hearing of this plan, Sir John gathered together his Highlanders, his Mohawk Valley Germans and his Indians and fled in the dead of the night. It has usually been supposed that he took the well known trail to Racquette Lake and from there followed the Racquette river to the St. Lawrence. But Mr. Richard C. Ellsworth, secretary of St. Lawrence University, than whom there is no more exact student of North Country history now living, is not at all sure that Sir John and his retainers did not go down the Grass. Two, old, brass fourteen-pounders were discovered some twenty-five years ago, one near the outlet of Long Lake, the other about two miles south of Big Tupper Lake and these are presumed to have been abandoned by Sir John on his march through the wilderness. In a letter written January 20th, 1777, Sir John, himself, says simply: “Upon my arrival at St. Regis with my party consisting of one hundred and twenty men who were almost starved and wore out for lack of provisions being nine days without anything to subsist upon but wild onions, roots and the leaves of the beech trees, I was received in the most friendly manner by the Indians.”
The Mohawks, the Senecas and the Onondagas took the war path. Only the Oneidas lingered uncertainly. Once more the old trails from the Mohawk to the St. Lawrence were trod by stealthy braves, hungry for scalps. Oswegatchie became a post of some importance again. The rebellious German farmers held the Mohawk river; the British held the St. Lawrence and the lake. Northern New York again became a frontier and a battle ground.
St. Leger’s Expedition
Not until 1777 did the war touch Northern New York. Burgoyne had set forth on his expedition to split the rebellious colonies in twain and thus end the war at one stroke. Colonel Barry St. Leger was to lead another expedition having for its object the capture of Fort Stanwix, which stood like a sentinel guarding the Mohawk region, and then to ravage the Mohawk and join Burgoyne at Albany. St. Leger with his force of British soldiers, Hessians, Tories and Indians, were to rendezvous at Buck Island, proceed from thence to Oswego and then march to Stanwix. He was an able officer with considerable experience in border warfare gained in the French war, but pig-headed and reluctant to accept advice from the Tory officers who served under him. Twenty-five years before Braddock had made the same mistake.
Buck Island, now known as Carleton Island, lies just off the village of Cape Vincent in the St. Lawrence river. For many years its importance from a military standpoint had been recognized. The island is about three miles long by half a mile wide and is composed entirely of stone with a thin covering of extremely fertile soil. Tory refugees had gathered on the island soon after the outbreak of the war and by 1776 a storehouse was located there to which stores were brought from La Chine and later loaded for Niagara and Oswego. It was a natural point for troops to concentrate before moving on to Oswego, isolated as it was and far from the seat of war. By the middle of June the commanding officer at Oswegatchie had been notified to hold himself in readiness to move to Buck Island with St. Leger, leaving only an officer and twenty men at Oswegatchie. And by early in July, St. Leger and his whole force were on the island busily engaged in building bark huts for a short stay.
St. Leger had about 500 white men and an indeterminate number of Indians. There was a detachment of the 34th regiment, the organization of which St. Leger was an officer, a portion of the famous Eighth regiment, or the King’s Regiment of Foot, one of the most noted regiments in His Majesty’s service, Sir John Johnson’s regiment of Royal Greens, mostly Tories from the Mohawk, some of Butler’s rangers, one company of Hessian riflemen, a group of Canadian axemen and the Indians under Col. Daniel Claus. According to Sir John Johnson’s Orderly Book, the little army arrived at Buck Island July 8th and immediately started to erect temporary dwellings and to clear a portion of the plateau of the island. St. Leger made sure of the industry of his troops by directing that they be furnished liquor while at work “as might seem proper.”
It was while the force was at Buck Island that orders were received from the King appointing Col. Claus superintendent of the Indian department for the expedition. He was the son-in-law of Sir William Johnson, had served with distinction during the French war and had early in life acquired the ability to converse fluently in the Iroquois tongue. Already the expedition was beginning to feel the lack of provisions. Also strict orders were given about issuing rum to the Indians who were already giving trouble. But St. Leger was unable to adhere to this resolution and soon after we find Claus complaining that the commander had issued a quart of rum apiece to the Indians “which made them all beastly drunk, and in which case it is not in the power of men to quiet them.”
On July 11th, St. Leger proudly announced to his men that Fort Ticonderoga had fallen and that his troops were to hold themselves in readiness to embark at an hour’s notice. Provisions for 500 men for forty days were stored in the boats and ammunition prepared for use of the two six-pounders and the two mortars which comprised the artillery of the expedition. On July 19th, the long line of batteaux, piloted by the armed sloop, Charity, set out for Oswego.
What a stirring scene it must have been as the heavy, cumbersome boats were slowly rowed along the old water route to Oswego which had been followed in days gone by by the armies of de la Barre, Frontenac and Montcalm. The sun was just rising over the broad bosom of the St. Lawrence as the advance guard moved forward. The big batteaux, forty feet in length by six beam, were each propelled by four oarsmen selected from among the Canadian familiar with the route. In the foremost of them were picked men from the 34th and the Eighth regiments, the 34th gay in their new scarlet coats piped with yellow, the Eighth in that distinctive blue uniform in which they had won glory on many a battle field. On the flanks hovered the Indians in their bark canoes, glistening with grease and brilliant with the Vermillion Col. Claus had secured for them at his own expense. From the sloop which carried the commander-in-chief, the Union Jack waved to the breeze. Behind came the long line of heavily-laden boats. Here were Tories smarting for revenge, Hessian bearded and booted, knowing little and caring less about the causes of the war, Canadian boatmen singing snatches of French boating songs as they bent at the oars, British regulars in bright uniforms—what a colorful sight on this July morning with all about them blue water and the green of the forests.
Southward and westward they moved, following the old Onondaga canoe route, past Henderson Bay where Champlain and his red allies had landed 150 years before, past Six Town Point where the mighty Montcalm had marshalled his host for the advance on Oswego, past La Famine, scene of the great council between the French and the Iroquois, until Oswego with the blackened ruins of old Fort Oswego and the log and mud walls of new Fort Ontario hove into view.
At Oswego there was a brief pause and then a detachment of the Eighth regiment and a number of Indians under Lieut. Bird were sent forward as an advance guard, followed a few days later by St. Leger and the main body of troops. Past Bradstreet’s Rift where the bitter fight between the British boatmen and the French and Indians had occurred in the Seven Years War, went the motley, little army, until finally the whole force was drawn up before sturdy Fort Stanwix and the siege started.
It is no part of this tale to tell the stirring story of the siege of Fort Stanwix, of Herkimer’s march and the bloody battle at Oriskany, of the first Stars and Stripes, a blotch of color in the smoke of the battle, and finally of St. Leger’s retreat with a beaten and discouraged force. Off Point Peninsula, on the way back to the St. Lawrence, a number of the British boats were wrecked in a high wind, and there is an old legend that a paymaster in one of the wrecked boats buried his gold somewhere on Point Peninsula. Numerous treasure hunters throughout the years have dug for it, never securing anything for their pains excepting exercise.
Determination to build a fort at Buck Island followed the St. Leger expedition. In August, 1778, Lieut. William Twiss of the engineers visited the island and was greatly impressed with its defensive possibilities. It was Lieut. Twiss who named the island Carleton Island and it was also he who proposed that the fort to be built there be named Fort Haldimand. Captain Aubrey was in command of the island when the fort was building and on September 8 th, 1778, he was able to report to General Haldimand that “all the lower logs for the works here will be laid this afternoon, a general hospital is building . . . and your excellency may be assured of every precaution for the security and defense of this island and against surprise. That same date Lieut. Twiss reported that a long parapet eight feet high and eight feet thick at the bottom was in the course of construction.
A detachment of Royal Yorkers was then stationed at the post. This was Sir John Johnson’s regiment, first known as the Royal Greens from their uniforms but now attired in scarlet coats faced with blue. Later there was a detachment of the Tory regiment known as the Royal Highland Immigrants on the island, their colorful Highland garb a continual source of admiration on the part of the Indians. Oneida Indians in the service of the Continentals hung about the mainland and severely tried the nerves of the garrison. There were strict orders about fires at night and only young and active men were placed on guard duty. On June 3rd, 1779, ceremonies were held on the island in honor of the birthday of George III. The troops were lined up on the parade ground and the great guns in the fort and upon the ships in the harbor thundered out the royal salute.
Today one may see the crumbling, stone chimneys and the trenches cut in solid rock which are all that remain of once proud Fort Haldimand. Here was one of the most important outposts of England
during the Revolution. Men whose names are written in blood in our border history made this their base. Joseph Brant, the scourge of the border, Col. Claus, the ranger chief, Sir John Johnson, the two Butlers and many others here organized those terrible raids upon the Mohawk settlements that fill one with horror to this day. Here English agents paid a bounty to the Indians for scalps and the scalps that were paid for were often those of defenseless women and children. Here Brant s Indians made their headquarters, sometimes hundreds of them, supported and furnished with cheap finery by the British military authorities and from here they set forth on their expeditions of murder and pillage. It was a strong fortress for its day and was never attacked by the Continentals although often American scouts would watch the garrison from the mainland and perchance capture a Britisher or two to be taken back to Fort Stanwix for questioning.
But one attempt was made against the British posts along the St. Lawrence and that a minor one, from a military standpoint, against Oswegatchie. About the middle of April, 1779, Lieut. Thomas McClennan left Fort Stanwix, or Fort Schuyler, as the Americans called it, with Lieut. Hardenbergh and about thirty men of the Continental line together with some Oneida Indians for Oswegatchie. It took the little force a week to reach the vicinity of Oswegatchie, travel at that time of the year through the northern forests being especially difficult. Two Onondagas in a canoe were captured on the Oswegatchie river by McClennan’s Oneidas and the prisoners told the Americans that Oswegatchie was garrisoned by about forty men. Four soldiers were captured before the British became aware of the presence of the Americans. Then they sent out a small party to ascertain the strength of the foe. The Continentals, adept at bush fighting, prepared an ambush for them and killed two before the British retreated to the fort. The British then opened fire with their artillery and the Americans were forced to retreat to the shelter of the woods, finally returning to Fort Schuyler when it became apparent that they could not hope to capture the fort.
This is the same Lieut. McClennan, who the year previous had been sent by Col. Gansevoort to destroy Fort Ontario. Here he was more successful than at Oswegatchie. The Continentals found no one there but a woman and her children. This family they placed in an outhouse with their furniture, and then proceeded to burn Fort Ontario and the buildings about it.
The Last Raid of the Revolution
But while Oswego was seldom garrisoned during the Revolution and Oswegatchie was an insignificant post at best, Carleton Island became one of the most formidable outposts of England, with sometimes as many as 600 men stationed there in addition to hundreds of Indians. The winter of 1779-80 Molly Brant, sister of Joseph and known generally as “Brown Lady Johnson” from the fact that for years she had been the consort of His Majesty’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs, spent several months on the island and although she was insatiable in her demands and insisted that a home should be built for her, her influence over the Indians was great and her every whim was granted. Gen. Haldimand cautioned the commander at Fort Haldimand to keep “Miss Molly” in a “good temper” and later Captain Fraser, the commander, was able to write the general that Molly had “got into her new house and seems better satisfied than I have ever seen her.” But satisfied or not “Miss Molly” must have contrasted many times her residence in the wilderness of Northern New York with the years when she was the respected mistress of Johnson Hall and, surrounded by her half-breed children, lived in all the luxury that a wealthy and indulgent man could lavish upon her.
It was from Carleton Island that the last British raid upon the Mohawk Valley during the Revolutionary War was launched. Bloody days had come to the “Valley.” The Tories and their Indian allies had ravished it from one end to the other. Men, women and children had been butchered and their scalps carried back to Carleton Island. Ruin, desolation and discouragement reigned all along the Mohawk and there seemed some justification for the stories told by Major John Ross, commander of His Majesty’s forces at Fort Haldimand, that the rebels were all but beaten and that before many months the Tories and their red-skinned allies would be back in their old homes, avenging themselves upon their misguided neighbors at their leisure. But although it would be many weeks before the news would penetrate to this wilderness post, Cornwallis was already at Yorktown. Within a week he would be hemmed in by Washington’s little army and would be forced to yield up his sword to the great American leader.
But there was no thought of defeat on this fall day as the long me of heavily-laden batteaux moved slowly away from Carleton Island and swung towards the lake, the Canadian boatmen grunting from the efforts of their labor. From the bow of the leading boat the Union Jack flapped lazily. It was October and there was a breath of winter in the air. The soldiers, wedged into the clumsy boats, rew their greatcoats about their ears, grumbling among themselves. It was a long way to Oswego and poling was slow work at best. But to the Indians who glided along over the bosom of the river in their light, bark canoes, it was a different matter. Ahead were scalps, plunder and probably rum. Certainly there would be little fighting. Had not Major Ross assured them that the rebels were disheartened and would flee at the slightest provocation?
There were 600 men in the force which Major Ross, commandant at Fort Haldimand, led in his expedition against Warren’s Bush. News of the raid had been carefully guarded. Gen. Haldimand had laid great store upon this expedition. He proposed to give the rebels a lesson which they would not soon forget. At Oswego troops from Niagara were to join Ross. It was to be the most pretentious British raid on the Mohawk settlements in many a day. Probably Gen. Haldimand and Major Ross little dreamed that it was to be the last one and that the battles which were to be fought in the course of this expedition were to be the last battles of the Revolution on the soil of New York State.
It was well that Major Ross had taken precautions to carefully conceal news of his expedition. Continental scouts were continually prowling around the island and often took prisoners almost under the eyes of the British sentinels. What a sight it would have been for an American scout this October morning, viewing boat after boat loaded to the gunwales with scarlet-coated soldiers, other boats piled high with supplies, and Indians, greased, plumed and painted for battle. The scout, were he a resident of the Mohawk Valley, would have seen that many boats were loaded with Tories of Sir John Johnson’s regiment of Royal Yorkers. He could have told them from the blue pipings on their scarlet coats and probably would have recognized many of the officers and men as former neighbors. And he would have seen, too, that there were a goodly number of British regulars in the party, including a company of the famous Eighth regiment of Foot, sometimes called the King’s regiment. It was not the first time that grenadiers of the Eighth had followed this route to Oswego, nor was this expedition of Major Ross to be any the less disastrous than the earlier one of St. Leger.
It is no intention of this writer to give a detailed account of Ross’ raid on Warren’s Bush. That belongs to the history of the Mohawk Valley and not to the history of Northern New York. One who likes to go to the original sources can read the British story of the raid in the report of Major Ross to Gen. Haldimand in the Haldimand Papers in the Canadian Archives. Or, if he prefers the American account, he can read Col. Willett’s report in the Clinton Papers, probably as realistic and vivid account of an engagement as ever was incorporated in an official report. Or he can turn the pages of Chamber’s “The Reckoning” and read how Walter Butler died at the ford on West Canada creek, praying for the mercy he was never known to give.
It is sufficient for this story to say that Ross had anything but easy going after he had left his boats at Oneida Lake and followed the trail to the Mohawk. True his men burned some twenty houses in the vicinity of Warren’s Bush and killed two men besides destroying a large quantity of grain before crossing the Mohawk and marching to Johnson Hall, closely pursued the while by Col. Willett and a force of Continentals. Here a sharp engagement was fought which ended in Ross retreating into the woods with Willett hard after him. An American detachment by forced marches reached Oneida Lake and destroyed the British boats leaving Ross but one alternative and that was to get back to Carleton Island over the old Oswegatchie trail which followed West Canada creek and then crossed the divide into the Black River Valley.
Snow fell and it was hard going for Ross and his men. To make things worse, a number of his Indians deserted and provisions were short. So hot was the pursuit that Walter Butler was killed at the ford at West Canada creek which ever since has been called Butler’s ford. Butler, who commanded the rear guard, was shot by an Oneida Indian in the service of the Americans. He fell wounded on the banks of the creek, deserted by his men, and the Indian immediately swam the creek and dispatched the hated Tory chieftain with his tomahawk, crying “Remember Cherry Valley/’ when Butler begged for quarter. Willett tells the story of the retreat with the touch of an artist. “Their flight was performed in Indian file upon a constant trot,” he writes, “and one man being knocked on the head or falling off into the woods never stopped the progress of his neighbors, nor even the fall of their favorite Butler, could attract their attention so much as to induce them to take even the money or anything else out of his pocket, although he was not dead when found by one of our Indians, who finished his business for him and got a considerable booty.”
It was well into November before Ross and his men got back behind the log walls of Fort Haldimand at Carleton Island and losses had been heavy in the hard march through the woods. It was the last Tory gesture of the war. The British losses had been severe and particularly did they feel the loss of the younger Butler. “I read with much concern the fate of Capt’n Butler,” Gen. Haldimand wrote piously to Major Ross. “He was a very active, promising officer, and one of those whose loss, at all times, but particularly in the present is much to be lamented.” But a contemporary American account gives a different estimate. “Walter N. Butler was one of the most inhuman wretches that ever disgraced humanity,” declares this writer. “Ferocious, blood-thirsty and cruel, he seemed to revel in perfect delight at the spectacle of human suffering. He surpassed the savages in barbarity.”
Now Carleton Island belongs to the General Electric Company and will be transformed into a Summer playground for its officials and employees. Golf courses are being fitted out and there will be recreational halls and bathing houses and all that goes to make a vacation resort. Fortunately, the crumbling, old chimneys—all that remain of Fort Haldimand—are to be preserved. It is hard to realize, as one stands today where once the log barracks and the general hospital stood, that here 150 years ago was a fortress which the British engineers considered almost impregnable. Now the placid St. Lawrence flows by uniting rather than dividing two peaceful nations with not a fortification along their thousands of miles of frontier. It is a far cry back to the days of the Revolution when war blazed along the Mohawk and the names of Joseph Brant, Walter Butler and Daniel Claus inspired terror up and down “the Valley.” Then Carleton Island—or Buck Island, as the Continentals knew it— was often mentioned in the official documents. To the sturdy German militiamen who guarded their homes along the Mohawk, it was a nest of Tories which they dreamed some day of cleaning out.
Read the musty papers in the Canadian archives and the Carle-ton Island of Revolutionary days lives again. One hears the regular tread of the sentries, marching their posts, their eyes fastened on the mainland where, perchance, Oneida scouts were hidden. One sees again the log barracks, Highlanders in bright, plaid kilts, British Grenadiers in scarlet coats, dusky braves, constantly coming and going, and Tory rangers, decked and painted like Indians and hardly more civilized. Men whose names live in history appear before our eyes. Here is Sir John Johnson, small-calibred son of a great father, Col. Daniel Claus, His Majesty’s superintendent of Indian affairs, Walter Butler, whose blood is soon to dye red the waters of West Canada creek, and Joseph Brant, powerful chieftain of the Mohawks, intelligent, educated in the white man’s schools, a favorite of old Sir William Johnson, and, some biographers hint, possibly one of his many sons.
Such was the Carleton Island of Revolutionary days, a rendezvous of Indians and Tories, a forest outpost of King George III, a base for raids against the Mohawk settlements. From here St. Leger started for Oriskany, from here Walter Butler went forth to die, and from here Ross led the last British raid of the war. Who will read the story of Carleton Island and say that Northern New York has no Revolutionary War history?
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.