A History of the Jefferson County Region

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Compiled by Marc M
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A History of the Jefferson County Region

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Glacier    Around two hundred million years ago New York's Finger Lakes and region were created when part of the ocean bottom lifted toward the surface. Two million years ago a glacier began covering, then retreating, then re-covering the state. Twenty thousand years ago the glaciers from the retreating ice age swept across what is now New York State, the result of these prehistoric events created the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes as well as many of the larger natural landmarks. What is now called the 'Thousand Islands' are the remains of resistant Precambrian bedrock which had not been eroded away by the currents of the St. Lawrence River. The Black River, another river in upstate New York, is one of only a few 'free flowing rivers' in New York state. The Black River basin area covers nearly two-thousand square miles and receives the highest annual precipitation of any watershed in New York State. There are many unique land areas, scenery, and micro-environments which can be reached via walking, biking, and cross-country skiing trails, as well as snowmobiling and all terrain vehicles.

Bering Staits
    During the time of the ice ages, around 40,000 to 11,000 B.C., the first people (called Paleo-Indians) as well as many other animals, traveled over what is now called the Bering Straits (between Siberian Russia/Asia and Alaska, the narrowest part of which is only forty miles), which were either ice-locked or drained of their water, and gradually journeyed southward.  Some finally settled (anywhere between eight thousand to eleven- or twelve-thousand years ago) on the land which is now called Jefferson County. We don't know who these original settlers were as they left no written nor spoken language, archaeologists call them Paleoindians .  Around mid-13th century settlers who could be  positively identified as Iroquoian (speaking an Iroquoian dialect and having an Iroquoian culture, though they were not the Iroquois or even the Onondaga but a distinct population we know as St. Lawrence Iroquoians). (Much of the previous as corrected by Dr. Timothy J. Abel of the Jefferson County Historical Society.  He also writes: "The Onondaga and Oneida never lived in Jefferson County. They claimed northern New York, as did the Mohawk, to discourage European land claims in those regions after the F&I War.")

    This tract of land was a main line of travel from Canada to the Hudson valley region. It was also the site of many bloody wars and skirmishes between the Canadian Algonquin Indians and the Iroquois Indians. In almost every part of the county, but especially in those parts bordering Lake Ontario, the remains of crude Indian fortifications can be found. These are usually on hills and unwaveringly face the northwest - from where their enemies arrived.

ChamplainIt is said that the St. Lawrence River was discovered in 1535 by Jacques Cartier.  But probably the first non-American Indian to visit what is now New York State was the Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazano, when he came across New York Bay sometime in 1524.  Around  1609 or so Henry Hudson claimed it for the Netherlands and in 1624 a settlement at Fort Orange was established.  But the first European to visit what is now the Jefferson County area was more then likely the French explorer Samuel de Champlain (1567?-1635) who, in the fall of 1615 (five years before the Pilgrims landed, eight years after the settlement of Jamestown) with a force of 2,500 Indians, crossed from the "vicinity of Kingston to Galloup and Stony islands and from thence to near the mouth of Stony Creek in the present town of Henderson, where the canoes were concealed in the woods."  An unsuccessful campaign against the Iroquois Indians followed. (Champlain's name was given to Lake Champlain, which he discovered. During Champlain's first trip to the New World in 1599, he also suggested making a canal across the Isthmus of Panama to shorten the route to the South Sea [Pacific Ocean].)

    In 1654 Father Simon le Moine, a Jesuit Missionary, visited the Onondaga Indians somewhere near what is now the Cape Vincent area.  The next year two more French Missionary priests of the same order, Father Chaumonoit and Father Dablon, visited the Onondaga Indians on their way to the Iroquois Country.  They traveled the same route from Quebec as le Moine, and camped at a location now known as Dablon Point on the south shore of Wilson's Bay.

    Later, in the war with Britain, the Oneida Indians tried to remain neutral, but then fought for the Americans, while some fought for the British.  The North Country at this time was considered something of a "buffer zone" between the rest of the state and Tory Canada.  Canadian Tories were considered a real threat and were thought to be waiting right across the border.

    Early settlers to the North Country were abandoning the area because of attacks by Mohawk (the name Mohawk was the Algonquin word for "Cannibal") and Schoharie Indians.

    Around 1665 New York State got its official name after the English seized the area from the Dutch.  It was renamed "New York" in honor of Britain's James, the Duke of York and brother of King Charles II.

    1775 the American Revolution begins. 

    Sometime during this time period Benjamin Wright and a group of surveyors inspected the area which is now Jefferson County.  Also, in the same year Carlton Island was fortified from Fort Haldimand (more about Fort Haldimand on page 2) by the English, and government vessels were built there for use in Lake Ontario.

    Governor George Clinton (1739-1812) talked to General Washington about the abandonment of outlying areas of the state by settlers and Washington directed him to act against the Indians, destroying them.  A devastating attack against the Indians of the state was carried out.

    In the summer of 1780 in a battle near Camden, S.C., Baron Jean DeKalb, who was a native of Alsace and had been fighting in our war, was pierced by eleven wounds and killed.  The town of DeKalb was named after him.  In 1782 what is now Wolfe Island was named by the Provincial Governor Simcoe after Major General James Wolfe. Before that time, the French called the island Grand Island, Isle Buade, or the Indian name - "Gannin-k-not".

    A treaty of sorts was created on October 22, 1784, between the newcomers and the Indians.  The treaty was made secure by a subsequent one with the Oneidas when they ceded all of NY's land, except for a small parcel - a hundred square mile tract in now what is called the Town of Orleans, called Penet's Square (named after Peter Penet), to the State of New York in 1789.  The Indians were still treated as inferior during the making of the treaties and even after the signing there were still parts of the state where the war was still proceeding with the Indians.

    The US needed an intermediary with the French, who had helped the country during the war.  Benjamin Franklin went to France and stayed with Jacques Le Ray de Chaumont.  Le Ray was a commoner of sorts and a businessman very sympathetic to America.  He also had stock in America being successful and paying off their debts to him.

Le Ray    Jacques' son, James, persuaded his father to allow him to go to America, where he married a NJ resident and became an American citizen in 1788.  New York became the 11th state on July 26th of this year.

    On June 22, 1791, Governor Clinton and the Board of Land Commissioners began to plan on getting Northern NY settled.  Alexander Macomb purchased all land in what is now Jefferson County; except Penet Square, most of Franklin county and St. Lawrence, all of Lewis County, and part of Oswego.  This was called, appropriately enough, Macomb's Purchase.  Macomb purchased the land on behalf of himself, William Constable, and Daniel McCormick. After the purchase, the land was divided into "Eleven Towns".

    Macomb went into bankruptcy and Constable sold large parts of the property to other people in the state.  He also went to France to talk to James Le Ray, thinking the French Revolution might cause many of the French to move to America.  Le Ray invested in land, trying to get back money his family had lost while helping the Americans.  He bought land in Pennsylvania but traded it for land in New York State, and lived in America from 1785 to 1790.

    At the end of the French Revolution, Northern New York did attracted many distinguished French refugees.  Though conditions were hard for these upper classes, circumstances came together favorably for settlement in Macomb's Purchase.  Contributing factors included the bad conditions in France, the land in the state being rich and valuable, existing prices lower then in Canada, the lesser chance of interference with British-derived traditions, and the fact that the French knew that they would be treated well by the Americans because of the help they gave America.

    A tract of land named Castorland was created by Macomb's Purchase, the land being between Black River and Lake Ontario and in the middle of what is now Rome and Watertown.  This was property put together by the Castorland Company run by Peter Chassanis, Le Ray's brother-in-law.  Castorland was created to be a new France and the company consisted of thousand's of stockholders who would get land there.

    The business was made of four commissioners - Chassanis, Le Ray, Peter Pharoux; an architect, and Simon Desjardines; an aristocrat.  Pharoux and Desjardines sailed from France and, after getting to New York, met Marc Brunel.  Brunel had traveled to the United States to escape the revolution in France and later designed a successful entry for the competition to build the new Capitol Building in Washington, he also became chief engineer to New York City.  He then emigrated to the UK where he persuaded the British admiralty to make ships blocks by machine, starting one of the first mass production lines in history.  Then he went on to design the first road tunnel under the Thames, to do this he invented the tunneling shield.  (Info on Marc Brunel provided by Andy Jarvis).  On the way to upper New York, the group weathered many a hardship, including meeting and being temporarily held by a British ship (where Brunel was detained but escaped).

    Finally, the party made it to Northern New York.  In 1794 the surveyors and workers spent the hard winter in the North Country, where they built a large oven, a dugout canoe, and two log houses with a connecting gallery.  The surveyors then discovered that they had less land then they had thought, due to the Black River cutting through the middle of their properties.  They also discovered that they could not easily travel from one part of their land to another because of the raging river.

    A group went downstream to survey High Falls (Lyon's Falls), Long Falls (Carthage), and Great Falls (Watertown). Pharoux and some workers tried to cross the river, being overconfident from doing it many times before, and found that the poles they were using for their raft would not reach bottom.  They went over Great Falls (at Beebee's Island [originally Cowan's Island], Watertown), where the river falls about a hundred and twelve feet (thirty-four meters).  One workman was rescued by an Indian, but the others and the surveying equipment were lost.

    Pharoux's body was found later in 1795 by Benjamin Wright and a memorial was constructed on an island in the mouth of Black River.

    Many of the men who had arrived there the previous spring wanted to go back without ever even having gotten to the winter months.  Numerous men got the "Bloody Flux", what is now known as dysentery.  (See Glossary of Old Diseases and their present-day meanings)

    In 1795, summer probably, the first mill in Carthage was constructed as well as the town of Worth being surveyed and laid out.  Worth is the most elevated area in Jefferson County, rising between twelve-hundred and fifteen-hundred feet above sea level.

    The French settlers in the area had a different attitude toward the American Indians then the British-derived settlers.  The American Indians were allowed to roam the settlement and some occasionally even brought gifts for the settlers.  A few were enlisted to help finish the walls of the mill at Long Falls (Carthage).  This good will was marred by a small disagreement over an alcohol-related misunderstanding.

    Benjamin Wright surveyed what is now the town of Henderson (Henderson Bay was first called 'Hungry Bay' by English soldiers) and the South Jeff area in 1796.  In May of 1796 it was discovered that money was not being sent to the Castorland settlement from France.  The settlers and workman tried again in Long Falls (Carthage) but the workman deserted and someone stole all of the remaining money that the group had brought.

    Around this time a man named Tiller appeared and told Desjardines that he was sent to replace him as director of the colony.  Desjardines left and never returned.  Tiller, the new director, was always in squabbles of some sort from this time onward.

    Between 1796 and 1800 twenty aristocratic families settled in Castorland and Oneida County (which Jefferson County was then a part of) was begun in 1798.

    In 1797 General Henry Champion of Connecticut purchased "Howard", Town #4 of the Macomb Purchase.  Noadiah Hubbard, his land agent, and a surveyor, Joel Mix, rafted together down the Black River and staked out their lands in the spring of that year.  Noadiah Hubbard Jr. (A distant relative of the compiler of this history) had come from Connecticut, also.

    Hubbard is considered to be the first permanent resident of Champion and in 1798 built a "Bachelor's Hall", which he kept going for two years.  He was "chief cook" at his "hall", which consisted of a crude, three-sided structure of logs and bark.  He was also credited with having the only clock in Black River Country.  In 1799, Mrs. Hubbard joined her husband, walking the last four miles from Long Falls (Carthage) through the forest.

Hubbard House    Hubbard later served in the War of 1812 as a captain.  The Hubbard couple built a large attractive house in 1831, which was later used as a stopping-off point for runaway slaves en route to Canada.  The house remained in the family until Parnell F. Hubbard sold it on March 7, 1860.  (The last known owners were Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. McCuin.)  At this period in the history of Jefferson County horses were a rarity and oxen were used for transport and work, though long trips were usually done on foot.

    Mix's family also settled in Champion and Mix built the first sawmill on the river bank.

    Between 1861 and 1865 the American Civil War raged.  An "Underground Railway" of the Abolitionists was located on one of the islands in the Thousands Islands during this time.

    Ellisburg was purchased by Marvel Ellis in March 1797 but reverted to Constable.  And in 1798 the NY State Legislature rescinded the regulation allowing French citizens to hold property in the State of N.Y.  Governeur Morris (who in 1782 came up with the idea of decimal coinage [and invented the word "cent"] which later became the basis of the nation's currency) put Richard Coxe, another brother-in-law of Le Ray, in charge of the inspection of the Castorland settlement.  In 1804 he found the company holdings in chaos, almost all of the settlers gone, and Long Falls almost deserted.  The company had left in debt with only eighty-two acres of land cleared, eighteen log cabins, a sawmill, and some unusable roads.

    Around this time the French government pardoned the French settlers who had lived in the area and they headed back home to France.  Watertown at this time in history only had four official streets - Washington, State, Arsenal, and Court.

    But more settlers continued to come in.  Early settlers during this time were mostly from Connecticut and Vermont, with a smattering of people from other areas.

Hart Massey    In 1798 Henry Coffeen (a New Englander living in Schuyler, Oneida County), Zachariah Butterfield, and Hart Massey (29 years old, from Vermont) built cabins on what is now Watertown's Public Square.  After their inspection trip they returned later to get their families.  (It was rumored that Public Square was originally a ravine and was used as a landfill...)

    The year 1799 saw the town of Brownville settled by pioneer Jacob Brown, who had been sent as James D. Le Ray's agent, as well as Brown's wife Pamelia (Williams), and his extended family.  Brown was a Quaker from Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  The town of Brownville at that time included all of present Brownville, as well as Pamelia, Lyme, Cape Vincent, Clayton, Orleans, and a part of the Town of Alexandria.

    So little was known of Black River during this time period (later 1700's) that a map of the time showed it flowing west right into Lake Ontario.

    In the 1800's the state road was extended from Brownville to Cape Vincent.  Also around 1800 a developer built a road into the interior of Rutland, which derived its name from Rutland, Vermont where most of its settlers came from.  General Brown built a sawmill in 1800, too, and in 1801 a small grist mill at the mouth of Philomel Creek.  Settlement in the town of Adams began and the Town of Champion and Watertown were created, making them some of the earliest official townships in Jefferson County.

    Around 1800, there were about eighty families and two-hundred or so people living in Watertown.  It was named "Watertown", for obvious reasons.  Around the same time the first town meeting in the county was held in Champion in the home of the Justice of the Peace, Joel Mix.  Noadiah Hubbard was elected first supervisor.  Also in the early 1800's a vast array of caverns and caves were discovered under Watertown in the limestone the city sits upon.

    In early 1800 Henry Coffeen returned for his family and brought them with an ox team on what was known then as old French road.  In the same year the first 'highway' was cut in the Town of Lyme.  It was later abandoned.

    Sackets Harbor and the Town of Hounsfield were founded in 1801 by Augustus Sacket, a New York City lawyer.  The Village of Sackets Harbor was incorporated into the township of Hounsfield, named for Ezra Hounsfield, who had purchased land nearby.  Noadiah Hubbard put up a log schoolhouse at the town's expense in Champion and in the same year also built one of the first churches in Champion.

    Settlement began around 1801 in Cape Vincent, starting with Captain Abijah Putnam, though the town was not formed until much later.  The first settlement was called Port Putnum.  The town has a long French-related history, evident in some of its oldest buildings.  Clayton, named after John M. Clayton - a senator from Delaware, was also settled in 1801 by Captain Bartlett, whose name was given to Bartlett's Point.

    Burrville Cider Mill, formerly known as Burr's Mills and bought and named after Captain John Burr, was built in 1801.  It was first used as a sawmill and a gristmill and is located at the head of the north branch of Sandy Creek on a thirty foot waterfall (also reputed to be Jefferson County's first brewery).  The waterfall was used to run a turbine that powered the mill's equipment.  There is record of a cider press being in use in the mill as far back as the 1800's.  Captain Burr himself is something of a mystery, but it was rumored that he was a pirate who would steal from supply ships on Lake Ontario and then sell the cargo back to the troops at Sackers Harbor.  Some say his ghost still visits the mill.

    Le Ray rejoined his sick wife in N.Y. in 1802 and sold land to Quakers, who founded the village of Philadelphia, NY in 1804. And also in 1802 the first permanent settler on Grindstone Island, Amariah Howe, took up residence there.

    The first seven deeds in Watertown were all filed on the same day on August 20, 1802.  In the same year Jonathan Cowan built the first mill, a grist mill, in Watertown and during the same time period Dr. Isaiah Massey opened a tavern in the area of what now is Watertown's American Corner.  Purchases at this time for land were usually made in whiskey, which was established legal tender in Watertown.

    Some of the first settlers arrived in the town of Worth with a few more in the next year. The first settlers to the town of Lorraine also trickled in.  These first permanent settlers were Elijah Fox, James McKee and his wife Sabra, who came from the Rome area on foot.  They began a log cabin immediately.

    Henry Coffeen, Hart Massey and others erected the first bridge across the Black River in 1802 or 1804 and then tried to dam it in 1806.

    In 1800 a gristmill was constructed in Rutland, a sawmill in 1805, two woolen mills by 1811. Whiskey continued to be legal tender as well as ciscoes, a kind of whitefish. The Square in Watertown was given to the village of Watertown to be used as a mall or square, forever.  It originally was a ravine which took many years to fill and was one of the first landfill projects done.

    The area's major exports were lumber and potash, the lumber not always gotten legally, especially in the Penet Square area (see below).  Large rafts of lumber were floated to Quebec and piloted by American Indians. The rafts were usually fifty-two feet long or so and might consist of one hundred thousand cubic feet of oak, six-thousand planks.

    Adams was formed from Mexico on April 1, 1802 and named for John Adams.  James Le Ray's agents founded what is now the village of Chaumont, after finding that their first settlement was flooded.

Le Ray Mansion Le Ray made his first trip to the North Country with Governeur Morris in 1803.  They visited Brownville and some other areas, finally taking a small boat trip. During this trip, while camping, they had an incident in which the Governor lost his wooden leg to a fire in their tent. Le Ray nearly died from an illness he came down with after being exposed to the elements as a result of the incident. Jacques, James Le Ray's father, died in this year and James returned home for three years.  During this time he sent his friend and physician to choose a site for a home in Northern N.Y.  The friend found a suitable site on the edge of Pine Plains (later known as Pine Camp, Camp Hughes, Camp Drum, then finally Fort Drum - see later in this history for more info).  A mansion was constructed between 1806 and 1808, but burned and a second one was built in 1827.  The mansion was considered to be the best west of the Hudson.  The mansion was also a base of operations for the bringing in of new settlers and continued to be a landmark for many years. Some of the original rose bushes still grow there in present times.

    Settlement in Antwerp began.

    In 1804 a post office was opened in Champion, the second in the county and a bridge over the Black River was created at Great Bend.  The first cabin was built in Worth and Rodman was formed from Adams on March 24, having earlier been called Harrison after a previous owner.  Seth Cutlar built the first grist mill in the town of Lorraine.  In the same year a store was being built but a spark from a Miss Andrus' pipe ignited some shaving and the unfinished construction burned down.

    Penet Square was a parcel of land which the state's Board of Land Commissioners did not control because of an agreement with the Oneida Indians. Years before, the Indians had ceded the land to the state, with the Indians insisting that this parcel be considered a gift to Pierre Penet, who had earlier helped the Indians.  Penet was an aide to Washington and an Indian agent, as well as a gunrunner and owner of a ship.

    The square covered land from French Creek through LaFargeville and Perch Lake.  After the War of 1812 it was believed that Penet had died and many conflicting stories of his death abounded.  This caused much confusion over the ownership of the land and left the large tract free for squatters of all sorts to stake claim to, some of whom may have come as early as 1795.  The squatters usually claimed the land by cutting brush and trees to mark their perimeters.  Most just cut down as many trees as possible, selling them as black salts, staves, or potash for "a sack of meal, a chunk of port, and a jug of whiskey."  They would then go back to their pitiful shacks in Penet Square until they had finished their supplies, at which point they would cut more trees for export.

    These squatters were called "Catfish People" or "Penayers" and considered lower in status then the Indian "savages" in the state.  They got their "catfish" when a dispute needed to be settled.  The name itself may have come from Catfish Falls, the original name for Depauville.

    On March 28, 1805, when Jefferson County (named after Thomas Jefferson) was created, Watertown was considered the best place for the county seat.  The commissioners who were appointed for the selection of the county seat were Matthew Dorr, David Rodgers, and John Van Benthuysen. The first court and the first board of supervisors met at a schoolhouse, the site of a present church.  The first officers were Augustus Sacket, First Judge; Joshua Bealls and Perley Keyes, Judges; Thomas White, Lyman Ellis, William Hunter and Ethni Evans, Assistant Justices; Henry Coffeen, Clerk; Abel Sherman, Sheriff; Benjamin Skinner, surrogate and treasurer; and Hart Massey, Ambrose Pease and Fairchild Hubbard, Coroners.  Most of the taxes of the county were paid for by nonresidents at this time.  Fifteen-hundred people lived in the county, most of whom were New Englanders and French immigrants.  The Jefferson County Sheriffs Department, the oldest law enforcement agency in Jefferson County, was also created in the same year.

    Also, during this time the Canadians and the residents of the North Country had developed a good business relationship with trading.  Trading usually was in flour and potash, Potash being an alkaline substance used in the manufacture of fertilizer, gun powder, and explosives. It was produced by burning timber, and was selling in Canada for $320 per ton.

    A hotel in Watertown, called the White House, was constructed in 1805.  The old Woolworth building stands at this location now.  William Smith, a man who is largely forgotten today and who had a big influence on the development of Watertown, entered a partnership with Captain John Paddock to put together Watertown's first store.  Smith also made the first brick yard and built the first brick building in Watertown known as the Franklin Building, which gave its name to Franklin Street.  He also built the first court house and jail (in 1807-1808 on Coffeen Street, the jail had four foot thick walls and doubled as a courthouse, it went through a small fire in 1817 but was burned down in another fire in 1821. The first sheriff was Abel Sherman), the old cotton factory on Factory Square (at the time was the highest building in the county), the old ship house at Sackets Harbor, and laid out plans for the buildings at Madison Barracks and was one of the promoters and a member of the board of directors of the Rome and Watertown Railroad.

    Some sources say that also in 1805 the Watertown Square was deeded for public use (and called the Mall then).  In the same year the Burrville Society Burying Grounds was started and many early settlers are buried there, which is now called The Brookside Cemetery.

    By 1806 most believed no one owned the Penet Square land, so some more permanent improvements were made by some of the squatters.  The first of the more permanent residents was Roderick Frazier, a farmer, who built his log cabin in 1806 about two miles north of what is now Stone Mills.  Peter Pratt followed in 1807, making his clearing south of Stone Mills.

    And the first term of court was held in Watertown was held in 1807, too.  The town of Hounsfield was incorporated on February 17, 1806. William Rice built a gristmill in Rodman.


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(Page 5 also contains general info, famous people, inventions and discoveries from the area, name origins, references, glossary of old diseases, occupations, immigrants, and legal terms)

Compiled by Marc M


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