A History of the Jefferson County Region

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Compiled by Marc M


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    Thomas Jefferson imposed an embargo of Great Britain and Canada in 1807, due to tensions between the United States and Great Britain.  This was understandably unpopular with local residents who had a good business of trading with the Canadians, and resulted in widespread smuggling along the U.S./Canada border.  To try to stop the smuggling, two companies of regular troops were stationed at Ogdensburg and in 1808 United States troops were stationed at Sackets HarborTyphus Fever broke out among the Sackets Harbor troops and spread through the town of Sackets Harbor.

    Le Ray was established on February 17, 1806 and named after James Le Ray.  In 1807 a combination courthouse/jail was built in WatertownGeneral Champion, which the town of Champion was named after, gave two acres of the village green to the town for naming it after him.

    In 1808 a road was cut through the mouth of French Creek to Black River and was named the Embargo Road, because of the smuggling from the interior of the state and through this area to Canada.  In the same year the first paper mill in Watertown was built. In 1809 the county's first newspaper was published, "The American Eagle", by Henry Coffeen.

    James Le Ray returned to France in 1810 and left his oldest son, Vincent (which Cape Vincent is named after) for a thirty-year stay.  James Le Ray tried to raise money for the Erie Canal, the success of which actually caused doom for his large development plans for the North Country. During this year Grace, his wife, died.  Also during 1810 there was an Iron Ore Mine in Lewisburg (a village which was later swallowed up by Fort Drum), with a shaft that was approximately 150 feet deep.  Purple Amethyst was taken from that shaft and forwarded to the Natural History Museum in Albany, NY.  In more modern times there was a National Guard Lt Col who trained at Camp Drum, who was obtaining his PhD.  He authored the "Rock and Paleontology of Pine Camp", and continued to document other data related to the Ancient Glacial Lake Iroquois.

    Captain Noadiah Hubbard and Captain John McNitt formed two militia units and started training recruits in the same year.  Joshua Miles built a combined sawmill and grist mill on Sandy Creek, west of what later was called Worthville.  Voters in the town of Worth voted to separate Worth from Lorraine but the War of 1812 paused these actions until 1848.  Wilcox's Corners was renamed Worthville.

    The U.S. declared war on Great Britain in 1812 and Sackets Harbor became the headquarters for the U.S. Army and Navy on the northern frontier.  On July 19th, the Canadian Provincial Marine Fleet attacked Sackets Harbor, but was driven back by the guns of the ship Oneida and a long thirty-two pound cannon mounted on the shore.  Many settlers left Cape Vincent, but returned after the war was over.  Horse Island, at the head of Sackets Harbor, was the site of two battles and served as the British staging area for the second battle but was successfully defended by troops under General Jacob Brown.  During the War of 1812 "Silver Greys", military squads formed of volunteers who were exempt from conscription, usually because of their age.

    Near the head of Carlton Island are the ruins of a large fort built by the British during the Revolutionary War and named "Fort Haldimand".  The Fort was built by the French but had been taken over by the English, and during the War of 1812 a tavern owner and his son rowed over from Millens Bay after learning that the States were again at war with England.  The man and his son surprised the few people who had been left there, and took possession of the place in the name of the U.S.

    By 1812 the village of Watertown had five-hundred inhabitants, and on April 5, 1816 the village was incorporated.  Also in 1812 a second bridge was built over Black River in West Carthage.  Dexter was settled around this year, first called Fish Island for the island where large amount of fish were caught.  The name Dexter came from Simon Newton Dexter, one of the stockholders of the village.  During the War of 1812 a road was cut from Herkimer County to Cape Vincent.  1812 also saw the first school in Henderson, built be Mark Hopkins.

    After the War of 1812, many soldiers and sailors came to Jefferson County, some of the seedier ones moved to Penet Square area.

    Around this time John La Farge, former Napoleonic soldier, arrived in upper New York.  He remembered what Penet, whom he had had dealings with, had told him about the land he owned.  La Farge supposedly bought the land since Penet was no where to be found and thought dead.  A legal battle ensued between all those who thought that they had claim to the Penet Square land and La Farge himself.

    Finally, La Farge got true title to the land, made contracts, and gave deeds to some of the settlers there, though many settlers did not appreciate this - since they considered it their land in the first place.  La Farge built a wooden mansion at the head of Perch Lake, north of a stream on the eastern side of Perch Lake (and near some American Indian mounds, of which there are many in the Perch Lake area), in an attempt to copy Le Ray's grand mansion and gain higher social station in the area.  But La Farge was spurned by the higher society of the region, probably because of his regard as a commoner from France. (more info on the mansion)

La Farge Mansion     His disputes with the catfish people caused them to shoot at his new house continually, and he finally left it to ruin.  La Farge then built another even more elaborate mansion (of stone) in 1833, close to what is now LaFargeville and on what is now Route 180.  In 1837 his young wife persuaded him to sell the house and they moved away.  In 1838 La Farge sold the house to a Catholic bishop and the house was used as a seminary.  The seminary later moved to New York City and has since become Fordham University.  There is little standing of the La Farge Mansion, just a wing or so. (Picture probably taken around 1890-1900.  Picture and some text of the preceding from a website by Lois Flack, see references.  To see some ruins of the mansion click here.)

    A typhoid-like disease killed sixty residents in Rodman in three months time, around this period.

    On May 29, 1813, (a date commemorated by the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site) British and Canadian forces attacked Sackets Harbor and were repelled by U.S. troops after a long, protracted battle.  The British and Canadians retreated, but the U.S. supplies were destroyed and delayed the American struggles to launch a campaign into Canada.

    Finally, several raids into Canada were mounted from Sackets Harbor, including the American attack on York (Toronto) on April 27.  This ended the attack in the U.S., but Brigadier General Zebulon M. Pike was killed.  On November 11th, the U.S. forces were defeated in an attack on Canada at Chrysler's Farm.

    To end the War of 1812 the Americans, as well as the British, both decided that they must build bigger and better warships. In Sackets Harbor, two brigs; the Jefferson and the Jones and one frigate; the Superior were quickly constructed.  The Superior was armed with twenty-six forty-two pounders, thirty thirty-two pounders, two twenty-four pounders, weighed fifteen hundred eighty pounds and had a complement of five-hundred officers and men.  These ships were built by the master ship builder Henry Eckford, and in 1814 the ships sat awaiting rigging and armaments.  These supplies were shipped from the Brooklyn Naval Yards in New York City to Albany, and then from Albany up the Mohawk to Wood Creek and the Oneida Lake, and from there to the Oswego River.  The British discovered this and on May 4th of 1814 James Yeo left Kingston Harbor with six vessels headed for Oswego.  Earlier Lieutenant Colonel George E. Mitchell and a battalion of light artillery had been assigned to defend the fort at Oswego, Fort Ontario.

    On the 5th of May, Mitchell's men sited the enemy ships approaching.  Mitchell saw that he would be greatly outnumbered so he recruited every man and boy from the nearest village and had them gather up every piece of material that they could. They then built a fake tent encampment nearby, making it seem as though he had three times the number of men.  The ruse worked; the British attacked the fort instead of the village, and the Americans repelled the attack with a large twelve-pound gun. But the next day the British were back in force and landed, capturing a ship and stores, but the supplies for the Sackets' ships had been stored at Oswego Falls (now Fulton).  Mitchell retreated, putting up obstacles and destroying bridges in his wake.  They pursued him and his forces to Black Creek Bridge, but turned back when they saw that the bridge had been destroyed, thinking that they would be able to capture any supplies shipped via the water anyway.

    On April 21st Commodore Isaac Chauncey in Sackets Harbor sent Lieutenant Melancthon T. Woolsey and men of his choosing in the Lady of the Lake to get the supplies in the best way that he could.  When Woolsey got to where the stores and cable were hidden, he circulated rumors that they would be sent to Oneida Lake but in the meantime he hired ox carts and bought large wheels.  On the 28th they ran the rapids with nineteen small boats loaded with the supplies, though one boat became separated. It was believed the soldier in charge deliberately deserted with the supplies and gave the British information on where the ships were heading and other specifics.  When the Americans reached Sandy Creek they decided to stop, since the British were close behind.  By this time Oneida Indians (possibly a hundred and twenty or more) had been recruited and other regiments arrived, including those from Adams and Ellisburg, and Captain Appling's riflemen regiment, as well as locals who took up whatever arms they could.  Runners were dispatched for more help from other militias and reinforcements from Sackets Harbor.  At this time the British decided to send a number of armed boats and men up Sandy Creek.  The boats and men were promptly taken after a twenty minute battle with the help of the riflemen regiment.  Many prisoners were captured and sent to Sackets Harbor, and the dead British were buried with honors while the wounded were taken to a nearby home, converted to a temporary hospital.

    The British were now blockading Oswego and Sackets so the supplies were taken by oxen to Sackets but one piece of equipment, a large cable, had to be moved also.  It was said that a twenty year old, Silas Lyman of Lorraine, who had fought at the battle, suggested that they carry the cable after it was found not to fit fully into a cart.  The cable was made of hemp, was six-hundred feet long, six inches thick, twenty-two inches around, and weighed nine-thousand six-hundred pounds.  As much as would fit was loaded into a cart and the rest was carried by hand and some accounts say that the number of men at the beginning was less then a hundred, but along the way others joined while some dropped out after tiring.  The cable was taken from McKee’s Landing (where the battle took place) on Big Sandy, through Ellisburg and Belleville to Robert’s corners, and then the men carrying the cable rested overnight.  The next morning the cable was taken through Smithville and then on to Sackets, arriving in the afternoon after the twenty mile trip.

    Some say the cable was used for the anchor, while others say it was used for rigging.  The Superior was launched under the command of Lieutenant John R. Elton and saw much action until the end of the war.  The ship then sat at Sackets until she was sold around 1825.

Memorial    There are a number of monuments for the battle as well as the carrying of the Great Cable, as it came to be known.  One is right outside Sackets Harbor behind Pennocks Ice Cream Store, another is between Ellisburg and Belleville on Route 289 at the intersection of Lee/Machold Roads, and another in Smithville.  These memorials consist of a large piece of granite weighing six tons, seven and a half feet tall and six feet wide, with a plaque (see the picture of the memorial near Ellisburg to the right, with my father standing beside it for scale.  Also see this page for a larger picture and a good shot of the plaque.).  There is also a monument at the site of battle - a large boulder with an inscription, and a marker a short distance away at the McKee Hospital site.  There have been five re-enactments of the cable route, some involving carrying actual cable, like the one in 1989. [Much of the preceding was gleaned from the excellent paper An Analysis of the Events Surrounding The Battle of Big Sandy and the Carrying of the Great Rope in 1814 and the Ensuing 185 Years by Blaine Bettinger.  Make sure you check out the whole story at the site put together by Mark Wentling.]

    During 1814 a county newspaper was printed in Watertown by Henry Coffeen, called the "American Eagle".  The name was later changed to "American Advocate".  Also in 1814 state road building in began a state road to be build from Salina to Smith's Mills (Adams) to intersect there with the state road from Rome, through Redfield and Lorraine to Brownville.

    The U.S. and Great Britain signed a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium on Christmas Eve.  The terms of the treaty called for peace without territorial adjustments from either side, as well as the disposal of most of the armaments and ships amassed during the War of 1812.

Brown Mansion    February 16, 1815 marked when the U.S. Congress confirmed the peace treaty. When the word reached Sackets Harbor, work stopped on two unfinished ships under construction, the New Orleans and the Chippewa.  The Brown Mansion was built in this year, maybe started in 1811.  The mansion is a twenty-two room Georgian-style mansion hand-cut and made of blue limestone.  General Brown planned on using it as a temporary jail for War of 1812 prisoners but the war ended before the mansion was fully finished.  It remained in the Brown family but the family never lived there.

     In 1815, Le Ray sold land to many French, but especially Napoleonic elite who settled in Cape Vincent, living in some isolation from their neighbors.

    In 1816 Le Ray returned for sixteen years and lived in luxury at his mansion. Le Ray had his own coach, with footmen and attendants.  He was frequently seen taking his fine coach around the area for inspection his holdings.  He also got to be known for his generosity and kindness. At his mansion he had a priest, a physician, surveyors and engineers.  President James Monroe visited him as well as General Jacob Brown, commander-in-chief of the Army. Le Ray died in 1840.

    Also in 1816, steamships began to be used on Lake Ontario.  On Christmas day a new church in Champion was dedicated, the first in Jefferson County.  The bell had been cast from silver dollars and was heard for many miles around that day.  In Watertown, the first bank as well as the first fire department in Watertown was organized.  The latter later became the present City of Watertown's Fire Department.

    Dr. Reuben Andrus and Benjamin Page, both Vermonters, settled in 1816, heading a flood of legal settlers to the Penet Square area.  In Watertown a fireproof clerk's office was built and occupied until 1831.

    "The Year Without a Summer" occurred in 1816 (known in Jefferson County by the saying "1800-and-froze-to-death"), and was caused by the fall-out from a monstrous volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sambawa in Indonesia the previous year.  A billion cubic yards of dust was ejected over fifteen miles high into the atmosphere and continued far into the stratosphere where winds distributed it all over the world.  This volcanic ash high in the atmosphere caused a shielding of the earth from the heat of the sun (basically what would happen in a "nuclear winter") and much lower temperatures worldwide.  New England saw a heavy and crippling snowfall between June 6 and June 11, 1816 and frost for every month of the year in 1816.  Crops failed in the New England regions as well as the Ohio River Valley, Western Europe, and Canada.  By 1817 most of the dust had settled and conditions had returned to almost-normal.

    From 1816 to 1819, the first phase of Madison Barracks buildings was constructed by the Second U.S. Infantry, under the command of Colonel Hugh Brady.  The infantry earned the nickname "Brady's Saints" because they marched to church in a group on Sundays.  President James Monroe visited Sackets Harbor in 1817 to view construction of Madison Barracks. 

    The village of Theresa was cleared in 1810 is named after James Le Ray's daughter in 1812, and lots were laid out by Musgrove Evans in 1817. In the same year, the town of Theresa had its first permanent settler, but more settlement was slow because of more accessible lands being available for settlers in other parts of the county.

Check from 1817     Also in the same year the steamship Ontario was built at Sackets Harbor and made the first steam-powered voyage on Lake Ontario.  She continued to serve Lake Ontario until 1832, at which time she was scrapped at Oswego.  In 1817 Le Ray organized an agricultural society and the Jefferson County Fair, the longest continuous running fair in the U.S. and second county fair in the state.  There were many distinguished visitors to the fair, including Roswell Woodruff and Judge Noadiah Hubbard exhibited oxen and wagons.

Joseph Bonaparte    The town of Lyme was formed in 1818.  The Cup and Saucer House in Cape Vincent, a refuge for Napoleon, was also constructed.  The foundation of the Cup and Saucer House is part of the new (1968) Cape Vincent Community Library.  The township of Lyme with Chaumont was created on March 6, 1818. Joseph Bonaparte visited Watertown.  Around this time in Watertown a few houses near Washington Street had Negro slaves and there was not a bathtub or street light in the city of Watertown.  An ordinance prohibited people from allowing their hogs to run around free.

     Lotus Ingalls was born in Rodman.  He would later founded the newspaper, the Watertown Reformer which would later become the Watertown Daily Times.  He also purchased the Watertown Post later in life.

    Improvements in the village of Natural Bridge were made in 1818 and in 1819 and 1820 mills were erected.

Perch Lake     On April 12, 1819, the town of Pamelia was created.  Four Corners is the only hamlet in the town. Pamelia is named for the wife of Jacob Brown, Pamelia (Williams), though the name was briefly changed to Leander, but quickly changed back.  Perch Lake, one of the largest bodies of water in Jefferson County and now a state game management area, sits on the northern edge of the town of Pamelia (also see later in the text).  Near Perch Lake several burrows, considered by some to be  sepulchral mounds, have been found.

    During the year of 1820 the Jefferson, a War of 1812 brig designed to carry twenty cannons, started to settle into the mud off Navy Point. The ship's skeleton lies there today and has been the subject of serious underwater archeology study. Also in 1820 Abel Bingham opened the first store in Natural Bridge. Joseph Bonaparte (Count Survilliers) bought a large tract of land in Natural Bridge and built a large framed house for his summer residence, and on one or two summers he made a short stay there.

    During 1820 Judge Perley Keyes ran for Congress against Micah Sterling, the Watertown Lawyer. Sterling owned a slave who turned out to be the main issue in the campaign. Sterling won the election nonetheless.  Sterling, who was born in Connecticut and graduated from Yale in John C. Calhoun's class (in later years he entertained President Calhoun in the Sterling Mansion, which sits behind the present-day Holy Family School), had moved to Adams where he had a practice, then moved his practice to Watertown where he also held several local offices.  He later was elected to the Seventeenth Congress and became a member of the State Senate.  He is buried in Brookside Cemeterey.

    In 1821 the combination courthouse/jail in Watertown burned.  The Town of Orleans was also formed as well as the town of Alexandria on April 3, 1821 (named after Alexander Le Ray, son of the proprietor).

    On April 3, 1821, the towns of Brownville and Le Ray gave birth to the towns of Alexandria, Philadelphia, and Orleans (the latter created wholly from the town of Brownville).  Also in the same year Jason Fairbanks was the first sheriff to be elected to office.

    Also in 1821 Jacob Brown served as general in chief of the Armies of the United States, and had to move to a residence in Washington. He lived in Washington for seven years, but was quite sick from a disease contracted at Fort Erie.  Brown died in Washington on February 24, 1828, at the age of fifty-two.  General Brown received a gold medal from the President, and the thanks of Congress.  The legislature of the State of New York awarded him a sword and the city of New York presented him a gold box.  His remains are in the Congressional cemetery at Washington, and Congress had built over his grave a monument to commemorative his service - a broken column with an inscription.

    One of the first schoolhouses in the area was built on Carlton Island in 1823 and a survey of the boundary between United States and Canada was completed. It was decided that a number of southerly islands, including Grindstone Island, would be claimed by New York State.  But problems began with the Canadian woodsman and harvesters that eventually turned into a what became known as 'The War of Grindstone Island'.  The lumbermen had cut a large number of pine and had planned on rafting it down the river but NY state claimed possession of the wood.  'Finding it probable that any attempt to serve legal papers upon the parties alleged to be trespassers would be resisted, a detachment of militia from Lyme, under Captain S. Green, was called out.  The timber had been mostly passed over into British waters, and after some firing, the party in charge of the timber dispersed.  One of the militia men was accidentally killed by his own gun.  The question subsequently became a subject of litigation and was finally settled by arbitration.' (from page 142 of the History of Jefferson County in the State of New York from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Franklin B. Hough, Sterling and Riddell, Watertown, 1854.)

    Perley Keyes, who at various times was magistrate, judge of county court, sheriff, and customs collector, started the Watertown Freeman, a newspaper - in January 1824.

    In 1825 the first poorhouse was built on the Dudley Farm in Le Ray and used until 1833.  Brownville was incorporated on April 5, 1825.  In the same year Dr. Samuel Guthrie invented percussion caps to go with gun powder at Madison Barracks in Sackets Harbor.  What was known as the Orleans House was built in 1825 too, and was used first as a land office and probably an early residence of John LaFarge.  Probably around 1838 it was converted into a hotel and stagecoach stop - the hotel of which is still in business. It was enlarged in 1910.  Elsewhere, the Erie Canal was finished around the tenth month of 1825, though portions of it were in use before this.

Lighthouse     A lighthouse at Tibbets Point was built in 1826 or 1827 on three acres of land for the price of $3,000 from a grant received from Captain John Tibbet of Troy, who owned six hundred acres there.   Today the lighthouse still is functional but is automated and under the control of the Coast Guard.  This first lighthouse was fueled by whale oil and then in the mid-1850's it was converted to lard oil.

    A fire company was formed in Adams in or about 1826 and a small crank engine was purchased by voluntary subscription.  The steamer Brownville was built in 1827, but burned on her first voyage. Philadelphia was incorporated in this year too.

    In 1828 an official execution took place in Jefferson County.  Henry Evans had leased a residence from a brother of Joshua Rogers, and when Rogers, Henry Diamond, and a third man began drinking they decided to kick Evans from the property.  Evans had locked himself up in the house but the three forcibly entered, threatening him and using abusive language.  Evans then picked up an ax and mortally wounded Rogers and Diamond, and badly hurt the third man, who later died (some accounts say he recovered).  He also shot a constable and killed him (questionable?).  Evans, known for a bad temper and being a terror to his neighborhood, outweighed the extenuating circumstances in the juror's minds and after only half an hour’s deliberation they returned a guilty verdict.  A large crowd consisting of residences from this county and even surrounding areas came to watch the hanging, which took place on August 22 in a vacant lot on the corner of LeRay and West Main Streets, the sheriff at the time, Henry Hale Coffeen, was the hangman.  Evans' body was not allowed to be buried in the Brownville cemetery, so Evans' friends had to take his body three or four miles away from the village and bury it in the night.  This was said to be the first execution of it's kind in the area.  The place where the murders took place is called "Slaughter Hill" and is situated between Brownville and Perch River Village.

    Also around 1828 Levi Beebee also built the Jefferson Cotton Mills in Watertown.  In December of that year of 1828 the Oswego Canal was finished, though steamboat service from Oswego northward had been in use for some time as well as the Black River canal.

    In 1829 the "Jefferson House" in Great Bend was erected and still stands.  This three-story inn was made of limestone from a local quarry and was a great stopping-off place for stagecoach's of the time. Around the same time Joseph Bonaparte finally visited land in NY which he had bought from Chaumont.  He built a road from the old turnpike to the lake which now holds his name - Lake Bonaparte.  Remnants of the road can still be seen where they put logs on top of each other for Joseph's coach to pass. He also built a home at Natural Bridge.

    The first lighthouse on Galloo Island was built in 1829.  The island in the present day is privately owned but the lighthouse is still government property.  During the same year the East Charity Shoal Lighthouse, a white cast iron lighthouse originally at the Lake Erie shore of Vermilion, Ohio, was rebuilt seven miles off from Cape Vincent on Charity Shoal, a ten foot black base set on a twelve foot concrete platform.  It is still in use today.

    John LaFarge constructed what was later known as the Biddlecome House in LaFargeville in 1830.  He transferred ownership to Russell Biddlecome and Biddlecome lived in the house from 1855 to 1890.  Biddlecome also founded the Orleans Academy, served as town supervisor, helped to organize sixteen companies of men as a Civil War Colonel and brought the railroad to LaFargeville.  He also bonded the whole town as security to construct the railroad station.  Also sometime in 1830 the first lighthouse at Stony Point was built, the foundations of which still remain today.  (Info on the lighthouses in the preceding paragraphs from Lois Flack's excellent site "Lighthouses of Jefferson County, New York".)


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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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