The Early History and Conditions of Oswego




 
 

To the Editor of the Palladium: by Sheldon C. Townsend

What People Say-
Another Interesting Contribution to Our Early History, Oswego Palladium, Feb. 3, 1877, Lockport, N.Y.
 

Sir:   It was in 1808 or 1809 that my father, (Jacob Townsend) a member of the house of Gillet & Townsend, New Haven, Connecticut, who had been engaged in trade with the Southern States and West India Islands, wearied by the disregard of neutral right by Great Britain and France, resolved to abandon the Atlantic and seek an inland location, in pursuit of which he visited Oswego, Niagara, Black Rock, Erie and Pittsburg.  Returning he met Alvin Bronson, just returned from a West India voyage.  Reporting his observations he proposed to him to go West,  to which B. consented if Sheldon Thompson of Derby Court would join him. Bronson had been connected with the firm of Gillet & Townsend previously and Thompson in their employment as master of the ship Keziah. Articles of agreement were signed at New Haven February 8th, 1810,  creating the firm of Townsend, Bronson & Co.,  for the purpose of transacting business in the State of New York and elsewhere of a mercantile nature in the various branches of  vending goods, shipbuilding and coasting on the lakes Ontario and Erie, and any other business in which the partners collectively
may judge best to engage.

   In accordance with their design, Mr. Bronson engaged his carpenters, a Mr. Bassett being chief, and with them and such materials as he needed proceeded to Oswego Falls, where he cut the frame for a vessel which was built at Oswego,  the Charles and Ann, measuring about one hundred tons, and in the fall of 1810 she was running under the command of John Hall. She was perhaps the largest vessel on Lake Ontario
excepting the brig  Oneida  built by the United States Government just prior to the War of 1812. The Charles and Ann was sold to the Government for $5,800 and was known in the fleet commanded by Commodore Chauncey as the Governor Tompkins.  At the close of the wharf she was purchased by Townsend, Bronson & Co., and was continued in their business until the dissolution of the firm in 1821.

   With the completion of their vessel, Capt. Thompson took the carpenters and proceeded to the Niagara River above the falls and built the schooner Catherine near the spot where LaSalle had built the Griffin, the first vessel navigating Lake Erie. The Catherine was completed and in commission early in June, 1811, commanded by Seth Tucker, so that in a little more than a year the two younger partners had completed
two vessels which, when the circumstances they had to encounter are considered, is evidence of that energy by which they were distinguished in after life.

   While the firm of Townsend, Bronson & Co. were engaged in the transportation business on Lake Ontario and the upper lakes, they were vending goods at Oswego and Lewiston, Bronson residing at Oswego and the two other partners at Lewiston. About 1815, the firms of Townsend, Bronson & Co. and Porter & Barton joined in forming a firm known as Silas Thompson & Co. at Black Rock, to which Thompson removed. Silas
Thompson & Co. built the Michigan and Red Jacket and were part owners of the Erie.

   While Bronson and Thompson were unmarried at their leaving Connecticut, my father had a family, a wife and six  children, and in 1813 had disposed of his property and was waiting for sleighing to remove them. The news reached us that Fort Niagara was captured by the British and the frontier laid waste; consequently the family remained until 1815. In August they left by land conveyance for Salina, but being detained by
sickness and death at Carlisle, between Schoharie and Cherry Valley, we did not reach Salina  until September, when we were kept in waiting for a boat carrying salt to Oswego Falls.

   Finally embarking we moved down the Salt (Onondaga) Lake, touched at Liverpool, and that night reached Three River Point, where McGee kept tavern. If my recollection of the bill of fare is correct, he kept little
else. The next day we arrived at Oswego Falls. here was a portage of about a mile, and property was transferred to a smaller class of boats. 

The boats used above the Falls were known as Durham boats, decked fore and aft, with running boards on each side to which were attached cleats to secure sure footing.  A considerable opening was left in the center. They were propelled against adverse winds and currents by poles, and had a crew of five to six men.  Sometimes, after discharging a part of their cargo, they were run over the Falls, as were also vessels for lake navigation built above them.

  Among those I recollect were the Mary, Alpha, Morning Star and others, whose names I cannot recall. The forwarders at the Falls (Fulton) were Crocker & Falley. (r. and D. Falley) James Lyon and Ichabod Brackett. 

  Considerable pine lumber was manufactured there and rafted down the river.  Below the Falls a lighter class of boats (bateaux) were in use, of easy draft of water, and it was on one of them we arrived at Oswego, the third day after leaving Salina. Of the boatman I recollect  Uncle John  Van Buren and his sons, Peter,  John,  Jacob, Volkert and David; Evarts, father of  two sons; John Love, Van Amburg, Van Valkenburg, Althouse and others.

   These men composed the crew of the Oswego River boats. They were clinker built, open through their entire length, and when once under sail carried a square main and topsail, and one in the bow. During the settled weather of the summer the breeze from the lake usually enabled them to ascend the river by sail. Their load was from 20 to 40 barrels of salt according to the depth of the water.

  Late in September we took passage for Niagara on board the schooner Genesee Packet, Capt. Obed Mayo, and about the 6th of October arrived thee, passing in the river the British ship of war Wolfe or Prince Regent, which had been of the fleet commanded by Sir James L. Yeo. We found the inhabitants on the
frontier busily employed in replacing their buildings which had been burned by the British forces.

   In April or May 1816 my father sent me (a boy just entered on my 15th year) to Oswego, requesting his partner, Mr. Bronson, to take me and make a man of me. How well he would have succeeded had I
remained until I reached my majority can not be known, as I only served out three years and a half. If
my life has proved in any wise a failure, he cannot be charged with blame, as his precepts and examples were of a high order, and I shall always consider myself largely indebted to him, as also to his estimable wife 
(Mary O Connor) for their unwavering kindness during the whole period of my residence with them.

   Arriving at Oswego on board the schooner Niagara, Captain Clement Shannon, (her first trip), I found the place, though small, bustling with business; goods, produce and salt coming down the river and Army and Navy stores going up for deposit at points in the interior. Mr. Bronson having been both Army and Navy store keeper during the war, and  acknowledged credit to himself. His commissions were large, furnishing fully
employment for his docks, warehouses and vessels. 

  War had exerted its demoralizing influence, and the Sabbath was little regarded. Boats came down the river and some of the inhabitants were disposed to use it for their purchases, but this was soon corrected, and 
the Sabbath was used as a day of rest if not devotion. There was no church edifice or resident minister in the place. The correspondent of the Palladium,  C  (Hamilton Colton) of Milan, Ohio, refers to the imperfect
teaching of Baldwin and Hilton (both of whom I recollect), which was doubtless owing to their apostolic resemblance - see 1 Corinthians, 13th and 9th,  for we know in part and we prophesy in part. 

   It could hardly be expected with such imperfect teaching the tone of piety would be found at its lightest degree. It is said on one occasion that an itinerant preacher passing through was requested by an individual to 
remain, as he had a child he wished baptized, was assured there were several families that needed verhauling, and that if he would hold over they would make him up a good job. The the world moves and the fields and forest of sixty years ago are now occupied by churches, the congregations of which receive instructions by able ministers. 

  At the time of my residences a Mr. John B. Parks was the school teacher, and in my judgment an excellent one. He first kept a room in a building near the west cover - Parsons  Tavern - formerly Sharpe s). Early one evening it was discovered to be on fire and was consumed, the scholars losing their books, etc. The fire extended to Burt s warehouse which was burnt, and the schooner Alpha, which lay frozen in at the dock
only escaped by applying wet sails and blankets. Here masts were blackened by the fire. Several other vessels lay frozen in the cove.

   The wind was light, an burning material floated high in the air. The inmates of the house escaped Mr. G. s parrot. Mr. Parks afterwards taught in the public school-house on West Seneca and Third Streets, which was used for the courts and Sunday service,held in the day time, while evening meets were often held in (St. Luke's) Mr. Hawley's house on West First Street. The number of buildings on the east side of the river was quite small, the ferry house, the residences of T.S. Morgan (east side of East First between Cayuga and Seneca), P.D. Hugunin, a building owned by W. Dolloway, one owned by Townsend, Bronson & Co., and a few others.

   T.S. Morgan had a warehouse (Lot No. 5), and dock near the East Cove. The passage through which the river discharged its waters into the lake (The Gut) was very narrow, not more than stones cast across, and in time of high water the current here was very strong. The steamboat Ontario at one time being unable to stem it and going on shore at Garrison Point, the passengers and crew escaped in a tub upon a hawser extended from the vessel to the bank above. She was got off and towed to Sackets Harbor for repairs.   The Charles and Ann in trying to go out to take her in tow, grounded on one of the points at the Gut, and it was in getting
her off that Mr. Gould drowned. There were no harbor improvements in those days, and among the first light houses was one erected on Galloo Island in 1820 and one in Oswego in 1821. All that was destructible of Fort Ontario had been destroyed by the British at the capture of the place. There was no place of burial at
the fort, in which were monuments to the memory of those who had died when composing parts of the early British garrisons.

   The shot fired which struck the warehouse of Thompson, Bronson & Co., entered the east end, cutting off the plate near the southeast corner (referring to the Battle of Oswego). I recollect fishing up a cannon ball
near Hugunin s wharf between Cayuga and Seneca Streets which bore the broad arrow upon it, showing from whence it came. The fish were caught with naked hooks tied together and hooking in them.

   At some time during the summer the fish flies made their appearance, covering wharves and vessels, when trolling was in order in the river and outside affording pike or pickerel with bass. Catfish were caught on night
lines, salmon by spears, and eels and other fish by weirs placed in the rifts above the Falls. They were sometimes sold as low as six cents a pound. Sturgeon were considered of small account.

Respectfully Yours,
Sheldon C. Townsend (Age 75)


This was contributed by Kathi in Syracuse, who states that Dick Palmer, historian, author & newspaper reporter, has been coping these old articles.  You can visit his site for more interesting articles, related to maritime activities on Lake Ontario, dating back to the very early 1800s at:  


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