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Town of Clayton

pp. 133 - 145

This town, embracing two-fifths of Penet’s Square from the west side, with a small tract north and a triangular gore west of that patent, was organized from Orleans and Lyme, by an act of April 27, 1833, the first town meeting being directed to be held at the house of Isaac L. Carter. The name was given in honor of the Hon. John M. Clayton, United States Senator from Delaware.

At the first town meeting, held June 4, 1833, Hubbell Fox was chosen supervisor; B. F. Faxon, clerk; Jesse Noyes, Abram Burdick, Bariah Carpenter, Jr., assessors; Caleb Closson, James Barney, overseers of poor; Samuel P. Payne, Lloyd B. Traver, Elkanah Corbin, commissioners of highways; Alfred Fox, John Consaul, Jr., Joseph Mason, com’s schools; Nathan B. Morton (sic), Josiah Farer, David Baker, inspector of schools; Eratus Warner, collector.

Supervisors. -- 1833-4, Hubbell Fox; 1835, Edward C. Bancroft; 1836, Elbridge G. Merrick; 1839, Henry D. Van Camp; 1840-1, E. G. Merrick; 1842, Woodbridge C. George; 1843-4, Alfred Fox; 1845, E. G. Merrick; 1846, Alfred Fox; 1847, Erastus Warner; 1848, James Plumb; 1849-53, Alfred Fox; 1853, at a special town meeting, May 17, Luke E. Frame, to fill vacancy.

From an intimation on page 38, of this volume, it is learned that at an ancient period there was an Indian fort at French Creek in this town, but of the date an details, or even the locality, we know nothing. In 1799* (History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, p. 262) there was a single log hut at this place, probably that of some timber thieves, who plundered the frontier without restraint or limit, during many years before any one appeared to show title. Mr. Nathan Ford, the pioneer of Ogdensburgh, in a letter to Samel (sic) Ogden on this subject, dated Dec. 27, 1799, wrote:

“There are several persons now cutting timber upon the two upper townships. I have no authority to say any thing about the matter; but vast injury will take place upon the townships, and if there are not measures taken immediately, not less than thirty or forty thousand staves, over and above the square timber which is now getting, that will be taken off. Mr. Wilkins, took down the names of several who pretended to settle; their motive was only stealing off the timber. The thing is now working as I told him would be the case, and if something is not done about this business, great destruction will arise. An example ought to be made, and this can not be done without sending an officer from Fort Stanwix. They have got the timber so boldly that they say there is no law that can be executed upon them here.”

To Gouverneur Morris he wrote, July 16, 1800.

“I was in hopes I should have heard something about the road, before now. If there were a land communication to the Mohawk River, we should all experience less depredations. The difficulty of a communication to the southern part of the state, is well known to the timber thieves, and they count upon the almost impossibility of bringing them to justice.”

As these lands were not within Ford’s jurisdiction he could only advise in the matter, but in one or two instances, in which he was directly interested, he took summary measures in hand, and adopted a course that put an effectual stop to these robberies.

In the portion of this town embraced in Penet Square, there was more of this lawless plunder, because for several years after the tract began to settle, there was no resident agent, or acknowledged owner. This date of things led to many abuses, and gave rise to incidents that will be specified in our account of Orleans, which then comprised the whole tract.

The first permanent settlement in Clayton was made in 1801 or 2, by Bartlet, at a place still called Bartlet’s Point, about a mile from Clayton Village. He had been placed there by Smith and Delamater, land agents at Chaumont, to keep a ferry to Gananoqui, but after staying a year or two, set fire to his house, as tradition says, and ran away by its light.

In the winter of 1803-4 Smith and Delamater undertook the erection of a saw mill, on Wheeler Creek, near its mouth, in the present town of Clayton. The expense of attending this measure, embarrassed them considerably, and contributed to their subsequent failure.

The first industrial operations at French Creek, of any magnitude, were commenced a few months before the war.

On the 3d of Feb. 1812, a contract was executed between Le Ray and Richard Cummings, a Canadian, and Noadiah Hubbard, of Champion, allowing the latter to take from certain lots in the vicinity of French Creek, as much timber for rafting as they might desire, by paying $35 per thousand feet, for squared yellow pine timber; $50 per thousand for white oak; and $8 per thousand for white and yellow pine spars. A large number of laborers and several teams were employed during the spring, and early in the season, 12,000 to 15,000 feet of pine, 1000 feet of white oak, and 21 masts were ready for market, besides a large quantity got out but left in the woods. Capt. Hubbard was drafted with his company of minute men. The raft was however got as far down as Louisville, when it was seized and detained, and subsequently proved a total loss, at least to its American owner. Lumbering had begun on Penet Square in 1809.

In 1820 Wm. H. Angel commenced lumber business and opened a small store on the creek, a short distance above the point, the site of the present village having been reserved and lotted for a town, by Le Ray, who at that time was not prepared to sell. This measure was hastened by a plan of selling in lots, Washington Island adjacent, and owned by Col. Elisha Camp, the patentee of the island, who in 1824 begun, and in 1826 finished a bridge to the island. Business had begun to be established at this point, when Mr. Le Ray thought proper to open the reserved lands for sale. In Jan. 1822, when the plat was first offered for sale in lots, the place contained three stores, a tavern, post office &c, and was the centre of an active lumber trade. The village and post office was in 1823 named Cornela, but in 1831 the name was changed to Clayton, which it has since retained. In the primitive patent of Penet, the creek and bay is named Weteringhra Guentere, and on some old map it is named Dumas Creek. It has very generally been known till the present time as French Creek, but it is losing this gradually. In 1825 a stone school house was built and the first school taught.

An interesting article, dated March 20, 1835, and published in the Watertown Eagle, on the authority of E. C. Bancroft, A O. Blair, E. G. Merrick, J. A. Brewster, and T. M. Reade, a committee appointed to prepare a census, and collect the history and statistics of the village of Clayton (French Creek), affords many valuable data, which become the more interesting with time, and will serve as a standard by which to compare the growth of that spirited and enterprising place. A portion of the report only can be quoted:

“Less than ten years ago, the ground where now stands our village was without a single house, and was, we are informed by one of our first settlers, an almost impenetrable marsh. Now, 93 buildings (most of which are two stories high, well finished and painted), are situated on the same ground, and occupied by 73 families, making a total population of 426, which gives to it, at least, the appearance of a thriving and business little village (sic), and we may, without detracting from the merits of our neighboring villages, say, that not one in the county can show greater improvements in the same period of time, than our own. Although we have dated the period of the commencement of our village, ten years back, yet we should observe that, although it began to settle at about that time, it did not assume any appearance of a village until the years 1829, ‘30, and although business to a very considerable amount was transacted prior to that time, in and about the Bay of French Creek, yet we may say, and say truly, that our village has attained its present size within a period of five years, at which time we have ascertained, that not more than 30 inhabitants resided here. This being the case, then our population, in that time, has increased near ten fold, and that increase, we believe (although we have not the means at hand to ascertain that fact), to be equal, if not greater, than the western villages in this state, in the same space of time, when their rapid growth was considered very extraordinary.

In appearance and size, our village has also kept pace with its increase of population. Six years ago there were 9 buildings in this place; we now number 43 dwelling houses, 6 stores, 3 groceries, 3 taverns, 1 steam furnace, capable of melting 4 tons of iron per day, 1 machine shop, 1 ship smith’s shop, 3 shoe shops, 2 tailor shops, 1 chair shop, 2 cabinet shops, 1 butcher, 1 bakery, a school house, 5 large and commodious wharves, and within 1 mile of the village, 3 saw mills. Efforts are now making to build a church, and from the known liberality of our citizens, we doubt not but their efforts will be successful, as it certainly will, both to the respectability and appearance of the place. Every branch of business as well as mechanical pursuits which we have enumerated, appear to be in successful operation, rendering to the operatives a liberal remuneration for their instruments and labor. We next come to the business transactions of the place, which are by no means inconsiderable. During the last year, the actual amount of capital invested in this business, at a low estimate, is found to be $475,000. The exports to foreign markets from this port amount the last year to $275,000. The aggregate amount of merchandise and other commodities sold at this place the past year, amounts to $100,000. The tonnage of vessels (independent of the different steam boats which have entered and discharged their cargoes at this port during the same year) amounts to 60,000 tons. In 834 there were owned in this port 7 schooners, 1 brig and 1 steam boat, making an aggregate of 100 tons each. Within four years there has been built at the ship yard in this place, up to the present year, 6 schooners, of about 100 tons each, 1 canal boat and 1 steam boat, and there are now being built 5 schooners, at an average cost of $4,300 each, making an expenditure of about $70,000, for ship building alone.”

After enumerating the peculiar facilities, afforded by the location for trade with Kingston, and other points on the lake and river, they express the belief that the want of water power, hitherto felt, might be overcome by constructing a dam at the mouth of the creek, which might also serve the purpose of a bridge, the cost of which was estimated at $2,460. The report ended with the following language.

“Whenever the advantages, which it has been found we possess, are improved, a new impetus will necessarily be given to the business as well as the growth of our village, and were we disposed to speculate upon what our village will be five years hence, we might incur a charge of being influenced by visionary and idle prospects. But aside from any contemplated advantages, we think there are those which the place already possesses, sufficient to give our village still further improvements, by no means inconsiderable, both as to the business and the appearance of the place. We have that which is indispensably necessary for the growth and prosperity of all village; and that is, a rich and fertile country, adjacent to, and around us, which is becoming well settled by industrious and worthy inhabitants. The commercial operations on the lakes and river, are rapidly increasing, and with all our natural advantages, for the transaction of this branch of business, together with citizens of enterprise, allowing our improvements to be such only as business will warrant, and require, we can not but think our improvements for the future will have a comparison with the past, and that there are inducements for the investment of capital and opportunities for men of business.”

The business of ship building began at Clayton in 1832, by Smith & Merrick, and has been since continued, giving employment to about a hundred men. From two to four vessels have been built here annually, making a total of from sixty to seventy, including most of the splendid steamers of the Ontario and St. Lawrence Steam Boat Company’s lines. This business began here at about the time when the burdensome tonnage duties upon the lakes, amounting almost to a prohibition, had been removed in part through the influence of the Hon. Joseph Hawkins of Henderson, who represented this district in Congress. From this time there existed no limit to the size of vessels, but that of the locks of the Welland Canal. The first vessels built here were the Jesse Smith and Horatio Gates, in 1832. The Franklin, Jefferson, Willet, Monroe, Madison, Cleopatra, Morgiana, D. Webster, Robert Wood, E. G. Merrick, Oneida, Western, St. Lawrence, John Oades, D. N. Barney, Niagara, Superior, Invincible, New York Quebec, Manchester, Utica, Reindeer, Oneida Chief, America, Flying Cloud, Sovereign of the Lakes, Northern Light, White Cloud, White Squall, and Thousand Islands, have since been built.

The principal ship builder for several years has been Mr. John Oades, and most of the vessels have been constructed for the firm of Fowler and Esselstyn. To secure the privileges of a coasting trade with Canada, which are granted to vessels that are built on British soil only, a ship yard was several years since opened by the same parties at the foot of Wolf or Grand Island, in Canada, and four or five miles above this port. There is also a rafting station at the same place, which has been established for the purpose of evading the duties to which Canadian timber would be liable, if made up into rafts, and despatched from an American port.

The steamers that have been built at Clayton, are the Niagara, 473 tons; Cataract, 577 tons; Ontario, 832 tons; Bay State, 900 tons, and New York, 994 tons. The steamers British Queen, 279 tons, and British Empire, 330 tons, with the brigs Quebec and Manchester, and other craft, have been built at Wolf Island. The aggregate amount of tonnage built for the above firm since 1849, has been yearly 8000 tons, and the business is still actively pursued. This ship building gives employment to a great number of mechanics. The bay or French Creek has been since 1824, a very important lumbering station for hewn timber and oak staves, which have been mostly brought here in vessels, from the upper lakes, and from Canada, and made up into rafts for Quebec, where it was again loaded in vessels for foreign market. Some idea may be formed of the magnitude of this business from the fact that a single firm, employing 300 men, sent off a raft of from 18 to 24 cribs every eight days during the season of rafting, which lasted from midsummer till September. Staves are rafted on pine floats, 52 feet long, and holding 6000 standard pieces. A raft of oak timber required pine timber to make it buoyant enough to pass the rapids, and one of these would sometimes include 100,000 cubic feet. The time occupied in descending is three or four weeks, and Indian pilots were commonly employed in the more difficult rapids. The year 1826, was remarkable for its reverses, which ruined many lumbermen. In 1841 and 1846, Congress passed laws that checked the business of rafting Canada lumber on our shores, by requiring duties to be paid. The business that formerly centered in the bay of French Creek, has accordingly been divided, a part going to Garden Island, near Kingston, and a part to the foot of Wolf Island. The business at present gives employment to about 100 men in making up rafts, and a fleet of eighteen vessels in bringing the timber from the upper lakes. From 60,000 to 80,000 cubic feet of hewn timber and a million of standard staves* (A standard stave is 5½ feet long, 5½ feet wide, and 2 inches thick.) are sent annually.

Rafts are sent less frequently, but larger, now than formerly, sometimes including 35 drams, each 50 by 200 feet, which are propelled by the current, by sails, and sometimes by towing. In passing the rapids, the raft is separated into sections or drams of two cribs each, and passed singly. The business of rafting, at Clayton, is now mostly carried on by E. G. Merrick, Esq., and associates, who since 1828, have conducted a large business at this village in lumbering, ship building, and merchandise.

The village of Clayton is regularly laid out, and has at present a population of about 1000. It is the proposed terminus of the Black River and Utica Rail Road, is a landing for all the American steamers on the lake, and in some respects it offers inducements for business, which no other place in the county affords. The Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics, have each a church in the village. It was surveyed by Clark W. Candie in 1824, and resurveyed in 1833 by Oliver Child.

Near this village commences the head of the Thousand Isles, many of which are in sight, presenting a very picturesque appearance, and directly opposite is Grindstone Island, one of the largest of the group, being upwards of five miles in length, and from two to three in breadth. This island, with Wells Island, and many others were claimed by the St. Regis Indians at an early day, and leased by their agent to British subjects, for long terms of years. Upon survey of the boundary in 1818, they were found to belong to our government, and in 1823, upon these islands being patented by the state, in pursuance of an agreement with Macomb, difficulties arose that threatened for a time to result in serious measures, and which have been known locally as the War of Grindstone Island. A quantity of pine timer had been cut, and prepared for rafting, which was claimed by the patentee, but was refused to be given up by those in whose possession it was. Finding it probably that any attempt to serve legal papers upon the parties alledged (sic) to be trespassers would be resisted, a detachment of militia from Lyme, under Capt. S. Green, was called out. The timber had mostly been 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.

Another incident occured (sic) in this town, that has its parallel only in the theft of a town meeting, as related of Brownville. A saw mill had been erected in the vicinity, it is said upon a verbal agreement, which subsequently became a subject of difference between Mr. La Farge, the proprietor, and the lumberman. The latter resolved that he would neither comply with the terms demanded, nor allow others to enjoy the fruits of his labors, and early one morning not long after, the timbers of a saw mill were seen floating in the bay, no one professing to know how they came there and it is supposed to have been in some way connected with spiritual manifestations, more especially as spirits were often brought in quantities in this place for smuggling into Canada.

The islands in this vicinity have many associations connected with the war of 1812, and affairs growing out of the Patriot movement, which will be detailed in our chapters on this subject. An engagement occurred between General Brown’s advanced guard of Wilkinson’s expedition, and the British at this place, late in 1813, of which we give the details elsewhere. During the embargo period of 1808, the old French Road, that had been cut through in a nearly direct line from the High Falls to the river at this point, became a thoroughfare for teams laden with potash, and this contraband trade continued with comparative impunity till the commercial restriction was removed.

Penet’s Square Corners on the Bay of French Creek near this place, and the proprietors of that tract anticipating that this property would possess value as the site for a town, subdivided four of the mile squares nearest the corner, the one on the bay into 64 lots, of ten acres each, and the three others into 16 lots of 40 acres each. In balloting for a division, each owner drew a proportionate number of these lots, which like the large tract were numbered from west to east and back, commencing at the north-west and ending at the south west corners. These subdivisions are shown in the annexed sketch.

Depauville, on the Chaumont River, at the head of boat navigation, and six miles above Chaumont Bay, was named from Francis Depau, an importing merchant and capitalist of New York, who purchased 15 lots on Penet’s Square. This place, at first, bore the name of Cat Fish Falls, by which it is still sometimes called. The creek above the place is still called Cat Fish Creek. The first improvement was begun by Simon and Jared White, who came on as trespassers to get out lumber, but being warned off by the agent, left a large amount of hewn timber that rotted on the ground. From this place they removed to Three Mile Point on Chaumont Bay, where, after a short sojourn, they started in May, 1817, for the west, in an open boat. The party consisted of the brothers, their mother, wives, and children, 11 in all, and had arrived in Houndsfield, a mile or two beyond Sackets Harbor, where they put up for the night. After leaving this place they were never seen alive. There were many dissolute sailors and soldiers, lounging about the neighborhood, their boat was found robbed of household goods, several hundred dollars in the possession of the men were gone, and their bodies exhibited unmistakable marks of violence. The children were found drowned, but the bodies of the women were never found. These circumstances, warranted the belief of robbery and murder, but although the excitement was intense and general, nothing occurred to settle suspicion upon any party sufficient to warrant an arrest.

In 1816, Nathaniel Norton, Jr., who had previously been a merchant at Russia, New York, came as agent of C. H. & E. Wilkes, owners of 12,000 acres on Penet’s Squre, and adjoining Depauville.* (*His power of attorney is dated June 20th, 1820.) Soon after, David and Nathaniel Holbrook came to the Falls, and with their father, under a contract of Alexander Le Ray, the agent of Depau, erected a rude apology for a saw and grist mill, but upon failure of payment, the premises were sold in 1824 to Stephen Johnson and Peter Martin, who had located as merchants and lumbermen. At this time there were but two or three log houses and rude mills. In 1824, Mr. Johnson built a stone mill, which in 1851 was burned, and the year following replaced by the present mills.

At Depauville, and vicinity, the materials for the manufacture of water lime, exist in vast quantities, constituting an important geological formation. In 1835, the manufacture of this article was commenced by Stephen Johnson of this place, Mr. King, formerly of Onondaga County, Joel Murray and Jared House of Lowville. Mr. Johnson was interested to the extent of one half, and two mills were fitted up for grinding it. During two years that the business continued, about 1000 barrels were made, and mostly used in the construction of cisterns in this and neighboring towns. This was the first enterprise of the kind in the county. At a future time it may give employment for the industry of great numbers, and a profitable source of investment of capital.

Depauville is 6 miles from Chaumont; 6 from La Fargeville; 8 from Clayton; 6 from Stone Mills; 9 Limerick, and 11 from Brownville.

Religious Societies. -- A Methodist Society was formed in Clayton, December 20, 1833, with Silas F. Spicer, Amos Reynolds, Willis Howard, James H. Fuller, and Amos Gillet, trustees. A society of the same denomination was formed at Depauville, November 25, 1834, with Martin Spicer, Abel F. How, Caleb Closson, Wareham Case, and Timothy O’Connor, trustees. Churches were built by each of these, here, and four miles south, toward the Perch River settlements. In 1835, a Congregational Church was formed of members residing in this town and Orleans, by the Rev. Marcus Smith of Watertown.

A Free Communion Baptist church was formed in August, 1820, by Elder Amasa Dodge, of Lowville, consisting at first of fourteen members. He was succeeded by Elders Russel Way, Jacob Overocker, Welcome Pigley, S. B. Padding, Samuel Hart, Ansel Griffith, and N. H. Abbey. The present number is 73. A society was formed August 26, 1841, with Nahum D. Williams, Phineas A. Osborn, Helon Norton, trustees; and in December, 1848, it was reorganized. In 1838, a union church was built of stone at Depauville, Mr. Depau contributing $500 towards its cost. The Universalists at present own a quarter, the Free Will Baptists a half, and the Congregationalists and Baptists the remainder. It cost $2,200. In 1852, the Methodists erected a new church at this village, at a cost of $2,400. This denomination is much the more numerous in town.

The German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Clayton, and Orleans, was formed March 11, 1841, with Henry Haas, Valentine Baldtuff, and Nicholas Lehr, trustees. The Evangelical Church in Clayton was formed December 21, 1841, with John Haller, Velentine Dorr, Jr., and Andrew Baltz, turstees. Both of these have erected houses of worship between Depauville and La Fargeville.

The Third Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Clayton was formed October 5, 1840, with E. G. Merrick, John N. Fowler, Perry Caswell, John Wilson, Fairfield Hartford, Woodbridge C. George, and Adonijah Brush, trustees. They own a convenient and elegant church edifice in the village of Clayton.

The First Baptist Society, of Clayton Village, was formed October 6, 1840, with Dillino D. Calvin, Henry Hubbert, Henry Walt, Edward Burchell, and Alpheus R. Calvin, trustees. A church was formed of seventeen members, by Rev. E. G. Blount (who has since been pastor), February 14, 1843. The first church in the village was built by Baptists and Methodists, but the former, having sold their interest in 1847, built a church at a cost of $2,000. The present number (July 1853) is 117; total, since beginning, about 200. A small Baptist church has existed several years at Depauville, which was formed by Mr. Blount.

The Catholics erected a church in Clayton Village in 1841, and are considerably numerous.

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