EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a two-part column.
In 1803, Washington Irving, one of early America’s most famous authors, wrote about his journey through the wilderness of upstate New York to visit Ogdensburg when it was just an outpost on New York’s northern frontier.
In the “Life and Letters of Washington Irving” written by his nephew Pierre Irving, Irving described his wilderness expedition to Ogdensburg, Montreal, and Quebec.
“We were six miles from Oswegatchie River, which we would have to cross. This would have been a troublesome business had not Judge (Nathan) Ford, of Oswegatchie, received notice of our coming, and sent men to make a raft and assist us in crossing. On crossing the river, we found a couple of horses waiting to take some of us to the Judge’s.
Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Ogden each mounted one of them, and Mrs. Hoffman and Mrs. Ogden rode behind them. I stayed behind to travel on in the wagon with the girls.
This part of the journey seemed more tedious than any, so near the end, and yet obliged to travel no faster than the lazy pace of oxen. At last, to our great joy, we came in sight of Oswegatchie. The prospect that opened upon us was delightful. After riding through thick woods for several days, the sight of a beautiful and extensive tract of country is inconceivably enlivening. Close beside the bank on which we rode, the Oswegatchie wound along, about twenty feet below us. After running for some distance it entered into the St. Lawrence, forming a long point of land on which stood a few houses called the Garrison, which had formerly been a fortified place, built by the French to keep
the Indians in awe. They were now tumbling in ruins, excepting two or three, which were still kept intolerable order by Judge Ford, who resided in one of them, and used the others as stores and out-houses. We recrossed the Oswegatchie River to the Garrison, as we intended to reside with Judge Ford for some time.”
The interval spent by the young traveller on the St. Lawrence was divided between Oswegatchie, Lisbon, one of Mr. Hoffman’s townships, ten or twelve miles further down the river, and Madrid, at a still greater’ distance, where lay the lands of Mr. Ogden. His sports would seem to have been fishing and shooting, while in the last entry but one of his journal, which breaks off at this point, we have this hint of recreation of another kind:
August 29th. “Hired a horse to take me to Lisbon, where Mr. Hoffman was. Arrived about one o’clock, and found him surrounded by tenants, and hard at work. Amused myself the rest of the day writing bonds and deeds.”
It was at Lisbon that he encountered his first rude experience of savage life. I give the anecdote as I have heard it from himself. He was staying at the house of Mr. Turner, Mr. Hoffman’s agent, with whose son he had rowed to a small island to hire a bateau to take the travellers down the river. At the wigwam where they expected to engage the boat they found a number of persons of both sexes, but the Indian of whom they were in quest was absent selling furs.
He soon came home, however, rather tipsy, accompanied by his wife, a pretty-looking squaw, whose potations also had been somewhat liberal. The latter seated herself beside Irving, and, either attracted by his personal appearance, or hoping to cajole from him a fresh draught of the fiery beverage, began to show him much nattering attention.
The husband, a tall, strapping Hercules, sat scowling at them with his blanket drawn up to his chin, and his face between his hands, while his elbows rested on his knees. In this posture he watched the pair for some time, until at length the continued assiduities of his wife becoming too much for his patience, he suddenly rushed upon Irving, calling him a “ damned Yankee,” and with a blow levelled
him to the floor.
Taken by surprise, and utterly unconscious of offence, the young traveller jumped up, and asked the meaning of this strange salutation. “He is jealous,” hinted one of the company. Perceiving that he was feeling for his knife, Irving, retreating, requested the men to hold the savage, evidently maddened by drink, and young Turner immediately went up to him, when a sudden revulsion of feeling ensued. He and the Indian had exchanged names, and were therefore sworn friends. The savage hugged him in his arms, called him “ good fellow” and other endearing names, “ but he,” said he, glaring again with eyes of ominous ferocity at his companion, “he damned Yankee.” Apprehending further violence, Turner intimated to Irving that he had better escape to the boat, and he would follow which he was glad enough to do.
This adventure was a capital joke for Hoffman, who was never weary of quizzing his student on the subject of his delicate attentions to the squaw.
Proceeding in their bateau to Montreal the party stopped at Caughnawaga, where they were received in great state by the Indians.
Here Hoffman, in a spirit of frolic, persuaded them to go through the ceremonial of exchanging names with Irving, or of giving him a name to the great annoyance of the former, and the infinite diversion of the ladies, who stood at the door enjoying the scene with undisguised unction.
The ceremony was novel, and to the object of it extremely embarrassing, as one of the chiefs or principal Indians took him by the hand, led him out into the middle of the room, then commenced a sort of Indian waltz, turning slowly round with him to a low chant, while the others
would look gravely on, and every now and then strike in with a monosyllabic chorus, “Ugh! ugh!”
The solemn gravity of the Indians and the merriment of the lookers-on formed quite a ludicrous contrast. The chant concluded, the chief made him a formal and deferential speech, and gave him his name, which was Vomonte, meaning, as interpreted to him, Good to everybody.
It was now Irving’s turn to have his fan, and as soon as the Indian had concluded, he told him he had made a great mistake in conferring this distinction on him ; that he was but an insignificant individual to be so highly honoured; but that the other, pointing to Hoffman, had been Attorney General of the State of New York, and was much more worthy of this great distinction than himself; that he would feel it an abatement of his dignity if they honoured an obscure stripling in this way, and passed by so illustrious a personage.
Nothing would do, therefore, but they must march Hoffman out, and go through the same parade with him, to the great amusement of the ladies, and the irrepressible glee of Irving, who had felt too keenly the rueful dignity of the situation in his own case, not to enjoy it with the highest relish when the tables were turned. Hoffman’s name was Citrovani, or Shining Man.
At Montreal, which was the great emporium of the fur trade, the party was feted in genial style by some of the partners of the North-West Fur Company. “At their hospitable board,” says Mr. Irving, in his introduction to Astoria, including in his allusion two later visits, “I occasionally met partners and clerks and hardy fur traders from the interior posts; men who had passed years remote from civilized society, among distant and savage tribes, and who had wonders to recount of their wide and wild peregrinations, their hunting exploits, and their perilous adventures and hairbreadth escapes among the Indians. I was at an age when the imagination lends its colouring to everything, and the stories of these Sinbads of the wilderness made the life of a trapper and fur trader perfect romance to me.”
Here he made the acquaintance of his life-long friend, Henry Brevoort, a native and resident of New York, but then on a visit of business or pleasure to Montreal.
It was not until a lapse of fifty years that Mr. Irving made a second visit to Oswegatchie, now Ogdensburg, and I cannot resist the temptation to take from its place the letter which gives the touching contrast. On a return from a tour by the Lakes to Niagara, he writes to a niece at Paris (Mrs. Storrow):
September 19, 1853.
One of the most interesting circumstances of my tour was the sojourn of a day at Ogdensburg, at the mouth of the Oswegatchie River, where it empties into the St. Lawrence. I had not been there since I visited it fifty years since, in 1803, when I was but twenty years of age ; when I made an expedition through the Black River country to Canada in company with Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman, and Anne Hoffman, Mr. and Mrs. Ludlow Ogden and Miss Eliza Ogden. Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Ogden were visiting their wild lands on the St. Lawrence.
All the country then was a wilderness ; we floated down the Black River in a scow; we toiled through forests in wagons drawn by oxen; we slept in hunters’ cabins, and were once four-and-twenty hours without food ; but all was romance to me.
Arrived on the banks of the St. Lawrence we put up at Mr. Ogden’ s agent, who was quartered in some rude buildings belonging to a ruined French fort at the mouth of the Oswegatchie. What happy days I passed there! rambling about the woods with the young ladies; or paddling with them in Indian canoes on the limpid waters of the St. Lawrence; or fishing about the rapids and visiting the Indians, who still lived on islands in the river. Everything was so grand and so silent and solitary. I don’t think any scene in life made a more delightful impression upon me.
Well here I was again after a lapse of fifty years. I found a populous city occupying both banks of the Oswegatchie, connected by bridges. It was the Ogdensburg, of which a village plot had been planned at the time of our visit. I sought the old French fort, where we had been quartered not a trace of it was left. I sat under a tree on the site and looked round upon what I had known as a wilderness now teeming with life crowded with habitations the Oswegatchie River dammed up and encumbered by vast stone mills the broad St. Lawrence ploughed by immense steamers.
I walked to the point where, with the two girls, I used to launch forth in the canoe, while the rest of the party would wave handkerchiefs and cheer us from shore; it was now a bustling landing- place for steamers.
There were still some rocks where I used to sit of an evening and accompany with my flute one of the ladies who sang.
I sat for a long time on the rocks, summoning recollections of bygone days, and of the happy beings by whom I was then surrounded. All had passed away all were dead and gone.
Of that young and joyous party I was the sole survivor. They had all lived quietly at home out of the reach of mischance, yet had gone down to their graves; while I, who had been wandering about the world exposed to all hazards by sea and land, was yet alive. It seemed almost marvellous. I have often, in my shifting about the world, come upon the traces of former existence; but I do not think anything has made a stronger impression on me than this second visit to the Banks of the Oswegatchie.
James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.