By Dallas Robinson
The Fort La Presentation Association, in conjunction with the Ogdensburg Historical Commission, and Forsyth’s Rifle Reenactment Organization, are endeavoring to refurbish the headstones of Sheriff York and his wife Lavinia.
Joseph York was the Under Sheriff for St. Lawrence County, New York, for three years and Sheriff for another four years. He served as the County Representative in the Legislature of New York State for three years. All of this would more than justify in honoring these two citizens of Ogdensburg, however, as it sometimes is, there is more than meets the eye to this honor.
Joseph York was born on January 8, 1781 in Claremont, New Hampshire. He moved along with his father to Randolph, Vermont at young age. He joined the Provisional Army in 1798 and served until it was disbanded in 1800. Joseph moved to Ogdensburg in 1805.
During the War of 1812 Ogdensburg found itself across the St. Lawrence River from Fort Wellington located in Prescott, in what today is the Province of Ontario, Canada. The St. Lawrence River was the main conduit for transporting supplies to its forces in Upper Canada. This made an inviting target for American forces, comprised of both Federal and militia personnel. The sniping by American forces at bateaux and crew, the capture of supplies from the British and Canadian military, combined with the raids into Canada required a response from Fort Wellington. The retribution was about to be brought to bear.
On the morning of October 4,1812, a large number of bateaux, accompanied by two gunboats, manned by a force of 750 men rowed from Canada into the St. Lawrence River. After traveling upstream for a short distance, they turned abruptly and rowed towards the American shore.
The defensive forces for Ogdensburg, composed of U.S. Riflemen under Benjamin Forsyth, local militia, and volunteers from the town prepared to meet them. Part of this defense was comprised of Sheriff York commanding an iron twelve-pounder cannon, along with a brass six-pounder cannon under the command of Adjutant Church.
When the attacking flotilla reached about halfway across the river the defenders fired. Due to the effectiveness of the two cannons and the exposure to danger endured by the British; the flotilla abandoned the attack with the loss of three men, and the wounding of four. The battle was a duration of approximately two hours with the expenditure of about thirty rounds from each cannon.
After this abortive attempt by the British, a fragile peace existed between the two antagonists. Life in the town returned to near normal routine. Until the beginning of February 1813.
Captain Forsyth received information which led him to understand that American prisoners were being held in Elizabethtown, today Brockville, Ontario. Captain Forsyth was the commander of the 1st U.S. Rifles Corp who were stationed in Ogdensburg at Fort Presentation. He believed the said prisoners were in danger of being harmed by the British and devised a plan for their rescue. A force of nearly 200 men, made up from Rifles, militia, and volunteers from the town proceeded across the ice on the St. Lawrence River and made their way to the jail where the prisoners were held. By overpowering the jail guard, they released the Americans being held and escorted them across the river and home. In addition to the prisoners they also brought backs military arms and horses. This raid was the proverbial last straw. The British command in Prescott decided to end this continuous harassment and embarrassment once and for all.
On the morning of February 22, 1813, the Riflemen inside Fort Presentation watched as British and Canadian Fencibles performed military drills on the ice of the St. Lawrence River. This was not a new phenomenon. The British officers periodically drilled their troops on the ice because of the available room to perform maneuvers and movement. The Riflemen found it quite amusing to watch the drilling in bitter cold. It was not until the parading troops were spotted moving towards the south shore of the St. Lawrence that the alarm was raised that an attack was underway.
The Canadian Fencibles under the command of British officers formed into two distinct columns. The right column continued downstream coming ashore near the unfinished earthen works known as Fort Oswegatchie. The left column turned upstream and came ashore near the lighthouse, to flank Fort Presentation. The two columns were comprised of 700 troops, 200 to the left column and 500 to the right. The right column came through town with little resistance. At the intersection of Ford and Euphania St. (now called State St.) the invaders encountered two artillery pieces. One commanded by Captain Kellogg, New York State Militia, and an artillery piece under the command of Sheriff York and volunteers from the town. Both guns fired until Kellogg’s gun was disabled and his gunners left to join Forsyth at the Fort. Sheriff York continued to operate his gun until his crew members were wounded. As the enemy approached him; York continued to load. The enemy troops were about to charge York with their bayonets, when their commander halted the line and declared “there stands a man too brave to be killed” and York was taken prisoner. York was taken to Prescott. The town was taken, and Forsyth was forced to retreat.
Lavinia York was not idle while the battle was going on. She remained in the Courthouse where they lived even while it was under musket fire. She finally retreated, taking with her cash and spoons, with other women to a town about 15 miles away. She came back the next day to find her home ransacked and her husband gone. She learned where York was held, gained transportation and demanded the return of her husband and belongings. She and her husband lived out their days in Ogdensburg, New York. Sheriff York passed away in May of 1827, Mrs. York passed away in July 1861.
Hough, History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York, 1853, 1970 pgs. 623-629
Lossing, Pictorial Fieldbook of the War of 1812, pg. 580