By Ted Como
Ogdensburg has an important anniversary in just four years, the quadricentennial of the first Europeans to set foot on its shores. If any came before, we don’t know of them.
Father Francois Piquet is often credited with that first non-native presence in erecting Fort La Presentation in 1749 but he was a latecomer, arriving more than a century after the first landing in the spring of 1626. It was that group which named the harbor La Galette, and the Oswegatchie as La Presentation River.
In “Our Country and its People, a Memorial Record of St. Lawrence County,” 1894, Gates Curtis recounts that the company of explorers to first arrive at what would become Ogdensburg was fitted out in Quebec under the sanction of Samuel de Champlain, who began exploring the St. Lawrence region in 1603.
The expedition arrived here in the spring of 1626 to what they said was the most beautiful place they had come across on the St. Lawrence River with lofty maples and majestic oaks. The Oswegatchie was the waterway by which natives reached the interior of what would become New York State.
The mouth of the river presented a blind harbor as the sand bar was then a rush bed covered with thick growth. Passersby in the center of the St. Lawrence could not see the mouth of the Oswegatchie. What gave its presence away to those traveling against the current on the southwestern side of the St. Lawrence was the “black water” known as Swekatsi which the Oswegatchie delivered.
Curtis writes that from 1626 forward, missionaries, adventurers and military detachments routinely stopped at La Galette for rest and repairs, including Father Raymbault in 1641 and Father LeMoyne in 1654. In 1684, Joseph Antoine Le Febvre, then governor of Canada, stopped at La Galette and built a storehouse on what was to become Van Rensselaer Point. That, and not the fort that also was to come, was the first structure built by Europeans at Ogdensburg.
The first party of white or Christian men to land here, writes Curtis, was that of Father Lallemant and his associates in 1626. Charles Lallemant (1587-1674) was a French Jesuit. “They were also the first to break the silence of the primeval forest with prayer and praise to almighty God for their safe deliverance from the perils of the rapids over which they had just passed, and for the beautiful harbor to which they had been guided for repose,” Curtis wrote.
Le Febvre mentioned La Galette as one of the stopping places of that expedition on Aug. 5, 1684 and indicated the necessity of placing troops there in order to protect provisions and keep the head of the country well guarded and furnished. The provisions were transferred from canoes to the storehouse. Larger canoes later arrived for the 10,000 pounds of flour which had been left at La Galette.
Further allusions to La Galette are found in a letter written by a Father Charlevoix, dated at Cataraqoui (the Indian name of what is now Kingston) May 14, 1721. Referring to the river at this point he wrote: “It is only a mile wide and the lands on both sides are very good and well wooded. It would be very easy to make a road from the point which is over against the Island of Montreal, to the bay which they call La Galette. This route would shun 40 leagues of impracticable navigation,” a reference to the rapids. “A fort would be much better situated and more necessary at La Galette than at Cataraqoui because a single canoe cannot pass that point without being seen. Besides a bark can sail from the place with a good wind to Niagara in two days.”
Charlevoix wrote that he could not sufficiently praise the beauty of the country between the end of the rapids and La Galette. “It is impossible to see finer forests” he wrote and he especially noticed some oaks of extraordinary size and height.
As former City Historian Liz Baxter noted, there are several places in the same general area with the name La Galette including the site of Fort LaPresentation as well as Prescott and nearby Johnstown, Ontario. “Two Galettes caused numerous errors in English history,” Ms. Baxter wrote – and still do.
- Ted Como is a member of the board of the Fort La Presentation Association and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.