By Jim Reagen
I was very privileged to be invited to speak at the 220th anniversary of the establishment of St. Lawrence County in 1802 in Ogdensburg. As the member of the St. Lawrence County Legislature who represents a large part of the city, I am always very pleased when I have the opportunity to make people aware of our community’s rich heritage.
Suprisingly, a lot of people are not aware of the reason why the old Board of Supervisors decided to move the county seat from Ogdensburg to Canton in 1828, just 24 years after its establishment at Fort Oswegatchie, formerly Fort LaPresentation. I thought that it was an appropriate time to let people know. I also want to thank Ogdensburg Historian Julie Madlin, St. Lawrence County Historian Nancy LaFaver, St. Lawrence County Legislator Joseph Lightfoot and County Administrator Ruth Doyle for their efforts to make this a special occasion.
Here are my remarks about how our county seat was moved from Ogdensburg to Canton almost 200 years ago.
Now I run into people all the time who tell me that they think it’s just terrible that Ogdensburg is feuding with the county. They say why can’t we go back to the way things used to be, back long ago to a simpler time when everybody got along.
Whenever I hear people say that I know that they are only saying it because they really have no idea of what life was like long ago. Because even in 1802 when that group of hardy pioneers gathered together and established St. Lawrence County, it wasn’t long before people were plotting against each other.
No, they weren’t fighting about sales tax.
You have to understand the original board of supervisors, shortly after establishing St. Lawrence County, were soon divided over whether we should keep the county courthouse, the clerk’s office and the jail here in Ogdensburg.
Now it’s important to understand that in 1802, when our forefathers established St. Lawrence County, they converted the remains of one of the buildings at the old fort, just across the road from here into our first courthouse. They took the old bombproof magazine where they used to store the ammunition and gun powder inside the fort and used it for a jail.
But a year later, they built a new courthouse and jail at the corner of what’s now State Street and Green Street where the U.S. Post Office is located.
It wasn’t too many years later, some of the town supervisors decided they wanted county government moved out of Ogdensburg. Now if you study the old history books, and I’ve studied most of them, there were a couple of reasons offered. Some of the town supervisors said Ogdensburg was just too far away from some of the new settlements to the south. Some said that it wasn’t in the center of the county.
But if you read the histories you discover there was a much bigger reason why they didn’t want to hold their meetings in Ogdensburg. And if you go look across the river today you’ll see the real reason why they decided to move the courthouse and clerk’s office away from the beautiful shores of the Oswegatchie and St. Lawrence River.
Why did they decide to move away? Why did they move 20 miles away to Canton of all places?
If you take a walk along the shore today, and you look across the river, you’ll see Fort Wellington. And if you had a telescope or some strong binoculars you would notice something a little disturbing.
They have their cannons aimed at us. Yes.
Here we are. 220 years later, and the Canadians still have cannons aimed at us. I know. I know, they say they don’t work.
But back in 1818, when the board of supervisors held their first debate about moving the county seat, Fort Wellington was still a major British defense point on the St. Lawrence River.
And some of the town supervisors who made up the board of supervisors were still upset. Why? Well they remembered that in the fall of 1812, the British had sent a flotilla of gunboats with several hundred soldiers in a sneak attack on Ogdensburg.
That was the first battle of Ogdensburg. And soldiers from across St. Lawrence County actually came together not far from here and defeated the British. Folks from across the American frontier stood shoulder to shoulder not far from here and sent those would be invaders back across the river with their tail between their legs. Yes, that was the first Battle of Ogdensburg. No one ever mentions it. People tend to talk about the second Battle of Ogdensburg. But in the first Battle of Ogdensburg the Americans defeated the British.
Now less than five months later, the British were back with another attack on Ogdensburg, during the winter of 1813. 300 of them attacked the American force stationed in the old fort across the road. Another 500 British attacked the village of Ogdensburg on the other side of the Oswegatchie.
The British captured the Sheriff who was manning a cannon by himself. They plundered the county courthouse and even stole the Sheriff’s wife’s belongings.
They plundered nearly every house and business in Ogdensburg. They bayoneted people on the streets. It was a bloody battle.
And it caused damage to the courthouse.
If that wasn’t bad enough. Not long afterwards, the British were firing their artillery at Ogdensburg when General Wilkinson led his army past Ogdensburg. For two or three days the British lobbed cannon balls into Ogdensburg in an attempt to stop an American invasion force from going down the river to attack Montreal.
But what made a lot of the supervisors really upset was that they were holding a meeting of the board of supervisors in the courthouse when the British artillery were firing cannon balls that hit the courthouse.
That was just too much for some of the members of our early board of supervisors. They were willing to face drought, disease, pestilence and every other danger of life on the frontier. But an occasional cannon ball through their meetings was just too much.
No. They just weren’t willing to accept that. In 1827, it was the major issue in the state legislature race.
When the ballots were counted, 2069 brave souls voted for candidates who wanted to keep the county seat right here in Ogdensburg. Those people argued that they weren’t afraid of the British and a cannon ball or two wasn’t going to send them packing. But 2,364 other people voted for the candidates who wanted to move out. Just a margin of 300.
Now you didn’t see the good people of Ogdensburg moving out of town just because the British might invade again.
But the good people of the county decided that living in the sight of the British troops and cannon was too much and they took the county seat to Canton where they would not have to worry about what historians later described as the “hostile intentions of the enemy.”
So my point is that there’s never been a time in our history over the past 220 years when folks all just got along. We’ve always found reasons to fight among ourselves. But just as those folks from across the county once stood shoulder to shoulder to drive off a British invasion, we always find a way to work together.
Now two centuries later, we celebrate that we live along the longest undefended border in the world. We look across the river and we see friends and family. But here in Ogdensburg, when we look across the river, we also see a reminder of what life was like for those early pioneer families. When we look across the river and see the guns of Fort Wellington, it reminds us of the real reason why our county seat and courthouse moved to Canton.
What I would like all of you to take away from this occasion is that right across the road is where the first leaders of St. Lawrence County came together to bring self government and democratic rule to the people of Northern New York. It reminds us that history is not something that happened somewhere else. It is something that happened all around us and its up to each of us to help preserve it for future generations.