By Ted Como
Native Americans populated this region for more than 10,000 years before Europeans arrived and although the Oswegatchie River was a major route from the St. Lawrence Valley to the interior, there is no evidence of a permanent Indian presence at Ogdensburg. Long-time residents know somewhat of the area’s native history but here’s a refresher on who these people were.
Iroquoian- and Algonquian-speaking tribes populated much of the northeastern U.S. and Canada with a group called the St. Lawrence Iroquoians living along both sides of the river for several hundred years until about 1600. They were a people distinct from the other nations and even among themselves. Though they spoke a common language, they were not politically united and after they left, the valley became an area of open conflict.
The traditional view is that these people were displaced by the Mohawk nation, known as fierce warriors. However, Grand Chief Mike Kanentakeron Mitchell wrote in “Akwesasne: A Cultural Portrait,” that “The Mohawks of Akwesasne are the descendants of the original inhabitants who were called the St. Lawrence Iroquoisans.”
F. B. Hough, in his history of the region, describes mounds, trenches, and ancient relics found throughout the area including pottery “usually impressed with various fanciful figures, differing from each other in fragments of different utensils, but possessing a general resemblance.” Also found were stone axes, gouges, chisels, flint arrowheads, amulets and beads of soapstone and other personal ornaments; implements of bone, apparently used as needles and as tools for marking impressions upon their pottery; and fragments of bones and broken shells.
According to History of the North Country by Harry F. Landon, remains of Indian cultures covering a span of well over 5,000 years have been found, including no less than 130 known Indian sites in St. Lawrence, Franklin, Lewis, Jefferson and Oswego Counties. St. Lawrence has 26 such sites including at least six trench enclosures; their locations are not listed.
After contact with Europeans, the Algonquin nations became active in the fur trade throughout the region which led them to fight against the powerful Iroquois. At that time the Iroquois – officially the Haudenosaunee, meaning people of the longhouse – largely inhabited this side of the St. Lawrence and the Algonquins, including the Hurons in Ontario, populated what would become Canada.
The Iroquois Confederacy consisted of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes and later, the Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora. But there’s a missing branch. Cherokee is part of the Iroquoian language family and linguists say that some 3,500 years ago, the Cherokee people lived there as well. At some point they relocated to Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, until forced by government in the “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma.
When Francois Picquet set foot on the shore of the Oswegatchie May 30, 1749, no Indians lived there to greet him. He set about inviting them to the fort and Catholicism and in just two years, 396 Haudenosaunee families, largely Onondaga with some Oneida and Cayuga, settled at La Presentation.
They came to be called the Oswegatchie but were not considered a separate tribal member of the Confederacy since they represented various tribes. When the French and Indian War broke out in 1754 the Oswegatchie fought with the French on numerous raids in the Ohio, Champlain and Mohawk valleys, where they attacked British colonists. After the British conquered the French in 1760, British soldiers were stationed at La Presentation, renamed Fort Oswegatchie.
The Oswegatchie who remained there swore allegiance to the British and fought alongside them on raids on the Mohawk Valley against American rebel colonists during the American Revolution. In 1784, the Oswegatchie surrendered their claims on the shore of the St. Lawrence to the British, who held held possession of Fort Oswegatchie from August 25, 1760, to June 1, 1796. Under their occupation, 450 Indian families left for St. Regis, the Ottawa River area or elsewhere.
Only a small band remained at the fort and they were largely ignored by the British who found them so annoying, they built them a village at Indian Point, also known as Chimney Point on the former psychiatric center grounds. They remained there even after the settlement of the north country began, finally to be removed by order of the state at the request of families buying land in the area.
At Fort La Presentation’s website, Fort1749.org, you may find a document that lists baptisms, marriages and deaths at the fort from 1750-1760, including more than 100 Indians. The document is found among the many story links on the home page.
- Ted Como is a member of the board of the Fort La Presentation Association.