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Washington Irving’s 1803 City Visit To Ogdensburgh

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 1 of a two-part column.

Washington Irving earned literary fame as one of America’s most famous early authors with best selling short stories like “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) that offered glimpses into life in the Hudson Valley.

But his works also offered detailed accounts of his travels, including a description of one of his earliest expeditions to Ogdensburgh when it was still just a small outpost on the edge of the New York frontier.

In 1803, the first American pioneer families had only begun carving homes out of the wilderness just seven years after the last British troops had been grudgingly withdrawn from Fort Oswegatchie after the Jay Treaty established that the south side of the St. Lawrence River would be part of New York State.

Irving had agreed to accompany Josiah Ogden Hoffman, a prominent New York City attorney and former New York State Attorney General, on a trip into the upstate wilderness to visit the properties purchased by the Ogden family.

In the “Life and Letters of Washington Irving” written by his nephew Pierre Irving, Irving described his wilderness expedition to Ogdensburg, Montreal, and Quebec.

Today, a trip from New York City to Ogdensburg, Montreal and Quebec can be traveled in less than 24-hours.

In 1803, such a journey was a formidable undertaking at that early day, and involved difficulties, discomforts, and trials of patience, of which the modern tourist can have no idea. Indeed, could the travellers themselves have foreseen the fatigues and hardships they would have to encounter, it is certain their enterprise would not have been equal to the trial.

Pierre Irving’s account follows:

“Without, however, any just knowledge or appreciation of its labours or privations, the party of seven, Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman, Mr. and Mrs. Ludlow Ogden, Miss Eliza Ogden, Miss Ann Hoffman, and himself, found themselves, on the 31st of July, 1803, on board a sloop bound for Albany.

From that place they proceeded to Ballston and Saratoga Springs, and thence, Irving making a flying visit to Johnstown by the way, to the modern city of Utica, then a village unconscious of the sound of a “churchgoing bell.” From this point they were to diverge to Ogdensburg, or Oswegatchie, as it was then, called, on the St. Lawrence River, where Hoffman and Ogden owned some wild lands, and proposed to lay out a town.

Irving kept a journal of the expedition from New York to Ogdensburg, which was struck off in the midst of hurry and fatigue, and of course is very carelessly written; but it has an interest independent of any literary value, as a picture of travel in those early days of our country.

On Monday, August 9th, they set off from Utica for the High Falls, on Black River, in two wagons, having despatched another with the principal part of their baggage.

The roads were bad, and lay either through thick woods, or by fields disfigured with burnt stumps and fallen bodies of trees. The next day they grew worse, and the travellers were frequently obliged to get out of the wagon and walk.

At High Falls, they embarked in a scow on the Black River, so called from the dark colour of its waters; but soon the rain began to descend in torrents, and they sailed the whole afternoon and evening under repeated showers, from which they were but partially screened by sheets stretched on hoop poles. About twenty-five miles below the Falls they went ashore, and found lodgings for the night at a log-house, on beds spread on the floor. The next morning it cleared off beautifully, and they set out again in their boat. On turning a point in the river, they were surprised by loud shouts which proceeded from two or three canoes in full pursuit of a deer which was swimming in the water. A gun was soon after fired, and they rowed with all their might to get in at the death.

“The deer made for our shore,” says the journal. “We pushed ashore immediately, and as it passed, Mr. Ogden fired and wounded it. It had been wounded before. I threw off my coat, and prepared to swim after it. As it came near, a man rushed through the bushes, sprang into the water, and made a grasp at the animal. He missed his aim, and I jumping after, fell on his back, and sunk him under water. At the same time I caught the deer by one ear, and Mr. Ogden seized it by a leg. The submerged gentleman, who had risen above water, got hold of another.

We drew it ashore, when the man immediately despatched it with a knife. We claimed a haunch for our share, permitting him to keep all the rest.

In the evening we arrived at B ‘s, at the head of the Long Falls. A dirtier house was never seen. We dubbed it “The Temple of Dirt;” but we contrived to have our venison cooked in a cleanly manner by Mr. Ogden’s servant, and it made very fine steaks, which after two days’ living on crackers and gingerbread were highly acceptable.

Friday, August 13th. “We prepared to leave the Temple of Dirt, and set out about sixty miles through the woods to Oswegatchie. We ate an uncomfortable breakfast, for indeed it was impossible to relish anything in a house so completely filthy.

The landlady herself was perfectly in character with the house; a little squat French woman, with a red face, a black wool hat stuck upon her head, her hair, greasy and uncombed, hanging about her ears, and the rest of her dress and person in similar style. We were heartily glad to make an escape.”

The journal omits to mention, that just before they started, the young traveller took out his pencil, and scribbled over the fireplace the following memorial:

“Here Sovereign Dirt erects her sable throne, The house, the host, the hostess all her own.”

In a subsequent year, when Mr. Hoffman was passing the same way with Judge Cooper, the father of the distinguished novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, he pointed out this memento of his student, still undetected and uneffaced; whereupon the Judge, whose longer experience in frontier travel had probably raised him above the qualms of over-nicety, immediately wrote under it this doggerel inculcation:

“Learn hence, young man, and teach it to your sons, The wisest way’s to take it as it comes.”

They set off again “in caravan style,” two wagons for themselves, and another, drawn by oxen, for the luggage. They found the road dreadfully rugged and miry. The horses could not go off a walk in any part.

The road had not been made above a year, and the stumps and roots of trees stood in every direction. At night they put up at a small hut consisting of but one room, which, however, the hostess, by the sagacious expedient of stretching a long blanket across, managed to divide into two.

“On one side,” says the journal, “we spread our mattress for the ladies, and great-coats, blankets, &c. for ourselves. The other side was left for the drivers,” &c.

The next day the wagon in which Irving and some of the ladies were riding stuck fast, and one of the horses laid down, and refused to move. They had therefore to get out and travel after the other wagon, into which the ladies mounted; but soon that also mired, and there was no alternative but for them to take to their feet. “The rain by this time,” proceeds the journal, “descended in torrents. In several parts of the road I had been up to my middle in mud and water, and it was equally bad, if not worse, to attempt to walk in the woods on either side.

We helped the ladies to a little shed of bark laid on crotches, about large enough to hold three, where they sat down. It had been a night’s shelter to some hunter, but in this case it afforded no protection. One-half of it fell down as we were creeping under it, and though we spread greatcoats over the other, they might as well have been in the open air. The rain now fell in the greatest quantity I had ever seen. The wind blew a perfect hurricane. The trees around shook and bent in the most alarming manner, and threatened every moment to fall and crush us. The ladies were in the highest state of alarm, and entreated that we should walk to a house which we were told was about half a mile distant.”

“They therefore dragged along, and after a most painful walk arrived at the hut, which consisted of one room about eighteen by sixteen feet. In this small apartment, fifteen people were to pass the night; for besides the owner, they found here two men who were driving an ox-team through to Oswegatchie, both noisy and boisterous, and one of them stigmatized in the journal as “the most impudent, chattering, forward scoundrel” the writer had ever known. There was much noisy greeting between these and the drivers, and, to add to the confusion of the scene, they soon seated themselves in a corner, and “began to play cards for liquor;” an amusement from which they retired after a while almost intoxicated, and stretched themselves on the floor to sleep.

“I never,” says the journal, “passed so dreary a night in my life. The rain poured down incessantly, and I was frequently obliged to hold up an umbrella to prevent its beating through the roof on the ladies as they slept. I was awake almost all night, and several times heard the crash of the falling trees, and two or three times the long dreary howl of a wolf.”

On resuming their route the next day, they found it impossible to travel the road with horses, and they were therefore compelled to engage the men to take their baggage through in their ox-cart, while the ladies rode in the oxwagon which had hitherto held their luggage, and the gentlemen proceeded on foot.

“About eleven o’clock,” says the journal, “we reached a Mrs. Vroman’s, a widow, who, with her two daughters, lived in a log hut on the banks of Indian River. Here we stopped to get some bread, a tea-kettle, and other articles, as we expected to pass the night in the woods, the next hut being too far off for us to reach that day. Having procured the articles we wanted we continued our route.”

Another fatiguing day’s journey of eleven miles through the mud brought them at evening to their intended quarters. “This was a rude kind of hovel, about ten feet square, formed of logs for the temporary accommodation of hunters.” In this forlorn cabin they endeavoured to make themselves as comfortable as possible for the night, by stretching “sheets over the sides to keep out the cold air,” and spreading boughs on the floor, and laying “the mattress on one part, and greatcoats, &c. over another.” The next day the travelling was the same as the day before, through deep mud-holes, over stumps and stones, and they were obliged at times to cut their way through fallen trees.

At length the day’s jolting brought them in sight of the house where they were to find supper and lodgings for the night; “and no sight could have been more pleasing,” he records, “as we were half famished.” They had been without food during the day.

On the following day they had fourteen miles to go before reaching Oswegatchie, where all fatigues and hardships would soon be forgotten in the hospitality that awaited them. I conclude my extracts from the journal with the account of this day’s travel.

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.

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