EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is the first in a two part series on Ogdensburg’s smugglers.
The Maple City has enjoyed a colorful reputation as a haven for smugglers since its first American settlers arrived here in 1796, shortly after the British were forced to evacuate Fort Oswegatchie and renounce all claims to Northern New York with the adoption of the Jay Treaty.
In 1807, when the U.S. Congress banned trade with England, Ogdensburgh’s founding fathers ignored the new law since the community’s entire economy was based on trading across the river with their British Canadian neighbors.
An angry U.S. President Thomas Jefferson retaliated to widespread civil disobedience in border communities by sending troops here to stop the smuggling, enforce the Embargo Act and to prevent trade with British Canada.
Captains Samuel Cheney and Thomas Anderson were stationed at Ogdensburg to enforce the laws banning trade with British Canada and stop the smugglers. They and their troops were described by early Ogdensburgh residents “as the worst set of men that ever lived. They overstepped all bounds in searching the men and women who crossed the river. The community responded by organizing its own nightly patrol to protect their gardens and henroosts from the unwelcome American troops.
When news arrived that the soldiers were to be withdrawn, the community gathered on the streets to see them off. The residents serenaded them as they left town to the “discordant music of a hundred tin horns, with as many cow-bells, assisted in expressing the general satisfaction” at their departure.
Shortly after the troops left, David Parish, one of the wealthiest men in America, built a large stone store at the meeting place of the Oswegatchie River and the St. Lawrence River. When “Parish’s store” opened in 1809, it was the largest store on the St. Lawrence River in Northern New York, kind of the Wal Mart of its time. But with only 1,200 people living in Ogdensburg, most of Parish’s customers were the British Canadians living on the northern side of the river.
In 1812 when war broke out, American troops were dispatched to Ogdensburgh where they again discovered that its leading citizens were not only ignoring the trade embargo with Britain by supplying the Redcoats, but that British officers were being invited over for tea at Parish’s Mansion (now known as the Remington Museum).
In January, 1813, St. Lawrence County Court Judge Nathan Ford convicted Customs officers of assault for interfering with local smugglers. The judge wanted to send a strong message to federal authorities to leave local enterprising businessmen alone.
General Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) was furious with Ogdensburgh’s failure to obey the laws against trading with the enemy. After learning that many of the community’s leading citizens were profiting from their sales to the British Army, an enraged General Pike dispatched 40 soldiers from the American military base at Sackets Harbor to assist federal Customs officers enforce the law.
When the soldiers helped Customs officers arrest nine smugglers, Judge Ford retaliated, dismissing the charges against the Americans, arguing that the U.S. Army had no jurisdiction to arrest American citizens, much less enforce civilian laws.
Judge Ford issued warrants, arresting and jailed the two U.S. Army officers assigned by General Pike to crack down on the smugglers. Judge Ford brought the young officers before the court on charges of trespass, assault and false imprisonment of the smugglers.
General Pike and the civilian authorities responded by charging Judge Ford with treason, arresting him and taking him to New York City where he was interrogated.
But Judge Ford successfully argued that the Army had no role in enforcing civil laws against American civilians and that he, as the county judge, had a duty to protect American citizens from a federal and military dictatorship even during a time of war.
A stunned General Pike discovered that his superiors in Washington, D.C. had no stomach for a public fight with civilian authorities.
The charges against Judge Ford were thrown out. Judge Ford was hailed as a hero who had stood up for constitutional rights against a federal government and military that had run amok.
Ogdensburg later named Ford Street and Ford Avenue in his honor.
When the British invaded across the ice in February, 1813, David Parish’s store and his house were among the few that were not ransacked by British troops.
After the battle, Parish, who had loaned the U.S. government $7.5 million to finance the war at 7.5% percent interest, secretly brokered a deal that kept US troops out of Ogdensburgh for the rest of the war, allowing him to reopen his store so he could continue smuggling goods back and forth across the border. Ironically, years later the U.S. government acquired the store built by Ogdensburgh’s most famous smuggler to provide office space for the U.S. Customs. Today, the Robert C. McEwen Customs Building houses the U.S. Border Patrol.
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.