Abutting Lake Champlain at the northeastern corner of New York State, Clinton County has long been a site of exchange and encounters. Local toponyms attest to French imperial ambitions in the colonial era: Champlain, certainly, but also Ausable, Point au Roche, Point au Fer, Chazy, and, facing Chazy on the lake, Vermont’s Isle La Motte. In turn, the historic sites of Crown Point and Ticonderoga are monuments to the strategic importance of Lake Champlain from a military perspective. By linking New York City and Montreal through the Hudson and Richelieu rivers, the lake was witness to the clash of empires that ended with the collapse of New France in the 1760s.
In the early nineteenth century, Clinton reaped the economic benefits of this natural hydrographic corridor. And while international trade boomed, the region received an ever-rising number of French-Canadian farmers, farm laborers, and craftsmen who sought to escape difficult economic straits along the St. Lawrence River. What the French had not seized by force of arms they conquered through sweat and toil. To this wave of migrants, especially those who arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tens of thousands of county residents can today trace their lineage.
If these facts are known to scholars, history buffs, and other North Country residents, there is no comparable familiarity with the process by which French Canadians formed the first permanent settlements of Clinton County. Few historical markers pay tribute to those who elected to settle in this harsh wilderness in the 1780s and 1790s; few roads or natural landmarks bear their names. In the last thirty years, no more than a handful of researchers have studied the region’s post-revolutionary development. Perhaps because they left few sources to posterity, or because they fit uncomfortably in existing narratives, these French-Canadian pioneers have been relegated to an unenviable place in our collective memory.
Revolution and Resettlement
The formal end of the French and Indian War in 1763 did not immediately seal the fate of lands lying on the shores of Lake Champlain. The region, now indisputably British, was at the heart of overlapping land claims. Absentee landowners who had obtained patents from the New York assembly opposed the claims of merchants who held old French seigneuries that supposedly stretched south of the forty-fifth parallel. Even when the British judiciary resolved such disputes, the non-Aboriginal population remained negligible.
During the Revolutionary War, the area that would become Clinton County was again a military no man’s land. Its apparent destiny varied yearly according to the tribulations of armies near and far. In 1775, the Continental Army moved north on Lake Champlain in an attempt to wrest the Province of Quebec from the Crown. When the invasion collapsed in the spring of 1776, the army retreated up the lake, now reinforced by hundreds of French Canadians who had supported the Patriots and could not stay in Quebec without facing serious reprisals. For another year, the revolutionaries held firm at Ticonderoga.
The Canadian revolutionaries served under colonels James Livingston and Moses Hazen, both “old subjects” who had settled in the Province of Quebec in pursuit of new opportunities in the 1760s. Their regiments operated in numerous theaters of war down to Yorktown and to the Treaty of Paris of 1783. Concretely, the ultimate victory and independence offered very little to French-Canadian officers and soldiers. Their families spent a decade as refugees in Albany and Fishkill. The men who had sacrificed their all when throwing their lot with the Revolution long awaited compensation. The Continental Congress had little money with which to provide rations, settle accounts, and fulfill the promise of generous pensions. States had more ample means, however, and New York had land. In its northernmost reaches lay an untapped wilderness which, in 1784, became the Canadian and Nova Scotia Refugee Tract. There, led by former Quebec City merchant Udny Hay, Canadian men, women, and children settled beginning in 1786.
Trials of Frontier Life
In the spring of 1787, there were 169 refugees living on the western shore of Lake Champlain, just shy of the new international boundary. Some Canadians desperate for specie sold their land certificates and opted to remain in Albany and New York City — to return to Canada was still politically and legally risky. But after the formal establishment of Clinton County and the creation of local institutions in 1788, new French names appeared in official records, suggesting that the settlement was able to attract others displaced by the recent war.
One can easily overestimate the desirability of frontier life from Point au Fer to the boundary line, where these Canadian expatriates were concentrated. Even once they relocated to the lake, many still relied on rations issued by Congress. They lived in rags and log cabins. Most men had not farmed in more than a decade. Having little livestock, they supplemented meagre crops with hunting and fishing. Some men had been injured and could not support themselves; other bore the mental scars of war. At last, the insecurity was amplified by the British presence at Point au Fer and at Dutchman’s Point on the island of North Hero. For thirteen years after the Treaty of Paris the British continued to hold outposts south of the forty-fifth parallel from which they harassed the local population. Occasionally the garrisons ordered a halt to improvements to the land and threatened to expel the French-Canadian and American settlers. The former officers and soldiers of the Revolution found little interest or help in Albany and New York City.
Jay’s Treaty, ratified in 1795, provided for the evacuation of these forts. Clinton County’s fortunes rose markedly thereafter as trade along the Champlain-Richelieu axis revived. Lumber and potash were carried into Canada. Under the embargoes decreed in 1807 and 1809, smuggling thrived. Communications improved. The expatriates restored ties to the land of their birth and the most pious found spiritual care in Catholic churches north of the border. Until the War of 1812, French Canadians played a prominent part in the development of northern New York. Jacques or James Rouse was a captain of militia; thanks to his dock, the first landing place for vessels south of the border, his name passed on to the village that grew nearby. Francis Chandonnet kept a tavern in Chazy. Other revolutionary veterans served in elective offices. But it is chiefly through years of difficult physical labor that Canadians aided in the development of Clinton County.
A History of Transnational Exchange
International tensions declined quickly following the War of 1812 and technological advances accelerated continental integration. A steamboat had appeared on the lake in 1809; regular service across the border resumed with peace. A generation later, Rouses Point was an important railway hub connecting Montreal, New York City, and Boston. Substantial migration across the border had then begun.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the influence of Revolutionary War refugees was eclipsed by Americans with more substantial means. From the 1820s onward, the outflow of Canadians from the St. Lawrence River valley reinvigorated the French-speaking, Catholic population in the region. The region was not only an economic refuge but, once again, a political refuge as well. During the Canadian Rebellion of 1837, latter-day Patriots escaped to the perceived safety of northern New York and Vermont. Four years before the outbreak of the Civil War, expatriated Canadians had their own Catholic church in Rouses Point. Those who came in this period and, indeed, in the later part of the nineteenth century had their own narrative. Their numbers obscured the earlier French-Canadian presence resulting from the Revolution. At the same time, Canadian Catholic clergy had a vested interest in minimizing instances of disloyalty in 1775-1776 and in emphasizing the dangers of migration to the land of Protestant materialism, as they perceived it.
But the Canadian refugees matter and indeed merit renewed historical attention. Against sizable odds they claimed northern New York for the American republican experiment. More importantly, today their case hints at the profoundly entwined histories of Canada and the United States, especially in areas of sustained cross-cultural contact. The development of Clinton County — just such a site of contact — in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries greatly complicates tales of immutable borders and static identities.
Photos from above: Monument in Chazy, and Samuel de Champlain monument at Crown Point.