Castorland was the location of a courageous but heartbreaking attempt to settle the western edge of the Adirondacks in the late 18th century.
But little would be known of this history if it had not been for William Appleton, Jr. who, in 1862, stumbled across the Journal of Castorland in a Paris bookstand. Castorland…the English translation means ‘Land of the Beaver’… was overseen by Simon Desjardins and Peter Pharoux, who kept a detailed record of the Paris based La Compagnie de New York (Company of New York) from July 1793 until April 1797.
Two years before Appleton discovered the journal, Franklin Hough had published a highly regarded History of Lewis County, New York, in which he dismissed Castorland as ‘unrealistic and overly romantic.’ But Hough, at the time, was unaware of the journal’s existence and had little knowledge of what the New York Company actually experienced. Hough then spent three years translating the document with the intention of revising his History of Lewis County, but he died before that mission was completed.
In 1985, historian Edith Pilcher published, for the first time, the complete story of Castorland based on the journals of Desjardins and Pharoux.
Castorland was a 210,000-acre tract stretching from Lake Ontario into the Great Wilderness known today as the Adirondack Mountains. The main settlement was near the confluence of the Black and Beaver Rivers in present day Lewis County.
An abundance of beaver seemed to be a guarantee for success. Beaver pelts were in huge demand for waterproof hats, coats, and French high fashion. But the Castorland prospectus contained misleading and inaccurate information about the area and its resources. For example, the prospectus claimed that, “in the winter… beneficent snow, which uniformly covers the ground, protects the grain, fertilizes the earth, and assures abundant harvests.”
The report neglected to mention that the region is also noted for extreme snow accumulations of five feet or more, short summers, poor soil, and un-navigable rivers. The first settlers were shocked to find several large waterfalls between Castorland and Lake Ontario, making travel and transport of goods nearly impossible. But there was no way to verify the accuracy of the prospectus and the potential for great profits seemed quite realistic.
Land speculator William Constable had paid a mere 20 cents an acre for the 4 million acre Macomb Purchase in 1791. In 1792, New York Company paid Constable 50 cents an acre for 210,000 acres, and the Company sold lots to the first Castorland shareholders at $1.48 an acre. These shareholders, in turn, expected to quickly double their investment.
Land of promise?
Castorland was meant to be a utopian community for French émigrés fleeing the French Reign of Terror. The French Revolution was in full swing when Constable was in Paris looking for investors and aristocrats were looking for asylum wherever they could find it.
By 1792 thousands of aristocrats and their families had been killed by angry mobs. Castorland promised “all the benefits of liberty with none of the drawbacks.” But as soon as the New York Company arrived in America they were swindled and mistreated at every turn. They were purposely sold moldy flour, overcharged for everything from cider to horses, and in 1797 New York State passed a law that prevented the French émigrés from owning land.
By this time, however, not many French landowners remained. Giardiasis, or beaver fever as it is known today, had driven many of the settlers away. The sickness was widespread and no known cure existed. It never occurred to them to purify, or stop drinking the water. Ironically, the very animal that promised wealth and security for the French settlers was a major reason for the downfall of the colony.
Another reason for the Castorland failure was the tragic death of one of its founding fathers. On September 20, 1795, after more than a week of steady rain, Simon Desjardin drowned while trying to cross the swollen Black River in present-day Watertown. After his death, morale declined and within a few years the settlement fell apart. Much of the land fell into the hands of James LeRay who sold a large parcel to Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon. Bonaparte built four luxury homes about 12 miles north of Castorland (Lake Bonaparte) and spent his summers there for over a decade in the early 1800s.
Desjardins, Simon and Pierre Pharoux. Castorland Journal: An Account of the Exploration and Settlement by French Emigres in the Years 1793 to 1797. Translated by John A. Galluci. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2010.
Pilcher, Edith. French Refugees in the Western Adirondacks, 1793 – 1814. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Sylvester, Nathaniel, Bartlett. Historical Sketches of Northern New York and the Adirondack Wilderness. Troy, NY: William H. Young, 1877.
Webster, Clarence, J. “French Emigres in the Wilderness.” New York State Tradition 17, no. 2, Spring 1963, 43-47.
Pictured here: The 1796 Castorland Jeton. These coins were given to La Compagnie de New York board members. The animal lying at the bottom of the coin’s reverse side is not a dog! It is the settlement’s namesake, the beaver. According to Stack’s & Bowers coin auctioneers there are fewer than ten of these coins in existence, valued at over $10,000 each.